The films that have changed our lives

From coming out after Billy Elliot to cleaning up after Bridget Jones, a poll reveals the power of movies, says Geoffrey Macnab

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin