Sunday, July 30, 2023

Film Style

As I’ve stated elsewhere, Film Style is easiest to identify when it can be measured in gallons. While Howard Hawks absolutely possessed a distinct and well-defined style, it's a style that isn’t really apparent until you’ve watched a handful of his films in quick succession. Similarly, there will never be a TikTok trend about aping the style of Budd Boetticher. But they are Stylists none the less.

The styles that really grab the attention of budding filmmakers and cinephiles are often the ones that clearly depict a world different from our own. Worlds where the colors are un-real and the camera calls attention to itself. This is how one comes to realize what a director’s job entails. Suddenly you are aware of the fact that every single film consists of countless choices. And not just the ostentatious ones. Realism and Naturalism are choices too.

A fun and concise way to familiarize your child with Film Style is through music videos and ads. Many of today’s stylists, like David Fincher, got their start in music videos. And often a stylish director, like Sofia Coppola, will be sought out by a brand to do a campaign promoting their new line or product. Such clips are pure style. There is no need for narrative, just vibes. Maybe program a mini-festival of some of your favorites from when you were younger!

These clips can also serve as your kiddo’s introduction to the style of someone who hasn’t yet made a kid-friendly film. Your child probably isn’t ready for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and I don't think anyone counts The Green Hornet) but I bet they’ll have a blast watching many of Michel Gondry’s music videos. Or do the reverse and show them some of the early music videos of Where the Wild Things Are director, Spike Jonze. Maybe they’ll even discover a new favorite band or song this way!

Monday, November 21, 2022

A Wes For All Seasons

Style is hard to grasp when you’re a kid. When you consume media, you’re primarily focused on what is being said rather than how it is being said. Something has to really break with formula to make you sit back and take notice of the style.

As distinct as the style of someone like Jonathan Demme is, it’s not gonna grab some middle schooler by the eyeballs and rock their world. The first directors to catch someone’s eye are most often the really ostentatious ones like Baz Luhrmann and Terry Gilliam where style can be measured in gallons. For me it was Oliver Stone. But if you’re looking for a filmmaker that will make your child consider “style” look no further than Wes Anderson.

I get that mileage may vary for many with the work of Wes Anderson, but for a kid his aesthetic is kinda perfect: The colors are saturated, there’s lots of pop music, and even the adults act in a childish manner. Things are "off" just enough to make them aware that this isn't like an Illumination film. And for parents, Fantastic Mr. Fox can be a welcome respite from the dross we must periodically endure for our little ones.

Even if your kid is older, Wes still has you covered. For the PG-13 crowd there’s the adolescent love of Moonrise Kingdom, for the rebellious teenagers there’s the youthful (R-rated) ambition of Rushmore, and even for the older teens tentatively venturing out into a bigger world there’s Bottle Rocket. Maybe Royal Tenenbaums and the rest of the filmography can maybe wait for a Quarter Life Crisis?

I guess Tim Burton could also scratch this aesthetic itch, but if your kid becomes a super-fan you might end up having to watch Alice in Wonderland. Nobody should have to endure The Futterwacken .

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Guided Viewing

The other day, Lola and I were watching some old episodes of Animaniacs. Like you do. Though she'd heard the word several times in several episodes, she decided that now was the time to ask me to define the word, "sibling." Within a few hours she'd already integrated it into her vocabulary and was using it properly in sentences. More and more she is learning to choose words to express herself unambiguously and to better define her world. But what about when definitions are less black and white and more gray?

For years I've been wanting to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey with Lola. Stanley Kubrick's meditation on human evolution is a masterpiece of visual storytelling and ideal for young minds that haven't fully transitioned from the world of pictures to words. Hopefully that was still an accurate description of Lola.

I threw it on one day after a few rounds of miniature golf and some delicious Mexican food just as a test to see if she would respond to it at all. I had a feeling that all the Dawn of Man stuff would click with what she and Becca had been learning about fossils, Mary Anning, chimps and Jane Goodall. It was extra beneficial that we'd also recently visited the La Brea Tar Pits. Watching the apes, tapirs, and leopards go about their days was akin to the numerous nature docs we've watched together as a family. She was totally on board from the get-go. And then that monolith showed up...

