Welcome to Film Nerd 2.0.
Up till now, anyone reading this column would be forgiven for thinking I only have one son. So far, this has all been about Toshi and my experience in sharing media with him during his formative years. I have a second son, though, Allen, who is younger, and the reason he hasn’t really made any appearances in this column is because he really doesn’t watch any films. He’s not quite two years old yet, and he’s expressed no interest at all in any of the constantly-running screens in the house. He’d much rather take a soccer ball outside and run wild for a few hours.
Fine by me. I don’t want to intentionally mold either of my boys into copies of myself. I want to encourage them to be true to their own interests and their own passions, and my job as a father is to help them figure out what those interests are. Toshi is fascinated by all things related to movies, so I’m happy to indulge that, and if that means only Toshi ends up in this column, then so be it.
As I sit down to write this, it’s just after 2:00 in the morning on a Saturday night, and I can hear Allen on the intercom, asleep, still working on a bottle that’s been empty for hours. He won’t let me take it from him tonight. It comforts him. If I go in there and try to take it, he will pull my face off my skull. I know it. He’s an angel, but don’t cross him. Frankly, I don’t want to take it from him tonight. If he needs comforting, then let him be comforted.
After all, I think I scarred him for life.
Let me back up. Saturday afternoon, late in the day, Toshi and Allen both marched into my office to stage a sit-in, demanding that I show them “something cool.” That’s Toshi’s all-purpose description of the things he watches with me. Toshi was full-on militant about it, too, but I could see him hedging his bets a bit. “We wanna be in here with you. Allen said you have to show us something cool. I don’t care, but he wants to watch something. Him. Not me.”
To Allen. “That true, Jimmy Hoffa? You organizing out there?”
Angry nod from the little man. He’s not talking yet, but he understands everything that’s said to him, and he responds appropriately. Allen claimed one of the chairs in the office and started to climb up onto it at the same moment that Toshi decided, entirely by coincidence, that he wanted to sit in that exact same office chair. Toshi’s bigger and faster and stronger, so you do the math on how that played out.
Toshi got the chair. And Allen got my lap, which I suspect was the goal the entire time based on the smile he gave Toshi as he settled in.
I considered the options for what I could put on, checking with my wife first to see if she was okay with the boys spending some movie time with me. We’re trying to be aware of how much media they consume and what kind it is. Toshi watched some TV earlier in the day, but it was “Sesame Street,” so he was due for a little bit of fun, and since she and her mother were doing something, she seemed perfectly happy to let the boys hang out in my office for a while.
So I told Toshi to close his eyes. He did. So Allen did, too, since Allen does everything Toshi does right now. He’s a shadow, a perfect Harpo Marx mirror comedy routine. I looked at the stack and decided it was time to break out something Toshi had asked for several times since it arrived in the house, one I’d been saving until we could sit and watch it together.
So I put in the disc, put the box away so he couldn’t see it since he knows covers at this point, and then told him it was okay to open his eyes again. Both of them got ready for the movie. Allen really doesn’t do well sitting still for a movie, so I figured he’d last about five minutes in my lap, then get bored and ask to be let out so he could go to the playroom and hang out with Mommy. I know the score. I was prepared.
I love to make Toshi wait to figure out what he’s watching. In an age where he’s got more movies in his house right now than I saw in the first 10 years of my life, I have to figure out small ways to teach him the pleasures of anticipation. We are in the age of “WATCH IT NOW!”, so it’s hard to stretch things out at all. As the FBI warning and the company logos went by, he was trying to figure it out, and I could see him scanning the BluRay cases by the TV.
“Are we watching ‘G.I. Joe’?”
“No. You can’t see that. It’s too violent.”
“Are we watching ‘Star Trek’?”
“No. You’ve seen that.”
“Are we watching Crow T. Robot?”
“No. Just wait. You’ll see.”
So the menu screen comes on. He doesn’t recognize any of what he’s seeing, and the title isn’t onscreen, so he can’t recognize the lettering. This just gets him more interested, and as he sees some of the images go by, his eyes bug out.
“Daddy, is that the movie?”
“What’s it called?”
“Nunya? What’s that about?”
“Shut up! Tell me!”
I love it. I just ignore him or torture him once he’s on the hook and squirming. I press play and settle in with Allen back on my lap, clapping because he’s excited to be in the room with us.
The old early ’80s Universal logo is up first, which is weird since it’s a SPHE disc. Not sure how that rights packaged must have been divvied up at some point, but Toshi sees the logo and immediately assumes it’s part of the movie. “That’s Earth! This is about outer space, right, Daddy? IS THIS ANOTHER ‘STAR TREK’?!”
“No, dude. It’s not ‘Star Trek.” I told you… wait and see.”
