Wednesday, May 6, 2020

A Taste For Cinema

Since becoming a parent, I’ve been very interested in the idea of visual literacy. Simultaneous with your child’s verbal development, they have also been learning how to interpret visual information. They can tell when you are happy or sad based on facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, etc. They are very good at picking up on nuance. And just as you take great care in developing their verbal skills by helping them learn the alphabet and reading to them, it is also important to continue developing that visual literacy.

Another way to think of it is developing your child’s visual palate. Think of how much care you put into making sure they are getting all the right nutrients in their meals. Think of the ways you have maybe tried to sneak vegetables into macaroni and cheese so that they develop a taste for broccoli. These early years are also ideal for introducing them to a wide array of interesting and nutritive cinematic flavors.

What follows are a few ideas that I’ve found to be successful for our daughter, Lola, as well as some that I hope to try with her as she continues to develop her visual vocabulary and palate. Of course, just because something works for one child doesn’t mean it will work for another child. Take what you find useful and toss aside the rest!
Visual Storytelling
“I’m not always good with words. Some people are poets and have a beautiful way of saying things with words. But cinema is its own language. And with it you can say so many things, because you’ve got time and sequences. You’ve got dialogue. You’ve got music. You’ve got sound effects. You have so many tools. And you can express a feeling and a thought that can’t be conveyed any other way. It’s a magical medium.”
- David Lynch
Many undergraduate film programs require incoming freshmen to take a class in Visual Storytelling. In these classes students learn the rudiments of film grammar (wide shot, close-up, reaction shots, etc.) and how to use them to convey a story without dialogue. The hope is that it will breed filmmakers who are not reliant on having everything explained away with a monologue or voiceover. The visuals will tell the story as well, or in some cases, on their own entirely. This is what is commonly known as “Pure Cinema”. Certain genres lend themselves more towards “Pure Cinema” than others. I’m going to list a few of them below and suggest how you can best incorporate them into your child’s visual diet.

Silent Films
If you’re looking for films that tell stories without dialogue, what better place to start than before films were able to audibly speak? The easiest entry point to these types of films is through silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Laughter is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Intertitles can also become a resource for promoting reading.

If you find your child somewhat resistant, you can always shift gears to semi-silent filmmakers like Jacques Tati, Pierre Etaix, and early Jerry Lewis. There is some dialogue in these films, but they are primarily built around long, protracted comic set-pieces where one gag leads into another and dialogue is incidental. The fact that Tati and Etaix are French is also a perfect segue into our next topic...

Foreign Films
Even seasoned cinephiles can bristle at the thought of having to read subtitles when they’re not in the mood, so it’s understandable that kiddos might also be resistant to “reading a movie.” But if you pick the right ones they’ll be begging for more. After introducing Lola to Tati through his film Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Lola was clamoring for more movies starring the “silly man” and has now plowed her way through his whole filmography. Beyond comedies, action films and musicals are also excellent gateways into world cinema.

What kid doesn’t love singing and dancing? Add to this the fact that many of these films are also bathed in glorious Technicolor and the deal is sealed. Sure, many of these films are also epically long and feature intermissions, but that’s what DVD chapter stops are for! We introduced Lola to musicals via YouTube clips from films like Singin’ in the Rain and Sweet Charity.

A benefit to this method of using clips is that you can also show them bits of films that are outside of their age range. Lola won’t be watching Cabaret for quite a while, but she LOVES the “Money” number and knows it well. I also used YouTube clips to introduce her to Bollywood films. As a result, the song “O Mere Sona Re Sona” from Teesri Manzil is one of her all-time favorites.

Eventually they will build up the endurance to watch the entirety of West Side Story while standing, transfixed.

Action Films
Like musicals, action films are also composed of long, kinetic set-pieces that can either be shown on their own or within the context of a larger narrative. Unlike (most) musicals, action films are filled with violence so it is up to you to determine what you want your child watching. Clearly you don’t throw them into Mad Max: Fury Road, but perhaps you can start with the masterful dogfight sequences in any of the Star Wars films? Or if even that is too much for your little one, who doesn’t love a great chase? Look no further than Buster Keaton’s The General!

