Bringing up baby

Film critic Charles Taylor advises parents on how to introduce their children to the movies

By Charles Taylor
November 18, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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One of the most exciting things about the advent of home video is that kids can grow up almost anywhere as if repertory movie houses were still going strong. Their parents now have the chance to get their kids excited and educated (because you can't have the second without the first) about good movies. Adults who want to turn kids on to Dickens or Frances Hodgson Burnett or the Brontks have always had the library or bookstores as a resource, but before video, what option was there for parents who wanted to show their kids "The Adventures of Robin Hood" or "Singin' in the Rain" or "Tootsie" or "The Empire Strikes Back"? And if kids don't get a chance to grow up enjoying films that are great entertainment, how will they ever develop an appetite for the deeper pleasures of Griffith, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Godard, Frangois Truffaut, Vittorio de Sica or Robert Altman? Parents want their kids to be well-read; video gives them the chance to raise kids who are -- you should pardon the expression -- well-viewed.

Sadly, though, adults are often willing to settle for so little when it comes to movies. It's depressing to visit the video store on a weekend night and see overwhelmed customers (particularly in groups) choosing a tape you just know they won't like. It's worse to see parents, perhaps afraid of picking something inappropriate, relegating their kids' choices to the children's section when all around them are tapes capable of getting kids excited about what movies can be. One reason for the juvenile quality of America's post-Reagan era movies is that we've raised a generation of audiences who haven't been shown the medium's true potential. But with ever larger parts of our 100-year film heritage becoming available on video (or laserdisc or DVD), there's no excuse for that.


I'd like to propose some ways that we can use video to create moviegoers who demand more. These suggestions make no claim to be definitive. They're offered in the optimistic belief that people of any age can get excited about movies that they may not even know exist.

Know When Not to Use Video: Movies were made to be seen on a big screen. If you think your kids should see a current film, don't wait for it to come out on video. If you live near a good repertory theater, or a university with a film program, keep abreast of their schedules and attend with your children. (Rep cinemas depend on finding new audiences.) The single biggest drawback to video is the size of the television screen, which makes a movie viewed at home a different experience than one seen in a theater. Fortunately, many videos are now being offered in both "reformatted" and original wide-screen versions, so it's possible to see movies in their original aspect ratio (i.e., the full-sized picture you see in theaters). Rent wide-screen videos whenever possible and encourage your video store to stock them. You wouldn't buy your child a book that was cut off at the margins, and if kids don't get to see the whole picture as the director intended, it becomes much harder for them to learn that filmmakers create meanings with images, the same way that writers create meanings with words.

Watch With Them: Do this not just for the same reasons that people tell you to read to your kids -- to clarify, discuss, etc. -- but because movies, especially comedies and thrillers, are meant to be shared. Who wants to see "The 39 Steps" or "Duck Soup" for the first time alone? Watching your kids' reaction to movies you love can remind you of discovering them yourself. Can you imagine many things more pleasurable than seeing your kid experience "E.T." or "The Black Stallion" for the first time?


Encourage Your Kids to Watch Uninterrupted: Movies, unlike books, are made to be experienced in a controlled time period. If you've rented a 90-minute video, don't start it as a way to kill the half-hour before dinner. Encouraging kids to watch a movie from start to finish will allow the film to cast its spell, and I'm convinced that this strengthens kids' concentration. The theaters are full of adults -- let alone kids -- who have never learned that it's not cool to talk during the show or that you'll miss something if you visit the snack bar every 15 minutes.

Don't Divide Movies Into Boy/Girl: When I was a kid, some books were considered girls' books and others were considered boys' books. That's why I didn't read "The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess" until I was in my 20s. Parents shouldn't make the same mistake with movies. There are little boys who'll adore Gillian Armstrong's film of "Little Women" (or George Cukor's), and little girls who'll thrill to the great parodic swashbuckler "The Crimson Pirate," in which Burt Lancaster gets to show off his acrobatic skills along with that killer smile.

Don't Just Look in the Children's Section: This is actually a really good time for children's movies. There are sequences in the best recent kids' films -- "The Secret Garden," "A Little Princess," "Fly Away Home," "Babe," "Little Women" and Danny DeVito's wonderful and woefully overlooked "Matilda" -- that come close to the simple sensuous poetry of the silents. But so much of what's produced for children is sickly sweet, unimaginative pap -- movies I'm convinced kids sit through without enjoying because they're expected to like them. I'm also convinced that adults can enjoy any truly good children's movie without having to turn their brains off.


