Jul 19, 2015

Childhood Films Blogathon: How I became a movie nerd.

Since I agreed to take part in this blogathon, I have been wondering how I should engage with the subject of films and childhood. Should I talk about the films I still love from that time in my life? Should I, conversely, talk about the films I have grown out of and am unlikely to ever rewatch? Should I chart a middle path and revisit some long abandoned films that I barely remember from my childhood? Or should I just write, once more, about the enduring work of genius that is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, how every time I watch it I am 8 years old again, and that it is my go to film if ever I need reminding of why I first fell in love with movies?

If you'll excuse and indulge me, I've decided to take a different and more personal approach. 

Star Wars: The first film I remember seeing.
Part of the problem I have here is that my memories of my childhood are very hazy. This is partly because I have a bad memory for anything apart from useless movie trivia and partly due to an event that was central both to my life and to my burgeoning love of cinema. My few remaining early memories are centered on film: sitting close enough to Star Wars that it made my parents realise I needed glasses; hiding under the seat at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, then sneaking into as many screenings of it as I could when it was the film on a ferry we were taking to Holland. While that screening of Last Crusade at 8 was a seminal moment for me; the moment I knew I LOVED movies, the obsession wasn't allowed to grow until a few years later.

When, 25 years ago, we first moved to the house where my parents still live, we didn't have a TV, let alone a VCR. My step-dad was a farmer, and my parents wanted us to play outside on the land we had. Things changed irrevocably with the event I've already alluded to.

I was born with a liver disease called Billary Atresia, and it was always known that I would need a liver transplant. That need became urgent when I was 10, and I got lucky, I spent only a week on the transplant list before I got a donor. Things didn't go perfectly: I never even woke up before I the first transplant failed and I needed a second. I was sedated in intensive care for three weeks, which is why my memory is so hazy until after this period; it was wiped out by industrial strength opiates. When I came round I was in an isolation room. I couldn't go to the hospital's school and only my parents and doctors and nurses could enter. Even if I had been writing at that time, I couldn't have done so; I'd not used my limbs for weeks, and eventually had to re-learn the physical process of holding a pen and writing. The only thing in the room aside from the machines keeping me alive was a TV and VCR supplied by my school, so I got Mum to go to the video shop down the road.

I devoured movies. I was isolated for eight weeks, and consumed films at a rate of perhaps three a day. I went through much of the suitable, and some of the unsuitable, stock at the local shop. Before my transplant I had seen, and been a HUGE fan of, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. On the back of that had become a big fan of Christian Slater. He was my first favourite actor, and was kind enough to send me a signed picture with “Hope, Strength, Courage” inscribed on it, something I hope I can thank him for in person some day. I have vivid memories of seeing both the slightly unsuitable Kuffs and the highly unsuitable Pump Up The Volume (which, thanks to a certain scene, gave me quite a crush on Samantha Mathis) in my hospital room. There was much I didn't understand in the latter (the 'eat me, beat me lady', for instance), but there was definitely a thrill about it because of that. I began to run out of movies to rent from the local shop, this was before Blockbuster made it to the UK, and there was often a small selection in local rental stores, so the doctors and nurses began bringing me films, Home Alone and Ghost are two I remember seeing in this way. 

Samantha Mathis: Yep, still got that crush.
To me, it's not important that the individual titles aren't all burned on my brain. I'm sure they included the likes of The Goonies, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, whatever Disney was available and a good selection of Spielberg, but the point is not one film but the way film came to help me cope with what I was going through. My doctors and nurses were brilliant, as were my family, but however bearable they try to make it, hospital is a shit place to be, and it's worse when you're 10, and when you're spending your 11th birthday in a cubicle (I was allowed out for the very first time that day). 

Film became the thing that took me away from that reality. This is something I have always valued in cinema, perhaps more so because of how I came to it, and something I have also found useful in dealing with depression. When things in the real world aren't as you want them, cinema allows you an escape valve from that real world. When I was watching a movie I didn't have to think about the syringe automatically pumping drugs that made me itch into my arm; I didn't have to think about my stitches – unless it was a comedy, because they made laughing painful, not that that stopped me asking for Ghostbusters again.

My transplant was a transformative experience in a lot of ways. It gave me a life I wouldn't have had otherwise, it made me look different, for 10 years I had a yellow pallor and an enlarged stomach area, but more than this it gave me something to occupy the life it handed me. By the time I left hospital it was clear to me and, I think, to everyone else that movies were just going to be a part of my life. Initially I wanted to act, then to write and direct, but I feel I have found my niche writing about films. 

Everyone's childhood leads them to become who they are as a grown up, but I wonder whether without that hospital stay, without liver disease, without the transplant, even without the complications that stretched out my stay, then saw me watching movies from a hospital bed 13 times in the 12 months immediately after my transplant, I would have written a single word of what's on this site. 

I'm sorry this hasn't really been about the movies themselves, but when I think of my childhood experience of cinema, this is it, and it means everything to me.

PS: If you want to know more about childhood liver disease, and to help kids dealing with it, visit the Children's Liver Disease Foundation.  Cheers.

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