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!

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 Cuarón), 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.