Michael Koresky’s Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the 80s Films That Defined Us is the result of a project that the author—a critic, programmer, and co-founder of the online film journal Reverse Shot—recently undertook with his mother. They decided to revisit, during visits from Brooklyn to Koresky’s childhood home in Massachusetts, a single film for each year of the 1980s, the decade of Koresky’s childhood when his mother instilled in him what would become a lifelong cinephilia, his aesthetic tastes lovingly nurtured by her casual curation of their regular screenings together.
The criteria for the selection of films to watch during the project were “movies my mother introduced to me, featuring women unambiguously cast in leading roles, and which had some kind of shared significance in our lives.” And it becomes clear that during Koresky’s childhood as a closeted queer boy growing up in a small town, the cinema functioned as a bridge between mother and son, a “private language” that constituted a shared world when so much had to be left unsaid.
Koresky also spends time in Films of Endearment examining the film industry more broadly during a period when Hollywood, according to him, prioritized “movies about togetherness and love and identity that [didn’t] have to signal their virtues as such but just reflect who we are and why that’s important as a matter of human course.” Thus, the nostalgia imbued in the book’s prose comes not only from revisiting childhood favorites in the house where he grew up, but also from mourning a time before the rise of franchise cinema—when merchandising potential wasn’t so lopsidedly valued by those in charge of a film’s production. For Koresky, the lost world of childhood mirrors what’s also a lost aesthetic principle, an increasing lack of attention paid to the humanity at the root of the storytelling impulse—as well as a general turning away from films for, about, and starring women.
As a critic, Koresky notes that he’s been wary in the past of incorporating personal experience into his assessment of a work of art, a practice that he believed would reveal “evidence of a lack of imagination.” But now, in returning to and writing about the films of his youth in the context of his family history—and the story of his mother’s life—he comes to realize that the experience of watching a film “can pull you back to an experience from your youth, but it can also beckon you into something inherent or inexplicable inside yourself. What are the hidden parts of the self that a movie can lay bare?” Through close readings of so many quintessential ’80s classics headlined by powerful women—9 to 5, Mommie Dearest, Aliens, The Color Purple, and Terms of Endearment, among others—he candidly and movingly explores the development of his identity in the context of what he learned about himself from what he saw on screen, both alone and in the company of his mother, describing this period of often solitary absorption as “the gradual creation of a refracted queer consciousness.”
Koresky’s complicated relationship with age and mortality inflects much of Films of Endearment, as the absence of his father—who passed away years ago—leads him to reflect on ideas of home and permanence. He enters the decade of his 40s while working on the book, and he discusses his and his husband’s decision not to have children—a newly relevant question in the queer community that he lingers on in illuminating ways—alongside the inheritance that he will never receive, the family’s savings having gone to his father’s care in the form of a reverse mortgage on their house. And the ephemerality of both the family and the house where its members once lived with one another then comes to revise the book from a straightforward chronicle of a mother and son watching movies together into something of a time capsule, a loving archive of experiences aesthetic and otherwise.
Koresky writes that Films of Endearment “increasingly revealed itself to be more of an emotional fulcrum for my early forties than the merely analytical project I initially expected it to be.” And there’s certainly no shortage of heart in these pages, the linkage between cinematic engagement and the development of the self both believably and affectionately rendered. The idea that the movies have come to create our desires, in addition to merely reflect them, is also a through line that aptly connects the book’s orbiting concerns. The push and pull of Films of Endearment’s two modes—personal and analytical—sometimes feels unbalanced, but the captivating insights into queer spectatorship, specifically the gay male gaze as it relates to female cinematic performance, help to elevate the book’s more expository stretches into something beyond mere journalism.
The case is forcibly made that Koresky’s relationship with his mother—deepened by their shared love of the cinema—has served for him as a necessary handhold during the navigation of his identity, having created a space that allowed for the unspoken exploration of secret parts of himself. “In a way,” he writes, “queerness—which exists in interdependence and conflict with the long-held structures of the heteronormative world—necessarily keeps such a parent-child relationship at a remove. But that should never stop us from looking for and at one another.” And as readers, we’re lucky that this parent and child never did.
Films of Endearment is available on May 4 from Hanover Square Press.
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