My Life At The Movies Part 1

I'm a lot less enthusiastic about movies now than I was for about the first half of my life. Thinking about all the things I've seen over the years made memories come back, and what started out as a "what are your favourite movies" exercise grew into a more long-running recollection.

I probably can't get the chronology completely right, partly because in the old days things often took a year or more to get to Australia. Things that came out in overseas 1961/62 I recall seeing years later as first runs in Sydney. But here's what I remember seeing as an infants and primary school kid in my home town's cinema, which had an indoor theatre and an outdoor one for summer, with canvas sling seats rather like deck chairs, and a big tin fence around it to keep non-payers from watching. In 1962 and 63 I used to visit my friend the bank manager's son, and we'd watch the outdoor movies from the roof of their three story bank building (also their residence), lying sometimes quite dangerously close to the edge, with blankets and eiderdowns for the cool night air. It was accessed from a balcony, so you could get a safe spot above that, but the unsafe spots had better angles! Hearing the soundtrack depended on whether there was a breeze or not, and which way it was blowing.

My earliest memory of films was as an infant being taken by brothers and sister to see things like Ma & Pa Kettle. I was very young when I saw and was actually frightened by one about a talking donkey & a haunted house! That must have been the last of the Francis series, released in 1956.

Apart from a lot of cowboy and Indian movies and WW2 stories, the standout from that period was of course Old Yeller, the one about the beloved Labrador who in the end has to be put down when it gets rabies - or "hydrophobia" as they called it.

Tarzan movies were popular, and none could really replace Johnny Weismuller. There were also a a few Sci-fi offerings of the "blob" genre, including one which had an X-15 pilot come back from the edge of space as a unidentifiable creature in a dark, loose-fitting, somewhat metallic and sparkly oversuit, having been changed by space radiation into we didn't know what.

Comedy was served by things as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton, followed by Abbott & Costello, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Disney favourites like The Absent -minded Professor (Fred MacMurray) and every now and again some character who introduced himself as follows: "My name ees Hose Himinez", by which he meant Jose Jiminez. His form of comedy was a bit obscure to us, but we felt it was thrown in at no extra cost and didn't last too long.

Danny Kaye was a major comedy figure in those days, and he also made a memorable musical film called The Five Pennies about a jazz musician and his family, but featuring (as did High Society) the lovable Louis Armstrong. I still remember the songs from that show, even though they don't get played any more.

Loony Tunes, Road Runner, Disney and Pink Panther cartoons were often on the menu, as were those old serials, usually westerns, filmed in unlikely and repetitive scenery as the posses and outlaws rode back and forth, shooting at each other, to little effect, with hand guns in mid gallop. A murder mystery I remember being impressed by at that time was "The List Of Adrian Messenger".

There was a supporting feature before interval, and the main movie after. It was a full night's entertainment, often taking from around 7.30 to 11 or later. The place was usually packed on a weekend, and nearby cafes did brisk trade during interval and for supper later. There was no television out there at all until the 1960s, and no good reception until probably after 1966 when the necessary relay stations went in.

A standout movie from this era was The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Ustinov, and Peter Sellers doing multiple roles - as Alec Guiness had done in Kind Hearts & Coronets. It was very much in the Ealing Comedy style, with a tiny, almost medieval European state trying to take on the major powers.

Things got more exciting later when I went away to school on the outskirts of Sydney, and got to go to the big city cinemas from time to time. That's in the next episode.

To be continued.

My Life At The Movies Part 2 - High School

Going to Hurlstone Agricultural High School at Glenfield, out beyond Liverpool, was a new era with mixed blessings. There was some increased scope for television viewing, but only within strict timeslots. I remember being really pissed off that we weren't allowed watch "Carousel" when it showed on TV one Saturday night. Bedtime was immovable at 9pm until you reached Year 11 in those days. So a transistor radio in the dark (with earphone) was all that was left in the way of evening entertainment most nights.

