A Look Back
Ben Lovejoy

I notice him for the first time just as the movie’s opening scene in the jungle is developing. He’s walking down the center aisle of the Capri Movie Theatre in Gaffney, South Carolina. The Capri is one of those older theatres with one center aisle and seats on either side. I can’t tell where he’s sitting because he stops just in front of me right in the middle of the center aisle as he marvels at the magic of the film experience. I can tell by the look on his face that this is probably the first movie he’s ever seen.

Moms are there with their children, but this little fellow appears to be there on his own. He stands stock still, slowly drinking his soda and eating from a rectangular box that has “Popcorn” printed on the side. On screen, a little Indian boy is walking through the jungle; the little boy in the theatre’s center aisle stops, his soda cup at his mouth while watching the screen. He looks as if he may stand for the rest of the movie and appears to be no older than five.

Cameron, Duncan, and I went to see Will Ferrell’s new movie Stranger than Fiction over the holidays. We have all been Ferrell fans for some time. I remember him on Saturday Night Live (SNL) in his classic mimicry of characters such as Alex Trebec (of Jeopardy fame), James Lipton (the host of “Inside the Actor’s Studio”), and Harry Caray (the voice of the Chicago sports scene for decades). Will Ferrell makes me laugh just by being on the screen. I don’t know what it is, but he cracks me up. He’s like Mike Myers and Robin Williams for me.

Cameron likes him from SNL for different reasons. He loves Ferrell for his sketch routines—some of the most famous in the history of the show. “The Cheerleaders” with Cheri Oteri, the “Luvvvah” routine with Molly Shannon, and the infamous “Cowbell” sketch with Christopher Walken—Cameron laughs at each of these when they’re played in syndication on Comedy Central or any “Best of Will Ferrell” episode on SNL.

Duncan has become a fan through some of the SNL episodes that he’s seen with us, but he enjoys Ferrell more from his character “Buddy” in the movie Elf. We loved seeing that movie together recently, so much so that we watched it three times over a three-nights-in-a-row marathon airing on TBS.

Duncan especially loves the scene in the movie with Buddy and the raccoon. Buddy has never seen a raccoon before when one crosses in front of him on a snow-filled path in the forest. Buddy likes everything, and he believes that everything/everyone likes him. But when that raccoon leaps onto Buddy’s face/shoulders when Buddy leans over for a hug, Duncan belts out laughter deep from within his 10-year-old body. It’s that kind of laugh that erupts from your child and makes you laugh just because you hear it.

He finally walks down to the front row—where all the kids in his group and every other group of kids his age seem to migrate in a movie theatre. I still can make him out, though, as he takes his seat, his head barely above the top and sitting as high in that seat as he can. He sits still as if moving would cause the movie to stop. When what becomes one of the more famous songs from the soundtrack plays, I see him move for the first time. His head is moving from side to side to the beat. He repeats this when we hear the other songs that play throughout the film.

Besides Will Ferrell, Stranger than Fiction is chock full of superior actors. Dustin Hoffman plays an English professor and part-time faculty lifeguard (one of the funnier parts of the film is when we first see Hoffman as the lifeguard at the indoor faculty pool; tears were rolling down my face). Emma Thompson plays a novel writer and is the film’s narrator; Queen Latifah is Thompson’s assistant sent by their publisher.

Finally, there’s Maggie Gyllenhaal who’s the heart and soul of the film—the unschooling presence facing the dyed-in-the-wool, straight-laced, bored, eccentric IRS agent played by Ferrell’s “Mr. Frick,” who is sent to audit her. She gives Mr. Crick lessons in life that his life has so far not borne out. Her “Ms. Paschal” is my favorite in the movie—a movie that has fun, interesting, complex characters that I like to see in a film.

The boys and I loved Stranger than Fiction; it hits home for us for separate, yet similar reasons. Ferrell is great, but not in the way that you expect. As a matter of fact, the actors take on different roles in their respective characters than in previous films. It’s fun to see this.

