Film Nerd 2.0 Fest continues with 'Beetlejuice,' Indiana Jones, and some Apes
At the end of the day, as I turned out the lights in the bedroom shared by Toshi, age seven, and Allen, age five, when I asked them to vote for which of the four films they saw during the day was their favorite, they answered quickly, not even hesitating.
"'Beetlejuice,'" said Allen.
"'Harvey,'" said Toshi.
And keep in mind, this was the day they saw their first ever Indiana Jones movie. I'm as surprised as you are.
The first full day of the Film Nerd 2.0 Spring Break Film Festival started with a 10:00 AM screening of "Beetlejuice." The boys have seen the work of Tim Burton in no particular order. At this point, they've seen "Frankenweenie" (both versions), "Edward Scissorhands," "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," and Toshi has seen "Mars Attacks!" They know Tim Burton as a brand name, and they went with me to the LACMA exhibit on Burton's work. "Beetlejuice" has been a film they've been asking about for a while, and I figured they were ready to appreciate the mix of humor and horror that the film navigates.
For each movie in the festival, I'm doing an introduction for them. Since they don't know what they're seeing until their badges have been checked, they're seated, and the actual movie begins, I can see them during the introductions waiting for that moment when they know what it is. They've been guessing about the titles, which has given me a chance to figure out what films they are most eager to eventually see. So far, Allen has guessed "Pirates Of The Caribbean" for every single film in the festival, and I almost feel bad knowing that he's not going to get his chance.
For this one, I started with, "There are two things that are fun for me to watch when we're seeing a movie together. When you guys are scared, and when you guys laugh, and I figured I wanted to start today with a film that would do both of those things to you. You've seen a number of films now by this director, and you've both asked me about this film before, so if you really want to see this first movie, I'm going to need you to say the title three times. 'Beetlejuice'!"
And sure enough, they both said it, loud as they could, three times, and we started the film. What surprised me most about their reaction was how it played as pretty much a pure horror film. The film was released when I was graduating high school, and I thought of it as a completely silly riff on horror tropes and ideas about the afterlife. From the moment Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) die, the film had both Toshi and Allen on edge, completely weirded out by pretty much everything they saw. Early on, when the Deetz family moves into the house and Adam and Barbara start trying to scare them out, there are a few crazy images. Barbara pulls her own face off at one point, and then a few minutes later, we see Adam's beheaded body laying on the floor while Barbara stands over him with a knife in one hand and his head in the other. Both images had Allen wide-eyed and silent, and I paused the film to ask them if they wanted to watch something else instead.
"NO!" they both yelled at me, absorbed and scared at the same time. That's the thing that I find most interesting, those moments when they are barely able to keep themselves from running out of the room in horror but they also absolutely refuse to stop watching. Even before the character Beetlejuice showed up, the movie was a nonstop cringe for them, and then once he showed up, they were fascinated by how awful he was. The first time they legitimately laughed in the movie was during the scene where everyone at the table is possessed and they erupt into a calypso dance number. Even that ends with the creepy weird shrimp monster arms that grab everyone by the face, though, which ended the laughs with a fresh set of screams.
Our post-movie conversation was not what I expected at all. Allen really wanted to carefully go through and discuss how each and every dead person in the movie died. I did not anticipate that the film would lead to a serious conversation about suicide, but Allen wouldn't stop digging until I explained how hanging worked and what happened to the lady with the cut wrists. Once I explained it, his reaction was, "Wait, so they did it on purpose?"
"That's so stupid! Those people are so stupid! And now they're all ghostseses for no reason!"
It surprised me that they seemed to both really enjoy the film as we discussed it even though it seemed the opposite while it was actually playing. We were still talking the film over when my friend Craig, who is Toshi's godfather, showed up at the house so he could join us for the second film of the day. First we ran out and picked up some lunch, and we brought the burritos back to the house and I set up a table in my office for them to sit at as we started the next movie. We made Craig a badge so he could be part of the festival with us, and he settled into one of the office chairs, smiling because he knew what they were about to see even if they didn't.
I got up to do the intro for them, both of them eager and ready. The film was already in the player, on pause on a black screen, and I could see Toshi scanning the room, trying to figure out which case I had taken the disc out of of, positively anxious. "This is a film you've been asking about for a while now, part of a series, and I've picked the one that seems like it's most appropriate for you as introduction. This is an adventure movie about a character who travels the world, looking for things that are magic and that are very old…"
"It's Indiana Jones! It's Indiana Jones!" Toshi was bouncing at this point, thrilled.
"… and you've actually seen a little bit of this movie once before…"
"It is! It's Indiana Jones!"
"I knew it!" Allen added, even though I'm fairly sure he didn't know it. He loves to say that, no matter what I reveal. I could tell Allen that I am an alien and that I only eat cement for lunch, and he'd play it cool and tell me, "I knew it."
I finished the intro, took my seat, and put on "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." I've written before about why I don't really share the same fondness for this that many of you do. I like it, but I think it's the third best of the four films, and I think the chemistry between Connery and Ford makes up for some frustrating script issues. I've always especially disliked it when Steven Spielberg calls the movie an "apology" for "Temple Of Doom" because (A) I really like "Temple of Doom" and (B) as apologies go, it feels like the sort of apology you get out of a kid after a fight when all he's thinking about is how he's going to beat the crap out of his opponent the moment the adults are gone.
As an introduction to Indiana Jones for kids, though, I think "Last Crusade" might be perfect. I do think that "Raiders" and "Temple of Doom" are too rough for the kids, but that's one of the reasons I love those movies. "Last Crusade" is, even at its absolute craziest, pretty mild stuff, and because it starts with that long sequence featuring River Phoenix doing the single greatest Harrison Ford impression of all time, I think it does a good job of drawing kids in. They feel a kinship to Indy right away, and then the film kind of downshifts into a completely generic action scene with adult Indy followed by a leisurely call to adventure. It takes a while before I feel like the film really picks up, but once Indy reaches Venice, it starts to get good.
The film completely engaged the kids, and the action sequences had them cheering and bouncing along with it, and they enjoyed sharing it with their godfather. I laughed at his surprise when the Wilhelm scream made an appearance, and both boys called out "The Wilhelm!" They have a love of this sort of nerd minutiae, and the reference that Henry Jones makes to the Marx Brothers also got a big reaction out of them. They really seemed to love the relationship between Indy and his father, and the escape from Castle Grunwald was hugely entertaining for them.
What I found most interesting about their reaction is that some of it was muted simply by virtue of them playing the "Lego Indiana Jones" games. They are desperate for video game time, and the only games that my wife allows them are Wii games, and specifically the Lego license games. So they've got "Star Wars" and "Pirates Of The Caribbean" and "Indiana Jones" and "Lord Of The Rings," and it's sort of like when I would read "Mad" magazine movie parodies for R-rated films I couldn't see. I'd get a sense of what happened in the movie, a basic plot and even in some cases some iconic visual beats, and that would be what I'd have in my head instead of the film itself. Seeing "Last Crusade," it was obvious that they already knew the basic story. They had seen the action represented on a miniature scale and rendered in Lego, with punchlines added. The questions they had for me dealt with some of the real-world details (they really didn't get the burning of books by the Nazis, for instance), and while the beheadings inside the Grail Temple certainly got their attention, Donovan's death seemed fairly pedestrian to both of them. It was not a big moment, especially in the wake of Tim Burton's non-stop buffet of gruesome in the morning.