A deeply personal look at how your life can turn around in a very short space of time – and how it affects watching movies.

Robin Bell (@RobinBellWriter)

Editor’s note: on May 7th, the brilliant Robin Bell left us, following a hell of a battle with cancer. Robin has written for Film Stories from the start, and in particular, he wrote this hugely affecting piece about how his diagnosis affected how he felt about films. 

With permission from his wife, Heidi, to whom we send our love and condolences, here is that article from issue three of the magazine. Robin, we’re already missing you. Wherever you are, make sure they’ve got a decent DVD collection. Over to you, sir…

 

An introduction. In December 2017, I was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. I’d been ill for a while, and watching films was becoming increasingly more difficult, but I didn’t know how this news would change the way I perceived films.

It took a while to even have the strength or want to watch anything. There was a new Nick Park film, a legend of British filmmaking, and I couldn’t be bothered with it. There were plenty of examples like this initially. It felt like I was giving up on films. To be honest, I didn’t have strength to do much, so it probably felt I was giving up on everything. The most I could manage was Four In A Bed and Come Dine With Me marathons, with the odd Place In The Sun thrown in for good measure.

The films I did manage to see during this time though felt strange. I was disconnected from them in some way. Throughout my life, I’ve been passionate about films, some would say in a pretentious and overly analytical way, but what do you expect from a former Film Studies teacher? I gained so much enjoyment from noticing auteuristic flourishes, ongoing themes in a director’s work, stylistic choices and cultural importance. Somehow, this all seemed inconsequential now. Why did I like films?

It felt cruel. Not only had I been told devastating news, but the repercussions of that had mentally taken away one of my joys and passions. This was January as well, Oscar season, otherwise known as catnip to the academic film fan. Yet nothing seemed to resonate. I’m not sure if it was a state of mind thing, or a shifting of how I was beginning to perceive time.

Collections

As well as being a pretentious, analytical film fan, I’m a bit of a collector nerd. My living room has two walls dedicated to DVD shelves, at a guess I’d say they house 2000+ films, organised by director, with a dedicated horror shelf, a box set shelf, a kids’ film shelf. It’s pedantic and it was always a consideration when seeing a new film – will it make it into the collection?

Before the diagnosis, films entered the collection easily (pictured below). The new Wes Anderson film? A no brainer addition. A new Star Wars film? Slide it next to the last episode. If it made my Top 20 of the year, it would be in the collection, and if it was of a particular genre it would find its way onto that shelf, accompanied by a comforting feeling that this story I’d enjoyed was now available to be picked up and watched at any point. A comfort that feels like it’s being displaced in this all new streaming era.

That comforting feeling of seeing a film that you know you can revisit many years down the line, have it change and surprise you as you rewatch it throughout your life. That all went out of the window. What did films mean to me now?

That’s the horrible truth about a cancer diagnosis. It takes your life and compresses it. Shrinks away the time you consider to be the life ahead of you, and changes your outlook on the things you thought were important, your passions. I’ve always felt that stories are the most important aspect of our lives. They are how we make sense of everything. But now, mine was being ripped away from me. It all started to feel like nothing. Werner Herzog’s voiceover would categorise this moment as staring into the abyss.

Appetite

Luckily, the first line chemotherapy, a mix of three drugs, ECX, started to have an effect. Energy levels began to pick up ever so slightly, and most importantly my appetite came back. This included an appetite for films, albeit slowly. It was almost as if I had to be tricked into it. It shouldn’t have been that difficult.

The first film of 2018 I saw that began to feel like a film again was Phantom Thread. I’m a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but was worried about seeing the film. His films are usually quite involved, with multiple threads of themes, texts, subtexts, visual motifs, inspirations, and always bulging with ideas. How would I cope with that in my weakened state? Also, it wasn’t showing at my local cinema – if I wanted to see this on the big screen, it was going to have to be a special trip to a cinema I’d not been to yet. That cinema was the Storyhouse in Chester. I’d recommend a trip if you’re near the north west of England or have a thing for cinemas that stray from the norm.

The cinema is part of a theatre/cafe/creative space/library. The screen itself is set on the second floor in the middle of an extensive, beautiful, modern library. I realised upon taking my seat that the act of going to the cinema is special; these places we watch films are magical. This feeling can sometimes be lost in the soullessness of the multiplex, especially when attendance is a regular occurrence with an Unlimited card experience.

But in this moment of seeing Phantom Thread, I was reminded how magical seeing a film at the cinema could be. We should never forget how thrilling that moment is when the lights dim and we’re about to be transported into the magical world of story.

