Willam A. Wellman, Tigger, and The Knucklehead

The Knucklehead is 5.

If you’re a film buff raising a film buff, you’re walking a tightrope over Couch Potato Gulch. There are some good reasons to sit still for a couple hours (reading is one of them), but if the brain shuts down as well, then there’s no point to it. If you’re raising your Knucklehead to absorb what’s happening on the screen without thinking, you’re just throwing another consumer onto the pile, and we’re pretty full up on them. What makes watching movies more interesting, more fun, more rewarding, is being critical of what you’re watching. Question what you’re watching, engage the filmmakers in (silent) conversation about what’s being said, and the choices made in saying that. You don’t have to wait until The Age of Reason to begin that process, in fact, by then it’s too late. You start simple, by asking your Beginning Knucklehead to point to one thing he liked (or didn’t like) about the movie. Just one thing to get them into the habit of while they’re watching, thinking, “Dad’s going to nag me about this later, so I’d better pay attention so I have something for him later.” We started our journey with The Tigger Movie.

We’d gone to see it as an early trip to a theater, and I don’t remember why. But within five minutes of the movie starting, it was clear that The Knucklehead was bored. To his credit, he didn’t misbehave, but he was looking around, fidgeting during the entire flick, even leaning over to whisper to me at one point, “What’s for dinner?” No way this kid liked this movie. I knew just how he felt.

So the lights come up, and The Knucklehead turns to me with a huge grin and says, “That was great!”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I start laughing. “You did NOT think that was great!”

Now he’s laughing, too, “That movie was GREAT!”

“You were fidgeting the whole time through that movie,” I countered (we’re very big on empirical evidence in our family). “You were SO bored. You tell me what was so great about that movie!”

“I don’t know.”

Ooh. Wrong answer, Skippy. An answer The Knucklehead would come to regret many times over. Out comes The Parental Lecture. The one about him being free to have voice whatever opinion that jumps into that Knuckleheaded mind of his, provided he back it up with a reason why. I would have been fine with him loving The Tigger Movie. I would have been fine with him hating it. I would have been find with him finding it morally outrageous, heartwarming, inspirational, loathsome, delightful, funny, abhorrent, jejune, Kafkaesque, insolent, charming, insouciant, good, or bad. But he’s gotta have a reason. Just one. Something to prove to me he was paying attention to the movie and his feelings about it at the time. That last part is the most important, because if you don’t learn how to monitor your own reactions in real time, you can’t know when you’re being manipulated. But at this age, I’ll settle for proof that another part of his brain was working while taking in the flick.

And it’s like pulling teeth, but I felt like it was something worth all the nagging. Two years later, I get a payoff of sorts.

We’re watching a bedtime movie, William A. Wellman’s 1927 Wings, and it’s a dandy. It’s a silent film, and would earn some fame as being the first film to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Wellman was already gaining some respect, and would go onto to direct James Cagney in The Public Enemy, Gary Cooper in the terrific Beau Geste (Cooper has a small part in Wings as well), and the 1937 version of A Star is Born. I love films of this era, and the early 1930’s, when sound first came in, because I love watching filmmakers experiment with new technology. The film is about World War I pilots (Wellman himself was one), and nothing like it had ever been attempted in a full-length feature. I explained to The Knucklehead that there were no rules for filming air battles before this. Do you try to choreograph real planes, or do you use models? Where do you put the camera: on the ground, pointing up, or in the air? How do you edit it so your audience can get a sense of the story of something as chaotic as a dogfight? There’s a love story (actually there are several, some dealing with brotherly love); will the audience be able to make the switch from drama to action in the same film? Nobody really knew, it hadn’t been tried. They were making it up as they went along. If you can keep that in mind, these early films are a hoot.

So we settle in. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, The Knucklehead has never seen it, and we’re into it. The first of the air battles hits the screen, and on the VCR tape copy I have, organ music is swelling as our fighters take to the skies. Suddenly, The Knucklehead leaps from the couch, runs pointing at the screen, yelling, “Pause it, pause it, pause it, pause it, PAUSE IT!” As the image on the screen freezes, The Knucklehead turns to me, triumphant, proudly revealing his insight. “That,” he says, is Star Wars.” And he’s right.

The image he’s pointing to is a close-up of Buddy Rogers, our hero, as he sits in his cockpit, looking straight at the camera. In the corner of the screen, above Buddy’s right shoulder, an enemy aircraft is moving into attack position behind him. Switch out Buddy Rogers for Mark Hamill, replace his plane with a Rebellion X-wing fighter, substitute space for sky, and the shot is directly out of Star Wars.  Everything George Lucas learned about filming an attack on the Deathstar began in 1927 with Wings. And my Knucklehead made the connection. My little geeky heart swells with pride.

The Knucklehead has taught himself the joy of film. Like every great director, he’s learned to compare what he’s watching with what has gone before (erm… technically in this case the other way around, but you see what I mean). He has taken his first small step toward engaging with a film he’s watching, instead of just turning his brain off and letting the movie do all the talking. He’s learning to watch critically, and in doing so, converse with the past.

Is it so crazy to ask a child to pay attention to what he’s watching, and think critically about it? I don’t think so. Better to start now, in manageable chunks, than try to fight off the ingrained bad habits later.

Besides, I will never forget the look of absolute revelation on his face. Like the ad says, “Priceless.”

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