Life isn’t like in the movies

Harry Watson

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Alfredo : Living here day by day, you think it’s the centre of the world. You believe nothing will ever change. Then you leave: a year, two years. When you come back, everything’s changed. The thread’s broken. What you came to find isn’t there. What was yours is gone. You have to go away for a long time… many years… before you can come back and find your people. The land where you were born. But now, no. It’s not possible. Right now you’re blinder than I am.

Salvatore : Who said that? Gary Cooper? James Stewart? Henry Fonda? Eh?

Alfredo : No, Toto. Nobody said it. This time it’s all me. Life isn’t like in the movies. Life… is much harder.

My Reflection this week is on cinema.

I’m a member of the Little Theatre Cinema in the nearby city of Bath. I still pay to see films but receive a discount, or on some gain free entry and with others exclusive viewings. It’s a small cinema. Two screens holding around 250 people between them. It does offer mainstream films, but my attraction is for the independent films and documentaries it shows. The audience for these is not large. On one occasion, I was the only customer. Not a unique experience for me. I’ve enjoyed (and I do enjoy having an auditorium all to myself) the same experience in central London cinemas.

A recent survey of members asked what film they would choose as their favourite to see back on the big screen in the Little Theatre. My vote, given it’s a beautiful film, was for Cinema Paradiso. I wasn’t the only one who thought that way as it was the overwhelming winner of the survey. I’ll now be going along to a screening of it in August.

I recall one of my earliest cinema visits was to see the original ‘Dumbo’. It had me in floods of tears. The power of film. Especially at six years old. Another early visit was to see a Hard Day’s Night. That one had an eight-year-old dancing in the aisle.

We did not have a TV at home, so my mother was my usual cinema-going companion until my teens. She was not one for ‘sloppy’ films, as she called them. Casablanca was an exception as Humphrey Bogart was a favourite actor of hers. As was Edward G Robinson and Spencer Tracey. You will not be surprised that it was on Film Noir and anti-hero films I cut my teeth in early cinema-going.

My local cinema in my then hometown in the Northeast was the Essoldo. Once a theatre before its conversion to a cinema. Alas, since 1975 it’s been a small supermarket. The Essoldo’s heyday was from 1960 through to the early 1970s. In some ways, the Little Theatre reminds me of the Essoldo.

Friday night was usually cinema night for my mother and me. And for many others, as there were always long queues. But, as I do now, my mother hated queuing. So, we always left the house early to gain a spot near the front of the queue. This meant we could occupy seats at the end of a row that again my mother preferred. Not because it offered the best view, but more it supplied a quicker getaway at the end of the main feature.

These were the days when the national anthem played as the lights came up. At the striking of the first bars, all those still in the auditorium had to remain standing until the anthem finished. It’s not that my mother (or the many others keen to get to the exit) was not patriotic. They’d done their bit in the war. They just felt it an unnecessary ending to a visit to the cinema.

My visits to the cinema with my father were more formal affairs. He, too, would aim to be near the front of the queue, but that was to obtain a front and centre seat. My father allowed no consumption of refreshments, and it was an obligation to wait for the national anthem. Fortunately, my father was not a great cinemagoer.

However, he occasionally took me to the News Theatre in Newcastle near to what was then the Haymarket bus station. I enjoyed the cartoons that interspersed the newsreel items he wished to see. Afterwards, he would spoil me with an ice cream soda in a close-by cafe. Often, and being prone to travel sickness, I would again see the ice cream soda at some point on the bus ride home.

Another culinary recollection of those early cinema-going days was the packets of crisps on offer. You could have any flavour you liked, providing it was plain. Although, there was a blue paper twist of salt in the packet. To find it in the dark meant rummaging through the crisps. Then carefully untwisting the paper to scatter its contents on the crisps themselves. Or in most cases everywhere but on the crisps. It was also not unusual to become so enthralled in the film that you forgot to look for the salt twist. You found it eventually when inadvertently biting into it.

Smoking was allowed in cinemas back then and if a film began to drag there was always the Brownian Motion patterns of overhead smoke caught by the lights of the projector. Swirling shapes of vaporous kaleidoscopic colour to fascinate this young viewer.

These early trips gave me a love of cinema. Of course, my viewing is more selective now than that it was 50 years ago, but the magic of a well-directed, acted, scripted, photographed and scored film still holds.

Cinema Paradiso is a film that brings together all of that. But, of course, it also has the magic of cinema at its heart. And, more than that, it offers a commentary on life and relationships. Within families, between young and old, and of love. Found and lost.

It will not be too long before I sit in a darkened auditorium, to watch young Salvatore once again, fall in love with cinema at an age when I, too, did just that. Until then I’ll leave you in the hands of Ennio Morricone (few film theme tunes make the Proms) ….

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Harry Watson

In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …