Movies and the Oscars, and thinking, too

hellfightersHellfighters with John Wayne was one of the first movies I remember watching as a kid. I saw it at the Palms Theater in Sugar Land when I was in first grade when we were preparing to move to Venezuela. I saw many movies at the Palms; it was the kind of theater that every small town had with one screen, a concession stand, its walls were painted with a tropical theme lit just right before the movie began to give the feeling of being somewhere besides Sugar Land, Texas. I remember the children’s movies I saw there, but Hellfighters was for adults and there was something about watching movies with real action like oil well fires. It was hardly a great movie, but I remember it well. We even saw it at the theater in Venezuela, it was in Spanish with English subtitles, but they had cut the part at the end about Venezuelan rebels. I have seen it many times since and I even have a copy in iTunes my brother Warren gave me a few years ago.

I stopped going to the Palms when I got my driver’s license and I didn’t need mom or my bike to get me to the movies. By that time multiplex theaters were popping up around southwest Houston with four, five, and more screens. In the late 80s, the Palms closed and was torn down and the space is an empty lot across from the sugar factory, or at least it was last time I was in town.

Every year about this time, the Oscar nominations come out and I look at the list with wonder and ask ‘Who sees these movies?’ Often, I have seen one or maybe two of the movies before the announcement, watching after the list comes out is good, but it does not count as having seen the movie. This year the list includes two movies I had seen in the theater: Argo and Lincoln. I saw Lincoln at the Rialto in Grayling, a theater much like the Palms, over winter break and enjoyed every minute of the movie, the popcorn, and the theater. I enjoyed the movie and it made me want to know more about Lincoln and his presidency. Argo harkened me back to my senior year in high school and I don’t recall the story but do remember the hostage crisis and learning about the failed commando raid in my government class.

Movies are great, but books are even better. I try to warn my kids and my students about watching a movie and THEN reading the book. My kids, W and O, nor I, still have not seen Hunger Games, though I am not sure if we missed anything. The book is always much better and the movie makers always leave something out, or change a character, or add a scene that wasn’t in the book. Disappointing.

trashLast spring, I picked up a book called Trash. It was on the 2013 Caudill nomination list and Mary Ann, the librarian’s assistant, recommended it and provided some background for me. I began to read and had to go back to re-read parts so I would not be confused. Trash is about a group of boys in a third world country in the future who live on a landfill and earn money sifting through the garbage and selling what they can. One day, the boys discover the find of a lifetime and the adventure begins. The author uses changing perspective to tell the story and each chapter is from a different boy’s point of view. This fall, I recommended the book to several of my students who were looking for a book club book to read for class. Yet, I soon discovered my students had a difficult time relating to or imagining kids who were so poor they lived on a landfill sorting through garbage and muck to earn money to survive or what a landfill was or even looked like. Such is the life of a modern American adolescent, or I suspect, my own self at their age.

I knew if my students were to enjoy reading the book, they needed some background and I did some research looking for videos of landfills and I stumbled upon a movie called Wasteland. As I read about the movie and watched the trailer, I learned that it had earned a nomination for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2011. The movie is about Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz a Brazilian native who travels to Rio de Janeiro for his next artistic project to make art with garbage. As he is proposing the project to his wife, as they are looking at a Google image of the image of the landfill, Jardim Gramacho, he says,

“… this is probably the roughest people you can think of, they’re all drug addicts, they’re um, um… it’s like the end of the line…. Ummm, check out the geography of this place, it’s like the end of the line, this is where everything that is not good goes, including the people.” Wasteland

I eventually purchased the movie and downloaded it to my iPhone so I could show clips to help my students see the landfill and the life that these boys lived. Check out the trailer.

I know it helped, because I could see the kids reading the book and getting it, talking about the characters and trying to understand their lives and for a moment, developing a bit of empathy for them.

