Film Nerd 2.0: ‘Popeye,’ empathy, and David Bowie’s codpiece

09.21.09 8 years ago 15 Comments

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Welcome to Film Nerd 2.0, an ongoing series in which I discuss parenting, media responsibility, and sharing my love of film with my now-four-year-old son Toshi.

Empathy is, in my opinion, one of the most essential things to nurture in a child as you raise them.  That moment when a child realizes that the world does not begin and end with them is an important one, and it’s not something you can force.  Either it will click in, or it won’t, and if it doesn’t, then you’re Ted Bundy’s father.  Congratulations!

I’ve been on the road for the last week or so, and just before I left, I was going through one of my binders full of DVDs, with Toshi sitting next to me.  I was trying to find a film that his mom had asked me for, and he was asking me what each of the discs was that we flipped past.  We reached one particular page and he stopped me, pointing at one of the discs.  “Daddy… what’s that?”

“That’s ‘Popeye.'”

“Nuh-uh.  Popeye is a cartoon.”

“Well, yes, normally.  But they made a movie about Popeye, too.  You know how you can watch the Batman cartoons, but you’re not old enough for the Batman movies with the real people?”


“Sometimes they make movies about cartoons.  They’re just different versions of the same thing.”

“Can I watch ‘Popeye’?”

“Sure.  Not today, but at some point.  Sure.”

I pulled the disc for him and put it in a separate case that we set aside, figuring we’d end up watching it together at some point.  But while I was in Toronto, my wife saw the disc sitting on the counter and asked him if he wanted to watch it while she was napping.  He was excited to check it out, and she stayed long enough to make sure the movie started playing, and then headed off to bed.

She was woken by the sound of sobbing from the other room, and she jumped up, ran to see what was happening, and was shocked to find Toshi sitting on the edge of the bed, still watching “Popeye,” tears coursing down his cheeks.  When he saw her, he jumped up and hugged her and, between his ragged breaths, managed to say, “Mommy… they took the baby!”

[more after the jump]

It took her a while to work out what happened, but it turned out that he was deeply upset because of the scene where Bluto and Poopdeck Pappy kidnap Swee Pea from Popeye.  Something about the notion of the baby being taken truly rattled him, and my wife had to sit with him until everything turned out okay before he would calm down.

While he shed a few tears at the end of “Star Trek II,” it was nothing like the meltdown she said he had over this seemingly-innocuous scene in a film that is hardly an emotional powerhouse.

I thought maybe it was a fluke, but when I got back, I found two new BluRays waiting for me, both of which I was excited about sharing with him.  “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal” are both fantasy films I would consider cornerstones in the film education of any budding film nerd.  The other day, we set some time aside and the two of us sat down to watch “Labyrinth,” which I hadn’t seen in a while.

The film holds up as a piece of imagination, and while there are elements of it that I think are ’80s-cheesy and I remain unnerved by the pants they’ve got on Bowie (especially in high-definition), there’s still something really wonderful about the tangible world that Jim Henson and his Creature Shop built.  What’s strange is that Toshi and I just recently read Maurice Sendak’s “Outside Over There” for the first time, and if you’re familiar with that book, it’s got a lot in common with “Labyrinth.”  Baby stolen by goblins.  Big sister has to go get the baby back.  I thought at first that it was a possible coincidence, but when we started the movie, there’s an early scene in which the camera pans across the bookshelf in Sarah’s room, and right there, in plain view, copies of both Where The Wild Things Are and Outside Over There.  No accidents, it seems, and it’s strange how we timed our discovery of that book with our first viewing of the film.

And in another bit of synchronicity, we had a second incident when Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) makes her wish for the goblins to take her little brother Toby (Toby Froud) away.  Once again, a baby is taken, and once again, Toshi burst into spontaneous tears, freaked out at the idea of anybody taking a baby from its home.

We put the movie on pause so I could talk with him, and the first thing I did was explain that no one was going to hurt the baby.  I told him that the goblins were just going to keep the baby for a while, and then he’d go home with Sarah again.  Happy.  Safe.  That assuaged his tears a bit, but he was still upset at the idea of anyone hurting a baby.  Any baby.  That led to him explaining that he would be very sad if anyone did anything to his baby brother.

That’s a huge step.  Toshi, like many first-born kids, has exhibited a ton of jealousy since Allen was born.  It’s been a tough adjustment for him, learning to share, learning that Mommy and Daddy could love someone else just as much as we love him, and there have been moments where it seemed like he would be thrilled to see Allen simply disappear.  But seeing his reaction to these films, and then talking with him afterwards, I’ve seen a change in him.  I’ve realized that he no longer thinks of Allen as an interloper, a threat, or competition, and that he no longer thinks of himself as the only important person in the world.  What happens to other people matters to him, and more importantly, he feels a strong drive to protect his “baby brudder” now.

I watch movies for any number of reasons.  I watch foreign films to gain a window into cultures I haven’t had a chance to experience directly.  I watch genre films to escape from reality.  I watch comedies to leaven the emotional difficulties of daily life.  I watch tearjerkers to give myself a pressure valve.  But watching films with my son… it’s a way of kick-starting conversations about every aspect of human experience, and sometimes, those conversations aren’t the ones I think they’re going to be at all.  I never would have thought of either “Labyrinth” or “Popeye” as films that would make someone cry, but seeing the effect they had on him is a reminder that we all take from these films what we bring to them, and they can hit us all in different ways.  The joy I feel at seeing my son’s capacity for empathy is probably equal to the sorrow he displayed in the moment, and all I can think is that we have an endless number of similar moments of sharing and conversation ahead of us.

I can’t wait.

Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.

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