I didn't even realize there was a problem.
And, believe me, I understand that as problems go, this is not a life-threatening one or a world-altering one… but it's something that finally caught my attention as I realized how we were starting to instill some bad habits in the boys. Rather, they were starting to pick up some bad habits, and I was allowing them to take root. And based on the last column I published in this series, it's definitely something I've encouraged.
I love that my kids have a fairly broad palette in terms of what they will or won't watch with me. One of my proudest moments as a film nerd dad was when Toshi had a friend over and I heard him trying to convince his buddy to watch a Charlie Chaplin film. Black and white has never been a problem for them. Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges… these are every bit as new to them as “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” They were not only willing to watch “To Kill A Mockingbird” with me, they got positively lost in it.
Lately, though, they've been on a bit of a bender, and this has been the first time since they started watching movies with me that it's been hard to sit down on a regular basis to share things with them. For the first half of the summer, I was on the road constantly, and for the second half of the summer, I've been settling into my own apartment as my divorce has been underway, with the boys visiting on weekends so far. It's been weird, and it's completely changed the urgency of the time we have to spend together.
What I've noticed is that once they see one film in a series, they feel like they have to burn through the rest of that series before they can move on to anything else. This summer, there were some big sequels that they felt like they needed to be ready to see, and so they've been watching the films that came before these new ones. In the process, pretty much everything else got forced out of their movie diet, and we've found ourselves in what I can only describe as an endless summer.
The entire notion of the summer movie is something that has really only taken hold during my lifetime. Until “Star Wars” exploded in 1977, the summer was almost seen as a dead zone. Once studios started to look at summer as a time to release their biggest films, aimed at the broadest audiences, it changed the way the industry worked altogether. Little by little, these summer movies began to drive the entire business. If you wanted to see films that weren't chasing the giant $100 million payoff, you had to really work for it. Independent distribution in the '70s and the '80s was nothing like it is now, and there were many films that never played where I was living.
I developed the summer movie habit when I was young, just as the industry figured it out, and they got their hooks in deep. I will totally admit to being permanently wired for a sort of excitement as the summer approaches in anticipation of big canvas big premise movies. And while that part of me is happy to play along every summer, there's another part of me as a life-long cinephile who recognizes that you can't just eat the junk food. Even the best of these big blockbusters rarely sustain me the way that the truly great movies do, and so I am careful to balance my diet. One of the things I love about the way the film calendar works out is that just as the season winds up every May, I'm at Cannes for a week, soaking up foreign-language titles and smaller more personal visions. I love my home video library because I have the biggest of big-budget blockbusters and the weirdest and most obscure titles in the world side by side, and in equal measure. I think it is important for film viewers of any age to mix it up. If all you ever eat is McDonald's, you're going to kill your palette so when you do eat something truly great, you might not even recognize it.
With kids, the drive to mainline these summer movies is even more manic, and small wonder. They are empty sensation writ large. They are nothing but payoff, and they are like the movie equivalent of Pixie Stix. Giant tubes full of nothing but sugar. Because I was on the road for a good chunk of May and June, my ex-wife was the one telling the boys what they could or couldn't watch, and she honestly has no idea what most of the films are. She has a pretty active distaste for movies, and so she uses the franchise movies as a sort of pacifier when she wants a break from the boys. She loves the “Transformers” movies because they're each four and a half hours long, and she can count on that entire time plus about an extra half-hour of bathroom breaks. She doesn't really care if they're good or bad or appropriate or narratively interesting. She just knows that the boys want to see the films, that they're long, and that they seem to keep the boys busy.
I tried to explain to her why I feel like “Transformers” may have been a bad decision overall, how the violence in the films would be unacceptable if it was human beings doing it to other human beings, how Michael Bay may be the single worst role model in the world when it comes to how women are photographed and written as characters, how much drug and sex humor there is that is beyond explaining to the kids right now. Didn't matter. By the time I was done with my various trips, including a trip to Hong Kong in support of “Transformers: Age Of Extinction” (a fact I noted with a bitter laugh), she had shown the boys all of the films, and it didn't matter what I thought.
