(Tough)Loving the Alien

Here’s Looking at You, Kid: I came home from work the other day to find my 13-year-old son doing the dishes, voluntarily, to give his mother a break. As I went to him to give him kudos on his act of industry and kindness, I was stunned to notice that the top of his head was no longer at eye level. It’s one of those moments I’ve been having a lot lately, the realization that I no longer have a little boy living in my house but a budding man, with a whole new world of trials ahead for both of us. He’s gotten to an age where he’s vibrating with the need to go and do on his own, but without a clear sense of which of the infinite paths before him to choose. It’s a delicate, dangerous juncture, and as his dad I must be very careful from here on out.

In this place I feel for David Gilmour (the Canadian novelist and film critic, not the overrated British guitarist) as he looked across the dinner table at his 15-year-old son Jesse, flunking out of school and getting into all the worst kinds of teenage trouble. Realizing that the wrong course could well drive his son out the door, Gilmour made him a deal: no school, no work, free rent, in exchange for watching three movies a week of Gilmour’s choosing. It was a risky plan but Gilmour reasoned that if he could not speak to Jesse in Jesse’s language — teen angst, rampaging hormones, depression and self-destruction — then he would use his own, the universal language of film with its capacity to illustrate the wide spectrum of the human condition. This bold experiment is chronicled in Gilmour’s memoir The Film Club (Twelve Books, 2008).

I’m going to drop my usual snarky pseudointellectual pose here and just say it: I loved this book, every word of it, unreservedly. As the weeks roll on and Gilmour shares the richness of the cinematic universe in all its hues with his son, from French New Wave to Kurosawa samurai epics, from spaghetti westerns to goofy pure-Hollywood comedies, the two men begin to form bonds of communication and wisdom that so-called parenting experts can only dream about having. Gilmour writes in unflinching terms about the perils of navigating the treacherous waters of his son’s life — drinking and drugs, his risky foray into white-boy hip-hop, his obsession with a particularly manipulative 16-year-old femme fatale — with patience and firmness and, hardest of all but most importantly, trust in Jesse to do the right thing.

This is not to say that Gilmour makes himself out to be Ward Cleaver with a DVD player. During this period Gilmour struggles with his own demons, out of work and anxious, desperate to save his boy, and always terrified of making that fatal mistake that drives Jesse away. But while Gilmour educates his son, Jesse educates his father in the crucial balancing act between being the child’s friend and being his parent. As so many of us who were raised in the post-Dr. Spock era can attest, that balance is the most difficult stunt to pull off, but the most necessary. The Film Club shows that it can be done, maybe not with a feel-good Hollywood ending, but with something far more substantial.

(Also highly recommended, if you can find it, is Dennis Hensley’s remarkable book Screening Party [Alyson Books, 2002], the story of six diverse friends brought together by their monthly movie gatherings. Poignant, both sad and hopeful, and spank-me funny, it’s worth combing the Internet to find.)