I knew my inquisitive daughter would have questions, but I foolishly hadn't put much thought into how to answer whatever she would throw at me. When the inevitable question of, "What is that?" came, I paused for a beat. Whatever I said was likely to become her definition going forward. And I'm just some movie loving dork. Why deprive her of piecing things together and coming to her own conclusions? It was then that I remembered my old DVD of Mulholland Dr. and the insert of "clues" to understanding the film that came with it.

If you're at all familiar with the work of David Lynch, you're likely also aware of the fact that he eschews rigid definitions as to what his work is about. A David Lynch Film is a means to illicit thoughts and feelings and they are all valid. He wants there to be, "room to dream." So his list of "clues" is really just a list of things to ponder while you watch the film. Stuff like, "Notice the robe, the ashtray, and the coffee cup" and "What is felt, realized, and gathered at the club Silencio?" They don't magically unlock the film, but musing on them does generate a more enriching experience.

So after a little bit of playing coy and saying, "I don't know. What do you think that thing is?" We'd made it to the moment when that ape starts playing around with them bones. Now I was ready to ask her, "When Jane Goodall started observing chimps, what did she discover they knew how to do?" In no time flat she replied, "They can use tools!" I followed it up with, "I wonder if that's the ape who touched the black thing?" Her mind was off to the races with theories. By the time they found the second monolith on The Moon, she was chanting, "Touch it! Touch it! Touch it!"

As your child begins to dive into the world of literature and reading, it is important to not let their visual literacy muscles atrophy as a result. Whether it's nature walks, visits to a museum, or taking in a trippy sci-fi movie every now and again, be sure to give those visual muscles a little workout every now and again. The rewards will be invaluable.

Oh, and don’t forget to leave some room to dream.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Martial Artistry

While I’m more inclined than many to side with Scorsese in the never-ending battle over whether or not Comic Book Movies are CINEMA, it’s pretty undeniable that they do serve a function which benefits CINEMA. Better than any Film Appreciation course at the local community center, Comic Book Movies can introduce future generations to performers and filmmakers who are undeniably associated with Scorsese Approved CINEMA.  And in a very direct way too.

Say what you will of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but it is undeniable that it is a piece of visual entertainment, starring Hong Kong Legends Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, with fight scenes choreographed by the late, great Brad Allan who cut his teeth as a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. This isn’t Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles giving kids a vague interest in martial arts that might eventually lead to Hong Kong Cinema. Shang-Chi establishes a direct pipeline to Wong Kar-wai, Police Story, etc.

Disclaimer: Of course violence is inherent in this particular National Cinema. The kineticism and visual ingenuity of filmmakers like John Woo, Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, et al is precisely what made the Hong Kong films of the late 80’s/early 90’s standout against the staid bombast of the Stallone and Schwarzenegger vehicles that ruled American Multiplexes at the time. It’s up to the parent what is appropriate for the child. That being said…

The perfect starting point is the action comedies of Stephen Chow, like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. With that as a foundation, the most logical next step is Jackie Chan as his fights are quite playful and clearly in conversation with silent comedians like Buster Keaton who your child might already be familiar with. Of course there’s also Bruce Lee, but his fights can some times be a bit intense for younger viewers as they often end in death. Maybe check out some of his fights as Kato on the Green Hornet TV series from the 60’s? On the distaff end of the gender spectrum, Michele Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi can kick ass with the best of them, but also don’t sleep on American expat superstar Cynthia Rothrock.

The world of Action Cinema is expansive! Every country has their own action star(s) and they’re all doing amazing things that help push the language of Cinema further and further. As with comedy, you can get away with stuff in an action film that would never fly in a drama. Whether it is via YouTube clips or full feature films, your child’s cinematic development can only benefit from a (light) kick in the pants!

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Restoring the Magic

The fact that running a bunch of still pictures through light can create the illusion of motion is a miracle. Movies are truly magic. But in a world full of screens, the magic can be easily lost. Movies are no longer something reserved for special occasions where you have to wear your best clothes and get to go to a gorgeous theater. Moving images are everywhere. They’re on the wall at Panda Express. So how do you foster wonder and amazement in the era of “screen time”?

