Book Review: The Film Club, by David Gilmour
A father’s pact with his teenage son, hoping he will find a reason to become an adult.
No School. No Work. Just Three Films A Week
This little gem of a book about film came up in a conversation in the Filmmakers Lounge at the Toronto International Film Festival ("Testing Ground for the Oscars," Vienna Review, Oct. 2010, p.29), a father’s memoir of a three-year pact with his teenage son, Jesse, going through a critical period when he is no longer a child and not adult enough. During this time, the father takes over as educator, via the cinematic world, the medium he knows best. A parallel perhaps with Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee – but perhaps even more with Eric Rohmer’s work, whose Retrospective at this year’s Viennale has been as generous as it was revealing.
David Gilmour, the author with six novels, was also at one time the national film critic for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. But when his son Jesse’s life devolved into the disaster of drug abuse, Gilmour met one of his greatest challenges: How to help a beloved teenager who, in the disruption of a patchwork family, had gone off the rails?
"You don’t have to work, you don’t have to pay the rent. You can sleep till five every day. But no drugs. Any drugs and the deal’s off…," he told his son. "There’s something else… I want you to watch three movies a week with me."
Le Paradis, a French restaurant in Toronto, is the place of confrontation and pact-making. It’s also where much of the writing is done. The opening scenes show the father inviting his son to dinner where they are recognized as regulars and greeted with handshakes before being led to a table with tablecloths and heavy silverware. Presumably, these adult rituals flattered the son. He was allowed to order the wine and test it, as the father deferred: "You do the honours". They also prepared Jesse to sit squarely as an equal with his father -- a framework for the son to own up to the situation:
"I don’t ever want to see the inside of a school again."
The Film Club takes place in the Victorian house on the edge of Toronto’s Chinatown that he shares with his wife, Tina, and that is the setting for a portrayal of Jesse whose comforting presence the father still felt long after Jesse had left. Why, you wonder, is the father hoping the son to come back one day. And will Jesse come through unscathed?
Understandably, the first film on father-Gilmour’s agenda was Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), as a way of introducing European art films and "like learning a variation of regular grammar." It also allowed the author to make useful associations: Truffaut, was himself a high-school dropout, who began writing film critiques when he was only 20, and barely ten years later, made his autobiographical film, choosing a runaway kid, the young Jean-Pierre Leaud, to play the teenage version of himself.
Moreover, the film enabled him to share important developments in the technical aspects of independent filmmaking. For instance, for lack of studio and resources, almost all of the scenes had to be shot on location and without sound, which was only added later. Besides, there was no script, so the dialogue had to be improvised as the scenes were shot.
All of these key elements of the Nouvelle Vague were thus embedded in Jesse’s young mind, enough for him to answer correctly when questioned several months later. At this point however, his father wants feedback and gets the son’s verdict: "a bit boring."
But dad insists on the obvious question: Does he see any parallels between his situation and the film’s protagonist?
In contrast, James Dean, a young cowboy in Giant (1956), caught Jesse’s attention: "Cool-looking guy." Father seized the opportunity to point out what James Dean does with his hand, sweeping snow off a table while saying "Fuck you" to the business guys, and Rock Hudson pressuring him to sell his small piece of land smelling of Texan oil.
This made Jesse sit up: "Wow, can we watch that again?"
But father had to go out for one of his moonlighting jobs and tells his son to watch the rest of it by himself, "…you’ll like it." Only to return and be upset – seeing Jesse eating spaghetti at the kitchen table with his mouth open. He had been compelled to say "close your mouth, please." Tension reigns over this table manners as Gilmore is ready to blame the mother… He retreats to the subject of film.
"You really ought to stick out a movie like Giant. It’s the only education you’re getting."
The ensuing dialogues demonstrate how the father’s interests and concern run through consistently as they travel together for three years over a vast and varied cinematic landscape. Pedagogically, he followed a scheme of introducing each film in the simplest terms with this rule of thumb for himself: "Keep to the bare bones; if he wants to know more, he’ll ask."
He’d made a list of the films they’d watched on yellow cards, which he’d stuck on to the fridge. Some New German Cinema is included, but, apart from a few Japanese films, nothing much from the non-western World.
Not caring much for Woody Allen’s later productions, he picked out Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). It’s the film’s skilful storytelling that he emphasized, enabling the viewer to see the world with Allen’s eyes: "A place where people like your neighbour really do get away with murder and goofs end up with great girlfriends."
He made a special pitch for On the Waterfront (1954), showing alternative ways of viewing it. First, there’s Marlon Brando, personalizing a character via Method acting – a young man facing a crisis of conscience: would he speak up even against his friends to help clean up corruption in the New York docks? And, there’s its director, Elia Kazan, who became known as "loose-lips" for naming names at the House Un-American Activities Committee, among those who testified against friends and colleagues suspected of communist sympathies.
