Tumbling Into the Screen

How watching movies with my daughter changed the way I thought about film.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

When my daughter was 3 years old, her preschool teacher asked me during a parent-teacher conference if she might not be watching too much of The Wizard of Oz. Apparently a lot of P.’s playtime at school was focused around the movie: initiating pretend games with other kids in which she was Dorothy and they were the other characters, making up songs and drawing pictures inspired by the story. Though politely delivered, this was the kind of feedback that might easily make a parent feel judged for being a too-lax dispenser of that 21st-century controlled substance known as “screen time.”

My defense was unassailable: In fact, I explained, P. had never seen The Wizard of Oz. She had only glimpsed an online ad for the film’s forthcoming 70th-anniversary DVD release and asked me to tell her the story. For a few nights afterward, we talked about Dorothy and Toto, the Munchkins, and the (significantly de-wickedized) Wicked Witch, and I sang her some highlights from the soundtrack. Based on those fragments—a set of remembered images on a computer screen, a bedtime story, and three or four songs—P. had reverse-engineered The Wizard of Oz, or rather, created an alternate reality based on it that she could enter and exit at will. Who wouldn’t keep going back to a game that good?

Five years later, as P. is about to turn 9, this kind of multimedia bricolage is still her primary way of both watching and playing with movies—two activities that tend to flow into one continuous mode of being. Much of our shared playtime consists of an ongoing long-form improvisation in which we walk around the house doing regular stuff while interacting as characters from movies (or, more rarely, books—the Ingalls family sometimes shows up for a multiday spell, with her playing Laura and me as everyone else). This way of relating is comfortable and familiar to me—as children, my best friend and I used to spend entire days being other people, though I think we tended to make up our own fictional characters rather than importing them from the screen.

But weaving in and out of my child’s various alternative fan-fic universes, as I’m often asked (and more often than I should be, rudely ordered) to do, has also had its effect on my grown-up, film-reviewing, culture-evaluating life. Watching P. grow into a very different kind of watcher than I am—less passive and analytic, more collaborative and engaged—has been a welcome stripping away of my own viewing habits and assumptions. I’d long presumed films should be watched from beginning to end; she’s happy to keep returning to one beloved scene, or watch a musical song by song, skipping all the dialogue in between, or watch the first half-hour of 101 Dalmatians 10 nights in a row. (In her defense, that is a killer half-hour.) I consider seeing a movie in the theater and then talking about it over dessert to be the ideal outing; she professes to find theatrical projection unbearably loud, so if I really want her to see something on the big screen (as with The Lego Movie), I have to drag her, using the dessert part as bait. I’ve always sought out cinematic novelty as a viewer, so my instinct as a parent is to continue expanding the list of movies we can watch together. But as a film-watcher the normally sensation-seeking P. is a homebody, preferring the cyclical repetition of a dozen or so favorites to the introduction of new titles. I collect movies, sort them, interrogate them for their meaning and artistic value. She ransacks them for pleasure, inspiration, and what a standup comic would call “material.”

The philosopher Roland Barthes often wrote about his ambivalence toward the cinema. Despite his fascination with film, it struck him as a medium that encouraged self-annihilation and passivity, reducing the viewer to a “larval” state of dependency on the image. Reading such descriptions as a young cinephile, I remember feeling a burst of shame. I was, I feared, already the consumerist movie larva Barthes resisted becoming; in fact, it was in large part that sensation of self-erasure and absorption in the image that I sought out in the experience of watching movies. Even as a professional movie critic, there are times when, as a screening is about to begin, I’ll slouch down in my seat with a sigh of animal relief. For the next couple of hours, on some level, my job is just to sit there and stare straight ahead—whatever unfolds on the screen will take care of the rest.

Our current public discourse about children and filmed entertainment—the debates about the proper doling out of “screen time” at different ages, etc.—starts from the assumption that they naturally occupy this larval position, and that it’s our job as—the adult insects? Bleh—to feed them the proper balance of audiovisual royal jelly so they can transform into viewers like us. But participating in P.’s improvisatory way of watching is the very opposite of self-erasure. The 4½-foot tall poststructuralist philosopher I live with demonstrates a radical mode of viewership daily. Because of her, and with her, I am able—by moments—to move out of my own natural larval state and experience movies not just as deliverers of entertainment, conveyors of meaning, or objects of aesthetic contemplation, but as pure fields of emotional and sensory intensity, almost like rooms to which one can return.

