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At a party 10 or 12 years ago I met a man (well, a male of the genus academic to be more exact) who boasted to me that he had recently taken his 12-year-old son to see his very first movie. The boy, I was assured, had remained innocent of all cinematic knowledge until he, the father, felt the time was right. (Need I specify that my interlocutor had already—indeed almost immediately—let me know that he did not permit a television in the family home? I think I do not.)
“Yeah right, Professor Oat Bran,” I remember thinking. “Unless your kid’s name is Kasper Hauser or he’s confined to an iron lung, I’m pretty sure he discreetly began breaking your little embargo quite some time ago.”
But that isn’t what I said to the guy. What I said was more on the order of “Why in God’s holy name would you do that to your poor kid?”
He, inevitably, came back with some mass-culture-critique boilerplate on the order of “Why would I want to see his head filled up with worthless Hollywood rubbish?”
Well, sir, I was off through the canebrake after that. I told the guy in so many words that his arbitrary snobbery had already irrevocably cost his kid some of the best experiences and best memories that the human condition has to offer. It’s a plain fact that there are levels of aesthetic transport available to children that just cannot be recaptured once the age of reason has been attained. This is the upside to the corollary fact that children’s taste is by and large for shit. But it is a huge upside. Especially where movies are concerned.
I went on to tell the guy how I’d had my mind ecstatically blown wide open at the age of four by seeing Planet of the Apes (uh, not the Tim Burton one) in a crummy neighborhood theater, that it took me (I have this from reliable sources) about a year to stop talking about it, and that there wasn’t much I wouldn’t give to experience that level of narrative engagement again—even though I hadn’t actually understand a whole lot of the narrative in question.
“But you make my point far better than I ever could,” said the guy, who maybe I should have mentioned was a renowned authority on the history of English Puritanism. “The cinema is just far too powerful a medium for children’s growing minds. The contest simply isn’t equal.” Something like that, anyhow.
Realizing we had nothing whatsoever to share on the topic at hand, I suavely changed the subject (“Hey, how about those Roundheads?”) while writing the man off as a total prat.
To make a short story long, soon after my daughter was four, I made it a point to rent Planet of the Apes (uh, not the Tim Burton one) and watch it with her. She tolerated it pretty well but didn’t love it.
It struck me as amazing when she drew the same wrong conclusion that I recalled making at her age during the scene when Chuck Heston and his crew come out of suspended animation and find the one female crew member has died and decomposed during the voyage. “She’s turned into a monkey!” my daughter said. Then I realized that this wasn't at all amazing, just a shared, overly literal reading of some heavy-handed foreshadowing in the art direction: by design, the dead astronaut looks unmistakably simian.
Surprisingly, the movie stood up pretty well for me. Not revelatory, I’ll grant, but totally enjoyable. Infinitely better than the Tim Burton one.