Film Nerd 2.0 digs into the notion of ‘what is appropriate’ between the PG and R

It's been a strange couple of weeks of films with the boys.

First, we had a period of almost three weeks where I didn't get to see them because of all sorts of different scheduling issues. The hardest part of adjusting to life as a divided family is making my peace with the very different way the kids and I spend time together now. I've gone from having hours with them every day to having a handful of hours every couple of weeks. It makes time feel much more precious, but it can add a layer of stress, as well, because I'm constantly aware of the ticking clock.

I know the boys feel it, too. We talk when I don't see them, but it's not the same. You try having a serious conversation on the phone with a seven-year-old. It's just not satisfying, no matter what. Kids today don't really learn anything about the phone or how to have conversations on it. It's just not a skill they need. I'm actually looking forward now to my kids starting to get comfortable with texting, because I suspect we'll be able to enjoy that back and forth.

For now, though, we look forward to the time when we are together, and we can talk and hang out and play games and read together and, yes, watch movies. The line-ups lately have covered a fair amount of ground, and I remain impressed by what the boys are willing to try, what they're interested in, and how they read the films they watch. Toshi's hunger for science-fiction is prodigious right now, matched only by his absolutely refusal to watch anything even vaguely horror-related. I respect the fact that he has such a strong sense of what he does or doesn't want to see, and he knows his own reactions well enough to know that he just plain doesn't like being scared. I was the same way for a while, and it was only around eleven or twelve that I started actively seeking out scares. Before that, the horror films I'd seen were accidents, things I didn't intentionally seek out, shown to me by adults who thought it was hilarious to see just how terrified I was by horror films. I didn't just get scared by the films I saw in those early days… I internalized them. They traumatized me. They were significant. I still have chemical reactions to those movies because of how I saw them the first time. I can't explain the reaction I have to “Halloween” or “The Exorcist” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” because the reaction is deeper than words. Those movies affect me like actual remember experiences, like things that happened to me, not things I saw. I consider those important experiences, but I'm not going to ambush my kids like that. When they decide to watch something scary, it will be on their terms.

I've seen some hand-wringing over a piece Matt Zoller Seitz published about a group of eleven-year-olds watching “Aliens.” I don't see anything wrong with that scenario. He knows those kids. He knows his own kids. He's no dummy. He's not randomly throwing movies on and walking out of the room because he wants two hours where they're not bothering him. His piece made it very clear… he was watching with them. He was having a great night with them, and he knew what that room full of kids was ready for, and he had a blast. I can't wait until scaring the shit out of my kids is part of the agenda. I look forward to many many many many moments in which I watch them climb out of their skin and run out of the room. We're not there yet, though. Matt's kids were. The only people that I think can ever make a truly valid call about whether or not something si appropriate are the parents of a kid, and only if they're willing to be engaged and pay attention to what media their kids ingest.

I think the truth is that our relationship with movies changes at a certain point, and nothing we see after a certain age will ever land on us with the same force as those movies from our formative years. One of the things I'm trying to do is mix it up right now, showing the boys a wide range of things. They love franchises, and they get manic about watching certain things, but they are also fairly adventurous in terms of what they'll watch. Toshi decided recently that he really wanted to see “Some Like It Hot” because he's been looking at the front of the latest edition of David Thomson's “The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film” for the last six months or so. I'm not sure what it is about the image of Monroe, her back to the camera, ukelele in her hand, that has captured his imagination, but it's safe to say he's been curious for a while.

He liked it quite a bit, too, and he said he though Marilyn Monroe was great. “She was really funny,” he said, declaring her the best part of the film. When we actually watched “Some Like It Hot,” it seemed to me like Toshi enjoyed it much more than Allen, but the next day, Allen asked to borrow the movie so he could show it to his mom because he thought it was “hilarious.” The true test of how a film lands with any kid is their willingness to see it a second time. By their nature, kids are drawn to re-watching things. It's part of the process of understanding, especially if there's adult material in a movie that they don't fully get the first time. I've seen this with my own kids over and over now. They will watch certain films like they're trying to solve a murder, studying them, teasing out details and information until they feel like they've got a full handle on it.

If that is the case, then I think it's safe to say that the boys are in full-on nerd meltdown over their first exposure to “The Matrix.”

I took another look at the first film not long ago, curious about it, and what surprised me is how mild-mannered that R-rating looks at this point. I assume the rating is almost entirely for the lobby sequence when they go to rescue Morpheus, but honestly, that's the sort of decision that makes the MPAA so infuriating. That could easily be set side-by-side with any number of PG-13 films and you couldn't show me anything that distinguishes one from the other. It's arbitrary and silly and another reason that we've basically gone off-road for this column at this point. By now, I have a good idea what Toshi and Allen are ready for and what they're not, and they are more than happy to tell me as well. The MPAA's completely random decisions about content don't really mean anything when it comes to the kids. I wouldn't trust them at this point to tell me what is or isn't appropriate. I won't show the kids “The Dark Knight,” for example, because I think The Joker is genuinely horrifying and ugly. I think that film has a tone that is darker and more unpleasant than any of the R-rated films my kids have actually seen.

