Last summer the American Film Institute published a list of The 100 Best American Films, and in the process it gave us all something to do: squabble amongst ourselves. The direct outcome of the list's announcement was not necessarily increased video rentals or purchases of classic films, but instead more lists. This was a good thing--however, the more interesting and longer-standing outcome of the uproar was the idea that "classic" has different definitions, and that we should constantly redefine the term.
This has direct bearing on what our kids might see. If we can insist that our family bookshelves have Goodnight Moon or some Maurice Sendak, Wanda Gag, or Chris Van Allsburg books, then we can also make the effort to have To Kill a Mockingbird (AFI number 34) on hand. Or, if we think it's essential to hear Mozart, Benny Goodman, or Woody Guthrie from an early age, then it can be equally vital to show our kids Shane, Duck Soup, or Singin' in the Rain (AFI numbers 69, 85, and 10, respectively). With the highs and lows, yeas and nays of multiculturalism has come a small agreement from many sides of the debate that what Americans may still have in common is their pop culture.
This doesn't mean that showing your kid Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (AFI number 29), with its reverent tour of D.C. patriotic rest stops, is going to replace a good civics lesson. But it does mean that by confronting the ways in which Americans once dealt with patriotism (or romantic love, or non-Americans, or social caricatures), a child can catch on to the cultural currency. It may be possible to shield a child entirely from pop culture, but once that child is more grown and more independently engaged with daily life, there are going to be many little cues and references--"I think we're not in Kansas anymore"--that function as touchstones, or cultural indicators. If, by some sad future fluke, we get into a ground war in the Middle East and an editorial cartoonist decides to depict a president or a general as Lawrence of Arabia (AFI number 5), then the point of the cartoon will be lost on a child who doesn't "get it." And not getting it may mean, by extension, that the child won't realize it's possible to have a personal opinion on a public issue.
Or at the least, a small opportunity will be lost--an opportunity to share something outside the family-and-school fold. And more importantly, an opportunity to just plain enjoy something a little older than last month's McDonald's promotion. Kids are capable of finding what's good in something old, otherwise books like The Great Brain or Little House on the Prairie series wouldn't still be in paperback. With movies, admittedly, there's a small problem--the "what's wrong with the color?" problem. Black-and-white movies used to be standard, but the comedy or drama in them is also standard: introduced without any good-for-you fanfare, something like The Philadelphia Story (AFI number 51) or Frankenstein (AFI number 87) can work its comic or horrific wonders just fine, without prejudice.
As someone who loves and studies movies of any age, I have had modest experience watching this happen. Unless it's a cartoon or a music-laden fantasy, younger kids (ages four to eight or so) tend not to look too far for movie variety. But I've seen preadolescents get into On the Waterfront (AFI number 8) and Bringing Up Baby (AFI number 97) and a number of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. Simple exposure to old movies doesn't guarantee perfect results, of course; given the chance to earn extra credit in seventh grade social studies by watching Gone With the Wind (AFI number 4), my daughter grudgingly stuck with the story but griped constantly about Scarlett O'Hara. Frankly, I'm on her side. But Scarlett O'Hara functioned then, as now, as an embodiment of certain American beliefs, and I'm glad my daughter had the chance to confront them.
We can and should extend this idea of "classical training." Rock music is already entrenched as kid-friendly, and even the greatest "classic" TV has remained popular for appropriate reasons. I'm not thinking of the endless "Brady Bunch" reruns here, but the wonderfully energetic physical comedy of "I Love Lucy"--or, for that matter, those episodes of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" where the zip-front sweaters were a little less out of fashion than they are today. Childhood may be fleeting, but pop culture can be timeless. And we should keep making lists, with our kids, to keep track of the timelessness.
Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.
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