Once in a while, a book comes along that you wish came 20 years ago. “If only I had known… .”
On a flight to Amsterdam, that book hit my heart like a hammer. I was going to post another article here about flying. But I must get this hammer off my chest. If you read but one book this year, do this one. Warning: Dads with teens will get that blow in their hearts. Remember, this is non-fiction.
The Film Club, by Canadian David Gilmour (Random House, 2007), came lightly recommended. “The back cover looks nice, you might like it.” I left it unopened in Bangkok for weeks.
It was my visiting 16-year old son Julio who cracked it. Julio, like 16-year old Jesse in the story, isn’t a rabid book reader. But he devoured The Film Club in a day. He finished it on the airplane from Bangkok to Manila, handed it to me and said, “This is a good one, Dad. Read it.”
An unconventional deal: Jesse could leave school, sleep all day, not work, not pay rent – but he had to watch three films a week … of his father’s choosing.
Week by week, father and son watch the best (and worst) films. The films get them talking – about girls, music, heartbreak, work, drugs and friendship. Gradually the son develops from a chaotic teenager into a self-assured young adult, but as The Film Club moves towards the bittersweet conclusion, Jesse makes a decision which surprises even his father.
The true story of one man’s attempt to chart a course for his son’s rocky passage into adulthood.
That’s the back cover.
For three years, David, then 50, and his 16-year old son Jesse watched two or three movies a week. Jesse’s reel education consisted of 120 movies, from Alien and Annie Hall to Tootsie and Unforgiven.
The deal started badly with the first movie – Jesse found 400 Blows boring. But the second choice was a winner.
The next day, for dessert, I gave him Basic Instinct (1992).
“Paul Verhoeven. Dutch director, Robocop. Great visual attack. Made a couple of excellent films, ultra violent but watchable.
We started in, a tawny-skinned blonde butchering a man with an ice pick while engaged in sexual intercourse with him.
And then there’s the dialogue. The writer Joe Eszterhas was paid three million dollars for this kind of stuff.
Detective: How long were you dating him?
Sharon Stone: I wasn’t dating him, I was fucking him.
Detective: Are you sorry he’s dead?
Sharon Stone: Yes, I liked fucking him.
Jesse couldn’t take his eyes off the screen.
“Can we pause it for a moment?” he said and raced off for a pee. He hurried back, stocking feet thumping the floor, holding his pants by the waist, and vaulted back on to the couch. “You have to admit it, Dad. This is a great film.”
David worked each movie into the life-stages of his son. After stifling a quarrel over Jesse’s choice of a job, David knew that a shootout between them was inevitable. A shootout that fathers always lose. So he chose their next movie:
“I know what you’re thinking – did he fire six shots, or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track, myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you gotta ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”
A CBC film critic, David seeds the book with small gems — how Marlon Brando was discovered, Jack Nicholson’s artistry, Clint Eastwood’s technique.
But the book’s real jewel lies beyond the movies. Everywhere, fathers and sons share the same adolescent experiences that shape their lives. The Oedipan tragedy is that the age gap blocks life lessons from seeping from one to the other — both ways.
He put down the phone.
“What is it?” I said.
“Rebecca always chooses the strangest times to want to talk about stuff.” For an instant I thought I saw tears misting up in his eyes.
We went back to the movie but I sensed he wasn’t there anymore. He was watching some other movie, the bad things Rebecca was going to do because he’d pissed her off on the phone. I turned off the TV.
“I had a girlfriend once,” I said. “All we ever talked about was our relationship. That’s what we did instead of having one. It gets to be a real bore. Call her back. Clear it up.”
David’s agony over his son’s crushing breakups with two consecutive girlfriends awakened haunting memories for me. It will for you too.
You remember the nightmare after breaking up with the girl of your dreams: after a gazillion sleepless nights in lonely isolation, you find out that she, just as lonely, called one of your friends over to sleep with her. (Then she cuts her hair short. Remember?)
How do you explain to your son that it’s not the end of the world? Because it is.
This is a book that relives our lives as teens, and then as adults. The pain and joy in these pages will be your own.
The retired principal of a high school had told me, “Don’t be fooled. Teenage boys need just as much attention as newborns. Except they need it from their fathers.”
Jesse OD’ed on cocaine after the second breakup, a tragedy averted because he had the sense to call for an ambulance himself.
“I so miss that girl so much,” he said. “So much.”
“I’d do anything to help you. Anything.”
We sat there, both of us, sobbing.
Read the book. It only takes half a day. Ask Julio, 16 going on 50.
“It’s a great book, Dad. Read it.”
Postscript: There’s a list of featured movies in the book. Ironically, Julio and I watched three of them when he was visiting me in Bangkok. The Godfather and The Godfather II, and Dr. Strangelove.
Posted from Nijmegen, May 6, 2008