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SIXTEEN YEARS OF MOVIE LOVE WITH MY HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE

by Dennis Cozzalio Jun 09, 2018

My eldest daughter graduated from high school this week, an event that most parents who have been through it before will understand can be stressful and emotional traumatic, for the eager graduates, of course, but for us old codgers too. For her, the promise of a new road ahead, full of uncertainty, new experiences and challenges, is exciting and frightening in close-to-equal measure. For her mom and dad, even though she’s not going to a school very far away geographically, it’s a signpost of a newfound independence that is only going to gain strength until one day (though not immediately) there will be one less chirping, shrieking, laughing voice echoing through the modest halls of our house.

And for me, it means that my first daughter may not be around as much to keep her old man happy by going with him to the movies. I took her to her first movie, Shrek, when she was only one year old, and the bout of night terrors she experienced that very same sleepless night (her one and only tangle with them, thank God) signaled that she may not have been entirely ready for the wonders of the motion picture. About a year later we embarked on our moviegoing adventure together in earnest (some details about that experience follow below), and it’s been great fun—for both of us, I’d like to presume—navigating the Pixar years (which, if Coco is any indication, are far from over) and into more adventurous and mature terrain as the years passed by.

We saw a lot of classic films together at various venues in and about Los Angeles over the span of 16 years, giving her a much broader base of experience and understanding of what movies were and how they reached the incarnation her generation is most familiar with than most kids her age. And, naturally, I often wrote about the experiences. One of those pieces, “I Didn’t Know a Cowboy Movie Could Be So Emotional,” touches on a little of our then-nascent journey with classic movies, this one centered around a great screening of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven.

But the piece that follows here, written in 2008, a couple of months before the Magnificent Seven post, details a moviegoing experience on her preferred turf at the time. I realize that most readers of this column might not be particularly interested in an account of a 10-year-old kid’s movie musical, itself the apex of a schoolyard phenomenon that actually began two years earlier, in 2006, as an unexpectedly popular TV movie. But High School Musical 3: Senior Year is really only tangentially the subject of the account that follows. What I was really interested in writing about was the process of instilling, or trying to instill, movie love in my kids as a natural part of their growing, learning, and maturing process, which is potentially a subject of broader interest that the on-screen antics of the squeaky-clean students of East High and whether or not Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens could keep their love strong. (The lesson on the difference between screen romance and real-life romance would come later.) I think I got at quite of bit of that, at least from one father’s shepherding experience, in the piece I’ve refurbished for you today in tribute to my own daughter’s marking one of life’s first big mile markers. I can only hope that you will agree.

Oh, and Happy Graduation Day, Emma!

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As a relatively responsible movie-going parent, I’ve always been curious as to how much of an influence our children’s response to the movies we take them to work to color our own. One of the first movies I ever took my first daughter to, when she was two years of age, was Monsters, Inc. Of course, she loved it. She even reached up midway through the movie to give me an unsolicited kiss, as if to say, “Thanks for taking me to this movie.” I came away convinced that Monsters, Inc. was a masterpiece of children’s entertainment, and that sublime ending, with Sulley peeking through the doorway at a sleeping Boo, did nothing to dispel that notion. (Neither did my daughter’s resemblance to Boo at the time do anything to dampen my happiness over our experience.) Thus began a history of taking my daughter(s) to the movies, one in which we’ve endured plenty of duds (any chance I could trade in our two screenings of Open Season or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for one more shot at Wall-E on the big screen?), but one which I’ve also had some genuinely lovely experiences. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed movies together (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D) that are unlikely to end up on anyone list of children’s classics. And I’ve been blessed to be able to turn them into fans of the drive-in movie, thanks to that quintessentially American format’s unlikely local renaissance courtesy of theaters like the Mission Tiki Drive-in, the Vineland Drive-in, the Rubidoux Drive-in, and the Van Buren Drive-in.

(There exists somewhere a videotape of me and my then three-month old daughter taken in 2000 at the now-defunct Foothill Drive-in in Azusa, CA, in which I guide her on a tour of the near-deserted lot just before movie time and express my regret that by the time she’s old enough to see them drive-ins will likely be completely extinct. Thank God for my inability to suitably conjure Nostradamus for my inaccurate prognostications.)

