Friday, January 1, 2021

Tough Talk

It's a question I have low-key dreaded since becoming a parent:

"Dad, what's this quote on you and mom's wedding party favor from?"

The simple answer is, "Annie Hall." The difficult part is the conversation that should inevitably follow.

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Like Many film lovers, 'Becca'lise and I have seen a fair share of our favorite films and filmmakers slide into the category of, "problematic fave." After all, our personal lists of favorite films respectively feature Rosemary's Baby and Annie Hall.

We are aware of the damage wrought by the men who helmed those productions and we do not venerated them, but we also cannot deny what certain films have meant to us over the years. We also cannot deny the artistry of all the other collaborators who made those film possible. We are able to hold such opposing thoughts in our heads at the same time. But what of a child who deals in absolutes of good and bad?

I get that this can be a great starting point for discussing the concept of divisive individuals with your young one, but in the case of Woody Allen, even the issue of why he's worthy of scorn is a whole conversation of its own. But the discussion of problematic artists is an important one to have because it is certain to be a perennial one.

It is only a matter of time before someone involved with something your child loves reveals themselves to be an awful person. We didn't even get a chance to take Lola to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter before J.K. Rowling went full-on TERF. But maybe her awfulness can be used as a teachable moment!

It is much easier to explain to a child that an intolerant person is capable of creating an imaginative world that has brought joy to many, than to explain that an (alleged) sexual assaulter has created works of moral ambiguity that have brought chin-scratching amusement to some.

No matter how you go about it, this is a conversation that will need to happen eventually, so you might as well start peeling that bandaid now. And then you can start working on justifying your exploitation film collection by explaining that depiction does not equal endorsement. Good luck!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Dark Oscars

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

The Kodak Theatre was alive with energy as Martin Scorsese left the stage clutching his long overdue Oscar for Directing. The glamourous audience had been through a lot and after nearly four hours, the end was in sight, only one award remained. But as Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton made their way to the stage, there was great uncertainty as to which film would be taking home that last little Golden Boy.

Normally the film with the most nominations is the shoe-in for Best Picture, yet for the first time in Academy history, the most nominated film wasn’t even in the running. Despite its impressive eight nominations, the long gestating adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls had failed to secure the most important one. Though Babel had the second most nominations with seven, victory seemed unlikely as it had failed to win a single award all night. It was truly anyone’s race. Who would come out on top?

Would it be Clint Eastwood’s year again with his Japanese language, WWII film Letters from Iwo Jima? What about The Queen? The Academy famously loves Brits. Or maybe the feel-good Little Miss Sunshine would follow in the tradition of Marty and Rocky to become the little film that could?

Though it had already racked up three awards over the course of the evening (editing, adapted screenplay and director) few saw The Departed as a real contender. It was a genre picture, it was violent, and it was cynical. This was the same Academy that had only one year prior singled out the maudlinly hopeful Crash for Oscar glory. Surely they wouldn’t give their highest honor to a film that the director himself later described thusly:

"It has to do with the nature of betrayal. The nature of a morality which, after 2001, has become suspect to me. I'm concerned about the nature of how we live, how we're living in this country and what our values are. This new kind of war is going to continue. Our children are going to inherit it. It's not going to be over with by the time we're dead. It's like a whole worldwide civil war. How does one behave in that context? What's right and what's wrong in that war? On the street level of The Departed, no one can trust one another. Everyone's lying to each other. It fueled me in a way. It got me angry, it got me going."

Going purely off the applause as Diane Keaton read the nominees, it seemed as though Babel might end up walking away the victor. But then again, this is the Academy Awards, not Opportunity Knocks. Jack Nicholson didn’t even wait for The Queen's applause to die down before tearing into the envelope. Once it was open, everyone fell silent. Keaton seemed giddy with anticipation. Who would it be? After a moment to examine the contents (and with an oh-so-subtle grin) Nicholson proudly announced the winner.

Just like that, the delusional optimism of Crash was obliterated and the rage of The Departed reigned. And this was only the beginning.

Monday, October 19, 2020

David and Lola


When ‘Becca’lise and I started the adoption process, one of the first things I did was make a playlist. I was dead-set against committing myself to years of "Baby Shark" and whatever this generation’s incarnation of The Wiggles is called. I ended up with a list of about 300 songs with catchy hooks and zero profanity. A cornerstone of this playlist is songs by both David Byrne and Talking Heads.

Talking Heads are an ideal band for small children. The beats are infectious and the lyrics are simple. When they sing about “buildings and food” they are singing about things your child sees every day. They’re also a great way to introduce your little one to avant-garde music, theatre, and film.


*      *      *


Ever since we got Lola as a little, giggling four-month-old, she has had the urge to move to music. Before she could even crawl she would bop around to whatever ‘Becca’lise and I would play around her. Even moreso once she learned to walk.


