I saw ‘The Film Club’ by David Gilmour last week, when I was on a book-browsing-session at the bookstore, which ended in a book-buying-binge! I got hooked in by the blurb and couldn’t resist the book. I have never heard of David Gilmour before and so I thought it would also be nice to experiment with a new author. I finished reading the book yesterday. Here is the review.
Summary of the book
Here is the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.
David Gilmour was at his wits’ end with his teenage son. Despite Jesse failing at school, nothing David said seemed to be getting through to him. So he came up with an unconventional deal : Jesse could leave school, sleep all day, not work, not pay rent – but he had to watch three films a week of his father’s choosing.
Week by week, side by side, father and son watch the world’s best (and occasionally worst) films, from The Godfather to Psycho, Showgirls to La Dolce Vita. The films get them talking about girls, music, heartbreak, work, drugs and friendship. Gradually, the son develops from a chaotic teenager into a self-assured adult, but as the film club moves towards its inevitable and bittersweet conclusion, Jesse makes a decision which surprises even his father…
What I think
I enjoyed reading ‘The Film Club’ very much. Initially, I thought that it was a novel, but on closer inspection I discovered that it is a memoir. David Gilmour is a wonderful dad and his son is lucky – imagine being asked by one’s dad that it is okay not to study and not to work, but one has to just see three films a week – how awesome can it get 🙂
When Gilmour says this at the beginning of the book :
“…when my son’s marks began to wobble in grade nine and toppled over entirely in grade ten, I experienced a kind of double horror…”
I thought he was writing about me 🙂 (Well, luckily, my marks didn’t topple in grade ten, but they did in grade eleven!) If you are parent of a teenager, or if you have been a rebellious teenager yourself (can teenagers be otherwise :)) you will identify with Gilmour and / or with his son Jesse. I did.
If you love movies and like reading about them and fancy yourself as an amateur film critic, you will love this book. There were discussions of many of the famous classic movies, movies from the golden era of Hollywood, famous movies which are more closer to our times and also lesser known movies which seem to be gems. Gilmour himself was a film critic for sometime and so his analysis of films is a delight, though one may not agree with some of his comments on some of the films.
I loved reading the interesting facts and anecdotes that David Gilmour had given about different movies and performers. For example, he says this about Steven Spielberg :
I picked the debut of a young director as part of our “Talent Will Out” programme. To this day, this largely forgotten little TV movie remains one of the most exhilarating pieces of youthful, look-at-me filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
Movies for television tend not to be the domain of the brilliant, but seconds into Duel (1971), you can tell that something odd is going on. You see, from the driver’s point of view, a car leaving the pleasant suburbs of some American city and heading slowly out of town. It’s a hot day : blue sky, houses thin out, traffic thins out; the car is alone.
Then, out of nowhere, a rusted, eighteen-wheel transport truck appears in the rear-view mirror. Its windows are shaded. You never see the driver. You glimpse his cowboy boots, his hand waving out the window, but never his face.
For seventy-four minutes, like a prehistoric monster, the truck chases the car through the sun-baked landscape. It is Moby Dick seeking out Ahab. Waiting by the roadside, hiding in gulleys, appearing to lose interest then suddenly reappearing, the truck is a vector of irrational evil; it is the hand under the bed waiting to grab your ankle. But why? (Hint : Even at his young age, the director knew not to answer the question.)
A truck and a car; no dialogue between them. Just running down the highway. How, I ask Jesse, could anyone animate such material? “Like squeezing wine from a rock,” he said.
I suggest that the answer lies in the director’s visual attack. Duel compels you to look at it. It seems to say to the audience : there is something of primordial importance going on here; you have feared this very thing before and now here it is again.
Steven Spielberg was twenty-two when he directed Duel. He’d done some television…but not one anticipated that he was going to tear up the material with quite this relish. More than the truck, more than Dennis Weaver’s escalatingly frightened driver, the director is the star of Duel. Like reading the first pages of a great novel, you sense you’re in the presence of an enormous, incautious talent. It hasn’t learned to second-guess itself, to be too smart. Which is what, I suppose, Spielberg meant a few years ago when he told an interviewer that he tried to rewatch Duel every two or three years in order to “remember how I did it”. You have to be young, he implied, to be so unapologetically sure-footed.
