Are You Talking To Me? by John Walsh

Sean French applauds a screen-struck memoir that views young life through the lens of Hollywood
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The subtitle of this remarkable memoir is "A Life through the Movies", but I'm not sure that John Walsh qualifies as a true film obsessive. For a start, he's too sane. He has a written a funny, touching book about how moments in crucial movies influenced the formative events of his life. But for some of us these movie moments were the formative events. The alternative title David Thompson considered for his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, first published when he was about 30, was "Ten Thousand Hours in the Dark" - which, according to my calculation, would require two movies a day for eight years. That doesn't leave much time for other formative experiences.

Walsh is not much bothered - in this book at least - with films as works of art. They can be, of course, but that's not how they insinuate their way into our lives. It can be just one scene, a performance, an unexpected moment. For Walsh, the process went from Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962, aged nine, to Don't Look Now in 1973, when he was 19 and the demands of real life prevented him being so awestruck by the screen.

These earlier films aroused his longings and fantasies, but also allowed him to work through them in some therapeutic way. There's a fine chapter about childhood violence in which he remembers being robbed as a boy and starts from the familiar premise that Hollywood Westerns created an ideal of manhood that we can never hope to live up to. Yet we're haunted by the failure. Then the young Walsh saw Howard Hawks's Red River, basically a transposition of Mutiny on the Bounty to the West with John Wayne as Captain Bligh and Montgomery Clift as Fletcher Christian. Seeing Wayne's great deconstruction of his own heroic persona cured Walsh of his admiration for a certain kind of masculinity - "it changed the whole universe of retaliation".

This makes the book seem too solemn, like a self-help guide. It's much funnier and more moving. Walsh's influences come from all over the place: the poster for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, spotted on his way to church, the erotic potential of the scene between Liesl von Trapp and the proto-Nazi Rolf in The Sound of Music. Never has the matchstick in Warren Beatty's mouth, in Bonnie and Clyde, received such (or indeed any) attention.

The triumph of the book is the chapter on Cabaret. He saw the film with his prudish girlfriend, Lucy. (Lucy, like several other young women, is portrayed so unflinchingly they must be remarkably tolerant or abroad or maybe just dead.) Walsh's account of the frenzied but confused state of sexual arousal the film provoked is both vivid and hilarious. Unfortunately, his girlfriend experienced it as a tribute to the virtues of respectable married life. (My own worst post-cinematic row was with my wife outside the Holloway Odeon after a screening of Basic Instinct. My wife's point, in essence, was: what do you mean, you don't think it was disgusting? And, 12 years later, I don't actually remember what I meant.) So when the inflamed Walsh pounced, the effect on the relationship was terminal.

This is just the beginning of a coming-of-age story, part Martin Amis, part Feydeau, involving much sexual misunderstanding, some Brideshead-style posturing, and a pair of synthetic yellow trousers (Walsh has a fine eye for early Seventies fashion). It culminates in his loss of virginity a couple of years later, an event plausibly portrayed as blissful for him and unsatisfactory for her.

Where I part company with John Walsh is at the age of 19. It's from then on that we need movies the most. If I'm balding, then let me be bald like Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King. And if our marriage didn't exactly begin like Bringing Up Baby and continue like William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, we can at least keep trying.

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