Monday, December 20, 2010

Review of "The Best Old Movies for Families - a Guide for Watching Together" by Ty Burr

A while ago, I had a chance to have coffee with Ty Burr, movie critic for the Boston Globe. Ty very kindly gave me a copy of his book, "The Best Old Movies for Families." I have enjoyed making my way slowly through the book, reliving old favorite movies and learning about others I have not yet seen, but am adding to my Netflix queue.

Ty uses his two daughters and their friends' reactions to certain old movies as baselines for knowing how best to guide parents on which movies are appropriate for which age and which type of kid. The book is arranged so that the movies are presented in several ways. First, they are categorized by the best age at which to introduce a child to this particular movie - toddler, tweener or teenager. Then films are presented by their genre - Comedy, Drama, Musicals, Action, Adventure, Westerns,Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Foreign-language. Finally, there is a section on actors and directors.

Ty Burr's love for film comes across loud and clear - and in living color! It is also clear that he has managed to pass along that love for cinema to his daughters - and to some of their friends. He begins the book with a marvelous story about his daughter's birthday party:

"I knew we had passed some twisted point of no return when Eliza announced that she wanted to have a Katherine Hepburn party. With a screening of "Bringing Up Baby." For her ninth birthday.

My wife, Lori, and I tried to dissuade her. Maybe our daughter could gladly sit through a fifth viewing of the screwball comedy classic, but how many of her schoolmates would make it through their first, conditioned as they were to color, brightness, "Shrek"? Eliza was unmoved: It was her birthday, and she argued convincingly for the constitutional right to choose her won party theme.

So out the invitations went, featuring a photo of Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story," that Eliza personally cut out and pasted on. And in came the calls from parents. To my chagrin, most of them were convinced that her father the fancy-pants movie critic had put her up to it (on a stack of the collected work of Wong Kar-Wai, I did no such thing), but their more pressing concern, which we shared, was that their child would get bored, wander off, play with knives. My wife and I assured them we were laying out a table next to the screening room, filled with books and pencil-based activities to divert those kids oppressed by the very notion of black-and-white cinematography.

The books were never opened, the pencils never used. We took a half-hour intermission for cake, but when I asked if the group was ready to restart the movie, there was a unanimous roar of assent, and we picked up again with that marvelous forest-of-Arden sequence where Kate, playing flibbertigibbet heiress Susan Vance, leads Cary Grant's nerd zoologist David Huxley through the nighttime wilds of Greenwich, Connecticut. At one point Susan breaks a high heel and teeters up and down, burbling in delight, 'Look, David, I was born on a hill. I was born on the side of a hill.' and the moment feels so spontaneous, so magically free, it can make your hair stand on end. (In fact, the bit was mischievously improvised by Hepburn after the 1938 equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction.) The kids had never seen anything like it: It felt more unscripted, more real than anything twenty-first-century kid culture feeds them, up to and including reality TV.

When the parents showed up to collect their children, five minutes remained - Grant was still stuck in the jail cell with Hepburn dragging the wild leopard through the door - and eighteen kids sat mesmerized and giggling. The moms and dads were astounded. They shouldn't have been, nor should Lori or I.

Great film making trumps all other considerations. This is even more true if you're nine and every movie still feels like the first you've ever seen." (Pages 3-4)

Still early in the book, Burr makes an excellent point about teaching kids to have a historical perspective through learning to love old movies:

"With any luck, my daughters will be able to go through life lacking that fear of old movies - and, much more to the point, old culture - that keeps so many children and their parents locked in an eternal, ahistorical Now. The only way to comprehend Now, of course, is to understand Then. More than almost any other art form, movies show the way back." (Page 12)

In his final essay on the enduring relevance of black-and-white films in a colorized world, Burr waxes philosophical:

"I'm sympathetic to Eliza, even as I recognize the dangers and seductions of a silvery world where everyone dresses beautifully and says exactly the right thing. When the virus hit during my adolescence - when I saw the late-night airing of "Duck Soup" and started haunting Boston's old-movie revival houses and buying up books with titles like "They Had Faces Then," and "The Parade's Gone By" - it was with a clear sense that this cave of Aristotelian shadows was different from the polyester early '70s I was living in. Better, too: easier, more direct. You cold understand it, and you knew when and most likely how it was going to end. The enjoyment was in the journey." (Page 359)

We are a movie-loving and movie-making family. So, I look forward to sharing this book with my sons and my grandchildren.



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