Yes, it's time for the beginning-of-the-month list - September's declaration of intent (and last month's late, serialized, unduly protracted follow-up) herewith crystallizing definitively into a regular feature.
This month's topic is, more properly, Great moments in my personal history of cinema-going.
Out of the many hundreds of films I have seen in a cinema (really - I used to aim for 50 a year, when I had access to lots of cheap arthouse cinemas as a student in Oxford; and since then - at least, until coming to China - I've generally managed to keep up an average of at least 20 a year), there are just a handful that left a particularly vivid impression in my memory - as much for the circumstances surrounding that moment, and hence the emotional impact on me, as for the fact that they were especially brilliant films (although they were).
Here we go.....
10 life-changing moments in the cinema
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey - I was taken to see this when I was far too young. Not on its first release (heck, I was hardly even born - I hadn't realised until recently that it pre-dated the first Moon landing), but at some point when it was getting a big second run in cinemas in the early or mid-70s (it might well have been tied into the end of the Moon missions, or the launch of Skylab). I was still at primary school. I should not have been allowed in. My parents should not have taken me (I suppose they thought I'd enjoy it because I was a bit of a space programme obsessive at the time). I didn't understand it (and, even then, I was not used to not understanding things). It scared me. It traumatized me. It fascinated me. I don't think any other film has ever lingered so long or so potently in my memory. I enjoyed reading the novelization a few years afterwards (also by Arthur C. Clarke, who had written the original short story which inspired one of the key ideas in the film, and then developed the screenplay with Kubrick), and it went some way toward rendering the mysteries more intelligible. I didn't see the film again until some 25 years later (I think it had been kept out of cinemas in the UK - perhaps another of Kubrick's famous episodes of control-freakery? - until its 30th anniversary rolled around); and I still found it deeply unsettling; although at least this time I had a deeper understanding of why.
2) Vanishing Point - This would have been about the same time as '2001'; I can't now recall if it was a little later or a little earlier. My brother - quite a bit older than me, already in his middle teens, and a friend of the son of the guy who owned our small-town fleapit cinema - was my hotline to the coming attractions (there was only one film per week, and almost everyone in the entire town went to see it on the Friday or the Saturday). And this one seemed a particularly exciting prospect: a road film, a chase film, lots of car stunts. However, under our old cinema ratings system I think it was categorised as an 'AA' - which meant that you were supposed to be 14 or 15 to be allowed in. The cinema owner, Jeff, was usually pretty relaxed about letting kids in to see stuff; but this picture was reputed to have quite a bit of violence and nudity in it; and I was still only about 8 or 9, maybe 10 - it would have been pushing things a bit too far. I think I had been intending to go with my bro (he had taken me to a few single 'A' category films, where I was supposed to have been accompanied by an adult), but he got cold feet about the idea. I must have bitched about it so much that my dad agreed to try to get me in. So, part of the pleasure of this particular cinema experience was getting my way; part of it was being able to surprise my bro afterwards with my knowledge of the film (he'd gone separately with some mates, and wasn't aware that dad and I were in the theatre at the same time as him); but mostly, I loved it because it was such a wonderfully dark, existential sort of thriller. I've always been drawn to films that are dominated by a sense of bleakness, hopelessness; always, even when I was 9!
