Film Nerd 2.0: When kids ask hard questions about history, does Hollywood help or hurt?
“I want to be in the Army.”
That statement prompted a frantic phone call from my ex-wife, and an entire series of conversations. It also inspired a very particular screening of a very particular film, one in a series of recent screenings that have spoken to Toshi’s developing interests in both history and Hollywood.
While movies are very important to Toshi, they are less important than Allen, and I suspect there will come a time where I lose Allen to other interests. That’s fine with me. Whatever he’s interested in and excited by, I’ll encourage him. Right now, his interests are more in games and puzzles and building things. Minecraft is pretty much the perfect intersection of all of Allen’s energies. As a result, when I am picking things that we’re all going to watch together, I find myself going mainstream and populist and easy. Allen will watch a superhero film with us happily. He’s as excited for each new episode of The Flash as Toshi is. If there’s something that has anything to do with Star Wars, Allen is onboard. But when it comes to being challenged by a movie, Allen isn’t really interested.
This is starting to free Toshi up to follow his own interests. He’s become a history buff. He is fascinated by true stories, or by stories that are set against an actual historical backdrop. He has an active interest in stories about America and the injustices and imperfections that are built into our DNA as a nation. He is the only kid in his class who can not only sing along to Hamilton, but who voraciously dug into the new book that annotates all of the lyrics with historical and behind-the-scenes information. Because he's a massive fan of 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that Chadwick Boseman starred in, I showed him the new Ken Burns documentary on Blu-ray, and he loved seeing the real person, learning more about the world he lived in, seeing the story of Robinson's older brother. When Toshi started asking me questions about the history of our relationship with Native Americans, it was because of the Western films he’s seen and the way Indians are portrayed in most of them. His grandfather got him started watching John Wayne films, and they've become a staple in his diet. As a very direct answer to those films, I showed him a film that I thought he’d enjoy because he’s liked films that are built on a similar structure before, and sure enough, he picked up on the similarities between Dances With Wolves and Avatar right away.
One of the things we talked about before Dances and after it is the idea of the “white savior” and what a Hollywood notion that is. We discussed the way Hollywood’s version of history and the reality of history are normally very different things. I told Toshi that you can get the idea from a movie, but that you’re only getting a very small part of a very narrow representation when you’re watching a film. I told him that history is far more complicated and, in many cases, dirtier and bloodier than what we are willing to accept from our movies. Movies are merely ways to raise ideas worth discussion. Life requires far more of us than movies do, and I think there's something to the idea of movies helping us make sense of that complexity. Both of the boys were affected greatly by their experience with To Kill A Mockingbird, and we’ve referred to that film several times in conversation while talking about real-life experiences the boys have had. What they took from Dances was less about John Dunbar and more about realizing that there was not just one kind of “Indian,” and that the various tribes and regions all had their own cultures. Watching the film and talking with Toshi afterwards reminded me why I love it in the first place.
And, yes, I know it’s not cool to love Dances With Wolves. I couldn’t care any less. What I fell for in 1990, and what I still adore now, is the character work in the film. I think Costner’s never been better or more natural or more charming. But more than that, I think Graham Greene as Kicking Bird is terrific, and Rodney A. Grant is so good as Wind In His Hair. I love the work by Floyd Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, and the gleefully vile Robert Pastorelli. These characters all feel lived in, like they have actual lives outside the edges of this story, and that makes a huge difference to me. What I think is most impressive about Dances is that there is no “us” or “them” in the storytelling. I know why the white savior story is a particularly unpleasant trope, but in Dances, John Dunbar doesn’t save anything, except possibly his own soul. He doesn’t change the Lakota; they change him. He finds a sense of community, and he’s drawn to their values, their history, their strength. Toshi watched the film and immediately began reading about different tribes and nations and the history of our relationships with native Americans. There’s a scene where Ten Bears talks about how there have been other white people in the past, and he holds a Conquistadors helmet, and that one scene led to almost an hour of conversation with Toshi, which I love. I think it’s great when you see a movie get inside someone and rattle around and cause all these other thoughts and feelings. He is wide open to movies when he watches them, and it’s really beautiful to watch him absorb these experiences, both positive and negative.
And believe me… we’ve had some rough moments.
Now that Toshi has several big films books that he reads, including David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film and Scarecrow Video’s Video Movie Guide, he is coming to me more often with questions about filmographies and lists of movies he’d like to see. He’s interested in certain filmmakers right now, and unsurprisingly, Steven Spielberg is a subject of much of his attention. He’s amazed by the scope of what he’s done, and he’s had some pretty extreme emotional experiences at Spielberg’s hands, including A.I. and Jaws and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Toshi read Ernie Cline’s novel Ready Player One last year, and now he’s absolutely manic about the upcoming film adaptation and the idea that Spielberg is the man in charge. There was one film in particular that he asked me about over and over, and I made the mistake of telling him, “That’s too much for you.”
