When I was a child, going to the see a film at the local picture house was a mysterious, exotic adventure, far removed from the multiplex experience of today. Back then, audio visual entertainment at home was limited to a television with three channels, a radio, and a record player. No internet, no Sky TV, no DVDs, no whopping flat screen monitor bolted to the wall, or surround sound audio systems, and no Wii, Playstation or Xbox 360.
Those were the days, when going to the pictures meant visiting your local, Victorian fleapit, complete with ornate stairs and balconies, chandeliers and tiled floors, instead of some faceless, bland multiplex. They knew how to show films in those days, complete with curtains across the screen, an intermission at some arbitrary point around the midsection of the film, and an ice-cream lady who walked into the auditorium carrying snack items and drinks in a tray hanging from her neck, and a torch to light her way.
And, best of all in my opinion, if you arrived late and missed the beginning of the film, well, you just stayed in your seat and watched the next showing until you got to the point where you came in.
One of my earliest memories of going to the movies is hiding behind the seat in the darkened cinema and sobbing helplessly as Pinocchio was locked in the birdcage by Stromboli. I vaguely remember my mother and father discussing in hushed whispers about whether or not to take me home. Fortunately they made me stay, and I saw Pinocchio escape Stromboli’s clutches and go on to achieve his dream of becoming a real boy.
Thank goodness for that. If they had taken me home at the film’s lowest, scariest point, Pinocchio would have remained caged forever in my imagination, thus prolonging my agony.
I remember seeing Carquake, on a double bill with The Giant Spider Invasion, with a bunch of friends, and dodging as the hostile audience hurled projectiles at the screen. That was film criticism for you. I saw The Evil Dead one sunny afternoon with a mate when we should have been at college, and I remember stumbling out into the sunshine afterwards, thinking What the hell was that we just watched? I saw Diamonds are Forever, my first Bond film, at the tender age of 7 or 8. I saw Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood singing (singing for crying out loud!) in Paint your Wagon. And loads of Disney films.
But the film experience I remember more than any other, the one that scarred my brain, and said, ‘you’re going to spend the rest of your life chasing this moment, this feeling, and never quite experiencing it again,’ was Jaws.
I was 10.
My mate’s mum took us both to see it. As I left the house my mother stuffed some tissues in my pocket. By the time I left the cinema those tissues had been shredded to pieces. And yes, like everyone else, I jumped about a foot out of my seat when the head appeared in the hole in the boat.
But the part I want to tell you about, the scene where the magic of cinema reached out and left its indelible mark upon me, was the ending. Quint’s been eaten, and Hooper’s hiding on the seabed behind a rock.
This leaves Brody, Amity’s aquaphobic chief of police, clinging to the Orca’s mast as it slowly sinks, and the shark begins its next pass for dinner. And there I am, ten years old, and practically wetting myself with the suspense.
Of course we all know what happens next: Brody aims the rifle at the approaching shark, at the oxygen tank he shoved in its mouth just a few minutes ago.
And the shark, improbably, impossibly, explodes.
And you know what happened next, the thing that still sends shivers of delight through me when I remember it?
The audience exploded too. Everybody jumped out of their seats, cheering, clapping, stamping feet, just yelling at the screen as Brody let out his own victory shout, lost beneath the weight of noise we were all making.
And no other film since has ever come close to matching that shared moment of exhilaration, that collective release of tension, that public expression of joy and relief.
So, my question to you is, what is your favourite film experience? That moment when the movie up there on the screen transcended its physical limitations, and became something else, something, perhaps, embedded forever in your heart?
I’d love to know.