Take Yer Kids to the Movies

A. O. Scott has a great article in today's Times about his experiences taking his children to the movies. For the most part, it's an opportunity to discuss the whole corporate-minded idea of packaging and selling the "family film." So-called family films are very often the most tame, the most timid, the movies with their very souls ripped out of them. Scott argues, as many movie lovers have done and will continue to do, that we and our children are far better served being exposed to some real movies, movies with real depth, instead of that we're being ordered to consume.

It's a common refrain of the past quarter-century, as conglomerates bought up the movie studios, as Star Wars and Jaws ushered in the teenage blockbuster age, as cable television and video games become the lingua franca of the younger generation, that the language of the movies is in danger of becoming lost. The very vocabulary itself is threatened. And today, at the turn of the century, we have a whole generation of Americans who are illiterate in visual language.

Technology always moves forward, and as you get older you become acutely aware of what Buddhists call "the impermamence of all things." The times, they are a-changin'. This has always been the case, and it will continue to play out, as long as human beings walk the earth. For those of us, however, who are artists and animators and filmmakers, it's essential and vital that we can successfully pass our traditions down to future generations.

It would be a terrible thing to discover that the movies themselves have become extinct, a faded historical artifact. We will have lost the most vital of all 20th century arts, this great, masterful means of telling stories, of revealing the inner dreams of our souls. To my mind, the movies are as important as any form of language.

Michael Sporn writes about this today in his blog, and he's the one who pointed me to Scott's Times piece. He also gets at a very important point about today's films, and especially today's animated films. Simply put, there's no imagination. There's no mystery. Everything is spelled out, SHOUTED OUT LOUD. The audience is pandered to, treated almost like infants. A great example from 2006 was Barnyard, with the udders on the male cows.

How can such a thing happen? Animation is dependent upon mystery, imagination. It's a vocabulary that pulls out symbols and archetypes from the great collective unconscious. Take away the mystery and you destroy the religion. What's left is soulless and calculating and cold.

The dumbing down of America and youth continues unabated.

It's a common refrain for my generation - age 35 and younger - that we've never watched a movie that's older than we are. We've never seen anything before Star Wars. Small wonder, then, that we're chained to the alter of plot, plot, PLOT, a mass hypnosis by way of channel surfing and videogames and bad toy commercials thinly disguised as bad movies.

If you want to understand these movies, then you're going to have to understand the language of movies. You can't just sit in front of a tv set and watch anime, and you sure as hell can't dismiss something as "old," just because it's a couple decades older than you are. You aren't more sophisticated than the kids from generations past. You'll be running even with them if you're lucky.

I've told myself that if and when the Ghibli Podcast is up and running, I'd devote time on the first show to some of my favorite movies, the essentials that helped shape my understanding of things. If you don't know where to start, I'd strongly recommend the Criterion Collection, Roger Ebert's Greatest Movies books, and anything by Pauline Kael. Oh, and take your kids with you and give them an education.


Anonymous said...

I think you need mentors to help you, at least initially, be exposed to a wide range of different types of film. For me, that happened late in my undergraduate program, and early in my masters program. And then you need to just watch, watch, watch, watch, watch, and watch more.

That last sentence gets us to the fact that you need to have loads of personal initiative and dedication and, frankly, an open mind. The open mind only comes from watching unexpected and surprising things and learning to accept them not as incorrect or wrong or not appropriate (though, importantly, they may be unsuccessful at what they try to do), but as just manifestations of sets of until-then unknown possibilities in the language of film. (And yep, the Criterion Collection is one of the first places I would start, right after signing up for a quality online DVD rental service with a huge collection of DVDs -- you can just forget the local Blockbuster video store.)

And you have to read and read and read more smart stuff about film. Again, that came for me through a series of film and media theory courses which I took in graduate school and which exposed me to a vast number of different (often competing) perspectives on film (and again, they need to be very smart, though I didn't then, and don't now, agree with the conclusions of all of them).

It's important to reiterate, I think, that it's not just an easy task that you'll just wake up one day and find that you've accomplished without effort -- you need to go out and do it yourself (watch the films, read the books) and you need to go to places where you can find mentors (like professors, but also like your local librarian!) who can start exposing you to the possibilities.

Anonymous said...

Were Western children's films really much better back then than today, though? I'm not sure exactly how Shirley Temple is necessarily better than dancing CGI penguins. Both seem rather lightweight in terms of content, no? Very few children's movies/animated programs could be considered intellectually stimulating on any level.

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