Part 1 – 1972-1995
I’ve loved movies almost my whole life. I’ve watched then in single, palace-like cinema houses redolent of the glory years of the fifties and sixties, in modern multiplexes, or in small, dusty art houses that have seen better days. I’ve been to cinemas in Germany, the UK, Kazakhstan, Zambia, Guyana, Canada, Kuwait, and, as the small TV screen gave way to the bigger flat panels, watched even more on a 72” TV in the comfort of my home, or even smaller screens on my computer. In the short course of my life I saw the more personal art house films morph into the summer blockbuster, watched films that once could reliably show for months be yanked after a few weeks, and the great movie theatres of my youth be replaced by multiplexes with twenty screens…and I saw with real regret, the demise of those same original movie houses as they fell into abandoned disrepair, and eventually disappeared altogether.
While my movie going life, such as it is, began in Zambia in the early 1970s, it was really in Guyana that my experiences remain the most vivid. In 1976 we had moved to there from Africa, which was quite a culture shock for me – I had been going to an American international school before, and suddenly was thrust into a British school system and lifestyle, overlaid with an English patois I did not understand well (I was still learning the language at that time). These were the days before TV: I had only ever seen a tiny 12” black-and-white model in Zambia, and there the programming started at 6pm so you can imagine how much of that I ever got to see. And therefore the most common form of mass entertainment for the general population were the cinemas…of which there were many back then: in GT the Astor, Globe, Metropole, Strand, Plaza (replacing the London, on Camp Street) and Hollywood in Kitty were the most popular, with Liberty and Empire (formerly the Metro) taking in the Indian crowd with exclusively Bollywood films and the Starlite drive-in catering to the weekend crowd who enjoyed such things. And up and down the towns and villages of the coast were yet others, many of which I never got to see, serving mostly their local constituencies within walking distance, and as a local social spot for young people and older ones to meet each other.
Because we were living up in Providence on the East Bank, we didn’t go often, but we did go, and often to the Starlite. I always had a soft spot for the place, because back in Zambia a drive-in was where we had often patronized. In fact, the very first film I ever watched was at a drive-in outside Lusaka, where our parents took my brother Roger and me to see James Bond in You Only Live Twice. There was another film on the double bill, long forgotten, and Roger and I watched bug-eyed as James Bond (“Who’s he, Daddy?” – “A British spy”) took on the baddies, cracked witticisms we were too young to understand, kissed the girls (we closed our eyes, too embarrassed to look) and dealt with Blofeld. Great night. Others followed here or there, though only The Three Musketeers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad which we saw with our German friends the Reinders, stand out in my memory.
(As an aside, Golden Voyage was too cool for words, and left me with a lasting impression of stop-motion animation and its zen-master, Ray Harryhausen, whose career I have followed ever since: I’m a sucker for good special effects, well and imaginatively executed. I may not have seen every movie the man ever made, but I dare say I’ve seen many of the best ones: the Sinbad movies (Golden Voyage, 7th Voyage, Eye of the Tiger), Jason and the Argonauts, Beast from 20,000 fathoms, Clash of the Titans, 3 Voyages of Gulliver, One Million Years BC…and decades later, my own son could not understand why I was so delighted to see “Harryhausen’s” as the name of the bar in Pixar’s excellent Monsters Inc. and the piano in Corpse Bride. Oh sure, CGI now dominates and there’s something to be said for the smooth hyper-reality of imaginary monsters (or disasters, or machines) interacting so well and so seamlessly with live action humans, without all the blue screen and matte effects that were so primitive back in the day, and which always have a light nimbus around the characters who were (badly) integrated into a frame…but I will always, like most old farts, have a soft spot for the more primitive special effects of my youth. What can I say.)
Watching movies in Guyana was a different kettle of fish entirely, which brings me to the matter of what cinemas were like in a former British colony dreaming quietly away in a sliver of South America.
To begin with, all cinemas were divided into four sections, roughly paralleling the social strata left behind by the Brits. The poorest section, with the least amenities, was Pit, and let me tell you, it was not for the faint of heart. You sat on bare benches, no backs, mere feet from the massive screen so you had to crane your neck to look up, your feet either crunching the discarded peanut shells or sticking into dried soda and chico gum spilled or spat out carelessly long ago, and you were attacked by bugs on every exposed surface of your body. Even the tickets for most cinemas that were issued for Pit were sold from a different office – although to call it an office is to stretch the term to its limits, as it was a small, windowless booth with a slit for the snakelike fingers of the attendant to take your bob and issue you with a ticket (good luck if you needed change). Pit was, not unnaturally, where the poor attended, but I’ll tell you, I went in there a couple of times, and it was always the liveliest place in the cinema, ‘cause people there just didn’t care and did exactly as they pleased, drank beer, smoked like hell and talked as if they were at home, probably as a big middle finger to the middle and upper classes.
You think I jest? Permit me to illustrate: I was in Globe or Plaza one Saturday afternoon (alone) watching The Incredible Mister Limpet with Don Knotts – an old movie, yet the cinema was full. It was hot and the fans were barely moving the air around. Down from below in the throng (I was upstairs for once) came the piercing wail of a baby. It wouldn’t stop. It went on and on. The audience rustled and murmured. Grumbles increased in volume. And, right on cue came the irritated shout from Pit: “Lady, put a f**kin’ bubbie in de chile mout’!!!” I rest my case. Tell me where you could ever have that happen in any multiplex these days.
Sloping gently from behind Pit, and divided from it by a low wall, was House. Fold-up wooden seats, a better distance from the screen – this was where I most commonly sat. If you went far back enough you sat underneath the overhead range of Balcony and while I’ve heard that young people of limited means would use the back of House to make out with their girlfriends, or that occasional professional shady ladies of the night would transact business there, to the accompaniment much grunting and huffing and puffing, I never saw any of that myself, nor did I ever take a girlfriend of my own there. Upstairs, as I noted, was the Balcony, and here the management did check to see that you had a ticket before letting you in – soft seats, wider and more comfortable, and an attendant in the early years to show you to your seat with a torch if you came in after the lights were down (this practice was discontinued as cost cutting came into vogue when TV started to bite into the ticket revenues). And in the front of Balcony, right at the edge of the overhang to House, was Box which was separate sections of six or eight plush seats where the well-to-do brought their families, and whose kids cheerfully lobbed peanuts, sweetie papers or spitballs at the not so lucky patrons of Pit. For my money, Balcony was best and when I finally had money from a job, it was here I went, rather than relegating my butt to the hard seats of House.
