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The Film Club is a Self-Indulgent Memoir

The Film Club by David Gilmour is a true memoir of three years in the life of the author and his son Jesse. In the introductory pages, Gilmour explains how his sixteen-year-old son was having serious difficulties with school. He was failing courses, cutting classes and was generally (though not unusually) frustrated by the process.

Gilmour and his ex-wife, Jesse’s mother, decide to take their son out of school. Gilmour makes a deal with his son. Jesse can live at home and doesn’t have to get a job as long as he’ll watch three movies a week that his father selects. Hence, the film club of the book’s title.

The rest of the book is one part film criticism and one part parenthood memoir with a pinch of home-schooling. Gilmour tells us about their pre- and post-film conversations, and we get little tidbits and trivia about famous movies. Meanwhile, we learn about Jesse’s girl troubles, his aspirations to be a rapper, and his dubious (thought not unusual) teenage habits of sleeping late and experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Gilmour is also struggling a bit–he’s can’t find work.

An Irksome Read

I found The Film Club a particularly irksome read. I wanted to, but I couldn’t get interested in or sympathize with either of the main characters.

First off, Gilmour comes off as a pretty irresponsible parent. He devises this film club strategy on page four of the book. What are the alternatives he considers before letting his son quit high school? Private school. That’s it. There’s no mention of other alternatives, of which I’m sure there are dozens (private tutors and work-study programs spring immediately to mind). After all ‘kid frustrated by high school’ is hardly an unusual problem.

And once Gilmour decides to home-school his kid, what curriculum does his choose? Movies. His only pedagogical tool is Some Like it Hot and Full Metal Jacket? It’s no coincidence that Gilmour is a former film critic. The author seems to say “heck, this is the thing I know about, so I’ll just teach my son about that”.

To his credit, Gilmour frets over his own shortcomings as an instructor. Halfway through the book a sixteen or seventeen-year-old Jesse asks his father where Florida is. Florida! That’s one of the easy states. And yet, Gilmour doesn’t change his approach.

Jesse, for his part, seems to be your typical unmotivated, self-absorbed teenager. While he’s obviously special to Gilmour, he comes off as flat and ordinary. He mopes, he sleeps late, he gets his heart broken. He does seem to be quite a sensitive lad, but this did little to endear me.

My Dad (who read and liked the book with reservations) pointed out that despite never having a job, Jesse always seems to have money. This, like many aspects of their lives (where is Gilmour’s wife in all those? why do we see so little of Jesse’s mother?), goes unexplained or recognized by the narrator.

Gilmour spends a lot of time in the second half of the book describing Jesse’s love affairs with a couple of women. They are, again, the usual drama-filled teenage romances. And we only ever get second-hand accounts, which makes them all the less interesting. Gilmour has a kind of creepy disdain for Jesse’s girlfriends. His jealousy is pretty unflattering.

Jesse seems to mostly exist as a foil for Gilmour to hold forth on the things he cares about: parenthood, movies, his own ex-girlfriends, and so forth.

Two Guys Who Made Dumb Choices

I don’t have to like the characters to enjoy a book. But it helps to care about them, particularly when the book in question is a factual memoir. To me, they seemed like two guys who made some dumb choices and couldn’t (at least for most of the book) see their own mistakes. I’d sum it up as “teenager has ordinary crisis. Father devises ill-informed alternative solution and puts all his eggs in his only basket”.

To top things off, the film criticism was uninteresting. That’s not surprising. We receive the film discussions through the lens of teaching a reluctant teenage learner about famous movies. Even if you’re Pauline Kael, you’re going to simplify your rhetoric, and lace it with enticements that might appeal to a high schooler. I’m not accusing Gilmour of being a bad film critic–I just think his hands are tied by the circumstances he creates.

From a technical perspective, I admire Gilmour’s writing. The book is well-constructed, very cogently written and feels well-edited. Despite my feelings for the characters, I could see it being included on the syllabus of a creative non-fiction writing class.

The Film Club is, at its heart, a book about parenthood. I know three people who have read the book, and they all liked it. As it happens, they’re all parents. I am not. Maybe I’m just not in the target market for this book. It even feels a little risky criticizing Gilmour’s parenting decisions–that seems like sacrosanct territory in our culture. Even if you do have progeny, though, I can’t recommend it.