At one point, Duncan leans over to tell us what he thinks is getting ready to happen. He analyzes the film at one of the turning points in the movie and hits the nail on the head with what’s about to happen over the next 45 minutes of the film. It’s amazing what strategies and tactics and analytical abilities and understanding a person can gain with the freedom to do what s/he wants. That freedom for Duncan has meant playing a lot of video games and watching a lot of TV at this point in his young life.

I tell Duncan later that the adults in the theatre watching the movie with us didn’t understand where the film was going like he did. I ventured to guess that their insight to what they’d just seen wasn’t as honed as Duncan’s.

The Indian boy has been kidnapped by the monkeys; his friends, the Blue Bear and the Black Panther, are far behind but in pursuit. When we meet the King of the Monkeys and he starts to sing my very favorite song in animated film history, I can’t help but tap my foot. The children down front stand up to dance, but the little boy stays put. He seems too engrossed in the film to dance; but his head is swaying from side to side like before. Not until the Indian boy’s friends come onto the scene in the movie does the little boy change position in his chair. When the Blue Bear starts to sing and dance with the Monkey King, the little boy starts laughing and whooping it up like the rest of his group.

My love of film started a long time ago. I remember the Disney films in my youth and how much watching some of them meant to me. I remember seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time at the theatre and how the word “Intermission” meant nothing to me until I saw it midway through this film. When I finally walked up to the lobby during this “intermission,” I noticed people just milling around, talking about the film and just waiting. I called my mom to find out what the hell was going on, finally learning what the word “Intermission” meant at age 12. Another hour and a half, and I’ve found one of several passions I still carry from a young age.

I also recall sneaking into our den behind our couch—actually crawling the final 10 feet on my belly—to see what, at the time, was a “racy” film according to the standard-bearers of the day. The Summer of ‘42 was a coming-of-age film set during WWII. It chronicles the story of a 16 year old boy who becomes intrigued and eventually falls in love with an older woman whose husband is fighting for his country in the war. When the telegram announcing the fate of her husband comes to the woman’s home late in the film, the boy finds the telegram on a table in her house when he comes for a visit. His heartfelt, tender attempt to comfort her still resonates with me. I’d have hidden behind that couch for months to witness that scene.

Finally, I remember the first time I went to The Nickelodeon Theatre (or “The Nick” to the locals)—a small theatre in Columbia, SC, that showed independent and foreign films well before they were common. I thought that I’d died and gone to heaven the first time I went to The Nick. Seeing Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and Chariots of Fire in that intimate, 50-seat theatre long ago consistently reminds me why I still frequent the theatre some 27 years later. The difference now is that I live in Columbia; back then, I lived in another town and drove 45 miles to and from Columbia to see those films.

Despite the help of all of his well-meaning friends, the little Indian boy in the film still has to face the “fear” that everyone has warned him about. He still must battle his nemesis. That nemesis is a tiger, which is now running wildly away from our hero as he chases the tiger with a baton of fire. I can’t help but cheer our hero on as he not only faces his fear, but shows his friends that he really has learned the lessons needed to live and survive despite the limited faith those around him have in him.

Cameron was weaned on independent films and has enjoyed going to The Nick with me for some time. We both volunteered there for over a year when he was 16, and we saw numerous films together. He’s always had lots of questions about cinema, but those films that we’ve seen together at the Nick leveled out the cinematic learning curve faster than mainstream films would have. The Nick shows films that require a lot of questioning. It’s interesting now how few questions he seems to ask; The Nick became his proving grounds of sorts for film.

We met some cool people at that local theater and are still friends with several of them. Cameron’s interest in the film industry and his subsequent short-film The Road Less Traveled, which we showed at the 3rd Live and Learn Conference, was inspired by his interest in the films that he saw at The Nick.

