Mattie Ross, the lead female character in last year's movie True Grit, is a 14-year-old in 1877 with determination so steely and speech so precise that some reviewers have complained. They claim that Mattie could not have existed, since the 14-year-old girls they know are flibbertigibbets. They're wrong: Some students I know are just like Mattie, capable of intense concentration rather than multitasking.
Some of their ability is due to parents who showed children that books, board games, toy soldiers, Lego blocks, and other activities without flashes and beeps can be so fascinating that time stops. These parents shielded their sub-teen children from electronic addiction and their teenagers from drug and sexual activity. Some parents, though, say NO MOVIES-and that can be a problem when children grow up inexperienced in discernment and therefore subject to manipulation by those who equate adult with adultery.
As I was mulling over that problem, a new issue of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, arrived and surprised me. Academic Questions has a traditionalist orientation that often leads to articles praising Great Books curricula, so it was semi-shocking to see a slew of articles praising the study of popular culture-and particularly movies from past generations that can train students to watch patiently.
Some writers went way back. English professor Thomas Bertonneau praised The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for its "heroic narrative and medieval balladry." He noted, "The film's appeal is adult, involving the expectation that to appreciate it children and adolescents must rise to the adult level. The dialogue is noticeably literate." True, true-and the movie even ends with a marriage.
Art professor Michael J. Lewis praised Alfred Hitchcock and particularly "the celebrated scene in North by Northwest (1959) where Cary Grant is terrorized by a crop duster plane"-but only after a lengthy scene in which nothing happens, as Grant impatiently walks and waits on the road next to the cornfields. Today's directors prefer quick-cut slam-bangs, but Hitchcock later explained that the waiting, waiting, waiting was essential to show "what the cornfield was like, how flat and exposed it was. . . . Without that vicarious physical sense of space, the scene would be only a rapid-fire montage of scenes of a man running from a plane, and utterly uninvolving, as in so many modern action films."
In another Hitchcock movie, Rear Window (1954), a wheelchair-bound man (played by Jimmy Stewart) looks out his window and into the windows of neighbors. Trying to make sense of what he sees, he comes to believe that a man has killed his invalid wife. Recently, I watched part of the film in a room full of college freshmen stimulated not just to react to slam-bang action but to think and plan along with Stewart.
Thinking of True Grit and the need to teach patient watching and discernment, I'd also recommend some Westerns from the 1948-1962 period: That's after they had graduated from their childhood but before their descent into irony, America-hatred, and violence for violence's sake. Might as well start with some starring Jimmy Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann: Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie. Director John Ford's Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are brilliant.
If you're looking for cool-down activities during a hot July, I'd also recommend High Noon and Shane, both box-office hits during the early years of that golden age of Westerns. French cinéastes love severe Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, including The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station, and for once they're not wrong. The classic era ended in 1962 with Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country.
Some of those titles suggest a solution to our problem of distractibility and running with the crowd: Our children need to ride the high country, even if they ride lonesome. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one opportunity during the school year to help kids gain discernment and learn to concentrate: God's World Publications, the parent company of WORLD, also publishes God's World News, six different monthly magazines that present current events for students from pre-K to high school.