The Truths of Norma Desmond – When Widescreen became Blinkered

I used to love going to the cinema. It was my obsession. I would watch anything and I can’t add “within reason” to the statement. I think the worst was Flowers in the Attic, one of the incest epic’ genre’s less impressive offerings. I slid further into my overcoat during that one out of a sense of shame. 

If it was on a cinema screen, I would go. During school holidays, I would take advantage of the £2 a film offer at Warner West End and see whatever was on, whether I liked the sound of it not. It was a film projected on a big screen, so I should see it. 

My first film was The Belstone Fox, a barely remembered live action tale of foxes, hounds and death. I was confused by Eric Porter’s huntsman, with knife out ready to kill the fox he blamed for the railway death of his hounds, suddenly stopping and dropping. And this is how the four year old me learnt what a heart attack was. 

My family had the usual holiday trips to the latest or rereleased Disney of the day, but ny obsession really began when I bought Alan Frank’s Horror Movies (see earlier blog). Why I was so excited by this book filled with photos of bloodied vampires, hands as candles and leering Lugosi I do not know. Soon I would realise that boys were divided into two groups, those who were obsessed with horror movies and those who were good at sport. 

I wish I could remember the first 18 certificate movie I saw at the cinema. I always felt robbed that the certification system had changed by my teens and I was robbed of the chance to sneak into an X. Such a forbidden thing the X film, whereas 18 was such a very practical and dull way of informing us of the possibility of violence, nudity and sexual swearwords. With some of the unpleasant discoveries of the behaviour of Radio One DJs, perhaps Simon Bates should have been issuing his concerned patrician warnings of the brutality ahead in the foyer of Broadcasting house rather than at the beginning of VHS rentals. 

Even now, when I see that glorious, forbidding yet alluring X on an old movie poster, I think that these films contains things that an 18 never could, often that is imagination. How much more bloodcurdling are X films like The Pit and the Pendulum and Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan) than Saw V or Hostel. Those wonderful Xs can get inside you, those 18s just throw guts and eyes in your face. 

After horror, came arthouse and cult, those first experiences of eloquent and adventurous movies with subtitles. I obsessed about Truffaut’s Day for Night and Chabrol’s Le Boucher. In the 80s, world cinema was still readily available on the big screen. The cinemas weren’t destroyed by the video player as 80s Nostradumuses predicted, though some of those stinking, big chain, uncared for fleapits deserved to be. The variety of films available on the big screen does seem to have suffered. The film listings from those yellowed magazines that promised provincial me the startling London of the 80s offer up a far more adventurous landscape of film treats and threats than I see now.  The foreign language film doesn’t have the cinema releases it used to, and many rarer, cultier, for which you can read “not Hollywood” films are lucky to get the slightest release, and even then only to aid the press of the DVD release. While some crash bang emptiness is smeared across the screens of London, the foreign language flick is cornered in the occasional Curzon or provincial Showroom or Cornerhouse. 

I once argued for a French government style quota of Non-Hollywood, but was told I was foolish, snooty and other-worldly, didn’t I know that people don’t want to watch that sort of thing. Yet how many people regularly rush to see the last multi-million Hollywood bangfest only to leave disappointed. Fortunately for the mainstream, the constant victory over our memories (Orwell Misquote alert), means we can make that mistake of hope on an almost weekly basis. The films of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows are not inaccessible or “hard work”, the features of Lynne Ramsay and are passionate and beautiful. It is a pity that marketing budgets and inverted snobbery can relegate such things to a ghetto where it is believed you must have a goatee. 

I am glad that these are easily accessible by DVD, but great films need big screens, it’s what they are made for, a postage stamp of Picasso’s Guernica does not do justice to the work, there was a reason he needed so much canvas. I have loved A Matter of Life and Death since I was a child, it is a cultural bond between my father and this son amongst other things, and finally seeing it on the big screen in the company of my dad. I was seeing a director’s cut, no additional footage, but footage at the dimensions it should be seen in. 

Sorry, I got waylaid in this post. I think my original intention was to write a post that said, “don’t fear things because their reputation is one of greatness and art. One viewing of Stalker or Lacombe Lucien is worth all your Saws and Fastly Furiouses”, but I’ll write than one another time. 

Footnote: it was that day that Channel 4’s sunday films changed from The Hairdresser’s Husband and Moviedrome vanished from BBC2 that something changed…

I am currently touring, next few dates include Eastbourne, Uckfield (a cinema, hurray), Aldershot, Croydon and Newbury (60 dates in all from Edunburgh to Exeter via Manchester and Birmingham) Tour details here

Plus September update for Cosmic Genome with Dave Gorman and Richard Dawkins is up, website here 

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