A father tries to teach his son about life by watching movies together
“Don’t be fooled,” Canadian novelist David Gilmour’s aunt tells him. “Teenage boys need as much attention as newborns. Except they need it from their fathers.” This axiom is at the heart of Gilmour’s new memoir The Film Club. For Gilmour and his son Jesse, attention does not mean curfews and consequences and scary fables about the satanic trifecta of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. When young Jesse’s high-school grades begin to slip and then tank, the attentive Gilmour, fearing for the soul of his demoralized son, offers him a deal: You may drop out of school. I will not require that you get a job, or even get out of bed. The only thing you have to do is watch three movies of my choosing with me each week. Jesse takes him up on it.
Jesse and Gilmour watch everything from Citizen Kane to Showgirls, but this is not the story of a former film critic trying to lure his son into the family business. “The films simply served as an occasion to spend time together, hundreds of hours, as well as a door-opener for all manner of conversational topics--Rebecca, Zoloft, dental floss, Vietnam, impotence, cigarettes.”
The plot is a bit unsettling for American readers, and it helps that Gilmour acknowledges our skepticism early on. In the first chapter he wonders, “What if I’m being hip at the expense of my son and letting him ruin his life?” Gilmour’s instincts are liberal, but his intentions are unquestionably good.
Drugs and women threaten to undo Jesse over the course of the three years that we follow our unlikely heroes. Gilmour declares at the outset, “Any drugs and the deal’s off. . . . I mean it. I’ll drop a fucking house on you if you start in with that stuff.” But Rebecca Ng, a gorgeous “weapons-grade pain in the ass” and Chloë Stanton-McCabe, a social-climbing, sex-as-a-weapon siren, are nearly as malevolent as the cocaine Jesse ends up dabbling with anyway.
Over the course of Jesse’s relationship with Rebecca, he moves from obsession to exhaustion. In a bold move, he breaks up with her when she comes over to discuss their relationship for the umpteenth time. Gilmour’s weaknesses as a mentor are never more apparent than when Jesse tells him about the breakup. “You dumped Rebecca?” he fairly howls. “Whatever for?” (This 30 pages after Gilmour’s scathing “pain in the ass” assessment.) “Is there anything you can do to undo this? . . . When you leave a woman, things happen that you think aren’t going to matter. But then when they do happen, it turns out they matter a great deal.” Way to scare the integrity out of the boy.
Gilmour knows he blew it that day. “He was, I found myself thinking, a healthier specimen than me. I could never have walked away from a girl that beautiful, from the cocainelike pleasure of having a girlfriend prettier than everyone else’s. Petty, dreadful, pitiable, I know. I know.”
Back to the book’s strengths, for there are many. It is difficult to write about family, and perhaps most difficult to write about one’s offspring. The distinctly parental burden to do no harm does not easily coexist with the memoirist’s duty to stay true to his emotional experience of tough events, but Gilmour handles this challenge with aplomb. He quotes Jesse as saying some remarkably wise things (“The minute [a man] opens his mouth, he shrinks a couple of sizes,” and “You may be happier now than you think you are.”). But he does not censor his discomfort with Jesse’s attitude toward a new girlfriend (“Something cold, something not so nice crept into his face like a rat in a new house.”).
In the end, as Jesse begins to discover his creative abilities and consider the appeal of college, Gilmour claims to have cleared the legendary hurdle in the father-son relationship: zero-sum competition. “Most of us, I know, think our kids are wizards even when they’re not,” Gilmour admits. But “listening to [Jesse’s] song, I realized—with relief, oddly enough, not discomfort—that he had more talent than I did.” Even while wondering what Jesse’s response to this claim might be, we want to believe him.
Finally, the cinematic tour Film Club offers is not incidental. Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick as the director of The Shining--said Kubrick made movies to hurt people. Brando improvised the scene in On the Waterfront when he takes the girl’s glove and puts it on his hand. Steven Spielberg made his directing debut with a truck-chase thriller called Duel, which he still watches periodically to remind himself of “how he did it.” “You have to be young,” Gilmour quotes Spielberg, “to be so unapologetically sure-footed.” Howard Hawks said that “three good scenes and no bad ones” constitutes a good film; if it also constitutes a good book, Gilmour’s The Film Club fits the bill.