The Digital Fix's Early Cinema Memories
Last month the Digital Fix started a new feature in which our various writers and contributors get together on a common theme. June was dedicated to guilty pleasures and now July sees us recalling our earliest memories of the big screen. We hope you enjoy - and please do feel free to contribute your own in the comments section below…
I can’t remember exactly when my cinema-going kicked off but it must have been about 1963 or so as I wasn't yet school age. I was taken to see Snow White at the local Odeon by my auntie who told me much later that I thought the screen was a giant telly. I have a vague memory of sitting in a big dark echoing space engulfed in cigarette smoke and finding the evil queen’s transformation scene quite terrifying. None of that put me off however as I then spent most of the 60s and 70s sitting in giant cinemas with chewing gum on the seats, belligerent usherettes and billowing clouds of fag smoke in the projector beam. That was the time when broadcast TV could only show films 5 years after release so you had to go to the pictures if you wanted to see anything remotely current. Also as I lived in a fairly large town in Scotland we had several cinemas to choose from but we still had to wait ages to get the new releases as everything was shown first in London. The exceptions would be big seasonal releases which would hit Glasgow and Edinburgh first and I vividly remember being taken to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in Glasgow as a Xmas treat which must have been in 1969. It was showing in the ABC on Sauchiehall Street (I think) when it was a single screen and I remember it being vast and crowded and I thought I’d burst from excitement. The film even came with an interval!
Other vivid memories of the time include, after having seen The Wizard of Oz in the mid-60s, being then taken to a black and white Freddie and the Dreamers film (!!) and loudly asking the adult who took me when it was going to change to colour - all the way through the film. The year before that, I was taken by the girls who lived next door to see A Hard Day’s Night in the local Odeon, this time full of screaming girls. Whatever induced them to take a 5-year-old I don’t know but I’m glad they did. Later in the 60s I used to go more on my own (nobody else I knew went as often as I did) and I remember like it was yesterday queuing up on a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1968 waiting for the local ABC to open to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. It blew me away. All the philosophical stuff flew over my head but I went for the spectacle. The stuff on screen all looked so REAL. Those were also the days when the BBC used to show tons of European-made stuff, both dubbed children’s shows (Robinson Crusoe, Tales from Europe, White Horses, etc.) as well as loads of subtitled films. I remember bawling my eyes out at the end of De Sica’s Sciuscià to my mother’s consternation.
Cinemagoing in the 60s for a child was definitely a more innocent pursuit and might even be considered a kind of Golden Age (viewed through the prism of nostalgia). That was the decade that saw the real development of the epic fantasy/adventure children’s film. Disney threw money at such films as The Gnome-Mobile (I cried when Violet got her man), Swiss Family Robinson, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, In Search of the Castaways, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Love Bug (I LOVED that film) and many many more. I know Disney was already well-practised at exploiting their young audience but these films were made as entertainment first and not just to flog tie-in toys. These were also the days before picture-palaces were carved up into multi-screen affairs and, although they were faded relics of an earlier time, I count myself lucky to have seen such films in them.
I can’t remember the first film I saw in a cinema. It was almost certainly a Disney film, or a family film from a different company. I saw Song of the South on what was almost certainly its last cinema reissue in the UK, around 1972, but I don’t think that was the very first. No doubt I’d notice its racial issues rather more now than I did when I was seven or eight.
I grew up in Church Crookham, Hampshire, which then and now has no cinemas, so when we did go it was to Aldershot. There was an Odeon and an ABC (which became a three-screen in 1978 and is now the home of the King’s Church).There was also the Palace, a listed building, where in its previous incarnation as a music hall Charlie Chaplin had made his stage debut at age five. In the 1970s it semi-permanently showed soft porn. It closed as a cinema in the early 80s and is now a nightclub.
The first film I saw in a cinema with anything other than a U certificate was It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1976. This was the second and last big-screen version of James Herriot’s books, which were more successfully done on TV in the long-running series All Creatures Great and Small. I suspect my Mum wanted to see it and took me and my brother along, though I remember enjoying it. I’ve not seen it since.
Back then, the first "adult" certificate was the AA, restricted to fourteen and over. (It became the 15 in 1982.) My first AA film was The Wild Geese in 1978. I remember phoning the cinema to ask if it was playing a second week so I could be old enough to see it - which I did, on my own, three days after my fourteenth birthday. The woman at the box office did ask my age, the only time that has ever happened to me in a cinema.
