I’ve been asked repeatedly about when I would finish my coverage of the first Film Nerd 2.0 Film Festival, an event that came together at the very last possible moment, and it’s taken me this long because of other publishing obligations that have come up in the meantime. I love writing these articles, but they are among the most demanding for me because of what they deal with, and because I work very hard to capture the truth of these exchanges and these moment with my kids. There will come a time when I look back and these will be the one record of these times, and I want it to be as complete and unflinching as it can be.
One of the truths about film festivals is that whatever plan you make before one begins, you will not follow it for any of a thousand different reasons. That certainly held true with the concluding day of the Film Nerd 2.0 Summer Film Festival, which I threw for my two sons, Toshi and Allen, at the end of this year’s spring break vacation from school.
Part of what complicated the weekend was Toshi’s baseball schedule. He had a two hour practice on Friday night, a game on Saturday, and a game on Sunday. That’s a whole lot of baseball to build a schedule around, and it had a real impact on the plans. The other part of what made it impossible to keep to our initial schedule was something I didn’t really count on… my wife.
I don’t often include her in the Film Nerd 2.0 articles because, truth be told, she and I don’t agree on the role that film plays in the lives of our children. I think there are many days where she would happily declare our house a movie-free zone if she thought she could get away with it. When Toshi can excitedly recite every incident and most of the dialogue from a film he’s seen eleven times but he can’t tell her what words are on his spelling test for the week, it makes her crazy, and rightfully so. I think the pop culture we share with our kids is a major part of who they eventually become, but I also think that school is the one primary obligation the kids have right now. I think movies are the reward that make all the other effort worthwhile at this age for Toshi, and I try to approach it like that with him. He shouldn’t expect movies as a god-given right, but instead should view them as a wonderful bonus, something that should be enjoyed as a treat each and every time.
She doesn’t particularly like it when I go away to film festivals, and she didn’t care for the idea of the kids taking part in a three or four day movie marathon. She told me at the start of Saturday that we would not be viewing any movies on Sunday at all. That meant cutting one whole day’s worth of programming, and condensing things into Saturday while still leaving room for that baseball game. Not easy, and not helped at all by the fact that I woke up with a blood pressure headache brought on by the fact that I am an old and fat man.
I pushed what was supposed to be the first screening of the day and put on for them the original US theatrical cut of Ridley Scott’s “Legend.” I still remember seeing the film when it was originally released. I was so excited because it was Ridley Scott and because it had a great poster, and the imagery in the trailers looked gorgeous. Walking out of the film, which I saw with a close friend at the time, I was so flabbergasted by how much I hated the script that I couldn’t stop laughing about it. My friend, a huge fantasy nerd, had evidently fallen head over heels for it while it was playing, and he stayed silent all the way to the car. As I made my 200th joke about how much the movie sucked, he lashed out with one perfect punch and hit me smack in the nose and mouth. I was surprised more than hurt, but it effectively made the point that perhaps I shouldn’t lay it on quite so thick because someone else might have had a different reaction.
Over time, I’ve come to admire the film for its visual ambition and for certain things about it, but I still think it’s a narrative train wreck. I figure the best time for someone to see it is when they’re young enough that things like theme and character are less important and they can just get lost in the details. That’s certainly what happened with Toshi and Allen, who both had dozens of questions about how things worked or why things happened, but who ultimately didn’t care about the answers.
They were blown away by Rob Bottin’s creature designs, they found Tim Curry absolutely hypnotic as Darkness, and Toshi loved how dark and weird things got. These days, the boys listen to a lot of soundtracks in my car, and they’ve heard both the Goldsmith score and the Tangerine Dream score for this film. After we finished the movie, Toshi specifically asked me to show him one scene with the alternate score playing, and we took it back so he could see how Goldsmith handled the sequence where the dress dances with Mia Sara before it magically merges with her. He was fascinated at the little changes in the edit between the two versions, and by how much the score changed the mood of what he was watching.
I’ve noticed that even in the last few months, the boys are less nervous about monsters onscreen, and more interested in the work that goes into making them instead. I think a year ago, “Legend” would have been way too dark for them, but now even Meg Mucklebones was just cool, according to them. It feels like we’re turning a corner, and it opens up a lot of opportunities for what they can see in the near-future.
