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Coronavirus Break, Day One: Movie and Screen Time Recommendations

Over the next ten days, ten posts on ways to use all the free time which has suddenly fallen into our laps.

Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, but “busy work” won’t keep students truly busy while they wait for schools to reopen. At a time like this, the last thing students need is a daily email from their humanities teacher telling them, “Read cantos 12-19 of the Purgatorio and answer the following discussion questions.” Any reasonable student will know it took the teacher all of sixty seconds to compose this “assignment,” but the assignment will take the student more than ninety minutes to complete. Over the coronavirus break, mediocre teachers will require students to do “daily work” that they have no intention of actually reading and grading, which will only embitter students who know their teachers are enjoying leisure time while they are made to push heavy rocks up a hill.

The coronavirus break ought to be used profitably, but I am not content that what typically passes as “remote learning” is really all that profitable. Rather, this break offers students and teachers alike the chance to experiment with leisure. Teachers are in a place to require students to do various things from home, like reading and writing and crunching numbers, but they might take the chance to require students to cook an elaborate dinner (and send a picture) or listen to Debussy’s La Mer. Over the next ten days, I will try to offer a few such suggestions on redeeming the time.

However, before any such activities can be contemplated, parents need to deal with phones.

Unless parents pass draconian measures early on to ensure these free days are not wasted, a great many high school students will spend the next two weeks on Instagram and Netflix. A little more screen time is entirely justifiable during a quarantine, but screen time is a lot like calories— it can be wasted on garbage or it can truly delicious.

To that end, a few thoughts on saving your children from themselves.

First, collect your child’s smart phone at the beginning of the day. Your teenage son or daughter should not have a smart phone to begin with, but if they do, take it away in the morning and give it back in the evening. There is nothing good or important your child will do on their phone throughout the day at home. They wouldn’t be on their phone at school, anyway.

Second, if you let your child watch a movie… Do not let your child choose the movie. Choose the movie for your child. And when you choose, choose with your memory. Do not cast around Netflix for an hour, trying to find something that looks good, and then settle for something you don’t even want to watch. Instead, remember something you already know is good, perhaps something you haven’t seen in a long time, then make that the thing your child watches.

Third, watch the movie at a certain time each day. If school is cancelled, it has probably been cancelled for two weeks or more. You need a routine. Watch a movie every day after lunch (or just on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays). Start the movie at 1:00pm sharp. When the movie is over, turn off the television and do something else.

Fourth, a few recommendations… If you’re going to allow your children to watch just one movie a day over the coronavirus break, I would suggest imposing a rule on your selections— as in, resolve to not watch anything less than fifty years old. Whatever you do, don’t have a Lord of the Rings marathon, a Star Wars marathon, or what have you. It isn’t not gluttony just because you’ve attached the word “marathon” or “contest” to whatever you’re doing.

While the word “classic” means something much less when referring to a film than to a book, older films demand more patience, more intellection, and repay third and fourth viewings. Here are several older films which any student attending a classical school ought to see.

1. Vertigo: In the last ten years, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has replaced Citizen Kane as the film which most regularly tops critic’s lists of the greatest films ever made. Like Psycho and The Birds, Vertigo is a retelling of the Tristan and Iseult myth, though it easily the most sophisticated of the three.

2. The Night of the Hunter: A good film to show anyone who thinks old films are boring. The Night of the Hunter is a humid, terrifying film about two children on the run from an ersatz preacher who murdered their mother. It is one of just two films written by legendary film critic James Agee (his other screenplay is The African Queen). Made in 1955, but not recommended for anyone younger than high school.

3. Paths of Glory: One of Stanley Kubrick’s early films, Paths of Glory is a vexing, aggravating movie set in World War I about a French general (played by Kirk Douglas) whose men are unfairly condemned for refusing to take part in a suicidal charge. Part war film, part courtroom drama, fans of René Girard will adore this scapegoat story.

4. Casablanca: The Bogart-Bergman classic needs no introduction, but have your sons and daughters watch this one, then have them read Umberto Eco’s “Casablanca, or, the Clichés Are Having a Ball,” which is one of the most delightful film essays ever written.

5. Black Narcissus: Powell and Pressburger’s beautifully shot psycho drama about a bunch of nuns high on the Himalayan mountains who are trying to 1) run a school and 2) not fall in love with a shirtless David Farrar who plays the lusty but cynical handyman who knows their school won’t last.

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