Films trigger critical family discussions

Movie talk on the home front is bigger than awards chatter

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: J. K. Simmons as Fletcher in “Whiplash”

One of the many great blessings of my job, that I never take for granted, revolves around the power of film to inspire insightful and rigorous debate, which begins and ends close to home. Week in and week out, I get to share my opinions about the films that unspool in the multiplexes and the art houses throughout the region, but that is a largely one-sided exchange that stymies my personal curiosity about how others perceive and relate to the narratives presented onscreen. Nearly a decade ago, as the rise of the Internet started shifting the news and cultural paradigm – forcing many outlets to suspend local coverage of various arts beats – I initiated a transition into the classroom where, as an adjunct instructor, I could share my experience as a writer and critic, but more importantly, I could engage students in discussions about the movies that were shaping their societal views. Less than six months ago, I took this endeavor further, starting a non-profit organization (WatchWriteNow, Inc.) dedicated to creating film clubs for students throughout the region, safe spaces for students to learn to think critically and creatively about filmed content.

But, all of these efforts stem from the roots I’ve attempted to establish in my home, with my daughters. Now teenagers (ages 13 & 16), my girls have grown up with an awareness of my passion for film and debate, and they have, in their own ways, taken up the challenge I set for them, years ago, when I would bring them with me to advance screenings. Back in the day, they were eager to get the scoop before my readers, asking (as soon as the lights would come up), what grade I intended to give the movies we had just seen. I remember countering their fascination with the “grade” by focusing instead on talking about the process of criticism – what I liked or didn’t like about the movies, expanding upon why a movie worked or didn’t work for me.

I could see and appreciate how frustrating such talk was for them, but I wanted them to understand that film was about more than a grade or box office receipts or awards. That was a mere surface level consideration, and to stop there was to ignore the character of the work and a reflection of themselves.

This awards season has offered me the first meaningful sign in both girls of the full-maturation of the critical process. The first dawning awareness came during my time at the Toronto International Film Festival. Immediately following the press screening of Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” I hastily texted my older daughter, a drummer in her high school’s upper-level jazz ensemble and a couple of bands comprised of enterprising peers, imploring her to add the film to her watch-list. In my mind, I was Fletcher (Oscar nominee J.K. Simmons), driving her to strive for some critical height, with the heavy hand of love rather than such intensely brutal discipline. I might agree with Fletcher that “good job” are the worst words in the English language, but his character offers a unique case study for parents and teachers as to how not to potentially push a creative child away from their passion.

My younger daughter, in recent weeks, has taken the reins of her own immersion into the critical world, by begging to see first “Selma” and then “American Sniper.” We went as a family to see “Selma” during the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, and I caught myself recalling my own reaction to some of the historic figures and events of the Civil Rights era. Of course, as a young black child growing up in the 1970s in the South, I had a more visceral response to say, George Wallace – whose infamous line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” remains seared in my memory – than this young girl, newly bat mizvahed and growing up in a world where a black president is a reality rather than a seemingly impossible dream.

She also, as an American teen, enjoys a meaningful remove from the concerns of soldiers like Chris Kyle, coming back from a modern war zone like the Middle East with nightmares of death shattering their waking lives. A film like “American Sniper” gives me the chance to talk to her about such matters, about the choices made in our names and the country’s interests, and more importantly, about how she feels about those decisions. Such discussions render thoughts of “grades” and awards pathetically meaningless, but serve a much higher purpose.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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