Monday, December 17, 2012

The Film Club

The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son by David Gilmour (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007) 244 pages

When this memoir begins, Jesse is a sixteen year old with few ambitions, a dislike for formal schooling and a very anxious father. David Gilmour, a film critic and former broadcast journalist, is apprehensive to find an alternative to formal education for his son. He permits Jesse to drop out of school and doesn't demand that he get a job if the boy agrees to watch at least three films a week with his dad and let him "home school" Jesse on cinema. Dad's only stipulation: no drugs.

As a parent, this proposition raises the hair on the back of my neck (and pretty much everywhere else). How can this plan succeed? You can see Gilmour wavering when he glimpses the serious gaps in Jesse's knowledge base: Where is Florida? Is South America a country? Is the U.S. across from Lake Ontario? Is it merely a poor sense of geography or something more serious happening here? Oy ... you can feel the rising panic in Gilmour's writing. Am I doing the right thing here? he wonders.

I don't think I need to go over the films discussed here ... there are the classics (The Godfather, Chinatown, The French Connection, Hannah and her Sisters), the obscure films (Onibaba, Un Flic, Stick), the trashy, illicit ones (Showgirls) all accompanied by fairly banal commentary but that's not the point. The point is the adventure, the experiment. Will it work? Will it waken Jesse from his teenage lethargy?

Gilmour obviously loves his son deeply. Parental love is not that much different in its intensity than romantic love I find. Gilmour is an unabashed sensualist and obsessive in his interests. Read any of his other novels and you will see what I mean. A Perfect Night to go to China is a wonderful book about the loss of a son through a father's negligence. The anguish in that book is palpable; it stayed with me for weeks.

Gilmour's diligence and interest towards his new role in Jesse's life is demonstrative of this intensity. He is meticulous in his choices for Jesse and watches him compulsively for signs that the experiment is failing, that he is failing as a father.

It's easy to be in love with one's child and to be a little in awe of their physical beauty. After a particularly distressful breakup Jess has with a manipulative girlfriend, when David manages to make Jesse smile, it's "like wind blowing ashes off a beautiful table." In one scene, Jesse, a strapping lad of 6' 4'' in his late teens is rattled by the fear of his father's displeasure and honestly tells him so. To his credit, David confesses to his son how much effect the boy has on him. How true, how poignant, how little they know the power they have over us emotionally.

Through David's eyes we see Jess struggling with romantic relationships, undesirable jobs, Vanilla Ice rapper aspirations, and the possibility of a very bleak future when one has not even acquired a highschool education. It's a frightening scenario for a parent. But interestingly, David's future is not that much brighter at that point. While highly educated, intelligent and often holding high profile jobs in the media, he is underemployed and as he nears fifty, he fears that he is unemployable in a regular capacity. In a fit of desperation he even asks a bike courier who is roughly his age if he can put in a good word with his boss about a possible job. The revelation is painfully honest, excruciatingly so.

Despite Gilmour's sometimes overly effusive or trite observations on the films they viewed (which he helpfully cites in the index), we learn something about manhood or Gilmour's ideas about what manhood should be. When, on a holiday, he follows Jesse as he ventures away from their hotel in Cuba, beguiled by a couple of suspect Cubans into a bar and they narrowly escape what we suspect will be a beating and/or a robbery. He (and we as the readers) are strangely elated by his macho posturing. Gilmour's primary reaction is, "I did something for my kid. He still needs me." And believe me, that's a rare feeling as teens approach young adulthood.

This engaging story is sometimes marred by Gilmour's quirks and prejudices - despite his own obvious personal failures (which he does not fail to talk about here) he is an insufferable snob at times. Here he surveys the group his son works with telephone soliciting funds for a "fireman's magazine" in a grubby back room: " ... a dead end white kid, a Pakistani, an overweight woman with a tub of coke in front of her ..." So ... a kid you deem worthless, a "foreigner", a woman with weight issues ... and your son, the grade 10 drop out with obnoxious table manners is the gem in this grouping?

He keeps imagining his son driving a lonely cab at night. A legitimate worry but also very ... what is the word I'm looking for? Elitist. Why is a a grade 10 drop out too good to drive a cab or spend time with the people he mentions? How do you think we end up in these positions? Do any of us aspire to take low paying jobs? No, we are forced into them due to lack of education, poor language skills, bad luck, poor decision making, fate. Remember, you tempted the gods when you bid him leave school at that age.

Jesse does redeem himself, I won't reveal how, but he does. And that kid that I wanted to grab by the scruff of his neck and haul off the couch actually turns out to be a sensitive, sweet kid with promise. Bravo papa.

The Gilmour boys ...

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