Tomorrow my son Jake graduates with an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute Conservatory. I am immensely proud of him. One of my many failings as a parent is that I did not say nearly enough over the last twenty-five years that I was immensely proud of him. I taught Film Studies in a public high school for thirty years; the boy now seeks a career as a Hollywood scribe. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
And I am immensely proud of him.
If we view parenthood as a tunnel, I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. I realize that most of my readers are currently pondering the tunnel, or have just entered the tunnel, or are halfway through the tunnel. This doesn't mean that I am now abdicating fatherhood; I just think the nature of my relationship with my son is about to change again as he reaches a milestone we've seen coming from way down the pike. I am looking forward to this.
Jake took to movies from an early age. His first favorites were the original Star Wars trilogy. To illustrate how long ago this was—and in a suburb far far away--he used to watch them on laserdisc. One year for Christmas, we gave him a VHS tape of the documentary Star Wars To Jedi: The Making of a Saga, which he loved and watched a LOT.
He was three.
Not quite understanding that these movies had been made many years before he was born, he began to ask for Star Wars toys, so his mother and I would dutifully scour vintage toyshops and garage sales. I'd put the word out to my students and they'd bring in mostly-working spaceships and shoeboxes filled with Star Wars action figures. That's how Jake got a Shuttle Tydirium! And an AT-AT... a Slave 1... a Tie Fighter... an X-wing... you get the picture. Oh, here's the picture:
Beauty and the Beast, but all that "haunted, wolf-filled forest" stuff with Belle's dad at the beginning freaked him out, so we left. Yes, we went home. (I wish more parents today would do this.) See, he wasn't quite ready. And if you want your kid to grow up loving movies, you don't spend his first movie-in-a-real-movie-theatre hissing at him to sit down, shut up, and stop being SCARED BY THE SCARY STUFF. You take him home.
Instead, Jake's first full-length movie theatre experience was Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. (If you're not familiar with it, it's actually really good.) This time, Jake was ready. In fact, he became so immersed in the experience that at one point, when the cute little lead pixie needed to fly away into the forest, Jake stood up during that quiet moment, waving and calling "Goodbye, Crysta!" at the screen. And an entire theatre full of people went "awwwwww!" Because I may not have mentioned this yet, but when he was small he was ADORABLE.
Of course, wanting your kid to love movies does not mean he gets to see ALL the movies. Until he was about 10, we had a rule that when Jake watched a movie at a friend's house that wasn't rated G, he needed check with us first. The only time Jake disobeyed this rule proved the wisdom of our policy. The movie? Twister. It's not only PG-13, but particularly scary, especially for a kid growing up in Illinois (fifth in the nation for tornadoes. We rule!) Long story short: for years, our Jake was afraid of inclement weather. You know, one of those things that parents can do NOTHING TO FIX. See, movie ratings DO serve a purpose!
Starting in grammar school, Jake delighted in making movies with his friends during the summer with my video camera. I was often cinematographer, as Jake (like Orson Welles before him) preferred to both direct and star. In retrospect, I refer to these films as the "up and down the stairs" series because they featured him and his friends chasing some bad guy or monster around the house, and inevitably up and down the stairs. The climax of these homemade opuses was always staged in the kitchen or out on the patio, because they inevitably featured someone being shot or stabbed or bludgeoned. Even movie kids need house rules, and ours was "no fake blood on the carpets." The boys made it from chocolate and strawberry syrups, they used COPIOUS amounts, and that shit stains.
Jake's taste in movies was preternaturally good from a very young age. I remember some of the films he would re-watch again and again on DVD: Bowfinger, Big Fish, Pleasantville, and a couple other films that later became the subject of my previous column, "Unsung!" The one exception was Pokemon. Jake once dragged me to a Pokemon sequel just to get the special tie-in Pokemon card they were giving away. I fell asleep during that godforsaken film. (Gotta catch... some ZZZ's!) Truth be told, even he didn't like it much. He was more of a Princess Mononoke guy. Movie kid!
When you're a movie kid, parties are just an excuse to think about movies. The 1997 re-release of Return of the Jedi was perfectly timed for Jake's 7th birthday. (Ever try to form an X-wing out of cupcake frosting? My wife has.) Once we had all his friends dress up as their favorite movie stars and rented a limo to take them to Planet Hollywood in Chicago. (You haven't lived until you've spent an hour in a limo packed with costumed 8-year olds.) Being Italian-American, for Jake's high school graduation party we were duty-bound to serve the legally mandated buffet of fried chicken and mostaccioli; but the one spin we gave the standard grad party was renting an inflatable screen and a portable AV set-up, including video projector. After dark, Jake and his buddies enjoyed "backyard movies" on the inflatable screen. His program picks: a double feature of Billy Madison and American Grafitti.
Over the last two years, Jake has been living in Los Angeles as a Screenwriting Fellow at AFI Conservatory. (He has even gone to screenings at the New Beverly Cinema with
Have I mentioned that I am immensely proud of him?