Sunday, March 29, 2009

Double Down

The project I’m working on has had me watching a slew of British movies from the 1970s during the past week. Tough, I know. Although one was so spectacularly dreadful that I was shocked into silence as a whole load of utter nonsense played out to the ridiculous end, there was something wonderfully endearing about the rest.

Even though some of the budgets were so low that the joins were definitely showing, I still found them far more entertaining than the contemporary nonsense served up that the studios spunk hundreds of millions of dollars over. After that weekend of marvellous 1950s science fiction movies, and then catching up with a selection of classic British war films that included Ice Cold in Alex, Dunkirk and Millions Like Us, it feels like I’m giving up on current movies.

Having lunch with the magnificent H late in the week, and then with Mister Mark on Friday, we got to talking about the films we would see as kids, back in the days when you didn’t go to the cinema or to the movies but to “the pictures”. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how it was a much more innocent time. Without the internet, without the plenitude of entertainment magazines repeatedly banging the drum about which new movies we had to see, without all the relentless fucking hype... we made our own, mostly impartial decisions about what to see.

Early last year I blew off about how back then, without these newer outlets relentlessly spewing out information about every new release, it was down to the eye-catching posters to sell each film. Robert E. McGinnis’ outstanding artwork for Live and Let Die was the first to really catch my attention as I stood in the queue taking in every detail.

As Boy’s Own adventures go, Where Eagles Dare has always been pretty hard to beat. The poster itself is just as unbeatable. To begin with it has that cracking strapline. Then comes the main illustration that, rather than slavishly reproducing actual scenes, attempts to encapsulate the film as a whole with an image so over the top it’s bordering on genius.

Of course these weren’t the actual posters that I would have seen back then. UK quads were produced in landscape format rather than portrait, which meant all the component parts would be shuffled around, with titles and credits placed to the side of the main illustration rather than above and below, scaled to fit the very different ratio.

In H’s den he had recently hung a framed poster for The Poseidon Adventure on the wall. As we discussed the aesthetic beauty of these posters from our childhood that went much further than just simply relying on lazy composited headshots of the various stars involved, H reminded me of the posters specially produced by distributors re-releasing films in a double bill.

One we both remembered well was for Diamonds Are Forever and Gold, which for me was the only time I ever saw a Sean Connery Bond movie at the cinema. Even though the second feature was a rather leaden story of intrigue involving a South African gold mine, they went all out on the poster, even if Roger Moore posed wearing a safety helmet and holding a stick of dynamite rather than the Walther PPK looks utterly hilarious now.

Still, it was better than the double bills that passed through local cinemas unencumbered with posters, where, to obviously save money on any new promotional material, the film titles were instead simply written on coloured paper and placed behind the lucite shield on the frontage of the cinema. In those instances you either went or you didn’t, it was as simple as that.

If I didn’t remember them as well, it was most probably because they were for movies I was too young to see or, living deep in the countryside, simply missed out on. Looking back, for those three years, trips to the cinema barely existed. Instead it was during that time, I suppose, that I sustained myself on a diet of the old Hollywood classics that were shown on the BBC2 afternoon matinees.

I could remember seeing Jaws with friends from the next farm along because such a big deal was being made about it at the time. Aside from that I would have to wait until summer holidays surfing in Cornwall, pitching up at the small cinema in a narrow backstreet of Padstow one evening in the week. On one such excursion I sat through a double bill of Alistair Maclean’s When Eight Bells Toll and Puppet on a Chain, even though we were expecting to see something entirely different.

When local cinemas announced a film’s title and viewing times in nothing bigger than a small ad in the back of the newspaper, sometimes they would only be showing it for a few days rather than a full week. If you weren’t quick enough something else would have arrived to take its place. On that summer evening, unbeknownst to us the cinema had moved on to its next presentation. I don’t remember complaining.

Then, once the old man decided to try a new business venture and we moved to the south coast of Devon, suddenly I had three cinemas with four screens virtually on my doorstep. For the next few years I went to the pictures almost every weekend. While I could certainly remember the first AA or X-certificate films I had each gotten in to see underage – The Wild Geese and Alien, respectively – there were still many titles that now escaped me.

Just barely remembering brief scenes or the names of actors involved, I hoped H could help me out. These weren’t big productions but it didn’t mean that they were so low budget the film crews had to rot around behind their sofa cushions for any spare change they might need. Instead they were mid-range films that audiences went to see simply because they were there.

Titles like Bear Island and Avalanche Express floated to the surface of our discussion; bog standard action-adventures that usually had a cast of character actors that either included the odd familiar face from television or possibly one of the true Hollywood greats in the twilight years of their career. Plots may have been relatively straightforward and optical effects for any films that were science fiction or fantasy-based were astonishingly mediocre, but in their defence the filmmakers tried to make the best of what they had, rather than lazily spit some nasty exploitation flick.

Though these films may not stand the test of time particularly well or be held in high regard by many, one thing they have going for them is that, free from the kind of relentless hype that nowadays can only result in disappointment, they were almost always entertaining enough to while away a couple of hours. And they more often than not made sense. Most of the time you can’t ask for anything better than that.

Midweek on BBC2, looking back on his long television career in the first part of Alan Wicker’s Journey of a Lifetime, the old gent declared, “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” I’m not sure I completely agree.


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