3) An American Werewolf In London - I saw this when I was attending admissions interviews in Oxford; it was the winter I turned 18. I think it was the first time my parents had ever allowed me to travel anywhere on my own. It was the first time I'd been able to drink in a pub on my own legally (a bit of a dull experience, actually, after 3 or 4 years of illicit thrills as an underage drinker). And it was the first time I'd had an opportunity to go to a 'big town' cinema (of the three cinemas that I visited in my childhood - Monmouth, Coleford, and Hereford - only the Hereford one was of any size, and I don't think it had a second screen; though nominally a 'city', Hereford was essentially a hick town, just a rather larger one than Monmouth, the overgrown village that I grew up in). It might well have been the first time I ever went to the cinema on my own. I had a high old time. I went to the cinema all three nights I was there. The highlight of those three trips (oh, how exhilarating it was suddenly to have choices, to be able to go more than once a week!) was this great John Landis horror comedy (the other two nights were 'Airplane!' and 'Monty Python's "Life of Brian"'). It was one of the very few occasions when I have really appreciated the communal aspect of the cinema-going experience (usually I am strictly solitary and anti-social in my film-watching); the theatre was packed, and the audience were loving it - a great atmosphere. I think we were all "warmed up" by the bizarre trailer that had preceded it, for a soft porn film (the first one of those I'd seen as well, I'm sure); one of those very tame ones that has to masquerade as a documentary about Swedish naturist resorts in order to get a mainstream distribution. It was ludicrously amateurish, and the commentary was priceless - we were all hyped up and reeling with laughter before the main feature began. (Was this a deliberate promotional ploy by the 'American Werewolf' distribution company, do you suppose? Was the porno trailer a fake, a comedy short specifically designed to lubricate audience laughter?) Fabulous film, too; still a favourite. Jenny Agutter in the shower - a key erotic moment in any Englishman's life (curiously enough, the other two key erotic cinematic moments in an Englishman's life are Jenny Agutter swimming naked in 'Walkabout' and Jenny Agutter dressed as a Victorian schoolgirl [and taking her bloomers off to flag down the train] in 'The Railway Children' - what was it about Jenny Agutter?). And then there was Griffin Dunne's wonderfully downbeat comment on the limitations of the afterlife: "Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It's boring."
4) Fitzcarraldo - I had just gone up to start my undergraduate career at Oxford. I had just discovered The Phoenix, the two-screen arthouse cinema in Jericho (still going strong today) where I would spend countless hundreds of hours over the next two decades. The next morning I was required to rise relatively early to attend my college's Matriculation ceremony (failure to attend which could, I was told, have dire consequences). But what the hell - they're showing this dark, weird epic by Werner Herzog on the late show; that's a must-see. It's a long film, something like two-and-a-half hours; and it didn't start until nearly midnight. I was knackered the next day, nearly did miss the Matriculation..... might have had to wait another year to start at University. It would have been worth it! This was probably the first really great film that I got to see on my own at a cinema, and it completely blew me away; both the story and its execution resonated with me more deeply than just about anything else I have ever seen. It is a wonderful celebration of the power of dreams, of the beauty of being passionately attached to your ideals, and of the possibility of finding some consolation even in the most devastating failure.
5) Lili Marleen - My other (even more frequent) resort during my Oxford days was the delightfully sleazy, single-screen Penultimate Picture Palace (PPP) just off the Cowley Road. In my early days there, they ran this fantastic schedule where there was a different film each week for the early and late evening screenings and a daily-changing film on the afternoon matinees and late-night slots: 16 different films each week. I never quite got to see all of them; although I think I did make it into double figures for the week once or twice. In fact, I did once think of applying for a job as a projectionist there, so that I could see the films for free (at this time, the admission fee was only 99p anyway; but I was going so often that it did start to mount up!). Thanks to the wonderful profusion and diversity of the PPP's offerings, I had got to know and like the work of the very stylish, very quirky German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. One week I happened to notice, at the very last minute, that his 'Lili Marleen' was on that afternoon - an exuberant wartime adventure starring his regular leading lady, the gorgeous Hanna Schygulla, as a glamorous nightclub singer forced to entertain German troops. It was the only screening that week. It might be my only chance to see that film ever (to my knowledge, it never did come around again in the cinemas). And I had read that it was wonderful. It was just a bit unfortunate that it clashed with a tutorial (one of the weekly, hour-long, one-to-one sessions with a professor which are the main method of 'teaching' at Oxford). Something had to give. I hastily scribbled a note excusing myself from the tutorial. I could have fibbed and claimed illness. But I have always believed that honesty is the best policy: so I explained there was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a Fassbinder film at the cinema that afternoon, and I considered that more important. The prof was reasonably understanding about it. I never regretted the decision: it was a delightful, quite exhilarating piece of film-making (I've never seen it again in any medium; I wish I could find it on DVD here.). That incident was thoroughly representative of my time at Oxford; my studies were always a very low priority - I felt I was getting my education elsewhere.
