The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Changing Your Stars

Chelsea Clinton got married yesterday. Lindsey Lohan sat in jail. Mel Gibson’s chaos has quieted down a bit. Michael Jackson conquers death with a new album due out in October. And, I’m wondering what to write about today.

I look around and I’m just not inspired with the cultural side of life these days. I’m apparently going to continue to sound like a broken record, pining for the good ol’ days when culture and class ruled everything. I am pondering this because I ran into a  dilemma this week in respect to what would be a good and appropriate movie for my six and half year old grandson to watch with me. The choices are tough, I think.

Foremost, I am boycotting animation. I’m sick of ‘em. I want to see real people performing amazing scenes. I want to believe in the magic of the human spirit again. I want my grandson to experience that, too. For him, at his father’s he’s been fed animation and superhero crap all his life; bombarded with flashing weapons, sped-demon vehicles, and monsters made from machines or hatched from a fiery dragon’s lair. In the old days our heroes were cowboys, astronauts, explorers, muskateers, firemen, and cops. I often recall what my daughter tells her son again and again, “No matter how many times you dress up like Spidy, you are never going to stick to the wall.” Doesn’t that just say it all?

When I first approached my daughter with my dilemma I was taken aback by the movie she suggested. I love the film and think it’s one of the most cleverly written adventures around, yet I thought it might be a bit too rough and mature for a little one. She reminded me of the movies and ‘toons the boy sees at his dad’s. Considering that, I suddenly found myself wondering if he would be too bored to really get the point of this tale. That wouldn’t be good, for the point of the story is truly the treasure of it. We grabbed the reins and charged ahead with pizza and rootbeer floats, ready for our movie night. I showed my grandson the DVD box and waited for whatever reaction he might have.

The tag-line of the movie certainly helped the little one’s interest:
“From peasant to knight; one man can change his stars”. Thanks to the Backyardagains he knew what a knight was, but he had to ask what it means to change the stars. What a wonderful opportunity to begin to help him understand the beauty of hopes and desires, and how we have the will to charge towards them and make our life whatever we want it to be. I quickly gave him a snippet of the story thread ... a poor boy (William) is given to a rich man, to be his servant, and he will travel the world and learn as he works as a valet. His father sacrificed by giving his only son, offering him hope and possibly a better future. As the boy got ready to leave, his father encouraged him, “Change your stars and live a better life than I have.” William sadly said,  “Father, I am afraid, I won't know the way back home.”  Father replied, “Don't be foolish, William, you just follow your feet.” Then the story really begins.

That is all I told my grandson about the movie we were ready to watch. As he walked across the living room to sit next to his mom the soundtrack and menu screen began playing. Rock music pounded, knights in shinning armor charged along the rail and rammed lances into the chest and heads of opponents, unseating them. In slow motion the lance tips exploded into splinters while the riders careened and fell. Some hit the ground. Some lay back on the horses’ rump. Another slid along the rail. My grandson stopped in his tracks and simply stared in awe at the looping promotional opening. He did not move until we stopped the menu. Once he found his seat he breathed a reaction, “This is going to be so cool.”  I thought to myself “That answers that ... this movie has his attention, now can it capture his heart?”

The production I am talking about is, of course, A Knights Tale. I’m not going to spend my time going through the plot or providing a synopsis, and there’ll be some spoilers in here, too. I figure most have seen this flick and, if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you? It’s got great costumes, adventure, heroes, a bad guy, a princess, and head-banging music to boot! Sure, there are TONS of continuity issues ... like the scene where Geoff has some cloth stuffed up his left nostril to stop a nose bleed, then it switches to the right side in the next shot, then back to the left. Or, during that last joust the horse’s armor switches from old leather in a close up to the new metal one in the next take. There are so many continuity errors that you could make a drinking game of it, which is why it all seems in spirit with the movie’s intent anyway, so who cares? This movie is just plain ol’ fun to watch.

