Monday, June 30, 2014

Children's Film Study 101

It's been a lovely summer so far, full of beaching and bike rides and a backyard campout, but with a few extra rainy days here and there that gave me and the girls empty hours. So in between the enrichment art classes and music lessons, I've started a mini-project to introduce the girls to some classic Hollywood cinema.

By any chance have you ever heard of an actor/director/musician by the name of Charlie Chaplin?

Of course you have. World's most famous silent screen actor, right? But have you SEEN the guy? Not just a Halloween costume imitation, but have you seen this genius move?

Climactic scene of Buster Keaton's The General. This is a real train, on a real trestle by the way.

I always had this snobby preconception that Buster Keaton was the real underrated comic genius of the silent era while Chaplin was the sentimental crowd-pleaser, a sell-out, playing to the crowd. Even after I read his charming autobiography and caught a few scenes of him eating a shoe in film school, I remained immune.

We showed the girls Buster Keaton's The General a while back and of course they were thrilled by the most thrilling of epic chase-adventure-comedies. And since they weren't turned off by the silence and the intertitles, Randy recorded Chaplin's The Kid off Netflix and I watched it with the girls.


Chaplin moves like a dancer on screen, and takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotion. There's plenty of that gooey sentiment that I was so wary of as a irony-worshiping twenty-something, but now as a mother, I've learned to embrace. The little girls next to me yelled with outrage and sympathy as they watched the orphan child being pulled away from his adoptive father, "This is horrible! How can they do that!" and that was good viewer response. These girls don't need a critical eye yet or a lecture about resisting emotional manipulation, right now at nine and eleven years of age, they need to experience the pathos.

There's a jaw-dropping and utterly hilarious moment in The Kid that I find more audacious than anything I've seen from R-rated comedies like This is The End or the Farrelly Brothers or Bridesmaids. Chaplin's Little Tramp finds an abandoned infant and has absurd scene after absurd scene trying to pass the kid on to a nanny, a policeman, anyone who will take the responsibility, without luck. Finally, he sits on the curb with the bundle in his arms and catches sight of a manhole cover in the street beside him. He lifts the cover, looks at the kid in his arms, glances at the audience. It's a riotous moment; you cannot believe what you are seeing. I burst into laughter, gasping to the girls, "That's so terrible! That's so funny!"

We moved on to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window because my girls had been begging to learn about Hitchcock. My little ghouls LOVED it. Probably the most family-friendly of the Hitchcocks (although I may try The 39 Steps with them soon.) Fun and suspense at a volume that kids can handle. The violence is off-screen and much of the talk about the murder is jokey and light.

John Ford's Stagecoach was a tough sell - there are multiple stories going on and there's lots of talk and much of the language is too archaic. The girls could not understand why hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Dallas was being thrown out of town by the uptight little old ladies of the "Law and Order League." I had to explain she "had too many boyfriends" but I think the girls could relate to the themes of bullying, hypocrisy and prejudice. This is a film where every glance is loaded with meaning and much of it probably flew over the girls' heads, but who could resist being sucked in by the heart-pounding race across the desert flats as the little stagecoach eludes the Apaches. Breath-taking stunts and emotional investment in the microcosm of society within the coach, especially John Carradine as the mysterious gambler Hatfield.

While Nora was drumming afternoons at rock camp, Mia and I watched the revisionist Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to contrast with Stagecoach classicism. Mia called the 1969 film "modern" right away during the credit sequence and although she was slow to warm up to the joys of William Goldman's jokey script, she was enthralled by the end. It's Redford and Newman at their most charismatic moment and both of us felt the loss when they dash from their Bolivian hideout to die in the freeze frame of legend.