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.