Film Nerd 2.0: We wrap up 2011 with 'The Muppet Movie' and pick the slate for 2012
Welcome back to Film Nerd 2.0.
As we move forward with this column, one thing is important to remember. In the end, these are my kids. Not a social experiment. Not a reflection of me. Not an accessory for the column. But actual kids who only get one actual shot at childhood, and whose emotional lives are my responsibility. I consider the sharing of movies to be one of the primary things that we share as social creatures, and that's not a small thing. Movies travel across culture and geography and time to communicate essential truths and absurdities and experience and invention and hopes and fears. They are invaluable, and as media becomes more and more portable and flexible in the daily lives of people, including my kids as they get older, why not be careful about the road map you provide these people?
Many of my DVDs have been removed from their cases and placed in 300-disc books, and one of Toshi's favorite things to do is page through those books and look at the various images and titles and ask questions about them. I try to answer his questions honestly but there are a lot of films he asks about that I can't even summarize to him without it raising questions I can't answer yet. He is aware that I write about the movies we watch together, and after the reaction to his Muppets interview at the school he attends, I think he understands that it is not something everyone does, and that it's special.
And while I do write about most of what we see together, what you don't read about it everything else: the reading, the basketball, the baseball, the bike riding, the soccer, the board games, the homework, the hikes… all the rest of what exists as our time together as parents and children. This column is about one particular part of that, the way we introduce media into the lives of our kids. Do we use it as background to distract them in the car while we're running errands? Do we use it to pass on our values to them? Do we let it serve as constant background noise, or do we make it a carefully controlled drip? That's the conversation I think we need to have about media in general, and regarding our kids, it's doubly-important.
So this year, I'm setting some goals for the column, and I think it's fair to share them with you so that you can decide how much you'd like to participate. You can watch along with us this year. The boys have gone through those books, in two sessions of a few hours each, with us sitting in that room and having the absolute strangest free-wheeling multi-subject conversations this side of a college freshman's dorm room. Kids process information so differently, and they are so funny about what they choose to get excited about and interested in. I also had a few awkward moments where I'd flip some pages quickly to avoid some DVD art that was not age-appropriate. I'm sure whatever glimpses they saw of this or that are going to take root exactly as the forbidden imagery I glimpsed when I was six or five, imagery I still remember today, took root for me. I am sure they'll remember things they sort of half-see or half-hear or vaguely understand incorrectly.
But more importantly, they'll remember that I treated them like valid people, happy to indulge their curiosity and their interests, and careful to keep things at a general age-appropriate level based on what they've seen so far and what they're exposed to in the world around them. There's also the issue of narrative sophistication. You can't show a kid a certain type of filmmaking just because they wouldn't know what to make of it. You can't put "Natural Born Killers" on for a three year old, and not only because of content, but because of visual language as well. That movie would short circuit a kid in terms of how it delivers its message. You can't put on "Last Year At Marienbad" for a kid whose film diet has been resolutely mainstream, because it would be meaningless to them. It would be like handing my first-grade son who reads at a second-grade level James Joyce and saying, "What's this about?"
The last new film we watched in 2011 together… well, new for them, but not for me, was "The Muppet Movie." I saw the film theatrically in 1979, and I was already a hardcore Jim Henson/"Muppet" fan at that point. As big a deal as "Superman" was for me the year before, seeing Kermit The Frog and Fozzie Bear and Animal… especially Animal… on the bigscreen sounded too good to be true to nine-year-old me. One of the joys of my childhood theatergoing memories is the way audiences reacted to some of the big hits of the '70s. When I was still learning about films, still soaking up the way they worked (or didn't work) for me, still sorting through that for the first time, I paid a lot of attention to audiences. If you didn't see "Star Wars" in a theater or "E.T." in a theater when they came out, you don't know about the H U G E laugh moments built into those movies. HUGE. HUGE. HUGE. Bring the house down. Holy Crap. Giant laugh moments. That was a big part of their appeal. "Airplane!" was that way. And, yes, "The Muppet Movie" was that way.
Audiences went bananas for the movie, to put it bluntly. The guest stars. The terrible terrible eye-rolling jokes. The Paul Williams music. The "put the band together" storyline. It all played. Kermit's "Gone With The Schwinn" joke was a particular punctuation mark that worked not only because it was a big laugh, but also because it came on the tail end of the scene where you see him riding a bike for the first time.
One of the reasons we picked this film to watch together was, obviously, because the boys had a big year as far as the Muppets were concerned. Toshi had his infamous (you should see the older girls at his school talk about it) Kermit and Piggy interview. The boys went with my wife and mother-in-law to the premiere of the film, where there were Muppets present in the actual theater. They met Gary. They met Mary. They met Walter. They played the CD in the car on the way to and from school every day for a month. Every day. That is not an exaggeration, and that was not my doing. They just insisted. That and "The Green Album" over and over and over as well. Which is all tribute versions of great Muppet songs.
So when we sat down finally to watch the DVD (wishing Disney would spend the money to clean the film up, do a new color timing), they were ready. And I figured part of the magic of the film, that "wow!" factor that hit me in the theater, would be ruined since they'd both been in the room with Piggy and Kermit and seen Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson right there.
I underestimated the magic of the Muppets.
The boys were very excited by the opening in the theater with the Muppets all packed in and ready to watch "The Muppet Movie." That sets up a question about reality that is just plain weird and continues to be weird to this day with the same question in the Jason Segel movie. No matter. That's part of what I think Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl were doing in their script. The movie is very much a 1979 version of a show biz movie. This is the same era as films like "The Jerk" and "The Blues Brothers," and it's got that same shaggy feel, where there's some lovely filmmaking and also some rough-hewn loosey-goosey lunacy. It is knowingly naive, something that can be very hard to pull off.