Well, the lights dimmed and I was taken into the world of Phantom Thread. And for the first time since receiving the diagnosis, I was transported. The visuals, the soundtrack, the characters, the twisted world created, and the epic breakfast orders – they all absorbed me.

But: it was different. Maybe because it felt so special that it took on a meaning that surpassed other films, or maybe because it felt like a beacon of hope coming out of the abyss. I could enjoy films again. Things were getting better. There was one niggling question that lingered, though. Would Phantom Thread become part of the collection? On the one hand, it was a no brainer. A film that engaged me so deeply should become part of the PT Anderson section of my DVD shelves, which began with Hard Eight and went up to Inherent Vice, but that nagging doubt lingered. What was the point in buying DVDs when I might not live long enough to get to watch them?

Cycles

Chemo continued and, though it was a struggle, the cycle of it usually gave me 10 days of pain and lack of energy, and then 10 days where I could live and experience things. This included films. And while sometimes all I could manage was the simplest of comedies or kids’ films, there were occasions where I found I could concentrate on things more substantial.

Films that resonated during this time? My Life As A Courgette, Most Beautiful Island, Call Me By Your Name, Game Night, The Bookshop, Rampage, The Florida Project and The Inbetweeners Movie. I’ve always liked a good mix of films, but at this point I really needed to mix it up, as sometimes I didn’t have the mental capacity for anything that required thought or stretched to over an hour and a half.

The home DVD watching experience usually included an interval for a power nap. Films worked differently for me during this time. As described earlier, aspects I’d previously considered important now didn’t mean as much. Or maybe it was because I didn’t have the mental capacity to analyse in depth what I was watching.

Whatever the reason, it made the experience a lot different. Films actually felt more immediate. Like they existed more in the present. This may sound like a silly statement – all movies are experienced in the present, surely? And yes, that is true. But also they take on a meaning, where they can inform aspects of your past and future. Where the filmmaker’s previous films and their artistic endeavours are taking them, plus the cultural importance and political values of said film can make the material take on a higher meaning.

Well, none of these seemed to matter as much anymore; instead, it was all about experiencing the film in the present.

This led to a far more selfish appreciation of the films I was watching. I’d always viewed films as a communication between the filmmakers and myself, where usually we’d meet halfway between their message and my interpretation. Now, when watching, all that mattered was what it meant to me in the here and now. It made films feel more immediate, more personal, even if it did mean I was disregarding many elements from certain films.

It was all about what the films meant to me emotionally. Which probably means there’s so much I’m missing out on, but that immediacy felt brilliant, like a re-connection to film. Like I’d rediscovered what was important about them.

This coincided with the first seven cycles of chemotherapy coming to an end. Now, it was time to hopefully have a break, and wait and watch to see when the cancer would grow back. Hopefully, it would stay away for a long time. The chemo had gone well and stabilised the cancer, but from the first scan, the bad news hit straightaway. The cancer was already growing, and there would be no break before we had to begin second-line chemotherapy.

Impossible mission

The day we got the results, we’d decided whatever the outcome we’d go to the cinema afterwards, so we had something to look forward to. If it was bad news, we could try and distract ourselves, and if it was good, we could celebrate. So, we tried to distract ourselves with Mission Impossible: Fallout. It was the perfect film to carry the mind away from whatever thoughts were flooding it, with relentless pace and great action scenes, and more emotional investment in the characters than previous Mission Impossibles. I felt so thankful to have something in my life where I could lose myself, and this film managed that at the perfect time.

In fact, if one good thing has come out of this, it has been a re-connection to what is important in life. This has meant many things but first and foremost, obviously, friends and family. I could not have got through this past year without my wife, Heidi, my family or all my friends. There has also been great support from the online writing community, who’ve kept me going with tweets and books, CDs, DVDs and, most of all, support.

And then, there’s the importance of films and stories. My re-connection to them on a personal level grew throughout the second line of chemotherapy, which was a lot rougher than the first, but seems to be having a positive effect on the cancer.

After my last scan, the tumours in my liver had been reduced to a microscopic level. There were some great films, whose stories became part of my story during the second half of the year, including Bad Times At The El Royale, American Animals, Crazy Rich Asians, Cold War and a range of Christmas classic movies, which at the beginning of the year I never thought I’d get to experience in their seasonal home.

Personal

I think we can all lose sight of the personal nature of movies, and how they can directly affect and take a special place in our lives. Many of the movies I named above that I enjoyed throughout 2018 became part of the DVD collection, because whilst it’s sometimes hard to look forward, it’s what we have to do, and face whatever is thrown at us. Hopefully, we’ll get some great stories to accompany us, and make everything all the more bearable and enjoyable.

By the late, brilliant, Robin Bell.