What makes it an interesting choice to share with a little one was my daughter’s reasoning for allowing it. My first instinct was to say, “No way!” simply because it carries a PG-13 rating. But then, movies from even a few years ago where rated by stricter measure than they are today. I understand that. I’ve seen recent made-for-kids-movies in animation that utterly shocked me when considering content and choice of words, so what do I know about ratings? My daughter put it plainly: A Knight's Tale is all about not having to worry about sticking to a wall. It has a hero that is working to better himself, and he is just a human. He doesn’t need a special suit to be exceptional (although, his new fancy armor might actually qualify!) This hero (who is William) decides what he will do to change his stars, then practices for perfection and competes in sporting events to better his standing and financial condition. He doesn’t just take it, he earns it. Along the way he consistently shares with his friends. Sure, the script has the ‘s’ word in it (that’s ‘s’ for Shite, which is cute, if you ask me) and a couple for God’s sakes - I think there is a BS, too. All in all, it really is tame in the language department.

The bad guy (Adhemar) isn’t really that bad when compared to the bad guys that my grandson sees at his dad’s in other sci-fi adventures. He is a jerk, yes. And, he cheats to win. He’s an elite snob. But he doesn’t try to rule the universe and he wasn’t enhanced by any super power what so ever. More importantly, he doesn’t kill. In one scene where he ‘tips’ his lance with a hidden sharp point, and that point drives through William’s old armor at the shoulder joint, and the armor is removed after the run, there is only a small amount of blood and it’s obvious no life threatening event took place (another continuity error in this scene - when first shown, the padding under the armor has a hole with blood around it, moments later the hole is gone and only a little blood remains).

We do see a naked man’s butt from behind and from the side, but it’s done in a way that’s not shocking and no frontal nudity shows at all. The character reinforces well the idea that people should not be naked in proper society, and teaches the lesson that gambling is bad for a guy. One can, quite literally, lose the clothes right off your back. My grandson vocalized the moral lesson learned right after the gambling in town scene. I was impressed at how well he understood the concept, relating how unfair it was for the gambling friend to expect someone else to pay his way. As the boy said .... that’s just not right. The character learned and behaved quite admirably the rest of the movie and my grandson noticed that.

Of course, how could I mention this movie and not talk about the music? That part of this creation, I think, was brilliant and I knew it would give my grandson the emotion of the story, especially if he couldn’t understand all the words that were being said ... which many times was the case for him. Take, for example, the thread that asked early in the film, “What do you mean, dead?” The reply simply stated, “The spark of his life is smothered in shite. His spirit is gone but his stench remains. Does that answer your question?” Combine those clever words with a strong English accent and you have gibberish a child will not understand. My grandson asked me, “So, is he dead?” To which I replied, “Yes.” Early in the film we had to clarify what was happening.  Soon, though, the intent and story shone through well enough for the boy to understand what was happening.

I imagined this movie would do for my grandson what Romeo and Juliet did for me as a kid (That movie also showed a butt, by the way, go figure). If the story was filmed perfectly, and the actors played their parts naturally well, then a good understanding of the tale will come, even when verbal comprehension is lacking. That did happen with Romeo and Juliet for me, and it happened for my grandson in A Knight’s Tale.

The music in the film gave everything to the emotion of the players. Watching fans in stands at a jousting match as they clapped and chanted along with Queen, singing  We Will Rock You loudly; or seeing William and the Princess dance to David Bowie’s Golden Years was rather funny, considering the costumes and such, yet it definitely enforced the attitude of the people in their time. We related to the emotion immediately and it didn’t feel weird at all. Just ... funny ... and entertaining. Brilliant. If they would have played a renaissance ditty my brain would not have gone to the energy driving rhythm that fans produce at sporting events. It was important we felt like we were working our way to the superbowl of the day and this film did that better than ever.

In the end, my grandson said that was the best movie ever. It’s his new favorite and he’s said a couple of times since that he is going to change his stars. He may not totally understand what he is saying, but he’s got the idea that he can control his life. I think of the line William’s friend said to him when he first heard the plan for future glory, “We're the sons of peasants. Glory, and riches, and stars are beyond our grasps. But a full stomach, that dream can come true.” We will never better ourselves with that attitude, and I think my grandson understands that on his elementary level. My tough job now is to find more entertaining movies to watch with him that will reinforce it.

** Don’t forget to fast forward through the credits at the end. There is a fart joke that really captured the little one’s funny bones ... we had to watch that little snippet 4 times.