After the baseball game, we grabbed dinner and we settled in for probably the heaviest film of the entire line-up. I only saw “Empire Of The Sun” one time, back when it was first released, and yet it’s one of those Spielberg films that stuck with me ever since. The film is notable for a few reasons. First, it is the biggest financial disaster of the ’80s if you compare negative cost to what it earned. That’s amazing, since it seemed like Spielberg could spin gold out of anything back when this was released. Based on J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel, the film is much more stark and unsentimental than one might expect based on Spielberg being the director.
Christian Bale stars as Jamie Graham, a young man who lives in China with his British parents in the days before WWII. When the Japanese invade, Jamie is separated from his parents and finds himself struggling to survive and figure out what to do in a country that has suddenly turned hostile. It’s a harrowing story, and the script by Tom Stoppard does a tremendous job of boiling a difficult piece of work into a strong emotional through-line, filled with strong characters and spectacular imagery.
Spielberg has always been a terrific director of children, and the performance by Bale is one of the very best in any of his films. In the early part of the film, there’s a sense of Jamie as a spoiled kid who has no idea what world he really lives in. He moves through Hong Kong with such entitlement that when the Chinese invade, he doesn’t seem to understand that there’s any danger. Gradually, though, as it sinks in, we see how shock takes hold of the kid and how he reacts to that.
There were a lot of questions during the film, but mainly about history and certain details about what was going on. We ended up talking about kamikaze pilots, the tensions between the Chinese and the Japanese, the British occupation of China, and during one of the most chilling and memorable moments of the film, we got back into the conversation about nuclear war that we’d had the night before during “Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.” So many of the big moments in the film left the boys silent, like early on when Jamie is flashing Morse code out his window just before a bombing or the scene where Jamie comes face to face with a group of pilots about to leave on a mission and salutes them, and afterwards, we talked quite a bit about how the film upset them and how it also moved them.
When Jamie was finally reunited with his parents, Toshi wept, and Allen spent the last twenty minutes of the film on my lap, holding me, upset. Whenever they’re reacting like that, I make sure they want to keep watching, and at several points in the film, I offered them an out if it was too much for them. In this case, they both talked afterwards about how scary they found much of the movie, but how much they loved the film.
Toshi in particular seemed to be deeply touched by the idea of Jamie having to survive on his own and eventually finding his parents again, and how much he was changed by the experience. He asked me afterwards if someone could really survive in a situation like that, and the idea of kamikazes really upset him as well. He was more upset by the notion that a country would ask that of someone than the idea that someone would do it. I think he still has a romantic little boy idea of what war is, and this film is one of the first times he’s watched something that deals with the ugly human cost of conflict.
We took a break for dinner, and then we started the final screening of the festival around 10:00. Thanks to the last-minute substitution of “Bride Of Frankenstein” at the start of the festival, the experience we had with Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” was completely sublime. From the very beginning of the film, they were onboard and had a wicked case of the giggles. They’ve had some experience with Brooks in the past when we watched “Spaceballs,” and they both love Gene Wilder from his “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” starring role, so they immediately clicked into the rhythm of the movie. Every one of Wilder’s intentional mispronunciations of “Frankenstein” sent them into peals of laughter, and the demo in his lecture hall made them gasp and also ended up destroying them with laughs.
But when Marty Feldman made his entrance, everything changed. They’d never seen anything like him, and we ended up having to play some of his scenes two or three times because of how much they were responding to him. During the scene where Frankenstein and his assistant Inga (Terri Garr, never more beautiful than she is in this film) are trying to find the source of the mysterious violin music, only to discover the original private lab of Frankenstein’s grandfather, they were literally on the edges of their seats, pushed forward and leaning in, caught up in the suspense. And then when they find Igor’s head on the shelf and he starts singing, the boys jumped back, startled, and immediately burst into laughter. We had to watch it four times before they were ready to move on.
Mid-movie, Scott Swan dropped by, and we rearranged the room and made Scott his own guest badge and then got back into the film. We started the film back up, and by that point, they had created the Monster, and Toshi was the one who realized that he was played by “the dad off of Mommy’s ‘Raymond’ show!” My wife has a few shows she is addicted to, and “Everybody Loves Raymond” was one of them, so Peter Boyle’s been on the TVs in my house many times in the past. They were howling at his various choices, and there’s a girly scream he does when he backs into a control panel that blows up that left them both breathless from laughing.
But nothing beat the Gene Hackman scene. And here’s where the “Bride” screening really paid off. As I wrote, Toshi was moved to tears in “Bride” when the blind hermit is kind to the Monster, and when the Hackman scene began in “Young Frankenstein,” Toshi got it instantly. He stood up and pointed at the screen. “Daddy, it’s just like the other movie!” And as joke after joke landed, Toshi wasn’t just laughing, he was also marveling at how the same scene played two ways could do two totally different things.
Overall, the only thing that I found a little uncomfortable were some of the questions about a few of the racier jokes in the film. Thankfully, Brooks handles things with enough discretion that I was able to explain things without lying but without having to have an explicit conversation with the boys about sex. When they asked me why Madeline Kahn was singing and the monster was making yummy sounds, I told them that Frankenstein could kiss really well, and they seemed to accept that. Toshi recently announced that he knew what sex was, and as we both struggled not to drop dead of heart failure, he explained that it’s when two people “kiss for a long time.” So he got that “Young Frankenstein” had some sex jokes, but he didn’t get the mechanics of it, and that’s fine.
It was so much fun that I felt bad when it was time for them to go to bed. I didn’t want the Festival to end, and neither did they. And while all of this was just me playing with them, having fun, giving them a taste of something that they know is part of my work life, it did start me thinking. This was fun, but what would be even more fun would be to throw a real film festival. One where we can invite other families who are sharing film as part of the daily conversation between parents and kids to come out to a theater with us to share some great and important movies. Maybe this is a real goal to work towards, because I feel like sharing these experiences is important, and there is nothing more communal than the time we share in the dark watching great films.
On Sunday, I asked the boys to vote for their awards for the festival, and they deliberated until they could agree on every category. To that end, I give you the final list of the winners.
THE FILM NERD 2.0 SPRING BREAK FILM FESTIVAL 2013
“Empire Of The Sun”
Indiana Jones, himself
The little girl, “Beetlejuice”
Best Supporting Actor
Igor, “Young Frankenstein”
Best Supporting Actress
Josephine Hull, “Harvey”
“Day-O,” as performed in “Beetlejuice”
“Beneath The Planet Of The Apes”
Best Thing That Happened
Igor’s singing head, “Young Frankenstein”
And as a final footnote to the weekend and the “Young Frankenstein” screening in particular, Toshi’s really been bitten by the Mel Brooks bug now. He’s been asking to see another one since the night of “Young Frankenstein,” and I’ve been thinking about it. On a recent Friday night, I decided to go ahead a give “Silent Movie” a try.
Can you tell me why I turned it off? Without looking ahead, can you guess what joke had me reach forward and shut the movie off without any further warning?
There’s a running gag in the film where Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise end up tangled together and the same old ladies repeatedly walk past, sour looks on their faces, unmistakably exclaiming the word that came up all by itself on the next title card so that Toshi could read it out loud to his brother, not once but twice.
Ouch. I was so proud last week about a conversation the two of us had when Toshi asked me about gay marriage, because it was obvious that Toshi’s world view right now doesn’t have any ingrained hatred, and now I was going to have to explain that word to them. We had a conversation that reminded me of the talk we had after “To Kill A Mockinbird,” and I explained to him again that there are people who use words to hurt other people, and that we need to understand why we can’t use those words. If I teach my sons anything, I want to teach them to be responsible for what they say and how they say it, and to be aware of the way our actions impact others, and while there will be a time they can understand the context of when something was made, I’m not ready for them to start grappling with the casual homophobia of the ’70s and the ’80s yet.
Overall, this was one of the best experiences we’ve had so far as part of the Film Nerd 2.0 series, and who knows? Maybe we’ll work to make sure that the next time we do this, it’s an event that all of you can participate in as well.
“Film Nerd 2.0” is a regular feature here at Motion/Captured.