Every night, as long as my daughter can remember, I read to her. Now that she is almost nine, however, and is eagerly reading in her own spare time, we can fill more of our time together with lessons and games -- and beginning this year, if she has been good all week, Friday night is Movie Night.
We don’t have many cinemas around us, but we have a telly and a DVD player, and while the local libraries and video stores don’t have many of the old films I want to show her, I can scrounge something somewhere. The point for me is to expose her to the vast library of classic films that I grew up with, and that few people see anymore. I also get to make her watch a documentary of some kind – on music, science, or the natural world – and she learns from them as well.
Singing in the Rain, which quickly became her favourite, especially the flashback montage of Gene Kelly’s start in show business and, of course Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine. In the weeks since then, she has been trying to lie on the floor and run in circles as he did, keeping her elbow in the centre of the circle and her legs running around the perimeter. “It’s not as easy as he made it look,” she concluded. That’s a lot of what art is, I said: making something difficult look easy.
The Court Jester showed Danny Kaye at his best, especially the surreal opening musical number. Perhaps the closest a film has ever come to the pantos children watch here every Christmas, Jester is packed with great actors and memorable comic bits.
I let her watch the first two Harry Potter films – the only recent additions in the mix -- because she read the books and loved them. I told her that I want her to stop after the second one, and only pick up the third after we have read some other large book – Heidi, The Wind in the Willows, Jungle Book – as the Harry Potter books get sadder and more adult as they continue.
Bringing Up Baby offered her a perfect introduction to the screwball comedy, with an incorrigible Katherine Hepburn and a continually flustered Cary Grant driving a plot that piles on one misunderstanding after another.
Duck Soup was already one of her favourite films, but she asked to see it again; the Marx Brothers in all their chaotic glory, with none of the dull bits or romantic subplots shoehorned into other films.
We had read the book The Wizard of Oz, and loved it, but she had never seen the film and was eager to do so, especially when I told her how much it differed from the book. She felt even more excited when I told her Dorothy was played by Judy Garland, whom she remembered from Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade.
When she was five I introduced her to Buster Keaton, and he quickly became her favourite – she occasionally asks that we “play” Buster Keaton, re-enacting the kind of scenarios he had in his films. Last night I introduced her to four short films by Buster Keaton, her favourite. The Electric House was fun, but not as satisfying as we had imagined, while The Boat had too many misfortunes with too little comic payoffs. Neighbours was much funnier, with Buster and a his standard leading lady playing young lovers whose slum-neighbourhood backyards are back to back, and who conspire to get married against their families’ wishes.
The last and unexpected best of the lot, though, was One Week, in which Buster and his new wife inherit a plot of land and a build-your-own-house kit. A jilted rival sabotages their plans, leaving them with a crooked, zigzag house that can only be entered through a window and whose front door opens onto a second-floor drop.
I have a copy of Arsenic and Old Lace stored away for next week, as both she and I think she is old enough to start seeing some slightly scary films. I have been very slow to introduce her to such things; just as we find it difficult to judge how shocking certain films were to audiences of many decades ago, we forget as adults how frightening films can be to children. Most of us in the modern West are accustomed to seeing people tortured or murdered as entertainment, and I know many people who cheerfully let their children watch such things, unmindful of the long-term effects. Films from the 1930s and 40s, on the other hand, are not only safer than most “children’s” programmes today, but demonstrate a world in which most normal people functioned on fewer goods and less energy.
Finally, I played for her a special request, a few selected parts of Julie Taymor’s recent version of the Tempest, with Helen Mirren playing a female version of Prospero. She was delighted by Djimon Honsou’s flamboyant performance of Caliban -- imitating him long afterwards --and by the comedy relief of Russell Brand and Alfred Molina. I only showed her a few excerpts --- much of it she would find dull or frightening -- but what she saw fascinated her, and drew many questions:
“How do we know she’s a good witch? Because she’s pretty grumpy.”
“Why does Caliban hate Prospera if she let him live?”
“Why does Caliban pretend to serve those two buffoons?” (Yes, that was the word she used.)
“Why does Prospera want her daughter to be married so quickly?”
“Why would Prospera want to break her staff at the end?”
And finally, when Prospera breaks her staff and renounces her power and safety,
“Is this a happy ending, Daddy? Because it doesn’t feel like it.”
She has done right by other people, though it pains her to do so, I said. That’s how you know she’s good.