I have wanted to read this book for awhile. I think I heard an interview with David Gilmour on the radio shortly after it was published and I became intrigued. A father lets his son drop out of school and watch movies all day? What rebels. I could imagine irate teachers hearing about this irresponsible act and fuming, blaming Gilmour for eroding the educational system and degrading everything they stood for with his neo-hippy attitude. What kind of parent indulged his kid’s distaste for institutionalized education? “Where am I ever going to use this in life?” may be a difficult question for parents to answer about high school biology or physics or calculus, but one did not avoid the awkwardness of this issue by making it literally go away. Unacceptable.
But what if it was? This particular parent was obviously not some redneck who had no use for “larnin’” and wasn’t going to subject his son to it. David Gilmour was a respected broadcaster and author–he’d won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, for god’s sake! What if he knew what he was doing by allowing his son to pursue a more unconventional education? What if it all turned out OK, instead of being a travesty? Where some may have been incensed by Gilmour’s actions, I was curious and secretly rooting for him and his son. I wanted to believe that neither of them had–or were–screwed up. I also wanted to know what movies they had watched.
With that predisposition in place, it is hard for me to say that I am writing an objective review of this book. I did like it. I liked the tone of Gilmour’s writing, simultaneously sparse and elegant. I liked that he could evoke exactly how upset his jilted son was feeling with the words “he was lying on his side under the blankets, facing the wall” (p. 37). It’s a special skill to be able to portray emotion in writing through the mere outline of activity or environment, and Gilmour has it. I liked the short, punchy way he laid out evocative descriptions of the weather, of time and place:
“It was Sunday…homework undone, the city grey like the ocean on a sunless day. Damp leaves on the street; Monday looming from the mist.” – p. 3
Like a film script itself, Gilmour’s prose outlines and sketches rather than fleshes out. He sets the scene and allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the details. Reading this book made me want to write like that–to have that skill of economy with words, to say much with little. It is one that comes with much practise, I realize.
Film Club is mostly a coming-of-age story about Jesse Gilmour–his girlfriends and his breakups with them, betrayals of friends, his fledgling hiphop duo–but it is also a chronicle of Jesse’s father’s own life throughout the three years these two men spent watching movies together. David Gilmour is himself struggling–scrambling to find paying gigs that aren’t beneath his dignity, navigating between his current and former wives and houses, and trying not to second-guess his decision to facilitate his son’s truance. We are privy to his worries and frustrations, but also to his fatherly love and the wonder he feels at the rare privilege of being able to spend uninterrupted time with a teenage son:
“Such a time! I may have been waiting for a job but I wasn’t waiting for life. It was right there, right beside me in the wicker chair. I knew it was marvelous while it was happening—even though I understood, sort of, that a white ribbon awaited us down the road.” – p. 109
At times it seems that his appreciation for these cherished moments causes Gilmour’s relationship with his son to veer towards the overly familial – that, in his attempts to keep the lines of communication open, Gilmour becomes more ‘buddy’ than father to his son – but he is himself aware of this danger. Despite being an audience for Jesse’s candid admissions of cocaine use and sexual forays, Gilmour knows when to draw the line with his son. He treats Jesse like an evolving, unique human, but he still acknowledges that “we’re not pals, we’re father and son” (p. 39), and when Jesse tries to dodge an awkward conversation his dad is quick to lay down the law, asserting that he “doesn’t give a shit” whether his son wants to talk or not (p. 155). A father is still a father, Gilmour seems to suggest, even if his particular parenting methods involve spending long hours staring at a TV screen or sitting on a porch with his son.
The women in the book are always slightly mysterious characters, perhaps to illustrate the qualities of “otherness” that the Gilmour men assign to their female counterparts. Jesse’s mother, Maggie, and David’s current wife, Tina, are described with reverence and respect by the author, but they always seem to be slightly outside the closed circle of father and son–they seem to be restricted to watching the two men out on the porch through the window, as if the mere fact of their gender keeps them somehow separate. It is only towards the end of the book, when Tina breaks this barrier and initiates her own “porch ritual” with Jesse, that we see a female parent figure having a direct and positive influence on the young man’s life.
Tina’s interjections into her step-son’s affairs come none too soon, because of course there are other mysterious female creatures wreaking havoc on Jesse’s life. The younger Gilmour’s girlfriends and the pressures he feels to relate to them (specifically the maddening Rebecca Ng) form a parallel narrative to the story of films watched and father-son bonding rites. Jesse is a teenage boy, so of course he is wracked by hormonal upheavals and hyperbolic angst, and Gilmour is adept at portraying his son’s adolescent torment without trivializing it. He loves his son and he remembers being in such emotional conflict himself, and his respect for both the person he is describing and the rites of passage we all navigate in the course of “growing up” is constantly evident.
And always there are the movies. The book is filled with brief, appetite-whetting snippets of plot synopsis, favourite scenes and actors’ techniques, helpfully catalogued in an index at the book’s end. Gilmour loves movies almost as much as he loves his son, and part of the sense of wonder he conveys throughout the book stems from his recognition of the rare opportunity he has been given to unite these two passions. There are couple of film-related moments in the book that bear mentioning because of the deft manner in which they combine Gilmour’s narrative of his family with images captured on film–driving home the “art imitates life” message that is undoubtedly one of Gilmour’s theses.
Jesse’s on-again/off-again relationship with Rebecca Ng (described variously by Gilmour as “a Vietnamese knockout” (p. 17) and “a troublemaking little bitch” (p. 38)) is a thread that runs throughout the book. At one point during an “off-again” phase, Gilmour is pleased to discover that Jesse has been re-watching one of the movies he had introduced to his son. It (surprisingly) takes the elder Gilmour a moment to realize the significance of Chungking Express, but when he does recall that the “images of a celery-stick Asian girl dancing alone in a stranger’s apartment” (p. 140) remind Jesse of his own lost Asian girl, the parallels between the real and cinematic worlds are clearly drawn.
This technique is evident again in what could possibly be referred to as the “Bicycle Thief” segment. Shortly after showing his son the classic Italian film about a father’s duty to be an example to his son, David Gilmour embarks on his own covert operation to purchase the house next door to him, employing nefarious methods and enlisting Jesse to lie for him as part of his varied attempt to get what he wants. Things don’t work out, of course. The house is sold to someone else. Then Gilmour has to “eat crow” and explain his mistake to his still-idealistic son, as they stand on the porch looking at the lost opportunity next door:
“It was hard to make him see things differently. I said, ‘I’m just like the guy in The Bicycle Thief. I make something the right thing to do just because I need it done.’”
– p. 98
Using the film plot as a mirror for his own actions, Gilmour imparts an ironic wisdom to his son about ethics and morals, as well as the surprising lesson that one’s parents are capable of screwing up. It’s a poignant moment in the book, and the fact that a classic movie serves as an object lesson drives home one of the important points of the book: that a lot of our education can take place outside of the classroom.
Reading this book is educational, in ways that are both predictable and surprising. Of course we learn about some good movies that we may not have known about and read some new gossip about the life of a notable Canadian. But we are also provided with an unconventional template for family life, for education itself, and for the relationship between a father and son. Things can work out OK if you drop out of school, says David Gilmour, but it helps if you watch a few movies.