08/17/2020

Cinema Avec Dudes #1

I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time, but Miles was the kind of calm baby that invariably falls asleep while nursing. So I took him to his first movie at the ripe old age of three months: Allegro Non Troppo, a charming Italian animation set to classical music (yeah, Disney did it first, but Bruno Bozzetto did it better – or at least more wittily).

I picked a matinee with a starting time that coincided with his usual naptime. Any parent can tell you how seldom that actually works, but he was the exception to the rule – as soon as the house lights went down, I opened my shirt, stuck him on a breast, and enjoyed the movie with a warm armful of slumbering infant. It should be noted here that this is an excellent strategy for making sure you have several rows to yourself.

During that first year, when I was struggling to adapt to life as a stay-at-home mom, we went to a lot of movies. The first time we chose a movie for him, though, was when he was three: Frank was out of town, and the drive-in was playing The Muppet Movie.

Did I turn my child into a puppeteer that night? Perhaps. All I can report, over the intervening four decades, is that he adored every minute of it. (Except the moment when a newly gigantic Animal burst from the roof of a house. That made him cry – but maybe the trauma served to cement the film into his brain. Ask your favorite psychiatrist.)

I’d gotten a little cocky with my cinephile toddler, though. When Ben came along, I was expecting another child with Miles’s placidity.

Hah.

Ben was resistant, wired and easily overstimulated. Once in a while, he’d react to the loud sounds and flashing lights by going to sleep. (That tendency persisted for quite a while: at seven, he slept soundly through all but the first five minutes of Die Hard 2.) More often, he’d twitch and then start screaming, and I’d have to carry him out of the theater – which didn’t go over well with a school-aged Miles.

Fortunately, in the five and a half years between Miles’s birth and Ben’s, the VCR had become affordable for young families like ours. If there was a movie Frank and I wanted to see, we’d take the kids to their grandparents’ and send a couple of their favorite tapes with them – which was nice, because if I’d had to listen to Pinocchio one more time, I was going to reach into the television and tear that little fucker’s nose right off.

Before too long, though, they finally matured enough that I could take both of them to movie theaters. After the divorce, movies, and later live theater, became part of the small new family we were building together – and remains so to this day.

After I’d seen The Princess Bride in New York, I couldn’t wait to get home and take them to it. New flicks were slow to come to Sacramento back then, but finally it showed up and I took them to a matinee. I made it into a bit of a special event, talking up the movie and its wonders, and even springing for two small popcorns instead of making them share a medium one.

When the lights came up after the credits, I looked over to see how they’d responded. They were both dazzled. Four-year-old Ben was so mesmerized that he’d completely forgotten to eat even a bite of his popcorn, so we took it home for him to eat it later. And for months afterward, ten-year-old Miles compulsively drew ROUSes[1] that we hung all over his door, the refrigerator, and anywhere else in the house that had room for a portrait of a mutant capybara.

The Muppet Movie and The Princess Bride have an elusive quality in common: they offer a plot and characters that are simple and engaging enough for kids, but they also work at a meta level, commenting wryly on themselves in a dog-whistle that can be heard by the adults in the audience. Rocky and Bullwinkle was the pioneer of the form, although most of its topical humor from the early 1960s flies far over the head of contemporary kids.

If you think that’s easy, try writing a story like that yourself – I think you’ll find that walking the tightrope between “too juvenile” and “overly earnest” is work for virtuosi like William Goldman and Jim Henson.

I spent most of the Dudes’ childhood seeking out entertainment like that, and rarely finding it. As a result, I wound up sitting through a lot of dreck (Problem Child, oh my god, comes to mind), and they wound up watching a bunch of stuff that was far too adult for them. On the other hand, now that they’re grown, they’re finding it useful to have seen a lot of cultural touchpoints that their peers missed out on, even if they didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Every now and again, even at their ages, we’ll watch a classic, and all of a sudden they’ll understand some joke from The Simpsons that went way over their heads at the time. Which is not the best argument for cultural literacy, but it isn’t the worst, either.


[1] In case you’re one of the four people on the planet who have never seen The Princess Bride, that stands for Rodents of Unusual Size.

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