6) Brazil - Terry Gilliam's blackly funny masterpiece (a take on Orwell's '1984', scripted by Tom Stoppard) is a film I find bears many repeat viewings. I think I went to see it 3 or 4 times in the first year it was out. The first one was probably at the Phoenix (I went to see it with a Welsh drinking compadre of the time, who subsequently pursued a career in film-making himself for a while). The first 10 minutes or so are just staggering; I sat there, eyes popping, jaw sagging - probably sighing with delight. A little later that summer I went to see it again at Not The Moulin Rouge, a slightly swanker sister of the Penultimate Picture Palace, up the road in Headington. Despite it being outside of the academic term time, it was a pretty packed theatre - and I ran into a couple of friends who'd also fallen in love with the film and come back for a repeat viewing. I once read that there was a cinema in Paris that showed this film every day for a dozen or more years. My recollections of seeing this film epitomise the exhilaration, the sheer joy that the cinema can inspire in me.
7) Commando - This might seem to be lowering the tone a bit, but I honestly believe that - of its type - this is a great film. It is a thoroughly workmanlike action adventure film that diverts quite well on those terms alone, yet it also gleefully sends up - much better than any other film I can think of - the conventions of that genre. I fondly recall reading this soundbite from Schwarzennegger (probably written by his publicist) when he was promoting the film (at that time big Arnie was just starting to break big after the success of 'The Terminator', and was seen as being in competition as an action hero with Sly Stallone and his rapidly deteriorating but horribly successful 'Rambo' series), probably before I saw it: "In this movie I kill way more people than Stallone. And I kill them in more interesting ways." And it's perfectly true: the "tool shed sequence" is a classic! However, I didn't just fall in love with this film because it's so slick, smart, and funny. No, it won a special place in my heart because it came at another key juncture in my life, in my sputtering career as a 'star' student. 'Collections' (internal College exams at the beginning of each term, to test work supposedly done over the vacations) were a big part of Oxford life. I'd always hated them. If you were an under-performing student, they could be labelled as 'penal', which meant that if you got a poor mark on them you could face disciplinary procedures - including, potentially, being kicked out of the University altogether. I think my 'collections' this term were not formally classed as 'penal', but I had been given enough coded warnings to realise that if I screwed them up, I would be asked to sit a second set that would be 'penal'. I was hating my course at this point. I hadn't done any work over the vacation. I knew I was likely to fail these 'collections' horribly, and it would be a complete waste of time even to sit them. I might as well just go straight to the follow-up 'penal collections' (at least that would give me a week or two to revise). So, I skipped the exam, went out and got extravagantly drunk at lunchtime with my buddy The Bookseller (as he now is), and then looked for a film to while away the afternoon with...... and we chanced upon 'Commando'. The combination of a good friend, a lot of alcohol, running away from major life responsibilities, and happening by chance on a surprisingly clever and entertaining film made - oddly enough - for one of the happiest afternoons of my life.
