1990: summer of cinema

This piece was an unsuccessful competition entry. The brief was “memories of cinema-going”.

Not for us the spurious joys of cider by the fountain, or Tennent’s behind the hut in the top park. The summer my friends and I turned sixteen we marked this coming-of-age by getting into the cinema to watch 18-rated films. With the benefit of a quarter-century’s distance, I can see now that all we were doing, in trying to collapse the two years between our actual age and our ascension to adulthood, was highlighting our immaturity and youth. The mere act of trying to pass as an adult only spotlights the fact that you aren’t one.

The summer and autumn of that year – 1990 – saw the release of four films that we, as long-standing horror fiction addicts, awaited with excitement: Robocop 2, Total Recall, Hardware and Nightbreed. That only the latter is technically horror is by-the-by: the others were “genre”, and by definition we were sympatico; fellow travellers.

 

Roll up, roll up

My friend Will, at six feet, could easily pass for someone older. Rick and I, though, had the build and the look of sixteen year-olds, and young ones at that. Surely wearing a baseball cap and standing in line on tiptoes outside the ticket kiosk wasn’t going to fool anyone? And yet it did.

Holding the soft paper ticket (containing neither film nor screen information, merely a serial number), I expected at any moment to hear a shout from behind me:

“Wait just a second!”

“There’s been a mistake!”

“What’s your date of birth?”

But no. At the time, it felt like we’d pulled a fast one on the adult world whose number we aimed to join. But with hindsight, the demographic for these films would wait until the evening showing; at that late hour we would have been laughed out of the building. But for a 2.30 showing in a quiet county town, what ticket-seller was going to turn away a few more bums-on-seats? Maybe we’d even buy some popcorn.

 

The cinema in question was the Perth Playhouse. Perth was, and would be until our schooldays ended and we went our separate ways, our Saturday afternoon destination: there was no other realistic choice. Dundee was too far; neither Glenrothes nor Kirkcaldy held any attraction; Edinburgh may as well have been abroad. Will, travelling from outside our village, would come to Rick’s for lunch; I’d meet them on the bus up to Perth. We’d go to the record shops, the bookshops and the indoor market where pulp horror paperbacks could be picked up for as little as 25p; and, if anything good was in town, we’d go to the Playhouse. Afterwards we’d get a chip butty while we waited for the bus home; I’d go to my paper round and we’d convene at Rick’s in the evening. So routine, so circumscribed, so safe; everything about these actions showed up how far from adulthood we were.

Until I went to university, the Playhouse was – barring a trip to Glenrothes to watch Return of the Jedi – the only cinema I’d ever been to. It was entirely typical of its kind and even in its small size generated an unmistakable aura. When I later worked at the ABC (now Odeon) on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road I got a frisson when sticking the little white plastic letters which spelled out the films and the showtimes onto their hole-studded board. Never mind that the job was done in a dusty, chilly basement last decorated in the 1970s; I was like one of Santa’s elves. I was, in however small a way, helping to create the magic.

 

Do I remember the first time?

I don’t remember now which of the two – Robocop 2 or Total Recall – was released first. I think it was Robocop 2, but it doesn’t matter. I could easily check IMDB or Wikipedia and find out, but that would miss the point. The narratives we create about ourselves, our tiny mythologies, are created as much from memory’s failing as from its assiduity.

I’ve not seen Robocop 2 since then, and by all accounts it’s much poorer than the original. My only memory of it is that we whooped when Chris Quentin (Coronation Street’s Brian Tilsley) appeared in a minor role. Other than that – if indeed it came out before Total Recall – its only significance in my life is that it was my first cinema “18”.

I’d seen 18-rated films before, of course. As a horror fan, it would have been neglectful of me if I hadn’t. Videos were passed around the playground, and late night TV at the weekend would often have something worth recording (furtively, hoping my parents had gone to bed before the VCR kicked noisily into action). But a cinema door is something different. It’s a liminal zone, but one where the crossing of which, as soon as you’re old enough for the entertainments within, is taken for granted and then never considered again.

 

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Disney’s live action “The Cat From Outer Space”, which my aunt and uncle took me and my cousins to. They went back the following day to see it again, and I can still remember being faintly bemused that you’d go and see something you’d already watched. The cinema “bug” had not bitten me and in a way it never did: my parents were infrequent cinema-goers, so it wasn’t part of the fabric of my youth like it was for others. But the rarity of my visits made each one a major event. My Dad is tall and finds the seating uncomfortable, and to this day I have never been inside a cinema with him. Besides, we had a Betamax VCR and anything that came out on the big screen would eventually be available for the small one, no?

I had also had a deeply disappointing experience which perhaps instilled a basic mistrust of the big screen. The local community centre, one Saturday, converted its main hall into a makeshift cinema, with rows of seats and a reel-to-reel projector. They were showing, my aunt told me with great fanfare, Star Wars. I loved Star Wars; loved everything about it, yet had never actually seen the film. You can imagine my excitement that day; I expect I was a handful for my parents. So imagine, also, my disappointment at reaching the centre and finding the blackboard outside bore the words Star Trek.

