A life at the fillums

'I am a Brian de Palma title: Obsession,'r cent of the population aged seven and over went to the movies at least once last year. In this centenary year of the cinema, we celebrate the joys of cinemagoing
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fade in, voice-over. The Stadium still stands at the top of the Shankill Road, on the bend that leads into Woodvale and, beyond that, to Aldergrove airport and escape. The picture house - that's what we working class said then, or "the pictures", or "the fillums" - offered escape, too, or, at least, escapism. Technicolored, Cinemascoped and temporary, which, who knows, may explain why it survived the bombs, bullets and blood.

But not the bingo. Some time in the Eighties, the lights went out as well as down, the dream palace (to mix metaphors) kicked to death by two fat ladies and their legs eleven.

No more Carry On, True Grit or children's Saturday morning matinees, or the place I first encountered cartoon violence: I stabbed an older boy clean through the hand when he attempted to steal my penknife. Having failed, he bled silently (he knew the unwritten rules) while I felt triumphant, justified, like Mighty Mouse, Flash Gordon and all the other fantastical weekly characters who lured us away from home and into the cool, occasionally air-conditioned dark; there we sat through the same programme at least twice, at our harassed parents' command, so that they could make the two- backed beast relatively undisturbed.

Once, the Stadium was a home from home, a weekly vacation I received from movie-loving parents, no matter how tight the family budget or how urgently we needed new shoes, shirts, or a course of ECT. The movies were our psychoanalysis and my sentimental education. Brother Bill would be put in charge of me, making sure I learned to queue, and later I would take Thomas, Linda and Elaine and show them their place in the line, reminding them to get there at least half an hour earlier than the time advertised in the Belfast Telegraph. The Telegraph would change its listings every Friday, but we would never change our seats: always five rows from the front, so we could look our idols in the eye, not up the nose. We worshipped, but we worshipped as equals, as in any great love affair.

Today, the Stadium is a recreation centre, though every time the taxi takes me past it, the heavy, blue metal doors, built to withstand both break-in and blast, are shut. Yet even in this incarnation it looks like a picture house, which is to say it is out of place and out of time. The three steps up to the entrance, a semicircle in off-white marble, complement the curving marquee above, the sort of soft modernism that made more sense when the entrance was door after door of green glass and shiny steel. But the brisk polish - the glamour - was always an anomaly amidst dull, documentary surroundings: the chippies, the pubs, the butchers, the betting shops, the row upon row of tiny, tight, two-up, two-down houses.

The Stadium was bigger than its immediate environment. Much bigger. Entire worlds - indeed, a fully functioning star system - flickered inside, through the low-lit lobby, across the scarlet carpet, beyond the sweet popcorn and sweeter Kia-Ora, up into the auditorium, there on the screen.

Devouring my ritual bag of Maltesers, ignoring the cigarette butts and chewing gum underfoot, I would explore the wide-open spaces of the Western, the jittery cityscape of New York (when I finally visit the city that never sleeps, it will already be a memory) and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: In Here but Out There, busily stoking this unnameable discontent, a fierce appetite of heart, head and eye, an appetite that cannot be suppressed, no matter how many books, fan magazines and posters I now feed it.

I am still feeding it today, yet it refuses to abate. The movies get larger, more mammoth, and I swallow them and their casts, and their casts' CVs, whole. I gobble up the Odeon Marble Arch, with the largest screen in London, and I easily lick the multiplex postage stamps at Whiteleys, and it is never enough. Never enough, although trailers today punch home every plot point about the turkey you were thinking of honouring three weeks from now, treating you like an idiot by telling you the truth and nothing but, sucker, while the posters, increasingly, lie through capped teeth: really, who would have guessed that Platoon was a comedy? But current cinema is one brash contradiction: the movies grow ever more Moby Dick, the screens shrink incredibly, the sound comes after you, clearer than the belles that made the Hunchback deaf, only there isn't a well-crafted word, a witticism, worthy of the audience's ear.

But the boy can't help it: I'm a video tapeworm, what polite people call a "buff", suffering some mental disease that tells me the movies are imparting a message beyond their entertainment value. I am a Brian de Palma title: Obsession.

In a trance state, outside my body, outside Belfast, I will watch - cue montage - James Bond fight Blofeld as America and Russia rush to red alert, yawn as Dick Van Dyke dates Truly Scrumptious, and gasp as the Red Sea parts into two wonderwalls. "God blew with his nostrils" - that's what the bewhiskered character actor tells the boy who begs the question as The Ten Commandments hits its visual climax.

I think of The Ten Commandments and, automatically, my thoughts turn to my mother, for celluloid and memory marry in ways simple and complex, until you wonder if certain recollections are real or reel. My mother would take me to every spectacle that rolled into town. Her taste ran to colour, sweep, romance and that old-time religion. I sat on the stairs and cannily cried to see John Huston's The Bible, of which my mother had heard (from whom, I wonder?) bad reports: "Sure, the angels are just men in sheets. Not a wing between them!" We did not pay good money for the ordinary, no, sir. I was allowed to go on my own, and, duly conditioned, was disappointed.

My mother made up for it by taking me to The Robe, brought back to cash in on Richard Burton's notoriety after the Cleopatra scandal. We saw that, too, twice in one week, because my father liked it and lusted after Elizabeth Taylor, and my mother hated it, hated Elizabeth Taylor. This was my dim introduction to adult jealousy: these disputes were given due weight. The movies were important. Sure, something to talk about, to fill long days with, at least until the Troubles came; but they were taken seriously, too, debated with a conviction missing from every other topic save sport, and, for the women, family.