When that big swooping first shot of the movie in the movie comes up onscreen, with the camera pushing in on a swamp, gradually, down and down and down to find Kermit The Frog sitting there, singing that gorgeous song, that heart-breaking song…
… both of my boys started to sing along. And they knew every word. And the key change. And they sang it in the sweetest only-as-brothers-can little harmony. And, oh, man… it was like having the ghost of Henson right there, connecting my childhood to theirs, his art alive and well, still fresh. And the boys didn't see how emotional I got. I covered it, because I didn't want to take them out of the film.
As Kermit starts to play the whole scene with Dom DeLuise, Toshi noticed that Kermit was sitting in a real swamp. Where the guy could row a boat. And that Kermit was on a log. In the water. And that there was no guy doing Kermit anywhere. He pointed it out to Allen.
They gave me a suspicious look, like I was eating candy that I wasn't sharing with them. "Daddy… where's the guy who does Kermit?"
"I don't know."
They scrutinized the next scene. And when it got to Kermit riding a bike, Toshi started laughing. "Oh, Daddy… Kermit's really real, isn't he?"
Allen loves to play Greek chorus to Toshi. "He's really real, Daddy?"
I pretended to study Kermit riding the bike. "Looks that way. I think he might be."
"See… I knew that." Toshi was very pleased with himself as his little brother nodded, backing him up. And for the rest of the movie, it was proved to them again and again that the Muppets, the same ones who they saw getting uncomfortably close to Whitmire and Jacobson, are in fact real. And they both accepted it completely. It was not a difficult adjustment of their world view.
And they laughed as they watched. There are a lot of comedies in the movies we picked for this year because these two little goofballs love to laugh. They are big comedy fans. And I've met kids who aren't. We have a friend whose son told me once that "funny movies make me soooo mad." But Allen and Toshi welcome any opportunity to cackle like hyenas and bounce off things. Toshi insisted on telling his mom about the scene "where there's this part where Kermit and Fozzie Bear are on the car, and they are driving on the road, and there's a fork, and it's a giant fork, and it's IN THE ROAD." I was doubly impressed by how hard he and Allen laughed at Toshi's explanation of that joke. I've heard that same blow-by-blow of that joke about nine times since, and each time, Toshi and Allen both laugh as if it's the very first time. It is a private thing between them. If I tried to bring it up, that wouldn't fly. But when Toshi says it, it slays Allen. SLAYS.
Most of the celebrity cameos flew right over the boys heads. They recognized Steve Martin because they saw about 20 minutes of "Three Amigos," but that was it. What's funny is that they recognized that they should recognize each of the celebrities, but they didn't know who they were. Every time one of them would appear, they'd ask who it was, and I started naming them. "Edgar Bergen. Milton Berle. Mel Brooks. James Coburn. Elliott Gould. Bob Hope. Telly Savalas. Cloris Leachman. Carol Kane. Richard Pryor." They asked follow-up questions. I tried to answer honestly and whet their appetite for knowing who all of the people were eventually.
It was a fun screening, but there were a few things I noticed watching the film now as an adult. James Frawley does a nice job with it visually, and he keeps it moving at a breakneck pace. His sense of how to shoot musical numbers like "Can You Picture That?" and "Movin' Right Along" is pretty spot on, and he has great material to work with thanks to Paul Williams. The film's bad guy, Charles Durning, is honestly the least interesting thing in the movie, and the pay-off it builds to almost but not quite makes up for it. I can't say as i ever felt the urge to see a 100-foot tall Animal before I saw it in the film, but at least I can say I saw it in the film. The boys seemed duly impressed, but overall it was just spending the time with the Muppets that they liked most. I think Frawley's a fascinating guy, still cranking out the TV episodes for shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ghost Whisperer" as late as 2009. He was never a huge features guy, with way more of his work for studio TV even in the '80s, but in this one moment, he captured something magic at a very special time, and my kids swallowed it whole.
After carefully going through the stacks, here's our tentative slate of movies for the next year. I have not put these in order yet, and I'm not 100% sure which one we'll be doing first. But these are the films that the boys picked that they want to see, along with a few that I thought would be important to sneak in there.
"To Kill A Mockingbird"
"Big Top Pee-Wee"
"Spaceballs" - Blu-ray
The "Back To The Future" trilogy - Blu-ray
"Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan Lord Of The Apes"
"20,000 Leagues Under The Sea"
"Return To Oz"
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit"
"Wallace and Gromit The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit"
"Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow"
"War Of The Worlds" (1952)
"Young Sherlock Holmes"
"Creature From The Black Lagoon"
"Pee Wee's Big Adventure"
"A Shot in The Dark"
"Mighty Joe Young"
"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken"
"Tarzan The Ape Man"
"Around The World In 80 Days"
"The Jungle Book"
And the rest of the "Planet of The Apes" feature films. They've seen the first one, but that's it, and they're starting to get crazy about it.
So that's the list. Comprehensive? Nope. But this isn't school. This is about them being excited by what they're watching and what they're going to watch, and having conversations with them about the movies. Simple stuff, and with a weirdo list of titles like that, I'm sure it will be a year filled with unexpected moments and reactions. I'm pleased that so many of you joined us this past year, and I hope the series just keeps getting better in the year ahead.
"Film Nerd 2.0" remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column: