Early Days at the Movies
Real Women in
The Seventh Art's Seventh Heaven
So What Happened
POETRY AND PROSE
EARLY DAYS AT THE MOVIES
He conducted with His shoulders, shrugging, sloping and sidling. God played so loud there was no room for any other sound. But the words mouthed appeared on the screen, received in lettering of gold, just like the ship and His spectacles.
The lights came up, and God, half-turning, waved as His ship descended. Mine Eyes Have Seen. As He disappeared, the sun going down below the horizon, a tracer of light revealed two angels with trays around their necks, loaded with the gifts of God, ice cream and popcorn. I tasted the summer in the ice and the autumn in the corn. I forget the film.
I saw God.
Some years later God descending fell into the pit. Rumour said He was drunk. This was particularly blasphemous as it was an afternoon show. He merely changed a glass or two of water into wine. A week later He was back again, rising with His golden ship. Mine Eyes Have Seen. A reformed character, someone said. The Glory of the Lord puts up with a lot. The film was Miracle on 34th Street. Maureen O’Hara. God’s name was Fred or Ted.
My childhood was in black and white with occasional outbursts of panavision.
How I Went to The Movies
In my last year in school I spend most afternoons at the Lee, the shilling cinema. At five o’clock I had either a violin lesson or rugby practice, and as movies ran to half-five, I rarely saw one to the end. I’ve seen more unfinished movies than even the most irresponsible film critic. It allowed me to construct an ending while climbing up to the playing fields or doggedly sawing through an Adam Carse study. I made it a point of honour not to find it out from Kitty the Maid, who went to everything.
must have seen
over two hundred movies that year. I’ve been catching up with
them all my life.
Arthouse cinemas were my best bet up to the nineties. Now
it’s late night
television. The endings rarely take me by surprise.
I liked to imagine a choice of endings, the logical and the acceptable one. I now know that some movies, like Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), shot several. The troops abroad got the morale boosting one in the end. Barbara Stanwyck suddenly changing into a weepy woman pleading on her knees, ‘We can start all over again. You and me’, and blabbering on about ‘the first John Doe two thousand years ago’. If Barbara Stanwyck was her usual hard bitch self, she’d have barked ‘Jump’. Gary Cooper always jumps from the City Hall on Christmas Eve for me. (Capra got his way with James Stewart’s suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life (1948) by soft focusing it and bringing on the angels. A cop out. In my version, Donna Read could not stand his moping anymore and strangled him.) As I left John Doe early, I remember the jamboree ‘to celebrate all the John Does of the world’ was in full swing, and a scatter of pensioners and mitching schoolchildren were hooting in disbelief at the rousing anthem ‘God save our gracious Queen’ (in Aaron Copland’s arrangement).
boggled as Michel Simon in Les Chiennes (1932)
warbled what sounded like
‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ when his
wife’s first husband came back from a
faked death, freeing Michel Simon to make a fool of himself. In
Michel Simon had hummed it earlier when his wife, Madeleine Bernbet, had rejected his drunken advances after the office party. It had been sung in his honour for serving thirty years' service as a cashier. ‘Don’t touch me, I’m a married woman’, she battleaxed. ‘A widow, you mean’, Michel Simon said, for he was the despised second husband, and got on with what he really loved, painting a self-portrait. The ugly mug looking back at him winked, and he embezzled office funds to support a high-class tart in the twilight of her career. She made his painting famous under her own name and he was happy to end up as a clochard, and the tramp in Boudu Saved from Drowning later that year. The ending was a wave to Les Chiennes. The tramp who won the lottery and is about to be married jumps back into the river and floats away on it like a comic Ophelia, water lilies and all. The drowning he had saved himself from was a bourgeois marriage. I didn’t wait for the credits, and missed him scrambling on to the bank to exchange his waterlogged wedding suit for a scarecrow’s. Home and dry and back on the road.
Sounding out Movie Pictures and The Lee Marvins
The coming of sound into moving pictures meant that you could no longer hear the bells that Lon Chaney rang in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The cinema lost forever its eavesdrop on infinity (‘Ce sourd entendant l’infini’, says Victor Hugo). I regret that I was born too late for the age of the Silver Screen. The silence would have suited me. Not to be deaf to the world. On the contrary. I’ve always wanted to hear a pin drop.
