Fun Flicks and fabulous finds

Getting To Know the FILMCLUB Audience

Recently a British education charity known as FILMCLUB issued a list of 20 classic films they insist “should be watched” by children. They urged parents and grandparents to make sure that happens.

Most publications reprinted their call to action without comment or criticism. Here’s what they recommend:

TEN CLASSIC MOVIES FOR PRIMARY SCHOOL CHILDREN (ages 6 to 12)

  1. FILMCLUB logoThe Red Balloon (1956)
  2. Duck Soup (1933)
  3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  4. Oliver Twist (1948)
  5. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
  6. The Kid (1921)
  7. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  8. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
  9. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
  10. La Belle et La Bête (1946)

TEN CLASSIC MOVIES FOR SECONDARY SCHOOL CHILDREN (ages 12 to 18)

    1. North by Northwest (1959)

Screen capture from filmclub.org

  1. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
  2. Metropolis (1927)
  3. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
  4. The Great Escape (1963)
  5. Twelve Angry Men (1957)
  6. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
  7. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
  8. Seven Samurai (1954)
  9. The Ladykillers (1955)

Malcolm McDowell in the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange

Typical reader responses include “I can’t argue with any of those choices. They are all, deservedly, classics.” Others pleasantly debated about what should be added to the list, and what should stay. Most seemed to agree at least one Stanley Kubrick film should have been included — like Dr. Strangelove or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But nobody seemed particularly concerned about how the kids might react to all this.

Before I continue, let me be clear — I am 100% in support of children discovering the world of classic cinema. But the key word is “discovering.” This is more like the Ludovico Technique.

It’s not easy, but it is possible for kids — in sufficient numbers — to discover vintage films they might truly enjoy and find relevant, thus triggering a prolonged interest. The trick is to let them find their own path. Especially at such a young age. Later, once one has their interest and attention, then one can suggest such canonized classics. That way, the worst-case scenario is they retreat to the types of classic cinema that more easily appeals to them — instead of retreating from an entire library of them.

That’s because, when one takes such an autocratic approach from the get-go, it tends to generate one of two responses: conformity or rebellion.

This is best exemplified in the film if….?

As is, FILMCLUB’s methods already shows signs of both, which is wholly avoidable because a much more constructive approach is not only feasible but immensely more rewarding for all.

“I hate black and white movies so I hate this one!”
– 9-year-old Joe after watching The Lavender Hill Mob

Let’s look at Duck Soup, for example. It’s arguably the strongest comedy on this FILMCLUB list, but the humour is mostly verbal — the kind adults tend to “get,” and kids don’t. Looking at the comments section, a curious pattern emerges that seems to prove this tendency. When the youngsters — especially pre-teens — articulate what they specifically like about the film, they always highlight the physical comedy (e.g. “the bit where he kept swapping the hats” gets mentioned a lot). Not the verbal gags.

They especially liked “the person who couldn’t speak.” I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t Groucho.

The following seems to sum it up best:

“I really enjoyed this film because it was very funny, especially the mirror bit. The only thing that I didn’t like about it was that I didn’t understand it all.” – Oliver, 7 years old

Groucho Marx wonders why young kids prefer watching his silent brother over him in Duck Soup.

For the most part the remarks about Duck Soup are incredibly kind compared to what youngsters say about some of the other recommended titles. Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, tended to provoke complaints that it “broke into song every five minutes.” And the predominant descriptors for The Lavender Hill Mob were “boring” and “not funny.”

Of course, there were others who said they loved this Ealing comedy, but their write-ups were often a laundry list of production details, such as 10-year-old Matthew who says “A cool Charles Crichton film with Alec Guinness and lots more crazy people a great plot and a good finish to this silly story lasting a full 81action minutes superb!!! Everyone watch THE LAVENDER HILL MOB.”

I was a bit puzzled by Matthew’s enthusiasm and detail — and others like it — until I discovered the “FILMCLUB Guides.”

These “guides” are meant to be read by the kids before they watch a particular film, and are unquestionably designed to influence a positive response (sort of FILMCLUB’s version of “Serum 114“). Check out this one for Kind Hearts and Coronets, which follows the same format as the others.

