In his introduction to For Kids of All Ages, the new compilation he edited for the National Society of Film Critics, Boston Globe film critic Peter Keough writes, “this book isn’t just a consumer guide for parents,” but instead “tries to explain how to watch a movie critically.” “That may not sound like a lot of fun,” he continues, “but when criticism springs from that first initiation into the medium, the results can be illuminating—for not only parents who want to guide their child’s viewing, but also anyone who loves film—especially when the passion and insights are expressed by talented writers who have seen thousands of movies.”
Having worked with and occasionally been edited by Keough when were both at the Boston Phoenix, I can vouch for his talent and passion firsthand. He’s one of the most grounded critics I have ever known in any genre; in addition to accessible perspectives, Keough toils in service of readers, as opposed to his own ego or outside approval. I would argue that such qualities properly equip him to edit a collection on the honest young imagination, a task that he initially took on more than five years years ago. I met up with my former colleague in a chain restaurant that has since opened next door to the old Phoenix and asked about the lifelong fascination that began back when he was only a kid himself.
What’s your relationship with the National Society of Film Critics?
I first became a member two years after I was at the Boston Phoenix, so like 1990, 1991. They have been in existence since ; Pauline Kael and a bunch of other people have been members. It was an honor to be among so many great alumni, and also there is voting for [the Academy Awards]—that meeting comes in January. And then they send juries to cities and pay for your transportation and your hotels to go to places like Toronto or Istanbul, see 25 movies, and vote on them. And they also have the books.
Are there any of the other National Society of Film Critics books that stand out to you? That you always keep on your desk?
The previous one I edited [Flesh and Blood: On Sex, Violence, and Censorship] in 1995. Ha.
What was the process of getting that gig back then? How about now?
You try to avoid it. But when you come up with the idea, they say, “You do it!” I didn’t learn my lesson the first time. With this one, they hadn’t had a book in five or six years, and they were searching for an idea, and I said, “Why don’t we do a kids book?” And they said yes.
And what was the idea specifically? This is about movies for kids, but it’s certainly not about G-rated films.
Some of them are X-rated, actually. They’re being spoken of in reference—they’re not being recommended, even for their parents—but yes, this is different because it’s not all G movies, and there are more essays involved in this. This is the whole idea of childhood and movies and how critics become critics because of their first experience as children seeing movies.
I sent out a list of those [to members]—maybe 10 pages of coming-of-age, animation, [films like] Old Yeller, which is a sad movie that has destroyed more childhoods than even Bambi. So I sent those out, and people would respond. There are about 61 people [in the organization], and about 25 to 30 people wound up participating in this. People were very responsive to the idea, though it took six years to get it published. It started back when I was at the Phoenix.
People would respond with what movies they were interested in, then they would come up with ideas for different essays and reviews, then I started to divide them into genres, and there are two sections that are more like personal recollections.
Some of these seem like essays that these critics have really wanted to write for a long time.
Yes, I didn’t have to twist any arms. And no one is paid—including me. Not yet, anyway. It went on for a long time and it was very sporadic, but there was a long [period] when I didn’t have a publisher, and I spent a lot of that time trying to track writers down.
As the parent of a four-year-old, there aren’t many people talking to us about kids movies this way. And a lot of the books in here, they’re not exactly children’s movies in the traditional sense. Who is the audience?
First of all, people who are interested in movies. People who are interested in criticism, people who are parents and are interested in what their children are watching, and who also can draw on their own experience as children and can maybe rekindle that experience through someone else’s recollections.
As you note in one of your essays, you can’t exactly recall your first movie experience, right?
I clearly remember the Rialto Theatre in Roslindale Square. The other one was a drive-in in Canton, and I went to see this movie by Sam Fuller called China Gate, I think … but the memory that stands out the most is going to the Rialto and the curtain opening up and we’d watch something like The Enemy Below. It would draw you into another world—I even remember the smell of popcorn and the dusty curtain. It all played into an elevated sort of experience, and it’s something that retained as I got older and became interested in writing.
When you started going to a lot of movies, what genre would you favor?
A lot of war movies, horror movies. I only started to enjoy dramas and musicals later on. If they were making the Marvel movies like they are now, I was a huge comics fan, and I would have been going to them all the time.
Were there some staples that had to be in this book?
The Wizard of Oz, Old Yeller, and some of the movies that are in the darker section, like [the 1952 French war film] Forbidden Games. You wouldn’t want to show [the latter] to a four-year-old, but I think it’s kind of an essential one in that it is the mind of a child in a traumatic experience, so that was one I wanted covered.
What if anything changed during the editing process?
Well, I had one chapter that was just about heroes, and they said I had to add a superheroes chapter.
What were you trying to avoid? What did you not want this to be?
A book about how wonderful kids movies are and how sweet kids are. Kids are sweet, and I liked being a kid, but I wanted to avoid any rose-colored looks at childhood. I actually thought it was going to be too dark when I handed the manuscript in. There’s no real lighthearted essay that doesn’t have a kind of dark tint to it. But that darkness is also balanced by an affirmation of life, which is what I think cinema does. It shows you the dark aspects of life but also elevates you above it.
FILMS FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES REPERTORY SERIES. WED 12.25–MON 12.30. MORE INFO AT BRATTLEFILM.ORG.