No doubt it was all the same thing to my aunt: “space film”; very different to me. Nonetheless, we went inside to give it a go. I know Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not actually the longest film ever made, but on some deep, suppressed level you’ll never convince me.

 

What do we want?

Total Recall was controversial at the time, for the levels of violence and in particular the unprecedented number of onscreen deaths. Unlike Robocop 2, it’s a film I’ve re-watched and enjoyed since. It’s as over-the-top as you’d expect of anything involving Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven. There was no sex to speak of in any of these films, nor was the subject matter too mature for our immature minds, nor were they too complex in structure. No; we were prevented by age and the BBFC from viewing them legally because of the violence and the blood. And that was the attraction, of course. I don’t remember being bothered by the bodycount; it wasn’t gratuitous in context: any less of it would have affected the internal credibility of these films. Were the films themselves gratuitous? Of course they were, but very few are not: that’s entertainment. As I said at the beginning, we were bookish teenagers (not nerds: nerds didn’t read Clive Barker or listen to the Pixies; and we’d never have encountered the term geek), unworldly despite our aspirations. Our thrills were vicarious, and if that meant messy celluloid deaths, so be it. But the posters for the films in question were not lurid or grotesque; these were neither video nasties nor experiments in grand guignol. The Robocop 2 poster was “what it says on the tin”; Total Recall featured a moodily-lit Schwarzenegger and a Martian horizon, which was pretty classy by Arnie standards, even if it barely hinted at the Philip K Dick mindfuck that was the source story. Hardware gave less away: a menacing chunk of robot. As for Nightbreed, well, we’ll get to that.

Yes, we revelled in the violence; maybe what critical faculties we had were surrendered the moment we obtained the forbidden ticket. We pretended to maturity, like wearing an older sibling’s clothes: always conscious that the cuffs flapped, and the legs needed rolling up, and the belt had to be taken in another notch.

Will and I went to see the low-budget Brit-horror Hardware; perhaps Rick was unavailable, or didn’t fancy it. Either way the pair of us made up exactly half of the audience that afternoon. Some films leave you able to recall entire scenes; others maybe isolated images. Hardware, which again I haven’t seen since, leaves me with just an atmosphere. A dystopian shade of amber and a production design that evoked The Crystal Maze after a nuclear accident. However, I am backed up by a contemporary review in Starburst magazine which described it as a film to “enjoy immensely for what it is…and then immediately forget about”. Even so, you don’t go to watch films – or do anything – at that age with the purpose of retaining them for posterity (“anticipatory nostalgia”). The present moment is all; the fascination is with immediacy and surface glamour. That changes as you age. The self-consciousness of the adolescent is not the same as self-awareness. I’ll no doubt watch Hardware again at some point, but it won’t be in the cinema. However, though I may later remember more of the film, I’ll not remember the act. Watching a DVD is not the same experience.

 

The one that got away

Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy adaptation came out that summer and my younger brother was keen to see it. Buoyed by the ability to get into a film for which I wasn’t old enough, I told him I reckoned he could get in to watch it with me. Excited, he naturally ran off to tell our parents. I don’t remember it word-for-word but the conversation which followed with my Dad probably ran like this:

“What rating is Dick Tracy?”

“Fifteen.”

“How old is your brother?”

“Seven. And a half.”

Still never seen Dick Tracy. But the real film that got away that year was, agonizingly, the one we wanted to see the most: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed. Adapted from his own novella Cabal, this was going to be “the Star Wars of monster movies”. The creatures – the ‘Breed – looked awesome, and still do. But the studio got wind of what was coming (“what’s that? Redneck humans are the bad guys? The outcasts are goodies? Get out of here!”), savagely edited it and marketed it as a slasher thriller. To do this they played up the role of David Cronenberg as an urbane psychiatrist-cum-serial killer, and downplayed the whole “monster” element. The proposed poster by Les Edwards was a wonderfully enticing monster montage above the Nightbreed’s necropolis refuge; the actual poster was a badly cut and paste line-up. Neither one thing nor the other, the film flopped. A lopsided beast to be sure, but posterity has offered it a rebirth: a Director’s Cut was released in the US a few years ago, giving it a chance of some redemption. But that came far too late for a posse of Fife teenagers.

Despite our requests Perth Playhouse, perhaps sensing a dud, passed on the opportunity of showing Nightbreed. Scouting the listings in the local paper showed that Dundee’s Steps Theatre showed it, but a trip to Dundee was beyond the limits of an evening paper round, and was logistically difficult. Surely it’d arrive in Perth at some point? I was unaware of the realities of film release schedules. It was “out”, in the way a book was “out”, wasn’t it: available on the shelf forever?

