educating Lily, educating myself

This blog has languished for lack of time and an abundance of guilt.

Pressures of grad school have kept my head down, which is a good thing since I do need to be working on my thesis – and the thesis is coming along, somewhat. I have several potential posts that I want to write, but they have been pushed aside. I have been reflecting a bit on what this blog is for me and what I want it to be going forward. I don’t have an answer yet. But, at least, it is a chronicle of some features of my life, including my relationship to movies.

Several times on this blog I have mentioned watching movies with my six (going on seven) year old daughter Lily. I consider these movie viewings part (a fun part) of her education as much as an entertaining evening. Recently we saw Some Like It Hot (1959) and she loved it. Now some might say that my daughter is a bit young for this film, that, even though it is nearly 50 years old, the content needs some explaining about some things that a parent might not want to discuss with a six-year-old.

But she gets it – not all of it of course – but she understands that a couple of guys trying to walk in high heels and pretending to be women as they run away from some gangsters is funny. She also reacted strongly to Sugar Kane Kowalczyk’s (Marilyn Monroe’s) dress in the night-club performance scenes. Lily thought the dress was rather too much. And she was humorously shocked by the famous last line: “nobody’s perfect.” The look on her face was priceless – even better than Jack Lemmon’s. In fact, the parts I had to explain had to do with Spats Colombo and prohibition – which she thought was crazy. Of course, she also liked the fact that the director’s last name is Wilder, and that being the name of her little baby sister, Wilder Rose.

Why do I write all this? For me watching movies is a very personal joy. I’m sure you understand. Certainly films are objects out there in the world, separate from me, with a life of their own. And films are also a way to connect with others, such as through film blogs, etc. But films are also remarkable objects that include the viewer in their existence. I am a part of every film I watch because part of a film’s reality includes my watching of it. Cinema is also one of the most remarkable of human creations – maybe the most powerful art form so far. The life of a film includes the affects it has on and through its viewers. I can say many films have become deeply rooted in my conscious and subconscious. I see films being a personal thing for my daughter as well. She loves movies, as does most everyone. I want her to know the greatness of film, of how wonderful it is, and that it is worth the effort to think about what one watches – in other words, the best films really pay off, and the good ones pay off too.

So then we watched North by Northwest (also 1959). Recently we have seen Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955). I have been picking Hitchcock from the 1950s because these are great films to understand how “classic” Hollywood narrative works while also being introduced to one of the great directors. These films give me the chance to point out things to Lily about filmmaking without getting too involved. There probably aren’t too many six-year-olds who can tell you about Hitchcock, but Lily can (a little).

Speaking of North by Northwest, something caught my eye that I really liked. You remember the crop duster scene – it’s so famous that many people know all about it who have never seen the film itself. Well the scene is set up wonderfully, beginning with Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) being dropped off the bus in the middle of nowhere.

He then proceeds to watch cars go by as he waits for George Kaplan (a person who does not exist) to arrive.

This is what I liked: As he waits, Thornhill sees a car coming, he thinks it might stop, but it goes on by. Cary Grant plays it almost as though it was a silent film.

Grant watches the car coming…

…the car gets closer and he raises his arms, but keeps his hands in his pockets…

…arms still raise, hands still in pockets, he follows the car with his gaze…

…he then lowers his hands back down into his pockets…

…signaling that the car is not stopping and he is still waiting for Kaplan.

To me this is pure Cary Grant school of acting: simple, physical, perfect, and always with an undercurrent of comedy even when he’s playing it straight. I can imagine Grant being told to stand on the X so they can get the focus fixed, then he is told to pretend a car drives by and he is to find some way to indicate the car has come and gone, and that once again his character is disappointed and perplexed. Grant was a master at this subtle, physical kind of acting; he could do zany pretty well too.

And I just love this shot:

It is so quintessential late 1950s, and it is beautiful while being ordinary. Having been on film and television sets, I know that even such a simple shot as this took a while to make as each little detail was put in its place, as Eva Marie Saint was told exactly where and how to stand, and how to turn toward the camera. This shot is common – especially then – for female leads, with her torso facing to one side of the camera and her gaze going in the other direction.

So then last night we watched Sullivan’s Travels (1941). It was good to see it again. Lily loved it, as I thought she would. The film also gave us some things to talk about, like what was the lesson that Sullivan learned? How did he learn it? etc. I don’t have any thing to say here about the film except that if you have not seen it, you should. I have The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), also by Sturges, on the docket for a near future viewing with Lily as well. Now I do feel a little bad because Lily had wanted to see (and show me) Milo and Otis (1986) but I pushed for Sullivan’s Travels. I guess it’s parent’s privilege, but now I have to make it up to her. Fortunately she does watch a fair number of “kids” films and current films, so it’s not all Papa’s stodgy old films.

As a side note on Sturges, I don’t know very much about him as a director or his personal life, but the DVD contained an interesting American Experience documentary that made a connection for me. Years ago I read a wonderful little book titled Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties by Noel Riley Fitch (1983). [Sylvia Beach was a famous expatriate in Paris between WWI and WWII. She owned the bookstore Shakespeare and Company and hung out with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and was the publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses.] In Fitch’s book I read about Isadora Duncan, the famous and flamboyant dancer (some say she was the mother of modern dance). She died tragically in a freak automobile accident in 1927 when her long silk scarf got caught in the spoked wheels of the open-cockpit Amilcar she was riding in. Well, that scarf was given to Duncan by her friend Mary Desti who was, as I found out, the mother of Edmund Preston Biden, later know as Preston Sturges. Incidentally, the accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein‘s mordant remark that “affectations can be dangerous.”

Finally, I mentioned earlier that introducing Lily to these great films is part of her education. This is true, but not because it’s a good thing to understand the history of film or to recognize a Hitchcock film against any other film (although there is some value in all that). The fundamental goal, for me, is the ancient idea of a liberal education: an education that seeks to fulfill one’s human nature; an education that asks what it means to be human; and an education that creates a lifelong autonomous seeker. We, my wife and I, have taken on the task of educating our children. This is not easy work. Being an educator is a demanding job that takes great patience and lots of love. Although I am an adherent to the idea of a classical education, one that relies on the written word more than the image, I think some proponents of a classical education wrongly vilify the image more than is warranted. In fact, the tension is not really between word and image. The real issue, as I see it, is a lack of passion for learning. I believe we live in a world that often encourages a kind of “closemindedness” that leads to, or is born out of, fear. What I hope to instill in my daughters is a critical open-mindedness, a perspective on life that seeks understanding and finds real joy in doing so; and is not afraid to do so. So, when I sit down with Lily and watch a film, and while we are having fun watching the film, and when we then discuss the film, I know she is learning about thinking, about pondering what it is films are trying to say to her, and about how fascinating and complex a film can be as it presents its story to her.

So I see this blog as part of an ongoing exploration into my life as a lover of films, as a husband and parent, as an educator, and as someone seeking to be a lifelong autonomous seeker. How often I update it will depend on many things.

2 thoughts on “educating Lily, educating myself

  1. >i love that you introduce your daughter to classic films- AND talk about them. kudos to you.i think hitchcock is a particularly good choice ’cause there are lots of female characters with glasses, less rare then than now. i admire that about hitch.

  2. >shahn, thanks for the comments. I never thought of the “glasses” angle, but now that you mention it he did have women wear glasses more frequently than other directors. Somehow I’m sure someone has written a thesis on that topic!

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