Finally, this summer we definitely rode that same wavelength in our mutual adoration of Speed Racer. After spending the movie’s opening day simmering in a downtown jury room awaiting the call that would ultimately never come, I spent a goodly portion of my downtime reading the Los Angeles Times and various other sources (accessed on the courtroom’s $5.00-a-hour Internet access computers) as they proclaimed Speed Racer to be an incoherent dud the scale of which could ultimately bring down its studio, Warner Brothers, after an epic botch of the movie’s marketing. (These were, after all, the bleak days before a certain Dark Knight came and cheered up everybody on the WB Burbank lot.) To celebrate my release from jury duty sans commitment to an actual trial (the system works, folks), I called my daughters and told them to make plans—we were gonna head out to see Speed Racer, my thinking being that if nothing else it would be a boatload of fun witnessing just how far off the rails a major studio movie can go in this age of buttoned-down, micro-precise marketing strategies. At dinner before the movie, we encountered a waiter who overheard us talking about seeing a movie afterward, and when he found out what we were seeing this rather tall, imposing gentleman immediately revealed himself to be a hyperactive member of the uber-geek community. He’d seen Speed Racer earlier in the day (remember, this is opening day) and was hard-pressed to contain his enthusiasm. He implored us to come back and let him know how we liked it, and I thought to myself, “You’re a nice guy, Bub, but you’re not gonna want to hear what I’m probably gonna think about this movie.”

I couldn’t have been less surprised when my daughters began immediately squealing with delight over the candy-colored antics of the Wachowski Brothers’ movie splashing with abandon upon the wide screen. But I kept waiting for that moment when, rather than giving in to the abandon, I had to shut down in the name of self-protection and begin actively rejecting the nonsense. That moment never came. And about three-quarters of the way into the movie, sometime either during or just after the movie’s spectacularly disorienting Fuji race, its track deliberately evocative of the loop-de-loop Hot Wheels tracks of my youth, I turned to my oldest daughter with a huge grin on my face and admitted, “I love this movie!” I spent the remainder of its short summer theatrical run returning to Speed Racer, five times in all, and twice in IMAX, with my daughters and my friend Don, the only other grown-up I know who seems to understand. (The night of the movie’s release on DVD I got a message from him that stated simply, “Have you watched it yet?”)

But then, my kids also loved Open Season. And Indiana Jones and that cheesy crystal skull. And Steve Martin’s remake of The Pink Panther. And Madagascar. And countless other crass movies pitched primarily to their demographic which I, either proudly or sadly, cannot abide. This is the group into which I have traditionally lumped the High School Musical phenomenon. Despite featuring an abundance of tunes that seem to have sprung directly out of a hit-making machine, so insidiously, preternaturally catchy are their hooky melodies, HSM just seemed too Disney-prefab for anyone old enough to be able to draw the line between the adventures of Troy and Gabriella and those of Frankie and Annette. Of course, the entire raison d’etre of HSM is giving the elementary school set a freshly scrubbed look into a universe that they’ll soon be experiencing, with all its real-world complications, soon enough, thank you. And of course, that universe doesn’t resemble reality in any meaningful way beyond the carefully marketed multiculturalism of its casting, which is, I suspect, an issue of far more importance for those who don’t have kids or are looking for an easily accessible ax to grind with the movies. High School Musical is simply the wrong place to go trolling for evidence of social reality, and to knock the series for the absence of cholas in the hallways of East High School, or because the movies don’t deal with the hard-hitting issues like pregnancy or premarital sex that face today’s teens, is to miss the point entirely.

Peter Travers’ appalling review of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, in the pages of Rolling Stone, seems to me a particularly egregious and desperate attempt to pander to the demographic and presumed tastes of his magazine’s readership, not to mention their prejudices. “If you’re gay and/or eight years old, HSM3 is the movie event of the year,” Travers opines. “From the first leering close-up of Zac Efron shaking off sweat on the basketball court before bursting into sappy song, the movie — like the two TV movies that preceded it — is a nonthreatening sexual marshmallow.” Does that sound like an opening sentence written by a man who isn’t in some way threatened by this innocuous entertainment? Okay, we got ya, Peter— you’re way too smart, and too butch, for this shit. Sadly, Travers’ review is not an isolated instance of his continued assault on the credibility of film critics, not to mention the music of the English language.)

High School Musical is, again, fantasy, the kind that many of us grew up on in various forms, whether it be Annette and Frankie, or the Tammy movies, or even The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. I don’t see a lot wrong with my daughters having someplace to hang their hopes in a pop culture framework for the life they eagerly anticipate as they get older and school gets tougher. It seems to me they have a right to a fully romanticized idea of high school they can revel in, one which will undoubtedly be snatched away from them far too quickly in any case. (And anyone who subscribes to the Entertainment Weekly-fueled enthusiasm over shows like Gossip Girl or the new 90210 and doesn’t admit that they are simply fantasies of another kind, built on puerile sensationalism and exploitation of trendy attitudes instead of googly-eyed innocence, is conveniently deluded.) I have yet to see the first two TV movies, so the duty of taking my daughters out to see HSM3 fell to my wife, who has indulged the girls’ enthusiasm to a far greater degree than I ever have. (I have been, up to this point, exclusively the one who needles my oldest about Zac’s hunkiness and how I far prefer the perpetually plaid-clad Ryan.)

