Parental Guidance Suggested (or: Werner Herzog for Kids)

What kinds of movies should you show your children?
Nora Rosenthal

Paris Is Burning (1990).

We had just finished watching Pumping Iron (1977) with our six-year-old (the two-year-old was asleep) when I decided we had to watch Paris Is Burning (1990) together next. Pumping Iron is so delicious, so 70s, but I feared the body-dysmorphic ultra-hetero subject might loom large in a child’s brain and that a different documentary, this time queer and by turns dazzling and sad, seemed necessary to give balance. This sort of decision has come to characterize how I wrestle with curating films for one’s kids, motivated by a mysterious but stubborn inner logic.

The first non-kids’ film to find inexplicable popularity with our then under-5 set was Werner Herzog’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010), henceforth known around the house only as “Trapper Movie.” I didn’t know the kids back when they first started watching Trapper Movie but entered the scene as a non-biological parent as they were on the cusp of growing out of it, out of its slowness in particular. Still, I got to feel the way the film can simply play in the background like a strange little portal to northern Russia, the frozen forest and the awkward dubbing of the Bakhtia trappers passing in and out of consciousness.

I think Happy People works so well as a children’s film because it holds up to endless repetition, and childhood is infinitely repetitive—it’s how we learn. My mom taught me how to draw in part by drawing a glass of water, over and over. If you’re going to learn to observe and translate that into your body and brain, it takes time. It is dull but rewarding, trying to seek out newness in the familiar, but that’s how Herzog’s films function. The same glass of water, the same river Yenisei in Happy People, but each time your reflection differs. Ironically, it’s the fun-but-facile kids’ films about change or redemption (take Cars, for example) that don’t change the viewer, and whose thrills I’d hazard don’t stand up to repetition. In Cars, the cocksure rookie Lightning McQueen will always be moved and motivated by friends in the same way, always learn the values of teamwork in winning the race; yet each time Happy People starts over, somehow the struggles and pleasures encountered by the trappers seem uncannily different, as if we are entering a new year in the Taiga.

Repetition strikes me as one of the few universals of childhood, and while that repetition is sometimes numbing, it’s the culture that can endure retelling, not only endure it, but grow and change in that recapitulating context, that make ideal childhood stories. Happy People is full of small moments whose significance shifts on repeated watching: a cow mooing at the ice floating by the village; a cat gnawing on a splinter of wood; puppies on their first canoe ride; a little girl collecting pine cones in her old Pokémon T-shirt. It is also immensely tactile, showing in detail the building and repairing of boats, homes, traps. Happy People becomes like a song or a rhyme or a walk to the park. Something so well-worn it is uplifting but also a little boring. Good-boring, like pulling up clumps of grass or watching dust move in shafts of light.

History of The Paris Dakar Rally 1979-1997 (1997).

The follow-up to Happy People was often History of the Paris Dakar Rally 1979-1997 (1997), a British documentary that dives into the Dakar Rally and the manic zeal with which riders approach their desert journeys by bike, car, or truck. To a kid maybe it’s just vast desert and fast cars, big clouds of dust obscuring the sun and human drama both. There’s also the eerie otherness of nighttime desert footage that instills in me that gleeful mix of adventure and panic that seems integral to the inner landscape of childhood. Our young audience has a love of frenzy that certain more staid adults eventually lose.

I sometimes find the process of trying to find a good kid's movie terrifying: a high-pressure cultural litmus test in which the adult curator inevitably looks over nervously to their discerning-yet-fickle audience. Wondering, will they like it? Or more acutely, are the kids absorbing the art direction from this Technicolor relic, or only the underlying misogyny?

There can be a heightened preciousness to films we adored as children, and the attendant fallacy that if our kids don’t like these films that they don’t like us (our past, our foibles, the culture that made us who we are). On some days I feel so much like the sum of my cultural heritage that I search out ways to instill in them a love of the cinematic moments that meant so much to me as a kid: the surreal dream-ballet in Oklahoma! (1955) or the glitzy newspaper party in Citizen Kane (1941). At the same time, I perversely joke to myself that these kids should also be half-traumatized by an evening viewing of Watership Down (1978), the way I was aged five, in some dark spirit of intergenerational comradery. We could draw rabbits together afterwards, hollering: “The fields, they’re covered in blood!”

