Film Logan Polk's Film Reviews Moving Pictures Ongoing Series

Moving Pictures Vol. 16: To Light Our Darkest Hour

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Logan’s Moving Pictures is back with a discussion of The Transformers: The Movie, Lookout Mountain, Cancer, and more…

The first time I drove into the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee I wound up sitting in some of the worst traffic I’d ever experienced in my life. The interstate was under construction (and, as I’d find out when I eventually moved there, would be for years) and it was extremely slow going; the kind where it takes you an hour to go about eight miles. Granted, I’m the dope that decided it would be a good idea to coast into town right after the workday was ending, but, in fairness to me, I’d never been there before, so what did I know?

As I crawled my way into the city I saw something that made me smile as big as I probably ever have. Posted on one of those big green tin signs you see on the highways, large as life, were the words LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, complete with an arrow pointing at which direction to go. I assume for a majority of the people living and commuting there it meant almost nothing, and I imagine most of them really didn’t even see it, they’d passed it so many times it had ceased to exist.

I looked away from the sign and towards the mountains in front of me, and, well, it didn’t help me determine exactly which one was Lookout Mountain, but I glanced back at the sign, reassured myself that it did in fact say Lookout Mountain was ahead, and then immediately called my brother. When he finally answered I said, “Dude, I’m about to drive past Lookout Mountain!”

There were a few seconds of silence as he registered what I was telling him, and then once he was there, he was just as excited as I was. And, you’re probably saying to yourself, dear God why? Especially if you’ve seen it. It’s pretty, but it’s not Everest. It’s just this thing that most Chattanoogans have to drive around to get to whichever side of the mountain the restaurant they love is on.

But not to us. In our personal Geek Canon, Lookout Mountain was the home of the Transformers, or at least it was until Megatron and his crew decimated it. And when I saw those that name the voice of Hot Rod echoed in my head, as he tells young Daniel in Transformers: The Movie, “Welcome to Lookout Mountain.”

Growing up there weren’t a lot of action-oriented animated films available to us. It would be a few years into our teens before Anime was popular enough to be something we knew about, and a few more before we could find it regularly. Even then, there were only a handful that we found interesting. Sure, occasionally there was a Disney film that struck our fancy, but for the most part, Ryan and I got our cartoon fix in daily/weekly animated programs. G.I. Joe, Thundercats, SilverHawks, BraveStarr, He-Man, MASK, and yes, the Transformers.

I wish I could tell you exactly how and when we first laid eyes on Transformers: The Movie, but much like Star Wars, it’s something I’d watched so many times as a kid that the memory of that first time is just nonexistent. I do know that it was before my parents’ divorce, and since the film premiered in August of 1986, and we definitely watched the Return of Optimus Prime shortly after it aired on TV in March of 1987, I’m going to make the educated guess that it was some time in December of ’86. But really, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the film, the characters, the soundtrack, the story, they were all indelible parts of our youth.

So seeing Lookout Mountain for the first time was one of those moments I’ll probably remember until the day I die. What I didn’t know is that much like the Autobots before me, it would become the backdrop of my life for several years to come, even to the point that I lived with some friends in their home at the base of it.

There were several trips in and out of Chattanooga for a year or so, always to visit my friends Spencer and his wife Katy, and in an odd coincidence, another set of friends who were unknown to them, Paula and her husband Chad. Each time I visited I was always so elated to see Lookout, both the sign and the actual mountain. Each time I’d think about Hot Rod and Daniel racing up the mountainside only to see that an incoming shuttle had been hijacked. Watching the Autobots defending their home from the evil Decepticons, Blurr and Arcee working to help transform the base to battle-ready, Optimus Prime squaring down one last time with Megatron…they are scenes burned into my memory, emotions etched into my psyche. And every time I’d pass through I’d think, I really need to watch Transformers again.

Friend and filmmaker Chris Flippo talking to me at opening night of the CFF ‘15.

In March of 2015, I purchased my tickets to the Chattanooga Film Festival; it would be their second year, and my second year attending. I had a room and transportation booked and was set to have a weekend full of film and friends. As Spencer and I discussed our mutual excitement he asked me if I’d like to go to a secret screening they were throwing that he’d gotten in on. He had an inside scoop, but couldn’t guarantee it, but that secret screening was possibly going to be Transformers: The Movie. Screened as close to the future home of the Autobots as one could ever hope to be.

Of course, my answer was yes, and instantly it was the only thing I was looking forward to in regards to the festival.

What happened next was, well, kind of insane.

See, I’d been sick for a while. And by a while I mean a year at least (probably closer to two), and it had gotten progressively worse. By April of 2015 I’d been unable to eat or sleep much at all. In fact, I had to sleep sitting up, head down on a table or desk, because if I laid back I couldn’t breathe. I was retaining fluid to the point I could barely get my jeans on over my legs, much less wear shoes and socks with any comfort. When I walked it felt like I was moving underwater, and after just a few minutes I was out of breath. It was a miserable existence. There were days when I actually hoped I wouldn’t wake up.

Me, living that hospital life.

In hindsight, and as silly as this sounds, I think the only thing that got me into Chattanooga was hope. I made it to the opening night of the festival, met up with Spencer and Katy, made plans for the next few days, checked into my hotel room, pulled a chair up to the desk, and tried my best to sleep the only way I’d been able to.