We also had a recent incident when I showed the boys “Logan's Run,” a film they've been asking to see for a while now. I remembered the PG-rated film as a fairly mild-mannered affair, but during this viewing, I'm fairly sure I could hear puberty happening to Toshi from across the room. Little wonder, since Jenny Agutter is essentially naked when she plays her first scene, and a naked Jenny Agutter is no small matter. That whole scene is about the way the sexual mores work, and Michael York's blunt “Let's have sex” was the hit of the weekend. The boys could not stop laughing at the line, and they found everything about York's performance hilarious. What I completely forgot was the scene inside The Love Store, which is essentially a slow-motion orgy that Logan has to run through, complete with naked body parts of very stylized humping a-plenty. Both of the boys declared the scene “weird,” but listening to them talk about when I was in the other room, it was clear that they were both fascinated by it, and it made an impression on them.

When we sat down to “The Matrix,” I told Toshi that I felt like he was ready to make sense of it based on how he reacted to “Blade Runner.” I posted about that screening and his immediate response, but we ended up talking about it again. He was upset by the film as he considered it because it seemed to him that the terms “good guy” and “bad guys” were not really applicable. “The lady with the snake didn't do anything. And he shot her a lot of times.” It bothered him, and especially as he tried to factor in the notion of Deckard being another Replicant. It seemed to him to be a twisted and broken system that would send one robot to kill another robot over a law that made no sense in the first place, and he was really struggling to make sense of the morality of the film. I think it's a good sign that he views films through that prism. I'll watch a story about anything as long as I feel like the filmmakers have a defensible point of view on the story they're telling. There are times where I feel uncomfortable with a movie because I feel like the perspective is so skewed, so completely opposed to the point being made. That's why I've always argued that how you tell a story is even more important than what story you tell. “Blade Runner” is not a complicated narrative… far from it, actually. It's just that between the writers and the director, there was a disagreement in what they were saying, and that tension is part of what makes the film fascinating.

In the case of “The Matrix,” part of what makes the movie enjoyable is the uber-serious way it treats its soup of science-fiction tropes, introduction to philosophy texts, and karate movie conventions. It is so straight-faced that it's funny, and I don't think that's even remotely an accident. The Wachowskis are the Nicolas Cages of the directorial world: they are way more in on the joke than people think, and the first “Matrix” is so smart about the way it parcels out each of its big ideas. Little by little, the movie eases viewers along. Here's how I know “The Matrix” underlines every story point and circles it in red: Allen picked up on the fine points of the storytelling without it being explained to him. The phrase, “There Is No Spoon” made an impression on them, and at bedtime, Allen told me what it meant. “The spoon isn't real because the Matrix is like a video game that you're inside. So it's in the game.” Exactly. Congratulations, “The Matrix.” A six-year-old gets it.

One of the things that helps is that they wrap everything in kung-fu. I guarantee that if you want little boys to understand something, just explain it and then show them some kung-fu. It is amazing how eager they are to learn anything that is explained by someone who knows kung-fu. I may start an algebra program in which I dub algebra lectures over footage from “Enter The Dragon.” It also helps that the idea of a robot-versus-human apocalypse is pretty much a given at this point to them. It's not even a remotely unusual idea. Thanks to the groundwork laid by the “Terminator” films, the boys have pretty much made their peace with the notion that at some point in mankind's future, we will have no choice but to go to war with the robots. We've had conversations about what the definition is of “artificial intelligence,” and what our responsibilities might be to anything that fit that definition.

The other thing that helps is that “The Matrix” remains absolutely spotless in terms of laying out a mythology. Step by step, scene by scene, it lays all of its cards out at just the right time. Pretty much any time the kids started to ask “What is that?” or “What did that mean?”, the movie answered the question. It happened enough times that the boys stopped asking anything, and they both just dropped right in, carried along by it. I was so entertained by the way the boys reacted to things, and by one thing in particular. What they recognize actors from is very different than what I recognize actors from, and I forget what they have or haven't seen. The first big scene with Morpheus, Toshi leaned in close, and I assumed it was because he wanted to hear what Morpheus had to say. That was part of it, but he was also trying to connect some dots, and midway through the scene, he jumped up and pointed at the screen with both hands. “OH MY GOD, THAT'S COWBOY CURTIS!”

The reaction from both boys afterwards was huge. We talked for over an hour about the nature of reality (something that has been on their minds anyway), about the idea of prophecy and why there are so many stories about “The One,” and it was great to see how excited they were. More telling, even though it's the kung-fu and the ass-kicking that they enjoyed while they were watching, it was everything else that they wanted to talk about afterwards.

They know there are sequels to the film, and knowing how those sequels are viewed, how do you think they're going to land with the boys? We'll find out next week. It's only appropriate that we leave this one on a cliffhanger, since the first “Matrix” ended by baiting the hook so effectively.

How effectively? The moment Neo took off flying at the end of the film, they both came off the couch, their own arms up. Allen dove onto me, laughing, and Toshi ran for the shelf for the second movie. The thing they wanted, more than anything, was to watch “The Matrix Reloaded” immediately.

“Nope.” I never do that. Not with any sequel. We had to wait when movies came out, and they should have to wait when they see them at home.

So I made them wait, and I told Toshi in particular that he could learn how to deal with a week's worth of anticipation, and I loved every single complaint about it that they made, having no idea how they'd actually react to the next two films.

See you here next Monday.