Each weekend we had a rented movie shown on an old projector, at first in the wool classing rooms, and, in better weather, outdoors. The best one was the original Ladykillers, an Ealing Studios dark comedy with Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, and a marvellous old lady (Katie Johnson), perfect for the part. She won a Best Actress BAFTA award for this role.

Opportunities to go into the city and see a movie increased over time, but tended to peak at the beginning of holidays, when we could get in and see something before our train left Central Station at 9pm for the long overnight trip home. Every now and then we could fudge our departure time from school and spend half a day cinema-crawling, fitting in two or three films. Some weekends we could go in an catch a movie, although rules about excursions unaccompanied were strict while we were juniors.

Films I saw as a school kid during their first runs here in Sydney included Bridge Over The River Kwai, The Great Escape, most of the James Bond films with Sean Connery, The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, It's A Mad, Mad Mad Mad World, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Bonny & Clyde, Romeo & Juliet, Camelot, and various forgettable comedies down to and including Flipper. Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush was a UK film about young people searching for the sexual revolution and not finding it. By the time we saw that movie we were old enough to adjourn to the nearest pub afterwards for a couple of beers to ease the depression of it all. Prudence & The Pill was another late 60s sexual revolution comedy that a mate and I saw with two girls we hardly knew. The after movie was more memorable than the movie itself when the girl who had been with Pete planted a passionate kiss on my lips before exiting the car at her parents place. Never saw her again, it was an out-of-town down Wollongong way experience.

There were masses of good films from that era, as well as a quantity of junk. Many are hopelessly dated to view now. Some still have appeal due to sound craftsmanship in their scripts and making, and a few examples that I like are:

Lawrence of Arabia: A David Lean classic, seen in its original Sydney run, probably in the St James theatre, Elizabeth Street - no longer there, of course - I certainly saw Dr. Zhivago there for the first time. You can now get Lawrence in a very nice restored version with extra footage replaced, and it looks great. Watching it in more recent times with my son, he commented that the train being blown up in the desert looked real, not the CGI you see these days.

Bedazzled: Written by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, a retelling of the Faust story, and almost a recasting of the relationship between Cook & Moore, except that in the end Moore went to Hollywood and was for a time much more successful than Cook. The casting of Raquel Welch as one of the deadly sins (Lust) worked a treat. Barry Humpries, who had escaped the wasteland of Melbourne suburbia, pops up as Envy. His Barry McKenzie cartoons series started to appear soon after.

The Wrong Box: comedy, very sedate but with many dry witty observations, again featuring Cook & Moore, but with an amazing cast including a young Michael Caine, Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, and Nanette Newman.

True Grit: Great then and now - must watch the remake some time soon.

You can get lists of movies via Wikipedia or IMDB, including by year, but I've noticed that they are not complete. Readers will have different memories and different favourites. These ones appealed to me at the time, from 1963-69:

As I mentioned elsewhere, we didn't necessarily see these until subsequent years as release dates here were later.

1963: Charade, Tom Jones, The Great Escape, Dr. No.

1964: Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, A Hard Day's Night, The Pink Panther.

1965: Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, Dr Zhivago, Von Ryan's Express.

1966: The Sand Pebbles, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, The Blue Max, A Man For All Seasons.

1967: The Graduate, You Only Live Twice, Camelot, Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie & Clyde.

1968: Romeo & Juliet, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Lion In Winter, The Wrong Box.

1969: Where Eagles Dare, True Grit, Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid, Bedazzled.

To be continued

My Life At The Movies Part 3 - The 1970s

Living in the 70s - Canberra. There were still drive-in cinemas in those days, and sometimes we used to go along and hitch the car to one of those speakers that came on a lead, with a clip over the top of the glass in the passenger side window. Each one had its own volume control but that's it! No such refinement as stereo, and surround sound was still many years away. Escaping from the place at the end of the show was sometimes tedious, as all the cars raced for the exits at the same time.

