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Black Lamb


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Trial by fire

September 1st, 2003


Life-changing films? Well, I first smoked dope after seeing an American public education film on the evils of marijuana (raucously enjoyed by its 1970s audience, but not quite in the spirit its producers intended) at the Electric Cinema in the Portobello Road. Similarly, I had my first snog (in the unlovely teenage argot of the day) in a double seat at the Rushden Ritz at the precise moment when God, as mediated by Cecil B. de Mille, was inscribing the Ten Commandments in stone. But I somehow don’t think it was exactly this kind of counter-suggestible behavior that my editor had in mind.

The obviously instructional, the too-pointed message always makes me want to do the opposite, but, in other respects, film, with its grand-scale intimacy, has such visual power to sear (the first newsreel film of concentration-camp bodies being shovelled into mass graves is mentally indelible) that I have always felt the need to treat it with a certain wariness.

And for that, by and large, I blame Bambi. I must have been three, maybe just four, when my mother took me to see it. I had never before seen a moving image. Pictures were things that stayed safely on the pages of storybooks. Moving things were real. And my overriding memory of the experience is of terror, terror and incomprehension: why were we all just sitting there waiting to be burned up by the rampaging fire? (A less timorous, more tender-hearted friend remembers a similar puzzlement, but, in her case, about the apparent hard-heartedness of adults: how could they joke and laugh when Bambi’s mother had died?)

I don’t think the fact that my mother recalled only my fascination with the tip-up seats and unwillingness to sit down and watch the film invalidates my memory. I always dealt with my infantile fears (and not only infantile) by avoidance and blankness. Death-raining planes? Run away. The first sight of the unfathomable ocean? Sit with my back to it for a week as if it weren’t there — then fall in love with it and refuse to leave it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I later fell in love with film; I’m no buff. But I did find as I grew older that there were myriad pleasures to be had from it, so long as I avoided any repetition of that initial shock, as a result of which I can remember nothing about the film except the forest fire, forever devouring everything in its path. The influence of Bambi may, or more likely may not, extend deep into my life, but it certainly affected my later movie-going in a big way. Through later childhood my taste tended towards inconsequential old musicals where women danced in black-and-white on the wings of airplanes and Fred and Ginger tapped their way towards happiness ever after.

The regular adolescent Saturday night at the pictures was, it seems now, one long procession of expansive American epics and drab vignettes of English provincial life. College days brought James Dean from one side of the Atlantic and austere intellectual films from the other. Allegorical death was all right, Bergman’s Seventh Seal (self-flagellation apart) tolerable. But still I continued to avoid anything that threatened images of torment, mutilation… or fire.

There was plenty else worth seeing in an era when established boundaries were being tested all round, when a man-to-man kiss on screen (in Sunday Bloody Sunday) could elicit a gasp of surprise from the entire audience. (It is not a cause for celebration that it was such a shock, but would anything have a contemporary audience gasping?)

I did, however, miss some interesting films. One above all, I managed to put off seeing for decades. Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers was said to be (and is) telling and important, but I could not get round the fact that it was also said to include unsparing documentary-style presentation of torture — with fire. Decades on and beginning to grow out of the Bambi effect, I was finally able to watch it on the more compassable small screen.

I doubt, though, if I shall ever grow right out of it. I can watch most things now, but my fantasy video collection for when I am too old and decrepit to do much except sit and watch films still inclines more to Strictly Ballroom than it does to Reservoir Dogs, more to Local Hero than to Rambo. Maybe I should just bite the bullet — and watch Bambi again! •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Wilce | Link to this Entry


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