A few years before we had kids, when my husband and I had a lot more time to watch movies, I started a movie journal to keep track of what we’d watched and rate them on a 5-star scale. For each movie, I’d jot down the title, whether we’d seen it in the theater, on DVD, or on cable, our rating, and a few lines of summary and/or reaction. For two people trained in literary criticism, whose love language was conversations about art and culture, a movie journal seemed the most natural thing in the world.
The journal kicks off auspiciously in the summer of 2004 with “Hot Chick,” starring Rob Schneider and Rachel McAdams, which we watched on cable and which earned a respectable 3 stars (“liked it”): “good premise, could have been better, minor female roles well-acted.” Our choices ranged widely, from documentaries and art house films to big budget Hollywood productions, stand-up comedy routines, and a couple of prestige TV series (Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica). The entries peter out in the first half of 2007, which would have been when we were busy finalizing our job offers and preparing to move to the Midwest. By the following year, we were deep into our new jobs with a newborn at home, too tired to watch movies much less write anything about them.
I hung on to the journal, a blue, soft-covered notebook with rounded corners that still had half its pages empty and a French film festival postcard tucked in it as a bookmark. Journals like this are partly written with a future audience in mind, a future self that can look back and reflect on the experience being documented. What’s strange, and slightly shocking, about re-reading it now is that I have absolutely no memory of having watched some of these movies. I don’t mean movies that I remember watching but can’t recall the details of. Plenty of them fall into this category; for example, “Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2 stars, ponderous & slow. Lots of long glances. All atmospherics, little story.” Makes sense that it wasn’t very memorable, but I remember that I’d seen it. But there are a handful of titles here that don’t ring a bell at all and my descriptions don’t conjure up a single image or bit of dialogue. “Blood: The Last Vampire,” an anime movie from Japan, got 4 stars! I wrote, “The last vampire is a young woman who has to kill demons disguised as humans at a post-war U.S. army base in Japan. Excellent animation.” No recollection whatsoever. How does a mind decide what to hang on to and what to forget?
I’d dug out the journal because I’d decided to resurrect it for our family. In the fifteen years since the last entry, my husband and I have had two kids and have watched dozens if not hundreds of movies with them: we have run through the Pixar catalogue and most of the other animated children’s movies (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”–1 and 2—had a good run in our house); we’ve done the Star Wars saga; we have now seen every Marvel Comic Universe movie at least once. But when the pandemic delayed production of several much anticipated new releases of the MCU franchise just as home entertainment became that much more necessary, it became harder to find a family movie that we could all agree on. When we did find a consensus movie, family movie night was the highlight of our weekend – we’d cozy up under blankets with bowls of popcorn and pillows and stuffed animals. But on nights when it took too long to find something, our frustration grew and sometimes we just gave up. Decision fatigue is real.
Still, we kept trying. And we had some notable success with older movies from our own childhoods. Our kids genuinely enjoyed “Jaws,” “War Games,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”; reviews were mixed on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which I watched for the first time. Seeing our kids engaged by these movies from a different, pre-internet era, with their slower pacing, more complex, non-super hero characters, and fewer special effects, made us realize that maybe they were ready for a more wide-ranging selection beyond the “family movie” category of our streaming services. And then more recently, we hit upon the idea of simply taking turns choosing the family movie each weekend. I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before. My book club has been doing this for 11 years now. It can be something of a relief to relinquish choice, to have a book assigned to you; it forces a certain openness.
We started in March with my pick, “The Rescue,” a documentary about the complicated and harrowing rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team stranded in an underground cave system, followed by my older son’s pick, “Dune,” the most recent remake. Then, my younger son chose “Kong: Skull Island,” and my husband, “Interstellar.” The order was a bit random, but we’ve had almost two full rotations now, and I think it’s working.
The movie journal came to mind as a way to capture this new stage of family movie night, the rating system a way to extend the experience by pulling the kids into conversation after each viewing. I joked that we were going to sharpen their critical thinking by having them explain their rating, articulate their opinion in light of others’ opinions beyond “I liked it.” Thinking and talking about cultural forms from different angles, different perspectives, they’d develop a language for analysis that they’d be able to apply to other things. They’d develop a sense of genres and their conventions. Mostly, I hoped it would be fun. There was no resistance; they jumped right into rating the films on a 10-point scale.
A pretext for conversation. A way into their heads, a way to connect. Adolescence is upon us. It’s hard to get the 13-year-old to share much about anything, but sometimes we can get him to talk about the movies he likes and what made them good or which Marvel movie the various actors appeared in. Even our chatty 10-year-old is more often than not more interested in meeting up with friends than hanging out with his parents.
They are testing out their wings. How many more movie nights before they flap away? I realize, then, that the journal is less preparation for skills they might need, more preservation and prolongation, an effort to keep them close a little longer. Or, maybe more accurately, the memorializing impulse is preparation of a different sort. As we fill the pages of the journal, I imagine their future selves coming back to it. What will they remember? What will they have forgotten that these scribbles will bring back to them? What will family movie night mean to them in retrospect? May the memories be sustenance. In this age of anxiety and crisis, may our snuggling on the couch arguing about our favorite movies feel like love as they fly.