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A Life in Film

Be sure to check out William Conway's full autobiographical review of every film he's seen in theaters at his personal blog.


How many times do you think you’ve been to the cinema in your life? More than 100, right? A couple of hundred? My count currently sits at 333. How do I know this? Because I counted. Yes, I have a list. I think I was a teenager when I started a mental tally (I assumed everyone did this) but I actually started to write them down a few years ago. Why? Who can say? I’ve always felt like watching a movie in a theater is an experience. I’ve found making lists gives me a temporary feeling of control. How else do we make sense of a senseless world than by ordering things?

Well, if you weren’t already intrigued, what if I told you I’ve written a review of every single cinema visit in my life? I found cinema trips to be a useful lens for looking back through a life. I’ve tracked birthdays and first dates, cultural milestones, disappointments, discoveries and strange encounters, as well as changes in our moviegoing habits and the films themselves. Not to mention the distances I’ve travelled to sit in the dark surrounded by strangers.

My full list is here but for now I’ve picked one film from each of the five decades my list spans. Although the majority of my films have been in London, where I've lived since 2001, I’ve tried to give a bit of range. Take your seats and turn off your phones (unless of course you're reading this on it).

The Little Mermaid (1989)

We celebrated my younger brother’s birthday in the grade II listed Windmill Theatre in Great Yarmouth, one of the oldest standing cinema buildings in England. At this point, half of my cinema trips up to this point were Disney cartoons. I remember immensely enjoying this film and its soundtrack and also recall Ursula, the film’s octopus-witch villain stirring something strange inside me. Apparently cheaper to animate, do her six octopus tentacles combined with her two arms make her a true octopus or is she more of a squid centaur? Up to you. All I know is that the first erotic dream I ever had was about her squashing me underneath them all.

A female lead and antagonist made me wonder if this was the first film I saw that passed the Bechdel test but I’m not sure it does. Two female characters, Ariel and Ursula, do talk, however their entire conversation is about becoming human in order to bag the Prince. Eric’s maid also talks to Ariel but, although she can communicate with gestures, she doesn’t actually ‘speak’ at this point. For me, it seemed clear-cut feminist cinema would have to wait.

Robin Hood (1991)

What a disappointment. After trailing the soundtrack single for weeks in advance, me and my brothers could not have been more up for this but after about 15 or 20 minutes we finally had to admit that Kevin Costner would not be coming and we weren’t watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Yes, this was the other Robin Hood film released the same year - straight to television in the States, believe it or not. I wonder how many other people made the same mistake as us and what was up with the people who were there by choice.

My first glimpse of one Uma Thurman was apparently completely lost on me, as well as the versatile David Morrissey. Nevertheless, I tried so desperately to enjoy this and deliberately made a mental note of Friar Tuck shouting ‘Welcome to Hell!’ as a ‘cool bit’ to talk about with my brother later. Still we felt cheated - hoodwinked you might say, if you wanted to say that. The Noverre, one of Norwich’s only independent cinemas, would close down in 1992 due to declining ticket sales, leaving me with a hard to pin down feeling inside. 

Take two.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

‘No blades. No bows. Leave your weapons here.’ ‘Save it for the ladies.’ ‘There’s always room [spit] for one more.’ ‘Because it's dull, you twit. It'll hurt more!’ These were just some of the phrases that my brothers and I endlessly repeated while throwing things at each other or chasing each other around someone’s garden for the years to follow. 

What can I say about this film? I think it still stands up. Years later, I was so excited to find the actual tree on Hadrian’s Wall (RIP Sycamore Gap tree) that Wulf climbed to escape the soldiers (and being impressed how Robin and Azeem walked from the White Cliffs of Dover up there and back down to Nottinghamshire). Incidentally, on that same walking trip with my dad, we also visited the waterfall that Kevin Costner showers in and discovered to my glee that it is called Hardraw Force, which sounds like a Van Damme movie (sadly none of his on this list - apologies if that’s what you came for).

Back to the cinema visit; all was right in the world when we went to see this for my birthday at the Cannon with a couple of friends and we even had burgers at Zak’s on Mousehold Heath afterwards. If you grew up in Norwich then you might recall with some excitement that a birthday in Zak’s meant a knickerbocker glory with sparklers might be brought out. Priceless (as far as I was aware).

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Technically an adult now, staying with my friend in Mexico City, I convinced him to come with me to see this. He was reluctant, which I couldn’t understand. It looked B-movie bananas and starred Samuel L Jackson (my most watched actor with 49 films, 21 of those in the cinema). Apparently in Mexico it had been marketed as the ‘scariest film of the year’ and he thought it looked ridiculous. Once he knew that was the point, he was on board. Ten years later, I read that a flight out of Mexico City did have a surprise reptilian stowaway. Life imitates art.

Looking back I’m ashamed to say that, despite not getting round to visiting Teotihuacán while in Mexico City, we still found time for this film, as well as You, Me & Dupree and The Devil Wears Prada at Parque Delta Cinemex. You’re only young once.

The World's End (2013)

My wife, my sister and I saw this at Swiss Cottage ODEON, where I later learned my parents had seen a double bill of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca in 1978.

I struggle to explain it now but, when I found out that the third of Edgar Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ was based around a pub crawl and shot mostly in Welwyn Garden City, I persuaded my then girlfriend (now wife somehow) to take the train up with me for our own pub crawl of the filming locations. I’ve heard of pilgrimages to cinema locations but not usually before seeing the film. In any case, it was a rather bleak day in the lifeless pubs of this planned city but nice to get out of the house I suppose.

Bande à Part (1964)

A Godard film with Greek subtitles on an Athens rooftop last summer surrounded by riot police. What could be cooler? With my French, I could just about keep up but kudos to my wife for being up for it. The film was a feast for the eyes and ears, including a famous dance scene that inspired Tarantino and others. 

Cinema VOX (ΒΟΞ) is an open air cinema screen in what our hotel receptionist called a ‘rebellious’ hip suburb of Athens. Apparently, ever since a proposal to build a new metro station in next door’s Plateia Exarcheion, it had been closed off with corrugated metal and chain link fences. I read up on the area’s history of protest and found that the armed police stationed outside to prevent local residents from trying to occupy it. 


So, 333 films in over 50 cinemas in 8 different countries. I can’t exactly stop counting them now, can I? And why should I? Without my list I’d never have spotted that in 2000 I went to the cinema 20 times. So I’d never have wanted to beat that with 23 cinemas in 2023 (and now 24 in ‘24). It’s the reason I now have a spreadsheet of every cinema in London. Could I visit them all before I move away? Perhaps that’s what I’ve been waiting for. Whenever I travel to a new place, interesting cinemas have become the first thing I look for. Where should I visit next?


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