I was clearly a law-abiding child, because my first X (eighteen and over) film in a cinema was after my eighteenth birthday. I’d seen some on television by then though. I could probably have sneaked in underage if I’d tried, having been six feet tall long before I turned eighteen. But I didn’t, partly because I’d become interested in types of cinema that weren’t shown at my local cinema, such as foreign-language films. I remember Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City being one I wanted to see but hadn’t been old enough, but then it didn’t play locally either, so I didn’t get to watch it until I went to University. Anyway, one Sunday in early 1983, the then cinema in Camberley for some reason showed a Nicolas Roeg double bill: The Man Who Fell to Earth and Performance. I’d seen Walkabout (on TV) by then, and had read about both films in books, so that was a must-see for me.
Returning to foreign films, watching The Lacemaker on BBC2 in late 1981 had created a taste for films with subtitles. My first in a cinema was Margarethe von Trotta’s The German Sisters (Die bleierne Zeit), in 1982, which was also the first film for which I took the train up to London - on my own - to see, and my only visit to the legendary Academy Cinema on Oxford Street.
Another trip to London, this time in 1983, was to see my first 3D film, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder at the ICA. I combined that with a double bill at what was then called the Cinecenta in Panton Street. Following The Elephant Man, I really wanted to see David Lynch’s earlier feature Eraserhead, and there it was on a double bill. I’d paid to see the second film, The Loveless (co-directed by Kathryn Bigelow, her feature debut), though I didn’t know much about it. So I stayed - and really liked it.
Another big one for me was a showing of Apocalypse Now (in 70mm and six-track Dolby) at the Prince Charles, a first for both 70mm and stereo cinema sound for me, and a screening I remember to this day.
I went to Southampton University in 1984, and amongst other things received a very good film education courtesy of the film society. But that built on foundations which had already been laid.
I wouldn’t say that I was taken to the cinema a lot when I were a nipper, so I’ve got pretty clear memories of who/what/where/when. The first thing I saw for sure was Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords in 1986. I don’t recall anything about the film, but I know I saw it because I can still remember my charmless hag of a childminder casually dismissing a trip to see Transformers: The Movie because we’d already seen the damned Gobots. Still sore about that to this day.
Anyhoo, next up was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and that one I can remember seeing. I know that this movie continues to catch an awful lot of flack, but seeing Christopher Reeve take flight on the big screen (well, the old Cannon Cinema in Catford) to the strains of John Williams’ iconic theme was a rare treat for this seven-year-old. Supes fighting Nuclear Man and his bag-lady fingernails etched itself on my memory, as did Lex Luthor’s nefarious scheming. Fast forward 24 years, and I’ll be the first to admit that Superman IV is a bit cack. It’s saddled with some appalling visual effects, Milton Keynes is a poor stand-in in for New York & Metropolis and the story was badly hacked up during editing. It wouldn’t be redeemed by improving any of those aspects after the fact (the cut Nuclear Man I stuff isn’t legendary, just legendarily awful) but dammit, I still love it to bits.
There are some wonderful Supes movie touchstones (the green crystal, the farm in Smallville, Susannah York’s classy voice-over), and what shines through is Chris Reeve’s determination to play the part as well as he can (having had some input into the story) regardless of how cheaply made the film is. His performance is all the more poignant given that this was the last time he pulled on the cape before his tragic accident. Everyone else does a decent job, and even when Hackman’s phoning it in he still has more charisma than most actors today. And Alex Courage’s score has a bit more zest to it than Ken Thorne’s listless music for II and III.
The year 1939 gave us two iconic films, both, remarkably, directed by the same man—Victor Fleming. I’ve never been much enamoured by Gone with the Wind, but The Wizard of Oz has always held a special significance for me because I first saw it under absolutely ideal conditions—on a big cinema screen in the early 1960s, at the age of six or seven, and at that time I believed it to be a contemporary film.
As we know, some works of film and literature are more age-sensitive than others. For example the ideal age to read The Catcher in the Rye is fourteen to seventeen, as you would then identify with Holden Caulfield most strongly. And six or seven has to be the perfect age to best appreciate The Wizard of Oz, when the faculties of understanding and suspension of disbelief are tuned to just the right frequencies.