And then, one Sunday afternoon in early December I was skimming trough my e-mails, reading and skimming blogs and I followed a link Paul from Words and Pictures had posted. The link landed me on a Facebook page, for Landfillharmonic and it totally transformed my thinking. It is about a group of children who lived on or near a landfill in Paraguay and how they learned to play music on instruments made from recycled materials – from material pulled from the landfill. The video is a teaser for a movie, which is in the process of being developed and produced. You can watch it below.

I wrestled with ways to share the video with my class and my fellow teachers. I ended up screening the video to my class several days later and the classroom was silent as they processed the images. I asked my students to respond to a writing prompt and we discussed what it meant to live where we do – suburban Chicago – and to have access to all we have and what it might mean if they had to play music on an instrument made from recycled materials. I referred to the book and the importance of reading and learning. I hooked a few, more importantly, I forced my students to think about kids who are like them, but lead vastly different lives, even if only for a minute.

So when the Oscar nominations were released last week, I thought of Wasteland, the Landfillharmonic, and Trash and the last lines in the teaser…

“People realize that we shouldn’t throw away trash carelessly. Well, we shouldn’t throw away people either.” Landfillharmonic

It’s early Sunday afternoon now and W should be studying and I should be helping him, instead he is watching Goldfinger behind me and I am finishing writing this blog post. I have been mulling this post for some time, dating back to the fall when I first came across Wasteland, pushing it off to a time when I had more time. Winter passed us once again, we got a little freezing rain last night and it is just cold outside with the lawn a greyish green color of winter grass instead of a fresh coating of white snow. Winter will come when I least want it, but it the meantime, I need to jump up, jump in and seize the day. Today is gonna be a great day. Making the Days Count, one day at a time, one blog post, one study session, one batch of papers graded.

What movies do you remember that made a difference or made an impression on you – growing up or as an adult?

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6 thoughts on “Movies and the Oscars, and thinking, too

  1. Thanks for the plug. Even though I don’t teach 7th graders, I have little time for reading books. But I’ve made a concerted effort to change (semi- retired as of January 1 and cutting back drastically on posting to my blog). I love reading. Problem is, I love movies even more, having grown up and worked in and around Hollywood and the film industry most of my life. The one movie that has made an impression on me (having seen it for the first time when I was of a highly impressionable age) was The Searchers. In 2010, I finally went to Monument Valley where the movie was filmed. Unbelievable country!

    1. Thanks for stopping by… I was worried your writing days were over, it is easy to lose perspective of time – especially when writing (and reading, too). it seems my last two posts have been about movies – took W to Skyfall after the last post (Shaken or Stirred) and he enjoyed it… though we should have been prepping for high school finals – it was a good diversion. I haven’t seen that movie, but I’d like to see that part of the country! have a great day

  2. Hi Clay,

    One of my earliest movie memories is from the early 70’s when my mom took her kids (all six of us) to the movies. I remember that it was hot, but we walked a good distance to the theater, so that we could avoid paying the bus fare. We didn’t have much back then. The movie that we saw was Willard. It was a strange choice given that we lived in a Brooklyn tenement apartment with mice already.

    Like you, I rarely have seen a movie before it’s been nominated. This time around, I’ve seen Lincoln and Les Mis. I’ve read one of the many Lincoln biographies and I enjoyed the movie. Whenever I hear someone say that the book is better than the movie, I think that that presupposes that people will read the book — ever. I read my share of books, but I could never claim that I’ve read the book behind every movie that I’ve seen. So I never compare the two. Both can be enjoyable.

    While it was a mini-series and not a movie, Roots made an indelible impression on me. Years later, I was delighted to find it available on iTunes and have watched it many times since, including one weekend marathon viewing with my eldest daughter.

    1. sometimes I’ll read the book after watching the movie, but most of the time I am like you. My time is limited. Since I teach 7th graders I read a lot adolescent literature and am often frustrated by movies that are not true to the book – such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory though the Gene Wilder version is far better than Johnny Dep. There is only so much time. Thanks for stopping by and reading – I hope your day is great!

Thanks for visiting MtDC. How are YOU Making YOUR Days Count?