An Education: The Summer of Movies

My son is on a journey of sorts this summer.

This journey includes a stop Saturday night at the “New” Rheem Theatre, where the California Independent Film Festival is presenting On the Waterfront, the 1954 film about corruption on the docks of New York that starred a young, hot Marlon Brando in one of the performances that changed American film acting forever.

OK, as I mentioned a fewmonths back, he was adamant about not doing any kind of camps this summer, not after doing all variety of camps–sports, tech, arts–for the past six summers. He also seemed in real need to not some time off in which his lifewasn’t so programmed–not after living through what in some ways was the boot camp/culture shock of sixth grade and his first year of middle school.

So, he’s not going to camp, which means, honestly, he’s being a bit of a slug, sleeping in and not making his bed or picking up clothes off the floor before noon unless I nag and threaten. I’m working at home for the most part, editing and writing stories for Walnut Creek Patc
h, so I can keep an eye on him and shuttle him to activities of his choice such as golf lessons and rock climbing at the Touchstone Climbing gym in Concord. Climbing is his new sports passion, and I took a belay class and maybe I’ll try to climb higher than 12 feet myself next time I go.
My son’s other new passion: Movies. But, as we’re finding, not movies of the multiplex variety. He’s begun to want to see good movies, ones that go back a decade or two or three or four; movies that won Academy Awards for Best Picture, acting, directing, screen writing; movies on the American Film Institute’s lists of best American movies.

Yes, this means he might work through the aversion he–and other kids his age, and some adults for that matter–has to black and white movies. In fact, he agreed with me that 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird might not have been as effective in in color, that the black and white visuals added to the seriousness and documentary/historical look of the film, which is set in the 1930s.

Over the past couple weeks, we got through Godfathers I and II–our Coppola appreciation nights–and we’ve been watching some Martin Scorsese films, though not venturing as far back yet as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. He learned an important lesson about the Academy Award for Best Picture: It’s that is usually not given to the most deserving film of the year or to an auteur for his best work.

Case in point: The Departed from 2006, for which, a lot of us agree, Scorsese received more of a career recognition award than one for this individual work. My son and I agreed that the Matt Damon/Vera Farmiga aspect of the film’s love triangle/Doppelganger theme was pretty weak and undermined the movie as a whole. We also thought Jack Nicholson’s performance as a Boston crime boss was annoying, self-indulgently over the top and distracting.

But we both loved Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, made two years before, riveting by the story of the rise and unraveling of Howard Hughes, an amazing, controversial American personality.

After the movie, we sat together on my laptop reading articles on Howard Hughes and his contribution to international aviation history. My son also wants us to find a DVD to view of Hughes’ 1930 World War I fighter pilot classic, Hell’s Angels.

Actually, watching The Aviator’s depiction of old Hollywood prompted him to search online to see if we could find videos of the first movies ever made.

Yes, you can.
We watched The Blacksmith Scene, a short black and white silent, Kinetescope film from 1893 that was made by a director, Willi
am K.L. Dickson, who was working for inventor Thomas Edison.

He searched further back and discovered

Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking 1878 experiment with putting photographs into motion–at the behest of Leland Stanford–to show a galloping horse.

Steamboat Willie, from 1928, one of Walt Disney’s early Mickey Mouse cartoons, confirmed all the reasons we hate that rodent. The Mouse essentially comes across as a bully, beating up and mistreated his animal friends on that steamboat. Speaking of bullies: We watched a scene from D

W Griffith’s 1915 silent civil war epic The Birth of a Nation. Although the film has long been hailed as pioneering in terms of cinematography, editing and story telling, its overt racism, negative depiction of African Americans, and defense of the Ku Klux Klan is pretty hard to stomach.

My son’s summer of movies: I had a similar lazy, film-centric summer when I was around his age, so that’s why I’m excited for him. In some ways, it was my most memorable summer ever, introducing myself to the art and potential greatness that goes into this popular art form.

I was able to see lots of movies thanks to the fact that local TV stations filled their weekday morning, afternoon, evening and weekend schedules with classic movies And then, in the the summer between eighth grade and high school, a TV station in Stockton went so far as to create what it called its summer film festival.

Every weekday night, from 8 to 10 p.m., it showed a film classic, from a 1930s gangster films to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford vehicles to the big color epics of the 1950s and 1960s. For me, it was one of the best summer education programs I ever experienced. I saw Citizen Kane for the first time, and went to the library to read up on why the American Film Institute still rates it as the best American film ever. I also experienced my first crush–and on a movie star. That would be the young, raw Marlon Brando, as he was in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire.

I see a similar spark in my son when he talks about movies he wants to see and why he likes them or doesn’t like them. He’s learning about art and history, and he’s seeing through these films how fashion changes, and social attitudes change, and to see how those attitudes arise from a historical context.

He’s becoming acquainted with good writing and story telling techniques, and even how one image, without dialogue, can convey incredible amounts of meaning. He’s also learning to be a critical thinker, to have an opinion, and to explain why he holds that opinion.

OK, done writing this. Need to check to see whether the boy has made his bed.

5 thoughts on “An Education: The Summer of Movies

  1. I like what I hear!

    ..and I'm glad he's like any onther kid who tries to get out of making his bed. I'd be worried if he wasn't!



  2. Great way to spend summer! Have you checked the American Film Institute's website for their lists of best 100 American movies? I am now educating my 3rd and youngest kid with my own American Cinema 101. We just watched “Key Largo” last week.
    As Americans, Hollywood's legacy of movies and our important movies are a part of our heritage and our cultural literacy. Our film images of who we were help us understand and appreciate who we are today and how we got here. Plus it's great fun! Enjoy!


  3. Soccer Mom,

    This is one of your best articles ever. It just makes me feel good.

    I hope the kid remembers this as one of the best summers of his life.



  4. SM – This sounds like a great activity. Would be great to get him and some of his like-minded friends together to discuss some of these movies and what they mean to them. Yes, I know, this is a bit much. But it is kinda like a book group for teen classic movie watchers.
    Another favorite movie: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. WOuld be a good movie to discuss, too.
    Personally, I enjoy TCM channel. I also liked the Alfred Hitchcock movie theme the other day on Cinemax with Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds, Vertigo. I always like movies that are set locally (The Birds and Vertigo) and be able to say that I have been to some of the places shown.
    Dave P.


  5. Great Films:

    Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)

    Citizen Kane


    The Day The Earth Stood Still

    High Noon


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