From Garbo with my father to `Star Wars' with my son
Years later I ask myself how strange it is to remember one day out of so many
Saturday 04 September 1999
The first film I remember seeing was Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo. This was back in the Sixties. The cinema was on Grafton Street in Dublin and every Saturday there was a kids matinee. My father loved films and as soon as I was old enough he wanted to bring me with him. He was an actor and had played in some movies himself. In those days he still cherished the big dream of Hollywood. Colleagues of his had already made the breakthrough into films in Britain. One was even being considered for serious parts in America. Going to see films belonged to the sober part of my father's life. When he wasn't drinking he went to the cinema a lot. When he was on the booze the movies fell to one side along with everything else.
The expedition to Queen Christina took place during a "dry" period. I don't remember very much except the excitement of the lights going down and Greta Garbo's eyes, wistful and glistening as tragedy engulfed her. At the end of the movie I looked up and my father had tears streaming down his face. My dad loved Garbo.
My favourite memory of the cinema was of a trip made on a birthday towards the end of the Sixties. It is a memory that only recently returned but now that it has, the details are very clear in my mind.
A January afternoon and a bus ride into town, my father holding my hand tight in his own, the two of us walking down Moore Street past the market stalls and the glittering Christmas lights to a cafe my dad knew. I had burger and chips. In fact, two burgers and chips, followed by a doughnut. This seemed to me an extraordinary luxury. But my father was off the drink and had money in his pocket.
We went to a big cinema on O'Connell Street (I have forgotten the name, and I think it closed a long time ago) where the main feature was Waterloo, starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon. I was a great fan of Napoleon, and had armies of toy soldiers with which I would re-enact the battles of Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo. For two or more hours I sat entranced, cheering when the little Emperor returned to France from exile and when Marshall Ney led his forlorn charge, booing when Blucher and his Prussians arrived and when the Scots Greys piled into the French. All the way home I tormented my father with questions about Napoleon. He wanted to talk about Rod Steiger's performance, how brilliant and true he had been. We talked and talked all the way home to Terenure in the suburbs and I went to sleep dreaming of glory in the armies of France.
Years later, I ask myself how strange it is to remember one day out of so many. It is not the simple fact of remembering the occasion that surprises me, but the clarity of my recollection and the emotional force that it summons up. Great warmth and sadness in almost equal measures.
I went to the cinema as often as I could after that, but not again with my father until about 20 years later, when he was dying from alcoholism. I loved war movies and pestered my mother into taking me to the Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora! (the story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) for my Confirmation - a Catholic boyhood had its consolations. Later she took me to the local art-house cinema and I saw Ingmar Bergman's grim The Virgin Spring and Fellini's La Dolce Vita. I would grow to love Fellini later - Amarcord is one of my favourite films of all time - but back then it all went over my head.
On holidays in Kerry, I would go to the cinema with my cousins. They loved horror movies; I was terrified of them. But we usually saw little of the films. The chief pleasure of going to the cinema was tormenting the usher. He was a cranky little man with a large torch and he patrolled the aisles looking for troublemakers. We would wait until he had passed us by and then shout at him. "Go away, you baldy fucker", or some other such pleasantry. Or we would throw an ice-cream carton at the back of his head, or someone of our group would wait until a particularly quiet moment of the film before unleashing an explosive fart. We never stooped to the kind of behaviour popular in some Dublin cinemas, where hard men would stand in the balconies and shower spit and worse down on to the heads of the patrons below. But we were, it has to be admitted, some of the most obnoxious little bastards ever to step inside a cinema.
Later, the cinema became the route to teenage passion. Place: the Capital Cinema, Grand Parade, Cork City. Exact location therein: Jumbo seat in the back row on the right as you go in through the door. Film: Three Days of the Condor (a pile of nonsense of which I remember little).
The Jumbo seats (big enough for two) were an unashamed attempt to lure courting couples into the cinema. The drill was to pick a film that you weren't too bothered about seeing, to wait a decent couple of minutes after it had started, and then get down to the serious business of French- kissing and whatever else you managed to achieve.
I grew out of all that in time - a long time - and got back to enjoying films. So many come to mind, so much pleasure. My favourites are the Continentals, but that is probably because I am a pretentious fool. (For the record, Cinema Paradiso knocks me flat every time I see it.)
These memories of cinema and particularly the journey to see Waterloo with my father came back strongly this week because I took my own son to the cinema for the first time in his young life. He is three-and-a- half going on 18, a boy of great determination and persistence. And even though he had lobbied hard to go and see Star Wars, I wondered whether he would have the patience to sit through two hours in a darkened cinema. I spent a long time explaining that the lights would go out and that he shouldn't be frightened. The noise would be loud, but he would have to be quiet because other people would be watching the film.
"Will the nasty man come out?" he enquired. By this he meant the Phantom Menace, the fearful warrior Darth Maul whose visage adorns every toy shop in the country. I explained that neither the goodies nor the "nasty man" would come out of the screen. This seemed to disappoint him. He had wanted to shake the "nasty man's" hand. "But he's the bad guy," I explained. "I like him the best," said the three-year-old. My wife and I set off in a mood of trepidation.
Would he howl with terror and mortify us in front of a packed cinema, clambering over muttering punters to escape into the sunlight? Or, worse, would he try to make a run for the screen, where he was convinced Darth Maul and the others were living? We needn't have worried. Apart from a minor eruption of boredom when he wandered off down the rows of empty seats, my boy was a picture of good behaviour. When the lights went down he cheered out loud: "Here comes Star Wars, hurray!" And every time a battle was fought, at every gruesome moment, our little hero shouted his delight. Outside in the sunlight he danced around and around, imitating the laser fights he had seen on the silver screen. "Can we go again Dad?" he asked. And I said yes, of course we would. Again and again and again.
The writer is a special correspondent with BBC News
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