Sunday, 17 May 2009

Home movies

Films are one of the nearly-essentials of modern life. Books, music and art are the real thing but films run close because they just blitz the senses. Well, good ones do.

Even if you're not particularly enjoying it, there's no denying the powerful emotional impact of a movie. It can make you laugh, cry, or just plain nauseous. One film made me faint right off.

There's never sufficient time in life to take in everything you want to see at the cinema so we just joined one of those dvd club which send you a couple of films a month and you post them back, just to see how it goes.

I didn't think it would be much cop, to be honest. We Sky+ films and then delete them because there's no time to watch, lacking time partly because I feel you should see a film from beginning to end with no interruption to get the full flow and effect.

In the living room, no matter how comfy the sofa (and ours is lush) at the dramatic moments when you shriek, you shriek alone – not like the cinema.

In the cinema the absolute best moments are when the audience is more than the sum of its parts; the intakes of breath are positively choral, the squeaks of fear orchestrated to the split-second and the mass snufflings (I'm thinking final scene of Romeo and Juliet..and more recently Marley and Me) signal emotional upset on the grand scale. The Jaws moments, the Silence of the Lambs moments, the ET moments – all times when the experience transcended mere cinema and branded itself memorably on your soul.

But there are compensations when you watch at home. You don't have to be quiet or sit still. You can eat, drink and heckle. It's all very Shakespearean. We are like the groundlings, getting a bit lairy and raucous. Heckling and laughing and inserting lines which explain the action or which the characters should be saying in order to make it ridiculous.

We had a particularly good time with Van Helsing the other night. Hugh Jackman. Well, you would, wouldn't you?

Considering it's not my goblet of gore at all, it was astonishingly entertaining. Until his clothes all started to fall off, Jackman mostly wore big hat and a long dark coat and was accompanied by Kate Beckinsale looking demure and very like one of the great forties movie beauties.

I haven't watched that genre since Peter Cushing packed up so it came as a shock to realise that werewolves wear underpants before they go all furry. And when the fur comes off, the pants stay on. Decorous, I call it. Like the old days. Fangs for the memories.

The pyrotechnics in the hall of the Vampire in Chief were amazing – worthy of Merthyr Tydfil on bonfire night but without the blazing cars.

Then there was Kate Beckinsale shinning up a rope in a corset. Respect! I was always hopeless at shinning up anything. I have weak girly arms. But so has she. I can't help but think a special effects man was giving her a bunk up. Well he would, wouldn't he?

The monk made me laugh when he got an offer he couldn't refuse from a bawdy wench.

“But he can't! He's a monk!!!!” I exclaimed.

“He's just a friar” remarked DT man.

“And I think she's ready to sizzle.”

I lobbed a breadstick at the screen in disgust. You could never do that at the cinema.

Size isn't everything.

I went in spite of the warnings. I had been told in no uncertain terms “Beware, for you enter that portal and the devil will take your soul and file it under “odds and sods.”

It wouldn't be inappropriate, me being both a little odd and occasionally, a bit of a sod.

It looked like an anonymous Government building. There was a barrier which indicated you had to be in the know to get into the car park. High black railings, spiky wire at the top.

It was the kind of two storey red-brick building with temporary single-storey off-shoots which might be used in Spooks or 24 as a place where anonymous Eastern Europeans beat the living shit out of double-dealers. The empty room, the chair in the centre, a smelly, unshaven John Prescott bearing down on the suspect with a dental wrench, blood on the floor.

At any moment, Jack Bauer could grab me from behind, hand clamped over my mouth, hissing in my ear his trademark “Trust me. I won't let them hurt you.”

Yeah, Jack. He's the man but you can't believe anything he says. Approximately four minutes after that assurance the woman is being buried alive in a ditch and he's half an hour late to the rescue, having made three personal phone calls to the President, flown a helicopter to drop a small atomic bomb in some desert and despatched a couple of villains within a ten mile radius first.

The main door had no intercom but I had to fill in forms before they allowed me in. I was instructed to leave my bag and belongings in a locker. They didn't make me wear paper knickers but, frankly, it was a worry, I can tell you. The other worry was someone coming at me with rubber gloves on. It might be their idea of research but it's not mine. Logically, though, there was more of a risk of a frisk on the way out.

The next trauma was having to leave all my pens (I have at least fifteen lurking in the darkest recesses of my bag) behind too. Only pencils are allowed. Thank goodness for my Shakespearean 2Bornot2B even though the lead is poor. They went for wit over quality but that's usually a fair swap.

