The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
I don’t know when I saw my first movie. I only know it was when I lived in Toronto in the 1940s. What I do know is that not long after my tenth birthday we moved to a small town which had a movie theater only one block away from our house. I was too young to be allowed into night movies alone, but I soon became an addict of the Saturday matinees—the Bowery Boys, the Three Stooges, westerns that all seemed to feature Randolph Scott. Soon enough I was old enough to go at night on my own, and I became a regular.
Then I went off to university and the movies got left behind. Academic work, university social life, my attempts at serious writing, all these helped keep me close to the campus of the University of Toronto, and it wasn’t until I travelled to England to do a graduate degree that I got back to regular movie-going. In those days my young wife was left at home most days while I slogged away at the library of the University of Liverpool. In the evenings we would go to a local cinema, a ten minute walk from the house or to one a little further away called the Continental. It was there that I saw, for the first time, films by the famous European directors, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni, and my personal favourite, Ingmar Bergman. Movies like The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, created in the intense black and white that I came to associate with dramatic tales of northern Europe, probably taught me more than all my hours of study.
When we returned to Canada I found myself teaching at Queen’s University in the days when Peter Harcourt, another Canadian who had been living in England, founded the university’s film department. I attended many of his public showings of classic European and American movies.
After this intense introduction to some great flicks and the serious study of film, I went through a lengthy blank-screen period—a busy life, work for CBC television, the struggle to make a living as a free-lance writer. My dose of visual narrative was most commonly provided by TV. I liked movies, I saw some, but I didn’t attend them with any regularity.
It was 1996 when I moved to the Island and Judy and I settled in an old house in Eldon. TV was limited to a small black and white set that got local CBC and CTV on rabbit ears. The grey blur served only to bring us the daily news. But within weeks I discovered Derek Martin’s City Cinema and the monthly BUZZ listings of what was playing. I’d like to be able to name the very first movie we attended, but I can’t. What I do know is that within a short time we became regular Friday night patrons. If I do a little arithmetic I can come up with an estimate for how many movies we have watched in that small theatre over the years. Something over five hundred, I’d say, some memorable, some lost in time. European movies. British movies. American movies. Canadian movies. Ninety minutes to two hours each of vivid visual experience. Classics like Gosford Park or Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Canadian gems like One Week or Faith, Fraud and the Minimum Wage.
I sometimes recall the first sentence of one of Gore Vidal’s memoirs. “As I now move, graciously I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.” I don’t suppose I could put it quite that strongly, but the variety and scope of Derek’s selections for City Cinema over the years have certainly been a small blessing.
More than small.