The course of my life can be plotted in any number of ways: educational stages, jobs, friendships, family celebrations and so on. Today someone made me think about films and how the can pinpoint certain moments in one’s life.
The first film I went to see at the cinema was HG Wells First Men In The Moon at the Astoria in Purley.
That was 1964 and had I been the one choosing I doubt that would have been my first experience of cinema. But it wasn’t me, it was the Archaeologist who, at 8 or 9 (depending when the film arrived in our little backwater) wanted this. He was the one who had read HG Wells. He was the one who persuaded Mum to take us. And he was the one who criticised the film throughout for not slavishly following the book. Mum wasn’t impressed either, not so much for the corrupted story line or the really rather rubbish special effects – not that we realised then, of course – but because they had an American, Edward Judd, playing what should, obviously, have been an English lead.
Me? I was transfixed. Less so with the fact this was a double feature, something that was common back then, as the second film, which came first, was East of Eden and what a tedious drama that was. But once we moved onto space rockets and moon beings and fights with giant gastropods, well, you had me. There was a world beyond leafy, but rather dull and old fashioned Surrey and you could see it in colour and on an enormous screen. And that was all rather exciting and novel.
We saw a few films after that – the cinema was a treat – and the ones that come back to me now included Peter Pan, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and Mary Poppins. The sixties for some were a decade of tune in, turn on and drop out. For me they were a gentle lifting of the eyelids into what might be possible, what might be happening in other worlds. I began to realise you could actually have an imagination that someone in the family hadn’t preordained
We moved at the end of 1969 from Surrey to Hampshire. The move was a strange, unreal time for me, now aged just 13. It was bloody cold, the place we moved to isolated and the fact I knew no one unsettling. Mum and Dad knew it wouldn’t be easy which might explain why we found ourselves experiencing things that we would normally not. We stayed a night in a hotel, before we actually moved in; that didn’t happen to people like us. The Archaeologist and I had a room, separate from Mum and Dad, with an en-suite bathroom and dinner and then breakfast cooked by someone else. I don’t think the moon landing that took place a few months before can have been as strange to Armstrong and Aldrin as having a toilet to ourselves was to the Archaeologist and me.
That first night in our new house ended with us going to the cinema in Bournemouth to see The Battle of Britain. Now that was a high quality film, which Mum and Dad both agreed captured something of what it was like back then but the thing that stands out, looking back, is the bedroom scene in which a clearly naked man and woman get into bed together. You have to remember that I missed out in any sex education. The school I left provided classes at 14 and the school I went to had held them at 12. My mother worked on the sound principle that she would answer any questions asked but if they weren’t asked she wouldn’t volunteer answers and my father had a highly developed embarrassment gene meaning the idea he might expound any details concerning birds and bees was as likely as it was that I might ask him. I was aware of an immediate atmosphere, as I had been if anything vaguely similar had appeared on the TV though it rarely became apparent what was causing the change in temperature. Mum, while not athletic in any meaningful sense had the gymnastic ability of an Olympian when it came to getting out of her chair, scuttling across the room and changing the channel at the slightest indication of anything ‘untoward’. Men shared beds with women: yes I got that. But naked? With kissing? Really? And did that include my parents?
Those 1970s. Phew, now that was a decade for letting the mind flower. My new school was mixed. Girls were… terrifying. They had caustic tongues and an ability to humiliate that seemed hardwired, like breathing and inevitable like the appearance of spots. By the time I had crested 16 however I’d managed at least three conversations with girls that weren’t predicated on the need to finish some homework project. A group of us formed and, as soon as we could, we began to go out. That usually meant Bournemouth and either (1) the ice rink (2) a band or (3) the cinema. It was during one of these adventures that we went to see The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson. 1973, it says which would be about right. There were eight of us, four boys, four girls, stretched across the middle row. The film centres on Nicholson on his way to jail. It’s a mumble-fest and pretty unmemorable save for the sense I had that one girl really really wanted to kiss me. I say ‘sense’ but it was perhaps a bit more blatant than that. This was another startling revelation: that the opposite sex might show any interest in me beyond my ability to make a prat of myself and do calculus.