Now, it’s been a while since I’ve seen “The Dark Crystal,” so it was almost like seeing a brand-new movie for me. If I had to pin the film down to a single genre, I’d go with “nightmare machine.” Right from the start, the film’s got a bizarre rhythm to it, and the designs on all the creatures, even the good guys, is freaky. As the film begins, there’s some backstory and then we move into that crazy black castle to watch the Skeksis indulge in their ritual of renewal, using the Crystal to replenish their life force. Finally, the main title comes up, and when Toshi saw the title, he jumped up out of his chair and bellowed.
“IS THIS ‘THE DARK CRYSTAL’?!”
“Yep. Sit down and watch it, Tosh.”
“YOU HAVEN’T NEVER LET ME WATCH THAT ONE NEVER BEFORE! I AM SO HAPPIEST NOW!”
Yes, my four-year-old talks like he’s being translated into English by Babelfish. What of it? He ran into the other room so he could yell at the top of his lungs, “DADDY SAID WE GONNA WATCH ‘THE DARK CRYSTAL’ NOW SO YOU CAN’T COME AND BOTHER ME ‘CAUSE THIS IS SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT!” Ran back in. Slammed the door. Did a couple of victory laps around the office as the film got underway.
If you haven’t seen the film, Jim Henson and Frank Oz decided to make a fantasy picture that they owned, where they built an entire world, and I always got the feeling it was them putting a toe in the water to test what would happen if they moved away from the Muppets to simply tell other types of stories using the same techniques. I truly believe that if Henson had lived, he would have been one of the people leading the charge into the age of digital filmmaking, and performance capture would be a huge part of his vocabulary as a director right now. He was always pushing the blend of the real and the fabricated, and he embraced digital tools on shows like “The Storyteller” and his later reboots of the Muppet Show. With “The Dark Crystal,” he reached out to fantasy illustrator Brian Froud and asked him to help design an entire world, from the flora and fauna to the main characters. The result is a huge, lush fantasy canvass and a story so thin you could use it as tracing paper. Basically, there is a big magic crystal, and it broke, and it is the job of a Gelfling named Jen to restore the missing piece, restoring his world to health. It’s not much more complicated than that, and the script by Jim Henson and David Odell is a fairly lean and grim bit of business.
And when I say “grim,” what I really mean is “oh my god, they meant for kids to watch this? What the hell is wrong with these people?!” I’m glad Henson decided against having all the creatures speak in strange alien languages as he originally planned, as that would have left the audience almost completely outside the film. As it is, it’s hard to know who or what you’re supposed to root for. The Skeksis are the main villains in the film, but the Mystics aren’t really presented as good. They’re just big and slow and sort of doing their own thing. Jen and Kira, the only other living Gelfling, are both sort of bland and they embark on the quest of the shard because Jen’s told to, not because of anything particularly compelling. Even Aughra, this film’s Yoda, just seems shrill and freaky, with old lady grapefruit-in-tube-socks tits and an eye she can take out and hold. The film is richly imagined, but there’s something about it that I find almost repellent. I think it is an artistic triumph, and it’s also an unpleasant sit. It is a contradiction in film form, jet black but obviously aimed at younger audiences, and I wish now that I’d reviewed it before putting it on for the boys.
Toshi had a great time with it. He asked some questions about the mythology, and long before the film was over, he climbed up into my lap so he could be close to me during the scary parts, which is anything between the opening titles and the closing credits. Over and over, I could feel him tensing up during the attacks of the Garthim (the giant crab-like monsters that serve the Skeksis) or when the leader of the Skeksis died or when Aughra was first introduced, but then he’d relax and get wrapped up in it all over again.
Allen, on the other hand, was just plain terrified from the very beginning. I asked him if he wanted to leave, but the mere suggestion made him cry. He insisted on staying right where he was, perched on one knee with his brother right next to him. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where the Skeksis abduct several of this little potato-faced Pod People and they strap them into these chairs and then drain their life-essence from them. That scene freaks me out as an adult. I can only imagine what Allen must have thought. That was the moment where he finally had enough. He jumped off my lap and ran straight at the office door, so upset that he didn’t bother to open it. He just bounced off of it with a sound like the end of the world, then looked back at me, eyes big with both surprise and fright. I opened the door for him, and with a “Buh-bye” over his shoulder, he bolted for the safety of his mother.
Since the end of the film, Toshi’s been asking me questions about how certain things worked, both in the story (“Daddy, does I have a nasty bird Skeksis in me, too?”) and behind the scenes (“Who made all those puppets? Is that a good job?”), and it’s obvious that he was really engaged by the entire experience.
Allen? He won’t even look at the cover of the movie. Toshi tried to show it to him a few days later, and Allen just harumphed and stormed off. I wrote the start of this piece on the night I showed them the movie, and having watched it settle in over the course of a few days, I’m pretty sure Allen won’t be making another appearance in this column any time soon. He wanted to see what it was like when Toshi and I sit in the office to watch something, and now that he’s done it, it seems clear that the experience is not for him.
Oh, well, baby boy. We’ll always have Elmo.
Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.
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