Capturing the Spirit Of the Men in the Movies

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The air of anticipation may not have reached the level described in ''Casey at the Bat,'' yet I was expected to help my beleaguered team when I stepped up to the plate. It was a small-time baseball game in a country field, but it carried huge meaning for my teammates and me. We needed a hit badly. Like Casey, I fanned the air mightily and struck out. Derisive yells greeted me, and I was about to slink away from the plate. But a long-submerged image popped in my mind's eye. It was Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in the film ''Pride of the Yankees'' - carrying himself with a certain stance, a certain unflappable dignity as he strode from the plate in Yankee Stadium. With enormous nobility I squared my shoulders and tried to look like Gehrig.

It wasn't imitation so much as an effort to recapture the spirit of the man I had sensed in that movie. And while my image-making didn't save the game, it did allow me to salvage the occasion with a semblance of aplomb. A few long-ago moments in a movie theater - seen and digested - had told me what to do.

Maybe it's because they often stamped their first impression on me in a cavernous old movie palace. Or maybe I was simply at a stage in life when things sank in. But brief passages of films - a handful of vibrant, indestructible moments - stick in my thought as surely as real-life experiences. It's a small piece of the larger point Jean-Luc Godard was making when he said film was life and life was film. The impact of these moments can be as enduring as things that actually happen to you, and they probably contribute their emotional chemistry to the way many people live their lives.

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A moment in a Cooper film had given me something to fall back on during that hapless turn at bat. I may not have known how Gehrig - or Cooper, for that matter - actually felt. But I knew how he looked and sounded, and how his body language conveyed the fact that a person's worth transcends the failings of the moment.

Everyone has his or her own examples, even without realizing it at times. But it often takes a few decades for the archetypal moments to identify themselves in the recesses of thought.

I'm not speaking of ''big scenes'' - such as the chariot race in ''Ben Hur'' or the burning of Atlanta in ''Gone With the Wind.'' For me the cinema of the mind's eye is built with less familiar blocks. It can be a single line, like the one from ''The Gallant Hours'' when things weren't going well for Admiral ''Bull'' Halsey, the World War II naval hero of the Pacific theater. US officers had gathered to consider the grim prospects of fighting Japan. To bolster morale, James Cagney starts to make reassuring promises: Oh, we need more ships? Then we'll increase the reinforcements. We're short of supplies? Then we'll send for some.

Later, on deck, a young aide respectfully asks him, ''Admiral, how are you going to do all those things?'' Folding his glasses, Cagney slowly concedes, ''I don't know.'' The reading is weighted with honor and potential, balancing realism with the need for human resilience. I later tried to convey the same resourcefulness one summer in Maine when I was leading a band of kids in three canoes. We were to join a much larger band but lost track of the big group, which had all the supplies. It was getting dark, a wind was coming up, and we were hungry.

What would we do for food? How would we sleep with no tents? The kids' questions flew, and I didn't have a clue. But I had long since internalized that moment in ''The Gallant Hours'' and knew how assurances should sound. We'll simply retrace our steps, I stated in sage-like tones. Oh, that won't work? Then we'll paddle out into the lake, I pronounced with oracular wisdom. From there, I went on, we can scan the shore and locate our fellow campers. Soon the kids picked up the feeling and began giving their own sober counsel. Confidence swept the ranks. Not long afterward we did link up with the others. I had learned that reassurance can be the key to getting through a predicament.

In less public moments a few lines from from ''The Magic Box'' used to replay in my inner ear. It was when I would walk my then-small sons to a nearby playground. In one scene a man in London rushes onto the street and pulls an unsuspecting bobby into his studio. The man has invented an early form of moving pictures, something the bobby has never seen. The crude projector is cranked into motion. Human figures appear to be walking on a sheet that serves as a screen.

The bobby stares in astonishment. ''You must be a proud man,'' he says - a line read with haunting understatement by Laurence Olivier. The bobby's mental world has changed forever. Perhaps he grasps Hamlet's comment to Horatio: ''There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.''

With my young sons, I tried to reflect the feeling of awakening so powerfully and subtly conveyed by Olivier's reading. In spring we would walk to the playground's bordering stream and gaze in wonder at the ice that had begun to crack and vanish, and look for pussy willows, and try to find animal tracks in the thin snow. In summer we would lie on the ground and watch the sky for birds to flash across our field of vision.

The bobby's tone of voice was merely my way of starting the process. The boys and nature took it from there.

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