Once she was up and moving we started showing her clips from musicals and ballets. We were amazed at how well she could mimic the choreography of stuff as diverse as the "Rich Man’s Frug" sequence of Sweet Charity and clips of Maya Deren.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

Mindful Movies

What does a pandemic mean to a four-year-old? Our daughter has been really great about mask wearing and stepping aside so strangers can pass to avoid “germies” while on a walk, but she still questions whether or not she needs to wash her hands after coming back from a journey outside. It’s a whole new world that’s difficult to navigate and can sometimes be quite frustrating. Of course tantrums aren’t great, but given the circumstances, can you really blame kids? Emotions can be messy. Doubly so during a pandemic. But they are all valid.

*      *      *

Many children’s films begin with disruption. Usually this takes the form of a parent’s death which leaves the protagonist to face the world alone until a plucky band of new friends come along and help vanquish the bad guy/restore some form of normalcy. It’s a comforting arc, but not exactly relevant to our present times because it centers on a goal. There’s an end. What about when there doesn’t seem to be an eminent end and there’s certainly little you can do to bring that end about? What about when the only thing you (sort of) have control over is yourself? 

The two family-friendly films I see as most relevant to the era of Covid are Inside Out and Where the Wild Things Are. Both films center on kids at the edge of adolescence, who have had their lives uprooted, decide to run away, and who gradually come to accept the fact that it is OK to embrace the full spectrum of human emotion. Oh, and they both do this via fantastical manifestations of their inner turmoil. Sure the Pixar film is much more literal in its allegory (with characters named after emotions) but the only major difference between the two is that Inside Out uses the character of Joy as a proxy for its protagonist’s journey of acceptance.

While common sense says that the literal cartoon would be more ideal for a younger child (rather than the movie with monsters) I actually found the inverse to be true. The indirectness of Wild Things’ narrative can work better for young kids as they are still very in tune with their intuition. They can feel their way through the film. They become Max observing these Wild Things and their emotional tantrums. They can sense the parallels between Max's behavior and that of the Wild Things. By contrast, the literalism of Inside Out is perfect for an older child who is getting better at putting their feelings into words.

Of course you shouldn’t expect your child to have some sort of grand revelation at the end or either film. They’ll probably be too caught up in the fantastical stuff any way. But these films will certainly start laying some groundwork and maybe spark some interesting car or dinner table conversations. No matter what, you and your child will have watched two very enjoyable films and will certainly have felt some feelings. 

The world is filled with ways to distract ourselves and escape from this never-ending marathon of days, but when it comes to working through some things or when you flat-out need to purge some emotion in a safe manner, regardless of age, the movies simply cannot be beat!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Girls to the Front!

Once you've introduced your child to the idea that films are something made by people, it's important to start introducing them to films from a diversity of creators.

Though small inroads have been made over the past few years, film directing is still overwhelmingly a career path enjoyed by men. According to the most recent data from USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 10.6% of working directors are woman. By introducing your children to the concept of female filmmakers at an early age we can help to ensure that this inequality of access will not be a hurdle for future generations. Little girls and boys will have grown up on films directed by women and men alike, and little girls will not become discouraged by the perception that all of the great directors are men.

Here's a small sampling of child-appropriate (ie: G or PG rated) live-action films directed by women that you could potentially use as starting points.

  • The Trouble with Angels (dir: Ida Lupino)
  • Big/A League of Their Own/The Preacher's Wife (dir. Penny Marshall)
  • The Beverly Hillbillies/The Little Rascals (dir. Penelope Spheeris)
  • The Babysitter's Club (dir. Melanie Mayron)
  • The Secret Garden (dir. Agnieszka Holland)
  • Little Women (dir. Gillian Armstrong)
  • Speed Racer (dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski)*
  • A Wrinkle in Time (dir. Ava DuVernay)
  • Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)

*The credits to Speed Racer still refer to Lana and Lilly by their deadnames. This could be a great opportunity to broach the concept of the trans community with your little one.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Who the Devil Made It?

So you’ve successfully introduced your child to a wide variety of film styles from around the world, but how and when do you introduce them to the idea that people actually make these things? Your child might be able to say that so and so “made” a particular movie, but what does that really mean to a kid who still asks you regularly if various super heroes are “real”? It will likely be a while before they can really grasp all the work that goes into making a film and all the people involved in that process, but it’s really never too early to start laying some groundwork!

For older kids there are numerous great documentaries like A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and Mark Cousins’ laconic epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey, as well as specialized docs on topics like editing (Cutting Edge) and cinematography (Visions of Light) but what do you do for little kids?

So far 'Becca'lise and I have really good luck with behind the scenes stuff about animation. If you have access to Disney+ there are lots of great resources on this front. The show Prop Culture (especially the episode about A Nightmare Before Christmas) as well as the Walt-narrated docs The Plausible Impossible and The Story of Animated Drawing are all excellent starting points.

As for next steps, ‘Becca’lise had great success with showing Lola the serialized documentary on the making of Frozen II. Thanks to its length, this docuseries is really able to impress upon a viewer all of the work that goes into making a film. You watch an entire wold get created from scratch and witness the army of people working tirelessly to bring it to life one decision at a time. The fact that it’s told in episodes makes it digestible and easy to spread out over days or weeks.