The plot summary — or “What’s it about?” section — is loaded with subjective remarks such as “astonishing lead performances” from Alec Guinness, and that “the result is a masterclass in great acting – and a darkly hilarious movie to boot.” But the editorializing doesn’t stop there.

Screen capture from filmclub.org

At the end they tack on a “What We Think” section. The one for Kind Hearts reads: “Featuring more funny performances than you can count, Kind Hearts and Coronets more than deserves its reputation as possibly Britain’s best ever black comedy.”

In between, the guides predominately include nothing but positive, glowing review quotes — not a single dissenting opinion amongst them (even though a number of the selected films were critical and/or box office disappointments when originally released).

But what is most unusual is they also include a section called a “Review Starter.” They actually feed students opening lines for positive reviews they are expected to write.

Yes, they literally tell them what to say.

Screen capture from the “FILMCLUB Guide” for The General

Instead of coercing children to write fawning reviews of the films they’re made to watch, why not let them be honest? Why not let them articulate what they like — or don’t like — and encourage them to explain why? Speaking as someone who usually analyses Nielsen data, I can assure you their honest insight would be invaluable.

As is, it’s difficult to decipher which opinions are genuine versus those that merely ape what’s being programmed into them. Altogether, a great opportunity for learning — on all fronts — is being missed here.

FILMCLUB insists the objective for their 20 “should be watched” films is to give children “a better understanding of cinema” — but they seem to be forgetting a few things about the true history of movies.

For one, a lot of early cinema wasn’t meant for kids in the first place — including many of their “should be watched” titles. They typically dealt with adult characters, concerns and stories because that was their primary audience.

Naturally some succeed in appealing to children anyway, such as It’s a Wonderful Life (story of a father contemplating suicide, and being brought back from the brink by a guardian angel), but at a running time of 130 minutes, it did provoke complaints that it was “long and i didnt understand the plot.”

Another fact FILMCLUB overlooks is that early films were meant to be seen in a theatre. It was a place where young and old would gather — remember, they had no ratings system — and it was not uncommon for the scene to get a bit chaotic and noisy. Below is a scene from a film called Nitrate Base which gives a hint to its atmosphere.

In just about every way, recreating an old-fashioned, theatrical experience would be preferable over dvd (most FILMCLUB screenings happen in classrooms, with kids sometimes having to sit on the floor). The means are certainly available to make that happen, and it’s a great way to bring true film history to life.

At the very least, if showing something like a silent film in a classroom, how about letting the kids add their own music and/or sound effects (similar to what the children did in that Nitrate Base clip)? It’s not only a great opportunity to get goofy, but inspire creativity and social interaction.

FILMCLUB, on the other hand, aims for a high-brow film festival-like experience with introductions, after-film discussions and everyone wearing VIP access passes.

But they insist it provides “some film fun.”

Adult audience watches the 3D film Bwana Devil in 1952, while FILMCLUB kids are given a modern-day film festival-style experience that includes wearing VIP access passes.

Wanna know what else is fun? Watching The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. in a theatre with a raucous crowd, and hearing them go “Hissssss!” every time the villain appears (in this clip it would sound at the 0:29 point). It’s a great socially binding experience which I’ve personally witnessed a few times. Unfortunately FILMCLUB doesn’t even list this film in its entire 3600+ title library; a curious omission considering it’s the only feature written by legendary children’s author Dr. Suess.

And for older teenagers, a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an especially good opportunity for audience participation. Almost every city has one (in the UK, a pro sing-along is scheduled this month in London). Believe me, that’s an experience they’ll never forget — or likely regret.

NOTE: I don’t recommend watching Rocky Horror on dvd. As the clip below should demonstrate, home viewing is nowhere near as impactful.

So What Should We Do?

The question inevitably remains: Don’t we need to give the children some guidance?

The answer is easy. Just listen to what they’ve already told us.

Image from LIFE Magazine, July 1, 1946

Of course, FILMCLUB’s comments section — our best source of intel on what the kids like — is not entirely reliable or trustworthy. Some of the opinions — especially those from conformist-prone children — are sure to pay lip service to the FILMCLUB Guides. However, if the volume is large enough, the film’s genuine appeal is easier to glean.

