Kids, Films, and the Search for Something Bearable

The other day my older son was humming the theme to Ghostbusters and my wife, as she often does when he’s humming, asked him to stop, or at least to quiet down. My brother-in-law, in town for the day, said to me, “Ghostbusters?” I told him that I had watched it recently with both boys, and he asked if it was age-appropriate.

“Umm, I hope so,” I replied, and then changed that to, “Yeah, I think so. They weren’t scared, not really, and there’s no sex in it.” My hesitation, though, told me something important. I really needed to come up with a program of films to watch with my kids.

I’ve had this question before. My wife was out of town a bunch of weekends earlier this year and I decided that it would be fun to watch films with the boys at night. But what films to watch? That was the question. I’ve done the Pixar films and I don’t have the patience for a lot of children’s movies. Frankly, I don’t have the patience for a lot of what is billed as “family” movies. I find these rather dreadful. Instead, I hoped, to come up with some ideas for films that were well made and also appropriate for multiple ages – ones that the boys could enjoy but that I would like too. This is harder to do than one might think.

Most films for adults are either too violent, too morose, or have too much inappropriate content for children for me to screen for boys who are nine and seven years old. Or else they’re just boring to kids, who don’t have an investment in the drama or don’t understand the comedy. I decided, in the end, to go for action/adventure as a genre that held the most promise. This led me to the James Bond series.

“Really?” perhaps you ask. Yes, really. There’s less sex there than you think – it’s more implied than shown – and much of the fighting is rather cartoonish and not lifelike at all. The boys were rarely scared, if ever. I began with Dr. No, the first one, starring Sean Connery. It turned out that this was a mistake. It’s not that it was scary or too violent. It’s just rather out of date – about 47 or 48 years old now. The look of the film, the technology shown in the film, the fashion, the cars – everything looked to be of a such different time and place that it was too disconcerting for my kids.

For the next one, I skipped a decade and switched to Roger Moore as Bond. These films were much more successful. Because of the camp factor that Moore brought to his portrayal of Bond, my kids found much more humor in these films. We all did, quite frankly. While I appreciated Connery’s portrayal, he’s also rather self-srious in those early films.

We watched, I think, all of the Roger Moore Bond films over the next few weeks. But then we finished those. What next? We tried Ghostbusters, and that was successful. We watched The Natural, because they like sports, and that might prove useful as a further avenue. But we have reached the point where we are not sure what to show them next. Comedies and action/adventures seem the best way to go. But which ones? They can’t be too scary or too age-inappropriate. I know that they are not both quite ready for what I might call classics, though there are a few I might consider. We’ve shown them musicals before, and we could, in theory, do a few more of these.

A few years ago, A.O. Scott wrote a nice piece in the NY Times about the limitations of family films, and the predominance of them in terms of what children see, in which he argued for less timidity in what we show our kids. It’s a good thought piece. He has some good suggestions – Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Casablanca. This post is essentially a follow-up, and a bit of a cry for help. Any suggestions for films to show two boys – nine and seven?


What Is Your Life Motto?

I went to court today to do my duty – jury duty.  I didn’t much want to be a juror.  There’s no particular fascination there for me.  My Dad was a lawyer, as is one of my brothers, and I’ve seen enough of the law to have a pretty good sense of what it’s like and even have a pretty good sense of what court and trials are like.  They’re kind of going to the doctor’s office for a checkup – something that needs to be done, with the possibility for something interesting happening, but generally and overall, rather boring.

But I went.  You have to go.  You can postpone it a little bit, but your time comes in the end.  It always does.  And it wasn’t a bad time to get it over with, actually, so into the courthouse I went, with my computer and my book to wile away the time while I waited.  I was assigned to a particular case, with a specific judge, and after about 90 minutes our jury pool eventually went upstairs to meet the attorneys and the plaintiff and the defendant in the civil case that was before the court.  It was time for jury selection.

