When I was fifteen, I saw Blade Runner and it overwhelmed me, though I had little sense of what the film was about. When I revisited the film several months ago, I found it was about epistemology, doubt, and personhood. On my first viewing, all these things went over my head. I could appreciate the film, but not fully.
Years later, I could appreciate the film, understand it, pluck out the heart of the film’s mystery, and it no longer overwhelmed me. At fifteen, I was undone by the colors, the score, and by Deckard, the moody hero at the center of the story. Blade Runner colored the private atmosphere of my thought life for years to come. Images from the film returned to me often, for no apparent reason. The film never felt far from me. A man’s soul is a city, and in that city are many houses and businesses, cathedrals and courthouses. After I saw Blade Runner, some little tinkerer’s shop deep in the Old Downtown of my spirit got to work repairing the film to me, but never really finished the work. Instead, day after day, an old man would remove a few bolts from the film, examine them, put them back in, and wander away. For years after, when someone brought up Blade Runner, I might honestly say, “I was just thinking about that film the other day,” even though no conscious part of my mind had devoted time to it. At fifteen, I was just as daffy and prone to cackling, mocking laughter as the next boy. To feel sympathy for something sullen and contemplative was good for my soul. Blade Runner was one of a dozen or so films I encountered in high school which lingered, inspiring a sad face and a glad heart long after the credits rolled.
Parents are often looking for movies which their little children can understand, which is good, for we all need to see foolishness lead to poverty and restraint lead to contentment. That said, there are many important lessons, sympathies, and tastes which children can only learn from films which mostly go over their heads. Pixar films might be clean, comprehensible, and obviously point toward some boilerplate lesson in virtue, but no child is going to learn to dress stylishly or speak in a refined manner after watching Alladin. For that, you really ought to show them Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman movies. Cary Grant made talking (not lecturing, not preaching, not oratory, but just plain old conversational speech) seem like an art form, for his tone was cool, his rhythms reserved, though occasionally punchy. I want my children to talk like Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, not like Mater the tow truck or Dory the fish. In fact, most animated characters speak in an overly dramatic, sing-songy, and highly staged manner which I find grating and irritating, but which was also easily discerned in the manner sorority girls read original work in a Poetry 341 class I took back in college. Overexposure to the overly dramatic benumbs common sense to the gentle dynamics of real drama, and that which is absorbed earliest is absorbed most deeply.
A child is not going to understand the themes of To Catch a Thief, but they will understand that John Robie is cool, and that cool people do not shout or lose control. A child is not going to understand the humor of The Magnificent Ambersons, but I want my children to see me laughing at humor in films which they do not understand; I want them to see adults laughing at films that are not obviously funny so that they understand humor is a subtle thing, and not necessarily slapstick or silly. When children watch movies, they do not only watch movies. They also watch their parents watching movies. Children learn how to respond to films by imitation, not merely intuition, and for this reason many children derive special pleasure out of watching films with adults. Granted, these lessons might seem of minor importance when compared with the didactic possibilities which attend a viewing of Frozen or Sleeping Beauty, however, human beings are simply far more susceptible to the power of images and maxims than we think, and far less susceptible to narratives than we would like. For this reason, Darth Vader sells far more Star Wars gear than Luke Skywalker does, because Vader is the more powerful image. We can tell children all we like that Vader is evil, and they can dutifully describe how cruel and selfish Vader is, but at the end of the day, Vader is simply much cooler and far more seductive. I am not suggesting children should not see Star Wars. My own children are 6 and 8 and they have each seen the original trilogy twice, however, I am under no illusion that they are becoming more moral people for watching it, even though I think Star Wars a moral story. Rather, I am fond of the eerie atmosphere of Dagobah, the ineffable nature of the Force, the pluckiness of Leia, the gnostic mystery of Obi-Wan’s death, the time for contemplation which the characters enjoy whilst traveling from one location to the next, and all three films’ power to reveal the spiritual and uncanny in an unscrubbed cosmos. At least, these were the qualities of the films which clung most deeply in me when I saw them young.
I am not suggesting children should not be shown cartoons, but the morals of cartoons are quickly lost, much like the list of Persian kings you crammed for twenty years ago is now forgotten. Before showing a child any film, it is worth asking, “After the moral has been forgotten, what will remain?” If a film is garish, loud, and tasteless, these aural and visual qualities are far more likely to linger than “Stealing is wrong and courage is good.” I am quite sure you can teach a child of 24 months to read with zany educational animated Youtube videos, but the benefit of reading fades and the want of videos remains. Pretty much everyone can read by the age of 12, but not everyone demands learning be fun, trite, and easy. Hang lessons. From what kind of films do you want your sons to learn demeanor?
Since becoming a cheese enthusiast years ago, I have often served expensive cheeses to friends and their children. From time to time, someone protests that very fine foods will be “wasted” on their children. In some sense, this is undoubtedly true, and yet, if you want children to like fine food, you must waste quite a bit of fine food on them before they will actually like it. Much like bad things, good things are quite hard to like— it’s mediocre things that go down easy. Show your children films that do not cater to their every prejudice and weakness, and by the time they have to figure out some way of liking Paradise Lost in high school, they will be up for the challenge.