What was the first film you ever saw at the cinema, is a question often posed in cinematic conversations? For a long time I was always proud that my answer was 1980’s ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, one of the most critically and pop culturally relevant films of my lifetime.
I have vivid memories of as an eight year old, being hunkered down in the dark of Screen Two at my local Canon cinema back in the UK, watching the AT ATs attacking the rebel base on Hoth, all while my Dad slept soundly in the seat next to me. This scene was seared into my imagination (the AT ATs, not my Dad’s snoring) and was then lovingly recreated in thick crayon into the pages of an old 1980s schoolbook the following Monday morning during topic talk. With this being my first exposure to cinema, how could I not become the half-arsed cinephile that I grew up to be.
Fast forward 35 years to the other side of the world, and to a dinner table conversation with my Dad, who for the first time that I could recall, had begun to take an active interest in his son’s film collection. This frankly surprising interest had been triggered by surroundings, most notably our spare room in which both Mum and Dad were staying as part of an extended visit. While the spare room was indeed just that, it was also home to a little over 600 films, which were probably the first thing my Dad saw each morning when he opened his eyes. Dad has always been a night owl and each evening after the family had gone to sleep, he could be found well into the early hours working his way through my film collection, before expressing his usually damming critique the next day, and then frustratingly, putting the films back in the wrong place.
As part of this daily banter, one evening the conversation turned to childhood memories and my recollection of first my cinematic experience. To my horror, my Dad called bullshit on the story. Now it’s important to understand that my Dad is an avid music fan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of release dates and current affairs, so there is no real question that his recollection would be stronger than a 35-year-old fuzzy childhood memory. Therefore I started to worry, was my ‘Empire’ crumbling?
Indeed it was. Now my Dad generally dislikes cinemas (he finds them too constricting, but from my memories he still managed to sleep ok…..) and vehemently disliked anything to do with Star Wars. He claimed that as an 8 year old, there is no way he would have taken me to see Empire, he may have dropped me off, but he wouldn’t have gone in, unless he was forced to.
According to my Dad, my first cinematic experience actually came two years earlier in 1978 when I was six, and it was the musical Grease. Now this made some sense, as it linked in with Dad’s love of music which would have been a big enough draw to get him into the screen in the first place. I had zero recollection of Danny, Sandy or Rizzo, which is again not too surprising as Dad claimed I was bored, quite literally to tears, throughout the whole experience. Perhaps I just blocked the memory out, though I do now own the film and know almost all the lyrics to most of the songs, so it must have impacted on some level.
With the exception of my Empire memory, I have no other memories of cinema trips with my Dad. There was a tearful screening of E.T. with Mum in 1982, but who didn’t hold their Mum’s hand through that one, but nothing else with Dad. Therefore, where did the image of Dad sleeping with Star Wars on the screen originate?
The breakthrough arrived during this exchange:
Dad: Did you say The Empire Strikes Back was the second Star Wars Film?
Me: Yes, in 1980, after Star Wars came out in 1977.
Dad: *knowing smile*
Dad to the rescue. He recalled that when Star Wars hit the UK in 1977, it was a phenomenon, and my elder brother, who would have been eight years old at the time, was its target audience. There was simply no choice for Dad, he had to take him and myself as an excited five year old, would have tagged along as well. Dad hated the film, he found it silly, annoying and most of all boring, therefore he promptly fell asleep. Due to this reaction wild horses would not have dragged him back to see any sequels.
Therefore my memory was a mixture of Empire and Star Wars. The Hoth sequence, and my recreation of it, was clearly Empire, but my Dad’s less than enthusiastic reaction was from Star Wars. Which as it turns out, is now officially the first film I saw at the cinema, which if anything, is a much better story the next time that conversation comes round.
Either way it doesn’t really matter what the first film was, the important thing is that it happened. Those early experiences led to a lifelong love affair with film, though as is often the way with love, there have been ups and downs. For long periods the relationship has been like a marriage (nurturing, supportive and evolving), while others more long-distance and difficult. But since those early years, film has been a constant, though occasionally inconsistent, but never truly forgotten presence in my life.
The conversation with my Dad has awoken a desire to try and record my cinematic history. I want to look at why the relationship has waned during some periods and blossomed in others. I am keen to understand what films I saw on release and when, plus which impacted most on my life and how I have shared or experienced them with others.
These days of course we don’t need memories; social media and in particular my Letterboxd film diary does all that for me. However as I only started Letterboxd in 2012 and as I was never really one for notebooks when I was younger, there will be a lot of digging around in my own memory banks to try and piece things together. So things may well get a little blurry, especially in the 90s, but as Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens, that’s a story for another time.
Therefore, I guess what this has been is my cinematic origin story; next up will be the rest of the 80s and my teenage years. Spoiler alert, a radioactive spider doesn’t bite me during a school trip to a science lab.