I love the idea of cinema. Movies themselves bore me, but cinema – the concept of cinema – is beautiful.
I appreciate this may sound convoluted and (like Corbyn in a bind) I don’t want to be misunderstood; therefore, I should say that while I am not wedded to the idea of cinematic art, I don’t rule it out either. There can be no doubt cinema has made great contributions to this country. But it has also brought great challenges, many of which we’re yet to surmount: bland reboots, superhero franchises, endless sequels; a great swamp of product placements, spin-offs and corporate box-ticking. It’s all so garish, so predictable. Add to that the modern ‘message movie’ (usually some doe-eyed narrative about a triumphal victim) and you can see why so many commentators proclaim the death of cinema.
Movie culture is another thing altogether. Movie culture is the whole mess in one shot – all those dreamy landscapes and gorgeous faces wrapped into a great cinematic meme. I have always been entranced by this glorious mish-mash of sound and vision; I even used to look on the old romantics of cinema (the Bogarts and Redfords) and consider myself a man in their mould: suave and enigmatic; operating from coast to coast, LA to Chicago. This was all well and fine, until the reality of the position bore down on me, namely that it all required a lot of effort. Being nominally romantic requires maximal effort. Being romantic in a cinematic way requires Herculean effort. And I am not Hercules. I never will be. Nevertheless, there are still occasions when the route of romance beckons, times when I feel the need to recreate some classic scene or emulate some noble actor of old. However, every time I heed this dastardly call I end up skidding off the highway of passion, and straight into the ditch of regret. Cinematic regret.
My last date captured this silver-screen-themed disappointment. I was on a date with Sarah, a PR-slash-marketing lady from Clapham. She was delightful with an impeccable feel for the culture. Granted, she had the annoying habit of googling movies as we discussed them (to show me various, unremarkable stills) but she certainly knew her Jazz. As for me, I have seen perhaps a dozen classic films at most. This might seem limiting but I know my flicks well enough to give a highbrow impression. While everyone else at the dinner party bangs on about the overrated Shawshank Redemption or the banal Brooklyn, I espouse the merits of Early Malick and Late Peckinpah, along with the majesty of Fellini.
In his 1950 magnum opus La Dolce Vita Fellini told the story of ‘Marcello’ (played by the dark-eyed charmer Marcello Mastroianni) an urbane tabloid journalist living a seedy life in a battered but glorious post-war Rome. Marcello spends the film roving between women at a variety of social get-togethers. He woos great European beauties with a laconic ease that almost suggests ennui. It is a deeply boring movie. But it is dazzling to look at. I have never seen anything like it. How can a movie be both boring and brilliant at the same time? It seems uncanny, but then I suppose that’s why Fellini is so acclaimed.
“Oh, God. The fountain scene,” Sarah said. “I love it!”
We’d just left the devilishly overcrowded Gordon’s wine bar and were walking, arm in arm, through Trafalgar Square. I had just mentioned my favourite Italian snooze-fest.
I said, “I know, it’s amazing, isn’t it? I think it’s probably one of the finest scenes in cinema…”
There was a pause, so I added ever.
“Yes, I love that bit. The loopy but stunning Anita Ekberg walks into the fountain. Marcello follows her in and they embrace in the midnight waters…”
Who talks like this, I thought?
I said, “I heard he got drunk for that scene. The water was freezing, apparently.”
Sarah looked at me and I felt her arm unhook. Another London lovely was about to remove herself from my life.
“Hey,” I said, “imagine if we did that.”
“Climbed into the fountain!”
Trafalgar Square was as always full of aimless tourists. It was late and many appeared drunk. On the far side a group of brightly attired Europeans appeared to have the same idea as me. Sarah smiled. I was a man of audacity, a City-working cinephile. Moreover, I was a man of romantic foolery.
“Ok,” she said. “Let’s do it!”
She pulled my hand, swerving towards the water. Planting herself on the edge of a fountain, she reached for her shoes.
“Come on, let’s get in.”
I took an involuntary step back.
An icy easterly blew between the lions. I was momentarily locked into a statuesque pose. Sarah replaced her shoe.
“Forget it,” she said. “I was only joking.”
In the movie the beautiful couple waded knee-deep in the water. On reflection that wasn’t too much of an ask. Needless to say the pay-off would have been tremendous. As it was we walked on through the square in silence. Marcello and Anita never did get together. He was far too self-obsessed to ever capture her heart. I can see why it turned out that way. Sarah smiled when I said so, but none of it seemed to matter anymore. The movies never changed a thing.