Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sense and Proportion: A Parent's Guide to Film

My sister-in-law related to me an interesting incident that happened to her recently. She teaches singing to kidlets at an elementary school and recently decided to show them West Side Story. While the children were engrossed in the film, another teacher peeked in the room and saw Szilvia’s class raptly watching West Side Story, at which point she apparently flounced down to the head of the after-school program and complained. The children (third graders) could NOT watch this movie! The hero dies at the end! The head of the program came up to tell Szilvia she had to stop showing the movie. Szilvia was dumbfounded, but the piano teacher in the class recovered enough to give the program head what for. “Do you REALIZE this movie is a CLASSIC??” Do you REALIZE it was written by LEONARD BERNSTEIN and STEPHEN SONDHEIM? Do you REALIZE it is based on the most CLASSIC play in the ENGLISH LANGUAGE, written by SHAKESPEARE?”

I think it might have been great to also ask if he realized that the kids were completely enraptured and none of them were shrieking at the door or rocking themselves in a corner. (Make the singing ladies stop… oh please… make them STOP!)

One of my own earliest memories is listening to the West Side Story cast recording of the Broadway show with my Mom. I will always remember the album cover: red, with a dramatic black and white picture of Tony and Maria running down a New York sidewalk. My mother told me the story, and she did not edit the fact that Tony dies at the end, and yet I was unscarred. To my child self West Side Story represented all that was glamorous and sophisticated in life: New York City. Dancing. Twirly Dresses.

Truth is, when it comes to scarring memories of movies from my childhood, others rank significantly higher. Bambi (they shot his mother and burned his m**** f*** HOME!). The Wizard of Oz (freaking flying monkeys! Don’t try to tell me - or at least my five-year-old self - freaking flying monkeys aren’t a sign of the Apocalypse). One excruciatingly early Saturday morning my parents awoke to the sound of me screaming at the top of my lungs. They rushed downstairs to find me watching Lassie, who was in a burning barn, trying to save that idiot accident prone Timmy. I also was not fond of The Three Stooges, or I Love Lucy; Stooges for their unconventional dispute resolution techniques, Lucy just for getting herself into those freaky, humiliating jams. The anxiety of wondering how she was going to extricate herself was just too damn much.

My parents were quick to take dramatic action when something in life upset me. When I flipped out at The Wizard of Oz, they took me out of the theater. When they found me watching Lassie in tears, they turned the TV off. Interestingly enough, they did not sue the movie theater for emotional damages or report the TV station to the FCC. Also interesting, I never needed therapy to recover from seeing The Three Stooges, despite their disturbing, violent, co-dependent relationship.

This nostalgia trip reminded me of another school-related movie memory from my childhood. We were shown a film (a real honest to goodness moving picture show, rather than a filmstrip… BING) about bus safety. This was back in the days when no one thought much about scaring the beejesus out of kids to make a point. They’d only recently stopped teaching us to dive under our desks in the event of a nuclear war. The plot of the film is thus: Kids are acting up on the bus. The bus driver keeps hollering at them to settle down. One kid takes a mouse out of a box and dangles it in the bus driver’s face, the driver screams, faints, and the bus crashes, runs off the side of a bridge, and impacts in an exploding fireball.

Actually, the exploding fireball is probably my imagination, but the rest is '70s educational film gospel. The movie totally and completely freaked me out. (Yes, I was a total wuss when I was a kid, and I was no fun at birthday parties either.) The next year at a new school we were gathered together in the auditorium for movie time, and I recognized the same movie starting. I found a teacher and asked her if I could please sit this one out, since I’d seen it before. I don’t think I admitted that I was terrified, but maybe she could see it in my eyes, so she said sure and excused me to the library. That was it. Kids find their own limits, and they tell you what they are. Reasonable adults respond in a sensible, proportionate manner.

Let us contrast this with another more newsworthy, or certainly more reported, story involving a class, a teacher, and a movie. A substitute teacher in Chicago showed a class full of eighth graders Brokeback Mountain. Now the school board is being sued by the family of one of the students, a twelve-year-old girl, for $500,000 for the ever popular “emotional damages”. The girl has been so traumatized by the experience she has had to undergo psychological counseling.

Let’s start with the teacher. What the hell was she thinking? I am more liberal than the next person, particularly when it comes to movies, but the point of film ratings is to help parents decide what they want their kids to see. No teacher with an ounce of sense could assume that most parents would be totally fine with letting their 12- or 13-year-old kids see an rated R-movie. (Let us put aside the fact that most of them have known how to override the parental control setting on the cable since they helped their parents set it up. We are talking about the sanctity of parental illusion.) Lest one wonder if she was confused about what she was showing this class of 12-year-olds, that perhaps she thought this film was a documentary about sheep farming, she screwed herself out of that excuse when she told the class, “What happens in Ms. Buford’s class stays in Ms. Buford’s class.”