Sound has brought more sound to drown out its echoes. Waves build up into a barrage, a wall of it. You cannot hear yourself. The low point of my youth was when the Sound Barrier was broken by a test pilot called Chuck - BOUM - whisssh. I was mutated into the jet age where everything is up in the air. It broke my voice. Menarche initiated me into the ‘one ball gang of two’ for budding ‘Lee Marvins of the Mind’, as the leader Shocker dubbed them. The noise the Lee Marvins were sworn to make in the world was supposed to be beyond or below human ears. ‘I was born under a…’ But why Lee Marvin? Well, he had spikely outplayed Brando in The Wild One (1953) and made Spencer Tracy seem a fool in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954). I felt I could not forgive him for throwing scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face in The Big Heat (1953), but Shocker said he was only acting. I still think it destroyed her life.
‘Time is where you are. Adjust your watches’, said Pathe News, simplifying Einstein. But Shocker scoffed, ‘Then local time is meaningless. If time is relative, it’s a waste of space. Once you start playing with standard time, in no time you’re in no time’. I was several steps behind him. But because his father had been a war pilot, I was only too happy to listen to him.
‘Space is not merely where you are and what you fill’, Shocker said. ‘It’s the soul of the universe.’
All I could say was, ‘Did you know Einstein shaved in soap and water?’
silence of infinite spaces that terrified Pascal silenced me. Whatever
time, space was beyond me. I knew that
The Lee Marvins of the Mind wanted absolutes (relatives were ‘what you could not stand’).
‘If two bodies can only relate to one another by accident, where does that leave the affections?’ said I.
‘If the existence of time and space are only relative, where and when are we at?’ added Shocker.
We did not object to energy and matter being interchangeable. It could account for love’s ‘mingling of the sweet emotions’, though Einstein used it to explain the atomic bomb (Shelley had a better idea). ‘Reclaiming Time’ became our slogan. We were against a no-time world, one where everybody had their own, and for the communistic sharing of a universal mean standard. Throw away your clocks. What we need is an hourglass that measures the constant sands. Or a sundial that reflects the one true sun. Our rhetoric was stronger than our logic and our knowledge weaker than our stubbornness. Young Lee Marvins brook no objections. I have my doubts about Nietzsche’s ‘It’s certitude not doubt that drives one mad’. It’s what keeps you going.
Justifying time as an absolute was easy. Music without it is not music, we said. Time is the baton that sounds it out, keeps the ensemble together. It tells the ear when to listen. Even rubato is less a time-out than a rest from the metronome. All the better to jump in, like Lester Young when the moment comes. And it also reminds you how wishy-washy music is when the beat is lost (crooners taking over from bebop). The visual world needs time even more than music. Shocker claimed his father was tone deaf from breaking the Sound Barrier inadvertently, and reported that he said, ‘Images outside time are dead’.
‘He was probably thinking of when his radar went blank and a crash landing seemed inevitable.’
Shocker nodded. ‘Moving ones in particular. Without the tick-tock they’re all over the place. Dangerous as meteorites.’
‘Or movies out of focus.’ I’d seen one at the Ritz cinema - where the manager took tickets, sold popcorn, ushered, did the projection - Battleship Potemkin (1925). The rowdy students rioted. It was better than a movie.
‘Yes, timing in the Silent Era was everything’, Captain Shocker was believed to have said. ‘Sound has put an end to that.’
Shocker was unfaithful to our silent protest when he got himself a girlfriend. He took to bopping and gave up ideas. Real revolutionaries must be monks. I retreated into reading Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. When amplification came to Tin Pan Alley I stopped listening to Radio Luxembourg, sealing my cell off with imaginary cork so I could read Proust’s Recherche du Temps Perdu, smoke a pipe, hear the tap drip and the music of the spheres (my room had a mansard). I missed the restoration of beat that came with rhythm and blues, and its apotheosis, rock and roll. That is, until amplification. My voluntary silence was broken by pop blaring from Ronnie Payne’s bedroom next door. Blocking out the world was a losing battle. I had no control over sonic disturbance. I can’t say I was wholly sorry. It’s lonely when you’re the last bastion of peace and quiet and only sixteen.
A decade later the original echo that inspired the Lees came back and I turned up the sound.
If I’d known I would not have come, said the puzzled boy at the end of The Battle of the Buttons (1966). Si j’aurais su, je n’aurais pas venu.