That wouldn't have been a problem, but this was on the heels of them working their way through all of the Spider-Man films, all of the Batman films between 1989 and “Batman and Robin,” all of the Pirates, all of the Honey I Shrunks, all of the Narnias, and more. Wimpy Kids and trained Dragons and Kung-Fu Pandas and Chipmunks and a constant steady stream of Marvel and Star Wars, and when I asked them one afternoon what the last movie was that they'd watched that wasn't part of a series, they were unable to name anything.
Ask yourself as a parent if you're playing into that mindset. It's very easy to get into the habit, because these films are made specifically so that they scratch that itch and they keep the audience hooked and they become habit-forming. And once you've gotten a kid hooked like that, completely dependent on that blockbuster fix, how do you even begin to deprogram them and ask them to try other things?
What I've learned is that my kids will trust me if I take control of the TV. If I ask them what they want to watch, they'll always lean towards something they've already seen. That's because they are overwhelmed by the number of options I have in my library, and they have no idea where to start. If I just put a movie on that I'm going to watch, they'll start asking questions about it and they'll give it a try. To that end, I threw on the Criterion Blu-ray for “It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and it turned out to be a great way to spend a Saturday night. It's the kind of overtly silly movie that always works best when you see it first as a kid, and they laughed through most of it. There was one scene in particular, though, that we ended up watching about four times, and if you've seen the film, you know the scene. It's when Jonathan Winters ends up demolishing an entire gas station bare-handed. They laughed harder during that one scene than they have in entire other movies, and in general, they liked the film. What they really loved, though, was the steady stream of cameos throughout the film. They didn't recognize many of the people in the film, and when they laughed at Winters or Sid Caesar or Buddy Hackett, they weren't laughing out of nostalgia. They were just plain laughing. The cameos they did recognize, they went crazy for, and the three moments that had the biggest impact on them were when Jerry Lewis showed up, when the Three Stooges showed up (“Dad, why is that guy trying to look like Curly?”), and at the end, when Buster Keaton finally makes his appearance. “The General” was a monster hit with my kids when I showed it to them, and it's had a fairly steady place in the rotation since then. Hearing both of my kids yell, “Buster!” at the same time when he showed up made me feel as proud as any moment Toshi's ever had on the baseball diamond.
Even with those older films, though, I notice that same franchise mentality can creep in. When my kids saw their first Jerry Lewis film, “The Bellboy,” it was pretty much love at first sight. As with that scene where Winters destroyed the gas station, there were a few comic set pieces that the boys had to watch again as soon as the film was over. They immediately wanted to see all the Jerry Lewis movies. Not just one, but all of them, and right away. I convinced them that they would want to spread them out, that you can burn out on things if you do too much of it too quickly. They've seen more Lewis films since then, but slowly, spread out. Likewise, when we watched “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” they were so entertained by Buddy Hackett that I dug out my DVD of “The Love Bug” for them, and as soon as they realized there were more Herbie movies, they wanted all of those right away as well.
There are plenty of franchises that they've still never seen. Anything R-rated, obviously, meaning they like to stare at the box for the “Matrix” set or the “Terminator” films and talk about how they'll see them all… someday. And there are series where they've only seen one movie, like “Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol,” which I think works beautifully as a stand-alone adventure film regardless of anything you do or don't know about the first three films, or the Bond series, where we watched “The Spy Who Loved Me,” because I think the tone is so right on that it is enormously kid-friendly. So far, with the “Harry Potter” movies, they've only seen the first two films, and that's because they've only read the first two books.
Actually, that's not true. I've read the books to them. That's how it really works with us. I love to read out loud to them, and the Potter books in general are basically catnip for someone like me who loves to do big outrageous cheesy accents. Reading Hagrid with a Scottish growl makes them giggle and it makes me happy for days. We face a new issue now, though. Not being in the house, I no longer have that nightly time with them where we get to read, and suddenly, each of those books looks like a year long project instead of a month-long project. Now we're looking at watching the movies in a sort of real-time recreation of how they were released, and it's actually driving Toshi slightly insane. I can see that he understands why I want them to read the books first, but I can also see that he is dying to know how the story unfolds, and he is more than willing to just cheat and cut right to the movies.