You can see why studio executives took one look at Duel and gave him Jaws (1975) a few years later. If Spielberg could make an unwieldy truck scary, just imagine what he could do with a shark, which, like the driver of the truck, remains out of sight for much of the movie. You see only its effects, a missing dog, a girl pulled suddenly underwater, a buoy exploding to the surface, things that announce the presence of danger but never give it a face. Spielberg intuited at an early age that if you want to scare people, let their imaginations do the heavy lifting.
We watched the “Making of Duel”, which came with the DVD. To my surprise, Jesse was intrigued listening to Spielberg talk about the shot-by-shot construction of the movie, how much thought had gone into it; how much work. The storyboards, the multiple cameras, even auditioning a half-dozen trucks to see which looked the meanest. “You know, Dad,” he said in tones of mild amazement, “up till now, I’ve always thought Spielberg was a bit of a suck.”
“He’s a film nerd,” I said. “Slightly different species.” I told him the story about a young, hard-partying actress who knew Spielberg and George Lucas and Brian De Palma and Martin Scorcese in California when they were just starting out. She was amazed, she said later, that they didn’t seem to be interested in girls or drugs. All they wanted to do was hang around with each other and talk about movies. “Like I said, nerds.”
This about Robert Mitchum :
As time goes by, Robert Mitchum seems to get better and better – that barrel chest, the deep voice, his way of drifting through a movie with the effortlessness of a cat wandering into a dinner party. He had so much talent, and yet, weirdly, it gave him some kind of bullying pleasure to deny it. “I got three expressions,” he used to say, “look right, look left and straight ahead.” Charles Laughton, who directed him in Night of the Hunter (1955), said all that gruff ‘baby, I don’t care’ was an act. Robert Mitchum, he said, was literate, gracious, kind, a man who spoke beautifully and would have made the best Macbeth of any actor living. Mitchum put it another way : “The difference between me and other actors is that I’ve spent more time in jail.”
And this about Clint Eastwood :
I mention to Jesse a brief junket-chat I had once with William Goldman who did the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and later wrote Absolute Power (1997) for Eastwood. Goldman adored him. “Clint is the best,” he told me. “A complete professional in a world dominated by ego. On an Eastwood set,” he said, “you come to work, you do your job, you go home; usually you go home early because he wants to play golf. And he eats lunch in the cafeteria along with everyone else.”
When Clint was offered the script for A Fistful of Dollars it had already been around for a while. Charles Bronson said no, it was the worst script he’d ever seen. James Coburn didn’t want to do it because it was going to be shot in Italy and he’d heard bad things about Italian directors. Clint took it for a fee of fifteen thousand dollars but – and I emphasised this for Jesse – insisted on cutting down the script, thought it would be more interesting if the guy didn’t talk.
I liked the book for being a paean sung in the glory of movies and also for touching topics which are probably dear to most of us – on parents’ relationship with their children, and how children have a troubled and rebellious time during their teens, on relationships and loss and handling the emotional impact of them and how conversations between parents and children can be more joyful and meaningful. Gilmour has used the excuse of writing a memoir to indulge in his favourite topic – the movies – but I loved that, and so I don’t have any complaints about it 🙂 I also think that this book would make a good movie too.
One of the minor complaints I had about the book was that while Jesse talks about his relationships with his girlfriends and Gilmour shares his thoughts on the same, in terms of films, it is Gilmour who does all the talking most of the time and sometimes it sounds like a monologue which goes on and on. I would have loved to know what Jesse thought on different films and how he related to them (though Jesse does talk about this sometimes).
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from this book.
…there was a small unhaveable part in Jesse, something all the other boys gave her which he, for reasons I still don’t understand, withheld; a single, dark room in the mansion to which Rebecca had no access and it obsessed her. You knew the moment she got in there with a flashlight, the moment she understood she could come and go, it would be a valueless room, he would be valueless, and she’d move on. But for the moment it was a locked door and she waited outside trying to find the key that would turn the lock.