Still, the Guyanese sitting in any part of the cinema were totally involved in what was showing, no matter how trite or crappy or aged it might have been. The energy level in a fast-paced movie such as, oh, Smokey and the Bandit, which I saw at the Astor around 1980, was simply astounding. It was like sitting at a really good church revival listening to a fire-and-brimstone preacher who literally had the members crying, fainting and biting the heads off snakes (and I’ve been to a few of those, therefore know whereof I speak). The crowd laughed, cheered, cried, roared and jeered in a riotous form of mass participation, in a way that these days is simply not possible. And they were also highly vocal about any interruption that impeded their enjoyment of whatever film they happened to be watching. None of this polite suck-teet’ or low grumbling such as what happens in multiplexes these days; they were loud about it, and made sure everyone knew how pissed off they were. Most people of my generation and earlier can remember how hot the cinemas were (before airconditioning slowly got introduced in the eighties), but the projectionist’s booth must have been hell, what with those high-power lamps they used. And as a result, the film celluloid often burnt through, the screen went brown and bubbly and then glaring white, and the poor bastard had to go do some splicing on the fly while being heckled, whistled, shouted at and cussed out by a highly irritated audience. We won’t even discuss the incessant blackouts and the delay caused by switching over to the external generators.
When we moved back into Georgetown proper in 1978, to the house my father inhabits to this day, things started to get interesting: because, as long as I had a bike or a small-piece for a mini-bus or a Morris-Oxford cabbie, I could pretty much go where I pleased. Hell, the Liberty (formerly the Rialto, or Rio) was a thirty minute walk up Garnett Street, and those were days when it was safe for a young kid to walk alone on a Saturday afternoon to go visit the flicks. I didn’t go to the movies that often by myself, but being in reasonable proximity to the cinemas meant that we could go as a family more often than formerly. Saturday morning films at the plaza were always fun: Roger and I would get dumped there (or Mom would come with us) and thus we watched The Three Musketeers (an older version), sword-and-sandals epics from Italy (atrociously dubbed over in English) and the ever-present low-budget, ever-popular biblical films; the better ones came into their own every Easter – then, you could reliably expect to see reruns of The Robe, Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments, Demetrius and the Gladiators, David and Bathsheeba and sometimes even Ben Hur.
Dad and the Moms would take us to the movies now and again in the evenings, when there was something worth watching (Dad usually chose, knowing more about the medium than anyone else). And so with him we saw Close Encounters (the original edition before Spielberg went back and trimmed it) and Jaws. This latter film literally scared the living s**t out of the audience – not least because we lived on the edge of the Atlantic as a nation and frequently went swimming in its muddy brown waters – and it kind of bears out what I say about both Pit and the level of involvement the Guyanese audience had with what was going on up on the screen.
I still remember, so many years later, that ominous opening score. Duuuh-du…. duuuh-du… tum-tum tum-tum…remember that? In a packed movie house, people smoking (yes, it was allowed) and sweating and on the edge of their seats, the tension in those opening minutes was electric: until someone utterly lost it down in Pit, jumped up and screamed “Woman, get de hell out de watah!!!” and collapsed the entire movie house in a gale of laughter. Yeah, it kind of spoiled the movie…but it kind of made it better too.
In 1979, Dad and Mom took a six week vacation to Canada, and left Roger and me with relatives in Princess Street, in Charlestown. Now, Roger and I would happily stroll around the corner into Broad Street and play pool with twenty-five cent (bob piece) coins we begged our uncle for, and indeed, we did so quite often. I always did like shooting pool (and still do), and we had four or five beer gardens to chose from during the day (everyone knew the Old Man, so it was not as if we had an issue getting in no matter how young we were); we usually played several games on a single coin by catching potted balls before they went into the pocket until we were admonished to either get out or pay for our games. But gradually, as Roger made his own friends up and down the street, he wasn’t available for me to hang out with — and that’s when I started to go the cinemas a half-hour walk away a lot more: we had been left with twenty dollars apiece, and tickets for House costing forty or fifty cents, I calculated I could watch at least forty movies.
So three or four times a week, when I wasn’t reading books borrowed from the Haqs next door (lots of Edgar Rice Burroughs and western novels in their collection, all of which I read several times) or trying to tag along with my brother, I would walk down to the Strand, or Metropole or Globe or Astor and watch the early afternoon shows by myself. I even hoofed it to the Plaza once or twice, though that was a bit further along, and once took a minibus to the Hollywood in Kitty to watch a double bill. Those were still in fashion at the time, so for my fifty cents I could get to see two movies for the price of one. And so I watched Sabata with Lee Van Cleef doubled with The Party with Peter Sellers, Two Mules for Sister Sara and some John Wayne flick that bored me, Sergio Leone’s western trilogy – that summer there was a glut of westerns in the cinemas for some reason. Once I even got into see The Wild Bunch, which, for a boy of twelve, was an equally traumatic and exhilarating experience. I had never seen on-screen violence quite as graphic before, not even in The Wild Geese which had sold-out crowds at the Globe the year before, and which Roger and I and a friend managed to sneak in to see in spite of the adults-only rating it had (and which was quite strictly enforced). And there were always Hong Kong kung-fu movies to be seen: Eagle’s Claw, Snake’s Fist, Cat’s Paw and Drunken Master with Jackie Chan (before he became better known to western audiences with, oh, The Big Brawl and Cannonball Run), 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Monkey Kung Fu, Invincible Shaolin, Shaolin Kickboxer, Flying Guillotine, Spiritual Boxer, Seven Secret Rivals, Thundering Mantis and all those films starring Bolo Yeung (who made a huge splash with Enter the Dragon in 1973), and The Silver Fox (Hwang Jang-Lee), of whom it was said that he was always a baddie, and he always required two heroes to defeat him. Years later, you can therefore understand why I loved Tarantino’s Kill Bill so much – Gordon Liu as Pai Mei was a dead ringer for the Fox, and I suspect this is not coincidental.
Oh but this was not all. We were staying with my Aunt Sheila that summer as I remarked before, and she had a friend living in Broad Street, a little old Indian lady whose name I have alas long since forgotten, quite poor, tiny, with silver ringed irises and who absolutely adored Indian movies. Now, I had seen or two of these before — Amar Akbar Anthony was the first, which introduced me to Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna, as well as the peculiarities of Bollywood film making (about which more below), and therefore had no particular objections when Aunt Sheila, knowing my liking for cinema, recommended me as someone to go with on the Wednesday night cheapie double feature at the Empire. Now given that the average length of those movies was three hours, and they weren’t showing current releases but older ones from the fifties and sixties, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it: but she wanted company and was prepare to pay for me, and as I say, in those days it was a lot safer to walk the streets of Georgetown than it later became. And so I agreed, and for some six weeks, every Wednesday at seven, she and I would walk down to Middle Street, brave the crowds of older ladies (and some older men, and even several families) reliving their youthful memories through the films they had seen so long ago. Though to be honest, I really can’t remember the names of all the ones I saw.
Still, that set me to appreciating Bollywood a bit more than formerly, no matter how dated the films I saw on those evenings. See, Indian movies are one-stop shops and if you think Hollywood can ham it up, you’ve obviously never experienced one of these. You get everything with a “cuhlie pitcha”: action, comedy, drama, romance, musicals, sport, crime, social commentary, I mean everything (and that’s just in one movie). They’re gleefully, cheerfully over-the-top and have no time at all for the “less-is-more” philosophy – they believe that if more is better, then too much may be just enough.
Not for them just any old action sequence: in these films, heroes slide down snowy mountains on their bare chests while belting out love songs and they roar up in Cadillacs and fight it out with swords, before switching to machine guns and then fisticuffs with remarkable sound effects; they’re not satisfied with just any drama, but joyously over-acted, scenery-chewing declamations of amazingly cheesy portentousness, complete with major speeches about honour (and dishonour), stirring melodramatic music, and death scenes that last for half an hour; and not just any old sweet romance – it has to be soulful, death-defying, bosom-heaving, teary-eyed, fated love without which life is not worth living; and all this wrapped up in at least seven or eight musical numbers during which, no matter how poor the girl or destitute the boy, they change outfits several times, and always have a backdrop of sixteen dancers, just ‘cause, you know, they exist and have nothing better to do. But no kissing – the censor’s scissors were always there, if an intruding branch was not. A twelve year old kid lives for this kind of hammy, over-the-top stuff (come on…wouldn’t you?).
Since this expanded my scope of movie watching quite considerably, once the parents returned I used to just alternate my cinema going, one week going to an Indian movie, on other weeks checking out something English. And I must say, some Indian movies, for all their up-amped simplicity, were actually quite good: Sholay of course (up to the time I left Guyana in 1995, it held the record for the longest run in that country’s history, some fourteen weeks…even Saturday Night Fever, the second longest, only came in at twelve), Hum Kisise Kum Naheen, Ramakasam, Khabie Khabie (my German mother also loved this one, and has the cassette soundtrack to this day), Trishul, Dharam-Veer and many many others. I adored Amjad Khan’s voice and solid menace, and leaned forward in childish anticipation for Amitabh when his eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared and you knew he was about to serve up a huge can of whup-ass (complete with sound effects). Some of the songs were simply lovely too – and yes, I can still hum the tunes to some of them, and occasionally amuse my wife and kids with melodramatic interpretations of some of them (you should see my take on an Indian movie death scene – priceless).
Dad had brought back something that changed the entertainment landscape forever, that summer: a VCR. They had been in the market for a few years, but few Guyanese could afford them, and they were not being imported. Back when I lived in Providence a couple of years before, I used to go over to the De Groot’s house to watch cartoons on their betamax every Saturday (if I was allowed), and here now we had one of our own. Admittedly, I didn’t see where we would ever get movies or shows from, since we had no regular channels and no pipeline to get US shows, and so its potential slipped me at the time. Guyanese, ever ready to smell a buck, didn’t let any grass grow under their feet, however: in labba time, small shops sprang up which catered to the need — their relatives taped TV shows and TV movies in the States or Canada, and then sent them down to Guyana; these were then copied to secondary cassettes, and the copies were rented out. Because the videocassette industry was still in its infancy, the studios had not yet twigged on to this as a major revenue stream, and so did not regularly release their movies that way, but TV shows were always popular – and it only took another couple of years for movies to catch up.
The best of these clubs might have been Video Galaxy, which we joined right away. One of the first films Dad brought home was Airplane!, and for my money, it’s still one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, if dated (the references escape most these days – my son cannot fathom why his father is laughing at some obscure witticism, being more used to the banality of Leslie Nielson’s films that this one helped usher in). Suddenly there were movies coming home to us every other night or so, and bootleg tapes were making the rounds among my schoolfriends. In between my schoolwork and reading, my movie watching, whether at home or at a friend’s house, rose to new heights. Educating Rita, The Right Stuff, Dressed to Kill (I was forbidden from watching this one, but sneaked a look anyway), Clash of the Titans, The Road Warrior, Star Trek: the Movie and The Wrath of Khan, Alien, Superman, The Duellists (Ridley Scott’s first film, and still as gorgeous now as I remember), Mad Max, Time Bandits (loved this one), all the Dirty Harry movies, American Graffiti, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Amadeus… the list went on and on. And I finally managed to see Star Wars which never, as far as I know, made it to the local cinemas. Either I watched with the Old Man (we both liked art house and action films), or I went over to John’s house – it was there we saw a sixth-generation bootleg of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Top Gun which informed my currently held opinion that if the story is compelling, the pictorial quality of what’s up there on the screen takes something of a back seat.