One recent example from my adult viewing life: The memory of the early scenes in last year’s Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson’s seductive, emotionally blank alien lured naked men into a mysterious room filled with a strange black liquid, still holds a terror and wonder I can’t shake. I may not be a critical cheerleader for that movie in its entirety—nothing in the second half lived up to the promise of the first—but Under the Skin showed me a place like no other I’d ever seen before, to which I can now return at will in my imagination. And that in itself is quite a thing for a movie to do.

One benefit of P. being such an infrequent adopter of new titles is that I’ve hardly ever had to watch a bad movie with her. (That’s not to say her media diet is trash-free—there are plenty of dubious shows she follows on Netflix, most of them involving Australian mermaids, but that’s on her time. It’s when she offers to commit to a movie that she gets me on the couch.) Most of her favorite movies are ones I also love, which is why I finagled her into seeing them in the first place: National Velvet. 101 Dalmatians (the original, duh). Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (see above, duh). Fantastic Mr. Fox. Kiki’s Delivery Service.

P.’s favorite movies.

Photo courtesy of Dana Stevens

We’ve watched these movies, and a few beloved others, so many times—together and separately, in discontinuous chunks, paying attention and not—that I guess I should be sick of them by now and laugh hollowly about the tedium of parenthood as I hunt once more for the remote control. Instead I love them more every time I see them, even—especially—if they’re watched in that fragmentary kid way, dived into and out of at will. I now regard these movies less as unified artistic works than as portals into another world—the kinds of portals through which I could pass as a child and now, briefly, get to again. The Sound of Music is, well, The Sound of Music—a very good place to start—but it’s also an excuse, later on, to rechoreograph and perform “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” after arranging the bedroom furniture into a gazebo-like circle. (I play the role of Rolf, the jailbait-chasing Nazi.) And watching National Velvet is one thing, but what about re-enacting the climactic race countless times, with infinite variations, on one of those horses you see outside supermarkets, while your mother calls the race in a bad impression of a midcentury British sportscaster?

Sometimes the power exerted by that mutually created universe can create a Stockholm syndrome effect, in which I end up coming to treasure a movie I would otherwise regard as disposable. I was one of the few critics who reviewed Mamma Mia! enthusiastically when it came out, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie’s lighthearted celebrity-karaoke vibe and Meryl Streep’s ebullient, scenery-scarfing performance, I can’t say I could ever have predicted that I would one day cry over several of its musical numbers every time I heard them. (“Slipping Through My Fingers,” in which Streep’s character helps Amanda Seyfried, as her daughter, get ready for her wedding day? Oy.) During the months that Mamma Mia! reigned supreme in our home, the TV screen was ringed with Post-it notes inscribed with the names of all the characters and some of the actors who played them. Every day was an ABBA dance party and every dinner a chance to debate whether Streep’s character should have ended up with Stellan Skarsgard or Colin Firth. (Firth’s character is gay, but I don’t think she quite gets that yet.) We both agreed that Pierce Brosnan was a mistake.

And then there’s My Neighbor Totoro. As the origin and epicenter of this phenomenon of constructing interactive cinematic universes with P., Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 film is especially dear to me, and a kind of sacred text in our household. Her father and I have seen it, mainly in nonconsecutive fragments, probably hundreds of times, and we both consider it one of our favorite films in the world, and one of the works of art that best invokes this exact faculty of childhood: that mysterious power to imagine one’s way into another universe, to switch realities like Mary Poppins and her charges disappearing into the sidewalk painting.

Miyazaki’s gentle but deeply strange animated fable, about two sisters who befriend a benevolent forest spirit in a tree, was the first movie P. ever watched all the way through, and the only thing she would watch for probably a year after that. Her favorite scene—some nights, the only part of the movie she wanted to watch—was the one in which the younger girl, Mei, playing alone in the garden behind her family’s rural house, first comes upon a tunnel in an ancient tree that leads to the abode of the furry gray creature of the title. After a moment of mutual investigation, Totoro and Mei settle down together for a nap.

Many children’s books and films contain images of falling or wandering into an alternative universe: Just think of Alice in Wonderland; The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe; or, of course, The Wizard of Oz. But Mei’s tumble into Totoro’s blue-butterfly-filled lair was the first such moment to capture P.’s imagination, and I always think of that enchanting scene—the abrupt yet somehow immediately casual discovery of a different, magical reality hidden inside everyday life—as the portal through which P. first tumbled into a movie. At that moment, she began construction of the multiple magical realities she herself now travels to and from at will. I’m so grateful that before the entrance to the tunnel slammed shut, she pulled me in after her.