Of course, my daughters loved the movie—I would have been foolish to expect anything else. (If somebody would have concocted a big-screen version of Jonny Quest when I was eight years old I probably would have similarly flipped out.) What was surprising, however, was the report brought back to me by my wife regarding the reaction of my eldest, the eight-year-old. Patty said that, about midway through the movie, during an emotional number in which Troy, Gabriella and Troy’s best friend Chad confront the reality of Gabriella moving to Stanford (“Just Walk Away”), my daughter, never one to hide her emotions, began weeping openly, uncontrollably. Patty attempted to comfort her, but it was clear that our daughter, to whom these characters were close to real people she has seen grow up over the course of three zippy, poppy movies, was taking their dilemma utterly seriously. And it was breaking her little heart. (It made me think of Pauline Kael’s comment about how, for many people whose primary experiences in the movies were the Star Wars trilogy, it’s understandable how, no matter how raggedy the last chapter, the fates of Luke, Han and Leia might be experienced on a deeper level than some might be willing to concede.)

My daughter’s emotional outbursts were not confined to the scenes involving the separation of her friends, however—the tears continued to flow through the end credits, along with the presumably real tears of the actors on screen who, in taking their final bows, couldn’t help but acknowledge their own emotional responses to the ending of a series that has framed their entire teenaged lives. It was this summing-up that my daughter was finally reacting to—she got to experience, through the power of this prefab little musical phenomenon, feelings about a series of movies that has been hugely important to her. Though they scared her a bit and she didn’t initially know what to do with them, those feelings somehow found an outlet and she felt safe enough to express them.

The following Saturday it rained in and around Los Angeles. Stuck for something to do while my wife spent the afternoon working, curiosity got the best of me and I suggested we three go see High School Musical 3 together. Both my daughters were shocked that I even wanted to see it, and they extracted a promise from me that I would not openly mock the movie throughout. I agreed, and off we went to a Glendale auditorium packed exclusively with moms and daughters, and me. (I feel confident in asserting that I was the only male of any age in attendance that day. Take that, Peter Travers.) Turns out that, for this non-veteran of the HSM experience, the third chapter is a pleasant-enough diversion. My tolerance for chirpiness was tested from time to time, and there was a patch when I was fighting off slumber—a frequent occurrence whenever I hit the matinee circuit—but both my daughters helped me through that rough patch (“Dad, you’re snoring! Knock it off!” cried my youngest, and I don’t think I dozed a wink after that.)

As I suspected, HSM3 is very much a product of Andy Hardy-Annette and Frankie lineage, and it has the same kind of enthusiasm mixed with blithe ignorance of how silly it all must seem to those outside its hermetically sealed universe that is either wearying or cheering, depending on your perspective. As a director, Kenny Ortega proves himself to be a fine choreographer. (Hairspray‘s Adam Shankman was far more limber and adept at mixing the two vocations.) It’s a good thing that the movie is as packed as it is with catchy, well-staged tunes, because all that people-interacting-with-each-other-sans-backing-track stuff seems beyond Ortega’s reach—- most of the interstitial scenes between production numbers are as flatly lit and imagined as a Swedish pancake, with Ortega seemingly content to turn the camera on in sit-com style proximity to his actors and hope that their toothy grins will carry the day. Fortunately, they usually do, at least long enough to get to the next musical outburst. And at least they neatly capture the kinds of dilemmas young people find earth-shattering—divided allegiance to life pursuits and the difficulty of leaving friends behind are this glossy picture’s meat and potatoes. Thankfully free of the pretension and exploitation that pervades most modern depictions of high school life readily available on cable TV, HSM3 is a movie any adult could see through with little effort. But it’s one that this adult can also fairly effortlessly enjoy, with no ties to the previous installments, and I credit that to the movie’s commitment to its retrograde charms in honoring the emotional pact it has forged with its young audience.

Speaking of which, the moment came when Gabriella must leave for Stanford, and sure enough, my lovely, open-hearted little girl let fly the sobs as she tucked herself in my arms for the duration. And I know I was simply reacting to her reaction, but I didn’t resent the fact that I ended up crying too. Any movie that can touch my daughter without resorting to cheap tactics, but instead by allowing her to get to know a group of kids, the corollaries of whom she’ll likely never meet in real life, kids with little else on their mind but their personal loyalties and that intense need to sing and dance, is okay by me. It doesn’t matter that I don’t necessarily think it’s a great movie. This time it’s enough that she does.

About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.