Why do we share movies with our children?
It's a question worth asking as I finally return to this column. It's the question that originally motivated me to turn this into a regular feature on the site, but we've never actually discussed that idea head-on.
So why? What is it that I hope to accomplish by sharing movies with my little boys? I think for some people, maybe even many people, TV and movies are just placeholders, something to have on, and there's very little thought that goes into it. People seem to trust brand names and take the path of least resistance when it comes to picking what they show their kids. Anything Disney gets an automatic pass, and there are channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that people seem happy to turn on and just trust without watching along with their kids.
And I've met people who are genuinely good-hearted about trying to mold their kids into carbon copies of themselves, tiny mirrors of their own taste. There's no malice in it, and there's nothing wrong with it, but it's not for me. I feel strongly that my job is to educate my kids about what images mean, to set a context for them so they can deal with what they watch, and to lay out a buffet of choices, then help them follow their own interests.
It has been almost exactly six months since the publication of the last Film Nerd 2.0 column, and that's because my kids were out of town for most of that time with their mom. That's a long time, especially when you're talking about kids who are under six years old. My oldest son Toshi is going to turn six in July, and his little brother Allen will turn three next month. When they're this age, spending four and a half months apart can feel like a lifetime, and I'll be honest… it almost broke me. It wasn't just bad for me, though. I can tell that it was hard on them as well.
Toshi, for example, is already somewhat movie-mad. He knows what he loves, and he knows what he wants to watch, and he has a pretty good sense of what he is or isn't ready to see. He's willing to have real conversations with me about what he watches, what it means, what impact it has on him. And when they left for Argentina, Toshi had a total of six movies with him. Six movies that he'd already seen before he left town. So the way he likes to watch films, that lasted him about a week, and then he started to climb the walls. When he'd call home to talk to me, he'd ask me to read him all the titles on the shelf of things that had arrived since they left. He'd ask me to describe them. It was like reading decadent food reviews to a starving man, and it broke my heart a little bit every time. Still, it gave him something to plan for when he got home, and the thought of that probably helped both of us focus on the end of the trip instead of the time away.
Allen wasn't really interested in movies yet. For him, watching a movie meant sitting with his brother and me and playing tickle games. Purely about the connection, and never about the movie. Which is fine, of course. I wanted him to feel welcome, included, and when he was in the room, we made sure whatever was on as appropriate for him as well as for Toshi. Like Toshi, he would sit and watch movie trailers on the computer with me, and the first trailer that drove him crazy was the first trailer for "Rango". This one, to be specific:
And by the time he left in September for his trip, he had watched that "Rango" trailer about 10 bazillion times, and he would act it out along with it, and he would laaaaaugh, laugh like a little drunk man, just out of control. And since the trailer for the film gave the release date as March 4, I took it as a sign that he would probably see his first film in a theater the same week as his third birthday. I don't think he minded the trip to Argentina. He didn't miss TV and movies the same way Toshi did. He just didn't care about it. From the moment he got back from the trip, though, I saw that his attention had shifted, and he was now interested in what was on the screen. He had the need to talk his ways through everything, even if he was seeing it with someone else, so I figured we needed to try a few movies at home where we explained the rules about being quiet to see if his attention span was ready or not, and I wanted to give Toshi a chance to pick the film he wanted to see first off of that stack he'd been dreaming about during his trip.
It took about 20 seconds for him to spot the giant "Goonies" Blu-ray box on the shelf, and pick that one as the only thing he cared about seeing.
I've gotten used to the idea that I stand apart from a big chunk of fandom when it comes to the subject of "The Goonies." When it came out originally, I was 15, and while I could appreciate the almost magnetic pull of the central fantasy idea of a bunch of friends finding a treasure map, the execution of the film set me on edge. I thought it was noisy, sloppy, and surprisingly unexciting given the premise. It felt very set-bound and small, and the punchlines were so broad and loud that the whole thing just bounced right off of me. I dismissed it on my first viewing, and none of my friends were particularly taken with it, so when I finally realized just how big the cult of "Goonies" was years later, after I'd been online for a while, I was genuinely surprised. Yet year after year, I meet people who consider it one of the formative films of their childhood moviegoing diet, and I can see how much it means to them. Revisiting the film has not improved my opinion of it over time, but the last thing I wanted to do was veto the movie because it wasn't my cup of tea. If that's what Toshi picked, then I was determined to screen it with the same sort of reverence I screen my own favorites for him.
That's a big part of not forcing my opinion on them. I don't mind letting them know when I'm really excited about a movie I'm about to show them. But I really don't want to show them something and start by telling them I don't like it or it's no good. They'll never form their own opinions that way. I don't want to hear my own thoughts just echoed back to me. I want them to learn to tell me what they like and why. The most important part of being an engaged viewer is articulating your feelings and reactions and not just being a mimic. So when I was putting "The Goonies" in, we looked at the miniature reproduction of the souvenir magazine that was published back in '85, and I talked to the boys about who the Goonies are in the film, poor kids who are about to lose their homes.