My parents took me to see lots of films from an early age, many of them now forgotten or unidentifiable, and by the time I saw The Wizard of Oz I remember being a fairly seasoned cinema goer. Actually I didn’t much like the beginning, finding it boring, and I was intensely disappointed that it was in black and white (or sepia). Imagine my delight, then, when everything suddenly burst into intense Technicolor and the drab ordinariness of Kansas was supplanted by the fairytale wonder of Munchkinland—perhaps the nearest childhood equivalent to being on acid. The adventures themselves, with their simplistic metaphorical undertones, came across as marvellous, and I hung on every plot development, never once feeling let down. When the Wizard turned out to be a phoney, that made me laugh out loud.
What made it all even better was the knowledge that this was a fantasy framed by reality—that it was all in Dorothy’s head—and when she returned to Kansas and it fully clicked that the characters in the fantasy were her projections of real-world counterparts, that gave it yet another ‘wow factor’ buzz, making me ponder on the mechanics of fantasy in both art and life.
The Wizard of Oz, together with Dead of Night, which I also saw around the same time on Sunday afternoon TV, were pivotal in establishing my predilection for dream state/reality juxtaposed movies, laying the ground for other favourites, such as A Matter of Life and Death and more recently Pan’s Labyrinth, Mulholland Dr. and The Singing Detective TV series. All these works and many, many more owe a tremendous debt to Dorothy’s little trip.
I was taken to the cinema quite often from a young age, so I’m far too old now to remember what was the first film I ever saw (I still remember scenes of unknown Westerns, and there were quite a few Disney features), but I remember very well the first film I actually chose to go to see for myself. The late 70s was a great time for cinema if you were an adolescent boy, but at the same time immensely frustrating if you just weren’t old enough to be allowed to see Jaws or all those ultra-cool Bruce Lee films that all your friends managed to get to see and describe to you in endless thrilling detail. As a thirteen year-old in early 1978, I was determined however that I simply had to see Saturday Night Fever despite its X-certificate rating, otherwise how else would I learn all those moves from John Travolta that would impress the girls on the dancefloor at the local youth-club disco? (In recognition of this, the film was indeed later edited down, and re-released for a younger audience).
Inevitably – and to this day, I’m not sure how I managed to pass for an 18 year-old – the uncut, adult version of Saturday Night Fever was not at all what I had expected it to be. Instead of your typical colourful musical-dance fantasy (one that would later be established through the Fame television series into a template for all subsequent dance films), where an underdog/rebel works hard and makes good on the day of their audition/opening show, Saturday Night Fever was rather a more serious drama dealing with strong adult themes – love, sexual relationships, pregnancy, brawls, familial conflict and the realities of the daily grind of work in a dead-end job. The fantasy of ’living the dream’ was there all right, but seen in the context of a frank and gritty realism out of which the Disco phenomenon would arise (The Brooklyn Italian-Catholic family life of Travolta’s Tony Manero and the social climate of America in the late 70s is scarcely less streetwise than early Scorsese), it only served to enhance the brief but magical sense of escape from that reality and the sense of self-achievement that Tony could experience on the neon-lit dancefloor.
I mightn’t have taken it all in at the time, and I certainly didn’t ever have any success on the youth-club dancefloor, but back in 1978, Saturday Night Fever nonetheless made a big impression on at least one young thirteen year-old. It showed that cinema in the late 70s didn’t have to be escapist fantasy into galaxies far, far away, but that dreams could co-exist with reality, and the infinite mysteries of the adult real-world could be just as fascinating as any alien world. The arrival of the Mothership in the next film I saw on the big screen however – Close Encounters of the Third Kind – was, I have to say, pretty awe-inspiring too.
The first film I was ever taken to see at the cinema was E.T. in 1982. Being 6 years old at the time, I don’t remember much about it except that the film was heavily promoted on cereal boxes at the time. I have a vague and probably false memory of watching it through a haze of cigarette smoke in the Regal Cinema in St Ives, Cambridgeshire – the local fleapit that is now, inevitably, a nightclub. Subsequent trips included Return of the Jedi and Superman III until the cinema closed, whereafter the Cromwell Cinema in neighbouring Huntingdon became the big screen of choice. I distinctly recall seeing Ghost Busters there on a friend’s birthday excursion and being immediately frightened by the ‘ghost woman in the library’ scene.