I loved my own childhood diet of film noir, 70s Woody Allen, Marx Brothers, musicals, and by age ten things like The Exorcist (1973) and any Hitchcock, all selected by my actor dad who was also a stay-at-home father. It was simultaneously an education about film and about him, whose enjoyment of these movies was huge and contagious, quoting Duck Soup (1933) for days and reaching for the tissues during West Side Story (1961). I don’t think my dad was avoiding kids films, really. We just followed our mutual interests, and the more non-kids films we watched together, the more I wanted to keep seeing. Yet, I do want a broad selection for our kids, one that doesn’t have to avoid actual modern children’s movies but that also draws from a larger wealth of unusual or older cinema. We may be more than the sum of our childhood movies, but they seep into us even if we don’t grow up to make movies or talk about them too much. They lay the foundation for our thinking.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

I remember my childhood acutely: remember the big sadness first seeing the end of Citizen Kane, and Walter Huston’s crazed laugh at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), not to mention Woody Allen wrestling with giant genetically modified fruits and vegetables in Sleeper (1973). I loved watching these movies, but then again I also remember, shockingly, not having any friends, so I fully support these kids watching the Cars and Godzillas of the world, despite the fact that it can be hard to return to that which is slow-moving and especially that which is black and white after an onslaught of colorful CGI. If kids are watching some of what the other kids at school watch, they actually get to talk about those films, whereas no matter your childhood social prowess, if literally no one else even knows who Humphrey Bogart is, you are penniless in the vicious cultural economy of recess. That being said, the narrative expectations in a lot of contemporary kids' movies are so radically different that after watching two Pixar films in a week even the chatty humor of The Muppet Movie (1979) appears pretty sluggish and dated. In other words you, the adult curator, must navigate the past with delicacy. Nothing too slow after something really exhilarating, or you’ll sabotage your chances of showing something unusual the next time. Perhaps show the original and new versions of the same monster movie back-to-back, or musicals grouped together. I made the mistake of putting on that childhood gold-crazed favorite of mine at an ill-timed moment and was greeted with the squirming whine: “Why is there so much taking and walking?” Fair enough. Though the greed and grime certainly once captured my imagination, an “adventure film” from 1948 is still mostly talking and walking indeed. “Cars is just talking and racing!” I still say to myself, “It’s just wholesome where Treasure is corrupt! About friendship instead of backstabbing; an exciting-if-didactic exercise in niceness as opposed to a brutal morality parable!” I guess you can’t win them all.

In our home the kids started watching documentaries mostly and then gradually shifted into fiction, though I don’t recall when exactly the shift happened, or why. It was not conscious and had nothing to do with one being thought of as more “truthful” or “edifying” than the other. There is no specific criteria for selecting any of these films for the kids. Instead, it’s some free-associative act drawing from memory and suggestions; triggered as easily by an image seen on Instagram as by a text from a weird friend living in another city, or something one of the kids drew.

Fear and boredom alike seem to resonate with them in ways that as an adult, I often completely fail to understand, and it makes it thrillingly impossible to actually foresee what they might like. The kids were frightened by the intensity of the opening dance in the credit sequence for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), set to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” but bizarrely they were also way more frightened by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) (by the time the tiny birds and woodland animals were singing and cleaning they were literally yelling for it be turned off). The Muppet Movie, meanwhile, despite being accused of being dull, also features Mel Brooks portraying a Nazi scientist who ties up Miss Piggy and Kermit, and try as I might through my tears of laugher to even begin trying to explain either the existence of Josef Mengele or of irony, the children decided my laughter was wrong-headed and this was definitely terrifying. I reluctantly fast-forwarded.

The more their reactions baffle me, the more I think “good, more bafflement to come.” It is always a pleasure to show them films I care about, in spite of the fear they won’t like them, because they are so surprising and succinct in their tastes and desires, and because their cultural appetites are ever-evolving and are already very much their own. Introducing them to movies becomes just one part of getting to know them, trying to discern why they are excited or scared in ways I don’t get.

Take, for example, the addictive allure of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an early and highly evocative Disney character featured in animations made between 1927 and 1938, which had the kids desperately in its thrall. Oswald is so old that the act of animation itself feels new in its presence, as if the animators could do or try anything, unfettered by reality (strangely reminiscent of some early DALL-E generated images I’ve been seeing) and perhaps that freewheeling experimentation is what makes Oswald feel so special to them, these concise black and white exercises in stream-of-consciousness—a gooey mechanical cow here, a disembodied pair of pants there—sprawling across our projector wall like the contents of the kids’ own weird and dreamy and possibility-filled brains.

The Gang's All Here (1943).

