All Ages Admitted 

New Belcourt series puts family viewing to the test

Parents, play it cool. Act like you’re reading something about spinach. Meanwhile, lean closer. Remember all those times you sat the kids down to share some old movie you love, only to have their eyes glaze over at the prospect of something stale and edifying—a celluloid brussels sprout?

Parents, play it cool. Act like you’re reading something about spinach. Meanwhile, lean closer. Remember all those times you sat the kids down to share some old movie you love, only to have their eyes glaze over at the prospect of something stale and edifying—a celluloid brussels sprout? With the help of author Ty Burr, the Belcourt has put together a movie series to get parents and kids in the same room, on the same page, watching the same thing.

Through the end of the year, the Belcourt is devoting its Saturday and Sunday matinees to “Family Weekend Classics,” movies that can initiate young viewers into the delights of classic cinema. Not that you should put it that way. In fact, in his book The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together (Anchor Books, $16.95)—the source for the series—Burr suggests you not tell kids exactly what they’re seeing.

Instead, let their curiosity do the heavy lifting as they encounter screwball comedies (the Henry Fonda-Barbara Stanwyck knockout The Lady Eve), musicals (the immortal Meet Me in St. Louis) or even silent science fiction (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, chosen for its super-cool German expressionist visuals and bold, easy-to-grasp storytelling). The point, Burr says, is to let kids approach the movies at their own level, either as rat-a-tat entertainment or a way into addressing tough issues that are hard to raise—as in this weekend’s film, To Kill a Mockingbird.

“The problem with today’s movies is that they’re demographically Balkanized,” says Burr, film critic for The Boston Globe and a longtime contributor to Entertainment Weekly. “Hollywood doesn’t make movies anymore that everyone can enjoy together. Kids’ movies have been taken over by special effects at the expense of storytelling, and adult movies usually have violence and sex.” One result, Burr argues, is a subsequent “Balkanization of the home” that causes every family member to retreat to a different room with a different TV.

That gave Belcourt film programmer Toby Leonard the idea for a series that would provide a gateway to classic movies and a shared family experience. After hitting it off with Burr at Sundance last year, he was rifling new releases at the downtown library when he saw Burr’s book. “I just found it incredibly helpful,” says Leonard, himself the father of a precocious young movie buff. “I really liked the ‘pause button’ explanations that give you a way into the movies.”

Certain kinds of old movies tend to grab kids’ attention—“anything with a kid in it, or Judy Garland,” Burr says, chuckling. Ironically, it’s the much-hated Motion Picture Production Code—the rigid house rules that functioned as Hollywood’s self-censoring V-chip well into the 1960s—that proves a parent’s godsend today. At the time, Burr explains, filmmakers chafed under the edict that turned all adult fare into “watered-down pabulum,” barring profanity, sex and explicit violence along with any suggestion that crime pays or married couples sleep in the same bed.

Today, however, the films produced under that code make for ideal family-friendly viewing. They have the heft of adult themes and subject matter—and the sparkle of dialogue written by and for grown-ups—without the R (or even PG-13) material that would exclude or embarrass younger kids. Burr has two girls, both preteens, and he’s fond of citing one daughter’s excited response to the 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, which prompted an entire discussion of the judicial system. “It’s simplistic without being simpleminded,” he says.

That doesn’t mean all movies are suitable for all ages. In the book, Burr uses his daughters’ horrified reaction to the 1933 King Kong as a warning flag that not all movies affect kids the same way. In planning the Belcourt series, Burr and Leonard took care to include a range of genres and styles for different age/gender groups, from kindergartners (the zany Howard Hawks childhood-regression comedy Monkey Business, the wordless French classics “The Red Balloon” and “White Mane”) to grade-schoolers (West Side Story, the High School Musical of 1961).

Burr says he’s sorry he can’t make it to Nashville for the series, the first that’s been drawn from his book. (Copies will be sold in the Belcourt lobby—you can try this at home.) But if it goes well, Leonard doesn’t rule out a second wave in the future. And if it persuades your child to forsake the 400th viewing of Shrek 2 for Stagecoach or The Crimson Pirate, consider your time well spent. The mind you save may be your own.

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