Being locked down in pandemic quarantine with a fourteen-year-old boy isn't easy. Fourteen-year-old boys sleep late. They eat a lot. They can be exuberant one moment and sullen the next. My son is all of those things. He also likes sports, especially basketball, which he played for countless hours during Covid. At first, he couldn't play together with other kids; but he could and did do extensive shooting and dribbling drills.
Since I'm not much of a basketball player, and since it looked in March of 2020 like we were going to be stuck in the house for the foreseeable future, I was determined to make the most of our time together. How? We would watch movies, that was how. I could give him an education in different cinematic styles and eras.
A year and a half and more than a hundred movies later, we have learned a lot about movies—and about each other.
My son liked the idea of movies, and—whew—the idea of watching them together; but he quickly learned that I was not interested in just the standard fare. I tried to set up some rules. First, though he had watched all the Harry Potter, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars movies (many of them with me), those forty or so films wouldn't be part of our project. They belong to a cultural universe with which most of today's movie-loving teens are already familiar. We were going to do something different.
Second, he would rate each movie, providing a sense of his likes and dislikes.
We started out with older movies—really older, as in movies over fifty years of age. We were looking to see true classics, like Casablanca (1942), Rear Window (1954), The African Queen (1951), North by Northwest (1959), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). I had seen and liked these movies—they were decades old even when I saw them the first time. When I was growing up, I was a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock and Humphrey Bogart. I am happy to report that upon rewatching them, I found that they have aged well.
When those old movies were made, Hollywood was focused on plot and crisp writing. These elements made for real classics that remain strong even in our day. I was pleased to see that my son liked most of them. True, not all of them: The African Queen got a disappointing five out of ten, evidently reflecting his opinion that Katharine Hepburn's character was just so annoying. I had to give it to him on this one: She absolutely was. In fact, I still don't understand how Bogie's character, Charlie Allnutt, fell in love with her; but, then, the alcoholic Allnutt, one of Bogie's weaker creations, was no bargain himself.
I got some pleasant surprises with movies from this period—like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the 1936 version with Gary Cooper, and Oliver Twist from 1948 with Alec Guinness, almost thirty years before Star Wars. I hadn't seen either one before. Both were delightful, and each one had a stirring climax (back then, films really tried for strong endings)—the rooftop scene at the end of Oliver Twist was riveting. The movie got a rating of nine, my son's highest grade in this first wave of films. In Mr. Deeds, the final courtroom scene had us both laughing and cheering,
Still, after the first fifteen or so movies, he wanted to see some newer films as well. We kept mixing it up when it came to time periods, but it became harder for me to sell him on black-and-white movies. Occasionally I overcame his resistance, with good results. After much convincing by me, we watched Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921). It was a terrific comedy. He made me rewind it so we could see the fight sequence again, the one in which Chaplin dodges multiple punches from a real bruiser. The big guy wore a shirt that was obviously padded. Today, the muscles would be real.
I resisted the temptation to say, "I told you so."
Another fantastic black-and-white movie he liked was Sunset Boulevard (1950), which scored another nine. It did, however, require explanation here and there, since Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond and William Holden's Joe Gillis were both complicated characters who didn't always behave rationally.
One older movie that failed to hold up, thus complicating my "oldies but goodies" effort, was Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946), about an escaped Nazi hiding in a small American town. I made the mistake of picking it from a list of "best movies on Netflix this month." Made just after World War II, it was suffused with fears of Nazis hiding in every American hamlet. True, it too had a dramatic ending—in a clock tower, no less. But it didn't grab us.
As we got closer to the present, I was disappointed to find that some films I liked a lot as a kid just had not aged well. The Rocky movies—must-see events in the 1970s and 1980s—were kind of dull. After the first one (1976), during which my son made me fast-forward through much of the courtship between Rocky and Adrian, he needed significant cajoling to sit through any more. We stopped after Rocky IV (1985)—and skipped II (1979) altogether.
More, some of what I remembered as the great comedies of my youth did not hold up to modern viewing, including Airplane (1980), The Naked Gun (1988), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975; what was with that ending?), and Life of Brian (1979; space aliens save Brian from a fall—why?). I laughed at these movies but wondered whether I was laughing because of actual cleverness or out of familiarity and nostalgia. My son, for the most part, sat through them stone-faced. He was not sure why I had found them so funny.
Another type of comedy from this era, however, held up remarkably well. Character-driven, feel-good, family-oriented comedies still pulled at the heartstrings and tickled the funny bones. Movies of this type included Big (1988), Tootsie (1982), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), and Forrest Gump (1994). I suspect they will retain their charm when I watch them with my teenage grandchildren someday a few decades hence.
Another favorite category—OK, a favorite category of mine—was action movies. I still loved the Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies of my youth. Things get a little complicated when you're watching this type of movie with a fourteen year old, though. For guidance, I relied less on ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America—which are vague and inconsistent over time—than I did on Common Sense Media, which gives detailed information about every movie's level of sex, violence, and bad language.
I tended to be more lenient on violence and bad language, more restrictive about sex—though sometimes I got caught unawares. In Dirty Harry (1971), there is a scene in which Clint Eastwood's hard-nosed inspector Harry Callahan, searching for a killer in an alleyway, gets an inadvertent eyeful of a neighborhood woman nicknamed "Hot Mary." A neighborhood patrol mistakes Harry for a Peeping Tom, grabs him, and beats him up. Harry refuses to press charges. In the course of the scene, there's a brief shot of a not fully dressed Hot Mary. I hadn't planned on that. Still, it gave me the opportunity to explain that because of anti-police policies in the 1970s, there were rising levels of crime; citizens had to take matters into their own hands. When Harry refused to press charges, he was showing that he had more sympathy with ordinary citizens than he did with critics of the police.
I am thrilled that my son and I engaged in this project. I was able to rewatch many movies I had not seen in decades and even see some gems that I had missed in the course of my original cinematic education. And I think my son now has a much better sense of what he likes, of movie history, and of people's careers in the movie industry. His face lights up when he sees secondary actors we have watched in another movie, and he delights in telling me which movie it was. I have also enjoyed watching a number of a specific director's movies in quick succession, and identifying some of his or her tendencies for him.
In addition to learning something about film history, my son also seemed to learn something about actual history. Many of the movies we watched were set in the past, and his sense of American history definitely improved over the course of our watching. When we did a family game night that required participants to compete in coming closest to the date of an iconic photograph (e.g., the moon landing or the planting of the flag on Iwo Jima), he did remarkably well; and he attributed his success to our movie-watching. We also developed a language between ourselves, the shared language of cinephiles everywhere. Anytime we heard two glasses clink together, we would both say, "Warriors, come out to play-ay-ay."
As much as I liked watching the films themselves, the teaching moments were my favorite part of our year and a half at the movies. Covid may soon recede in the rearview mirror, and I am likely to have fewer nights at home. So will my son, who is entering high school. But I hope the urge to watch movies together will remain with us for a long time, along with the memories of watching (for him) and rewatching (for me) old classics across decades of movie history.