The first thing I tried was flip-books. Sure any flip-book will get the point across (heck even drawings in the margins of a notebook will do the trick) but if you’re like me and want to keep things Cinema-centric, I recommend Fliptomania which produces a lovely set of three Charlie Chaplin flip-books. Of course if you want to get real fancy about things, many of The Cinema’s primitive ancestors (optical toys like the zoetrope and the magic lantern) were marketed as childish diversions, so I guess those would probably work as well. But where to go next after the novelty of a three-second loop wears off?

This is the same problem that many of Film’s early pioneers bumped up against and the solution here is the same - incorporate narrative! A perfect starting point for this is Mara Rockliff and Simona Ciraolo’s wonderful children’s book Lights! Camera! Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker. It’s a great story about perseverance, that touches on the innovations made during those early days of moviemaking, while also letting kids know that women such as Alice Guy Blanché were there from the very beginning of the medium. A great supplement to this book is watching some of Alice’s films which you can either find on YouTube or purchase in gorgeous Blu-ray’s from Kino. There’s also a great Kino set that covers early female filmmakers more broadly as well.

When your child is old enough for longer stories with chapters, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is clearly the next step to take. The book is thick as a brick but it goes by in a breeze as several key moments are fittingly related visually, via page upon page of beautiful pencil drawings by Selznick himself. Once the mystery of this boy, this girl, and this mechanical man takes hold of your child, you’ll be done in a matter of evenings. Or even one evening if you’re child is ambitious enough! As for supplements to this book…

Of course Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo is the logical endpoint for all of this. It’s truly a marvel of a movie. Not only is it a whimsical mystery filled with magic and chases, but it is also an expertly crafted film, with assured and non-condescending visual storytelling, that brings those early days of the movies vividly to life! The Blu-ray contains some wonderfully kid-friendly bonus features about the making of the film as well as about the real Georges Méliès. Flicker Alley and Kino both have great collections of his work available and yes, many of the films can also be found on YouTube.

Where to go next is really up to you!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Vegas Buffet

In the early stages of showing media to your child a common refrain is some variation on, “Why's that funny?” This is because they’re still new to the world. They don’t know that in reality coyotes will immediately fall to an untimely death when they chase a roadrunner off of a cliff. The same goes for all art. Kids don’t know what art is “supposed to be” and therefore might miss what makes a particularly unique work so special.

Eventually they do learn how things are “supposed to be”. Now they can better appreciate The Marx Brothers demolishing a piano until it becomes a functional harp. But what of a child who now comes to outright reject the unconventional?

The desire to fit in and be like “normal” people is real and understandable. It’s even the emotional crux of ‘Becca’lise’s favorite movie! The final act of Auntie Mame (1958) centers on Patrick Dennis (who has been raised since childhood by his eccentric aunt) attempting to assimilate into polite society by marrying into the WASPiest family you’ve ever seen. But SPOILER ALERT: It doesn’t work! Mame's joie de vivre and general acceptance of the unconventional wins out in the end!

Of course prices and participation may vary. Sure it might bum you out that your little one no longer grooves to a song like Fish Heads, but this has never been about forcing things on your kid or turning them into a clone of yourself. It’s about presenting them with possibilities. They’re their own unique little person. They will take what they like and toss the rest. When they’re teenagers they might toss it all because that’s what teenagers do. But if you’ve cultivated curiosity and compassion in them by exposing them to a wide spectrum of culture, eventually that will shine through in some way. Eventually they’ll realize that life truly is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Familia Filmmaking

Since the start of his career, Robert Rodriguez has been almost singularly focused on democratizing and demystifying the filmmaking process.

As a middle schooler I recall devouring his book Rebel without a Crew which chronicled his journey making El Mariachi for the insanely low budget of $7,000. Similarly I devoured the 10-Minute Film School segments that were included on the home video releases of his films. These behind-the-scenes looks at how to make a shoot-em-up are great for cinematically curious high schoolers and undergrad film students, but what about younger kids?

