Friday, 13 June 2014

Movie night

If I had my way, I’d be tempted to raise my daughter in a cabin in the woods, away from television or recent films, on some purist diet of folk songs and classic literature. I talk to many people these days who never read, who seem to spend most of their lives watching television or playing video games, who know of almost no music or art made before they were born. I know many parents who let their children see films or sing songs with spectacularly explicit material, when the children are far too young to filter or judge what they see. I would go as far as I could in the other direction.

I can’t, however, be the only influence in her life, nor should I be – her mother and grandmother are more relaxed about such things, and she has classmates and friends, so we end up with a balance. Now almost ten – going on sixteen some days -- she is able to sing folk songs with me and pop music on her own, watch Buster Keaton with me and Frozen with friends. She watches a bit of television, which is a bit more than I’d like, but it’s often programmes that teach as well as entertain, and sometimes she remembers to mute the advertisements.

“For our next movie night, can I see Iron Man 2?” she asked – I let her see the first one after she cleaned out the chicken coop. “I know it would be a change for us.”

I explained that she can see it sometime, with her friends or with family who will show such things to her. Iron Man was fun, but the reason I let her stay up once a week and watch movies with me, I told her, is so that she can see decades of classic films that few people her age see.

Left unsaid was that I want her to be familiar with an older set of values and habits from a less wasteful age. I want to show her what kind of stories were capable of telling without software, without colour or perhaps even sound, with nothing except people on a stage. I want her to have some familiarity with real mortality – to care for the dying or kill for food – before she casually sees bloodshed on a screen. I want to show her stories made for and about rural Americans in the Depression or Londoners in the Blitz – stories made to inspire the desperate rather than to titillate the jaded.

However, as I was in London for our last movie night, I told her, I’ll show you two films this weekend. First I showed her Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-war mystery The Lady Vanishes, and though she started off sullen, thinking about the superhero film she could have been seeing, she was soon absorbed. In the film, the young heroine befriends an old woman while travelling through Europe, and chats with her at a hotel and has tea with her on a train. (“Harriman’s Herbal Tea,” the old woman says in one scene, “It’s all I drink. A million Mexicans drink it, or so it says on the package.”)

When the heroine wakes up from a nap, however, the old lady is nowhere on the train, and everyone insists she never existed. The Girl loved a story that made her question what she was seeing, and that made you think through a puzzle and look for evidence.

Then we saw Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, belly laughing at some points and tearing up at others, all the way to its famously ambiguous ending.

“Seriously? Seriously?” The Girl asked the silent screen as it played the end credits. “It doesn’t say whether she’ll stay with him or not – it just leaves you hanging.”

I’m afraid real stories rarely end neatly either, I said. Our characters will die off someday, but the story goes on. “I just want to know how his story will end,” she said. “He gave up everything for her.” He’s homeless, with no prospects, and everyone shuns him, I said – but she owes him everything. What do you think she should do?

“She should marry him,” The Girl said.

I’m not saying she needs to marry him, I said – that’s another matter. Women in old stories too often marry people they just met. But she could be his friend, and try to repay him, no matter what it costs her – she’d be a monster otherwise.

“It’s really the story of the Good Samaritan, isn’t it?” she asked. Yes, it is.

A few days later our nightly lesson dealt with the Bandwagon Effect, how humans are caught up in the emotions and attitudes of the people around us. If everyone around you buys a product or backs a candidate, you think you should too.

“It’s like the advert for Harriman’s Herbal Tea,” she said. “You should drink it because a million Mexicans do.”

Very good, I said. And if everyone else watches or listens to something, it doesn’t mean you have to as well.

“But sometimes you can like it anyway, right?” she said smiling, seeing where this was going. “Just to enjoy things with friends?”

With the really serious things in life, I said, don’t do anything I would disapprove of, even if other people shun you for it. But you can see a superhero film or listen to pop music with your friends sometimes, I said, depending on what it is. You can be normal sometimes too.

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