First up on this morning’s CBC Radio “Sunday Edition” show, my favorite weekend listening, was host Michael Enright’s interview with film critic and writer David Gilmour, author of the just-published The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and a Son. Film Club is Mr. Gilmour’s account of his decision, several years ago, to let his son drop out of high school. What he kept coming back to during the radio interview was his son’s need for time.
I found a very good review by Ian McGillis in yesterday’s Montreal Gazette, entitled “Learning from film: A father, a son and an unusual education“. From which,
It’s the kind of thing a movie producer would label “high concept.” A father, at his wits’ end over his teenage son’s extreme aversion to anything classroom-related, suggests that the son drop out of high school on the condition that the two of them watch three films per week, together, for two years. [The other condition was no drugs.]
But this is no movie. The father is David Gilmour, award-winning novelist and former CBC film critic, the son is -year-old Jesse. And their experiment, for which the term “hare-brained” might seemingly have been coined, has turned out against all reasonable expectations to make for a book that’s insightful, surprising and, yes, moving.
It’s a handy hook, of course, that the mere idea of what Gilmour has his son do is sure to cause the taking of mass umbrage by good parents everywhere. It’s not as though Gilmour isn’t aware of this. Even at an advanced stage in the program, when it’s too late to undo, he’s attacked by doubts: “What if I’d allowed him to f–k up his entire life under some misinformed theory that might just be laziness with a smart-ass spin on it?” What if, indeed.
On the surface, Jesse does provide plenty of cause for concern. He has very little sense of geography. (“The United States are right across the lake?” asks the lifelong Torontonian.) He takes his loves and his lost loves extremely seriously and — surprise, surprise — he wants to be a rapper.
But this young man, we come to see, has hidden reserves. The child may never quite become father to the man, but at many times, the dynamic is much more big brother-little brother than Pop and Junior.
The films they watch, handpicked by the father, range from undisputed classics (Citizen Kane) to French New Wave standbys (The 400 Blows) to outright kitsch (Showgirls). It’s a commendably catholic list, though Gilmour père proves utterly unable to predict which films might set his enigmatic son alight. Jesse’s blank response to A Hard Day’s Night, starring Dad’s beloved Beatles, is priceless. But then, the author surprises himself no less on revisiting some old touchstones. “Some films let you down; you must have been in love or heartbroken, you must have been wound up about something when you saw them because now, viewed from a different trajectory, there’s no magic left.”
An index at the end lists nearly 150 films mentioned, but the book somehow never feels weighted down with the references. In fact, in what may or may not be a coincidence, at about the time the reader begins to tire of the device, so do the participants. But that’s fine, because by then, it’s the relationship we really care about. …
In fact, after three years, Jesse rose off the couch and decided that he was indeed interested in further education. He is now 21 and attending university in Toronto.
And an excerpt from yesterday’s Globe & Mail review by Charles Wilkins:
…Gilmour’s intimate and free-wheeling book is, in large part, the story of the role he played in his son Jesse’s life (and vice-versa) when the teenager crashed out of high school at 16 and seemed headed for what Gilmour refers to as “a bad life.”
In a stroke of strategic educational genius (and of optimal deployment of his own fascinations and resources), the writer offered his son freedom from school and employment on the condition that the boy join him in watching and discussing a minimum of three feature films a week.
The deal was made, and over a period of three years, the films became a curriculum unto themselves, a varied and fascinating syllabus rich in ideas, social values, character study, history, geography, family, ethics, music — and, of course, in the import of filmmaking and art, of dramatic writing and acting and directing.
As Jesse learns, we learn — about Hitchcock and Kubrick and Truffaut; and Brando and Bogart and Hepburn; Annie Hall, On the Waterfront, The Godfather. Gilmour was once a film commentator for CBC Television, and his knowledge of the art and industry is both rangy and deep — and is happily charged with anecdotal vigour and gossip.
“I knew I wasn’t giving Jesse a systematic education,” he writes. “We could as easily have gone skin diving or collected stamps. The films simply served as an occasion to spend time together, hundreds of hours, as well as a door-opener for all manner of conversational topics — Rebecca, Zoloft, dental floss, Vietnam, impotence, cigarettes.”
The book is also the story of the travails of a middle-aged writer who, at the time the action takes place, was, by his own admission, down on his luck, and is painfully honest about it. At one point, when other options have been exhausted, he seeks work as a bicycle courier, and is turned down – too old. (It bears mentioning that Gilmour’s luck changed dramatically in 2005 when he won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for his novel A Perfect Night to Go to China.)
And a helpful caution from The Globe & Mail,
…there were points at which I felt as if I were reading through a keyhole and that, given the context, there was simply too much grovelling over “relationships,” over “the game,” over “chicks,” which unfortunately detracts from the book’s erstwhile innocence and integrity. …
In the end, a majority of the pages in the book might more appropriately have appeared under the title The Dating Club or The Mating Club than The Film Club.
And yet the book is meaningful, is insightful, is valuable. On a social level alone, it challenges our notions of education, of productivity, of high schools that have fallen catastrophically behind in their capability to inspire young men. It is, what’s more, a compelling, often tender account of a parent’s deep concern for his child.