It’s the small things I tend to notice in films that often make my friends and family chuckle when I recall scenes. It must be the impressions I make of gangsters often with grapes in my cheeks. I could literally forget what happened in a film, plot wise, but still, I’ll remember what I want to remember. Like when Robert De Niro’s girlfriend in ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ is late, and arrives wearing a beautiful white dress. They’re walking to the car when she asks him apologetically ‘‘been waiting long?’’ The gangster that is De Niro, puts his arm around her snug, and gazes into her eyes lovingly. ‘‘All my life!’’ he says smiling. As most probably do, I often notice the random person who may be walking through the background, the detail on the outfits the characters are wearing, and the difference that subtitles can make to a movie experience. My forte includes noticing the extras in a film and what they are up to, or the woman’s blouse that goes from ironed to creased within the same scene. The skill is seeing the first time that Kenickie in ‘Grease’ slouched during the entire movie so as to appear shorter that the lead character Danny Zuko.
There’s something so distinguished though about eighties films, so much so, that I feel I should have been a teenager back then, wearing high-waisted mom jeans and riding my bike, unburdened by technology. These films are like a bottle of mascara at the end of its life; still useful, still great and full enough to leave a mark. The slow tempo of the eighties comes through in films like ‘Three Men and A Baby’ (1987), ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (1986) and ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985). In the early nineties, I was a pup learning to be human, so I caught up on cutesy films like ‘Father of the Bride’ (1991) ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993) and ‘Mrs Doubtfire (1993) at a later stage. Sunday films at my mother’s house over time became traditional, an opportunity to get everyone together. I would often call a family movie, a ‘Sunday film’ because a Sunday film meant an eighties soundtrack, possibly Eddie Murphy with rolled sleeves undercover in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ his laugh reminiscent of the donkey in Shrek. It may mean Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito and Kathleen Turner in 1984’s ‘Romancing the Stone’, a great action film set in Columbia. Or it means watching 1985’s ‘The Goonies’, a film my friend Roshni made me promise to watch, so that we could be cool again and she would speak to me again on Monday. A film on my mother’s Arabic cable box can bring the family together. The comforting face of Adam Sandler in ‘Spanglish’ on MBC4 with Arabic subtitles may be playing on a Sunday. How my mother would say ‘‘that was a nice film’’ meaning that it bought a serene mood into the room, one that made her grown children cuddle with her on her king size bed.
Why do we switch off the lights when we watch films? To limit distraction or to celebrate
darkness? There’s no handling of things and your body is not moving through or over places when watching films; you’re essentially a tourist through just the eyes, windows of a house. You cannot touch what you’re feeling. But there is such impression, such elevated heart rates and waves of emotion. Simply put, a cinematic experience. You think you’re able to distance yourself from the murderers, bad luck in love characters or cancer patients. But are you really? Don’t we watch films to understand, empathise but mostly to relate. I’m sure, more often than not, that we reach for the films we have the most in common with. The films we don’t necessarily choose to watch but watch anyway, are sometimes the ones we cannot relate to. It’s like dealing with something you shouldn’t have to deal with. Like sitting in the cold when there’s a heater in the room. We suddenly become toffee-nosed critics, expert professionals and we know everything there is to know. Your place in the world is solid in that moment, so you’re fine to pry on fictional characters lives with no issue, because you are comfortable in your alcove but not so comfortable in your obligations maybe?
I once overheard my colleagues discussing a film called ‘HellBoy’, and I couldn’t help but laugh. ‘‘He’s not tryna be a monster though is he. He’s just tryna be a guy’’ Sometimes the movies we haven’t watched, are as appetising as films we decide to re-watch. When people describe them, though I haven’t experienced them, they sound like something I may have once felt, and I’m completely sold on the idea. Like putting weight on a swollen body part, if its bad you feel pain. If it’s good, it can soothe the itch. Listening to my colleague describe David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive made me think of ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ but on crack. My university lecturer describing the first scene of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ had me momentarily arrested in thought of first scenes, brutal openings and the art of creating shock. I find that I return more frequently to films that do not open with a bang because I feel I know what’s coming around the corner. I’ve been there, bought the t-shirt. It’s the openings that are subtle, that we miss like a friend, that we come back to like you would a beloved clothing item, that become timeless.
There’s a film that begins in New York City on a grey morning and an orchestra plays a
popular melody, an overall sense of weariness and want fills the moment. A yellow taxi cab is pulling in and a wonderfully glamorous woman steps out of it. She wears a black evening dress and the bones of her back are peeking through. She’s wearing pearls, black chic sunglasses and her hair is in a up do. She’s outside a store and we see that she is poised and elegant; simply incandescent like the summer morning she’s entered. New York is asleep. Her beauty is offset by what she carries. It appears to be a doggy bag and a take away coffee. She reaches inside the bag and hangs a croissant from her mouth as she fiddles with her coffee and returns to watch the window display. The music is as pretty as the actress, as lovely and warm. She longs for something in the window, her head bent left in the shot as she eats in a pretty way. She walks away begrudged, but in a regal fashion and in comparison, you notice that the city is grubby. She is Holly Golightly; the orchestra is playing ‘Moon River’ with violins and this is ‘‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ Like a perfume you find impossible to describe, I know this opening and entire film is a classic. I only ever want to give it my perched head and the attention it deserves.
Once, I went to a drive-in cinema in Mississauga, Canada on an evening when I had just
flown in, desperate with jet lag and dissatisfaction. We watched ‘Dark Knight’ and the experience was peculiar to say the least. I sat in a car with my cousins, no indication or warning of how important my seat choice would be before we squeezed in, all four of us in the back, two in the front. I sat behind the driver, eyes dragging. My cousin who was driving, paid a clerk who let us roll through and so we parked in what looked like a park in the day, a lonely climbing frame to my left had been wrecked with sand, scarred with sandal burns. Suddenly, my cousin tuned her stereo to a number she had written on a bit of paper, and there it was. We could hear everything coming from the glowing screen ahead quite far in the distance, blowing out of the radio speakers. I was impressed to say the least, now able to tick this off on my bucket list, but also at the mechanics of this thing. Then, I was quickly irritated as I moved my neck to try and get comfortable, practically pushing my sister to get a middle view that was veering near impossible and believe it or not, I ended up falling asleep and missed most of the film. Heath Ledgers death had been the first celebrity death to have really rocked me, and I refused to watch his last movie with tired eyes. I was supposed to come to my first outdoor cinema or drive in with the love of my life. In my head, we would procrastinate about things we had not yet finished, and we would slip out to watch something in a vintage car with a topless roof, the summer nearing the end, yawning. I never imagined watching my first drive in movie with a car full of teens, one with her shoes off, toes in the air, the other bored, head out the window and talking throughout. And there was me falling asleep, unable to stop myself, in two places at once.