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I Found It At The Movies

I Found It At The Movies

The Holiday (2006)

Last week, I was in a campus café holding the largest chocolate brownie I’d ever seen. It was so large, I wasn’t sure whether to attempt eating it or, get planning permission to build on it. Suddenly, it occurred to me that seeing a film is like going on a blind date.

Here’s the similarity: you come to the encounter having done preliminary research, trying to find out whether there’s likely to be a good connection, whether it will fire up your synapses and give you thrills. You ask your best friend’s advice, experts say you’re compatible, it’s been recommended to you by an algorithm. So, you dress up to go out – or stay in and stream. But you really don’t know what’s going to happen once the lights go down and you’re alone.


In a short space of time, you know whether or not you’re going to have what the French call a ‘coup de foudre’ – love at first sight. Will the stars align? Does it help that you’re in a good mood already? Do you want to fall in love with that movie? Or do you approach it jaded by too many so-so movies, only to find this new one takes our breath away?


I went to see the lightweight comedy The Holiday (2006) with a group of acquaintances, with a meal together before the film. Between one member of the group with a severe nut allergy – like carrying a syringe severe – and another with concerns about the alcohol content in the cooking, the meal became very stressful. There were several intense discussions with the waiter. Queries were sent to the chef. Gradually, my blood pressure rose. It felt like having a meal with an unexploded bomb (or two) stashed under the table that could go off at any moment.


By the time we managed to leave the restaurant (alive!) and got to the cinema, I was riding a wave of relief endorphins. During the film, I found myself strongly identifying with the stressed Hollywood executive who finds refuge in the cosy English snowed-in Christmas cottage. Although I enjoyed the film the first time, the plot is so weak that I’m not tempted to re-watch it especially, without the aid of a tsunami of relief chemistry coursing through my veins.


In contrast, there’s the serendipitous stumbling across a new encounter on TV, which grabs you and doesn’t let go. One Sunday afternoon, with a black and white movie feature, I happened upon the unforgettable Mildred Pierce (1945): Joan Crawford swathed in furs, considering throwing herself off a bridge. I was hooked on the melodrama. Anytime it came on TV, I watched it. When I had my interview for a degree in Media Studies, Mildred Pierce was the film I talked about. My interviewers exchanged significant glances. I didn’t know it then, but the film was part of the course. A year later, I was presenting a seminar paper on it.


What about random, brief encounters, when you happen to switch on the box before a film begins? A Channel 4 film brought me the delight of Enchanted April (1991) where dowdy, disappointed women on a rainy day in 1920s England set out to rent a villa in Italy. The decision changes their lives and the two women strangers who agree to share it. The film took me to a sun-drenched place which lifted the spirit. I continued to gift the book the film is based on – The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim – to friends. It hasn’t failed to charm, yet.


With dates, there’s ‘the one’ who started out promising but faded before the popcorn cooled. On the strength of famous screenwriter William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade, I watched Paul Newman in Harper (1966). Goldman had plugged the film’s opening scene and true, it set up Newman’s character and status right from the opening credits. But the rest of the movie was a big yawn so I marked that down as a ‘big start’ that fizzled out.


Then, there’s the rabbit holes of the computer matchup algorithm, where you begin looking for one thing on a streaming service and end up somewhere completely different. That’s how I stumbled on the Belgian film The Surprise (2015). The film has the unusual premise of man who has it all but, depressed, hires an assassination bureau to end his life in a surprising way without warning. Along the way, he meets a sparky young woman also signed on with the agency. The whole film is shown in a delightful subtle palette and it is stylish in a way not seen since Audrey Hepburn.


I also fell in love with French rom-com Populaire (2012). Another unlikely setup, this time about a girl who is a calamitous failure as a secretary but who can type so fast that her buttoned-up employer trains her to take part in speed-typing contests. Both Populaire and The Surprise, I’d rate as having a good sense of humour but also as attractive.


What about the old matchmaking ploy of being introduced by a good friend? One unforgettable day, a friend invited me along to see a film I didn’t know and hadn’t heard of. Possibly, you haven’t head of So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993) either. I fell in love with it from the second Boo Radleys’ There She Goes played as the camera hovered over the nightlights of the city and onto a large cup and saucer brought to the key characters. Mike Meyers plays two main characters, with his face for once not playing the part of a contortionist. He meets his romantic match in a mysterious female butcher, who sells him haggis for his Scottish parents. I still cherish his observation: ‘I think that all Scottish cooking is based on a dare.’


Whether we’re selecting our filmic companion late at night or based on data – always unsure as to whether we’ll be compatible – it’s comforting to reflect that the odds should be well in favour of a pleasant encounter, time well spent. The reason? Hundreds of hours have been invested by a movie-making team in making the film attractive, if not sensational. A cinematographer, stunt director, art director, set designer, costume department, scriptwriters and editors of film, music, sound and special effects are like well-rehearsed players in a vast orchestra, with the director as conductor.


Now, flashing back to the start of this ramble, the little/large matter of the chocolate brownie is neither here nor there you would think. But is it? Did eating something that was incredibly chocolatey at the same time as drinking a large mug of caffeine lead to deep filmic insight? I don’t know but in the interests of scientific research, I’m prepared to replicate the beverage and the food; in case deep thoughts about film-philosophy also occur to me.

Written for The Film Dispatch by Heather Gregg. 


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