Saturday, January 17, 2009

"I HAD NO IDEA A COWBOY MOVIE COULD BE SO EMOTIONAL"



One of the things I love about being a dad is not only going to the movies with my kids and seeing the movies they want to see together, but also trying to encourage their exposure to great movies from the past that I might sneakily suspect, sometimes against all reason, they might enjoy. This desire to cultivate an appreciation for old Hollywood doesn’t always yield great results, but lately more often than not I have been happily surprised by my daughters’ reactions, especially those of my oldest. In preparation for the upcoming publication of my year-end piece—which is, at this late date, teetering toward even more irrelevance than it would have if I was able to unveil it on January 1—I have been thinking over my most treasured movie-going experiences of the year, and among those that will be listed are several wonderful times when my daughters and I, out of design or response to insomnia or whatever other possible reason, were able to sit down and enjoy a movie considerably behind their time line.

This year alone I’ve had the chance to share with them pictures as disparate and wonderful as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, Budd Boetticher’s Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, Robert Wise’s Born to Kill and Robert Altman’s Popeye. (Yes, that’s on one level a kid’s movie, but certainly unlike any they’re used to.) And each time I have been gratified by the degree to which they have been open to more classic, or at least more measured and (for them) unusual approaches to storytelling. They like their fast-paced cartoons and doses of mindless junk like Pokemon, to be sure, but it’s good to know that it’s never a good idea to give up entirely on what we adults (naturally?) assume is the rapidly corroding level of patience our children will have for something that doesn’t fly past them at a mile a minute.


The most recent happy evidence to back up this radical notion came for me last night at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood when I brought my daughters, along with my good friend Andy and his teenage son Will, to see a beautiful new print of The Magnificent Seven, part of the current tribute to John Sturges at the American Cinematheque. For most of us of a certain age this ridiculously entertaining western is one of those touchstone movies, thanks to the iconographic presence of Yul Brynner (later tweaked in Westworld) at the head of a once-in-a-lifetime cast of soon-to-be icons like James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and, of course, Steve McQueen; the soaring, equally iconographic score—influential, yet never eclipsed—by Elmer Bernstein; the sharp-as-obsidian script by William Roberts and (uncredited) Walter Newman, based on Akira Kurosawa’s peerless Seven Samurai; and the muscular, observant direction of John Sturges, with its clarity of action and nuanced sense of the toll taken on the lives of the hired guns who freely roamed the rough-hewn landscape of the American West. But what are the odds a six and an eight-year-old girl would enjoy it? I lured them with the carrot of seeing the beautiful façade of the Egyptian itself (my oldest is a bit of an Egypt buff), and we did have a grand time exploring the hieroglyphics and design of this magnificently restored movie palace. But I also had a hunch they might actually like the movie, based on their enthusiasm for the Boetticher/Randolph Scott and Mann/Stewart westerns, and certainly there is an element of adventure the movie shares with the Burt Lancaster pirate epic (though certainly not that movie’s silliness and penchant for physical comedy). But it’s also a long movie, and though it could hardly be considered stately the pace of The Magnificent Seven is much more deliberate than my own wife can put up with—no fan of manly action, she-- so it might reasonably be anticipated that her own leanings away from this kind of film might be reflected in her daughters.

So much for reason, then. Though the six-year-old finally fell asleep on my lap with about 45 minutes left to go, she was engaged with the movie all the way up to that point. The eight-year-old, on the other hand, was completely enthralled, from Eli Wallach’s first appearance as the evil bandit Calvera straight through to the movie’s bittersweet end amid the settling dust and the corpse-littered streets of the tiny village the Seven had been hired to defend. She immediately responded to the quick wit of the movie’s script, laughing in all the right places—a loud chuckle for McQueen’s in-your-face rejoinder to Calvera’s threats (“We deal in lead, friend”), an even heartier laugh to Val Avery’s exasperated retort to undertaker Whit Bissell’s refusal to bury the dead Indian at the beginning of the film (Bissell: “It's not a question of money. For twenty dollars, I'd plant anybody with a hoop and a holler. But the funeral is off.” Avery: “Now, how do you like that? I want him buried, you want him buried, and if he could sit up and talk he'd second the motion. Now, that's as unanimous as you can get.”) And the movie, elegant but easy to digest, turned out to be perfectly realized for keeping her wrapped up in the straightforward elements of the story. She responded much as I remember responding when I first saw it—with almost total surrender to the pleasure of losing oneself in the world into which the movie breathes life. And once again my little girl surprised me with the degree to which she can give herself over to a movie experience.