The film as yet unseen is, of course, far better than the real thing. None of the flaws exist. Nightbreed was therefore going to be amazing. When I finally saw it ten years later, recorded late at night off a tiny combined TV & VCR unit, it looked awful. The 16-year-old me may have been blind to the flaws, but the 26-year-old me wasn’t. I look on it more fondly now, and for all the good work by the SFX team of Image Animation, wish only that it had come out late enough to have benefitted from the Jurassic Park CGI boom.

Nightbreed’s non-appearance helped open my eyes to the small stature of Perth’s cinema; helped me grow up in the sense that when you’re young your immediate environment seems to be the whole world, when in reality it was just a small corner of rural east-central Scotland. Not that big a deal.

 

Roll credits

Total Recall (or Robocop 2, whichever was the latter release) may have seemed to herald an exciting age of cinema-going for us but was really an ending: the last time all 3 of us went to the pictures together. Saturday jobs and (whisper it) girlfriends intervened; within a year the cracks were showing in our friendship and though we remained together until the last days of high school, it was largely through lack of any alternative.

We left genre behind, to an extent. Its film and literature had given us the rush our hormone-flooded bodies craved. Where it was reactionary (“expel the Other!”) it soothed our anxieties; where it was transgressive (“embrace the Other!”) it opened our eyes to new possibilities. But now journeys had to be made. My four years studying literature at University involved little that you’d find in the genre section of Waterstones. However, long after disowning these films and books in favour of Romantic poetry, the nouvelle vague or post-colonial narratives, their tug pulled me back. Not (solely) for the questionable balm of nostalgia, but because what other mode lets us frame a world becoming increasingly, well, weird? It’s too big a claim for our experience of the cinema that summer to say that it equipped us with the mental tools to process the world; but if it didn’t give us the tools, maybe it showed us where they could be found. And that, at any rate, is part of growing up.

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The mapping problem

I’ve written about maps in fantasy fiction before. For every reader who enthuses and pores over a double-page spread of spidery waterways and jagged mountain ranges, there’s another whose heart sinks at the OCD-level of detail, the neatness of it, the aura of omniscience.

I’m currently reading “Passing Time” (l’emploi du temps) by Michel Butor. It details – and the word is important – a year in the life of Jacques Revel, a French clerk spending time working in an office in the grim north English town of Bleston (modelled on Butor’s own stay in Manchester). The map in the frontispiece (below) was, when I first opened the book, a revelation.

emploi-du-temps

This is a map of Bleston, but not a map you’d find on sale in newsagent and bookshops, far less on your phone. It’s a subjective map; it shows only those streets and landmarks that Revel is familiar with. Anything he doesn’t know – and the town exists as a dark, unknowable mass in the novel – is simply not there. Unnamed streets lead off known routes, but no more of their shape is depicted than what the casual glance would register in passing.

Isn’t this how we carry cities in our heads? Not, perhaps, as we walk the streets, but if asked to give directions from one point to another, something like this is what we’d draw.

The novel I am currently writing is set largely on an island city-state. This island is divided into six administrative areas. Only five of these are named in the course of the book. What’s the other one called? Well, if it’s not in the story, does it matter? If none of the characters has cause to go there, or even to mention it, why specify?

For a while I swithered over the idea of even making a map. I have sketches – long pre-dating this version of the novel – which lay out in the most basic terms what the city looks like geographically, and how the areas are split. If I was to provide a map, I decided, it would be as vague and incomplete as my own knowledge of the city: partial, and contingent on the story’s demands.

So, the map I am creating is inspired by Butor’s, which has given me the confidence to build such an unreliable artefact. It has gaps: more gaps than details; it has names: but only those that are in the story.

I used to enjoy – what child didn’t? – drawing my own maps when I was younger, arbitrarily plonking down geographical features in the most unlikely (and unrealistic) of places. But there is something about the process that is too, well, neat. The conscientious author will want to create their map just so, an attitude which carries within it more than a hint of narcissism. I wanted to resist that, so I have bought a bundle of old streetmaps (those from the 1980s are best, before streetmaps become hyper-colourized). Scissors, correction fluid (to remove the street names) and glue mean I can cut & paste to make a collage map. My topography will be arbitrary but realistic and, to an extent, beyond my control. The city docks, for instance, will not be as I would draw them. Instead they’ll be what a hybrid of (say) Aberdeen and Dundee’s docks would be. I’m not copying existing streets, just appropriating their 2-dimensional shape and their spatial relationship.

The design will be guided by the text but at this first-draft stage there are paragraphs I’ve written which are set in surroundings that I haven’t fully visualised yet. The map can therefore also provide the setting and act as a spark to my imagination for when the time comes to rewrite. Oh look, I’ve got a bridge here; or a church.

This isn’t the first time that 1950s postmodernist French fiction (the nouveau roman) has fed into my current novel, but it’s the most fun.