However, the first film I ever demanded to see was Transformers: The Movie in 1986. This was when the 1980s Transformers craze was at its zenith and the movie was probably the most eagerly awaited event since the birth of Christ (amongst its legion of fans, anyway). I was one of those fans, big time. I devoured the Marvel comics, religiously watched the cartoon series on ITV, and saved my pocket money to buy the latest toys (I wasn’t the only one, as I’m sure my brother would attest). A friend had got hold of the graphic novel adaptation in advance of the film’s release, and catching glimpses of its contents was like tasting the forbidden fruit. When it finally arrived at the Cromwell, my father caved in and took me and my brother to see it. These were the days of queuing outside a single screen cinema, as if it was a fairground attraction, and the anticipation built to titanic proportions.
Having rewatched it recently, I can only admire my father’s forbearance in managing to sit through the entire thing, never mind actually handing over money for the privilege. Some films age well, others do not. Transformers: The Movie is emphatically not a great work of art; mostly it’s a crass and noisy mess, a glorified toy advert. But it was ambitious and epic in its approach, and the journey it took me on will forever be etched on my mind. I’m not sure I’ve ever got over the death of Optimus Prime and his allies in the opening act, but the raft of new characters and strange alien worlds it took them to blew me away. Even now, seeing the film’s poster artwork gives me a sudden thrill. For better or worse it was the defining cinema experience of my childhood, and because of that I’ll always treasure the film a little bit.
My parents never took me to the pictures, either as a young child or later in life. Memories of films from a young age were therefore made up of a mixture of Clint Eastwood, Disney, Bruce Lee, Russ Tamblyn in tom thumb, The Wizard of Oz and the Stars Wars and Superman franchises - all courtesy of either VHS or the TV. My first trip to cinema happened towards the end of my primary school years at the instigation of friends. This was 1989 and the film was Moonwalker. I confess that Michael Jackson didn’t figure particularly largely to me, but the stream of singles from his Bad album meant that I was, of course, fully aware of both him and his music. Prior to entering the local Odeon various clips and scenes had appeared on television and I remember wondering as to how the film would hold together: there was the Smooth Criminal music video integrated somehow, a bit in which Jackson danced with a claymation figure (animated by Will Vinton, though I wouldn’t realise this until much later) and a remake of the Bad video with Jackson, Wesley Snipes, et al replaced by children. Oh, and elements of fantasy and science fiction thrown in too. How do you shape a conventional story out of all of that?
Looking back at the promotion I see that Moonwalker came with the tagline ’A Movie Like No Other’ and this was certainly the reaction on my part as it unfolded on Screen Four. The film began as a concert performance - various fans passing out as Jackson performed Man in the Mirror - then it turned into a retrospective documentary montage taking us from the Jackson 5 through to the modern day. After this we found the kids’ version of Bad, the Will Vinton sequence, another music video (for Leave Me Alone) and only then did it seem to turn into a proper movie: a whole narrative built around the Smooth Criminal promo in which Jackson hangs out with some orphans, turns into a sports car, faces up to Joe Pesci and later transforms again, firstly into a robot and then a spaceship. It was all rather odd and, quite frankly, I didn’t really know what to make of it in the slightest.
Subsequent trips to the cinema that year were more enjoyable events and involved seeing the likes of Twins and Short Circuit 2 on the massive Screen One. Indeed, they were enjoyed so much that their eventual video release onto sell-through (remember that term?!) would prompt a near-immediate purchase. To be honest Moonwalker was never even considered. Yet it would be unfair to say that the Jackson film didn’t have an impact. After all, I remember the vast majority of the film with great clarity and the reaction of the audience around me. Moreover, I wonder if its lack of a conventional approach opened my eyes just a little to the possibilities of cinema. Of course, I’m not going to proclaim it as some unheralded masterpiece of experimental filmmaking (rather it’s simply a misshapen vanity project), but perhaps it did ultimately lead me into that direction. Moonwalker showed me that films didn’t necessarily have a proper beginning, middle and end; they could do other things as well. Nowadays, it is this type of cinema which gets me more excited than any other - as a great deal of my Digital Fix reviews have hopefully shown - and maybe, just maybe, I can thank Jackson just a little for that.