Unlike High School Musical 3, I would guess there was little to which she could directly relate in The Magnificent Seven that would allow her access to the kind of sincere response she gave to the Troy and Gabriella epic. Yet here she was, overcome with sadness upon the death of Charles Bronson’s character, the loner Bernardo O’Reilly, whose bond with three village boys who earlier vowed to tend to his grave, should the need arise, shored up her empathy to a surprising level. As we made our way out of the theater and out into the brisk Hollywood night, my wonderful daughter turned to me and said, “Daddy, I had no idea a cowboy movie could be so emotional.” My first instinct was to respond that I had no idea that being a father could be so rewarding. But by now that’s old, if never less than happy news. Instead I just kissed her on the head, thanked her for coming to the movies with me and began thinking ahead to the next time we could take a chance on yet another great old film within the spectacular confines of the Egyptian Theater or, in a pinch, late at night on our couch in front of the TV.

(P.S. My 2008 year-end piece, which I resolved last week would be next out of the gate, has taken a lot longer than I anticipated, due as much to the amount of elements I'm trying to cram into it as much as to school and work commitments. But I'm hoping that by end of day tomorrow (Sunday) it will be up and running for the enjoyment of anyone who still cares to look at yet one more review of the past year in movies. There should be at least one difference between my list and the bulk of those you may have seen so far that might make it worth the wait, if only for scoffing purposes. Until then!)

5 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

It's great for kids to be exposed to classic movies because new movies have such a different editing style and flow that if you wait too long to watch them with them they just won't get it.

Each Friday night my wife and I have movie night with the 7 year old and she loves it. She gets so excited about pizza and a movie on Friday. We always watch movies from the thirties and the forties with her and this has been going on since she was about five so she is completely accustomed to the style and pacing of them. In fact, on a couple of occasions where she was going to a friend's house and wanted to bring one with her we had to stop her, explaining that her friend probably wouldn't like it as much as we do and so on. We don't her getting her feelings hurt by some culturely bankrupt clod who says her movie is boring. But we're very proud of her. She loves her old movies and knows more about classic film than anyone I work with. Sure she still watches Disney Channel garbage and Nickelodean crap but the old movies provide a nice counter-balance for her.

Kimberly said...

Great story about a great movie, Dennis!

I was probably about 7 or 8 when I saw The Magnificent Seven with my own father for the first time on TV (I'm so jealous you got to see it in a theater!) and I completely fell in love with the movie. It was the western that made me fall in love with westerns and it's still a favorite.

I'm afraid if I had kids they would spend most of their time watching older films with me. As much as I can appreciate some new films directed at a young audience (I just watched Wall-E and enjoyed it for example, but that's partly because I'm a huge fan of Hello Dolly! and the film's sentimentality worked wonders on me), I find that a lot today's films aimed at kids just really fail on an emotional level and seem to be dumbed down for reasons I can't understand.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Kimberly-- I really like your point. A movie like The Magnificent Seven is clearly pitched for adults, but it has always been a movie that been (and obviously remains) accessible for younger audiences too because of the way in which Sturges respects the intelligence of the audience. It is accessible, yet not dumbed down for either kids or adults. My daughter is still talking about it excitedly and this morning she reminded me of something else she said after it was over: "I completely forgot I was in the Egyptian Theater!" Now, there's the transportive power of movie storytelling for ya! I hope that our experience Friday ends up as meaningful for my daughters as seeing it with your dad was for you.

Jonathan: Kids are gonna like what they're gonna like, but I really appreciate your attempt to guide your daughter toward an appreciation of films she wouldn't normally be exposed to. If she enjoys Movie Night and looks forward to it, then she's getting a terrific foundation from which to add on experiences as she gets older. Such a regularly scheduled activity is something I've always wanted to initiate with my kids, but our work schedules are usually so erratic that we never seem to know from week to week when we'll be able to settle in for an evening. But you've inspired me to try. Do you give your daughter a list of titles from which to choose, or are you the family repertory programmer serving up whatever you think she'll enjoy?

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Jonathan Lapper said...

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Dennis,

Oh I'm most definitely the programmer. If she programmed we watch Bride of Frankenstein and The Awful Truth every week with Miss Marple (Margaret Rutherford) thrown in for good measure. I'm glad she loves those movies, but I've had my fill of them for a while. Anyway, this Friday we watched This Gun for Hire and if you haven't seen it in a while Ladd's character is really brutal. Anyway, afterwards we watched Veronica Lake do her Hocus Pocus number and I recorded it to the computer so we could enjoy it again and again (which a 7 year old will do).

Next week is Capra's Lost Horizon.

And October, thanks to my wife and me, is by far her favorite time of year. Universal, Hammer, Corman - she loves 'em all. We introduced her to William Castle this year as well with The House on Haunted Hill which she adored.