The International Writers Magazine:
The Film Club – by David Gilmour
Twelve Books (2008)
Gabriela Martins Davies
They say what you learn is more important than what you’re taught. It is with this basic principle in mind, alongside a paternal drive to nurture his child, that the Canadian film critic and writer David Gilmour let his son quit school at the early age of 16.
More than simply allowing him to quit, Gilmour supported it. Sixteen years of downward fluctuating marks and pessimistic Parent Teacher meetings had driven him to an ultimatum: no school, no rent, full support, and just two demands: the obligation for Jesse, his struggling teenage son, to stay away from drugs, and the commitment to sit with his father at least three times a week and watch a designated film.
This is the cliffhanger that brings The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son (Gilmour, 2008) to its starting point. The actual memoir begins before this, with an account of Jesse’s behaviour at school, fluid descriptions of the atypical family sphere (dad and mum divorce amicably – mum and dad+stepmum exchange flats depending on who has kid), and a slightly bitter explanation, almost an apologetic excuse, for Gilmour’s generous spare time – a career in writing that has seen better days.
And so the boy quits school and the Film Club commences. Ceremonially, like a native leader teaching the ways of the world to a tribe descendant, Gilmour teaches Jesse about cinema. He starts with Truffaut’s 400 Coups (1959), consciously referring to the similarities between the main character and Jesse himself. They do their time on Nouvelle Vague and then Gilmour steers on, from Hitchcock to Buñuel, from Italian classics to obscure Asian cinema, from documentaries to mainstream Hollywood, from Sharon Stone and Woody Allen to Clint Eastwood and beyond. Eventually, Jesse stops merely watching and Gilmour stops doing most of the talking. They begin to engage, with each film serving as a channel for their exchanges; but are they really only talking about cinema? The changing of a film marks a tick of the clock, the inevitable tug of time, and soon they’ve been watching films together for over a year.
Kidulthood steps in, as it does for us all, personified as Jesse’s first love. Rebecca Ng is more to his teenage eyes than Anita Ekberg splashing in the Fontana di Trevi could ever be. Concentration turns to distraction, popcorn and the sofa turn into late nights and hangovers, and father Gilmour watches as their film club (and life’s) tempo changes. It might ring a bell to you: that time and place where things change on an almost invisible axis, when passenger seats turn into driving lessons, smooth skin turns into a beard, sleepovers turn into loud music and slammed doors, and before you know it life has upped and moved on from where you thought it was.
It is at this point that The Film Club becomes a book you can’t put down. Jesse and Rebecca break up. Gilmour finds work. Autumn becomes winter. Life has changed. The family goes on holiday. Time ticks once again; Gilmour’s work slowly drips to an end, Jesse develops an overt interest for the raunchy scenes in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). Gilmour and the stepmum move houses, and give Jesse a proper sized room. Winter becomes spring. Jesse turns to music, not just film, and suddenly the teenager we all didn’t want to see is here, like John Travolta’s Tony Manero disrupting a family dinner in Saturday Night Fever (1977). The film critic’s son turns into a rap-listening, Nike-wearing male, the prototype of a Wayne’s World (1992) generation teenager. Their relationship continues strong, although father and son do have their occasional philosophical clashes. Throughout this whole period we are living through Gilmour’s eyes; we are feeling his concern and venting his frustration in each page turned. Perhaps this is an element of transference, we all father this young boy in our own little way.
The book ends on another cliffhanger. But describing how The Film Club comes to a close would be pointless, partly as it would ruin the role of a book review and partly because, in essence, the ending does not make the plot. Critics have described the book as an attack on the American education system, an extended encyclopedia of film, or as a story about two pretty much failed and un-ambitious human beings. Those angles have their legitimacy, but we must bear in mind that this isn’t just reality, this is art, and therefore each reader will interpret from the story what they want.
For this reader, The Film Club is about the relationship between a father and his son. Not the bog standard ‘watching them grow’ story, but a story about learning. Although Jesse learns about cinema, what he is really learning about is his father. His father learns about him, but what he is really learning is about how to raise his son. In learning about cinema together, they are learning about each other and, in turn, learning about themselves. Cinema is important (and how could it not be?), it is the propelling current for the story, but in the end it is just the medium. And films are about life too, as are the characters. For the Film Club reader, characters mingle up to the extent where suddenly Gilmour is Psycho’s Norma Bates (Norman’s mother), Jesse can be James Dean’s Cal in East of Eden, and Rebecca Ng finally hits the status of Fellini’s Anita Ekberg. Stories merge to a point where you don’t know what is American Grafitti or what are Jesse’s hangovers. Films are not the main characters, but are mentioned in full detail page after page, and have their role. The Film Club is primarily a story about human relationships, about the maturing of minds and the solidification of family ties. However, it is also about cinema and how it can teach us so much about these matters.
© Gabriela Martins Davies March 1st 2010
Gabriela is currently working in Brazil
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