By now the sky had turned a dark, rich blue, a red bar running across the horizon. Such extraordinary beauty, I thought, all over the world. Is it, you had to wonder, because there is a God or is it simply how millions and millions and millions of years of absolute randomness looked? Or is it simply the stuff you think about when you’re happy at four o’clock in the morning?
You have to start somewhere; if you want to excite someone about literature, you don’t start by giving him Ulysses – although, to be candid, a life without Ulysses seems like just a fine idea to me.
I went on to say, to repeat rather, what my betters had told me in university : that the second time you see something is really the first time. You need to know how it ends before you can appreciate how beautifully it’s put together from the beginning.
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. It’s a downward spiral. But still, after making more than thirty films, maybe he’s done his life’s work; maybe he’s entitled to cruise on whatever gas he wants from here on in.
(Comment : Maybe Gilmour will change his opinion on Woody Allen after seeing ‘Scoop’, ‘Match Point‘ and ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ :))
It’s hard for someone who didn’t grow up in the early sixties, I said, to imagine how important the Beatles were. Barely out of their teens, they were treated like Roman emperors everywhere they went. They had the extraordinary quality of making you feel as if, in spite of their hysterical popularity, you alone understood how great they were, that they were somehow your own private discovery.
And then there is Gary Cooper. Actors who worked with him were often surprised at how little he did during a scene. It seemed as if he hardly acted, hardly did anything at all. But when you see his performance onscreen, it pushes everybody else into the background. Actors saw their performances disappear into a blur around him.
“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.”
“You know what Henry Miller said, Jesse? If you want to get over a woman, turn her into literature.”
I remember my last interview with David Cronenberg during which I made the rather lugubrious observation that raising children was a series of goodbyes, one after the other, to nappies and then snowsuits and then finally to the child itself. “They spend their young lives leaving you,” I observed, when Cronenberg, who has adult children himself, interrupted, “Yes, but do they ever really leave?”
And how, I wondered, how could I make Jesse understand this, how could I rush him through the next months, even year, to that delicious end point where you wake up one day and instead of feeling her loss, that toothache, you find yourself yawning, putting your hands behind your head and thinking, “I must get a copy made of my house key today. I’m playing a rather dangerous game here, having only one key.” Gorgeously banal, liberating thoughts, the heat having passed from the burn, the memory of its pain so remote that you can’t quite put your finger on why it went on so long or what the fuss was about, or who did what with her body (but look, the neighbours are planting a new birch tree).
And then something happened that felt like the full stop at the end of a sentence. It made me feel that my bad luck had run its course. To the eyes of an outsider, it was no big deal. I was invited to write a film review for a national newspaper. The pay was low, it was a one-shot gig, but – how to explain this – it was something I had always wanted to do. Sometimes these things have a lure well beyond their actual value, like an academic asked to give a lecture at the Sorbonne or an actor being in a movie with Marlon Brando. (Maybe it’s a terrible movie. Doesn’t really matter).
Jesse was working the evening shift. He was still a prep man, washing and cutting up vegetables, cleaning squid, but sometimes they let him work the grill, which had the same slightly disproportionate lure that my film review did. These things were dismayingly arbitrary.
I enjoyed reading ‘The Film Club‘. If you love movies, you will love this book. The story of Gilmour and his son Jesse is a bonus 🙂
I did some research on David Gilmour and discovered that his book ‘A Perfect Night to go to China’, has won the Governor General’s award in Canada. One of the sad things today (atleast in the English-speaking world) is that the Booker Prize and the Pullitzer Prize get a big share of attention from the media and readers and other prizes only occupy the periphery. And for some unknown bizarre reason, I haven’t read many books by Canadian writers (I can remember only Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro as Canadian writers). I am hoping to redeem that by reading more books by Canadian writers and exploring more books by David Gilmour. ‘A Perfect Night to go to China’ seems to be the perfect place to start 🙂
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