Local boy makes good: The classic film version

Shane Fleming's rendition of Charlie Chaplin's fork dance
Shane Fleming’s rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s fork dance

— On a recent Sunday at Film Forum in Soho, a cartoon called “Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame” played before the main feature. After Betty shimmied and cooed her way across the screen, the person in the seat beside me turned and said:   “1933 is considered the most risqué year in film history, and this was made in 1933.”

Then his mom passed him a bag of popcorn, which he ate with a relish that only a 10-year-old could.

But Shane Fleming is not an ordinary 10-year-old. For one thing, he has a business card. He labels himself a film director, writer, actor, and historian.

He answers the question: “how old are you?” with: “I’m ten! Here’s my card.”

The card, featuring a film clapperboard, reads: “Shane Fleming Films: Just cause you’re little doesn’t mean you can’t make big movies.” He also lists his 2003 birth date on the card, but follows it with a parenthetical statement: “studies how it was supposed to be 1903.”

That last part is because his tastes skew decidedly old school. Shane recently won a contest to introduce a movie of his choice on Turner Classic Movies with longtime TCM host Robert Osborne. The minimum age for entering was 18, but of course that didn’t stop Shane. At midnight on April 8, his segment will air—he selected a 1936 Charlie Chaplin classic, “Modern Times.”

It happens to be the movie that one of his babysitters showed to him when he was first becoming interested in the subject.

While being interviewed in the Stuyvesant Town apartment he shares with his parents and little sister, Shane puts some serious thought into a list of his favorite films to recommend to other kids. (His list of recommendations is in the sidebar).

As he thinks aloud, his sister Matilda chimes in with her favorite: “Metropolis.”

Shane’s Top 5 Video List

Shane Fleming, a 10-year-old Boy Wonder of film, put together a list of the top five movies he would show to other kids to get them interested in classic cinema. One of his top criteria: the pace has to keep up with the attention spans of kids today. So many of his picks tend to be light and funny.

Here’s what he suggests:

    • 1. “Safety Last!” (1923)

Silent film starring Harold Lloyd.
“There’s gags right away. It’s considered high comedy.”

    • 2. “The Navigator” (1924)

Buster Keaton comedy.
“Very Looney Tunes.”

    • 3. “The Kid” (1921)

Charlie Chaplin silent.
“The tramp sells glass for windows, and this little kid breaks them and then he makes money off of it. And that’s pretty funny. Very slapstick.”

    • 4. “Duck Soup” (1933)

Marx Brothers comedy.
“Groucho Marx has so many funny quotes.”

    • 5. “The Freshman” (1925)

Harold Lloyd silent.
“It’s about a nerd who doesn’t know how to play football. Even though it’s about college, you can relate to it if you’re in elementary school or middle school.”

“It’s a two-and-a-half-hour silent sci-fi masterpiece from 1927,” Shane says. “There’s some risqué scenes for a 1927 film. Very risqué. By French standards, no, but it was a German film.”

That’s how he talks. He founds the film risqué because it features a robotic woman who seduces a town with a suggestive dance.

But just because Shane has a handle on the ins and outs of classic film, doesn’t mean elementary school problems don’t creep in. He doesn’t always share his peers’ interests.

“Friends ask me if I want to play Grand Theft Auto Five, and I’m like: ‘No, I don’t want to play violent video games,’” said Shane. “They say I sound like their grandma.”

He makes his own short films, which he posts on YouTube. They often center on his family life—the ones he is most proud of include “Bringing Home the Bacon,” about his quest to earn enough money for a new iPhone and “Sibling Rivalry,” about his relationship with his younger sister.

But lately, he’s run into a problem.

“It’s hard to find a leading lady without completely embarrassing yourself,” Shane says. “Other kids will tease me if I ask a girl to be in my movies—‘Shane has a crush on Ella,’ or whatever.”

On a recent Sunday, Shane attended a screening of the Marx Brothers film “Duck Soup” at the Film Forum. A theater employee dressed up as Harpo was taking tickets from a gaggle of children and their families. The theater was showing the film as a part of their Film Forum Jr. program—a weekly Sunday matinee series that program director Bruce Goldstein designed to make older movies more inviting for the smallest theater-goers.

Though he’s already seen “Duck Soup” a handful of times, and can quote it extensively, that does not diminish Shane’s excitement—he darts around, saying hi to familiar faces, practically bouncing off the walls before he finally settles in with a big bag of popcorn a moment before the film begins.

“I’m going to ask them if they can just set up a cot,” says Shane’s mother, Jill Shely, who has shepherded Shane to the theater for his third visit this weekend.

“Shane had this love already, particularly silent comedy,” says Bruce Goldstein, 61, the director of repertory programming for Film Forum. “Now there’s so much competition in the media and the audience is so fragmented now. I gotta encourage him.”

Shane hardly needs the encouragement. Unlike many other cultured Manhattanite children, Shane’s interest did not take any cues from his parents. He is self-taught.

“I was not into old movies,” Shane’s mom confesses. “I’m honestly embarrassed to say I’d never seen an entire silent film before Shane came along.”

He first discovered his passion when he was about five or six, on a family visit to The Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park in New Jersey, where he happened upon a Kinetoscope—one of Edison’s inventions that allows one viewer at a time to look through a peephole and view small movies. The scenes of things like boxing matches captivated Shane so much that as soon as he got home, he remembers going straight to YouTube, where he began watching other Edison clips. He started with the earliest films ever recorded, and just kept moving forward—never stopping.

“I started working my way through film history,” Shane says. “Early Chaplin. I love Hitchcock.”

Chaplin, though, holds a special place in his heart—Shane wants to emulate him if he becomes a filmmaker someday.

“Like Charlie Chaplin, I want to make dramadies, a comedy that has heart and drama in it,” Shane says. “I want to make films that make you laugh until you cry, and make you plain old just cry. That’s what I want to do. I want those qualities to be in one film—hopefully each film I make.”

Bruce Goldstein, at Film Forum, agrees that Shane Fleming has a future in the film world, but doesn’t lay too many expectations on him just yet, despite his precociousness.

“He’s gonna be a historian, or a critic, or a director,” Goldstein says. “He’s going to do something in the field, that’s for sure. It’s not good for a kid to be told ‘you’re going to be this,’ but I know he’s gonna do well.”

For now, Shane will keep up with fifth grade, keep making his movies (whose budgets hover around 5 to 10 dollars), and await his televised appearance on TCM.

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