Memoirs seem to have overtaken the publishing industry, displacing novels as literary enrichment and entertainment. When a memoir turns out to be made up, we hear a lot about it in the media, even on the very unbookish Larry King Live. Since James Frey's million pieces of fabrication, the American public has gotten pretty savvy about this memoir-fiction dichotomy.
There will never be a right answer to the question, "If a memoir is made up, in whole or in significant parts, does that diminish the story it has to tell?" Many of James Frey's readers didn't care a hang that he took so many liberties with his life story. Others, including Oprah, felt betrayed to the bone.
The memoirs that aren't invented don't get anything like that kind of attention. But Canadian novelist David Gilmour's The Film Club tells such an unusual story, and tells it so gracefully, it just might break through that particular glass ceiling. The instant I read the promo on the publisher's web site, I knew I wanted to read it: "The true story of a father who let his son drop out of school - if he watched three movies a week."
First of all, how refreshing that this wasn't about addiction, child abuse, or being raised by wolves during the Holocaust! (Another recent fake memoir.) Second, wouldn't everyone prefer watching movies to going to high school? Third, I've spent the last many years doing something similar: introducing my partner's daughter to the great movies on those divorced-parent nights that she used to spend with us before she went to college. I've been showing her movies and thinking about which to show her since she was twelve, and she just turned twenty-one. I didn't keep a list of what we watched the way David Gilmour did - though now I wish I had - but there are moments and movies we saw together that I will always remember with excruciating fondness.
I remember how excited I was when I realized that she was old enough -- was she fourteen or fifteen? - to watch Rosemary's Baby. I remember her father taking the remote and fast forwarding through sex scenes, including a very juicy one with Denzel Washington - and all of us laughing. I remember us watching the credits on The Big Sleep and Emily up close to the TV screen reading a note from screenwriter William Faulkner that said he didn't understand the plot either. Emily was very pleased; here was all the evidence she needed that grown-ups don't always have all the answers - and that serious folks are allowed to be as zany as they want to be, if they do it brilliantly.
But enough about me. As soon as I read the Film Club blurb, I knew I had to read it. As soon as I sat down with it, I knew I would find it irresistible. I was hooked on Gilmour's spare, limpid style, and on the tenderness, bitter sweetness, and the film education that I could feel unfolding from the first page.
Gilmour's son Jesse was fifteen and hated school with a vengeance. His ex-wife felt he needed a man around the house and the couples swapped houses, so the boy - all six-foot-four of him - and his father and stepmother all ended up together, for what turned out to be three years. Once Gilmour, a film critic who'd once had a television show interviewing filmmakers, saw the depth of his son's antipathy for academic matters, he had the idea to let the kid do nothing but watch three movies a week with him, as a way to get his attention and try to engage with him. He didn't have to pay rent or to work, but taking drugs would be a deal breaker.
So it begins: a depressed kid and his film-loving father, who knows how delicate an operation this is. He can't poke, prod, or demand too much, but he wants to make this educational. The first film they watch is Truffaut's Four Hundred Blows - which seems not to move Jesse at all, though Gilmour's running commentary on the film and filmmaker are wonderful here and throughout. (There's also a list of films they watched in the back - high, low, and middlebrow.)
With a light touch, a sometimes unbearably heavy heart, lots of love for Jesse, and almost as much for movies themselves, Gilmour traces his son's transformation from a depressed school-hater to an involved college student, from a kid who had nothing much to say about The Four Hundred Blows to the knowing, observant film watcher he becomes in his father's hands. Between films and film commentary, father and son share much else - and a whole lot about girls, women, and romance.
Gilmour does a terrific job capturing his son's moods, his own nervousness about whether he's doing right by the boy, whether he's saying too much or not enough, and whether the whole enterprise is doomed to fail. When Jesse announces he wants to graduate from the Film Club - his name for what they do - and head north to write songs with some friends, Gilmour is self-mocking: "And then, like that, he was gone. I thought, Well, he's nineteen - that's the way it goes. At least he knows that Michael Curtiz shot two endings for Casablanca in case the sad one didn't work out. That's bound to help him out there in the world. Can't ever be said that I sent forth my son defenseless."
The Film Club is a deep pleasure to read, almost as much fun as - or maybe more than - going to the movies. My only problem with it had to do with some of Gilmour's choices as a parent, which drove me to distraction. Our differences may be a U.S.-Canada thing or a man-woman thing, I don't know. Gilmour forbade his son from taking drugs but had no problems with his drinking great quantities of alcohol, including tequila, at home and in restaurants, even at the age of fifteen.
I suppose Canadian laws are different. And Canada's much vaunted single-payer health system might also not include mental health services. Call me old-fashioned - or maybe just American - but I'd have sent a depressed kid who drinks too much to a shrink. Gilmour's choice was more heroic, more dramatic, to be the deus ex machina in his son's life: rescue him with movies. A story like that would definitely make a better book or movie. (Gilmour didn't set out to write a book about this; it was Jesse's idea several years later, when he saw his father foundering with a project.) When Jesse takes enough drugs to land in the hospital, and his father ends up sobbing with him and saying, "I'll do anything to help you, anything," he means, I think, anything other than finding him a shrink.
As I say, this may be a girl-boy thing, or an international dispute, about who should see a shrink when. It's a small point, but it concerned me when Jesse seemed lost, scared, and obsessed, as he often did. From what Gilmour says, Jesse seems fine now, and he went back to school, and heaven's knows, shrinks don't solve everyone's problems all the time. I don't mean to suggest that they do.
I suppose I shouldn't have given away the ending, but as we know from watching favorite movies dozens of times, it's the journey not the arrival that matters. That's certainly the case in The Film Club.
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of The Practice of Deceit , Almost, and several other novels, as well as The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. Please click here for a free copy of her essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet."