Art has the ability to facilitate change, particularly how one looks at the world and the people in it. Both novels and albums have done it for me at different times of my life, but before either weaved their magic on me, the movies got there first. I can list ten films that have made a sizeable impact upon my first seeing them and opened a window onto a place that I had previously been ignorant of. So I will do…
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation may have a creaky charm today, but the master of movie marionation was incorporating his memorable models into live action adventures to create a unique fantasy world when CGI wasn’t even science fiction. His 1963 interpretation of the Golden Fleece myth is perhaps his finest achievement. The sword fight with the skeletons remains a remarkable piece of filmmaking, but the scene that seared itself onto my infant mind when I first saw ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ on TV is when the giant man of bronze, Talos, comes to life to prevent the theft of the treasure chamber he guards. From that moment on, I was obsessed with statues and convinced they all had it in them to follow the lead of Talos.
SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING
After a cinematic childhood illuminated by fantasy films as well as BBC2’s Saturday Cinema servings of Hollywood musicals and Cagney & Bogart gangster flicks, by the time I reached my early teens I was ready for something closer to home. Karel Reisz’s groundbreaking 1960 ‘kitchen sink’ classic may have been over 20 years old when I first saw it, but the grimy northern backdrop as well as the Alpha Male Albert Finney character still resonated even in the early 80s. Probably the first film I ever saw that turned a mirror on the familiar.
The divinely decadent Notting Hill household of Mick Jagger’s reclusive rock star was a dirty, druggy cocoon from the Krays-like gangland James Fox’s character is on the run from, and to me it was a dirty, druggy cocoon from the dull and depressing middle-80s. Who wouldn’t want to wake from an internal trip courtesy of magic mushrooms to find Anita Pallenberg on top of them? The following day, I undertook my inaugural excursion to the local shops wearing red lipstick and mascara. That required a bit of bottle where I grew up, but I figured anything that would get me closer to that ‘pad’ in Powys Square was worth it. I’ll get there one day.
A good five years before James Fox was playing a North London villain seduced by late 60s Notting Hill decadence, he was playing a feckless toff seduced by early 60s Chelsea decadence. Dirk Bogarde as the deliciously creepy man-servant achieves his aim of overturning the master-servant relationship with the aid of his ‘sister’, Sarah Miles. Miles plays Vera with such irresistibly sensual wickedness that I’ve been in love with her ever since. A claustrophobic and unnerving masterpiece shot in ice-cold monochrome and accompanied by a sinister soundtrack from Johnnie Dankworth that is almost a character itself. I’ve probably seen this movie more times than any other and it never fails to blow me away
THE 400 BLOWS
Truffaut’s 1959 entrance into filmmaking heralded the Nouvelle Vague renaissance of French cinema and featured one of the all-time great movie debuts in the juvenile Jean Pierre Leaud, who plays the unfortunate Antoine Doinel with such natural authenticity that the viewer feels every one of those four-hundred blows. For me, this stands alongside ‘Kes’ as the best film ever made about childhood and is another I never tire of watching; like Ken Loach’s Barnsley-based drama, it not only breaks your heart, but is full of lovely little moments of rich humour.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S
The far-from wholesome undercurrent of the Truman Capote novel on which this iconic classic is based is glossed over with such a joyous exuberance that it’s easy to forget Audrey Hepburn is a high-class call-girl and George Peppard is essentially the ‘kept man’ of a wealthy female patron. It would be an insult to bracket it in the ‘Rom Com’ category because it’s so much more than that. Yes, it’s romantic and, yes, there are some exquisite comedic moments (albeit not Mickey Rooney’s ‘comedy chink’), but the gradual revelation of Holly Golightly’s hick roots and the vulnerability beneath the character’s sophisticated surface give the film the kind of moving depth that Richard Curtis can only dream of. And New York has never looked lovelier.
What could have been the ultimate ad for the hedonistic frivolity of Swinging London is, in the hands of Antonioni, a disturbing and perplexing unsolved murder mystery that has both baffled and bedazzled viewers for half-a-century. It’s a stunning-looking piece of cinematography, though, and I’ve been David Hemmings’ Bailey-esque photographer in my imagination for a good twenty years now; mind you, with Sarah Miles playing his next-door neighbour, it’s no bloody wonder.
BREAKING THE WAVES
A lot of the films I’ve listed defy easy categorisation and Lars Von Triers’ 1996 outing is another. It could be viewed as a love story or as the cruel decline and fall of a misguided Scottish simpleton. Whatever pigeonhole critics might try to shove it into, ‘Breaking the Waves’ is one of the most shattering cinematic experiences I’ve ever been exposed to. By the end of it, I felt utterly drained. Emily Watson in her film debut gives an extraordinarily affecting performance as a young wife who takes her suddenly disabled husband’s advice to have affairs to a tragic extreme. She radiates such a mesmerising on-screen presence that I’ve never quite got her out of my head, and I’ve watched whatever she’s appeared in since.
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
If ever a film divided opinion, this 1997 work starring and directed by Robert Benigni did a pretty good job. Benigni bravely approaches the subject of the Holocaust with humour and humanity as a father does his best to hide the horrible truth from his small son as both are interred in a Nazi death camp by convincing him the whole horrific experience is an exciting adventure. Benigni’s character goes from clown to genius as his plan to prevent the truth from being told unfolds, and it’s a sober reminder of how perfectly nice people who never did anyone any harm were swept up in a nightmare of someone else’s making.
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
The only one of the ten films listed I actually saw at the cinema, the 2006 adaptation of what had been called an ‘unfilmable’ novel was at its best on the big screen, particularly the jaw-dropping scene in the market square when Ben Whisaw’s eighteenth century serial-killer is poised to be executed and…well…if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out on something truly special. But then, to me, all these movies are truly special and all had a lasting impact on me in one way or another. Film is a superlative medium for doing that, and I’m sure it must have done it to you. Pray tell…