Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - Generally for Kids

February 18, 2009

Buster Keaton's The General

I'm not typically the most kid-friendly moviegoer. In fact, I've gone so far as to complain about screenings purposed specifically for allowing babies. But there's no way I'm against seeing movies in auditoriums filled with children. I just prefer that such an experience be with a film that's appropriate for children. This means I do not want to hear infants and toddlers crying in a late night screening of an adult-oriented movie, and I certainly don't want to accidentally walk in to a "Baby Night" showing at my favorite drafthouse-type cinema, especially for a film as complex and attention necessitating as Synecdoche, New York.

It's not too common that I see movies specifically targeted to children, though. Even an animated film as (surprisingly) good as Kung Fu Panda may end up taking so long to convince me of its worthiness that I unfortunately view it on DVD, in my home, where there are no kids. Other such movies that contain a balance of appeal to both children and adults me, whether the latter is due to technological interests (i.e. 3-D) or genuinely intelligent and mature storytelling (i.e. anything by Pixar), tend to get screened at times when there are few, if any, youngsters in attendance. This isn't necessarily a conscious choice; it's just that I typically see something like Bolt in 3-D at an early afternoon, weekday showtime (when there are few people to distract me from the illusion), and I typically see something like Wall-E very late, when the childless grown ups (including the majority of people I usually go to movies with) come out as well.

Only once in the last five years did I see a kid-friendly film on a weekend afternoon at a theater filled with minors. And due to the enjoyment I got from witnessing these kids' appreciation of Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it's a shame that I haven't bothered to have that experience more often. Maybe it's the fact that I have no interest in seeing a movie like Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa by choice, and I don't get assigned to review such movies (thankfully). And reading other people's reviews of kids' movies doesn't usually influence me. A number of good film critics, such as A.O. Scott and Kim Voynar, do see these types of movies with their children, and they even report on their kids' reactions. But sometimes this can be too subjective. If my father had been a critic when I was very little, he might have noted that I greatly enjoyed slasher flicks like Friday the 13th (yes, when I was very little), nudity-filled teen movies like Porky's (yes, when I was very little) and bad family-friendly movies like Howard the Duck and Santa Claus: The Movie (both still guilty pleasures in my adulthood), yet I very rarely cared for truly kid-friendly flicks, like any number of re-issued Disney classics.

It has been due to my own childhood aversion to strictly youth-oriented films that I'd so far avoided attending my local cinema's annual kid-targeted series "Big Movies for Little Kids"." I'd certainly appreciated the intent of the program, which the theatre labels "a gentle introduction to the world of cinema," but too many of the selections were below my level of enjoyment. For example, this season's kick-off was Ice Age, a film I wouldn't have watched as a kid anymore than I would watch it now. And I didn't need to attend a film like that to know how the audience would react. But the next film in the series was Buster Keaton's The General, which happens to be one of my favorite films. I didn't get an introduction to this masterpiece until I was in my late teens (thanks to film school), and I always wonder what my younger self would have thought of it had I first seen it as a little boy. I'm familiar with many stories of cinephiles and film scholars playing Keaton and Chaplin films for their kids as both an introduction to silent movies and cinema in general. Turner Classic Movies also does this sort of thing with kid-targeted series such as "Essentials Jr.", which last summer included Keaton's Sherlock Jr.

But just knowing that kids respond well to silent comedy wasn't enough for me; I was very curious to see this response first hand. So, I attended the screening of The General, which I would go to see for any reason, and I sat amongst the stroller crowd of Brooklyn. Well, to be honest, this particular Keaton film might not have been the best pick, because it actually involves a lot of historical context and plot exposition, much of which comes via dialogue on title cards. And much of the audience was below reading age. After the show, I ran into a friend who had brought her four-year-old, and she pointed out that it wasn't exactly the most appropriate age at which to see this film. Of course, during the action and slapstick scenes the children were noticeably enjoying the movie a great deal. They laughed any time Keaton's "Johnny Gray" fell down and seemed to especially love the moments when he drops through the tracks on a bridge into the river and, interestingly enough, when he's sitting on the locomotive's coupling rods while it's in motion. Also, the whole auditorium clapped along to the score during marching scenes.

If I ever have kids, or if I choose to introduce any nieces or nephews to cinema someday, I'll probably prefer to expose them first to Steamboat Bill Jr., and not just because it's both my favorite Keaton film and the first of his that I saw, but also that I think it has a greater amount of purely dialogue-free and plot-free spectacle and comedy. If I had seen the hurricane sequence as a youth, it probably would have changed my life, even more so than it affected me as a college student. It was hard to tell if The General had such an impact on any of those kids' lives, though I guess that would be the case with any movie.

All I can tell from the experience is what I witnessed of this particular audience that afternoon, and despite all the loud queries of "what does that say?" during the intertitles and some apparent restlessness during the more expository scenes, it gave me tremendous pleasure to know that great cinema may always be enjoyed and appreciated even by novice moviegoers.

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WHo cares?

sumonesumtime on Feb 18, 2009


You cared enough to read it and post about it.

Joel on Feb 18, 2009


Where'd you go to film school?

Greedo the Rodian on Feb 18, 2009


If you really want to know, Greedo, I went to School of Visual Arts and Brooklyn College.

Christopher Campbell on Feb 18, 2009


Okay, thanks. The Keaton movies you mentioned sounded like you might have gone through my program.

Greedo the Rodian on Feb 18, 2009


Chris love your articles. Keep them coming.

Heckle on Feb 19, 2009

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