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Paul Ratner

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Tarkovsky for Toddlers

Posted: 05/ 2/2012 2:40 pm

In defense of slowing down the pace of entertainment for babies and adults.

Yesterday we conducted a long overdue experiment. We showed a few scenes by world cinema auteurs to our 2 year-old son. In particular, excerpts from the work of Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrei Tarkovsky. The verdict? Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly didn't hold his attention for too long, and even though he found the fountain scene in La Dolce Vita amusing, it really seemed that the Catholic musings and Mastroianni's existential crisis were a bit over his head. His favorite was definitely the work of the Russian film poet, Tarkovsky. The scene with the jester amusing villagers made him laugh as much as when I make exaggerated sneezing noises. And by and large, the masterpieces held his attention more than the cartoons on Nickelodeon.

I do suspect there is something similar in the way my son watches the cartoons to how he consumed the art flicks. Since he doesn't truly understand everything that happens when he watches a children's show, he appears to meditate on the experience, indulging in visions, colors and symbols. He is trying to make sense of life from scratch, not through a clouded prism of an adult. He is watching his Umizoomis or Elmo with the reverence I had watching Stalker or La Strada. Somewhere between learning how to count and say "doggy," our boy might be glimpsing the essence of life.

What drew me most to art house films back in college days was the possibility of interacting with an actual intelligence, of being able to uncover mysteries of existence. The experience of watching those films felt different. The opuses of the auteurs were often slow, allegorical, and nonlinear. Information was not spoon-fed, endings were ambiguous. Having worked in Hollywood for a number years and having grown older, with all the demands that come with that (including becoming a father), I admit I have less patience for those brilliant films. The culprit is the inability to carve out enough space in my life to truly medicate upon something. I can't help but feel that imposing rigid structures and constant things to do upon my brain has ultimately made me dumber. I know more stuff, I am awash with information, but I strongly suspect that I understand even less. Of course there are those, especially many comment-givers on websites that seem to know it all. But I don't consider myself one of such geniuses.

Of late there has been a certain trend towards slower-paced entertainment in our culture, with shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and even Terrence Malick appears to have become a broadly acknowledged genius even if his new films feel more bloated and much less to the point than his early masterpieces.

It seems some people are discovering the joys of gazing, of savoring the moments, of being able to think about the characters' motivations and experiencing the environments in a way that they can never do in a generic summer blockbuster, which has become even more of an obnoxious attack on your physical senses. The skills of Hollywood's visual artists have become more and more sophisticated, able to create amazing images that move you without meaning, creating a sheer effect of being overloaded, wasting your time without leaving a trace other than an incitement to applaud senseless manipulations on twitter as if to announce, "Look, we are all in this together -- ingesting and excreting images!"

Frankly, as a parent, I find it hard to just command my son, "You can't watch TV." We do live in a highly visual age and ability to comprehend a variety of images is a necessary skill. But the kind of images your child is exposed to is something you can fight to control. As a parenting tactic, my wife and I are making a great effort to stay away from spastic shows like Sponge Bob even if is often funny. Funny isn't everything. It's hard to see what value it can conceivably add to a growing brain other than streaming a lot of un-processable visual information, hard for anyone of any age to keep up with. And studies have proven that children watching "Bob Pants," as my son calls him, exhibit a definite loss of focus and ability to think. I am not sure if anyone has studied the effects of watching a Michael Bay-style movie on an adult brain, but I dare say it won't be much different.

I incite myself and all who found themselves at the end of this post to go watch or even make a film like the 1966's Andrei Rublev. You might enjoy it the way a child enjoys his first cartoons, through the uninterrupted gaze of amazement. By slowing down your experience of time, you are likely to discover the joys of timelessness.

Here is the whole film in glorious HD (with English subtitles).

 
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