Blessay 4: Three films that shaped me

Martin Scorsese has said of Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ that “It is one of the films I live by.” In his beautifully atmospheric documentary, ‘My Voyage to Italy’ Scorsese gives us an autobiographical account of why neorealism, and its legacy, mattered to him whilst growing up. The films of De Sica, Visconti, Rossellini and later on Antonioni, Pasolini and Fellini, coloured his youth and helped to form his career as a filmmaker. I’d like to write of three films that had a deep influence on my childhood and adolescence. They pointed me in directions that I later took in life (especially as a writer), created conditions where I tried to know myself better and shifted my consciousness. So here are three angelic movie helpers that still remain metaphoric guides for me.

THE SPIRAL  STAIRCASE (Robert Siodmak) 1946.                                                   An enormous close-up of the eye of a New England killer, who champions beauty, and then undertakes to rid the world of handicapped or disfigured women. This was what I was exposed to as a young baby, with my mother. ‘The Spiral Staircase’ was showing at the Cameo cinema in Liverpool in 1950. The building, formerly a church, had a neon sign over its arched, stained window. Much lower down it probably also bore that cinema warning of the fifties, “Babies, in arms, not admitted” (A message frequently ignored by the manager, who needed more patrons for the matinée performance ). So my mother got in and held me very tight, as a malevolent eye feverishly watched her and Dorothy McGuire, the screen heroine. I’ve no idea if my face was directed towards the screen or whether it was pressed against my mother’s breast. Years later she told me that she sometimes slipped into The Cameo in the afternoon, and that ‘The Spiral Staircase’ really was one of those films she’d let me ‘see.’ Did I cry, if I did actually witness the eye? Or did I cry only because I was hungry? Perhaps I absorbed that black and white eye and was non the worse for it.

I can’t claim this to be the first film I watched. That was ‘Devil Girl from Mars.’ at the age of six. Yet it was the first film image hanging around in the dark: a primal celluloid eye wanting to pull me in. An intriguing prequel to all this was the fact that 16 days after my birth, on the 19th March 1949, the cinema manager, and his assistant, were shot by a gunman who escaped with the days takings of £50. A real murder at the box office. An on-screen murder. A mother and her baby ‘enjoying a thriller’ in a church converted into a cinema. Then I’m taken more often to the pictures than to church. We escape into our big screen belief. Cinephilia occurred in my infancy. I was made to look. Look hard at the screen. Films, with or without those big eyes, staring imploringly back at me. I have never been able, or want to, break the narcotic habit, the compulsive ritual and  sheer pleasure of watching a film.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Richard Lester) 1963.                                                         That final clashing Beatle chord and then the fire doors of the Odeon cinema, in London Road, Liverpool, were opened freeing hoards of children to greet the July sunshine. I ran on through the streets, all the way back home, two miles away.  ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ was not so much a pop musical as my first teenage music fix. I was high on the force of its blasting optimism. Richard Lester’s film is a plot redundant account of Beatlemania in 1964, when the Beatles were at their youthful harmonic peak. The Beatles opened up my door to popular music; declaiming that if we four guys, from Liverpool, could make it then anyone could. This was a more innocent time, when idealism wasn’t a discredited word and when the young could be actively idealistic. Whether ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is a great film, or not, seems an irrelevant question to ask now. Putting to one side any nostalgia for the sixties, it’s still a joyful work of art. It makes me feel good to be alive.

Yet possibly even greater, than my vicarious happiness at seeing that film, was the mad run all the way home.  My adrenalin high as I narrowly missed hitting traffic and people; dazzled into confidently believing I could do anything. ‘Rarely, rarely comest though, spirit of delight” said Shelley in one of his poems. Happiness enveloped me that night, whilst my staid, bewildered parents just shook their heads. I tried to settle down and eat my evening meal, but could only listen to the food of liberating Beatle songs enticing me to dream.

PERSONA  (Ingmar Bergman) 1964.                                                                              One year later. Different weather. And a very different film. A chilly December afternoon. I’d just come out of Liverpool’s Jacey Film Theatre cinema. I walked through the falling snow. I was thoughtful and reflective yet at the same time excited and disturbed by the film I’d just sat through. Nothing had prepared me for the experience of  Bergman’s ‘Persona.’ It’s a self-examination of two women, a nurse (with a lot to say) and an actress (with nothing to say) and the tensions of their relationship, resulting in the merging of each others personality, that left me emotionally exhausted. ‘Persona’ gave me an experience akin to undergoing psychotherapy.

At fifteen and on the verge of coming to terms with my emerging adulthood, the film had thrown so much in doubt by posing so many questions. Can we ever fully communicate with one another? How intact is human personality? Can it be broken down so easily and re-cast? Do we have to retreat inside ourselves from the injustice of the world? Or do we act upon it and make a stand? What is sexual identity?  This sometimes fierce battle between nurse and patient. What was that really all about? Why did their femininity matter to me? ‘Persona’ is also an insightful erotic film. Liv Ullman and Bibi Anderson were sensual, Scandinavian actresses, of great beauty and intelligence, that I found very exciting. Its images flooded my head. Some of the most powerful close-ups, in all cinema, containing not simply the beauty and mystery of the human face, but abstractions and ideas, about the human condition, linked to the flesh and spirit.

‘Persona’ is a profound, if bleak experience. Yet it contains, as the film critic Robin Wood wrote, in his book on Bergman, ‘a desperate perhaps.’ As an impressionable teenager, lured by the arts, that was what I also took from Bergman’s ruthlessly honest and courageous film. The aesthetic frisson of ‘Persona’ can still be enjoyed but it also remains a challenging examination of the nature of the self. Every time I see it, nothing remains stable, comfortable or fixed. Male and female identity is in flux, all is in a dynamic of silence and speech, stretching you to the limits whilst questioning the artistic means by which cinema can engage with you and the political/social order of the world.

There are of course other films that have tagged along with my personal growth. Do you have any of your own that you’d like to share with me, on my comments page?