It's interesting watching the film right now, as we deal with the real-world economic collapse of the middle class, and there are kids who Toshi knows at school who have faced the loss of their homes and other major hardships. If nothing else, his generation is going to grow up aware of just how bad things can get financially, and we'll see what that does to them as people. It informed the conversation we had before the film, certainly, and as we started the film, the boys were ready. What I forgot to warn Toshi about is that he's actually met and had lunch with one of the Fratellis, the bad guys in the movie. When I first moved to Northridge, Robert Davi asked us out to lunch so he could share some thoughts on the area with us. He's lived out here for years, and he's got his favorite spots, one of which he invited us to for a meal. When Robert showed up a few minutes into the movie, Toshi flipped out, repeatedly pointing out to me that he knew that guy. "We had pizza with him!" he kept insisting.
They settled in quickly, though, and while I still find the film insufferable due largely to the casting and the way Donner directed the kids to constantly talk over one another, it worked like magic with my boys. They were engrossed from the very beginning, and every bit of peril faced by Mikey and Data and Chunk and the others as they make their way through the various spots described on the map left by One-Eyed Willie was met with an appropriate reaction. When Sloth finally showed up, they were scared until the big reveal of his true nature, and then they cheered him every time he showed up onscreen.
And while I'm not a fan of the film, there are grace notes in the way it was put together that elevate it at times and suggest the film that the fans insist it is. One of those is the scene where they realize they're in a wishing well, and they start to pocket the coins they find until Martha Plimpton points out that they can't take them because each coin is someone's wish. Corey Feldman says he's keeping his coins because they are all wishes of his that never came true, and now he's taking them back. It's an elegant moment in the script by Chris Columbus, and Feldman nails the anger of the moment, makes it feel true. Both of my kids were upset by the scene in the right way, upset at the implications of it. They are still young enough to believe in wishes and magic and the general good of the world and the people in it, and this suggestion that maybe wishes don't come true was deeply unnerving to them.
And then there's that Dave Grusin score, which is one of the main reasons I think people forgive the film its flaws. That score is so good that you could have cut almost anything to it and it would have worked. Allen likes to jump up and dance sometimes to music, no matter what's happening onscreen, and the theme got him on his feet a few times. And when they finally reached the pirate ship, both of the boys were struck mute by what they were watching. They were invested completely in whether or not the Goonies saved their homes, and on edge until the final moments of the film, which served as pure release for them.
As the movie ended, Toshi turned to me very seriously and said, "Dad, you remember when we had lunch with the bad guy?"
"Well, I'm not gonna have lunch with him no more. He's bad. He's really bad."
Can't argue with that. I did notice that both Toshi and Allen incorporated the shouted phrase "Holy shit!" into their play over the weekend, and we had to have a chat about how the language in the film isn't appropriate for them to use yet. I also had a hard time explaining to my sons who are fluent in Spanish what was going on during the scenes where Mouth gleefully mistranslates to the maid. I forget how rough the PG could be back in the day.
They have played Goonies in the house many times since that screening, and it's on the stack of things they want to see again. That hold that the film has on people is definitely more than just nostalgia. I think that I saw it at a time where I was starting to get keenly aware of tone in film, and it simply hit me wrong. When I look at it, I see all the things I don't like, all the jokes that fall flat, all the false notes the kids strike as a cast. When my kids look at it, they see friends on an adventure, kids standing up to adults who are wrong, and the potential for treasure in a world where we are told wonders don't still exist. I have no doubt this is a film they will grow up loving, something that holds an almost unexplainable allure for them. And if for nothing else, I find my own opinion softening somewhat simply because I can see how important it is to them.
Now that they're back, we'll start this column up as a regular thing again, depending on a few different factors. Toshi is at that age where the only real tool we have to punish him is taking away what is important to him, and we were about to do a screening one night when he called his mom a "jerk," and that ended all conversation about watching movies for a full week. I also want to be careful to make sure that my kids never feel like I'm doing this for me instead of for them. I love sharing these experiences with you guys, but it's far more important for me to have these memories than these columns. As long as it's appropriate, we'll keep Film Nerd 2.0 coming, and if there are films you guys want to see in this column, movies that you grew up with that were formative for you, or movies that you're showing your own kids, then please, let me know.
I think the next few films in this series might have been picked by John Landis when he recently did a full week of "Planet Of The Apes" over at Trailers From Hell. I showed the boys the trailers, and they've seen the Blu-ray set on the shelf, and I think the lure is starting to become to strong to ignore. We may go Ape-crazy over here in the very near future.
And I can't wait.
Want to read earlier installments in the series?