Even with this explosion of opportunity, Guyana was moving to the next level beyond the circulation of videocassettes, and that was with the introduction of TV channels. This wasn’t anything like the west where, say ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasted for free and made money off of advertising. Oh no. Two enterprising gentlemen separately set up a satellite dish on their land and rebroadcasted the signals from the USA along a single pair of channels – one for “Rex” and one for “Vieira” – to anyone who bought their decoder-box (Rex’s was cheaper, but his signals weren’t quite as good in content). But not just any signal – they themselves decided what to rebroadcast, and so in the course of a single day you might start off with WTBS and reruns of I dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, then shift to another US channel for The Young and The Restless, still another for game shows in the afternoon, news in the evening plus any comedy or drama shows were popular, and then around nine, they started broadcasting movies from HBO or Cinemax or Showtime or wherever.
I enjoyed that, and often stayed awake all night just drinking in movies when on school holidays: Scarface, Blade Runner, Flashdance, WarGames, Tootsie, The Natural, The Terminator (Brad Fidel’s score was doing a number in my head days later), and Nightmare on Elm Street which scared the living bejesus out of me and gave me delicious nightmares for a week straight. And as a family we continued to watch the Video Galaxy offerings which often came out sooner than either Rex or Vieira managed to put them on our screens. Occasionally I borrowed movies I myself wanted to see (and which probably nobody else wanted to watch). In fact, there was one afternoon when almost the entire Lower Sixth Prefects body of Queen’s College played hooky from school, and came over to my house to see Porky’s which was the biggest grossing Canadian film ever made until Bon Cop Bad Cop came out, and absolutely tailor made for a bunch of friends who have that same juvenile sense of humour…I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a movie, and that’s without Evan’s “hubbardisms”.
For the consumer, having a combination of TV and video was worth it; because say what you will about the mercantile philosophy that informed those two TV channels (and their providing only Hobson’s choice), they did try to put up movies that were occasionally divergent from the norm. I mentioned Blade Runner but I also saw that awesome Kurasawa film Ran one night, stumbled upon Brazil at four one morning, and at various times managed to see not only the critically acclaimed popular films of the day like The Untouchables, The Godfather, Platoon and others, but older movies from times past: Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, Black Narcissus, The Hustler (I still liked pool), Taxi Driver, and Das Boot are a few I recall. I even saw Barry Lyndon, which had come to the Plaza in the late seventies, been massively hyped as being a period piece (it was) of swashbuckling intensity (it wasn’t) and closed in a week flat because people didn’t realize until afterwards that it was not a Robin Hood film, and then the grapevine killed it off. For my money, it remains one of the most beautiful set-pieces I’ve ever seen: the opening scene in particular is a masterpiece of composition.
As time went on I left home and ended up actually working at the Video Galaxy itself as The Taper. This meant that I was in charge of running off six copies of every movie that came in weekly from Florida through Laparkan’s office there, which in turn meant that I saw every new movie as soon as it officially was released – I was first to see Beverly Hills Cop and Police Academy for example. Since I was living by myself and eking out a rather poverty stricken existence, it was not uncommon for me to stock up on rations and stay in there for the entire weekend, watching movies for two days and nights straight. I watched a few hundred films, I suppose, in the short time I worked there. Sometimes I had John come with me and spend a night seeing film after film – Lassiter, High Road to China, The Last Starfighter, Tron (we were both sci-fi addicts) Dreamscape, Gremlins, Poltergeist, Starman, Top Secret, (we loved that one – it took Airplane! to a different level), The Dead Zone, and Under Fire (about a combat photographer, which interested me greatly given my love for photography even back then). After a while I found another job and that phase of my life ended and I moved back home, but my late night viewing didn’t stop. John set up his own system at home, and I would pop over to his place quite often, or he to mine and we’d watch movies late into the night. We had our own iconoclastic favourites: Jumping Jack Flash wasn’t a great movie by anyone’s standards, for example, but we love it to this day. Too, on the occasional weekend, there were times I took my bike and cycled up to Montrose where the Starlight drive-in was still doing good business, propped up my back against a speaker in the front row, broke out the coffee, and watched movies under the night sky. Didn’t matter if it was a movie I knew and had seen before – to this day I have no particular objection to seeing movies more than once.
As my professional life moved into the interior in 1986 (and then back out of it in 1990), videocassettes became my lifeline to cinema. In the mining bush camps I worked in, there was always a VCR and a TV for the guys to watch, and as the only person who knew anything about movies at all, I was often asked to send lists down to Georgetown for the people there to rent and send up to the camp. And so I used my accumulated knowledge of classic and popular movies to have a good selection for the Saturday evening booze fest. This took the form of the company trotting out a few bottles of cheap vodka and rum for the boys (and us dipping into the moonshine vat under a rickety shack where we brewed our own), after which everyone would repair to the main bunkhouse where the entertainment had been set up, and we’d see a couple of films (mostly action movies like Predator, Commando, Cobra, Lethal Weapon and their ilk), and occasionally I’d sneak in something offbeat like Chinatown or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or the like. And to their credit, the guys – who called me “The Professor” on account of my glasses and ability to write my name twice the same way – suffered through such films with good humour, until eleven o’clock came around and the porn came out for those who would stay up late to get their randies. The less said about such films the better, I suppose.
Once I returned to Georgetown my movie time took a bit of a hiatus as I snooped around for work. Then in 1992, after brief stints as a restaurant manager and then an aircraft operations officer at Ogle, I landed with a Canadian outfit which was constructing the Omai mine (one of the exploration properties I had worked on in the late eighties). There I met a genial South-African-born Canadian called Ivo, who, in spite of being an admin and accounting manager, was somewhat of an artist at heart, and loved movies the same way I did. As I lived one cigarette away from the office, he and I spent many an evening downing a bottle of rum, smoking up a storm, just talking away the night, or getting some grub and movies. And he introduced me to many really obscure works I don’t think I ever would have bothered with (let alone heard about) – Blue Velvet comes to mind, but so does The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and their Lover and The Singing Detective and several other longer TV miniseries. I had never seen TV shows as strong contenders for storytelling in their own right (the episodic formula was still alive and well back then) — here, years before True Detective, Deadwood, The Wire, The Bridge or Babylon 5, I realized that good writing and a strong narrative arc could provide what a movie could not – a truly long story covering many hours of time, and all of it good.