By the following morning my head was pounding, I could not think clearly, or barely move at all. I texted Spencer that I didn’t think I’d make any movies, something was deathly wrong and I was finally admitting it to someone else.

I don’t remember much of what happened next. Somehow Spencer got to the hotel, saw my disheveled state, got me into his car from my room, and took me to the ER. I vaguely remember them opening the door to his car and then…nothing.

When I woke up I was strapped to a hospital bed with a tube in my throat. My mother was there. Then Katy. Then my friend Paula. Spencer. Chad. And my brother. Never all at once, but all there in fits and spurts. Eventually, when I was coherent enough, a doctor came into the ICU and told me I had cancer and a tumor in my chest the size of a football. He shook his head and said, “I have no idea how you’re alive.”

A multitude of weeks in the hospital in Chattanooga and months of treatment at Emory in Atlanta sent me into remission, but unfortunately, my journey with cancer didn’t end there. But it did bring me back to Lookout Mountain.

After remission, I went back to work and found myself extremely unsatisfied, almost daily. I needed a change. That would come in the form of Spencer, who I’d been discussing a possible move with for several months. He’d heard of a job opening in Chattanooga from a relative, we put a resume together, I applied and I got it.

One of the many terrible pictures I tried to take of Lookout Mountain when I lived at the base.

For the first time in my life, I would be living more than twenty minutes away from the place I was born as well as from my entire family. A new adventure. And since I had nowhere to live until I got my feet under me there, Paula and Chad stepped up, offered me their spare room, and I found myself living at the foot of Lookout Mountain.

I would begin and end every single day staring up at it. A place that I didn’t even know really existed until I took my very first trip to Chattanooga. The place where childhood heroes lived, a place they fought and died to protect. It’s goofy as hell, but it just always left me in awe.

Eventually I got a place of my own, settled into the new job and my new life. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, my fight with cancer was not over. Almost two years after my original diagnosis I found out I had skin cancer. It had managed to make its way pretty far into my system, requiring extensive surgery. I still have wear the scars, infinitely more visible than anything I suffered the first go round. As before I woke up in the hospital with Katy by my side. And as before Paula and Chad opened there home to me while I went through further treatment and recovery. So I once again found myself looking daily at that mountain. For well over a year this time.

I didn’t get to see Transformers: The Movie when I made my nearly fatal trip to Chattanooga in 2015. I was preoccupied with trying to live. In my stead, Spencer got to take my brother. I’ve asked him to write a little something about that experience:

An all-time film festival memory.

My friend Logan is laid up in a hospital bed less than five minutes away from the theater. He was whisked away from festival activities to the ER one day before. He’s got cancer. It’s bad. He’s alive.

Logan’s twin brother Ryan was in town to be at Logan’s bedside. He had permission to take Logan’s tickets and enjoy the fest in his brother’s place. Logan was awake and, being Logan, didn’t want the tickets to be wasted. The only movie that mattered  to Ryan was Transformers: The Movie. There had been jealousy and animosity about Logan seeing it on the big screen and Ryan being left behind. Fate and cancer gave Ryan the last laugh.

Ryan left the hospital and met up with me. I remember my feeling of, “We’re seeing this for Logan” being at odds with Ryan’s “haha Logan, I win in the end!” But when the 35mm print began, the music kicked it, Ryan leaned forward and sang the song, quoted the lines, and made my enjoyment of the film grow a thousand times. We became friends at that screening. We hugged after. He and his twin became two of my very best friends the weekend that Cancer struck. Ryan is gone. And I miss him. But we’ll always have Transformers: The Movie.

I won’t sit here and lie to you or myself and say that I wasn’t insanely jealous when I found out. I still am. As I said, I haven’t revisited the movie since, and I think that’s probably a big part of the reason why. So seven years later, almost to the day, I sat down to finally rectify that.

I’m happy to say I was as enamored and inspired as I’d ever been with the film, loving the high, almost Shakespearean drama of it all. Quoting along to my favorite (and sometimes not-so-favorite) lines of dialogue, singing along to Stan Bush’s absolutely incredible music (with assists from Vince DiCola and others). Both “Dare” and “The Touch” are songs that I play when I need that certain kind of inspirational pick me up that only an ‘80s rock soundtrack can give. The one song that tops them for me is “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr, and I imagine we’ll get to that movie eventually.

I love this movie. I love how special both Ryan and I considered it, and I know we weren’t alone in that regard. Kids of that era(the nerds at least)…we all learned what grief was when we watched so many of our robot friends fall at the hands of the Decepticons, and then witnessed Optimus Prime, maybe one of the most pure-hearted fictional characters ever created (until Michael Bay got ahold of him), sacrifice himself in an effort to stop Megatron once and for all. It wouldn’t be until I watched Mufasa thrown into the gorge that a death on film would affect me so much.

But no matter how bleak everything got, no matter how many of their friends they lost along the way, the Autobots never stopped fighting. And this is going to sound stupid…but, sitting in that hospital room for weeks on end, seeing Lookout Mountain day and night from my window, then living in its shadow when I took the biggest step of my life and moved away from everything I’d known, and then finding myself back at its base when I would once again face down a second cancer…it was always the reminder I needed to keep fighting.

Moving Pictures will return in two weeks…

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