Some novels call to mind certain family members. There are the wise old stories that remind us of our grandparents, the zany tales whose style and tone dredge up our crazy but loveable Uncle Harry, the comic narratives whose humor somehow suggests our great-aunt Sally, the cautionary accounts that somehow summon up our parents or our older brothers and sisters.
Then there are those books that come at us like a troubled son, one of our children whom we dearly cherish but who gives us no end of bother. We love this son, but we want to like him as well, and we would like him if he would just behave the way we want him to behave, if he would just act like our neighbor’s kid next door, that paragon of learning and virtue who glided through a top-flight university and landed a lovely wife, 2.4 children, and a six-figure salary helping starving children in Africa. Instead, we’re stuck at home looking at an overgrown kid with an Ipod stuck to his ears, two days growth of beard on his face, clothing two weeks overdue for the washing machine, and ambition a concept as unfamiliar as its synonym spizerinctum.
Some books are like that.
David Gilmour’s The Film Club (ISBN 978-0-446-19930-8, $13.99) tells the story of Gilmour, an out-of-work Canadian television personality, and his son, Jesse, whom Gilmour allows to drop out of school at the age of 15 under the condition that he watch three movies a week of his father’s choosing. Agreeing to this rule, Jesse leaves school, and we then follow him and Gilmour as they make their way through a stack of movies and the thickets of a father-son relationship.
Much of this book will appeal to the general reader. Gilmour’s knowledge of film, employed during his television career as a critic — he is also the author of six novels — is both broad and deep. His comments on the movies which he chooses for Jesse, films ranging from “Giant” to “Ran,” from Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “The Godfather,” are astute and will encourage readers to seek out films with which they are unfamiliar. Gilmour is a critic who notices the small details in movies — the way Ralph Fiennes uses his eyes in Quiz Show, the way Marlon Brando moves, the way Cary Grant can “embody good and evil simultaneously” in “Notorious” — and then educates his readers in these details, encouraging them to look at movies with a critic’s eye.
Gilmour’s account of his time with Jesse also appeals. He is unflinching in his portrayal of his son and himself during this time. Jesse falls in love several times, sleeps with young women, drinks too much, does drugs, and seems to have a penchant for involving himself in troublesome situations. Gilmour, too, exhibits warts which he displays here. Once, for example, wanting to buy the house beside the home of his ex-wife — they have remained close — he gets Jesse and some of his wild friends to hang out on his wife’s porch on the afternoon of the open house. Many of the buyers, seeing the porch teeming with teens drinking and smoking cigarettes, never even stop to look at the property; the real estate agent becomes incensed; and eventually Gilmour realizes that he has committed a moral wrong by thwarting the sale.
These are the loveable parts of the book. The annoying parts, the ones that bring to mind that difficult son who has a knack for raising both our blood pressure and our wonderment at the vagaries of creation, rest with Gilmour himself. In some ways, he epitomizes a stereotypical modern father: fearful of being disliked by his children, ashamed at times to address a problem squarely, doubtful of his own set of verities. Jesse does eventually find his way back into the world of education, he does gain a sense of ambition and self-worth, but as Gilmour himself suggests, his plan for his son’s education could easily have taken a downward path, leading Jesse into a deeper morass of confusion and loss of self-respect. Gilmour seems to lack some rudimentary base in his own life, some code by which he abides. Consequently, he frequently comes across here as weak or foolish, with no apparent awareness that he appears this way.
There is one truly tender and sweet moment in the The Film Club during which we do admire Gilmour as a father. When the Gilmours visit Cuba, Jesse goes out of the hotel supposedly to enjoy a cigarette, but then slips away to explore the streets of Havana. Following him, Gilmour saves his son from being rousted by three crooks, and the two of them then sit in a café until nearly dawn. Here in a few pages Gilmour paints a scene of himself and his son sitting in the old city, drinking beer and smoking cigars, watching the street, and talking about women and life, that cause us to see Jesse’s goodness and innocence and Gilmour’s own concern and love for his son. Parents who do face difficulties with teenagers, particularly boys, will take hope from this poignant scene and from the book’s conclusion. Far greater than we may think when we are in the thick of our own coming-of-age wars is the possibility for a lasting peace and a loving relationship. Gilmour’s book is a testament to such an outcome.
If you don’t mind putting up with some of Gilmour‘s annoying approaches to fatherhood, The Film Club might be something worth joining.
The Film Club by David Gilmour. Twelve, 2008. 256 pages.