Film Nerd 2.0: How does ‘cool’ get handed down from one generation to the next?

Later this month, my father will be in LA, and Toshi is already asking me what movie he's going to get to watch with Grandaddy this time. As we covered in an earlier Film Nerd 2.0, my dad shared some John Wayne films with Toshi and Allen during a vacation to Big Bear a few years ago, and they both connect John Wayne to my father now, exactly the same way I did when I was their age.

Today, my father turns 76 years old, and one of the things that I love about our relationship was the way he defined certain icons of cool for me because I saw what they meant to him. Steve McQueen, for example. I can't think of McQueen without thinking of my dad. On more than one occasion, I was able to get him to stop cold in his tracks simply by flipping past a cable showing of Ice Station Zebra or The Great Escape. I remember going to see The Hunter in the theater. I was ten years old when it came out, and even though it was an R, my dad didn't hesitate. It was McQueen. There was no question. We were going. He'd taken me to see Tom Horn when it was released in the spring, as well, with that same immediate resolve. As soon as he saw the ads, it was a done deal.

As an adult, the things I find cool about Steve McQueen are very different than they were when I was a kid. I didn't get him the same way I got someone like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood was easy. Eastwood's damn near an animated character, he's so chiseled. Eastwood looked like a scarecrow with a skull on it. When I saw High Plains Drifter with my dad, Eastwood freaked me out, and I loved it right away. I wanted to see more. With McQueen, he seemed like a much more normal guy, much less hand-carved for movie stardom. I think that's part of what makes him great, but it was hard to warm up to as a kid.

Part of what made my dad's icons seem so cool to me was that it all smacked of the forbidden. The summer where it all clicked for me and I realized that movies were my thing was the summer of '77, and I credit three movies for doing it. Star Wars was the most influential, by far, but two other films were also in the mix, and I saw them both repeatedly with my dad. The Spy Who Loved Me was my introduction to James Bond, and it seemed so grown-up, so impossibly slick. I got it right away. He's the best spy in the world, and he can do anything. And he's got to save the world… again. The other film, and the far more unlikely film, was Smokey And The Bandit, which made my dad laugh so hard I thought he was going to die. My dad's not an easy laugh. He has a very particular sense of humor. So when he would crack up at something, I was fascinated. And cracking the code of Smokey was something my seven-year-old brain took as a challenge. I remember not getting a lot of the jokes. The adults would roar, and I'd wonder what they were laughing at. And I knew that some of it was “sex stuff,” a vaguely understood set of references to something I didn't get. Some of it was because I just didn't get the slang or CB culture at all, although you better believe my dad had a CB in our car by the end of that summer.

One of the things I remember most clearly from my dad's discussion of The Hunter with me as we left the theater involved the driving in the film. If you've never seen it, it was McQueen's last movie. He was already sick with cancer when they started shooting it, but wasn't diagnosed until just after the film wrapped. He plays a real-life bounty hunter named Ralph Thorson, known as Papa, and in the film, there are a few car chases, with Papa proving to be a bit of a wrecking ball. He's not a good driver, and it's sort of chaotic, a million miles from the elegance of the Bullitt car chase. My dad explained it to me after the film, that one of the reasons he was laughing at certain things that didn't seem funny to me was because it was so out of character for Papa to be a bad driver. “Because McQueen can drive,” my dad told me. “He can really drive.”

Knowing my dad's relationship with cars, that must have been at least part of what made McQueen so wildly cool. He really did race cars, and he seemed to be the exact guy offscreen that he portrayed onscreen, something I imagine appealed to my no-nonsense father. There is a decided lack of irony in the things my dad enjoys and the way he enjoys them, and that's one of the reasons I like it when he comes to town and shares one of his favorite movies with the boys. It means a lot to Toshi, and I think he'll end up associating these icons with his grandfather, something we'll share as well. It was on Grandaddy's last trip to LA that Toshi and Allen first saw The Great Escape, and it was a big hit with the boys, and since then, Toshi's referred to the movie many times, putting it on his short list of his favorite films.

They also decided that they wanted to see an Arnold Schwarzenegger film with Grandaddy, which was more about Toshi's mania to see Predator than it was about their grandfather. But even that seemed appropriate to me, because many of the most extreme moments I saw early in a theater were seen with my dad by my side. Every now and then, Clint Eastwood would make a movie that would push things waaaaaaay past what my dad would expect, or Burt Reynolds would, and I'd end up seeing some truly outrageous things. Sharky's Machine was a good example of that, and so was Tightrope. And while I think Sudden Impact probably scarred me in some way, I even love the memory of realizing, “Oh, I really shouldn't be watching this.”

There were thousands of things my father taught me (and continues to teach me) about adulthood and manhood, but it's always been the way he shared his favorite icons with me that has meant the most. Their cool has always been his cool, and vice-versa, because my father was so present in my life. He worked so hard for us, and he was such a symbol of honesty and integrity, that it was transitive: anyone my dad looked up to was someone I should look up to.

As I use film as one of the many ways I teach my own kids about the world, I hope they feel the same way. One thing's clear: I've got a lot to live up to.