There were about 21 of us.  We had already filled out a questionnaire detailing our occupation and our possible relationships to anyone in the legal or medical or insurance professions, and where we lived, and how many kids we had, and all of that rigamarole.  The attorneys reviewed these while we waited outside and then we came back in the plaintiff’s attorney started explaining the bare outlines of the case and then told us he would be asking each of us a series of questions.  I was potential juror #2, so the second to go.

He began by asking the woman to my right about her ideas about the court system and about any history with car accidents and certain medical procedures and doctors, explaining to us that this was a case that was focused on a car accident and the injuries that resulted from that accident.  These were all fairly straightforward and I could tell that he would plan to ask me these same questions, so I began to formulate some answers in my head. (Honest answers – I wasn’t going to lie to get out of jury duty.)

But then he asked the first potential juror what she thought her strengths were and what she thought she could improve about herself.  Jesus, I thought, what the hell?  All of a sudden it seemed as if I was expected to write a college application in there – “What three words best describe you?  Tell us about a formative experience in your life that has changed how you view the world?”  She did a pretty good job with these, considering she seemed as surprised as I was with the questions and considering she clearly had no idea what to say to him.

And then he pulled out the clincher, his final question.  “What is your life motto?” he asked her.  She looked at him.  We all did.  “My life motto?” she said.  “Umm, I don’t know.  Live life to the fullest?”  It was plainly a question, not an answer, but he was more than satisfied.  He smiled in recognition at the words.

He turned to me and asked all of the same questions, which were easy enough and straightforward enough to answer.  At least until the strengths and weaknesses question, which just isn’t something I spend a lot of time thinking about.  Every year I do a summary of my work performance, like most people.  Part of this is by rote, to fill in the blanks of the “self-reflection” we are all expected to conduct, but some of it is real and valuable and engaged.  But job performance didn’t seem appropriate to the moment or what he might be looking for.  And it’s not that I’m not self-reflective or aware of my own faults – almost the opposite is true.  But this didn’t seem the right setting for those thoughts either.  So, I fudged my way through that part, not lying or anything but not saying anything particularly revealing or even “true.”

And when it came to the life motto part?  I almost just laughed. “I don’t have one,” I answered his question.  I said I try to teach my children to be kind, to not be cruel, to think of others.  A life motto?  No.  A philosophy?  Not exactly, but at least that’s closer.  I think I shrink away from the notion that “life” can be summed up in some type of motto, or that your philosophy can be, if you even have articulated one to yourself.  It just seems overly reductive to me, and I’m not willing to reduce the complexity of life to something that’s a credo that I can somehow cash in when called upon to do so.

I suppose, though, that maybe that’s what some people are looking for – simplicity, something they can carry around in their pocket.  But that’s just not something for me, not something I can buy into.

I found it depressing, just as I found most of the answers to this question clichéd.  He said back to me that perhaps my answer was “the golden rule.”  I smiled at him, noncommittal but not wanting to pursue it any further.  As he went along with the others, he continued this same line of questioning and some of the people came up with the usual fare.  Always he seemed pleased with the answers, and perhaps that had something to do with his overall strategy.  Or perhaps he really believed that our answer to the question told him something crucial about who we are and therefore how we might respond to the lawsuit that was taking place.

I personally find such a notion doubtful – it presumes we buy in to the supposition that one should have a life motto, as well as presumes that we have one.  Both of those seem wildly off the mark to me, at least in terms of a good portion of the general population.  Thirdly, it presumes we’d want to tell him.  We’re obligated to tell the truth, to not lie, but we’re not obligated to tell the whole truth about what we’re thinking.  (If so, I would have had to say what I found him to be supercilious and not very bright, that I think the law firm he is part of [the phone number for which is 454-2020, for those in the know!] is much more in it for the money than it is in it to represent those in need, or even that I found the opposing attorney to be strikingly dim, which has led me to a strikingly pallid view of lawyers, at least for today.)  In other words, all of his presumptions were silly, it seemed and seems to me.

Perhaps you’re wondering – wait, why did he want to know?  What did you find out about his strategy?  How did this question help him determine who should be on the jury and who should be dismissed, and therefore help rule in favor of his client?  I am sorry to report that I have no idea.

I was one of the ones dismissed.