Life lessons with Cinema

Last Updated 15 October 2010, 13:42 IST

This is a really cool memoir by David Gilmour, a film critic who offers his restless, troubled son, Jesse, an unconventional deal: the boy could drop out of school -not work, not pay rent -if he agreed to watch three movies a week of his father’s choosing. Jesse agrees, and the Film Club is launched. Gilmour begins with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and is disappointed when his son says he found it boring.

 Before the film begins, Gilmour asks Jesse to watch out for certain striking scenes, bits of acting and camera work, and then finds his son didn’t find it special. Gilmour does this for each film, briefly highlighting the good bits and passing on trivia without giving away too much. (Much later on this happens with A Hard Day's Night, which the father lovingly introduces to his son. But The Beatles don’t mean anything to Jesse.)

For the next film, Gilmour switches completely and they watch Basic Instinct. “You have to admit that is a great film,” Jesse cries out at the end. Woody Allen follows. Gilmour writes: “There’s a sort of rushed homework feel to Woody Allen’s movies these days, as if he’s trying to get them all finished and out of the way so he can move on to something else. That something else, distressingly, is another movie. It’s a downward spiral. But still, after making more than 30 films, maybe he’s done his life’s work.”

Jessie is mesmerised by Crimes and Misdemeanors and says quietly, “I think I’ll like Woody Allen in real life.” They watch some classics — all the usual suspects. At the end of On the Waterfront, the father tells his son that Brando is the greatest actor as far as he is concerned, though there are some who think Cary Grant “because he could embody both good and evil.”

Which brings them to Hitchcock and Notorious. Gilmour asks his son to watch for the  way Hitchcock makes the staircase suddenly lengthen at the end of the movie to sustain suspense. When Gilmour points to these fine details, we sit up and take note as well.
Gilmour writes, “Next I showed him a documentary, Volcano: An Inquiry into the life and death of Malcolm Lowry. You can say this only once, so here it is:  Volcano is the best documentary I’ve ever seen in my life. Under the Volcano is one of literature’s most romantic paeans to self destruction.”

 Unexpectedly, this film about a drunk and a failure fascinates his adolescent son. The father begins to wonder what he’s got his son into with a bargain like this. What if he ends up wrecking his son’s life even more? What if this home-style movie schooling fails terribly?

Jesse has other problems that keep interrupting the film club routine: such as girl friend trouble and drinking. After a break of a few weeks, the film club resumes with a horror film: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

“To lure Jesse into watching more movies without making it too school like,” says Gilmour, “I made up a game of spot the great moment. This meant a scene or a bit of dialogue or image that snaps you forward in your seat, makes your heart bang… I love The Shining. I love the way it is shot and lit.

I love the sound of the tricycle wheels going from carpet to wood to carpet. It always scares me when the twin girls appear in the hallway.”

When Jesse finds a great moment, he asks his father to replay the scene. They do this for other films as well. When watching The Godfather, Gilmour offers a really priceless description of its cinematographer, Gordon Willis, famous for using half lighting, as The Prince of Darkness.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (hard to find movie then but released recently by Criterion) allows Gilmour to sum up Robert Mitchum beautifully: “As time goes by, Robert Mitchum seems to get better and better-that barrel chest, the deep voice, his way of drifting through a movie with the effortlessness of a cat wandering into a dinner party. He had so much talent, and yet, weirdly, it gave me some kind of bullying pleasure to deny it.”

 “Listen, I got three expressions,” he used to say, “looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” 

Charles Laughton who directed him in The Night of the Hunter said all that gruff “Baby I don’t care” stuff as an act. Robert Mitchum, he said, was literate, gracious, kind, a man who spoke beautifully and would have made the best Macbeth of any actor living.”
The Film Club works: father and son talk about each other’s lives with honesty and wit, with the movies providing a sort of context. Gilmour draws you in to participate in the debate between his son and him about a particular film they can’t agree on, and allows us to share in the joy and pleasure some movies give them.

Without lecturing his son, the father manages to keep Jesse (and us) interested in the film club. He asks his son to pay careful attention to small details such as the way James Dean uses stillness in Giant, and the very last (and famous) shot in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita where a character looks deep into the camera (rather at us) almost as if to ask, points out Gilmour to Jesse, “What about your life?” The Film Club isn’t cute or trite, the lessons learnt here are complex and insightful. At one point, both father and son delight in a line from True Romance: “You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.”  So is this book.

(Published 15 October 2010, 13:42 IST)

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