Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.Peter and Wendy, JM Barrie, 1911
How did you fall in love with movies?
You’re reading a film blog. Maybe you’re procrastinating, or sitting on the toilet, staring vacantly at your phone, but there’s a reason you chose a film blog over a pen blog or a grooming guide for nasal hair.
I’m Generation X, the generation born between 1965 and 1980. In movie terms, I was raised by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron. That’s some Holy Trinity. While I suppose I could swap Cameron (Aliens, The Terminator) for Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall), McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) or Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween), Spielberg sits atop any sane reading of that list. Cameron, with his shorter filmography, has a better hit rate. There’s only one genuinely bad film on his record.
If you grew up in the Seventies or Eighties though, and you watched movies, Spielberg films felt like Christmas morning. He wrote and directed our childhoods. He had our backs. He was one of us.
The movies that shape you, that download straight into your heart, that feed your soul, that lift you from this world… they tattoo themselves into your being. They make you forget who you are. When my brain sputters and dies, these experiences will be with me. They’re as much part of me as my kidneys, heart and lungs, but unlike organs, memories can’t be transplanted… not until Rekall Inc. opens.
Some of the films weren’t good. The Legend of Boggy Creek, shown on BBC Two in the early Eighties, so terrified me that I’ve never forgotten it. It directly influenced The Blair Witch Project. Even now, people of a certain age talk about it in hushed tones. But don’t re-watch it as an adult, it’s bloody awful.
No wonder that movies can shape you. Emotions craft our memories like a swordsmith honing a blade. You don’t forget the adrenaline explosion of a horror film, the warmth of sharing a film with family (re-runs of Will Hay classics like Ask a Policeman for me), or the awful, cringing teenage embarrassment of enduring a movie sex scene sitting awkwardly in the same room as your parents.
As a film junkie, I’m lucky to be Generation X, luckier still to know people who adored and collected movies so my interest could be curated and deepened. Through one of these friends, I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. What a film! It has everything a boy could have wanted. Everything. Action, adventure, a gorgeous badass heroine, comedy, romance, Bane… no, wait, it’s Pat Roach, horror, evil monkeys, Han Solo on a horse (before I even knew who Han Solo was), snakes, submarines and Nazis having their stupid Nazi faces melted off by God. I lost my tiny little fucking mind.
That’s how I lost my Spielberg virginity. Then, on TV, I saw the best horror film ever made. Go on, show me a film that has scared – scarred – more people than this:
I’ll always remember that first viewing. Remember my Mum saying, “are you sure, love?” and double-checking the rating. It was classified as a PG at the time (they raised it to a 12A when it was re-released a few years ago). The UK film censors, the BBFC, say that: “A PG film should not unsettle a child aged around eight or older”. These are the same unhinged maniacs who rated Watership Down as ‘Universal’. What, in the name of a million piss-soaked mattresses, were these sadists thinking?
So, anyway, Jaws ruined swimming for, oh, about thirty bloody years. But if you observe a film-lover of a certain age, you will note that it’s virtually impossible for them to flick past Jaws if it’s on TV. It’s just too frigging good. You get two complete masterpieces in one film, a shore-based political horror-thriller, then the three archetypal heroes (Ahab, the Geek Hero and the Everyman) fighting a battle to the death on the high seas with the ultimate force of nature. And like The Godfather, it achieves the exceptionally rare feat of being better than the novel it’s based on.
I watched Jaws in the same room I saw Boggy Creek. It’s a miracle I ever set foot in there again.
So, by now I understood that directors existed. Well, I say that. What I really mean is that I understood there was a Steven Spielberg and that he was a magician. Not like the disturbing men in nylon suits blathering on Saturday night television; he was a sorcerer. I dimly understood that he was a director the same way I noticed James Bond looked a bit different from film to film.