As you may or may not be aware, Lola is a HUGE Godzilla fan. I started out showing her dubbed films, but when we ran out I was able to switch to subtitled ones and she didn’t really care. If she was unclear about anything all she had to do was ask daddy. And about that question asking...

“People sometimes say they have trouble understanding a film, but I think they understand much more than they realize. Because we’ve all been blessed with intuition — we really have the gift of intuiting things."  
"Someone might say, I don’t understand music, but most people experience music emotionally and would agree that music is an abstraction. You don’t need to put music into words right away — you just listen.”
- David Lynch
Another thing you learn about early on in film school is the Kuleshov Effect. Named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, this “effect” was the result of an experiment where the same neutral shot of an actor’s face was juxtaposed with different POV shots and followed by the same neutral face afterwards. When the neutral face was followed by a bowl of soup, audiences inferred that in the final shot he was hungry. When the face was followed by a shot of a child in a coffin, audiences inferred that he was sad. When followed by a comely get the idea. The same shot yielded drastically different reactions based on context.

By showing your child films with little to no dialogue you are allowing them to construct the story themselves. You are allowing them to take the pieces that they are given and assemble them into something on their own. There isn’t some narration telling them what they are supposed to take away from what they have seen. They may ask you questions about what is happening, but the best response is to ask them back, “What do you think happened?” Nine times out of ten they picked up on what the filmmaker intended. And that one time out of ten response is a fine answer as well.

When it’s over, be sure to talk about the film with them. What parts did they like? What parts didn’t they like? How much of the plot do they remember? Let them tell it.


“Ozu’s camera is always at the level of a person seated in traditional fashion on the tatami, about three feet above the ground...The camera, except in the rarest of instances, never moves; in the later films there are no pans, no dollies, no zooms. Ozu’s only filmic punctuation mark is the cut, and it is not the fast cut for impact or the juxtaposing cut for metaphorical meaning, but the pacing cut which denotes a steady, rhythmic succession of events.”
- Paul Schrader

As everyone is so fond of saying: The world is getting faster. This is especially true in film and television. So many cuts. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. On one level it’s cool to find out how fast our brains are. That we can pick up information that quickly. But if that’s all you’re taking in, you might find it difficult to just sit down and think for a moment. Exponentially so for a child.

Early on, we found that a great way to re-center Lola was to turn on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers' insistence on a consistent visual style was a masterstroke. The lenses, the camera movement, and the cutting are all so deliberate. It’s all meant to slow you down and bring you to his desired pace. Even the opening theme song which opens with a loud flurry of notes leads into these lyrics that gradually wind down and end with a normal speaking voice. It’s quite  hypnotic. Almost meditative.

I included the quote about Ozu at the start of this section because I find great affinity between these two artists. They are both masters of “slow cinema” who are content to do things at their own pace. I’ve yet to show Lola any Ozu films because they are a bit more dialogue heavy than a Godzilla picture, but when I do, I think she will like them. I also plan on stacking the deck by starting with the film Good Morning because it is in color, centers on children, and features fart jokes.


The last area I’d like to touch on is that of the experimental or avant-garde film. I don’t have anything too profound to say about this subject beyond this: show your children experimental films! It’s important that they learn that cinema can also be abstract. Some that I’ve recommended in the past are Stan Brakhage’s Stellar, Manoel de Oliveira’s 1 Seculo de Energia, and the promotional film Kenneth Anger made for the fashion house Missoni. All of these can be found on YouTube. As was mentioned in the “Intuition” section, discussion is crucial. Get them talking and keep them talking.

But most of all — keep things fun. You never want this to feel like homework. If they aren’t relating to or responding to something, move on. If, months or years later on you think they might be more receptive to a certain film or idea, circle back to it. We all go at our own pace. Hopefully this piece has given you plenty to consider as you and your child(ren) dive deeper into the world of cinema.

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