“No, it’s not!” he told me as he held the Blu-ray in his lap, having taken it down to look at it. He’ll do that with movies he’s circling, and sometimes he’ll drag it out. He’ll take the same cover down and consider it every time he’s at my house for six solid months, and then finally he’ll decide it’s time. In this case, he had his eye on Schindler’s List, and when he finally made his pitch, he had obviously taken his time and thought it out.
“You know how when we watched the Indiana Jones movies, you told us that the Nazis were real bad guys and that they were worse than they were in the movie and then I asked you about how they were worse and we talked about it and you said they killed all the Jewish people and that was really sad? Well, this is about that. And I have more questions, and so you don’t have to answer them, because I can watch this, and then that will answer them, so we should definitely watch this one next.”
Before we watched the film, I had to talk to them about what we were going to see. Toshi had read a textbook description of the Holocaust, but those words, no matter how empathic you are, cannot begin to communicate the reality of a concentration camp in the way that film images can. When we put the film on, there were questions and frequent pauses so we could discuss what was happening, and I was surprised by the way Toshi was taking in the details of things. One of the things that upset him the most was seeing the road through the Plaszow labor camp paved with Jewish headstones. “Those look like graves,” he said, asking me to pause on the image. We talked about how the Germans used Jewish tombstones for many purposes, and that the practice continued in many places after the war as well. The horror of erasing any record of the Jewish dead and the intentional disrespect of driving and walking on former headstones disturbed him deeply.
One of the longest pauses we took was after the liquidation of the ghetto. I hadn’t seen the film in a long time, and while I remembered the stark and unsparing way the sequence was shot, I didn’t remember quite how difficult it was. While I’ve heard plenty of people mock the way Spielberg used the small girl in the red coat, it was enormously effective in making the scale of the horror hit home for Toshi and Allen. Later in the film, when the children are being driven away from Auschwitz, there are a few children who stay behind, who try to hide, to avoid being separated from their parents. One little boy, unable to find a hiding place, finally crawls into the latrine, dropping into the filth below. He finds other children already there, already hiding, and that image made Allen burst into tears. When we talked about why, he said he couldn’t imagine having to make a choice like that. He couldn’t imagine a world where kids had to live like that. I know both of my kids have had some difficulty adjusting to things since my wife and I broke up, and it became clear as we talked that one of the most fundamentally terrifying things about the Holocaust, from their perspective, was the way families were simply evaporated. The random nature of the way evil landed on people over the course of the film also really got to them. When Amon Goethe (Ralph Fiennes) stands on that balcony, shooting workers in the labor camp like a capricious god hurling lightning bolts at unsuspecting insects, Toshi shook from a combination of righteous anger and terrified panic.
What makes the film endurable is that final act, in which we see how hard Schindler worked to try to save the lives he could, and we see just how hard each and every Jewish survivor had to fight for that survival. It offers some small glimpse at decency after a catalog of horror, and my boys had questions about what happened after the war, and the thing they needed to know, first and foremost, is whether or not that kind of thing could ever happen again. I felt like a monster explaining to them that genocide is not a one-time-only occurrence, that we have seen this cycle play out in many cultures and that it is absolutely possible for it to happen again. It was an incredibly difficult viewing overall, and the boys have brought it up many times since then. It has left a permanent mark on them, and Toshi asked me if there was anything he could read that would tell him more about the Holocaust. It was the perfect excuse to finally give him my copy of Art Spielgelman's Maus one of the great books of the last 40 years.
Because Toshi has been so interested in history lately, it surprised me when I got that call from his mother about a statement he’d made to her. “I’m going to join the Army,” he said during dinner, and when she asked him why, he continued. “They pay for all of your college, and you get to kill people, like in Call of Duty.” Toshi clarified later that he was kidding about the last part, but joke or not, that’s a terrible thing to say. When we talked about this new desire of his to join the Army, he told me how he thought it was something everyone should do. He asked me if we could watch a war movie, “something with lots of fighting in it,” and I wasn’t sure at first what to do. He was a big fan of The Great Escape, and there are certainly plenty of great action movies set during various wars. But we’ve done plenty of that. Movies like that are fine, and I enjoy many of them, but the sanitized version of war that they present is just like the sanitized way it’s handled in video games, where combat is an endless series of respawns and painless deaths.
Once again, we turned to Steven Spielberg. Allen, who wasn’t feeling well the night the boys came over, decided to tap out of this screening so he could watch Minecraft videos on the computer. Toshi, though, claimed his favorite spot on the couch for Saving Private Ryan. I asked him beforehand what he knew about D-Day. “Oh, I know all about that,” he said, and he started rattling off dates and numbers. I told him that the film was about D-Day and several days afterwards, and he got excited. “Oh, this is gonna be cool!”
