By walking us back in time with films from The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925) to Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Lesley Finn reminds us of the power of film and family and how those closest to us can inspire a deep fondness for cinema.
At the close of the recent bacchanalian epic Babylon (Damien Chazelle, 2022), there is a lengthy montage of movie images. This sequence was much maligned by critics as maudlin; nevertheless, recognising many of these images had the effect on me of manifesting not just memories of films I had seen (and part of the joy of this montage is the recognition), but also of the circumstances surrounding how, when, where, and with whom I had seen these films. These kinds of memories are part of our social world of storytelling, a world in which cinema plays an integral part, and it seems to be that the very act of watching a film unleashes a torrent of memories, both tied and adjacent to the images on screen.
In London in the 1980s, several silent features were rescreened in large theatres, many of them original picture palaces, with a live orchestra playing either the original or newly composed scores. These screenings were events, with tickets priced accordingly, ushers guiding us to our seats, overtures played, and an intermission. At one such event, a screening of The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925), I spoke with an elderly woman sitting near us. She explained that she had seen this very film, in this very theatre, when it was first released. She adored the film’s star, John Gilbert; she was wearing her new coat, which had rabbit fur around the cuffs; she came with her sister, and they held hands throughout the screening. She also remembered having a little bag of sweeties that their father had given them for the occasion. Seeing the film again sixty-or-so years later did not only recreate the emotions the film generated back in the 1920s, but also made her remember her sister and all the other small details surrounding the occasion. She had possibly forgotten parts of the movie’s plot, but the images onscreen helped her recall so much more. The same is true of my own movie going experiences.
My father, in a misguided attempt to spark some intellectual connection, took me with him to see 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) when I was 11. It was not the film to inspire pre-teen me, and I lost interest after the apes and the bone. However, I clearly recall the pattern on the carpet of the theatre, the itch of the velvet seats, the smell of my dad’s aftershave, and the stickiness of the choc-ice wrapper.
Watching Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) nowadays reminds me of that first wave of terror experienced in a cinema – but it also recalls the thrill of having successfully negotiated my way past the ticket seller gatekeeper when I was actually too young to watch what was then an X-rated movie (only for those 18 or older). This, in turn, reminds me of the smell of the leather jacket worn by my none-too-sophisticated escort, and the agony of riding on the back of his motorbike without a warm coat.
Memories of movie going experiences from the past can conjure up something which is not exactly nostalgia (I do not long to be back in the cinema watching Jaws with the bad-boy biker), but has the same emotional complexity. I remember the unbridled joy of watching a Marx Brothers film on a big screen with an audience, hooting and laughing uncontrollably. I can feel the pain of trying to catch my breath through tears as Groucho amended a contract while wooing a stately matron (Groucho, not me). I can also remember the journey to that theatre and the sweaty smell of the packed auditorium, not to mention the walk in the cold afterwards. I know exactly who I was with (motorbike boy was long gone by then), and these memories are triggered everytime I’m lucky enough to catch A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935) on late-night television.
I recall a flood of maternal happiness when I watched my young son squirm with excitement and cheer loudly when the trailer for the first Harry Potter (Chris Columbus, 2001) film screened in our local cinema – yes, for the trailer! This pride for my first-born was eliminated when, watching the actual movie, he stuck his hand in the cup holder of his seat and calmy watched the film while I worked with a cinema employee, slathering his hand in popcorn machine butter to free it. It is hard now to watch any part of a Harry Potter film without waves of panic and humiliation, not to mention the cloying smell of melted butter. I haven’t been able to eat cinema popcorn since.
Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) reminds me of my lovely long-gone grandparents; they took me to see it at a time when a film played on an endless loop in the theatre and you could enter at any time. We arrived when Mary and Bert were having afternoon tea served by penguins, and it wasn’t until years later that I knew how Mary arrived at Cherry Tree Lane or who Bert was. These are the very same grandparents who took me to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Hughes, 1968), but left at the intermission because my Gran “felt poorly”. What?! The intermission punctuated a literal cliffhanger: the car was about to plummet over a cliff! Would the children be dashed to bits on the rocks below? Would the car be totalled? Again, it took years to find out what happened. I was peeved at the time with my grandparents for depriving me of the conclusion – but now, when I think back, what I recall is the coziness of sitting between them, the excitement of a treat, and their faces.
My Gran would have been the same age as the woman I spoke to at The Big Parade screening. I wonder if she also saw it as a young woman, perhaps with her sister, perhaps with a bag of boiled sweeties. I wonder if she remembered it. It certainly brought back a lot of memories for that woman. When I asked her if the film was just as she remembered, she said yes, but she was disappointed with one thing. She recalled John Gilbert being taller.
By: Lesley Finn