Tom Jolliffe on those moments which made you love cinema…
It’s different for everyone and maybe for some it never happens. Not everyone (shock horror!) is into film. For those film buffs, nerds, geeks, or even merely casual enjoyers of cinematic delights, there are always defining moments. Maybe it’s a moment within a film. Maybe it’s a certain film as a whole. It’s never merely one moment either. Perhaps there’s a moment that re-affirms that love. A time with which the magic seemingly waned, but like a bolt of energy it re-emerged, flowing through you and reigniting your love of film.
As far as myself my love of cinema began young. That’s the case for most people. There were moments in films that brought about a level of excitement and wonder in me that hit the stratosphere. There was the simple glowing blade of the lightsaber. Star Wars is cited as a starting point for a mass of people around my age group (and indeed younger). For me though, it was less Star Wars as a precocious youth, and more about He-Man. When Masters of the Universe came up it took my childlike love of fantasy cinema, already notched up to ten and turned it to eleven. It took the cartoon I grew up watching and immortalised it in live action on celluloid. Now of course, in retrospect and with the benefit of maturity, the film is flawed (to put it mildly) and not entirely faithful to the source material (which lest we not forget was essentially made to sell toys).
That film was everything to me at a young age in the tail end of the 80’s. I loved it wholeheartedly. I still love the film. I recently watched it on the big screen at The Prince Charles Cinema in London (screening for it’s 30th anniversary). It still holds up. It’s cheesy, goofy but it’s enjoyable, charming and fun. If you’re looking at its genetic makeup it plays out essentially like an MCU film does now. Our understanding of studio politics, or quality aren’t developed when young. I loved He-Man, I loved Star Wars. Now I can see which one is cheaper, and knocks off the other. Back then there was little difference to me between Star Wars, or Krull or even something like a cheaply made Italian fantasy film starring Lou Ferrigno. If there were sets, costumes, swords, sandals, or anything fantastical (even Piranha sock puppets) it hooked me. Sure, Star Wars still stands above, even to a kid, over something like Hercules (with Ferrigno), but that wouldn’t be down to registering the cheap tackiness of the latter. It’s the more eye-catching aspects. So brilliantly defined were the heroes and villains in Star Wars, and wonderfully colourful the action and set pieces, that they were able to engross children easily. It just happened that they had more depth to remain engrossing through maturing years.
By the time the 80’s came to a close and the 90’s came in I was a cinema junky. Big screen, or small screen. I soaked in as many as I could, with a particular love for action. Whether catching something late night on TV or being allowed to watch Die Hard when you’re 9, I enjoyed the heroic actions of Arnold, Sly, Bruce etc. A friends older brother and his VHS collection was a constant source of action classics. Leading not just to the likes of Predator but lower rent fare. Video was not discriminating. Pre-internet your major basis for choosing a film was VHS cover art. Whether a film was a box office smash, or a straight to video pot boiler, it didn’t matter. You looked at the cover and decided whether it was worth watching. This opened my horizons to a whole world of action that went beyond the big boys. Okay, even at those pre-teen years I could see by then, the difference between Van Damme’s latest, or Don “The Dragon” Wilson. To a kid the carnage level is evident. Your notion of a budget at that age is unclear, but you still realise there are more explosions in Rambo 2 than a Michael Dudikoff special.
As you mature and get older a certain magic goes. Maybe you get to a point where you begin to dissect a film more or expand your horizons. For myself, like a fair few of my co-writers I should imagine, becoming a film student at college or University opens up whole sections of cinema you never previously considered. You’re given your modules and screenings, set out in the curriculum, or chosen by the lecturer. You’re at someone else’s mercy. Maybe you go kicking and screaming into watching some, but certainly, for me, attending College and then University made me more open to classic period cinema and world cinema, and more arthouse film too.
A defining moment in my adult life came with a single shot. By today’s standards nothing massively elaborate but it came in Citizen Kane. There’s a sort of stroppy idea within many, and we’ve all had these periods, that an old black and white film will, by virtue of being old and black and white, be slow-moving, boring and unimpressive. It closes the door on watching something as perfect as Casablanca. I was at a point at around 20 where the idea of watching a film made in 1941 was something I’d meet with a reluctant shrug, with an expectation to possibly enjoy, without being impressed by anything technical within the film. There’s something to that attitude. A truth to it though. The old Hollywood system wasn’t made for rogue filmmakers like Howard Hughes or Orson Welles. The system laid out a textbook guideline on how to frame, shoot, light and cut a scene. Many films, particularly around the 40’s through to the early 60’s looked much of a muchness. That angelic and rigid three-point lighting set up. The majority followed the rules in directing, or structuring their stories. It’s when you discover Welles, or Hitchcock, that you appreciate those rule-breakers and innovators, and it’s this one shot in Kane which opened my eyes to the idea that a shot I’ve seen in a 21st century film was spawned from somewhere. The shot in question is an elaborate crane shot, up a building exterior and down to a skylight but it doesn’t stop, the shot through clever dissolve goes through the skylight and continues down to focus on the female character sat at a table. It didn’t register initially. So seemless was it. However it then began to peck at my brain like Woody Woodpecker. Welles’ had pulled off a shot, which at the time was astounding. Nowadays moving a camera is easy. Back in 1941 it wasn’t. These things weighed five thousand tonnes or something silly. He envisioned something that wouldn’t just bend the rules but tear up and incinerate the rulebook and leave it at the office of RKO pictures like a flaming bag of dog turd.
