If you’re not already a regular reader of Matt Singer’s Indiewire Criticwire blog, you’re seriously missing out. Every day, Matt posts amazing content and commentary about the state of film criticism and film appreciation. Some of the best film discussions on the net begin or end up at Criticwire, which makes it an invaluable source for cinephiles today. But what about those budding cinephiles out there? What about the kids who aren’t yet exposed to the wider world of film? Well, Criticwire has that covered this week with the latest entry in the Criticwire Survey column. Every week, Matt Singer poses a question to a selection of online film critics and then posts the responses. This week he had a particularly interesting question submitted by contributor Rania Richardson.
“I mentor a 14-year-old from Harlem and nothing would make me happier than to have her enjoy ‘art house’ movies. She goes to Hollywood movies in chain theaters, and doesn’t particularly like what she sees. Of course, the fact that she’s African-American makes it even harder for me to find movies that I think would speak to her. She is sophisticated and would probably not mind some subtitles and nontraditional narratives. Help!”
It’s a really great question. What “art house” movies could you recommend to a kid about 14 years old who hasn’t yet had much exposure to films outside the Hollywood norm? The answers were varied, and in some ways quite indicative of the people recommending. Particularly interesting to me were the responses that I couldn’t imagine subjecting a kid to.
For example, a couple of critics suggested The Battle of Algiers and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. These choices, in my opinion, show a serious disconnect between the critics and their understanding of what normal people, and in particular young people, would respond to. A young person with no understanding of North African history and exposed only to Hollywood films is going to have a hard time with something like The Battle of Algiers. Sure, it’s a great film, but it’s not some big action movie. It can be confusing in places. It moves with a level of complexity that really requires investment. Beauty and the Beast is gorgeous, but it’s not a particularly emotional film. It’s engaging mostly for its atmosphere, and I highly doubt this kid would jump on that.
Most of the other choices, though, seemed really appropriate. Films like The Class, Cinema Paradiso, Moonrise Kingdom, Pulp Fiction, Hoop Dreams and The Red Shoes. I think The Red Shoes in particular is a great choice, especially at that age. The way I see it, The Red Shoes is the sort of film you could show an 8-year-old girl and she’d love, but show it to her at 14, when you can also explain some of the brilliant filmmaking techniques, and it’s sure to open her eyes up to the possibilities of cinema. That’s actually a great way to think about these films in general. On the one hand, you sort of want to shock the system; show the kid something she hasn’t seen before. On the other hand, you don’t want to scare her off. You want to excite her. You want to show her something familiar enough that it’s actually approachable, but with enough verve to offer a brand new experience.
That’s why my personal choice, and one that was mentioned a few times in the Criticwire Survey, would be The 400 Blows. First of all, it’s a story about a mischievous kid, so there’s a point of identification right there. It also has a lot of the hallmarks of a coming-of-age tale, which makes it superficially quite digestible. But there are also some immediate things going for it on the art house side of things. First of all, it’s black-and-white. The kid in question may have seen a black-and-white film before, but there’s a good chance not. It’s also in French, with subtitles, which may be another first. On top of this, the film doesn’t really have any simple plot. Things happen, but it all kind of flows naturally. I wouldn’t even say The 400 Blows is old-fashioned. It doesn’t feel too far removed from the kind of filmmaking you’d see in similar modern stories about kids. But it’s just different enough, and if you’re there to answer questions and supply context for the New Wave, The 400 Blows would really work it’s magic. It’s a film a kid can sit through pretty easily and actually understand, is just outside the regular comfort zone.
One other film I’d consider showing also has a Francois Truffaut connection: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Talk about a film that straddles the line. It’s a big-budget spectacle as only Hollywood could accomplish, but it’s place in history is important, both for being an early Spielberg work, but for it’s groundbreaking special-effects work. You want to get a kid into movies? There’s hardly a better way than showing them how special effects are done. It’ll blow their mind. But Close Encounters goes a step beyond. There’s a magic to its construction. It works as a story of wonder, of a family breaking apart, as a horror film and as a spectacle. It’s everything. Right there, all in one film, you can show off the techniques of using naturalistic camerawork and dialogue, or the importance of colour, editing and music in creating suspense, or the rhythmic patterns of light and editing set to music that can transform cinema from simply actors reading a script into a wordless, transcendent experience of images and sound. A totally entertaining feast of a film, but also one that’s beautifully instructive about filmmaking itself.
I ask you, is there any film better than that for introducing a kind to the true potential of cinema?