During the nineties Roger Ebert was syndicated in local papers, and he provided some much needed thought to go with my love of movies and I started to devour his columns as fast as they came out. John and I watched with interest how special effects were changing the film landscape. Star Wars and Blade Runner had done stunning work in this field, of course, even though much of the work was with physical models, not CGI. But we noted the computer wizardry of the stained glass window coming to life in Young Sherlock Holmes, the space scenes of The Last Starfighter, the liquid Terminator in the second movie, and the water alien in The Abyss, and this prepared us to be suitably amazed by the phenomenal work in 1993’s Jurassic Park, which simply blew us away. Dinosaurs never looked so lifelike, and with the exception of people like Nick Park (of Wallace and Gromit fame), or auteurs like Tim Burton who also was a pretty dab hand at the technology, the stop-motion animation I so loved was buried that year, as were models. The era of computer-driven special effects was here to stay: sadly, not many directors knew that the special effects were not ends in and of themselves, but worked best when they were related to, and served, a strong story, which is why nonsense like the Transformers looks like a million bucks, but has no narrative or characters we care about, while the judicious and restrained use of effects in, say Alien, or E.T., enhances what the plot is about.
Still, it was clear that cinemas were dying. Strand tried to entice people with arctic airconditioning and a better sound system, others tried to upgrade their amenities and seating, or vary the bill, get newer movies, faster (Aladdin drew massive crowds when it opened at the Astor as late as 1994), but between the cable channels and video clubs, cinemas had a hard time of it. The last two films I can distinctly remember going to see in a Guyanese movie house were Die Hard and Unforgiven both at the Strand. Aside from that, it was the TV screen all the way. Part of it was the revenue profile, of course: a lot of money had to be remitted to the distributor (especially for new box-office-quality films), the Government took its cut, so if the proprietor didn’t stuff their cinema every day with patrons, they were fighting a losing game – and the audiences were dwindling under the twin hammer blows of videocassettes (and pirated DVDs which were their logical extension) and TV channels.
The coup-de-grace came when the Internet bloomed, and connection speeds became fast enough for movies to be available for download, or online. I never saw this happen in Guyana – I left the country in 1995 to work in Central Asia and only returned once to tidy up some outstanding issues in 1997, and have never gone back since.
The great cinema houses of my youth are now all gone. The Strand was converted into a religious auditorium in 2008, and the Plaza closed that same year (its roof collapsed in 2009). The Empire on Middle Street, where I had watched so many Indian movies, was replaced by a retail mall in the nineties and the Globe’s roof fell in at roughly the same time, though it had been closed for a long time before that. Liberty shut its doors in 2000. The Metropole burnt down in 2004, Astor closed in 2013. The Hollywood is long gone.
We could make a management study of the experience, I suppose: lack of adaptation to a new and disruptive technology by proprietors (who came too late to the realization that upgrades and a new business model were needed), the prevalence of cheap alternatives, lack of support for the industry by the Government (which could have tried to reduce taxes for such enterprises), and on and on. But I don’t think it would have mattered in the end. I read that some years ago there was a double bill of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace at the Astor, and the patron noted that the facilities were still pretty good….yet there were only twelve other members of the audience, and right down the road the same films’ DVDs were selling briskly on the sidewalk for half the price of a cinema ticket. So perhaps it’s all a pipe dream to believe that cinema could have been rescued in Georgetown, that they could have emulated the experience of the USA, Canada and Europe and made it work…and that we ever again could have had vendors in the cinema at intermission selling channa, ginnip, Tomboy sodas, chico and cigarettes, or a patron jump up and scream about a shark in the water, or that a baby should have its mother put “a bubbie in he mouth” to shut him up.
Those days, alas, are gone forever.
Part II – 1995-2014
When I departed for Central Asia in 1995, I was removed to an utterly different culture from that with which I was familiar, much as I had been back in 1976. It took six months before my language skills were up to scratch, and another year before I could watch my movies in a different language without getting lost. By this time the Internet had started permeating the offices, and as a consequence I was able to keep up with my reading on movies by perusing not only Ebert’s regular weekly reviews, but his new series called Great Movies, which he began writing in 1996. Between these two sources I was able to keep up with my interest, and even expand upon it. Once, during a quiet Christmas period when I was up at site, I think I read through just about all his four star reviews which were available at that time, and checked out as many other writers as I could find. I might not have been able to find these movies in the local shops – they concentrated more on the latest pirated DVDs than older classics – but I was storing up a mental list of those movies I did want to see, one day. I read Berardinalli, Kauffman, Rosenbaum, Sarris and others — for the quality of prose, Ebert remained was my favourite.
As I passed through London, I managed to catch an occasional film if I was in town long enough (I had friends there, so I was able to crash a day or two here and there). And that’s how one cool autumn day when I was wandering around South Kensington, I stumbled upon a small cinema showing both The Lion King and a movie I’d vaguely heard about called From Dusk till Dawn (allowances should be made for those who have no conception of what life was like before the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones — when I say vaguely I mean exactly that because there was no way of looking anything up on the fly at that time). Having seen the Disney movie before, remembering the other one supposedly had something to do with vampires, and liking the look of Clooney’s glowering mien on the poster, I shrugged and went in…and had a rollicking time, easily one of the best experiences I’d ever had at a movie, perhaps because I had entered expecting so little. I was really quite impressed with what Robert Rodrigues had done, and in 2014 when he revisited this movie by making a miniseries about it, I devoured that too, and yes, it’s pretty good, echoing my comments on the long form advantages of TV miniseries, if done right.