The notion of everything in film having a genesis opened up a sense of intrigue. By this point in time I was a long-established John Woo fan. Hard Boiled was one of those films which also astounded me. The sheer insanity of its action amazed me. The levels of carnage, all captured in camera, bedazzled me. The action just looked unfathomable, but it was all there, captured and choreographed in camera. It’s that inimitable John Woo style too, but that then opened a doorway into discovering part of his own genesis and finding Sam Peckinpah. You sit and watch Face/Off, later The Matrix. The shootouts look stylish, impressive and edited in a way that feels new and modern. You might catch an old cowboy flick on TV and you feel the big difference between the old and the new. Then however, you watch Leone, or you watch Peckinpah, and they age well. They do so because in some respects, they re-wrote the book, and it’s been followed decades since. It still works. It’s not a passing phase in style. Avid farting came in, and has largely (I hope) gone out of fashion. People still go back to the Peckinpah way, which in itself owed a lot to Kurosawa.
The increase in my ability to understand, interpret and appreciate cinema in new avenues certainly made me love it more. However there was still another element that departed me as a kid which I longed to see a return of. It’s that sense of total wonder. Of complete, giddy, immersion. When you feel the butterflies, the chills up your spine and the hairs on your neck sticking up. I wanted that sense of complete emotional wonder and excitement again. Maturity takes a lot of that ability away. I wondered if I’d ever feel as overwhelming engrossed and excited by a film as watching He-Man on the big screen. I sort of came close in Lord of the Rings given it evoked so many of my childhood favourites. The feeling did return though, in the 2006 sequel to a childhood favourite, Rocky Balboa. Sly Stallone’s triumphant return to a long-standing icon, at a time his career was virtually dead. He was almost 60. It was seemingly doomed to fail. He’d been trying to get it made for well over a decade with no luck. In the end MGM took it on and made it fairly cheaply. That would be to its advantage ultimately. Sly put his all into the film and had free rein. With just the right amount of rose-tinted nostalgia and development of Rocky’s character it gave us a touching revisit to the Stallion. I was at the cinema enthralled, emotionally engaged. I love Rocky. I loved every film bar number 5 (which still had its moments). I’m sat there also as a big Stallone fan. When the training montage kicked in the neck hairs came, along with the goosebumps. My gut felt like it was on a rollercoaster for the remainder of the film. The final gloved bout, which Sly is a master of manipulating was great. I felt every punch. I was engrossed and I felt magic again. For the first time in well over a decade. Ultimately the film isn’t perfect by any means but it captured me like nothing had for years, and almost nothing has since. I came out the cinema trying to suppress tears after what I’d seen. I really dug Creed and the film was certainly more rounded and consistent, but it didn’t effect me half as much as Rocky Balboa.
The only time since that I felt that again was the re-release of Blade Runner on the big screen. My favourite film, but I discovered it long after the original theatrical release, and a little while after the directors cut. I’d seen the film countless times. I’d already long purchased the five disc ultimate set on DVD. I’d watched it on everything from TV, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray but still hadn’t seen it on the big screen. It had the re-release in 2015. A lovely re-master. I saw it on a good screen, nice sound system. Not relegated to the dingy corner screen that every cinema has for the films a week away from the exit door. I expected to enjoy it as always but what happened on that first bassy roar of Vangelis’s swelling opening note was something powerful. I’d never heard his score like this. This clear, crisp, ear shatteringly loud. It was glorious. This flowed through me as I simultaneously saw the exquisite visuals like never before. I was seeing Blade Runner new. It was like the first time…since the first time. An amazing experience. By the time Rutger Hauer was round to beautifully delivering his tears in rain speech, I was trying to hide my tears in popcorn from my girlfriend at the time.
The sense of genuine amazement or full childlike wonder may not revisit much, if ever again, but the promise that it could capture me again remains. Likewise, whilst I often despair (and moan…on Flickering Myth) about the state of modern cinema, there’s still so much to appreciate in old and new. Still surprises to be found, films to challenge, intrigue or even repel. To get even a negative emotional response is more success than simply offering nothing (which a lot do).
Lets us know what films, or which moments in a particular film, made you fall in love with cinema. The beauty of cinema, is that it’s different to everyone.