The 1970s saw the twin advents of colour TV and VCRs. This certainly changed the way we watched TV, but what impact it had on the cinemas I'm not so sure. I guess it provided a more satifying colourful alternative, even though the screens we were watching were a mere 22-24", minute by today's standards. Most TV sets still had no "audio out" sockets on the back, so sound was low priority.

Looking now at the list of top movies of the seventies at IMDB, according to votes not gross take, I realize that there are notable films I never saw, and quite a few I saw but wouldn't bother watching again. I have to say Apocalypse Now seems pretty creaky to me these days, even though it was impressive at that time. Others have lasted better.

Taking the decade in one pile, these are my favourites: Patton, The Godfather, Ryan's Daughter, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Nicholas & Alexandra, A Clockwork Orange (not so much because I want to see it again, but it was exceptional), One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, The Conformist (more for the cinematography than the plot), and Being There - the last film with Peter Sellers. It was the era of the Pink Panther comedy movies, which got plenty of TV reruns. Overall, I think the 1980s had more good stuff.

Admission: I have never seen Jaws or The Deerhunter, nor did I follow through on later Godfather movies. Dawn Of The Dead may be a cult classic, but not a genre I have followed at all.

Special Mentions

Star Wars: it really needs no special mention from me, an absolute success and an ikon in the history of film making of the late 20th Century. Perhaps a precursor to the Indiana Jones series, and one of the long-lived franchises that movie makers dream of.

Nicholas & Alexandra: Beautifully made period piece about the Russian royal family, leading up to their execution. Tom Baker stole the show as Rasputin, just as he did when he was Dr Who. This is a better "movie with a Russian theme" than Dr. Zhivago, which seemed to me to be a bit disjointed script-wise. Both films have a bad end for the main characters, but Zhivago's is rather downmarket compared to the high drama of the Czar and family, and the execution of Rasputin.

Tora! Tora! Tora!: This is almost documentary style, following closely the lead up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. It had excruciating details like the Japanese embassy staff in Washington trying to decode the crucial declaration of war message in time to present it to the Americans before the attack started. They failed. Great scene also where someone having flying lessons in a light plane is suddenly surrounded by all the Japanese fighter/bombers. The details about the radar installation which was scarcely manned and not taken seriously even when it did show something are also riveting stuff for someone like me, who loves a doco anyway.

Patton: Another great war movie, although not actually containing much war. Fine performance by George C. Scott, and it gives some feeling for the politics involved, but not enough about his rapid redeployment of tanks over some huge distance to help in the Battle of the Bulge. I'm reading a book at present which has a photo of Patton and Bradley traveling somewhere in a military aircraft. Patton, in a crumpled overcoat, looks nothing like the immaculate military officer - almost too neat - that he's dressed up as in the movie. Hollywood has its own priorities, and dramatic effect is not always served by too much realism in such things.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) - I didn't see this until 1970. It's a classic for several reasons. Firstly it is a really funny vampire-spoof movie, and has one of my all-time favourite lines, spoken by the vampire: "I'm not much good in the day time". Secondly, it is a Roman Polanski film in which he plays a part, and thirdly, it also starred Sharon Tate. Having a long title wasn't enough so they gave it an alternate title as well "pardon me but your teeth are in my neck". I think it may have been released as Dance Of The Vampires in some markets.

Two good yarns turned into good adventure movies were made in the mid-seventies, both starring Sean Connery in his post-Bond career. "The Wind And The Lion" and "The Man Who Would Be King" are both well worth the time and effort of finding or perhaps getting from an online rental service.

Next week: the 1980s.

See also "My Life With Music" here.

My Life At The Movies Part 4 - The 1980s

For us the 1980s was the decade of having young children, so I can't say now just how many of the movies from that era we saw at the cinema. There were certainly a lot of very good movies made over those years. Star Wars had lost me way before episodes V and VI, and I thought the James Bond franchise was played out. But this was the Indiana Jones decade. Looking back at the lists now I see very rich pickings indeed, although once again there are things there that most people would be amazed that I have not seen, like Aliens and Raging Bull. So once again, I'm not going to say anything about those ones, but list the ones I have seen and still think are great from that era.

