This week I saw my first Hitchcock on the big screen. I grew up in the ’80s, which meant that I first and, more often than not, only saw the classics of cinema on TV – and in the ’80s that meant, what, screens that were 30 inches across if you were lucky? TVs were big, bulky monstrosities, but the screens weren’t particularly big – which was good, really, because television channels broadcast images that were relatively fuzzy. If you sat close enough to the screen so that it filled your field of vision (and you could smell that weird electric smell), what you saw was basically impressionist art.
So, all those big films from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s? I saw them on TV. North by Northwest, Once Upon a Time in the West, Alien, The Godfather, the original Star Wars? TV. Even during the ’80s, most of the films that my generation considers classics I saw on TV, often off video tapes recorded off ITV by my uncle in the UK, so my memory of these films isn’t only small-scale and blurry, it’s also frequently interrupted by ads for Oxo cubes or PG Tips.
The first visually sumptuous epics I remember seeing on a big screen were Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984) and The Last Emperor (1987) by Bernardo Bertolucci, and I’ve tried to make up for being born too late by becoming addicted to cinema. Also, these days I compensate with a relatively big TV – but there still is a difference between watching a visually marvellous classic on a modern TV screen, even in a good Blu-ray reissue, and watching them at the cinema. It’s too easy to be distracted in the comfort of your own living room. At the cinema, at least if you’re surrounded by an audience that is as devout as you, there’s something ritualistic to the proceedings: the light goes down, the curtains open, and your field of vision is filled by a big, glowing rectangle showing dashing men, gorgeous women, and vistas that go on forever.
I’ve since been lucky enough to catch many of my favourite classics when they were reissued, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypse Now and most recently The Seventh Seal. (I’m also trying to forget many of the CGI additions to the Star Wars reissues.) Nonetheless, there are too many significant gaps: I would dare the Jordanian desert for a chance to see Lawrence of Arabia at the cinema, and I would love to see one of Kurosawa’s samurai epics on a big screen.
It’s not like I’m unlucky, really: while there may not be all that many cinemas around here showing classics on a regular basis (it’s easier for me to catch a reissue of Tarkovsky than of David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, as the cinemas that show classics are also more geared towards world cinema than the Hollywood greats), I did see most of the Tarantino movies, visual stunners like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Blade Runner 2049 and the mindblowing Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen. I’m not starved for epic, visually sumptuous cinema. And it’s definitely better to have seen Vertigo and Spartacus on a TV screen than not to have seen them at all.
But if I had a wish? And the necessary funds to make that wish come true? I’d retire early, buy one of the now empty movie theatres in my city, set everything up nicely – and show one of the classics every day. And then I’d sit there, glass of wine in one hand, and my eyes would open wide as the lights go down, the curtain opens and that magical rectangle of colour and light appears in front of me.