If you own physical media or have a library card, DVD bonus features remain a great resource as well. Does your child have a favorite movie? Try checking out some of the behind the scenes docs on that disc! Even something as simple as seeing actors out of character can be a major revelation to a small child. Was there a behind the scenes feature in your past that piqued your interest in film? Of course there's always the 10-minute Film School segments on the Spy Kids discs.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Getting To Know You...

Thanks to a rigorously enforced production code, much of Hollywood’s “Classical Era” can easily be enjoyed by the whole family. The modern era (roughly from 1966 to the present) is a much wider spectrum filled with tricky subjects and themes that each family must evaluate on a case by case basis. But even the thorniest of directors usually has at least one film in their filmography that is suitable for all ages.

On the audio commentary track for his notorious cult film, Pink Flamingos, John Waters tells the story of a suburban family scandalized by renting it because it was from the director of the PG-rated Hairspray. Clearly they were not familiar with the rest of John’s oeuvre. As a cinephile parent, I cherish films like Hairspray because they present a chance to introduce your kids to filmmakers whose larger bodies of work skew towards teens and grownups.

Films like Popeye (Robert Altman), The Straight Story (David Lynch), The Witches (Nicolas Roeg), Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme), A Little Princess (Alfonso CuarĂ³n), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson), Speed Racer (The Wachowskis), and A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester) are great ways to familiarize your child with themes, styles, and worldviews that will pay off further down the line of their cinematic development. While your son or daughter is certainly not ready for Goodfellas, they’ll probably get a kick out of Hugo!

Another great way to supplement this approach is with film clips either from your own collection or off of YouTube. I don’t know when our daughter will be ready for Sweet Charity as a whole, but since about the age of three she has known all the choreography to the the “Rich Man’s Frug” sequence. Clips also allowed me to introduce her to The Blues Brothers via the various musical numbers and the car chase through the mall.

It’s all about making introductions and casting as wide a cinematic net as possible. Your child will let you know what they respond to and things can evolve from there.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Silly Man Movies

Early in quarantine we rolled the dice and showed Lola the 1953 French film, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Within two months she’d watched all six of Jacques Tati’s features as well as the animated film The Illusionist. I had a feeling she would respond well to all the silliness, but I had no clue how overwhelming that response would be.

At first she would call him “silly man” and request to watch “more silly man movies.” Last week Lola and I were driving and she asked me to play “Hulot music” on the radio. ‘Becca’lise plays lots of film scores for her during car rides and free play but this was new. It’d been at least three months since we finished his filmography. I guess she just needed to hear some Hulot music.

For parents looking to expand their child’s visual diet beyond Frozen and Baby Shark, Tati is a pretty ideal option. There’s minimal dialogue, lots of silly sounds, little to no violence, and the overall vibe is good-natured and accepting. The pacing is also gradual which helps develop attention span and observation skills.

There are also some excellent Mr. Hulot children’s books by illustrator David Merveille that are entirely wordless and make for a great way to encourage your little ones to “read pictures” and pick up visual nuance.

If you or your kids aren’t quite feeling Tati, there’s always the holy trinity of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. For older kids there’s Pierre Etaix, Jerry Lewis, and the Inspector Clouseau films. I’ve sadly yet to see a Cantinflas film but people I respect indicate his movies would also fit the bill nicely.

What better way to expand your child’s cinematic world than through laughter? I think we could all use a good laugh right about now.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Biodiversity


Movie lovers love to make lists. There’s a whole section for them on the popular film logging site Letterboxd. Users make lists of all kinds of films: favorite films, favorite Japanese films, films set in Los Angeles, etc. While such lists of course make for pleasant diversions, some lists can also help to shape the course of film culture.


When I first started getting into film in middle school, lists were a real guiding light. The American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Movies and a list of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films that I found in the back of a Tarantino biography were particular touchstones for me. As far-flung as my tastes are now, I feel like most of my present day favorites can be traced (Kevin Bacon style) to those two lists.


The two lists with arguably the biggest sway over film culture as a whole are Sight & Sound’s critics poll that is conducted every ten years, and the Internet Movie Database’s extremely populist top-250. While both lists are packed with numerous excellent films, the assumption that they are the Alpha and Omega in terms of Cinema is quite damaging for the evolution of the artform.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

It’s Tricky To Say


Lola really likes David Lynch’s latest animated short Fire (Pozar). Part of her morning routine is watching his weather reports on YouTube. When the short premiered I asked if she would be interested in checking it out. Her initial review was:

"That is great. I think that a great movie. When the ghost come out and spook us, I don't know if he a good guy or a bad guy. It's a little spooky."

She’s since seen it two more times. Today she finally got around to asking me what it’s about. The best I’ve been able to come up with was making a comparison to one of her catchphrases.


When Lola is struggling to express something, she usually says “it’s tricky to say”. Today I was able to explain that art is what people use when something is “tricky to say”. They dance it, make a song about it, make a movie about it, paint it. This made sense to her.


I’m hoping that this idea sticks. It took me way too long to understand this concept myself. It’ll really put her ahead of the curve both as a spectator and potentially as an artist.