By the end of the 1980s not much had progressed in the home entertainment area, as surround sound was yet to appear in the early1990s, and TV screens were still small. Connecting the sound from your VCR to a stereo amp and speakers was being done, but that's about all. Four Channel Matrix systems - famously - had not taken off.

The Short List: All the Indiana Jones, Amadeus (amazing because it popularized a classical composer, not because I think it was in any way a good representation of Mozart), Bladerunner, Fanny & Alexander, Stand By Me, Moonstruck, Empire Of The Sun, A Fish Called Wanda, Tootsie, National Lampoon's Vacation, Big (Tom Hanks).

Special Mentions:

Indiana Jones: I can add nothing to this fabulous series; it is without peer, although Fox did try to catch up after seeing it trending upwards, but Romancing the Stone etc just didn't have the same appeal.

Amadeus: This was based on a play by Peter Shaffer, who also wrote a rather off one called Equus. But having read David Weiss's marvelous book about Mozart (Sacred & Profane) I was intrigued by the Shaffer plotline which included the idea that Salieri had organized poison buffets for Mozart. All untrue, apparently, but it made a credible hypothetical. In any event Shaffer's play when done for radio was far superior to the movie version, even though they had a good director in Milos Forman.

Fanny and Alexander: An epic film from legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. It has the colour and opulence of a major period piece as opposed to the usually spare black and white of his "everyday" Swedish blonde angst movies. Merchant Ivory would like the production values. It has intrigue, some sex, and in the end even some magic to assist the plot to a satisfactory resolution. I don't like everything he did, but this is special. So special and intense that I have not been able to watch it again for over ten years, but may do so again soon.

Moonstruck: Put Cher in a New York Italian setting, add a volcanic young Nicholas Cage (before he was famous), a superb script and cinematography, and you have an all-time classic movie. I can't criticize anything about it. A joy to behold.

Empire Of The Sun: A relatively low-key action-wise but very emotional take on the imprisonment and labour-camp treatment of European and American civilians by the Japanese during WW2. The story develops so well, with some nuanced interaction between the young boy in the labour camp and his Japanese captor's son on the other side of the wire fence. There are moments of excruciating honesty and (literally) flashes of spiritual brilliance. I think it was my first sighting of John Malkovich, although he'd been in movies for ten years by then. A timeless epic story.

Another one from 1989 that I loved was K9, with James Belushi, and Rando as the police dog Jerry Lee. The scene in the pool hall is an all-time classic, but the show has many funny moments.

My Life At The Movies - Part 5 - The 1990s

By the 1990s I was engrossed in my music and hifi business and going to the downtown cinemas even less than before. But then along came the growth in home cinema! It was amazing to see what both front and rear projection achieved during that period, although at a high price. It was the age of the three-gun monster (requiring a very good ceiling bracket) and of the large rear-projection screen, essentially a three-gun CRT projector in a box.

It was also the era of Laserdisc! Yes, the big LP sized optical disc that left VHS for dead. What magic it offered, with widescreen and superior sound to add to the more stable picture quality. It made big screens so much more attractive that it became possible to offer people huge (for that time)rear projection TVs (40"-50") and front projection screens (100"+) with the confidence that the results would be stunning - which they were for that time.

I once upset one of the local cinema owners by running an advertisement that we could supply a home cinema experience with better sound than most cinemas. He had just gone to the expense of installing digital surround in his cinema, and offered me free tickets to check it out. Yes, it was good, but we were offering some pretty amazing gear to those who could afford it. And what were we watching on those screens? These were our favourite demos back in the Laserdisc era:

Terminator 2, Clear and Present Danger, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, Apollo 13, Always, Independence Day.