I’ve pondered what might inspire a teacher to do something like this. Maybe she was tired of subbing at that school and was looking for a way never to be invited back. Certainly back in my reference desk working days we had dreams of things we would do on our last day, like answering every inquiry with, “What are you? Stupid?” It’s hard not to imagine an Edna Crabapple announcing that it’s time her class learned what the dating world is really like, starting Brokeback Mountain, and then escaping out the back door to Boca Raton. Truth is, the whole story sounds a lot like an episode of The Simpsons, up to and including the family now suing the school.

I think the teacher was an idiot. I don’t have issues with her being reprimanded or fired. She wasn’t striking a blow for gay rights or freedom of expression, and she has single-handedly justified all the oversensitive schools that have banned the use of film as a teaching tool. But she’s not the only idiot in the story, or even possibly the biggest. That prize goes to the grandfather and guardian of one of the 12-year-old girls in the class who is now suing the school for half a million dollars.

His argument is that he’s tried to protect his granddaughter from being exposed to this sort of lifestyle. Before the movie incident he had complained about books she was being asked to read, and his justification for suing the school is to teach them a lesson. The girl has been so scarred by seeing this film that kids in her class have discovered, no doubt to their delight, that they can get her to freak out just by humming the theme music of the movie. I try to avoid mocking children for their behavior, even if a particular child does appear to be behaving like a ninny, on the assumption that children are products of their environment. If this poor child was so scarred by seeing Brokeback Mountain that she needs therapy, that the mere theme song sends her into paroxysms of hysteria, then the blame can be placed firmly on the doorstep of her grandparents.

I also blame them for her inability to speak up while Ms. Crabapple played the movie. She could have told the teacher she’s sure her parents don’t want her to see this. She could have told the teacher she didn’t want to see this. She could have asked to be excused to the bathroom and declined to come back. I was eight when I approached the teacher and asked if I could be excused from Bus Carnage ’76. My parents raised me to be obedient and respectful to my teachers, but they didn’t teach me to be a passive ninny.

All in all, any common sense or sense of proportion is completely lacking from any of the adults in this story. Sadly I think this story could easily be a parable of life in the Aughts, where Shock and Awe have annihilated Sense or Proportion as desirable traits. Somewhere society got the impression that it is easier to raise children in a sensory deprivation tank than to explain things about society that might be uncomfortable.

When the world inevitably intrudes into this illusory sensory deprivation tank, it is easier to write angry letters or sue someone else then it is to explain to children that shit happens. Bad things happen to good people. People have different opinions but that doesn’t make them evil. You can’t always get what you want. Some cowboys are gay, and Tony dies at the end.

Speaking of signs of the unravling fabric of civilization, I have to say something about the recent "debate" about evolution shown on ABC's Nightline. Actually, I'm not going to discuss the debate, which was so far from newsworthy I imagine Ted Koppel dying just to roll over in his grave. I just have to discuss one moment in the "debate" (I'm sorry, I just can't use the word without adding quotes.) when actor Kirk Cameron help "prove" the fallacy of Darwinism by showing a picture of a duck with an alligator head.

Set aside for a moment what it says about a movement that would send a long-past-his-expiration-date former child sitcom star to make an intellectual argument upon their behalf. I simply must point out, for the sake of my own sanity, that a picture of a duck with an alligator head actually PROVES NATURAL SELECTION more than it proves God is behind the whole thing. You see, there are no ducks with alligator heads. Ducks with alligator heads... crazy... funny... nutty. Wouldn't work in real life. Wouldn't last very long. Their mouths are bigger than their stomachs for one thing, which is never a good survival mechanism. In the process of natural selection, weird creatures that make no sense never make it past the mutant embryo stage.

In fact, the only way a duck with an alligator head could come about would be if some almighty powerful being with sense of the ridiculous created it. That's why I firmly believe that God created the platypus, while leaving natural selection to do the rest. Therefore, to use the same masterful, razor sharp "debating" techniques spouted by Cameron and his sidekick: the only thing that could explain the existance of a duck with an alligator head is some all powerful being making up things just to fuck with our heads. Ducks with alligator heads do not exist. Therefore, an all powerful being that makes up things to fuck with our heads, hides dinosaur bones inside mountains for kicks, and provided us with reason and common sense so that hucksters calling themselves spiritual leaders could label them as sinful, does not exist.

Cogito ergo sum.

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