Critical trauma

Kudoes to Globe film critic Ty Burr for his entertaining and illuminating new book, The Best Old Movies for Families.  It fills a yawning gap in film criticism. No, not what films to show your kids and how to introduce them to the pleasures of cinema, though it accomplishes that much needed task charmingly. I’m talking about the ugly secret of how traumatic early movie experience contributes to the formation of a critical sensibility.

Let’s face it, film critics in general (James Agee and the French New Wave maybe excepted) suffered deprived childhoods. Deprived of trauma, that it is, and in most cases real-life experience of any kind (Burr himself admits to seeing nearly 11,000 films in his lifetime. That’s about 800 days that could have spent shopping at Target or catching up on the latest on Anna Nicole Smith). So? Well, for one thing, that explains the merciful lack of confessional memoirs by members of our profession.

To compensate, at an early age we get our share of pain from the movie screen. Burr indirectly suggests this phenomenon in his chapter titled “The Kong Island Theory, Or Old Movies Not to Watch With Your Children.” He screened the 1933 horror classic for his two daughters, aged four and six at the time. Trouble started when the characters arrived at Skull Island and a giant Brachiosaur (which since my own first viewing I have learned is a placid herbivore, not that it helps now) plucked assorted crew members off of a raft and munched them like they were offerings on a canape tray. This was when Burr’s younger daughter called it a day. And this is when the older daughter apparently became fixated on the horror, almost against her will, as was I many years ago when I saw the film for the first time on TV on Fantasmic Features.

For me, the worst was yet to come. Burr doesn’t even mention the scene in which the guys are trapped on a log crossing an abyss and Kong picks it up and shakes them off, their pathetic shrieks as they fall to their deaths minutely audible. Or later, in Manhattan, when Kong’s giant and obviously fake hand thrusts through a window of a hotel and pulls out his beloved, screaming Fay Ray.  Horrible, and yet strangelysexy. Definitely not for kids.

But I knew that movies were a window into something terrible, remorseless, inexorable and wildly attractive about life even before seeing this. Forget Bambi, what about that old Disney mainstay Old Yeller? The truth about life it teaches [SPOILER WARNING] is that in the end, we all shoot our beloved dog. (Burr notes that had the movie been made today, the dog would have lived. I suggest maybe it could be reincarnated as a CGI super hero).

But none of these films compare in terms of nightmarish trauma to The Wizard of Oz. There was a period in the 60s when they would show this 1939  ur-text on TV around the holidays as some kind of family celebration. Did the adults responsible for this programming even see the the movie? No wonder I’m a basket case.  The flying monkeys soaring in formation like Soviet bombers, the dismembered scarecrow eviscerated on the ground, its severed head still somehow talking. Then the tornado. “It’s a twister!” It was more than that, it was every dread of doom descending from the sky like the hand of God. It scared the hell out of me. To this date I have nightmares of phallic tornadoes chasing me under my bed.

Speaking of dreams, maybe the ultimate horror of The Wizard of Oz is the whole premise. To realize that all one’s experience was merely a dream. To wake up in black and white telling Ray Bolger, “and you were there...”

In his book Burr blithely recommends the movie without much comment, saying, “Do I really need to add another 500 words to the million already written on The Wizard of Oz?” Probably not. Maybe it’s just me. All I can say is be careful what you show your kids, or they’ll end up a film critic, too.


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