I can trace the beginning of my love of cinema to when I was three or four years old. My father decided it was time for me to start watching ‘proper’ films, not just kids’ stuff. As an early adopter of the Betamax Video Recorder he could record films from British TV – especially those broadcast after I’d gone to bed – and play them back for me in the day. I wasn’t used to getting attention from my Dad, because – as a senior doctor at the local hospital – he worked long hours. Even at home he wasn’t one for playing with his kids. So, when he told me we were going to watch a film together, I was surprised and excited. We didn’t go to the cinema often; a few times a year to see things like The Water Babies or the Superman films, and my mother always took us. Dad had no interest in new releases, preferring to carefully curate from cinema’s past.
Figure 1 Film still from You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film
Among the first we watched was You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film, and one of the strangest – I loved it. Dad’s taste was for entertainment, but always of the highest quality. When we watched Rear Window he told me about Alfred Hitchcock, pointed out his formal innovations and cameo appearances. This was the first time I was aware of the director behind the camera with a distinct personality and vision. Dad adored the great British comedies produced by Ealing Studios, and it was through Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers that I came to understand the idea of ‘black comedy’. There were more dramatic films, like Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, which led us – via the mesmerizing figure of Orson Welles – to The Lady From Shanghai. I enjoyed them all, but they puzzled me. I wasn’t always sure how I was supposed to react. For decades I never grasped why he chose these films and not others. Only now have I got a theory.
Most of these movies dated from the 1940s through to 1950s. Dad had been a working-class boy growing up in Cardiff in Wales with a Jewish scrap merchant father. Like me, he was brought to the cinema by his mother, who loved culture and the arts. Back then, ‘going to the pictures’ wasn’t just about escapist fun, movies offered glamour, sophistication, and artistic brilliance, to everyone, including second and third generation immigrants in South Wales. When Dad turned eighteen he went to Bristol to ‘read’ Medicine and never went home again. Studying and working among posh young men he became one himself – taking that role like an actor in a movie. His medical career flourished, he married, started a family, built a house in the country, grew vegetables. By the time we sat down in our living room while the Betamax whirred and clicked, he hadn’t seen those films since he was a boy or a young man. That process, of showing them to his son, was a way to return to the past. I think he wanted to experience them again through my earnest, innocent eyes. Was he hoping to find the boy that he once was, to return to a childhood far from my own? It is too late to find out if this is true. My father, Jack Slater, died in September this year, at age 88, and so that conversation is closed.
While I appreciated those films and the process of watching them with Dad, I didn’t truly fall in love with cinema until a few years later. My parents got divorced in the mid-1980s, and it was the start of great changes. I turned thirteen, we moved away from my friends, I shifted from the safe world of a village primary school to a large, intimidating secondary school. I withdrew into a solitary world of books, computer games and TV, and found myself increasingly drawn to watching old movies. When school ended, to avoid going back to an empty house, I’d walk to the town library and stay until it was time to meet my Mum after work. There was a modest ‘Film’ section – novels that had been adapted, novelisations, director’s biographies, and hardback ‘yearbooks’ that listed key films for every decade. This is where I ended up. By the time I was fourteen, I was regularly described as a ‘Film Buff’ and was happy with this identity. I had absorbed so much information and trivia about movies – most of which I hadn’t seen – that I could name the year and director of all the films in the Time Out Film Guide. I regularly phoned up Dad and asked him to record films off late-night TV so I could catch up with them during the weekends I visited him. He’d set me up in his living room, explain to me again how to work the Betamax. This ancient relic, the same device that transmitted old films to my younger self, now sat snug on his new bookshelf, beside a small TV. When I got my own VHS VCR on my fourteenth birthday it ended this point of communication between us. I no longer needed his Betamax or him.
For both of us there was a vital link between the films we loved and loss in our lives. For him it was his childhood, a time when he dreamed in black and white on a big screen in Cardiff and the future was full of promise. For me, it was the loss of certainty and yes – in a way – the loss of my father. Films were a universe of escape and revelation and yet as Dad showed me, they contained mysteries of adulthood I desperately wished to solve.
There’s no way my own children would tolerate the film education I’d accepted. I was thrilled to see anything on our television, even in black and white and thirty years old. Today ‘screen-time’ is ubiquitous across myriad devices and all the content is new. Films to me, especially the old ones, always felt grand and eventful compared to quotidian TV production. For my kids – steeped in waves of streaming content that’s endlessly reproducible – the feature film is an anachronism, at best faintly exotic. What’s been lost is the ‘specialness’ of cinema – of going to the pictures as a family event, the scary scale of the big screen, of films making their TV premiere on Christmas Day, of hard-to-acquire VHS tapes, of being told a film is so important that it can change your life. I’m wary of the cul-de-sac of nostalgia and have to remember that all those films are – for the most part – still available, waiting to be discovered by the curious. Unlike my father, I’d never insist on making my kids sit down to watch The Lavender Hill Mob or Dial M For Murder. Instead, I have to be certain that one day, eventually, all of their losses, disappointments and dreams will lead them to fall in love with movies too.
Ben Slater is a Senior Lecturer in NTU and is writing a creative non-fiction book called LOST FILMS which grapples with the relationship between loss and cinema.
Ben Slater will be amongst the panelists at Perspectives Film Festival’s Scala Post-Screening Q&A Panel. Get your tickets here. (for website developers: https://perspectivesfilmfestival.com/event/scala-post-screening-qna-and-panel/)
Our 2022 articles offered a selection across four broad categories to facilitate your perusal. This article was part of the APPRECIATE category: From artists sharing their viewpoints about our programmed films. For the film-lovers and artists.