Getting Kids into the Art House

June 14, 2012 — 13 Comments

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?


13 responses to Getting Kids into the Art House


    Hmm, \’Close Encouters\’ is a great choice for a movie a kid could watch and enjoy not just for fun, but to witness what some timeless movie magic can do. I don\’t know if it\’s \’art house\’ material. Then again, a small Montreal art house cinéma has people buzzing when stuff like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo get some play even though those are basically action films with some comedy. The definition of art house is either a-lost on me or b-has been stretched to the fullest extent along the years.

    If you\’re going with Close Encounters, then I\’d have to offer \’From Russia With Love\’ as another example of old school yet timelessly effective material (filmming in multiple countries and mutiple sets both indoor and outdoor, slow build of tension, spy mystery, cold war politics, old time action in many environments).

    If the kid wants to be spooked, I\’d go with Alien, which in my mind is second to none.

    For some reason, I feel Time Bandits needs a comeback, so that could be another pick.


      Of COURSE you bring Bond into this 😀

      I think my choice of Close Encounters in terms of “art house” is more of an easing thing. You’re definitely right that the term “art house” is pretty dumb at best, but I think at the very least we can refer to more complex film with substantive themes and which are less accessible either because of style or foreign-ness. And using that general framework, I think Close Encounters works because it’s definitively not art house, but it has elements that you would often see in art house films. The style of the horror sequences, for example, or the final section which is nearly wordless. So you kind of attract the kid with a Hollywood movie, they can get into how all the effects were done, but they can also learn more about style and theme and filmmaking techniques. Then you go ahead and show them examples of more esoteric arty movies and blow their minds with convention being bust wide open.


    OK… so let’s start this off… great idea btw…

    I guess the current obvious choice would be HUGO, it basically shows the children how magical the classics were to people back then and therefore itself becomes magical and we only hope when the film is over your child will look to you and ask “more please”.

    Spielberg is definitely a good choice. Close Encounters and ET are both movies that can make that spark while at the same time laying the groundwork for future likes/dislikes for them. However, at the same time I don’t think the films that you would play for a child from him would create that immediate spark that I feel the question is asking for.

    So I think that a film like BE KIND REWIND – not a particularly great film, but it shows how movies can spark one’s imagination into much bigger things. Films like THE FALL would also fall into that category.

    I think movies which keep fantastical child friendly tones while at the same time always acknowledging the fact that we’re having someone tell you a story and here it is would do best.


      I haven’t seen The Fall yet, so no comment there, but I think where I disagree with you on Be Kind Rewind and Hugo is that they are didactic. I don’t need a movie telling the kid that movies are great. The kid should just watch a movie and want to know more. Of course, providing a context for the movie is great, and that can definitely help. Where Be Kind Rewind and Hugo might be more helpful is not in the way they show movies as inspiring, but that they show movies at all. A kid might watch Hugo and want to see Safety Last and A Trip to the Moon. Score! And a kid might watch Be Kind Rewind and get exposed to Robocop and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Double score! A different method of inspiring.

      Maybe we just read the original question differently, but what I got from it wasn’t so much “how do I get this kid to watch all kinds of movies?” but “how do I get this kid who already shows an intellectual curiosity to learn about and appreciate the weirder or more foreign films out there?” Getting kids to watch silent films might help on that journey, but I think movies like The Red Shoes can do the job equally well, especially if you’re there to talk with them about it before (maybe during) and after.


        Well I guess I’m going for the jugular so to speak. What I’m doing is either going to work or not at all. Which is why I guess my play is a bit more aggressive, and my method is in that vain. I don’t expect any child to watch THE RED SHOES or THE 400 BLOWS and immediately want to go on a Powell & Pressburger or Truffaunt marathon. But when they watch HUGO or BE KIND REWIND they’ll have some titles to check out after seeing those and finding out about all these other movies (if it works). Then by starting to branch out into all these other movies I imagine it will eventually spark that idea that I assume sparked in all of us people who love to ‘waste’ space on the internet, that being “I think I love movies” and then they’ll be more open to any and all suggestions as well as pushing themselves to branch out of their own little worlds of movie loving.


        PS. I loathe your commenting system, about five times I’ve come here and tried to comment and lost the comment because when I type in name/email/site it asks me for a wordpress password and then I realise I did it wrong and lost the comment all together… FYI.


          You must have a WordPress account associated with that email address. You should just login and that’s it. Commenters occasionally have trouble with Worpress’ system, but generally it works, and almost always way better than Blogger. If I could I would install Disqus, but I can’t, so this has to do.


    ‘Born in Flames’ [] and ‘The Doom Generation’ []. ‘Close Encounters’ is an art house film in the same way that a bunless, McDonalds hamburger is a steak and salad.


    Honestly, I see the original question as a flawed one because things don’t have to be “out of Hollywood” to be good or even to be considered Art House…But that’s another discussion, I suppose.

    Still, my first thought was a film outside of Hollywood that I think a 14 year old would enjoy…Chocolat. The main reason I chose this one is Johnny Depp. I think if someone has had no exposure to film other than main Hollywood stuff, she would definitely know Depp and the film is an atypical Hollywood affair.


      I see you think along the same lines as I do. Best to ease the kid out of her comfort zone than shock with some inaccessible.


      I just saw Corey’s post on my question in Criticwire. CHOCOLAT is an excellent answer. These kids love Johnny Depp. The film is accessible and a good introduction to reading some subtitles.


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