Somehow I made it to University and, eventually, after several false starts I asked the Textiliste on a date. I had two tickets to a local nightclub where a friend was hosting his 19 birthday. That she accepted was a stunner – put it down to her poor eye sight – but I immediately realised my error. The party was over a week away. I needed something sooner. I cornered herself in the Law Library, made some light amusing conversation and then attempted my subtly conceived plan for a pre-date date.
‘Er, do you like Mel Brooks?’ His film, Silent Movie had just come out and was being critically acclaimed – wrongly – as being the equal of Blazing Saddles.
‘Mel Who? Is he in the second year?’
We survived that scare and, indeed went to that film though, in truth, I had to see it again to actually watch it all the way through. The only scenes I recall were where Anne Bancroft is rammed into a column and a vending machine is used like a mortar to fire coke cans at an enemy. As I say, it was no Blazing Saddles.
I think it is fair to say that, to that point, the majority of my cinematographic experiences had been pretty shallow. But with the Textiliste that was never going to last. The following year she dragged me along to another Nicholson vehicle. Still remembering The Last Detail I wasn’t impressed in advance but this was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and I was pretty much speechless after it.
I didn’t know film could get inside your head like that film did the 20 year old me. Mind you it was the same year I went to see Bird On The Wire, a documentary about a Leonard Cohen tour. I was equally speechless but not in a good way.
Moving to London in 1979 and starting that unknowingly tedious part of adulthood – settling into a job – meant we went to the cinema a lot more. There were films like Annie Hall and the odd James Bond and, of course, The Life Of Brian. But their common currency weakened their ability to pinpoint memorable moments.
Indeed, you have to wind the clock on to 2000. I was now in my forties, with a job at which I was successful and all the trappings of that success. But then as now, the thing that added to the gaiety of nations, the thing that floated my boat, that gave me a raison d’etre was my family. And in 2000 the four of us found ourselves on holiday in San Francisco, visiting friends who lived outside beyond Berkeley.
Imagine the scene. This particular afternoon there are about fifteen of us, including seven or eight children between the ages of six and twelve. We have had a lovely time and have arrived at the Metreon, an entertainment centre. The idea is to see a film but the one we had in mind either isn’t on or is full.
‘What else is there?’ asks one parent.
‘What do you want to see, kids?’ asks another, more simple-minded soul.
The chorus is deafening and, perhaps oddly, unanimous. ‘Pokemon!’
The assembled adults look, variously aghast, nauseous and bewildered. This particular component of the anime franchise – Pokemon 2000 – isn’t even the original. The review in the San Francisco Chronicle which I read the next day stated ‘If you go to see this film, take a torch and your tax return: completing it while losing your eyesight will be far more enjoyable than watching this film’.
Now, one thing was clear. We didn’t all have to accompany the children. There was a nice coffee bar just outside where the adults could while away the 82 minutes. Who was going to get the short straw?
In normal conditions, I’m pretty adept at ducking out of jobs I don’t favour. But just as I was balancing a strategic trip to the gents room with pretending my Blackberry was calling me a voice piped up, ‘Daddy loves Pokemon. He did the whole game on his own.’
Two years before I had indeed played the complete Pokemon game on my son’s Gameboy during an especially tedious plane journey to and from Bahrain (and a bit more time besides). That didn’t mean I ‘liked’ it in any meaningful sense. But I had been fingered.
The smiles that wreathed the other adults could best be described as duplicitous. No one else volunteered. I don’t think anyone else came in with me. To be fair to them the children were splendidly behaved and none of them needed the toilet or some such. And that child who had fingered me was delighted that I was getting to enjoy something I so patently loved. As I sat and watched what was later voted as the second worst animation ever (after Digimon) I pondered how much goodwill I had engendered with my children and indeed my wife. Lots, I decided. Yes, I was in credit. At last.