As a teenager, I did not think film was a serious medium. I went to see The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. They were great. But this did not seem to add up to the claims made for film as art. Most of what I saw was fun, of a sort, but also mediocre. I thought Dead Poets Society was good, and I loved When Harry Met Sally—but if those were great movies we were hardly dealing with the screen equivalent of poetry and music.
Brief Encounter didn’t shake me out of this ignorance because that wasn’t film, it was Noel Coward. Someone gave me the DVD of Manhattan, but I didn’t watch it for several years. Both of my grandmothers were the Cary Grant generation. Most afternoons, they watched a classic film. They knew all the old Hollywood stars. I could have learned from them, but I was a fool.
I was interested in theatre and acting but had somehow never seen Jimmy Stewart on the big screen. That was a big part of the problem: in my ignorance I never sought out classic movies at the movie theatre. Seeing them on an eighties television screen isn’t the way to spark a passion.
And so, I was a philistine.
At some point in my twenties, I realised there were canonical films and that I ought to watch them. Flicking channels one day in the office (it was Parliament and we had to watch the news and the Commons) I went past Rear Window—a shot out of the apartment onto the courtyard. Something about the way it looked meant I just had to see it. And that was that. I started to appreciate films.
As I write now, I’m well on the way to becoming one of those people who wear shorts and carry plastic bags around at the BFI, or who slouch at the back of the Prince Charles Cinema on a Thursday afternoon. Rear Window has become the sort of thing I talk about for too long while people politely try and hint that I am asseverating.
But no wonder. Just think of all I had missed! Think of the world of art that opened up to me! Tokyo Story. The Lady Vanishes. City Lights. Sunrise. Taxi Driver. Playtime. The Apartment. Miracle Woman. Double Jeopardy. Days of Being Wild. My Neighbour Totoro. Ikiru. The Godfather. In the Mood for Love. An Affair to Remember. The Way We Were. The Shop Around the Corner. I Confess. The Lavender Hill Mob. Kramer vs Kramer.
With more time to go to the big screen in the last few years, I have started to learn what film can really be. And I realise, my grandmothers came from a culture that had something akin to the fiction of Dickens. They knew all the classics, saw them together, shared them. They kept going back to them on those long retired afternoons because they had been alive at a time when this great art was fresh.
I often wonder, what would it have been like to be there for the first performances of Hamlet, the early issues of Bleak House. Well, in a way, my grandmothers knew. The movies were to the twentieth century what the novel was to the nineteenth—and they got to see them in their time and place. Imagine watching Ingrid Bergman in Notorious the week it came out. Ingrid Bergman was a hell of a genius and they were right there to see it.
That was also the year of Gilda, The Big Sleep, and It’s A Wonderful Life. No wonder people went to the movies the way their great-grandparents had sat around to listen to the latest instalment of Little Dorrit. We should go to the movies too—to try and capture some of the magic of Ingrid Bergman in 1946.
The year before Notorious, my grandmother missed the end of the war. She went outside one afternoon and heard the bells ringing. “What’s happening?” she asked someone on the street, “Is it an invasion?” “Don’t you know,” the stranger replied, “the war’s over!” She didn’t know. She’d been at the pictures.