Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Happy Birthday, Soren. Or, how you will come to know your father.

Today you're one my boy. Congratulations. You've made it this far. Hope the food has been good, and the company of your father, mother, sister's and brother's has been pleasant enough for your first year's journey. We aim to please, Soren. I do hope you're enjoying the ride. In honor of you, I'd like to look out at the future through the window of my cinematic eyes, pondering where on earth these days will have gone and where they might possibly go.

Of course, I can only see with limited vision, a view that is wholly my own, but I tend to see things my boy, I do, I do. So I'd like to share them with you.

I remember watching Pete's Dragon, when I was just a wee fellow. You haven't seen it, yet, but you will. And one day you'll sing that song about a candle on the water, just like your daddo did. You might even run around town with a pet dragon named Eliot. I wouldn't put it past you. You have imagination in your blood. And we Wiederspahn boys tend to run with dragons, anyhow.

Then there will be the classic moment, It's a Wonderful Life. What a great, great movie. You'll definitely see it. Probably, at least 18 times. Every Christmas. I'll insist upon it. And even if you don't care for it as much as I do, you'll lie to me and tell me you do because it means that much to your crazy father and his idyllic dreams. You'll come to realize that the film is full of valuable lessons I hope to teach you. You'll watch me cry every time we see Clarence's words "No man is a failure who has friends." Yep, for that reason alone you'll more than likely love the film. That, and, of course, the part where Jimmy Stewart's going to lasso the moon for his girl. You've got romance in your genes (jeans), son. Just keep 'em zipped.

Dead Poet's Society. Remembering my teens, I'll drag you with me. Who knows, you might just start one. Might be a poet yourself. I've always fancied myself a poet, of sorts. You might "Carpe Diem" the socks off the world. No. Wait. What am I saying? There's no might with us. Will. Definitely will. You'll "Carpe Diem" from sea to shining sea. That's just how we do it. We find a way. Then we'll laugh together, son, as one rainy day, stuck inside, after watching the flick, we stand up on chairs and shout at the ceiling "Oh captain, my captain." Your mom will smile at us yahoo's. And you'll say, "Dad, do you really like this movie, I thought you were into art films?" And I'll say, "No, artistically speaking, its not great. But I sure liked the way it made me feel when I was a kid." And you'll smile at me, because you'll know I know what you're feeling at that moment. And we'll continue to laugh and shout and laugh and shout. Make your life extraordinary, my boy

Yes, the year's will pass with many an interesting viewing experience. Because, I love films. Its what I do. And I'll make you watch them with me. I'll attempt to turn you into a film snob. We'll discuss the lessons of these films - many lessons you will learn. We'll watch the nostalgic films of my youth: the one about Pete and his Dragon, the great Jimmy Stewart one, Robin Williams reading poetry, and of course others like, The Karate Kid, The Breakfast Club, Hoosiers, Singing in the Rain, Say Anything, etc. But then, we'll move into deeper discussions about Chaplin and Welles. Ernst Lubitsch. The genius of Preston Sturges. The westerns of John Ford. Which, we'll only watch while wearing boots. In fact, there might even be a moment in your life when you'll think your father is just like John Wayne. Its the way of fathers and sons, you know?

After a time, we'll start venturing outside the four walls of our country, expanding our view. We'll take a look at the world. We'll watch the British comedy crime caper, The Lavendar Hill Mob. We'll go to Japan and spend some time with Kurosawa and Ozu. Denmark will keep us up many nights as we ponder the realized mysticism of Carl Dreyer. We'll talk about how self-conscious the French New Wave was. Bresson will capture our hearts and minds forever. You'll wonder why your father weeps when Bathasar the donkey dies in a field, surrounded by sheep. We'll study the social conscience of neo-realism, we'll go to Iran with Kiarostami, we will torture our psyche with the films of the great Swede, Ingmar Bergman. You'll make me dress up like Death when we play chess, just to see if you can beat me. I'll teach you the ten commandments while watching Kieslowski's Decalogue. Obey your father and mother my boy, and your days shall be long.

Then it'll happen. One fine weekend, when your mother and sibling's have cleared the house, leaving you and I alone, we will watch a film called Andrei Rublev. My holy grail of cinema. And trust me on this one, my boy, it will not be fun. You'll be intrigued by its scope, perplexed, even a bit admiring, but ultimately, you will not like it. It will be the cinematic equivalent of a root canal. And that's okay. You will struggle for most of every three hour and twenty minute moment the film plays. You'll wonder what the opening hot air balloon sequence has to do with anything. You'll think to yourself, "Alright already, I get the point", even though you don't. You will find it long and boring and tedious, and you will wonder what on earth I have been smoking. You'll wonder how to break your dislike to me. For a moment, you'll even get insecure, perhaps feeling like maybe you aren't very smart, that maybe it is great and you don't know it. So, you'll pretend you get it. In fact, you'll attempt to use words in a sentence I've never heard you use before. And then finally, you'll get frustrated, angry, and just plain over it. Until at last, amidst my overwhelming enthusiasm and wild gesticulation for what a superior film this is, you will shout, "I just didn't like it, okay. Is it okay, that I don't like it."