Anyway, I did watch a fair amount of Russian stuff as well, of course, being where I was. Not all of them were interesting, but some do stand out: Proshai Gulsary (“Goodbye Gulsary”) about an old Kyrgyz and his horse, based on a short story by Chingiz Aitmatov; a rollicking comedy called Gentlemen udachy (“The Comfortable Gentlemen”) and a lovely piece from 1980 called Moskva Slezam Ne Verit (“Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears” – it was the foreign film entrant to the Oscars from the USSR that year), which is one of my favourites to this day. I picked up bootleg DVDs of Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky and enjoyed them both – it was always interesting to see the really old movies made when the industry was young, if only to observe what the techniques of film grammar, montage and composition were like then, and what bits and pieces of their work were pilfered by directors who came later (like the famous Odessa steps sequence in the former film). That was why I made great efforts to see copies of King Kong from 1933, Citizen Kane, M, Metropolis, Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and 1939’s Stagecoach, and even the near unwatchable Birth of a Nation from 1915 (its racism was too much for me). Because Mom in Germany knew a bit about the Russian culture and films in general, whenever I crashed at her place on my stopovers in Berlin, we discussed its cinema; and she did take me to the epic nine hour Soviet extravaganza War and Peace, and here I must confess that the film was much like the book — too much for me and I never made it to the finish line on that one.
That said, she and I did see a few other films together, not all of them German; Kama Sutra which is not really about what you’re thinking, Martin Scorcese’s Kundun and even First Wives Club which made us laugh to tears. And many times I went by myself to a small cinema just off the Kurfuhrtstendamm which showed English movies, and there I watched Braveheart, Dark City with its amazing visuals and noir sensibility echoing German Expressionism of the 1930s, The Assignment containing a great performance by Aidan Quinn, Heat, Desperado, Waterworld, Congo, Babe….and these are just the ones I remember. There was an Irish pub right across the road, and afterwards I’d scarf food and a good beer and watch the foot traffic pass by along the cobbled street. I really loved that place, cinema and pub both, and tried to go there as often as possible.
But the memory to last a lifetime was the blustery, cold, gray Saturday morning when we went to Stadt-Mitte, at the Hakischer Hofe, and saw the restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis in all its glory… and my only advice to anyone reading this is to go out there and see it if you ever can – the scale of what Lang achieved in his set design is simply extraordinary. So many films have referenced it – Dr. Strangelove, Blade Runner, Dark City and Gattaca are just a few – that it is refreshing to see something utterly original, cut from brand new cloth, as if for the first time.
Sometime later I ended up in Kazakhstan for a few years, and of course went to the movies now and then while in-country. The Alatau Cinema was always a favourite: it was quite modern, plush, with a good auditorium and efficient ticket offices; I saw The Mummy Returns there on the same day it opened in the US. As with Central Asian airplanes, there was no such new-fangled western nonsense like an assigned seat. You basically got to wherever you were going first and fast if you wanted it, and had to have no objections to joining the stampede, elbowing and shoving and shouldering your way to the chosen seat – otherwise you were relegated to an also-ran chairs down in the back, or way in the front. The size of the place was pleasantly expansive, and there was nothing I could really find fault with…the cinema seating was as comfortable, and the area as large as any other I have gone to in the west. Another feature I liked here was the punctuality. While they only opened the door at four minutes to ten o’clock to let the herd of us proles in (hence the rushing and shoving) it was irrelevant whether everyone was in their seats or not at ten: you’d better believe they were rolling film at ten on the dot, leaving a lot of latecomers scrambling around to find seats, and pissing the rest of us smirking early-birds off when they trod on our toes.
Once I moved to and lived full time in Almaty in 2001 (I got married while living there, in 2002), we had a pretty good apartment not too far away from a department store with a few small cinemas tacked on: they alternated Russian dubbed movies with pure English ones that were subtitled, and as a result we went quite a bit. The thing I remember about those years is how well behaved the audience was – quite a difference from House and Pit of my youth. Now granted, these days we talk a lot about people texting or surfing on their smart phones while supposedly watching a film, and irritating other patrons who get distracted by the bright screens, but the old favourites were alive and well back then as well (and may always be) – talking, answering a phone (loudly), bumping the seat, babies crying – all the reasons that regulars endure elevated blood pressure over the decades. But in these little cinemas, it was all good. People behaved and were quiet and watched the movies, and made it a pleasant experience. I enjoyed going there with my wife and daughter, and then having a drink or a coffee at one of the many cafes that dotted the main road we walked down to get there.
My time in Central Asia came to an end in late 2002 (I did return as late as 2004 for a contract job in the far north close to the Russian border) and we moved to Toronto. Because I was unemployed for a fair bit, we went to the cinemas quite often. By this time multiplexes had almost totally replaced the individualized neighborhood movie houses and there were two not too far away from where we lived in Scarborough – I make no criticism of the multiplex approach since I’m okay either way, and it was admittedly pleasant to have several recent movies to choose from when one went at off hours and the audiences were sparse.
What I missed then and still miss now is the smaller, quieter films, the ones that are not attendant on massive advertising campaigns to find their audience, and are lovingly recommended by word of mouth. Or cinemas that show older (much older) movies, classic black and whites, noirs, French New Wave, Italian neo-realism, other foreign films, or even newer by smaller stuff yet to find its feet – the stuff that might not sell big time all at once, but can reliably churn out an audience night after night for long periods. Granted, Toronto was really good for that: if you were willing to spend the time to go downtown, you could find cinemas that did precisely this, and one of my fondest memories of my film-going life in that city, was going to see the double bill of the just opened Whale Rider and Bend it Like Beckham with my wife and daughter, scarfing greaseburgers between the showings, and loving them both immensely. Or the other time we went to see Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and then Spring Again, from South Korea. Stuff like The Matrix movies deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and I enjoy seeing blockbusters with massive sound and huge , crystal clear screens – I mean, that’s what they’re made for, isn’t it? – I’m merely pointing out that I like my smaller experiences just as much.