So, yeah, that’s not what he said when it was over. He was flattened by the movie. In so many ways, he was ready for this particular film. He’s become very fond of Tom Hanks over the last year, with The Burbs and The Money Pit getting some serious replays, and of course, Spielberg is a cornerstone of his film education so far. By the end of the opening D-Day sequence, he was quiet, and then came the set-up for the rest of the movie, the explanation of who Ryan is and why they had to go get him. “Wait… he’s gotta take all of his guys and go find one guy in the middle of all of that? Is he like a bad-ass? Is that why they have to get him?” He couldn’t believe they would risk all of their lives for one guy who wasn’t even special or important, and as the movie unfolded, the weird futility of their mission sank in. During the entire final battle sequence, Toshi had moved all the way down the couch to where I was, curled up against me, eyes wide. No jokes. No questions. And once we reached the very end, he said, very simply and quietly, “Dad, I don’t think I want to be in the Army. You have to be really brave to do that. I’m glad we had people who could do it.” We talked about my father’s time in the military, we talked about the difference between the wars of the early 20th century and the ongoing war machine of today, and we talked about the difference between the political football that is “The Troops” versus the reality of the actual men and women who serve in the military. We talked about respect for the sacrifices made by the people symbolized by all those white crosses in that military cemetery.
And as that conversation continued, it struck me how lucky I am to be able to have a conversation like that with him. I have no idea what the future’s going to bring. I have seen signs of the surly teenager that Toshi’s going to be, and no matter what I do or what I try, I am sure there are going to be times where our communication breaks down completely. It’s just the way things work between parents and children. But for now, the relationship we have is constantly rewarding, and that open back-and-forth gives me a chance to see not only what he’s thinking, but how he’s thinking. I am proud of the people that I am raising, and I am well aware of how many milestones are still ahead of us. The movies that we share are often fun, but they can be so much more than that. They can serve as the launching pad for any conversation about any situation, and I have no doubt we have hundreds of great and special screenings ahead.
There are so many films I am excited to share with them still, and I think there’s a conversation to be had about the bigger idea of media education. I’ve been meeting with schools for Toshi to attend next year, and I’m struck by what they do and don’t teach. I think it’s great that schools are starting to build in basic coding classes, but I don’t think they have changed enough to reflect the world as it works right now. It’s easy to complain about things, but it’s harder to try to effect real change, and I’d rather try the hard thing than indulge the easy one. I’ve seen the way it has impacted my relationship with my boys, and the way it’s impacting them, and I think there’s real merit is starting the conversation about media literacy at a very early age. These columns I’ve written, these experiences with the boys that I’ve recorded, have got me thinking about how to build this into something more. I’ve said this for years, but I haven’t done enough to make it actually happen. The first step is simple: write the book. You’ve asked me for it, I’ve made notes and written chapters of it, but I’ve never buckled down. There’s great stuff that will be in the book all written specifically for the book. The full Lord of the Rings trilogy. The full Back To The Future trilogy. The full Matrix trilogy. Reviews by Toshi, including essays on the Pirates of the Caribbean films and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. There are guests who will be contributing material and I’ve got artists lined up to do some beautiful new work to help bring the book to life. I think it could be special, and in order to do it right, I’ll have to devote some serious time and attention to it. So... after considering a number of options, I've got an announcement.
Film Nerd 2.0 began as a general idea, a loose overall description of the process by which I would introduce media to my kids. It has become something else, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. We’re starting to make some changes here at HitFix as part of our acquisition by Woven Media, and now seemed like the right moment to finally make the change I’ve been contemplating. So this will be the final Film Nerd 2.0 column to appear here. You can watch the video above, where I talk about some of my plans, and honestly… whether we continue in a new form or not is going to depend largely on you. I’ve got to be smart about how I use my creative time and energy this year, and while I believe in Film Nerd 2.0 and the bigger idea of what it can be, I can’t take these next steps alone. In the end, whatever happens with the series has to benefit Toshi and Allen, and it has to lead to something more than just a record of what my kids thought of a bunch of movies. Ultimately, I believe it is important to discuss the way we build media into the lives of children, and considering how many ways there are for them to digest media right now, we have to evolve our thinking. It’s too important, and no one’s really discussing this in a national forum. If all goes well, we’ll be setting up screening series and a yearly event and working with special collaborators to put together tools for parents that will work in ways the antiquated and poorly-imagined MPAA system never could.
For now, though, let me just thank you for reading any of these, and for the incredible conversations I’ve had with you over the years because of this.
Film Nerd 2.0 will no longer appear here at HitFix after today.
Here’s a link to the full run of the column, from the initial idea to today’s announcement.