Many writers, actors and directors in the movie industry were blacklisted – careers ruined. Many who refused to testify went to jail for contempt of Congress.
The father got unexpectedly disappointing reactions with A Hard Day’s Night (1964): "Dreadful"; John Lennon, "the worst of the bunch – a totally embarrassing man." The author wrote, "The music, the film, its look, its style… But most of all, it was the fucking Beatles!" Just a generation gap, or a clear divide in musical orientation? Times change.
Spot-the-great-moment was a game the father invented to "lure Jesse into watching more movies without making it too school-like." By this, he would point out a scene, an image, or a dialogue "that snaps you forward in your seat, makes your heart bang."
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) provided an easy start. Jack Nicholson plays a failed writer in a deserted hotel who turns mad and tries to murder his family. Nicholson is an undisputed star in the author’s firmament. But, not in this moment that is not to be missed: the dialogue between Nicholson and Philip Stone, who plays a waiter and who steals the scene. Surprisingly too, that Jesse spotted a different great moment in the film – where the son goes up to his father’s (Nicholson’s) bedroom. Jesse asks, "can we play it again?"
Curiously, in contrast to the menu of "main courses", there were films like Basic Instinct (1992), which the father labelled "for dessert". Despite his father’s referring to it as a film for and by sleazy people, as ultra-violent but marvellously watchable, and as evoking a kind of agreeable dread, Jesse exclaims, "You have to admit it, Dad, this is a great film."
There were films that clearly demanded technical interventions and there were those that called for a historical or academic treatment. Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) called for both, a TV movie that the author said is "one of the most youthful pieces of look-at-me-filmmaking I’ve ever seen."
Spielberg was 22 when he directed a truck, coming out of nowhere like a prehistoric monster to chase a car that just got out of a pleasant suburban American city and goes travelling alone on the highway. Referring to the truck as a vector of irrational evil, the author goes on to describe it in graphic terms as "the hand under the bed waiting to grab your ankle."
Sometimes, the father would take his son into historical side trips like pointing out how Spielberg with George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were perceived as film nerds, seemingly uninterested in drugs or girls.
Such an educational ride was by no means smooth and easy. It was bumpy and stormy all the way along. Rosemary’s Baby (1968), with Mia Farrow impregnated by the devil and the shot of Ruth Gordon talking on the phone catapulted its director, Roman Polanski, to filmic fame. But here, it gave the father an opportunity to turn the discussion around an infamy. He asked his son what he thought about Polanski being jailed for the rape of a 13-year old girl. Jesse’s reply:
"Don’t you think it depends on the 13-year old? I know a lot of girls who are more experienced than I am." To which father replies (ignoring all the complications of legal procedure), "Doesn’t matter. It’s against the law and it should be."
The father-author reminisced, "I had to be careful with the movies I picked for us to watch," seeing how Jesse was "using the screen as a sort of trampoline for his agonising fantasies", even with films that had nothing to do with sex or betrayal. Midway through Some Like It Hot (1959), Jesse disappeared for 20 minutes after which the television screen became an "anchor so that his worried thoughts about Rebecca might roam freely."
Rebecca Ng, a Vietnamese was the most notable of Jesse’s love interests, and one who became a subject of endless man-to-man talks. How did they survive this one beyond the father having to admit and confess his own teenage follies? How many fathers would react to Jesse’s "Have you ever cried in front of a girl?" To which he got a candid but probably unexpected, "The question is, is there a girl I haven’t cried in front of."
Gilmour wrote about having rehearsed a proposition he’d made to his son, quoting Henry Miller to back him up: "If you want to get over a woman, turn her into literature."
Jesse had the sense not to join the ranks of second rate authors who make men look hopelessly degenerate in that ongoing war of the sexes. Instead he became a secret rapper – with results to be seen.
Any episodes with drugs? There’s a heartbreaking situation when Jesse goes home stoned and you’d suspect that they’d reached the end of the road. This was directly against the pact. Instead, his father helped manage this positively. The father also went to Jesse’s rescue in a bar-encounter with hustlers in old Havana - where he’d taken his son and ex-wife for a holiday.
Making the rounds of Hemmingway’s Floridita bar and the hotel Ambos Mundos, the Film Club author revealed how he’d used real-life situations to emancipate his son from excesses of macho worlds.
Gilmour’s book adds an energetic impulse to the collective wisdom from which generations of patchwork families may learn how humans might develop compassionate allilances on what seems like perennial shifting ground. The author achieves this with a flair for natural humour, lots of genuine dialogue, and a film approach to recalling real past lives.
The Film Club
by David Gilmour
Ebury Press, London 2008
Available at the British Bookshop