This post reviews David Gilmour’s The Film Club: A Memoir(New York: Twelve, 2008).
Gilmour, a Canadian novelist, movie critic, and media odd-jobber, here offers a memoir describing the experience of allowing his deadbeat 15 year-old son to drop out of school and live at his home rent-free on condition that father and son watch three movies of father’s choosing every week together and that son promise not to use drugs. For three years David and his son Jesse are ”the film club.”
The book is as much about the father-son relationship, booze, and sex as it is about watching movies and education. In this review however I will focus only on the “homeschooling” element. The “film club” David Gilmour concocts is not just a couple of guys watching random movies. Gilmour Sr. is an incisive film critic who has made a good living for many years reviewing movies in print and on television. He groups the movies he wants Jesse to see into several thematic units and introduces each one to Jesse with a good bit of historical, technical, and biographical detail such that after a while Jesse becomes a real film studies expert without even trying. David’s basic pedagogical instinct is to go with the grain of his son’s interests:
What can I get him to do that won’t be a repetition of the whole school debacle? He doesn’t read; he loathes sports. What does he like to do? He likes to watch movies…. What could we do with that?
Here’s one among many examples given in the book of David’s pedagogical approach, this time in preparation for a screening of Hitchock’s Notorious:
I opened things up with a brief introduction to Hitchock, Jesse as always on the left hand side of the couch, a coffee in his hand. I said that Hitchcock was an English director, a bit of a prick with a mildly unhealthy thing for some of the blond actresses in his films. (I wanted to capture his attention.) I went on to say that he made a half-dozen masterpieces, adding, unnecessarily, that anyone who didn’t agree with that probably didn’t love movies. I asked him to look for a couple of things in the film. The staircase inside the villain’s house in Rio de Janeiro. How long was it? How long would it take to go down it? I didn’t tell him why.
I asked him also to listen to the graceful, sometime ssuggestive dialogue, to remember that this film was made in 1946. I asked him to watch for a very famous camera shot that starts at the top of a ballroom and slowly descends into a group fo partygoers until it arrives, tight, on the clenched hand of Ingrid Bergman. What is she holding? (A key to the wine cellar where the evidence of the Nazi mischief is disguised in wine bottles.)
I went on to say that a number of distinguished critics maintain that Cary Grant may well have been the best actor, ever, in films, because he could “embody good and evil simultaneously.”
“You know what ‘simultaneously’ means?” I said.
I showed him an article that Pauline Kael wrote about Grant in The New Yorker. He may not be able to do much,” Kael wrote, “but what he can do no one else has ever done so well, and because of his civilized nonaggressiveness and his witty acceptance of his own foolishness we see ourselves idealized in him.”
Then I did what I wish all my high school teachers had done more often. I shut up and put the movie on.
After the viewing, David asks what Jesse noticed about the staircase. He points out to Jesse that the staircase is longer at the end of the movie when Cary Grant and Bergman are trying to flee the home, explaining that Hichcock built a second set of stairs for that final scene. “You know why he did that?”
“Because that way it would take longer to get them down them. Do you know why he wanted that?
“To make it more suspenseful?”
“Can you guess now what Hitchcock is famous for?”
I knew enough to stop right there. I thought, You taught him something today. Don’t kill it. I said, “That’s all for now; school’s out.”
After three years of such lessons, Jesse, the dropout whose only ambitions in life seem to revolve around maximizing the number of cigarettes and inebriants he can ingest while getting and keeping a hot girlfriend and succeeding as a rapper, eventually comes ’round:
Then one day–it seemed to come out of the blue–Jesse said, “I want to go back to school.” He signed up for a three-month crash course, math, science, history, all the horrors that had defeated him years before. I didn’t think he stood a chance…. His mother, the former high school teacher from the prairies, tutored him in her house in Greektown. It didn’t all go smoothly, especially the math. Sometimes he rose from the kitchen table shaking with rage and frustration and stormed around the block like a madman. But he always came back…
Jesse passed the course and was accepted into college. David’s next unit was going to be on films with great screenplays, but “we just ran out of time.” His son had outgrown the film club and was ready to enter the wider adult world.
Gilmour’s well-written memoir delivers many important insights about homeschooling today. It showcases a homeschooling family that is far outside of the traditional stereotype: a divorced father, a drop-out son, an irreligious context of profanity, alcoholism, and teen sexual license. It offers an innovative, perhaps unparallelled curriculum, suggesting that learning can start anywhere and still end everywhere. Its message is not intentionally political, but its depiction of Jesse’s frustration with compulsory education and his growing curiosity about the world upon escaping from the confines of school is its own sort of morality tale. That it ends happily only enhances the message that a loving parent, even one so flawed as David Gilmour, can, by understanding a child’s interests and desires, awaken a love for learning.