The kids and I (then 6 and 2.5) watched all of Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) on New Year’s Eve. I sold them with the promise of the giant banana props and took it from there. The dancers holding said giant bananas all have immense rigid smiles that seem to say “18-hour-workday” and yet they also, importantly, sport 1940s body ideals: muscular women’s bodies subsequently erased by Hollywood decades to come. The songs are banal: no risk of earworms here, and barely any plot to be discerned through the overworked human kaleidoscope, but it is massively engrossing and hallucinogenic. The kids and I were rapt. Our viewing left me with the sense that a coherent imagined world, in particular with strong art direction, goes a long way towards making a good kid’s movie. This is as clear in Paris Is Burning as in The Fifth Element (1997), oddly both films with a clear emphasis on style, handmade Executive Realness on the one hand and Jean Paul Gaultier on the other, but films in which fashion is merely one facet of a fully fleshed-out and highly specific universe.

Before or after The Gang’s All Here, in the way that time is surreally elasticized in life-with-kids, we watched John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) with the six-year-old. I can think of no better kid’s movie, truly. Why watch E.T. (1982) with your children, which will inevitably leave them sobbing for days, when there is this magical story of an alien navigating 1980s New York City that is also an understated parable about race and otherness and communication? The fighting is strange and dance-like, surreal but serious. An extended drug scene involves both a glorious larger-than-life sense of love and beauty and a crushing sense of danger and despair. We found ourselves having an impromptu discussion about drugs and alcohol, about what it means to be altered, and I could not have asked for a better depiction of the subtleties of substance use.

If you have seen Brother from Another Planet, and you recall how Joe Morton (as The Brother) unspeakingly gestures with his thumbs up to the sky, to the alien world he comes from, then you will appreciate how this six-year-old, when I asked him what he thought of the film, just slowly lifted up both his thumbs towards the ceiling, and grinned.

As I grow more at ease with the kids, I grow less nervous around them as an audience, but the urge still looms large to find them something memorable and strange and off-the-beaten path. Not long ago I put on The Singing Ringing Tree, a German children's fantasy film from 1957 with a dazzling set I’d only seen one clip from. I was on eggshells reading the English subtitles off the bad YouTube copy in the hopes the kids' attention wouldn't falter during this old world fairy tale and awkwardly insisting on the magic of the strange fish and the eponymous fake tree held up by a prince trapped in a clunky bear suit. But, much as with The Gang’s All Here, the world worked for them, somehow. I shut up and these kids who also have fun parents who have shown them things like The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) somehow ate and ate in transfixed silence. Magic is magic. But magic need not be magic. In other words, there is a temptation to show only fantastical films to children, but magic is so obviously found everywhere for them. Their whole world resonates with it. Fiction and reality colliding, small bugs and demons coexisting. Their psyches, as far as I can tell, are as genre-bending as it gets.

Into the Inferno (2016).

Last summer we had the neighborhood kids over to watch the eldest kid’s then-favorite movie: Into the Inferno (2016) by Werner Herzog. I sometimes wonder about Herzog’s appeal, but I think it’s founded both on the comfort and predictability of his narration coupled with his immense ability to surprise. His directorial voice is opinionated and mulish, yet ultimately highly curious, not unlike a precocious child. He also manages to approach giant, sometimes overwhelming events (like death) in a way that is both unpatronizing and avoids melodrama. Hardships in Happy People and Into The Inferno alike are endured and spoken of, are part of the cyclic fabric of life, but mortality especially is dealt with in clear and unambiguous terms (unlike, say, the emotional brutality of something like Bambi (1942), which seems to suggest that the death of a loved one is an event from which no one can or should ever recover). A trapper talking about the loss of his favorite dog, meanwhile, is certainly tragic, but the stoicism in his telling of the story allows the sadness to resonate without swallowing up a child audience whole.

Nevertheless, this child’s love of Into the Inferno was huge, and we tried to warn that not everyone might like “‘Cano Movie” (short for “volcano”—in our house, only Herzog films have been graced with nicknames), but there everyone was, pointing at lava, munching on popcorn, not really talking. It was an improbable success. He is growing older, meeting kids at school, watching the things his peers watch (he has the miraculous and inexplicable-to-me gift of friend-making), so this Herzog screening was the end of an era in some ways. Still, I wonder if years from now, much like my own attempt to show him Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he’ll try and make his own child listen to Herzog’s oddly soothing monologue over footage of a ​​North Korean subway station, hoping that some part of this talisman of childhood lore will get passed down.

I have now seen Into the Inferno countless times. While doing computer work, while doing laundry, while hanging out. The Rachmaninoff early in the film, the Monks Choir of Kiev Pechersk Monastery towards the end, the tiny figures of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft in what might as well be tinfoil suits against a backdrop of molten rock, all these have merged with this moment in time, coalesced with my growing sense of who these kids are and are becoming, and with the stutter-step of culture being passed down. I don’t actually know what I’m doing, trying to choose films for the kids, but it feels strangely magical and good, as though we are at work on a terrifyingly huge creative project with no end in sight and no audience but ourselves. 

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