It should have been a painful wrench. I’d grown up with movies; they’d been a still point in a peripatetic childhood. One of my earliest memories is Dad taking me to see The Jungle Book at the drive-in cinema in Lusaka, Zambia, while my mum convalesced in hospital with my baby sister. We went to see that film every night for a week.
Mum took me to the movies off and on when we got back to England. The railway crossing in front of the picture house in Paignton, Devon, where we saw one of the Showa period Godzillas has a particular vividness for me, though I can’t see the film in my mind’s eye. Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were, it seems, always on TV. Though this was the 1970s, many 50s’ cold war films, such as Them and Invasion of the Body Snatchers seemed to be on too. Did these films help turn me into the anxious, gloomy teenager I became?
Years later, it turned out that my split with cinema wouldn’t cause me much regret. I’d decided long before that I didn’t want to be cooped up like Dad, who’d settled unhappily into a stable job and life in the north-east of England and who made little effort to make friends with those around us. If he preferred to sit at home with the Kurosawa VHS’s he’d ordered from the British Film Institute, that was his choice. Nor did I want to cope with mum’s misery through the medium of the ‘arty’, foreign films that the new Channel 4 showed on Saturday evenings, after Dad left.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to live with film. In fact, I’d probably put too much time and effort into it. I spent much of the 1980s and early 90s looking for an angle, a way in. Once I’d moved away from the uneasy elitism – ‘Oh, but have you seen Diva?’ – that actually didn’t seem to work too well with girls, I went to the other extreme: the reverse snobbery of fraternising with only mainstream film. Lethal Weapon, Blade Runner, Aliens – take that, Dad!
These complex triangulations left uncomfortable holes in my movie education. There are still films I feel everybody’s seen except me like 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are also films that I wish I’d sought out but didn’t (anything by Jean-Luc Godard and most of Mike Leigh’s output).
In the end I realised it just wasn’t working for either of us. The need to earn a living, the chaos of infants and family life stopped me from giving cinema the time she deserved. I didn’t visit the movies much for the best part of two decades, other than for really big deals (The Lord of the Rings). We’d get the occasional DVD from LoveFilm and we’d sign up for box sets (we were there for the first 24) but gradually the internet and its evil offspring, smartphones, invaded our leisure time, like the eponymous miasma in The Fog.
Then, out of the blue, there was a tug on the invisible rope that still stretched between us. Like the shark in Jaws, these tugs became stronger and more insistent. When I put my head in the water I saw that cinema had found me and wanted in on my life again.
It had begun with the children and with animation: Toy Story 3, Ice Age, The Incredibles. Then there were the trips that a few other dads and I started taking to the movies. These were usually for the big blockbusters, most of which I’ve forgotten, though Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, Godzilla (him again!) and Interstellar linger, perhaps because they’re the most recent. So, then, science fiction, CGI, action…
But I soon realised that spectacle wasn’t enough. I needed more from film. And I also learnt, now that my teenage arrogance had dissipated, how little I knew. So I bought a few books, the most notable being James Monaco’s magnum opus, How to Read a Film, and started watching movies again. And I started talking cinema too.
This reconciliation process was and is still long and difficult – the process is still in process. I found cinema had changed in the time she and I were apart. More than anything, in her ubiquity. Movies are now everywhere: TV, TV catch up, internet streaming, Amazon, social media. The business model has changed and now cinema and I no longer go on dates; a film night seems no longer an event but simply part of an ongoing, and potentially full-time, relationship.
The commitment needed to keep things going between us can be memory wiping. A few films from my ‘immersive’ period stand out, though: Hiroshima Mon Amour and Breathless. National Gallery, Frederick Wiseman’s extraordinary portrait of London’s eponymous art gallery. The Piano Teacher, Haneke’s excoriating and pitiless portrait.
Then there’s the Japanese. Kurosawa’s horses and fluid camerawork, Kenji Mizoguchi’s deft storytelling and compassion. One of the side effects of falling back in love with cinema has been the opportunity to catch up and to reimagine my relationship with Dad and his ‘obscure’ interests. And, yes, he has loaned me the VHS’s he ordered all those years ago.
Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s magisterial retelling of Macbeth, teetering and then finally toppling over the edge of lunacy, is up there in my top ten at the moment. But the most compelling of the films I borrowed from Dad is Kwaidan, Masaki Kobaybashi’s portmanteau piece of four ghost stories. Each is so economical, so precise and so magically down to earth. The third tale, The Story of Miminashi Hoichi, recounts the tale of a blind performer summoned by ghosts to tell them their own bloody histories, was perhaps the most perfect cinema I’ve seen – until I saw Les Enfants Du Paradis.
And there’s so much more to come – there’ll never be an end to it. Kismet, Ran, 20 Years a Slave, 99 Homes, Macbeth (him again), Sicario … It can’t be any other way: it’s the modern world, on all the time, forever demanding attention. How do we cope with such an unsleeping love?
Perhaps the only way we can manage is to acknowledge our limitations and blind spots. We just do our best, keep plodding along the path. I’ll never see all the films I wish to see or should see, just as I’ll never untangle all the threads of the backstory I share with Mum and Dad. The best I can do is to stay alive to both past and future, watching the shutter open and shut, letting time pass as it will.