Audiences have a very complex and emotional and response to film. That is the main conclusion to be drawn from a poll that has just been published by Universal UK, asking participants from across Britain to "create their own movie time-lines, chronicling their lives through the movies that matter the most".
The poll itself appears largely a gimmick. The films that the respondents are reacting to with such fervour are all Universal releases. The research seems to have been commissioned largely to help the studio flog back-catalogue DVDs. Some of the results are baffling. After more than a century of cinema and stars from Greta Garbo to Marilyn Monroe, it doesn't quite compute that the biggest "Celebrity Crush film moment (women)" in film history is Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing. Nor does it make much sense for Colin Firth to be number one in the list of "Biggest Celebrity Crush film moment (men)" for Pride & Prejudice. (That was a TV adaptation, not a movie, even if it does remain one of Universal's most popular titles on DVD.)
Nonetheless, the research is revealing. Films, the poll underlines, can whisk us back in time. Watching them again or even just thinking about them, we can summon up intimate feelings about everything from first dates to bereavement, from appreciating friendship to getting over a midlife crisis. Films really do help us to preserve memories and identify significant milestones in our lives. They are as powerful as music in re-awakening our past selves.
Cinema is often dismissed as "escapism". The stories shared by respondents suggest that it is the reverse. Many have used films not to avoid life's problems but to confront them.
One man now in his mid-twenties talks about seeing Billy Elliot three times over a weekend as a teenager and then summoning up his courage to sit his parents down to tell them he was gay. "Watching Billy Elliot inspired me – if this young lad can do something so bold as to shake up County Durham then I could certainly do my bit."
The memory of his coming out is now inextricably linked with that of his watching Billy Elliot.
Other respondents have similar anecdotes about conducting courtships or initiating divorces with movies as the catalysts to their actions. A Glaswegian singleton who used to smoke, drink and "generally misbehave" testifies that she recognized her own grotesquerie after watching Bridget Jones's Diary. She now teaches yoga from her front room and hasn't touched alcohol in years.
One in 10 of the respondents has either quit a job or changed a career as a result of a movie. One in four has changed a hairstyle. Films have made and broken relationships.
Our vivid memories of our favourite films are almost invariably coloured by the circumstances in which we watched them. The reason so many cherish Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life is that they remember watching it with their own families. When they see it again, what comes back isn't just Clarence the Angel or a suicidal James Stewart struggling to keep afloat in small-town America or even the famous line, "no man is a failure who has friends".
Equally powerful are the memories of their mothers or fathers – maybe now long since dead – sitting alongside them and reacting as emotionally as they did to what was on screen. Time has passed but the films themselves haven't changed at all. That makes them all the more effective as a gateway into the past.
Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road (1976) has the famous line that "the yanks have colonized our subconscious". Judging by Universal's poll, this is a process that is still going on. The dark side to the new survey of "movie memories" is all the films that have been forgotten.
When you read the results of the survey, it begins to seem as if film history has shrunk and all that is left are Working Title romcoms, E.T., Jaws and The Breakfast Club. Foreign-language cinema doesn't feature. Nor do silent movies. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is the oldest film on the list by some distance followed by Psycho (1960) but these aren't films that we have to struggle very hard to remember. They are re-released and shown on TV so often that they exist in a permanent present. We don't need to dig very deep to retrieve them.
The most powerful memories are involuntary ones. The Universal poll doesn't give us anything to match the uncanny effect of that famous moment in Remembrance of Things Past when the narrator dunks a morsel of cake in his tea, a shudder runs through him and an old, dead moment is suddenly brought back to life. It would be ridiculous to expect a poll run by a US studio trying to sell Hugh Grant DVDs to acknowledge Marcel Proust. Even so, you can't help but wish that the research had been a little more probing and that it had tried to understand the different ways in which film unlocks memory.
I once interviewed the British director Terence Davies. He talked about being taken by his sister when he was a child growing up in Liverpool to see films like Singin' in the Rain and Young at Heart. This must have been more than 50 years in the past but, in reminiscing about Doris Day and Gene Kelly, Davies seemed to transport himself back to his childhood. He could describe what his sister was wearing when they went together to Young at Heart ("a black costume suit with a little blouse that had a scallop neck.") His sister had felt faint. It had been a hot evening. They had walked half way up London Road and then had stopped outside a shop called Grays.
What made his recollections so moving was the detail. The film allowed him to bring a lost world back into existence. Sadly, the Universal research isn't interested in these kind of observations. Even when respondents share intimate details about key formative moments in their film-going lives, the main purpose of the poll is to name check the movies and to try to persuade us to pay to watch them all over again. The best advice is to forget it.