In the year before the first film came out, we read “The Hobbit” together, and so they've been free to watch the “Hobbit” movies, but they haven't read “Lord Of The Rings” yet, and those films are on the do-not-fly list for the time being as well. I think tone is a big part of why those films are still too much for the boys. They get dark and heavy and strange in places, and I want them to be a little older so they can get more of the complexity of things.
I also want them to start being more daring with the choices they'll make. I want them to feel free to follow their interests. With “Ghostbusters” being such a big deal in my house, I knew it was just a matter of time before they started getting curious about other Bill Murray films, and sure enough, they asked to see more. Over the weekend, we watched “What About Bob?” together, and they both seemed to really dig the film's gleefully mean sense of humor and the way Bob's insane sweetness triumphs in every moment. This Christmas, I'll introduce them to “Scrooged,” which I've always seen as the best of the various Christmas Carol films for the simple reason that Murray sells the transformation at the end, emotionally-speaking. It's the one time I think I've ever really believed Scrooge's catharsis. We'll hit a wall of how many of Murray's films they can or can't see, though, and it'll be a long time before “Lost In Translation” or “Stripes” or “Ed Wood” is possible for them. I am willing to bet that if I put “Ed Wood” on right now, Toshi would watch it. After all, it's about Bela Lugosi, who he's fascinated by, and it's made by Tim Burton, who he's fascinated by, and it stars Johnny Depp, who he's fascinated by, and it's about filmmaking, which he's fascinated by.
In general, I think the real solution to that kind of franchise mentality, that terrifying tendency that even adults have of falling into the routine of just watching the biggest, most culturally visible fare, is constantly being aware of it. I can see how my kids fall into certain habits, and it's my job to shock them out of that sense of complacency. One of the reasons I maintain a library as large as the one I do is because I want them to be able to roam, to follow interests. If there's an actor they're curious about, or if there's something going on in their lives that I can relate to a movie that might illuminate things for them, I want to have that material on hand. Toshi's recently become interested in skateboarding, and he's been getting his fundamentals down, working on his balance, working on the first few tricks he's willing to attempt. He can't even fully explain why he likes it yet. He just knows that when he watches the kids in the neighborhood skate, it looks awesome, and he wants to be part of that. When I had him at my place recently, I put on “Dogtown & Z-Boys” during lunch, and by 15 minutes in, Toshi had forgotten completely about the food on the table in front of him. There was probably a week of excited conversation about that movie afterwards, with him breathlessly talking about moves and tricks and the entire attitude of the thing.
Ultimately, I've decided to start exerting more control over the stack that's available to them. It's easy to completely abdicate to just letting them watch these giant pop culture things, but easy isn't what's best for them. Like anyone, they need variety. They need to be pushed outside their comfort zones. They need to be given films that will nourish them along with the popcorn fare.
But when you're living life in an endless summer, as it feels we all are, man, it can be hard. And to be fair, there is something more important that's happening here, at least in my own house, and it was clear during that “What About Bob?” screening. As we watched, we were all piled onto my couch in my living room, Allen on one side of me, Toshi on the other, and I feel like whatever was on that screen, that time together, being that close, that's what really matters. We are still building a new normal as a family, and while I love movies and they are a huge part of my life, I love my kids much more. Movies are an excuse for us right now to take that two hours and shut everything else out. We're talking our way through the pain and the confusion and the sadness and the excitement as new things begin, but sometimes you want to stop talking and just sit together. And maybe in those moments, I'll be a little more permissive. Maybe I'll allow things I wouldn't have allowed last year. Maybe being caught in that endless summer can be a good thing for right now. It is called escapism for a reason, after all, and if that's where the boys and I can bond and start to repair ourselves, then so be it. Bring on part two, part three, part seventeen.
As long as we do it together.