Late Movies with Skyler
All week since he’s been home
he has watched late movies alone
terrible one star films and then staggering
through the dark house to his bed
waking at noon to work on the broken car
he has come home to fix.
21 years old and restless
back from logging on Vancouver Island
with men who get rid of crabs with Raid
2 minutes bending over in agony
and then into the showers!
Last night I joined him for The Prisoner of Zenda
a film I saw three times in my youth
and which no doubt influenced me morally.
Hot coffee bananas and cheese
we are ready at 11.30 for adventure.
At each commercial Sky
breaks into midnight guitar practice
head down playing loud and intensely
till the movie comes on and the music suddenly stops.
Skyler’s favourite hours when he’s usually alone
cooking huge meals of anything in the frying pan
thumbing through Advanced Guitar like a bible.
We talk during the film
and break into privacy during commercials
or get more coffee or push
the screen door open and urinate under the trees.
Laughing at the dilemmas of 1920 heroes
suggestive lines, cutaways to court officials
who raise their eyebrows at least 4 inches
when the lovers kiss…
only the anarchy of the evil Rupert of Hentzau
And still somehow
by 1.30 we are moved
as Stewart Granger girl-less and countryless
rides into the sunset with his morals and his horse.
The perfect world is over. Banana peels
orange peels ashtrays guitar books.
2 a.m. We stagger through
into the slow black rooms of the house.
I lie in bed fully awake.The darkness
breathes to the pace of a dog’s snoring.
The film is replayed to sounds
of an intricate blues guitar.
Skyler is Rupert then the hero.
He will leave in a couple of days
for Montreal or the Maritimes.
In the movies of my childhood the heroes
after skilled swordplay and moral victories
leave with absolutely nothing
to do for the rest of their lives.
I love how this poem evokes the charm of old movies, confounding our nostalgia for the films of our childhood with our nostalgia for that childhood itself, making the “perfect world” of the movie a metaphor for the deeper escapism of memory, in which everything is simpler, more innocent ; a world at once archaic and familiar, otherworldly yet achingly real.
But what makes this poem particularly special to me is the way it conjures up the intimate experience of watching a late night film on television – so different from the experience of watching a film at the theater. The mythology of cinema is always (or mostly) about the big screen, yet how many films have I seen staying up late into the night, either alone or with company, patiently finding something to do in the commercial breaks, one eye on the TV for when the film comes back, feeling the midnight pangs of hunger steal over me, leaving me with a craving for popcorn and chocolate? It’s an experience that Ondaatje’s poem does justice to, capturing the feel of cinema not as high art or grand spectacle but as an integral, almost ordinary part of our homes and our lives.
 Idealism at the heart of what is essentially deceit, being, of course, the main theme of The Prisoner of Zenda, perhaps explaining its popularity among film makers. IMDB lists nine films with the title The Prisoner of Zenda, including an animated feature, a spoof starring Peter Sellers, a 1937 version starring Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks and David Niven, and the version Ondaatje is talking about (don’t miss the trailer).