If your teenager was cutting classes, failing at school and on his way to becoming a juvey James Dean, what would you do? When Canadian film critic and novelist David Gilmour saw that outline forming with his 15-year-old son Jesse, he came up with a solution that could be viewed as brave or foolish:
He let Jesse drop out of school.
He didn’t make him get a job.
And he let him live at home for free.
On two conditions. No. 1: No drugs. No. 2: He had to watch three DVDs a week with his dad.
And so begins The Film Club, Gilmour’s unexpectedly delicate memoir of a relationship that jells over screenings of On The Waterfront, Chungking Express and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Here is a story about a father and son sitting on their living-room couch watching movies, talking a bit and watching more movies. But Gilmour’s book isn’t really about the movies, although there is a lot of movie commentary in it.
It’s about how father and son discover each other at a time when most parents are shut out from their children’s lives. We are exposed to Jesse’s deepest, most painful feelings, everything from free-floating teen insecurities to darker fears about a young man’s attractiveness to women.
Gilmour is good with little observations that tell larger truths, such as the way Jesse slams back a drink. Instantly, his father sees how Jesse parties when he’s with his friends, and it reveals something about his son’s vulnerabilities.
Gilmour is upfront about himself, as well: He is thrice-married and going through a fallow career spell (ie, unemployed). So it adds another rich layer to the book that he is facing his own doubts as he tries to shore up Jesse’s.
The Film Club won’t be revelatory to any serious students of film. But Gilmour does make some interesting observations, such as this one on Woody Allen: “There’s a sort of rushed homework feel to Woody Allen’s movies these days, as if he’s trying to get them finished and out of the way so he can move on to something else. That something else, distressingly, is another movie.” Exactly.
The movies, of course, are mere backstory for a magic interlude between father and son. As the book unfolds, you see that Gilmour’s boldest tactic is to simply treat Jesse as a grown-up, man-to-man. His advice on women is sagacious, and clearly hard-won:
“Getting over a woman has its own timetable, Jesse. It’s like growing your fingernails. You can do anything you want, pills, other girls, go to the gym, don’t go to the gym, drink, don’t drink, it doesn’t seem to matter. You don’t get to the other side one second faster.”
Predictably, the late teen years are a minefield. There is a bad night of cocaine with a guy named Choo-Choo. And Jesse goes through endless relationship hell with an unforgettable heartbreaker named Rebecca Ng.
Gilmour recalls his own rough passage, including a beautiful memory about hardly noticing an ex-lover on a train. He realizes that the most painful part of being a parent is letting Jesse sort out things on his own, especially women.
Does he succeed? Well, at memoir’s end, Jesse is interested in college, can namecheck several French nouvelle vague movies and brings up, without prompting, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. They’ve watched everything from Ran and La Dolce Vita to Rocky III and Showgirls.
Not a traditional education, per se, but not the worst one you can imagine, either.