The conversation was often shrewd. My mother would have chopped an hour from Antony and Cleopatra, and she would have been right. She was right, too, in what she said, as she washed us children down in the front room from a plastic bucket, about 20th Century Fox "having too much money"; but where she saw waste, my father saw with equal justice a tragic tale of political strategy bravely played - played, luckily, by a tasty doll with big tits - and destiny embraced, one proud country struggling against the dominance of another. He saw Egypt and he saw Ireland, he saw Antony and he saw himself, he saw Hollywood and he saw the tricks, cliches, patterns.

I see (or imagine) them, too. The day of my maternal grandmother's burial, I was packed off "down the town", with more ready cash than I had ever had, to the Avenue - a very posh place, all black and blue, with box office dragons who rolled their Rs - to a double bill of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

Here's Snow White in her glass coffin, the other little people weeping, the Prince bestowing a kiss, as I have laid a kiss on my grandmother's lips: "Say goodbye, John." Only Snow White is young and beautiful, a princess, and my grandmother was wrinkled, old before her time, practically bedridden, a woman who had survived two marriages, three children and a life of grind to become, I suspect, harder and more forbidding than she wished. And then Darby O' Gill. Death again, the colour of emeralds and howling, the banshee coming for the hero, Sean Connery defending the old man from his spectral fate with a spade that, for some reason, clanks on contact with Uncle Walt's gatherer of unforgiven souls.

And I scream, scream as loud any banshee, chocolate ice cream propelled from my mouth, calf muscles in spasm. Big brother Bill, embarrassed and angry, is pulling me from my balcony seat. Balcony seats! And I'm screaming.

The incident is absorbed into family movie mythology, to take its place alongside stories of jam jars used as the price of admittance ("During the War, love") and my parents courting in the love seats - at the back of the stalls, where awkward, confining chair-arms have been removed, and with my Aunt Sadie feeling ten hot fingers grip her neck during Boris Karloff's Grip of the Strangler, and her leaping from the front row facing the audience before letting loose with 100 decibels. It was a friend of my father's playing a prank, a story which is constantly being remade, as memories and movies are.

There was the clan obsession with Gone With the Wind. We claim it's the dialogue - "Miss Scarlett, I don't know nuthin' about birthin' babies!" - my childhood fixation with Mammy, my goddess, my role model, my darling, and how we've noticed, as the years fade in/fade out, how every GWTW audience we've been with makes a low, infinitely sexual sound the second the camera swoops down the stairs at Twelve Oaks to find Rhett Butler's face smirking up at the belle of the barbecue. Nothing to do with civil war, a nation torn asunder, survival, or Gerald O'Hara proclaiming, "There's nothing more important than land."

This study in Scarlett is the canvas of our buried fears. We are, as the therapists say, "working out". I do a lot of working out. Disaster movies and costume drama are excellent media. The Towering Inferno: Jung witters about "burning down the house", laying waste to the self, beginning again, and in Belfast I have seen fire and I have seen rain; I have also seen Nicholas and Alexandra, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Anne of the Thousand Days, in their roadshow presentations. The past, it transpires, had the same preoccupations as the present - revolution, assassination, Protestant and Catholic at loggerheads, political expediency.

But the past allows a distance, a distance on fears I discharge, more and more often, at horror flicks, either sneaking into the half-a-crown rows or brazening it out when asked my age. Cut to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I attend secretly and repeatedly, craving the worst, and I come out smiling, purged and calm, just as I now leave Tarantino films, or as I departed From Dusk Til Dawn a few weeks ago, having watched bodies staked, bitten, ripped to bits, in an orgy of arbitrary destruction.

Flashback. Like the man I once helped dig out of the rubble of the Four Step Inn, digging through the brick and plaster, choking on the dust, my school uniform coated grey, digging until I could see it wasn't a man but part of a man. The head, neck and some of the upper torso.

He's ripped, just so much red tape some shadowy figure has cut through, and, when the chainsaw massacres the actor in the wheelchair, my mind helplessly imposes, again and again, the ripped man's face; only his eyes were closed, and the actor keeps his open. The actor sees fate coming at him and is granted a moment's grace. Reality doesn't do slo- mo.

The screen blurs, and images dissolve and regroup. Perhaps my father knew. Maybe he began taking me to war movies - Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day - as a method of telling me that even armed conflict nominally had a code. Or maybe the diet of men doing what men had to do, and the sundry auto-erotica (Le Mans, Grand Prix) ) was to blunt the effect of worshipping Mammy above all other women.

Either way, it was too late. On a school trip to the Queen's University student cinema, I had discovered The Leopard and Burt Lancaster's finest performance, as a prince presiding over a family increasingly adrift in dangerous political climes: Italy falling apart as opposing armies battle for control along class lines. The young are sacrificed, the dead don't come home, and the old are left behind with their regrets.

I sit there, my companions bored, and recognise Gone With the Wind again, and I register something else, something I can't yet stick a label on, but which one day I will know as "sensibility". When the women, grandly gowned, drift across the garden roof of the country villa to call goodbye to the handsome Alain Delon as he goes to war, I am suddenly seized by tears that, amongst my classmates, I am too mortified to shed. For, in an instant, I know that these women are blind, that the sun is shining but they do not see, and that that is the way of things - not only lives pass, but the way that we live our lives also leaves us, and we never notice until it is too late.

At the finale, when Lancaster wanders from his own ball and the servants with their overflowing pisspots, out on to the streets and into the dawn, I feel for the first time that the screen is lying when it announces The End and fades to black. For surely the prince is still on those streets, trying to find his way back. For what The Leopard said to me, the lesson I learnt from it, was that not everything can be resolved. It made Visconti's masterpiece less a movie, a mere entertainment, and more like life than life itself. I didn't know that then, but I know it, finally, now

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