8) The Hairdresser's Husband - Patrice Leconte is perhaps my favourite still-active director: I love just about all of his films. And I think this was the first I ever saw. It came at a particularly bad time in my life. I had just suffered a spell of serious illness which left me in hospital for 2 or 3 weeks, and knocked me off my feet for considerably longer than that. It had required some minor surgery. The procedure was somewhat botched. The operation had been on my bottom. It damaged my anal sphincter, such that..... well, I wasn't wildly incontinent but I was distressingly leaky for a while. The surgical wound was deep, wouldn't heal properly, kept getting infected. I'd lost a ton of weight: I was gaunt and enfeebled. I'd been laid up in bed for so long that I'd become decidedly wobbly on my feet. I'd lost so much muscle tone in my buttocks that they chafed together all the time when I moved; walking more than a hundred yards or so would result in severe soreness, and indeed bleeding. Sitting down was acutely uncomfortable, yet I was barely strong enough to stand up. Can you imagine how wretchedly humiliating and debilitating and painful all of this was? I doubt it. I was in a bad place. My protracted - indefinite - period of invalidity had obliged me to quit my teaching job; and convalescing at home with my parents had been rapidly driving me crazy. Luckily, my good friend The Egregious Dr P agreed to take me in for a month or so. He was still living in Oxford, his house barely a mile from the PPP. So, I spent much of that period of recovery going to see films. The short walk there and back took ages, and was agonising - but this was the only source of pleasure and hope in my life at that moment. In that exhausted, depressed, emotionally brittle state I had some particularly intense cinematic experiences - experiences that lifted me out of near-suicidal despair; experiences the recollection of which still buoys my spirits to this day. I particularly cherish my first encounters with 'The Big Blue' and 'Cinema Paradiso' in those dark days. But it was 'The Hairdresser's Husband' that enraptured me most of all. From the opening shots - the young boy dancing so unselfconsciously, ecstatically to the strange Arabic music on his gramophone; the voiceover anecdote about the grotesquely unsuitable swimming trunks his mother had forced him to wear on their seaside holidays; the jarring revelation that this marvellously determined, unselfconscious, individualistic child has matured into a dour, taciturn, eminently lugubrious Jean Rochefort - well, I was in heaven. I'm not sure that I've ever been so wholly, instantly captivated by a story on the screen. Afterwards, I limped painfully home with a song in my heart - and didn't chuck myself in the river, as I had been seriously contemplating just a few hours earlier.
9) Dr Strangelove - I first saw this on TV one afternoon when I was about 12 or 13 (and whatever chore it was my parents thought I should have been doing was obstinately deferred). The 'real time', documentary feel of it sucked me in completely: by the end of it, I felt completely emotionally drained; I felt as if I really had just witnessed the last two hours of human existence. Nearly 20 years later, I found myself passing through San Francisco as a backpacker, and thought I should check out the famous Castro Cinema (I think it's actually on Market St; but it's near the head of Castro St, well-known as the epicentre of the city's gay community). It's a gorgeous, huge, old school style cinema - it even still has a Wurlitzer organ at the front (or, it used to back then). I confess I was a little nervous of the place's reputation as a homosexual rendezvous/pick-up site. And I was wary of the double entendre involved in asking, "Do they play the organ in the matinees?" However, I learned that Strangelove was on one afternoon during the week I was there (another of those one-screening-only deals: see it now or miss it forever), and I couldn't resist. No organ, alas. But no unwelcome homosexual advances either (I was just about the only person in the theatre - rather sad, really, for such a great film). On the big screen I found it even more devastating than I had on that first viewing as a child. My eyes were damp at the end of it.
10) The Girl On The Bridge - Another Patrice Leconte nomination, to prove how much I love the guy (and I could go on about 'Tango' or 'Ridicule' or 'La Veuve de St Pierre' at great length also). I can't quite remember when I first saw this (and IMDB is currently unavailable to me, so I can't check when it came out); but I know it was at The Phoenix; and I suspect it was in the late '90s. It was another period where I had reached a very low emotional ebb in my life. It was another occasion when I found something so deliciously enjoyable that it revived and reaffirmed my whole zest for life. For a long time I carried the ticket stub - imprinted with the name of the film - around with me in my wallet, to remind me of why I keep on living.
As I warned at the outset, I have spoken more about my mental state when I first experienced these films than about the merits of the films themselves. But they are all very, very, very good - and I do urge you to give them a look, if they are not already known to you.