Fortunately for parents of little ones, Robert also makes exciting family films like the Spy Kids series! Equally fortunate is the fact that the home video releases of those films get equally meticulous bonus features. Even those of you who eschew physical media are covered in this regard. His recent Netflix family film, We Can Be Heroes, has a multi-part YouTube series entitled We Can Be Filmmakers!

The candy colored films (peppered with booger and fart jokes) might not be exactly your speed, but they’ll certainly catch your child’s attention, and perhaps inspire a future auteur!

BONUS: As a Mexican-American filmmaker, Rodriguez’s cinema has never been short on diversity and his PG-13 anime adaptation, Alita: Battle Angel has very much been embraced by many in the trans community as an action-packed allegory.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Seriously Silly

On a list of clichés about the French, near the top you will find the words, “love Jerry Lewis.” As a kid who learned this trope via Animaniacs, I took this to mean that French people collectively had a juvenile sense of humor.

As I got older, I came to realize that this love is moreso an outgrowth of their cultural cinephilia. Just as they were able to look at a bunch of crime and detective stories and extract Film Noir, French Critics were also able to look at a bunch of candy-colored, man-child movies and find high art. And while major, award-granting bodies might have you think otherwise, they are not alone in their elevation of cinematic silliness.

In his 1968 book The American Cinema, critic Andrew Sarris placed Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the “Pantheon” of great directors alongside names like Josef von Sternberg and Orson Welles. And lest you think he’s biased because he’s the man who brought The Auteur Theory to America from France, there are numerous other scholars and critics form all over who will tell you the same. So what is it about comedy?

I could go on (as many have) about how comedy represents an anarchic worldview that helps breed a healthy mistrust of the status quo, but on a purely cinematic level, comedy is great because comedy is a laboratory for invention!

Unlike “serious” pictures, comedies can literally do anything for a laugh. They are not bound by the laws of drama or the laws of physics. A technique that would jolt you out of a romantic drama will have you doubled over with laughter in a comedy. Breaking the fourth wall, rubber limbs, and avant-garde editing techniques are all fair game. This is the frontier where esoteric ideas are allowed to enter the mainstream.

It’s no accident that when Waiting for Godot playwright Samuel Beckett decided to dip his toe into film, he did so with Buster Keaton as his star. And did you know that Salvador Dali desperately wanted to make a movie with The Marx Brothers?

A child acquainted with the likes of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis will already have a leg up when they get to the comic book colored worlds of Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in U.S.A. and Pierrot le Fou. But of course you don’t tell them that. Just let them be surprised that the broccoli tastes better because they ate candy first!

Friday, March 26, 2021

Catchy Hooks

Like many kids, Lola loves animals. Much to her dismay our apartment does not allow them. We compensate for this with trips to local zoos and aquariums. ‘Becca’lise has also supplemented this with a healthy number of animal docs like the Netflix series Night on Earth which features stunning low-light photography of animals all over the world. 

When we ran out of episodes, ‘Becca’lise rolled the dice and tried out the hour-long special on how they filmed the series. Lola was totally into it. There was just enough animal content to hold her attention and at the same time she was learning about cameras and all the work that goes into making such a series. Animals served as the hook.

Whatever your child’s interests, there is at least one, non-obnoxious film out there about your child's interest. Or maybe it just features/touches upon that interest. The mere presence of animals was enough to get Lola to watch Life of Pi for Pi Day this year. Richard Parker could do no wrong and the flying fish sequence had her laughing harder than most comedies.

Does your child like auto racing? Instead of an endless loop of the Cars Trilogy, might I suggest Speed Racer? Lola and  her Porsche-nut Poppy (my dad) loved it. If your child likes space and you feel like rolling the dice, maybe try 2001: A Space Odyssey! If they’re not feeling it, turn it off. At least you gave it a shot. Robby the Robot was enough to get Lola to watch Forbidden Planet and make her request The Invisible Boy. Now she has a Robby toy that walks and talks. You never know what will click until you try.

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.

*      *      *

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 films 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!