So many great memories I have are from movies. Many of them watched with two great friends who I’m lucky to still have. Films like Aliens and Robocop which occupy a fringe area between science fiction, action and horror, never quite letting you settle the first time you watch them, the potential for indelible, shocking images in each scene, combined with exceptional writing, acting and direction. We’d discuss them endlessly at school, bonding over shared experiences like, “Oh my God! It just ripped his fucking spine out!!” (Predator). Somehow, one of our peers managed to convince our teachers that it would be totally cool to screen An American Werewolf in London for the whole school on the last day of term.
Anyway, good memories all, but back to 1982. I’d just seen Jaws. I was hooked. Films could do things. These short windows of time that felt, to a child, like living someone else’s life, for better or worse. Then…
A lot has been written about the sheer film geek nirvana of 1982. Just look at the releases:
Das Boot, Porky’s, Conan the Barbarian, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Gregory’s Girl, Rocky III, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Firefox, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron, An Officer and a Gentleman, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, First Blood, Creepshow, 48 Hours, Gandhi, The Verdict, Sophie’s Choice, Airplane II: The Sequel, The Dark Crystal, Tootsie…
Another film was released that year, a Spielberg film which crystallises this movie love affair for me. I was the target audience then, but it changed me for life.
I was with my Mum, my Aunt and my cousins. It was a cold night. The UK release was August, but we probably waited until September to avoid the rush. This was many years before multiplexes arrived in the UK, but even though we waited, the queue was huge. This was cinema. This defined the experience. The anticipation, seeing the illuminated movie posters in their curved Perspex display frames as we drew closer to the entrance, the popcorn, the gigantic screen, the explosive excitement as the lights dimmed and the curtains drew back, the trailers…
ET isn’t my favourite film. It might not even be in the top ten. But it is cinema for me.
In that trailer, you get a hint of how it’s filmed from the child’s point of view. Apart from the kid’s mother, the adults are menacing strangers. Often you can’t see their faces. The camera occupies the same space as both the younger kids and ET himself for much of the film, about a metre above the ground. You’re held fast to the cradle of childhood wonder by a filmmaker who has never forgotten what it feels like to be a child. Their father is gone, and they’re suffering the aftershocks of separation. They escape reality with roleplaying games. They bicker like real siblings. They play with the toys we played with. They watch the movies we watched. They come together to save a friend.
It’s a film about a boy and his dog, I guess, with all the joy and all the inevitable heartbreak that brings. Again, there’s a literal lifetime of experience here condensed into less than two hours. The emotional landscape of the film is met so perfectly by John Williams’ score that I think it eclipses even the music for Jaws and Raiders as a marriage of sound and image.
Like Jaws, the effects might not have aged well. Yes, ET’s spaceship looks like a Christmas tree decoration. Yes, some think that ET looks like a four-foot rubber turd with a telescopic neck and doll’s eyes. That’s kind of the point. You must trust the film to make you believe.
It’s curiosity and wonder that separates ET from his family and his ship. In order to survive, he must trust Elliot, who in turn must trust the alien, his own family and ultimately his friends in order to help. That mutual trust between Elliot and ET creates a psychic, emotional connection.
Stepping into that cinema, I had seen one Spielberg film that thrilled me beyond reason, and another that so terrified me, our family dog slept in my room afterwards because I was too scared to be alone. Trust was hard.
Some people can build worlds. A great author or great filmmaker can make believers of us, they make creation a reality. But a novelist needs time to build it. God needed seven days. Spielberg has just 115 minutes.
Give your trust to a Spielberg and he owns it the way Da Vinci owned a canvas. You enter an emotional contract with him. You give him your dreams, and he treads lightly upon them. Together, you architect a better world. Together, you escape reality. To enter this world fully is to become as vulnerable as a lover, your heart in another’s hands. If you can get there, if you’re willing, you’ll experience pure joy. And sometimes, you can experience the joy of the greatest thing humans are capable of, love.
So, ET taught me that if I gave myself to this medium, if I relaxed, suspended my disbelief, then a truly great filmmaker could suspend me. I could fly, with Elliot, Michael, Gertie and ET.
The first time I fell in love, I was nine years old.
I fell in love with a movie.