There were other excellent movies around for kids and adults, including The Lion King, Casper, The English Patient. But one very memorable one that I can recommend to you is Shakespeare In Love, which appeared in our cinemas in the late 1990s, maybe in late 1998 or early 1999. That one I do remember actually going to the cinema to see. It's a comedy, set in London in Shaespeare's time, based around the theatre and the actors in it, and the script is incredibly clever. You can enjoy it without a comprehensive knowledge of the bard and his works, but the more you know the more in-jokes you'll pick up about not just his works but other characters of the time.

Another great one was Once Were Warriors, a remarkable first film, confidently acted and directed, tightly scripted, emotionally charged. I nearly didn't see it, hearing that it was pretty violent, but it was all done to make a good point - there was a socially useful message, a hard hitting one, you might say.

Forgot to mention one of the all-time best comedies: What About Bob? This starred Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus, and is an absolute classic. It will last indefinitely.

A couple of very enjoyable Australian movies were Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Muriel's Wedding (1994). All Men Are Liars (1995) is a favourite of mine. Proof (1991) was very clever, very well done, with actors who were to grow in profile thereafter.

By the late 90s DVD had appeared. We were doubtful before it arrived that it would be better than Laserdisc, being so small and necessarily compressing the information. How wrong we were! It was amazing how good it turned out to be, despite many glitches in the early machines and sometimes in the software discs themselves.

Late 1990s movies became the early DVD demos, such as True Lies, The Fifth Element, and Saving Private Ryan. We even used Dumb & Dumber as an example of picture quality when there was a dearth of other material around to use!

One last observation about Laserdisc, which I still have a pile of - taking up space but not watched much any more. Australia was denied ready access to this format through most of the 1990s. It was only when the writing was on the wall that their days were numbered that the market freed up, and we were able not only to sell a wider range of titles but even to rent them out without fear of the (real) "men in black" coming around to threaten us with legal action if we didn't cease and dispose of the stock. I know people who had that happen.

In the end days, loads of PAL titles were dumped at bargain prices. The desirable ones, however, were the NTSC ones in widescreen with the better digital soundtracks. You had to have a dual-standard machine, and the best ones were also "double-sided play", with AC-3 out. Some had RF out and required a RF-AC3 converter to get the surround up to speed. Once DVD arrived, Pioneer, who were the leading producer of players, made a model which played both Laserdisc and DVD. In order to subvert the region codes back then we had to do a solder trace across a specific point on the circuit board to make them region-free! These days that's a lot easier, except for Blu-ray.

Update: writing my piece on TV Soaps, I was reminded what a brilliant comedy Soapdish (1991) was. I haven't seen it for a while, but the themes are durable, so it should still go well.

My Life At The Movies - Part 6 - 2000 +

It's probably better that I leave a survey of the first decade of this century for a while longer, as I'm so slow in getting to see what was produced that it'll be 2020 before I can say I've seen enough of them.

You don't need me to make any comment on the really huge successes like Lord Of The Rings or the Harry Potter series. They are well made, even if one would still prefer the books!

A general observation is that while production technology has gone way ahead, scripts have not. A lot of the big earners in this past decade leave me cold. No doubt (at least I hope) there are well crafted movies I have yet to catch up with, ones that don't need a superhero or massive digital effects to play tricks with your mind, like "Inception".

Technology and clever story telling has come together most satisfyingly for me in the various CGI animated ones, from Toy Story to Monsters Inc., The Grinch, Horton Hears a Hoo, Shrek and so on.

The Fall is an amazing film, sheer spectacle wrapped around a story about a storyteller. He tells the story, while the child imagines it, in vivid scenes shot on locations that are breathtaking.

I'll give a good mention to Cast Away and to Master & Commander, and Zoolander is a modern comedy classic, but I think I'll leave it at that for now.

NOTE: The main Movies Page picks up where this leaves off and has all the reviews of more recent movies that I've seen. Despite my misgivings about scripts, some very good ones have come to light!