This Mother’s Day I made a call to my mother—sincerely and dutifully, but motivated, I’ll admit, by a question unrelated to the holiday. Could she confirm: Batman Returns—the first movie I saw in a theater? I’d been thinking it over.
I’d come up with a few other candidates, other memorable movies from my kidhood, most of them easy to disqualify because, as I recall, I watched them at home. I’m certain of this. I don’t remember the films of my adolescence by title; I remember them by experience, which is the word we use for the rich tangle of secondary details—textures, gestures, or sounds, what we were eating, the weather, how our posture made it feel to be in our body in that moment—enlivening our recollections. Experience is this: being flat on my stomach on the couch in the den, shirt lifted and belly exposed to textured cotton, and watching Diana Ross, modest of skirt and fro, kick her bone-skinny legs along a sea of yellow brick. The Wiz. Experience is: tall chair, family room, sludgy remains of strawberry shortcake and a pimpled, peculiar Michael Jackson onscreen, alone in close-up, playing tortured witness to his older brothers’ groupie-endorsed lovemaking. The Jacksons: An American Dream.
When I think about seeing Batman Returns as a kid, I think back to the experience of one particular scene: Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, the unmasked Batman and Catwoman, making out. Unwitting enemies who don’t yet know it, foes reclining into a kiss. He puts his hand on her arm and her shirtsleeve lifts, so slowly, to offer the camera a grotesque revelation: an acid burn on her arm. His (Batman’s) doing. The memory of the scar is vivid. I remember being in the theater, cozily nested in my seat, my hand searching for my mother’s or father’s popcorn. Invisible to myself in the darkness of a movie theater for the first time. Feeling things, wanting things—safe in the dark to feel and want unnoticed, no matter how much it seemed that merely to gaze, even unseen, was to make a public admission.
Two lessons learned at once. The first: I was into men. The second, the one that saved me: it was still a secret. The theater is a tomb. What one feels there in the dark remains afterward, once you’re gone, to get buried with the popcorn crumbs and lost key rings. Everything you feel in those 90 minutes is between the two of you: yourself and the film. It was between me and the images. Me and Keaton’s pursed lips and those bright eyes that could cut through a façade of coal and rubber. Me and that exoskeleton of smooth muscle—me and that hard, black body. I was four. But I remember.
It’s of course possible that Batman Returns wasn’t my first trip to the cineplex, but for the sake of a story, that’s my story. It’s a new story; it only occurred to me recently that I might need one. Nostalgia is an impulse I try to hold at arm’s length—its stronghold over our consumption of art has lately made me doubt it as a worthy cultural force. Anyway, it’s BS: a critic’s first trip to the theater is only a useful origin story if you believe these things work simply, if you value “firsts” as neat signifiers of how we—critics and people—define our tastes and prejudices, if you value them as convenient narratives we can fold up and store away with other forms of ID—license, passport—should someone ask for them.
But none of us is above taking pleasure in a personal history of sexual desire—that’s the good stuff, a nostalgic origin story narrated as a series of shattering, sometimes painful revelations. That same story, made contiguous with one’s love of cinema—even better. I grimace now, gleefully, to think that my earliest turn-on was Tim Burton’s gothic kink, that my first crush was likely a goofy vigilante in a black rubber suit, that the first character I projected my sexually desiring self onto and truly understood from inside out was probably a woman who’d been nibbled into super-villainy by a hoard of stray cats. So be it. Batman Returns awakened a want that endured from one Batman movie to the next, even as the rubber suits were upgraded and the men wearing them kept changing. Come to think of it, was Warner Brothers onto me? They were definitely onto something: the bat suit was eventually given nipples, fecklessly large areolas with no purpose, and soon, the suit had a codpiece so large even discussion on The Oprah Winfrey Show would be pressed to tap-dance through dick-size innuendos.
My nascent fantasies strung me along an entire franchise of bad movies. More importantly, they got me into other movies. I’d been made hungry—for men’s bodies, yes, and for the pleasure I could take in images generally. I’d been made hungry for pleasure—period. You can outgrow the object of your childhood lust, but what you can’t leave behind is lust itself, desire itself. Maybe it no longer takes the form of rubber man-tits, but your True North never changes.
Is this why I feel no longing to have grown up in the much-hallowed video-store era? I’m certain I would have found Pulp Fiction either way. I’d have gotten there from an action franchise, drawn in by the sensual thrill of watching Bruce Willis play Butch the boxer, tired, hulking and, for the love of God, named Butch—the thrill of him ripping off his boxing gloves and removing his shorts in masculine fury, theatrically backed by rear projection. This is as fine a way into film noir’s rough-honed pleasures as any other. Or what about the group of bare-assed black and brown football players in Any Given Sunday, their butts to the camera as they stand in a row and take a piss? What about their bodies, rendered sculptural and Romanesque by Oliver Stone’s attentive, symmetrical composition? Later, that film lays bare its allusions to Ben-Hur, and the gladiatorial majesty of this moment makes more sense.
These films called out to me before critical consensus or received wisdom could subsume my instincts beneath historically justifiable taste. Taste has a funny way of making itself resemble authentic want, but I’d already learned, early on, what I wanted. I wanted Jean-Paul Belmondo’s lips in Breathless, as he says “I am fed up.” I wanted the Denzel Washington of Malcolm X, finger to temple, sharp political insight in the guise of all-powerful X-ray vision. Images like these are an essential part of growing up queer: images, to which we turn to assemble a composite inner life for the desires our outer selves often cannot safely express. Sex isn’t what made me take films seriously as art, but it’s what made me take the images seriously, recognizing in them the power to provoke untold unknowns in their witnesses—recognizing in them the power not only to incite desire but also to contain it, to become the tool of its expression.
Desire was my way into cinema. It remains a critical priority. To this day, I seek out hints of filmmakers’ own inner aches in their images, no matter whether what I find communes with my own want. What matters is that they reside there, in the images, taking whatever form: sexual or intellectual or spiritual, melancholic or rapturous, latent or obvious. I try to sniff them out—try to align myself, empathetically but at a critical distance, with the desires of the artists who made them. I owe the artists that much. After all, it was in their images, these glimpses of artists’ uninhibited, desiring selves, that I came to understand my own.
K. Austin Collins writes on movies for The Ringer. He lives in New York.