I love movies.
It’s an inherited trait – my Grandma loved the cinema and took my dad to see all sorts of classics at the Ritz, a gigantic 2500-seater cinema in Wigan which some people think was once one of the biggest cinemas in the UK. It’s gone now, replaced by a shopping centre.
There are four pivotal films in my cinematic development: the first film I saw in the cinema (Star Wars), the first black and white film I sat through and enjoyed (Farewell My Lovely), the first foreign film I sat through and enjoyed (Seven Samurai) and the first film I saw at the cinema by myself (Do The Right Thing).
I love this list. These films that made me more than just a casual cinemagoer; each one is a masterpiece, a perfect place to start a love of movies in all of its forms. There’s only one problem: half of it is fake.
The middle two are sound: I watched them both while on holiday in St Ives when I was ten or eleven. We rented a huge house and so other members of my family were elsewhere on both evenings but my Dad thought I’d like Farewell my Lovely so we watched it together.
It’s a classic 1940s film noir with Dick Powell, previously a slightly cheesy song-and-dance man, perfectly capturing the wise-cracking detective Phillip Marlowe. The ending’s a bit soft but ‘happy’ so perfect for a child who might have been put off by the nihilism of Double Indemnity.
‘Seven Samurai’ is almost a cheat; my Dad wasn’t certain I’d want to sit through a three-hour Japanese epic but if you’ve ever seen any of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai pictures, you’ll know that they are profound human dramas, but also gripping action spectaculars. It wasn’t like my first foreign movie was ‘Last Year at Marienbad’.
The problem with this perfect cinematic induction is that I don’t remember what the first film I saw at the cinema was. I definitely saw Star Wars on its first release in 1977 despite being only four, but I also have a vivid memory of watching ‘Escape from the Dark’, an enjoyable Disney movie about kids saving pit ponies.
My Grandad didn’t often join us at the cinema, but he was an ex-miner so he was interested in the pit angle and came along. Maybe I could conjure an emotional story about that angle. He wasn’t perfect (who is?) but I was lucky to know him at his best. Telling you a story that captured the emotional weight of this would be amazing. And it would be nonsense. If that was the first film I saw at the cinema, all I remember is a nice family outing to the tiniest cinema I’ve ever been to (the Unit Four in Pemberton, which was a carpet shop the last time I saw it).
Do The Right Thing is an urgent masterpiece. I travelled quite a way to see it – a bus ride into Wigan, then the train to Salford Crescent, and then a long walk down Albion Way to the old Cannon Multiplex in Salford Quays. I was 16 and I didn’t know anyone who would have wanted to watch it but I‘d read the rave review in Premiere Magazine and I wasn’t going to miss it.
I am really proud of that kid; an awkward, middle-class white boy travelling for nearly two hours by himself to see an incendiary drama about racial conflict in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. I was inspired and energised by what an electrifying experience it was to watch. I love that film and I love Spike Lee for imprinting the importance of going to the cinema into my brain.
Except that this same kid noticed that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was also playing, and if I timed the trains right, I could watch that as well. It would work better if I saw it first. My introduction to cinema *may* have been Star Wars, but my first solo cinematic outing was definitely Steve Martin and Michael Caine as a pair of clownish con-men.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun, but that particular summer afternoon was special. It broke me out of the self-conscious trap that the cinema is a social place you go with other people, rather than a place that you go to see movies regardless of who’s with you.
As a teenager, I saw Goodfellas, Leningrad Cowboys Go America and The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover at the cinema by myself. I saw a double-bill of The Blood of a Poet and Eyes Without a Face at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. I went to the Leeds Film Festival and watched an all-nighter of John Waters movies.
After a little while, I hooked up with a headstrong, intimidating girl who liked the movies too, and all these years later, we’re still going. Imagine how great it would be if I could tell you that the last film we watched together at the movies was something significant or meaningful. It was ‘The Meg 2’.
Very entertaining and the first half is not what I expected, since you ask.
The story would be so much better if the first film that started my insatiable appetite for cinema was Do The Right Thing. It would be inspiring. I wouldn’t have gone just to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which was also playing in Wigan where my friends or family would probably have come with me. If I even bothered.
I needed to break the taboo of solo cinema to see all the movies I have watched and enjoyed over the years, and it was Spike Lee’s movie that got me there. It would be a much better, much more satisfying story if that film was first, but it wasn’t. So here we are.
I‘ve told this story because I enjoyed telling it and hope you might have enjoyed reading it. But the point is that I could have spun a different tale. I could have planted my flag on Star Wars and Spike Lee. I could have told you about an anxious, lonely misfit who found solace in going to the cinema, an addled teen who devoured grown-up films like ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ and ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. It would mainly be true.
I could go to town about the emotional bond that films built between myself, my Dad and his mum, a bridge that spanned generations and persists to this day. My Dad persuaded me to watch ‘The Tall T’ recently, a perfect little film he saw in the 1950s with his mum that they loved then, and I really enjoyed in 2023. That story is true.
But I have other formative cinematic memories. I bottled trying to get into ‘Robocop’ at the cinema (yes, I was 14 but I would probably have been able to swing it) but I showed up for the much inferior Robocop 2. I was in a crush of angry teens trying to see Rocky IV and gave up because the crowd was too scary. Some girls from my school hung around and got in. They made fun of me for leaving. In the formative period after ‘Do The Right Thing’, I saw ‘Tango and Cash’. I went out of my way to see it in the cinema and it’s *dogshit*. I saw ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Another 48 Hours’. I saw ‘Nightbreed’.
EDIT: I am reminded by my partner that she saw ‘Howard the Duck’ at the cinema, which beats all of the above.
I want to regale you with moving tales about trips to the cinema with my Grandma (we went many times), but the only other films I definitely remember seeing with her are ‘Superman IV’ and ‘License to Kill”. She cackled when Anthony Zerbe’s head exploded. It’s not the stuff of inspiring memoirs.
Sometimes I get an idea for a post and I just take it for a walk to see where it goes. I thought this one might go somewhere profound, emotional or cute. That way lies clicks and positive comments, my friends. But the truth matters. Authenticity matters. It’s more important than any other single thing to me.
So I end up with the banal conclusion that a lot of what you see on social media is confected hokum. If I gave you a neat, curated version of My Cinematic Life or some other aspect of who I am, I’d be more successful, but I’d also be a liar. The upbeat emotional hit parade is the written equivalent of Botox – something that superficially creates a positive impression but is actually a poison.
The truth is that the cinema has always been a vital part of my life, something that connects me to the people I love the most, and yet I saw ‘Flubber’ on general release. I saw ‘Waterworld’ and ‘Cutthroat Island’. Willingly. I dodged finishing an urgent university essay to see ‘Wayne’s World 2’ at the Empire Leicester Square (definitely one of the biggest cinemas in the UK). I’m a bit more discerning in my old age, but I’m still likely to see ‘Last Voyage of the Demeter’ at the cinema. It’ll be crap and I will enjoy it.
There’s no inspiration or lesson here. And that’s OK.
See you at the movies.
This didn’t fit anywhere above but it’s such a shame that all you whippersnappers are too young to remember the cinema adverts where it was a generic film of a couple dining out (they’d be careful not to show the food) with cheesy narration and awful music.
Right at the end, an awkward edit would cut in a slide with the name of a local restaurant. The only one I remember now was for Gaylord’s Indian Restaurant in Manchester, a local institution sadly now dead and gone. I saw plenty of these in the late 1980s, but many of them were clearly relics from the 1970s. They were simultaneously terrible and awesome and we will never see their like again.