I proceeded to the room where you could order up old documents and papers from the Strong Room. They don't let you in there to mess about amid their priceless archives but the very name sounds as though the walls are bent like sheer tensed muscle.

I waited in an airy room full of tables and chairs where the walls were packed with shelves of old books. Big sets of them; directories, year books, you name it. I ordered up my Old Stuff and settled in with a couple of volumes of 19th century Hunt's Directory and Court Guides; wonderful, detailed, absorbing and accompanied by engravings and advertisements.

Cheltenham for example attracted “wealthy and influential personages.” They were “the titled, the opulent and invalids of the more affluent classes, who during the summer season arrive in throngs, not only to behold the fairest essay of Nature's skill and care but to partake of its health–restoring waters and inhale its pure and genial breezes, the extraordinary salubrity of which has long been proved by the longevity of its inhabitants...” etc

Those Victorians. Never used one word where a dozen would do but I rather like it. It would not be unpleasant, I fancy, to take a course in Victorian language. If there was, perchance, a Victorian chatroom on the internet, one might venture to pass the time of day with persons of similar 19th century persuasions. Either that or rent a boxed set of period drama DVDs.

I kept an eye on the whiteboard on the other side of the room. When your name goes up there you know your Old Stuff is ready and you can collect it from the desk.

It's not unlike Argos. You are at the desk, the archive person goes to the shelves. But instead of waiting for a troglodyte boy to lurch about for ten minutes, inspecting the tickets on every single thing except the huge lawnmower box you're waiting for, the archive staff know their stuff and they are quietly efficient.

The expectation was intense. There were three of us. The first woman collected an armful of documents – remember the size of the class homework pile when you were at school? Say 38 pupils, a couple of sheets each. Well it was twice the height of that, tied in five bundles with old ecru ribbon and they were all tea-coloured. Maybe it was the class of 1648.

I had no idea what mine would be like. This was the first batch of three different lots of Old Stuff. In my experience documents are either A4, A5 or a map. Anything different is awkward.

Then one of the archive ladies emerged from a back room lugging a cardboard tube about eight feet long and a foot wide. She offered it to the guy in front of me.

Jeez. I thought. He's got a Swiss horn!! It was the exact same size. He'd have a job on his hands to drag it to the alpine pastures, though. He'd never get it past the stern lady on the front desk who was, in all probability, fully trained in martial arts and you could never negotiate a package that size through the small window in the gents.

Whatever it was, I was impressed. They lied when they said size doesn't matter. It bloody does. It was all I could do to stay in the queue and not follow him like a puppy as he dragged his quarry into a side room. I was jealous and a tad wistful. It was probably a map. A ****-off big old map. I love maps.

I swallowed my disappointment. It caught in my throat like the Vitamin C tablet that almost killed me once. Sweet irony. I hadn't read the “soluble” bit on the pack and it turned out to be precisely the width of my oesophagus.

Then it was my turn. The archives lady approached the shelf. Would mine be that pile on the top, or that thickly folded bundle with the red ribbon beneath?

She returned with a slim piece of cardboard. It had plainly been cut by someone who wasn't very good at making cardboard folders and tied with a faded pink ribbon. It was the smallest, slimmest thing anyone had collected.

I took it to my table, thankfully still unoccupied by anyone else. I didnt want anyone looking at my stuff. I'd actually been tempted to take some of the old books and build a kind of wall around my pencil and paper to keep prying eyes out.

I pulled at the ribbon, gingerly lifted the folder and out slipped several pieces of folded paper. Letters. The first was to a lady in Birmingham with several gentle admonishments about looking after herself and getting out and seeing people. There was another in similar vein. Both 1920's letters from and to people I'd never heard of.

They've got it wrong, I thought. Given me the wrong bundle. Maybe I'd got a number wrong. Then I unfolded another piece of paper. Flowing, exquisite script written with the finest nib and a fabulous signature with many flourishes. I recognised the name. This was it. Tricky to read but breathtakingly old, original and somehow alive in my hand.

I already knew enough of this particular gentleman to see him sitting at a particular desk near a particular window with a particular view. I just don't hear his voice yet. But I think that will come.

Just one small letter – not even A5 - but saturated with significance. Wow, wow and thrice wow.

A bell went, sounding the end of the session. Just as well they throw you out. I could live in that place.

Meanwhile mapman was probably struggling to get it back into his Swiss horn tube. Who wants a map anyway? Pah. Size isn't everything.