For example, I recall sitting in our doctor's waiting room, somewhere around 1961 -- probably waiting to have him peer, yet again, into my eternally-aching ear -- and seeing a small, amateurishly-printed poster for a showing of a film by Jean Renoir, La Règle du Jeu. I was proud of my reading ability, aged 7, but here were words -- clearly important words in capital letters -- I could not render. Fascinating! I suppose it must have been put up by a local society, though nothing as interesting as a film society existed in our town when I was old enough to appreciate one.
In fact, nothing as interesting as a cinema existed by then. Incredibly, a whole New Town for 75,000 people was built around a place with a population of 7,500 without factoring in a new cinema. There were two ancient and tiny "Old Town" fleapits, the Publix and the Astonia, but the depradations of local youths and a presumably non-existent business model meant that the Publix closed in 1961 and then the Astonia in 1969.
I never actually entered the Publix, as by its desperate final days it was only showing X-rated films to an audience of 300 seated on benches, not stalls, and on whom water dripped whenever it rained. Allegedly the projector beam was regularly blocked by opening umbrellas. I did see my own first X-rated films in the last days of the Astonia (1968's Girl on a Motorbike and Witchfinder General), brazening my way in with some bolder school-friends. The staff couldn't have cared less how old we were, actually, so long as we didn't slash the seats or add to the stains on the undersized screen by hurling ice-creams. And they weren't that bothered about that, either; it wasn't exactly a "family" cinema. Within the year the place had closed, and it was another four years before a proper "New Town" cinema opened its doors. Sadly, I doubt any Stevenage cinema ever did or ever will show Renoir's La Règle du Jeu.
The memory of that little poster remained, however, a hint that the world was bigger than I thought, if only I could be bothered to look and learn. My father could speak some French, and explained how to pronounce the words, and that they meant "the rules of the game". As I gained competence in the language myself, that stubborn memory would resurface occasionally, and I would wonder why "rules" was singular ("la règle") and not plural ("les règles")? Did the French regard rules as a singular thing, perhaps, like "the law"? It was an early lesson in the niceties of translation.*
By some twist of fate, I have never yet seen La Règle du Jeu. I did become a devoted cinéaste in 1976/77, stuck on the remote campus of the University of East Anglia, with nothing better to do in the evening than attend every available film showing. Happily, there were several every week. In one year I saw all those films that no-one other than film students ever sees in real life -- Last Year in Marienbad, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Closely Observed Trains, Céline and Julie Go Boating -- but never the Renoir.
So, an important memory in my life is a poster half-buried on a pinboard in a doctor's waiting room for a film I have never seen, and -- who knows? -- may never see. And it's fairly certain that the film, were I to see it now (even if it does live up to its perpetual critics' Top Ten billing), could never match the significance of that memory. Talk about a meaning forever deferred through an endless chain of signifiers! Which we weren't, but it's all very French, n'est-ce pas?
*Titles are notoriously difficult to translate. On a German school exchange, I was delighted to learn that the spy series The Avengers was screened on German TV as Mit Schirm, Charme, und Melone ("With umbrella, charm, and a
In a perfectly German case of "it does what it says on the tin", Woody Allen's Annie Hall was released in Germany as Der Stadtneurotiker ("the urban neurotic"). I am not entirely convinced that Grease was really released in Spain as Vaselina (¡Vaselina es la palabra!) but allegedly it is so.