We also must be mindful of the screening conditions, which seem damn uncomfortable (classroom settings, with blacked-out windows, and children having to sit on the floor). This would surely diminish the effectiveness of a screening, particularly if the film is more than 90 minutes long. Some are almost twice that length, and that can be painful if you’re in the cheap seats.

Plus, FILMCLUB’s inventory is missing a lot of titles such as the entire filmographies of Martin and Lewis, The Three Stooges, Hammer Pictures, the Andy Hardy series and Our Gang.

This leaves us with Disney films, Laurel and Hardy and the Carry On movies, which have historically had youth appeal.

Only four Carry On movies are present in the FILMCLUB inventory, but these consistently garner positive response. For example, Carry On Screaming has 50 comments, and I only spotted two that were negative.

The Three Stooges (Curly, Larry and Moe) in Healthy, Wealthy & Dumb. (Unavailable in FILMCLUB’s inventory)

Same goes for Laurel and Hardy films. Sons of the Desert has over 200 comments, and the vast majority are favourable. 10-year-old Yasmin’s comment about the film seems to nail it best: “This film was good because the men were really silly and acted like children.”

Bravo to Yasmin for figuring that one out. This important quality about the characters is often overlooked by critics and scholars, and is never mentioned in the associated 2-page FILMCLUB Guide. They instead describe it as “Tom and Jerry-esque tomfoolery” which is wholly incorrect.

The listed Disney titles also consistently attract high praise, especially with the younger kids, though the remake of The Parent Trap seemed more enthusiastically received than the original. 12-year-old Sanjana — one of the few to write anything negative about the original — appears to have identified the weakness:

This film did not keep the audience engaged, and after seeing the newer version I can safely say it did not live up to the modern film. The pace was a bit too slow and it dragged on a bit, but the ending was very abrupt. The modern film was more romantic. In this film, the characters were annoying and not very believable.

Many FILMCLUB kids say the 1970 WWII action/adventure/comedy film Kelly’s Heroes, starring Clint Eastwood, was “boring”

What I especially like about Sanjana’s comment is that it focuses on the three things which most often concerns kids (and audiences in general): pacing, story and characters. Plus, it addresses the audience’s reactions (“did not keep the audience engaged”) — not just the reviewer’s. I rarely see that mentioned in the reviews or comments.

One of FILMCLUB’s stated objectives is to nurture “intellectual development” and “open their minds.” But identifying the elements that provoke positive audience response — and which ones don’t — can lead to one of the best forms of learning there is; figuring out what people like to see. What makes them applaud? What makes them cheer? What makes them laugh? It is one of the essential elements of being a successful programmer. Unfortunately, there’s no apparent evidence FILMCLUB encourages this tactic.

For example, children complain about films being in black-and-white — a lot — but when they see a film they enjoy, it usually evaporates as an issue. Why do you think that is?

If you can figure that out, and make more such titles available, the more likely your audience will expand their thinking and explore more. Especially as they mature and grow older.

Sadly, FILMCLUB’s current system of imposing a narrow list of adult-selected “should be watched” titles, and pressuring young impressionables to parrot a positive review of them, robs kids of a valuable self-discovery — and the rest of us of a rich insight.

Children — like Yasmin and Sanjana — are often smarter than we give them credit. They certainly deserve more in this circumstance.

Screen capture from filmclub.org

That all being said, the overall idea of FILMCLUB — students programming films for their friends and classmates — is definitely a worthy pursuit. If you listen to your audience, you ultimately learn so much from them, and people in general. It’s a great thrill figuring out what makes them applaud.

I used to do something similar (program festivals at York University) and one of the things I learned was never to program The Night of the Hunter again (one of FILMCLUB’s “should be watched” titles). That was my biggest disaster. Try it yourself with a youth audience. See if you experience the same reactions I did, and let me know. I’d be curious to find out if what I witnessed 23 years ago at Nat Taylor Cinema still holds true today.

I’ll admit this much: it wasn’t the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that had them snickering and walking out.

And if you’re one of those doing the programming, you might also find some good tips in this document which was written and refined over a period of years. It’s based on a number of proven formulas for success.

Though the article is quite dated now — it was prepared back when film societies still used theatres and projected in 35mm — it makes a lot of good suggestions that are still applicable today.

Most important is Suggestion #7: “Get to know your audience… listen to what they have to say.”

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