One person who shared this philosophy was the husband of my old friend from Guyana days – she grew up in the house next to mine — a guy called Stephane, from France. I mention this because Steph was a cinephile to match, and indeed exceed, my love for movies in all ways. The man burned his own DVDs by the tens and hundreds, complete with subtitle tracks, CD cases (or real DVD jackets), all with colour printed covers. His collection was awesome, he fitted up his basement as a movie theatre, and he had a wealth of knowledge about obscure art-house fare that I tapped more than once when at a loss for what to watch at home. We’d go as a foursome to the movies on and off, but I much preferred to either watch my movies in the comfort of my home, or go with my wife and daughter somewhere, so such occasions were few and in between, really. He and Tina, it goes without saying, ensured they did go to the Toronto International Film Festival, but I never did. (Now you might find this odd — I’ve never been to a film festival in my life. Given that I lived in both Berlin and Toronto, home to two of the best known extravaganzas in the movie business, and was occasionally in town when the Berlinale or the TIFF was rolling through, I concede this is weird. I just never got around to it, and frankly, with my dislike of crowds, perhaps it’s not so surprising. Stephane of course absolutely lived for movies, much more than I did and so perhaps he had more of an incentive.)
Once we moved to Calgary in 2006, we more or less joined the commercial mainstream, going to the cinemas once or twice a month for the main pictures blowing through town. It was expensive though: tickets for two plus the invariable popcorn and pop (I got addicted to having them, and cannot see a movie nowadays without these faithful old standbys…call me Pavlov) was easily forty dollars on each occasion. That added up when you were doing it a lot and had other kids along. As time proceeded I went to the internet more and more often to source the films I had read so much about. By now I not only had Ebert’s Great Movies books I and II, but his 4-star movie reviews 1967-1997 and between them I started my own personal collection, trolling Rogers and Blockbuster video stores, and seeing what was available online. And in this way I picked up The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Days of Heaven (1978), The Lavender Hill Mob (1955), Tokyo Story (1955), The 400 Blows, Le Samourai (1967), Nanook of the North (1922, and it’s worth it, believe me), The Terrorist (1999), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Wings (1928 – first academy award winner for best picture), Ray’s masterpiece of The Apu Trilogy, The Battle of Algiers by Pontecorvo, made in 1969 but still a textbook film on urban guerilla warfare used in US military education, The Third Man (1949), Ikiru (1952)…and how could I forget Chaplin’s lovely City Lights, or the Buster Keaton silent classic, The General, from 1927, which I simply adored for its humour and special effects – I’ve now watched it four times, and my nine year old boy likes it as much as I do….when I can get him to sit down and watch it.
Between the cinema outings to see the more popular fare and my own quiet amassing of a personal collection, Calgary proved to be quite a productive experience, from the perspective of how many movies I saw and acquired. This was not a constant thing, of course – sometimes weeks went by without seeing anything. I had my family, work, photography and other interests that took my time, including and increasingly the blog I helped start in 2010 where I concentrated on rum reviews. But slowly I plodded on and now that I’m in the Middle East, I source most of what I need online (and it’s still sticks in my craw that Netflix isn’t available here). Alas, I left my entire collection of over a thousand titles back in Calgary, neatly packed up, awaiting my return to see the light once more.
That didn’t stop us from shopping local, of course, and Kuwait cinemas were an interesting experience. In a way they are a modernized throwback to the way things had been when I was a kid, yet also different in a way that mirrored the culture of the Middle East, where there were many restrictions and taboos that strike westerners as strange.
To begin with the box office opens only about fifteen minutes before the show begins. Yes there are ticket screens where you can buy your tickets ahead of time, out in the lobby, yet the ticket, on the few occasions I made use of these devices, didn’t get issued by the machine, but in the box office…so one had to present oneself there, show one’s ID and then get them, which kind of defeated the purpose, in my opinion.
Secondly seating arrangements are quite inflexible. There is always a section for ladies, another for men (assuming they are going in by themselves) and yet a third for families and married couples. Since the cinemas are relatively small (by Canadian standards) this is never an issue – you always get a good view of the screen – but it does strike me as odd. Of course, I speak for Kuwait, and not more liberal states like, oh, Dubai, and for high-falutin’ places in the local, palatial malls showing first run movies in English – not the smaller single-screen venues tucked away in the crowded warrens of sidestreets, which may show films only in Arabic or an Indian language.
Thirdly, there is that old fashioned system of the guy at the door of the screen you are going in to see: he has a torch and will look at your ticket and guide you to your precise seat: so none of this come-in-and-sit-where-you-like that is the hallmark of western cinemas (and Russian ones). On the flip side it makes it near impossible to go to a film in one multiplex and then jump from one screen to another without being checked (my younger brother did this quite often in Toronto as a kid, or so he tells me).
The actual screen environment is really very pleasant: no faux-leather seats and bare concrete floors for you, no: here the seats were of some natural fibre, soft and plush, and the floors were carpeted. Since the concession area sells popcorn (too small, not enough butter and never any spices) and pop as per usual, I wonder how the cleaners deal with the inevitable spills that occur. They seem to manage, however, since every cinema I’ve been in thus far has been pretty clean and reasonably fresh smelling. The air conditioning is so cranked up, by the way, that it’s always a good idea to bring along a sweater or jacket to showings even if it’s plus-fifty-celsius outside, counterintuitive as this may sound.
Of course, patrons being patrons, and us infidels being lesser mortals, all the usual annoyances of the cinema are alive and well here too: badly bred young kids banging seats and making noise; and every local thinking he has an utter right to have his massive smartphone screen lit up, receiving text messages and phone calls throughout the movie. You may actually get thrown out if you complain to an offending local about it, or so I’ve been told. I’ve never seen this in action, and I don’t go during peak times in the evenings, so thus far I’ve escaped deportation.