Cameron has since worked on two other short films with friends we have from our volunteer experience. One of those friends rode the Natchez Trace with me last April and is working on editing the film Cameron shot to document our trip. Cameron had worked on a film with our friend prior to the ride, and they just finished working on the first of two shoots on a new film that our friend and two partners are writing, directing, and producing. Cameron filmed “behind the scenes” for this feature just as he had on his first film with these guys. He volunteered to be the boom operator, to be the slater (the person who uses the slate to say: “Scene 1, Take 2”), to do some main filming, and to do whatever it took to learn more about the process of film making. All of this from his connections to The Nick and his own love and appreciation of film.

The four vultures make everyone in the theatre laugh. It’s not until later that I learn the influences the voice actors used to create their feathered characters were The Beatles. When I watch the movie again later in life, I listen hard to figure out which bird is John, which is Paul, which is Ringo, and which is George. I wondered then and know now that this is probably one more reason I loved this film so much. The Beatles were big in my youth; they were my favorite band as a child. After all, I had sung one of their songs before I even said “Mom” or “Dad.”

We watch a lot of movies together as a family. We discuss them after they’re over and have a much better appreciation for them as a result. We watch the credits together and love the trailers for the films coming out, picking out the ones we intend to see together, on our own, or in pairs. I’ve seen more opening-day movies in the six and a half years of unschooling than I did in all of my other adult years. There is something to be said about being an unschooling family on the first day of a new film. When you’re the only ones in the theatre at (pick any time before school lets out) on the day of a new film with your family, you realize the real intimacy of a theatre. It’s not until there are numerous butts in numerous seats that you notice how really big a theatre is.

Film will always be an important part of my life. I loved films before Kelly, with Kelly, and, now, with my boys. I no longer seek out only the movies I like, but also the movies we want to see all together or in various combinations. My interest in film enables me to enjoy Spiderman with Duncan or Sideways with Cameron; to enjoy One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—her favorite—with Kelly or Harry Potter I—IV with the family. Film is a passion we all seem to share together, which makes it so much more fulfilling for each individual.

The interest of our film selections has continued to evolve as the boys and I learned when we saw Stranger than Fiction just recently. I realized the only thing that could’ve made the film 100% absolutely-perfect was for Kelly to have been with us on opening day. But given the time the boys and I enjoyed together, I think that we’ll take our less-than-completely-perfect any day of the week.

As my eyes adjusted to the brightness outside, I noticed the little boy waiting with his friends. While everyone else in his little clan moved to the street curb to wait for a ride, the little boy turned and walked away from them to the glass encasement that held the poster of the film we’d all just seen. As the light blue Rambler Station Wagon stopped at the curb to retrieve his friends, the little boy didn’t notice but remained transfixed on the poster. “Ben,” came the call from his mom inside the car, “It’s time to go.” I watched the little boy turn, look at “me” and smile, and run to his mother’s car. I heard the Beatles’ song “A Hard Days Night” playing on the radio as the car drove away from the curb. I saw Ben’s head moving from side to side to the beat.

It’s been a long time since I thought about that day in 1967. Being with my boys at the movie over the holidays made me remember it; I’m glad they helped me find that memory again. Unschooling has been about discovery for me—among other things, my sons’ discovery of me, and my discovery of them. One of my most rewarding discoveries has been to see how we each connect to a shared passion. In the case of movies, we all have followed our own paths. Whether my own recalled memories, or the repetitive nature of Duncan's film experience, or the movie making that has been part of Cameron's journey, our differences are what are unique to each of us and what make our shared passion so rich on so many levels.

Ben Lovejoy partnered with his wife, Kelly, to host and grow the Live and Learn Unschooling Conference from its inception in 2002, and can be found conversing with other unschooling dads on the SSUDS list. A private school, military college, and US Air Force alumnus, Ben is not your typical unschooling parent. Despite appearances, he's been unschooling his boys, Cameron and Duncan, with his wife, Kelly, for six years. Ben's personal favorite bumper sticker on their car is "Question Authority". He loves music and film and when he's not cycling the roads of America, Ben is a Lieutenant Colonel with the South Carolina Air National Guard.
This originally appeared in the Issue #4 of "Connections," February 2007

Other things by Ben Lovejoy Dads Movies as a playground, as tools, as portals