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.
Toshi had a two-hour batting practice on Friday afternoon, so the three of us went out to that, and when we got home, dinner was waiting. After dinner, I had them take their showers and get dressed for bed so they could relax in my office for two more movies. Allen brought a parade of “special guests” with him for the evening screenings, meaning my office chair ended up packed with about 40 stuffed animals along with Allen and myself. Toshi likes to sit by himself in my desk chair, which is a large overstuffed leather seat. Allen has permanently claimed co-pilot position on the big love seat that I also have in the office, my little mini-sofa. I let him arrange Allen the Elephant and Boris the Spider and Hedwig Owl and two different sized Mickey Mouses and Finley the Monkey and a dozen other plush characters, and then the two of them went outside to line up as I changed the disc.
I’ve been meaning to show them “Harvey” for a while, and I haven’t actually seen the film since sometime in the early ’90s. It felt like it was time for a revisit anyway. It’s not one of the omnipresent classic movies that people seem to always been showing or screening or talking about, but it’s got a doozy of a Jimmy Stewart performance, and I remember being really enchanted by it when I first ran into it as a kid. The Universal Blu-ray is beautifully mastered, and it looks and sounds as good as it ever has here. Based on Mary Chase’s Pulitzer-prize winning play, the film tells the story of Ellwood P. Dowd, a wealthy man who spends his days wandering around his small town, visiting his favorite booths in his favorite bars, making new friends and visiting old ones, all accompanied by his best friend, an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey.
The film deals with the long day on which Ellwood’s sister Veta Louise (Josephine Hull) and her daughter Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) decide that they’re going to have him committed. They can’t put up with his insanity anymore, and they feel like they don’t have any social life because of him. They decide to have him committed to Chumley Rest, a local asylum. Ellwood’s quiet unflappable charm manages to see him through the day in style, though, as he walks away at will, with Veta Louise ending up in the asylum instead at one point. Ellwood ends up with a frantic supporting cast in orbit around him, including Nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow), Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), the wise-assed orderly Wilson (Jesse White), and Judge Gaffney (William Lynn). What I love about the film is the way it shifts from being the story of a charming eccentric to being a magical story about a genuine supernatural creature in the space of one line of dialogue, and the way it continues to walk a very sly line right to the end of the film, and it’s a great Stewart performance. I was not prepared to see how much the film affected Toshi. Allen liked some of the film, but I think it’s too gentle for his sensibilities. It’s too subtle, too quiet. Besides, Allen has such an active social life with his own imaginary friends these days that he didn’t really see what everyone was so worked up about.
Toshi was 100% pulled into the film’s reality, though, and when Ellwood finally walks away without Harvey at the end of the film, it really upset him. He felt like Ellwood had earned the right to keep his friend and not be bothered about it anymore, and giving him up, even for someone who seemed to need him more, felt like a punishment. He loved the few small touches that sold the reality. His godfather Craig, the same one who was over at the house for “Last Crusade” earlier in the day, wrote his doctorate on the Trickster myth, and he gave Toshi a big batch of bedtime books one year that are about the various ways the Trickster has been reinterpreted in various cultures. Toshi made the connection to Harvey, and he asked me if a pooka is another name for a Trickster. Those connections, those filters that Toshi has on the things he watches and reads right now, make me very excited because it means he’s really engaging with the text. He remembers things. He is able to make those leaps in intuition.
It’s lovely to watch, and I feel like he’s got a head full of great stuff compared to the kids in his class whose parents have let them watching “Friday the 13th” movies (he’s seven, keep in mind) and who let them play “Call Of Duty” online already. Toshi has complained once or twice about how other kids get to do “more,” but I think he’s starting to realize that’s not really true. He’s got a broader cultural education going on than they do. He may not be jumping right into the adult and the explicit, but I guarantee he’s processing what he watches in a way they’re not. Those kids, and I’ve spoken with them, seem to me to not be really thinking about anything. They are on the road to becoming sensation junkies with no ability to explain what they’re feeling or why. It’s irresponsible, and while I’m not about to tell another parent face-to-face that they’re doing it wrong, I think anyone who talked to their kid and my kid about the media they’re ingesting would walk away agreeing with me. How can you impart empathy to a kid whose recreation consists of killing opponents while people shout profanity and racism at him through headphones? They’re so young that they have no idea whether that’s a normal mode of behavior or not.
The biggest conversation of the day happened after our late movie, which was a sequel to a film that they saw together last year. The first “Planet Of The Apes” landed with a soft thud, and I realized at the end of the screening that it’s a harder sit for kids than I remembered. It’s a slow film, and even when things do start happening, it’s never what I would call “exciting.” The sequel, on the other hand, is briskly paced and there’s a pulpy energy to it that I think makes it more fun than the original. Even though the first one wasn’t a favorite, Toshi’s been interested enough in the overall idea of the films that he has been asking about the sequel for a while. I’ve always thought of this as the darkest of the films, though, so I held off. Even as I started this particular screening, I wondered if it was a mistake.
It was not. The boys loved it, and this time, the breakdown between the gorillas, the chimps, and the orangutans really made sense to them. They got it as a societal x-ray, and they were fascinated by the ways this expanded on the notion of this as a future ruined Earth. Once Brent (James Franciscus) makes his way into the underground society where the irradiated mutants live, the boys were freaking out, but in that fun “oh god this is scary and awesome” sort of way where they would get loud and ewwwww and bleccccch after each new moment. The reveal of the “real” faces of the mutants was nowhere near as traumatic as I expected, thanks once again to the very high bar set by Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” in the morning, and they were fascinated more than frightened by the Doomsday Bomb. Their questions about the bomb led to a conversation about why the film was made when it was made, and the history of atomic fear in general. “Godzilla” has loomed large in their inner life since they were kids, and I’m always reminded that the one movie in that series which really emotionally impacted Toshi was the first one, the scary one, and we talked about how the origins of “Godzilla” are the same as the tensions that led to this film. We talked about the Cold War, we talked about when we dropped the bombs in WWII and how that changed world politics, and we talked about why they don’t need to feel that same active fear that was so much a part of my childhood. Even now, with North Korea acting like they could seriously harm us in any way, it’s just not the same sort of real anxiety. The very palpable fear that drives the insane ending to this film is not the world my kids are experiencing, and thank god for that.
The ending of the movie is pure nihilism, and Toshi was immediately curious how there can be three more films in a series that ends with the death of an entire planet. I told him he’ll have to see the third film to find out, and then I helped Allen transport all his bedmates back down the hall. Tucking them into bed was a long process, and those conversations about the day’s movies were playing out as we brushed teeth, got everyone tucked in. I sat there, after the lights were out, still talking to them, and they were buzzing. They were so busy trying to process all the things they’d seen and all the emotions they’d felt, and they were so excited about starting the next day with even more of the same, that when they did finally fall asleep, they both drifted off mid-sentence.
All in all, a perfect festival day. That’s good, because the rest of the weekend played out far different than I planned. More on that tomorrow.
“Film Nerd 2.0” is a regular feature here at Motion/Captured.