Like a brick through a window, abruptly, all will become silent.

But then, after this awkward and uncomfortable bubble, without being harsh or critical of your superficial assessment of the film - after all, I and many others have been there ourselves, in a moment where you will truly come to know your father, I will simply smile and say, "of course its okay that you don't like it...Tomorrow, we'll watch it again."


  1. Good thoughts Aaron. But "artistically speaking" I think Dead Poets is a fine film. Well directed by Peter Weir (who some call the most intellectual living director) and the cinematography by DP John Seale ("Witness" & "Rainman") was beautiful, and Tom Schulman and his screenplay did win an Oscar.

    I can appreciate Ozu, Bergman, and Kurosawa but I think we sometimes get lost in thinking for a film to be artistic it must be esoteric and obscure. Remember it was Walker Percy who once said something to the effect that contemporary writers didn't need to follow Faulkner's steps but to write about what it means to live on a golf course today.

    American filmmakers sometimes spend too much time trying to make foreign films, but we need more films like "Dead Poet's Society."

    Tell your son, happy birthday.

    Scott W. Smith

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Scott. Though I can tell, my friend, you and I are from different schools of philosophy when it comes to cinema.

    Firstly, Dead Poet's being a "fine" film. Sure. Its "fine". But it definitely isn't great. And I say that as one who appreciates Weir's work. I do. I think he's a very good filmmaker. But taking a scrutinizing look at his body of films would not find Dead Poet's at the top. And winning an Oscar doesn't really hold a whole lot of weight with me, when it comes to marks of greatness.

    Secondly, who says Ozu, Kurosawa, and Bergman, et al are esoteric and obscure. Or, that in order to be artistic something has to be so. I didn't. And I don't think it does. And I don't think they are. They're simply great and masterful filmmakers. Sure, sometimes we the audience don't "get" it all at once. But I'd argue that if we did, it wouldn't be great. Just because the masses don't "get" something doesn't make it too obscure. And your use of Walker Percy, who is one of my favorite author's, to make an argument about stories that are too obscure and esoteric, doesn't really work. He's very cerebral, man. Definitely not an at first glance sort of artist.

    And I agree, filmmaker's shouldn't try to make foreign films. But, they shouldn't try to make "Dead Poet's Society" either. They should try to make a great film. But what makes a film great? Now, there's where the debate begins.

    Thanks for the words, and for the birthday wish, Scott.


  3. Hey, I should come to New Hampshire and we could talk for years about this stuff.

    It's been said before (and I agree) that Chaplin set out to entertain and made great art...and entertained. And those that set out to make great art usually neither make great art or entertain.

    So yeah, we do probably come from different schools of philosophy when it comes to cinema. (Though I should tell you my favorite film is "Tender Mercies.")

    I say screw trying to make a great film. Seeking greatness is too much of a burden that has driven many artists mad and killed more than one filmmakers career. Don’t know what you think of the AFI lists but I’d say there are some great films there, but they tend to be the mountaintop experiences.

    Often peak performances all the way around. Usually made after years of many good, mediocre, and poor films. I believe in what Seth Godin calls the 10,000 hour rule. That’s how long experts say it takes to be highly skilled in any field. Everyone starts out a beginner.

    Greatness, like perfection, is elusive. I prefer to encourage learning a skill and doing good work. As in seeking the good, the true and the beautiful.

    Big Band musician Artie Shaw once said, “Maybe once in my life I reached what I wanted to. Once we were playing ‘These Foolish Things’ and at the end the band stops and I play a little cadenza. That cadenza—no one can do it better. Let’s say it’s five bars. That’s a very good thing to have done in a lifetime. An artist should be judged by his best, just as an athlete. Pick out my best one or two things and say, ‘That’s what we did: all the rest was rehearsal.’”

    Filmmaking, as you know, is usually an expensive, labor-intensive field. This does drive the need for creating films for large audiences. This digital revolution will continue to evolve and create higher quality cameras at lower cost and new forms of distribution will provide more opportunities for a wider range of artistic expression.

    But I still tend to fall into the camp that says leave the art talk (along with greatness) for the critics & scholars and concentrate simply on doing your best work, telling the most engaging stories, wherever you are, with whatever you have. (I write about this everyday on my blog.)

    Congrats on your feature by the way, I look forward to seeing it.



  4. To re-state. In my personal definition of "great", I believe that that involves, first and foremost, doing one's best work possible. The challenge must first come to ourselves. How do I do the best possible work with who I am and what I have? Then we can let the chips fall where they may. So, I think you and I are pretty close in agreement on this.

    However, when we "leave the art talk (along with greatness) for the critics & scholars..." at the end of the day, where does that leave us as far as aspirations are concerned? So, your favorite film is "Tender Mercies" and mine is "Andrei Rublev". Well, is there a way of measuring which of those two is "greater"? And why? Thus, if we can find that measurement objectively, shouldn't that serve to guide our aspirations? I mean, wouldn't that conclude that there is a higher and better way? Not that we should parrot that way. Not at all. But at least aspire toward something greater?