Old movies can gently introduce kids to the past


I DON'T KNOW WHY, BUT IT WAS REALLY important to me that my children watch the Sharks' and Jets' playground dance-off in West Side Story. I guess I wanted them to know where Michael Jackson got the idea for "Beat It."

And I wanted my daughter to see Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet, too, if she was going to see Claire Danes' 1996 version. I wanted her to see the huge role that costumes alone can play in a movie.

And when my husband answered my son's suggestion that he sell the old sailboat under the deck -- the boat that had never been wet except with rain in all the years of his young life -- with the single word, "Rosebud," I wished that my son had understood.

"There is nothing wrong with you," Ty Burr, The Boston Globe's movie critic and author of the new book, The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together (Anchor Books).

"The pop culture caters to our kids and it exists almost in the moment. There is no past and no future," said Burr. "Unless our kids break out, they will never learn that there is a past, or a past of any interest."

Burr's movie guide began with his own experiences with daughters Eliza, 12, and Natalie, 10.

"I was on jury duty and I was trying to explain to my younger daughter what that was and she wasn't getting it, so I looked in the paper and 12 Angry Men was on Turner Classics that night. I said, 'OK, watch this.' And she got it."

His older daughter has been bingeing on Katharine Hepburn movies since she saw her as a child actress in the original Little Women. But it went beyond movies. She started reading all of Louisa May Alcott and that led her to the Bronte sisters.

My own daughter started with Clueless with Alicia Silverstone, watched Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow and eventually read Jane Austen's book on which both movies, in their own way, are based.

My son went to see Bobby, and, when he asked what I knew about Robert Kennedy I bought him the audio book of Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas. He listened to all 16 CDs while driving through the South and called me at one point to ask, "What was the deal with

the Kennedys?" So I know this works.

"TV and movies are the ways in which people step into the culture," said Burr when I lamented the death of reading. "If you are lucky, you have a kid who likes reading. But if not, TV and movies are a leaping off point. You might get them interested in going deeper."

Burr's book will give you movies to watch with toddlers (Singin' in the Rain); with tweens (Some Like it Hot) and teen-agers (Rebel Without a Cause).

But more important, his list of movies will remind you of all the ones you watched and loved. Back in the days when movies were what you did on a Friday night and old movies were a staple on TV, before there were 500 cable channels.

"This works if you don't make it work," said Burr. "If I push too much, and there is resistance there, I quit. I don't want to make it something they have to do instead of something they like to do with me.

"I want my kids to see the tremendous grief in Richard Harris' King Arthur in Camelot, the musical. I want them to pick up a little English history from Anne of a Thousand Days, Becket, and The Lion in Winter.

I can't imagine what my life would be like if I had never seen To Kill a Mocking Bird, Breakfast at Tiffany's or Psycho. I love my husband because he loved The Quiet Man. I might be a feminist, not because of Gloria Steinem, but because of Adam's Rib.

But most of all, I want my children to understand what someone really means when they I say, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

It is "Let the force be with you" from another age.


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