Perhaps these annoyances (and the easy availability of cable and DVD bootlegs in the souks) made us reduce our cinema outings over the last year since we arrived. That and the censorship, because, like the Indian films of yore, it is forbidden to show osculation (so look it up) in a film…snip snip. Nudity? Forget it. When The Wolf Of Wall Street opened here, the western expats came back and grumbled that perhaps 45 minutes of running time was deleted – it was that heavily sheared. Snip snip. The words Jew and pork are either muted out or cut out, in all movies and all TV programs – but in an irony that seems to escape the puritans, all the curses — and I mean all, including Carlin’s famous Seven Words — are left in. That doesn’t bother Mark and I when we want to see the new X Men movie, or some brainless special effects monster like Transformers. But it is true that I’ve gone back to sourcing my material online, and don’t worry overmuch about cinemas any longer. Like the old dog I’ve become, I prefer my favourite haunts.
So, these days, where am I? Well, of course technology has changed everything. If you have a monster TV at home and a good internet connection – as most of us do – you can essentially go to Hulu or Amazon or or what have you, and stream any movies you can dream of, as well as documentaries and all the obscure fare that was once near impossible to get (you go try and find The Scent of Green Papaya from Vietnam, for example, or the 1994 film Fresh, without resorting to online services). Blockbuster has gone bust, the way cinema houses in Guyana did – I often bought ten of their five dollar DVDs at a pop when they were on sale – and Netflix helped bring it down as did Pirate Bay and the filesharing that still goes on.
If in the west, I still buy cheap DVDs as much as I can, and where those are not available, then for the most part between borrowing someone else’s stuff or streaming from paid services, I get all the movies I want. Yes my cinema-going took a dip for a while, and while in the Middle East will likely continue this trend: but you know, I really do enjoy occasionally going to a darkened cinema with my boy or my wife (or both, if we can ever agree on a film we all want to see) and so I still go once in a while. As I said, I tend to see blockbusters in cinemas, and lesser-known stuff at home; so I keep my eye peeled for good reviews of foreign films and what’s being written about the festival circuit. I really miss Ebert – he ran the entire gamut and wrote so very well. Berardinelli, an engineer about my age from the US, is good, but since his son was born he’s not been as prolific as before. Grace Wang out of Toronto is always worth a read.
Right now I’m looking forward to see what’s coming next. Not so much in technology – I don’t see any massive advances in CGI such as happened with Toy Story or Jurassic Park or even The Lord of the Rings …really, it’s just been a refinement of what came before, since then. And I have zero patience or appreciation for the price gouge of 3d, a technology I personally feel is ultimately useless as an entertainment medium in its current form. I’m looking forward to seeing the new Star Wars movies, and hope they won’t balls it up with lame story lines. I was always a fan of Star Trek, but don’t see them reviving the franchise any time soon with excellent movies or even a TV show – Battlestar Galactica’s remake some years ago showed how sci-fi has to be done to appeal to today’s audience, I think.
I also look forward to long-form work, those television miniseries that span many episodes in a coherent story arc – True Detective and The Bridge are two recent and excellent examples of the quality I hope to see coming soon to the TV near me.
But more than anything, I just hope that powerful, emotionally-true, intelligent and well-acted films, large or small, continued to be made by courageous filmmakers who go out on a limb and produce something off the wall and amazing – even if they are like El Mariachi (made for $7000) , or The Blair Witch Project ($15,000-$30,000 depending what you read). And that they gain the attention and interest and acclaim they deserve when they are seen. I may be too much of an optimist this way…but I can hope nevertheless.
And as usual, a last note
I should mention in passing some personal favourites of mine: I recommend them to everyone. There are many others I really like, of course – these just have a special place in my pantheon.
Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988): if you think, even after Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo, that animated movies can’t be adult, look no further. This movie was wrenchingly, unbearably sad, it left me in tears, and is on any short list of the greatest anti-war films ever made. No, really.
Tokyo Story (Japan 1955): A perennial favourite of both myself and my wife. I think we take different things from it: the core story of aged parents who come from the country to the city to their grown up children who are too busy to see them must strike a chord with any father or mother who has sacrificed much for their children, and finds himself or herself unappreciated.
The Iron Giant (1999): Brad Bird is better known for The Incredibles and the fourth Mission Impossible movie, not this one, which is barely acknowledged. Attend: it may be the best movie he has ever done. It’s lean and taut and knowing, animated without computers, about a giant robot and a boy forming a relationship in paranoia-riven 1957 America. And when the Iron Giant and the boy face a nuclear missile coming down on their town, and they both know what has to happen, and you hear what the Giant whispers just before the end, well, trust me – there isn’t a dry eye in the house. I’ve never met a kid or any adult who wasn’t stunned by it – most adults ask me how the hell they never heard about it before.
The Lives of Others (Germany 2006). Oh this one is just fine. It’s about a Stasi agent who spies and digs for dirt on a famous, well-regarded, state-approved East-German theatre director whose girlfriend his superior wants. A gray film, a gray man, a gradually awakening mind, with superb tiny touches all over, and an ending so perfect you can only meditate that this is not a film that could ever be made by Hollywood. And be thankful.
Departures (Japan 2008). Words fail me when I try to describe this movie precisely, because it is so very different from anything I’ve ever seen before, and yet, universal in its appeal. It follows a young man who apprentices to an encoffinator: somebody who in Japan dresses the dead for their final viewing by the grieving family before burial (perhaps this is more humane than our own western system, but never mind). It is slow, elegant, exact work. It has moments of pathos and humour and drama and is wise about the ways in which decisions shape tragic events. In the stately movements of this young man and his acceptance that this is the work he was born to do, lies great emotion and great truth and frankly, it’s just a beautiful and very emotionally uplifting film.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). A lovely film, in Technicolour, about the the span of a professional soldier’s whole life and love: he is a fat, seemingly-bumbling and clueless old warhorse at the beginning, but as we proceed (in a series of flashbacks), we gain understanding of the young man still inside the caricature of the old fossil, and empathize. The old man knows all that the young people who insult him do, and more besides, and by the end of the film, we realize how much our own opinions on the man have changed. And that’s no small achievement.
(ps..Just about all movies I mention in this essay are worth a watch, and it would be pointless for me to list all my favourites. But then, this is not a filmography so much as a recounting of the times I spent watching movies, and which experiences I recall with pleasure and fond memories. I imagine that one day in another twenty years, I’ll put in a Part 3).