I’m back from my (slightly longer than anticipated) sabbatical, and if you’ll just indulge me for a short moment, I’m in a reminiscing mood. A while back I mentioned that were it not for Stan Laurel and his films, that I would not be writing these words right now and that I would not have the interest in classic movies that I hold today. Though essentially true, the real catalyst for my love of film has been and continues to be my dad and his enthusiasm for all things cinematic. Whether it was our constant trips to the cinema, or seemingly endless nights watching television together, my foremost memories of growing up involved a mostly small, and sometimes large flickering screen. It was there that I encountered the stars of the golden age; it’s heroes, villains, clowns and monsters. To this concoction we add in the Star Wars phenomenon, a pile of Betamax tapes from the video store and the works of Peter Sellers and there, dear reader, you have my childhood in a nutshell. I spent hour upon hour watching and thinking about films, both old and new, and would listen to my dad talk at length about his favourite scenes from his favourite movies. To this day I feel like I know the whole script from Algiers but still have never seen it.
Growing up I would always ask my dad questions about the films he liked and in particular about the movies he watched when he was young. This was because it mostly involved tales of watching Laurel and Hardy and I really think that like me, his early connection with their films paved the way for a lifetime of viewing. He once told me that when he was young his aged great grandfather confessed that he had never actually seen a film, so my dad immediately took him out to the local fleapit to see Bonnie Scotland starring his favourite stars. The elderly man spent the entire picture howling with laughter and my dad asked if he wanted to go again the next week. He replied that no, he had seen a film once and felt no need to go again. I always thought that an odd anecdote, with the concept of cinema being an experience akin to seeing the Great Pyramid: something to be experienced once then filed away as a treasured memory.
Despite this, film played a big part in his early life – he had an uncle who looked like Edgar Kennedy (which resulted in me being probably the only ten year old at school to actually know who he was) and as a baby was often bounced on the knee of Sir Harry Lauder, a friend of his grandfather. Later he traveled to the big city and joined the local Film Guild where he discovered a love of the ‘art house’ cinema of the day and directors such as Tati, Fellini, Herzog and Kurosawa. He met Burt Lancaster, Julie Christie and James Robertson Justice and on several occasions went out drinking with Montgomery Clift. I always doubted that particular anecdote but years ago I got him to put all his memories of Clift on tape and the level of detail he gave me convinced me that the meetings actually happened. Perhaps I'll dig them out and write it up for a future blog entry. Not surprisingly, my own tastes from this era point in the same direction as his. All children need to be exposed to the genius of Henri-Georges Clouzot at an early age!
In terms of his tastes, apart from the greats of 50s and 60s world cinema, my dad seemed drawn to the fringes of popular film. He liked the short subjects, the cartoons and the genre pictures of the golden age – the westerns, science fiction and gangster pictures. Looking back, I realize that virtually all my tastes have derived from those years sat in front of the television set watching the films that my dad had chosen to watch. As a result, alongside being a junior Edgar Kennedy expert I was also introduced to the likes of Joe McDoakes, Pete Smith Specialties, Crime Does Not Pay, Clark and McCullough and Benny Rubin. Whatever obscure treasure turned up on TV, my dad could tell me a little about it and whet my appetite enough to look for more. He didn’t have much interest in stars, with the exception of a handful of western actors like John Wayne and Randolph Scott or larger than life screen characters such as Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff. When I asked him his opinion of my new favourite, Ronald Colman, his one word reply was “insipid”. I was crushed, but we agreed to disagree. More exciting to him were the ‘real’ stars of the screen, King Kong, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and even Robbie the Robot. Being young and a card carrying Star Wars fan, this was music to my ears.
When the video revolution of the mid 80s came it suddenly dawned on me that all these films were increasingly being used as a babysitting tool and that in reality I had no choice whatsoever in what came back from the video shop. By this time my parents had split up and my dad had to baby-sit me while my mother worked nights. Luckily, due to our now shared love of genre cinema and the influence of Star Wars, my nights were filled with a plethora of (mostly Italian) rip offs of Conan the Barbarian, Mad Max, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the aforementioned George Lucas epic. Ah, the glory years of 80s exploitation! Again, this area of cinema history is one that I’ve kept with me, and which keeps me entertained to this day though I’d do anything to go back in time and write down all the films I saw, as the memories are slightly fuzzy. Looking back I was exposed to an awful lot of violence (and some occasional nudity) but never gore and horror, which didn't appeal to him. As a result, until fairly recently it didn't appeal to me either, though I'm currently trying to make up for lost time...
In more recent years we kept going to the cinema, but mostly to see the latest blockbusters. I found that my dad had less and less time for the classic films, finding them hokey and old fashioned, instead being impressed by modern special effects and editing (though still complaining that there were no new stories). We’d still go out of our way to see a revived classic though mostly it was me dragging him, and he was always interested in whatever new epic was coming out of the Far East. Sadly, other than that I remained disappointed that he liked nothing better than watching a Steven Seagal movie on late night television. In a way, it was at least refreshing that he chose to embrace the present and the future rather than clinging to memories of the past. It's something I still try to keep in mind when I get too wrapped up and dogmatic about certain eras or artists.
As I said at the start, please forgive my rambling reminiscence but I felt that it needed to be said. My dad sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago and despite my mixed up emotions and memories and his flaws as a person and as a parent, I’ve been thinking long and hard about his influence on my life. I’ve come to the conclusion that my love of films, and especially classic films is really his lasting gift to me. I also realize now that my golden childhood was far from golden. I have happy memories of our times together as a child, but as an adult I now understand that the television was only being used as a baby sitting tool, as a mere pacifier. In all the time watching television and going to the cinema, the choices were always his and my opinions meant little. The films were an excuse to avoid his parenting duties and talk to me.
Regardless of his real motivations, it was still time we spent together and it gave me a chance to soak up his enthusiasm and knowledge for something he enjoyed. I know now that a television is a bad parenting tool and that as great as movies are, they can’t take the place of actually having a proper relationship with your father. Despite all this, I still loved him, and I knew that he meant well. Perhaps he found it difficult to know how to relate to me, or perhaps he really was selfish and not interested in my opinions. The truth, as usual is probably somewhere in the middle, but without ever realizing it he gave me a life long interest that continues to give me huge pleasure. So in a way, he will still always have an influence on me, albeit an unintended one. And as the years go on, I hope wherever he is, he realizes that each time I step into the company of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, despite everything, I will think fondly of him.
Normal service will be resumed next time.