This is totally unrelated, but I went searching for an image to accompany this review. I searched Flickr for ‘film club david gilmour’. I got all of three photos in the results. It’s fascinating to me that there are more than two billion photos in Flickr, yet I see results like this all the time. What are all those photos of? Vacations? Endless loops of self portrait projects (“085 of 365: Me With No Pants”)? Or are the photos just under-described?

9 Responses to “The Film Club is a Self-Indulgent Memoir”

  1. alexis

    Gilmour is a good writer, but his novels seem somewhat contemptuous of women. I’m not surprised that this non-fiction book has similar issues.

  2. filmgoerjuan

    Jeez, I couldn’t stand this guy when he was on CBC — his film criticism, in particular. Glad to hear that he may not succeed in passing said “skills” on to another generation.

  3. Derek K. Miller

    I notice lots of people hardly tag their Flickr photos at all, or do so obscurely, and leave the default camera filenames (DSC_0325.JPG) as the titles. Some searches give you a huge bonanza, while others are sparse. Such is crowdsourcing.

  4. Derek K. Miller

    Oh, and secondarily, I’d be interested to hear what Tod Maffin, who has some opinions on the current state of the school system, has to say about this book’s approach to schooling.

    It seems irresponsible to me. If you’re going to let your kid bail out of school, watching movies is fine, but there are a lot more interesting and educational things to do too. I’ve admired parents who have, for instance, sailed around the world with their school-age kids. Or staying in your home town, but giving them a topic to look into every week or month and report back in their own way (take photos, write an essay or story, record a song). Or having them volunteer for something. Or read some books.

    Yet there are basics of reading, writing, math, world affairs, geography (Florida!), science, and so on that people should know, especially now, and it doesn’t sound like Gilmour makes much if any effort to provide those.

    Perhaps Jesse will come out of this experience a better person. But from your quick summary, that might be despite his dad’s efforts (or lack thereof), rather than because of them.

  5. Taylor

    What about all the parentheses? His writing is so flecked with them that it seems he can’t get his thoughts down without adding a half-baked idea enclosed in those ever-irritating parentheses. Very distracting. And kudos to the comments about the son being unappealing… how true.

  6. Elizabeth

    Just to point out that if a 16 year old doesn’t know where Florida is, it’s a failure of the school system which had him for 11 years…clearly it was up to his father to break the news to him that Florida is that anatomical looking protrusion down there in the Gulf. At any rate, I just don’t get this reviewer’s negative and judgmental bias toward this father’s approach to rescuing his son. The school system had failed this child. Unappealing? Yes, that’s what angry teenagers are at first glance. Lots of kids are that way? True, and that is as shocking an indictment of our factory education system as I can think of. Criticize as you will, this father’s intervention worked. He took a broken kid and fixed him, sent him back into the world of college ready to deal with the challenges. Criticize anything you like about the writing style and whether that worked for you, but please — allow your prejudices about education, teens, and homeschooling to be informed by the simple fact that this worked! It was a brilliant way to approach a kid whom the schools had been unable to reach.

  7. Mina B

    Coming from a background of education, I am well aware that traditional school is not for everybody. I do not agree that Gilmour was able to take his son out of school and fix him, as one of the commenters here said. I rather agree with the author of this review about pretty much everything. This book, while interesting, read as a justification by Gilmour for both himself and his son. I did not sympathize with either character, and I believe that Gilmour did his son a disservice. The main problem is that Gilmour continuously acts as an enabler to his son’s addictions. He admits readily that he can’t stand to tell his son anything that will hurt him. Another issue is that he refuses to push his son towards anything other than mediocrity. That’s all well and good, if you keep it your own business. But, I find it difficult to swallow that he wrote this book for any other reason than to justify his own mislead parenting attempts and to justify his sons unreached potential. I agree that kids, and teens especially, often need to be left alone to work things through, but Gilmour’s spineless approach to parenting did nothing to help Jesse along. I enjoyed the flow of the memoir. Obviously, Gilmour has a bit of a flair for the dramatic speech though – it added up well with the other self-indulgences in this memoir to make it the complete experience.

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