fear and loathing at the saturday matinee

THE suzi feay COLUMN
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE'S a wonderful moment in Gillies MacKinnon's excellent new movie Small Faces when the teenage hero seeks refuge in a children's matinee show at the local cinema. It's the Sixties, and young Lex, in more trouble than you can imagine, is at first nerve-shattered by the screams and wild, atonal chanting of the children he suddenly feels so distant from. Then he begins to thaw, laugh and even sing along to the kiddy anthem, prompted by the words dancing along the screen.

Do children's matinees exist any more, or have chaperones and multiplexes killed them off? A few years ago I went to see a tea-time screening of Mrs Doubtfire in the King's Road, where dozens of well-dressed tots perched demurely next to their minders, and only a small Asian girl sitting with her mum expressed any joie de vivre, squealing with immoderate delight and performing the one-person Mexican wave. The tidy space, sophisticated fare and supervision level was a far cry from my own early cinematic experiences.

The first visit to the matinee was not auspicious. The local kids were hugely enthusiastic, and I think the parents thought it would be Bambi. I wasn't so sure: the cinema was one of those majestic, vast, shadowy affairs, the stalls one huge, seething crocodile pit. Before I could reverse, dad grabbed me by the wrist and ankle and casually tossed me in. The film had already started, which seemed to bother no one. The shrieking and chucking of wrappers never abated; nor did the thunder of feet up and down the aisle.

I had a bit of difficulty following the plot in all that racket, but it appeared to be some kind of Western, a genre with which I was familiar, having watched many a "cowie" on Saturday afternoon telly with grandad. This, however, was unlike anything I'd ever seen on Granada. As the finale neared, the din became an expectant hush as the cowboys were tied sadistically to a row of stakes and the Indians took turns to gallop up. Thwunk, thwunk: a spear landed smack in each thorax and hung there, vibrating, as the cowboys frothed blood and the kids all cheered and stamped. Not only was I sickened but scandalised too. Did they not know how to "read" movies? Did they not realise the cowboys were the good guys? I limped home, stunned, and went dumb and stricken whenever the prospect of a return visit was broached.

Other kids soon became unwilling to drag me along on their outings. I already had a lot of ground to make up from the time I used to hang out with the big girls on the street corner. I fell out of favour when one of them despatched me to the local sweet shop, The Chocolate Box, to change a five-pound note. This was a terrific commission, and I set off full of pride and self-importance but on the way the message somehow got scrambled. Standing on tiptoe I placed the note on the counter and puffed: "Wanta change this for a chocolate box". Well in them days you could get a whole terraced house for a tenner, so the purchase of the largest box in the shop was a tremendous transaction and the anxious proprietor ("Are you sure, pet?") came to the door to shade her eyes and watch me down the street, staggering under the weight of cellophane. Five minutes later I was dragged back, wailing, by a furious teenager who slammed the box down and demanded the money back.

Incidents like this meant I was soon doomed to visit the cinema only once or twice a year with my grandparents, like the wuss I undoubtedly was, whenever The Railway Children or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came round again. It was so infrequent a treat that I frequently came to during the action saying to myself, like you do on Christmas morning: "I'm really here - now - it's really happening!" Never for one moment did I wonder whether they too wanted to take yet another trip to Hush-a-Bye mountain, or watch Jenny Agutter careening over the hilltops for the millionth time (recently I learned that Edith Nesbit's great classic was inspired not by the rail routes crossing the Yorkshire moors but by the South-East London line which runs down the bottom of my garden).

So it was that I got in the habit of watching a few films over and over again. It remains the best technique ever devised for separating gold from dross. Blue Velvet seemed on first viewing a work of towering genius. Next time round it was barely endurable tedium. Whereas Ken Russell's Gothic or Pee-wee's Big Adventure just get better and better. And so it is that my knowledge of film is not broad but ... well, not exactly deep either, but in its narrow, shallow, trivial fashion, at the very least fervent.

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