Be adventurous: Some of the movies your kids might appreciate may not have been originally intended for children, even though they're perfectly suitable for young viewers. Good movies are enjoyable in all sorts of unexpected ways. Kids who love animals may thrill to the beasts of the jungle who turn the 1934 "Tarzan and His Mate" into a parade of animal tricks. Slightly older kids who love horror stories or fairy tales may find themselves enchanted by David Lynch's "The Elephant Man." Kids into romance or period stories may eat up "Roman Holiday," the tale of a princess who wants to be a regular girl, or the recent, lovely "Princess Caraboo," the story of a regular girl who becomes a princess. Kids may thrill to the suspense of "The Lady Vanishes" or "Charade." Loose-limbed comedies like the Hope-Crosby "Road" movies, "Murder He Says," "Hairspray" or "Help!" -- all of which appeal to kids' love of silly jokes -- may be big hits. Your kids may not like all of your favorites, but they might like more than you'd think. Remember the movies that have given you pleasure when searching for tapes to show your kids, and don't be afraid to pick something that may be a bit over their heads. While many people complain that today's movies are infantile, slightly older films can make kids curious about the world of adults, even on the simple level of finding themselves drawn to performers like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart.

Don't Be Too Squeamish: Pauline Kael once observed that people usually object to the wrong things when they claim a movie isn't for kids. That's why generations of children have been put through the agonies of "Bambi" and "Dumbo," while others were "protected" from "Beetlejuice." (Earlier this year, I was a guest on a radio talk show where a man called in, upset that kids who saw "The Lost World" heard the characters say "goddamn." I had to remind him that they also saw two dinos pull a man apart in a tug of war.) Remember that kids who have grown up accustomed to all sorts of outlandish special effects may not be as easily frightened as we were. Last year I went to a repertory house screening of "Jaws," which scared the living bejesus out of me when I was 13. Afterward, I saw two mothers who had brought a boy of about 8 and a girl of about 10. Both kids chattered away happily over the scary good time they'd had. Not every kid will have the same reaction, and parents should probably check out what their kids are seeing before they let them watch certain thrillers or horror films. But there's no reason to believe that a little excitement will reduce your kid to a jabbering wreck, or that violence will turn him or her into a schoolyard sadist.


Don't Be Too Virtuous: Not everything we see or read has to be "improving." There's no reason a kid can't enjoy David Lean's film of "Great Expectations" and the fart and booger jokes in "Dumb and Dumber." No one ever gets interested in books, music, art or movies if they don't learn to experience them first as fun.

Don't Judge Movies By the Lessons They Teach: William Bennett isn't the only one who believes that art can be boiled down to a neat little moral lesson -- liberals do it too. As the English say, bollocks. The sooner kids learn that life can be complicated, the better. Plenty of movies may teach them things worth learning, but teaching isn't usually the primary goal of good movies, and there isn't any reason it should be. If you show kids "Broken Arrow" (not the recent John Travolta thriller, but the 1950 Western with James Stewart), they'll be seeing one of the most intelligent American movies ever made about the poison of racial prejudice. But they'll learn about that poison because they've gotten involved in a colorful, exciting story with characters they care about. All of Dalton Trumbo's good, liberal speechmaking about servants and masters isn't what's going to keep them glued to "Spartacus."

Don't Judge Earlier Eras By This One: A few years ago, a friend of mine showed "Meet Me in St. Louis" to some of his friends in their 20s. Afterward, one young woman asked if it was a good idea for kids to see a movie -- even one set at the turn of the century -- where girls only seem interested in finding husbands. This is drivel disguised as thoughtful concern. Don't condescend to kids by assuming that they confuse movies with reality, and don't underestimate the power of movies to show kids how things have changed. But, especially with younger children, look for a creative way to talk the differences you may have with a particular movie. When I have kids, I'll want them to be enlightened about racial issues, but I'll be damned if I keep them from seeing "Gone With the Wind."


Above all, have faith in your kids' curiosity, maturity and sense of adventure. It wasn't so long ago that the ability to see almost any movie at whim was unthinkable. The thought that this opportunity exists for millions of future moviegoers should make the studios shake in their boots. When kids get a taste of the possibilities of movies, and then realize how little Hollywood is offering them, it poses the same question voiced by the old ditty: "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?" Where movies are concerned, the best gift you could give your kids is the chance, years from now, to say, "My Mama didn't raise no hayseeds."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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