It's Tuesday night, and I'm alone in my apartment for the first time in four days. It was nice to spend that kind of stretch with the boys after being at Sundance, and every day, we had things to do. There was a Super Bowl party, our first together, and an all-media screening of “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water,” as well as a play date with their buddies Dash and Beck.
There was also always, though, a constant pressure to watch something. It's not from me, either. They are voracious, and now that they've got their own shelf of movies that they haven't seen but are allowed to see at the apartment, they are always in the middle of some negotiation with me about what they're going to watch and when.
Lately, they've become infatuated with the idea of the double-feature, and I've learned that the best way to handle that with them is to program very different films that are paired. By creating a sense of contrast, both films end up causing reactions, and the conversations the next day or even between the films can be a blast. Recently, they had two very different double-features, and both ended up feeling like significant experiences.
We were driving to my house one afternoon, and we had to drive across some railroad tracks, which inspired a conversation about what would happen if the car stalled out on the tracks while a train was coming, which led to a conversation about “The General,” a film that we've watched together at least a half-dozen times now. As I drove, the boys kept chattering on about trains and how they could destroy something, and it made me think of a film that I'd put on their shelf at the start of the year. So it was that when the boys asked me to show them a double-feature, we started with a mid-afternoon screening of Rob Reiner's “Stand By Me.”
The film plays like a dream to little boys, and from the moment they realized what was happening, my sons were totally focused on it. I have a theory about kids watching kids on film, which is that they will always watch something that is about kids who are slightly older than themselves, but that getting them to watch something about kids younger than themselves is harder. There's something aspirational about it, and the kids in “Stand By Me” seem like they're much older than my own boys, although it's really only a three or four year gap. They smoke, they swear incessantly, and when they hear tell of a dead body, they decide to hike across the county to see it for themselves.
One of the things that must feel like science-fiction to my kids when they watch “Stand By Me” is the notion of kids heading out on their own, without any parents. That simply doesn't exist in the Los Angeles where my kids are being raised. Even within the suburban neighborhood where they live with their mother, they are never sent outside unsupervised and neither are their friends. When the kids walk to the home of their friends a half-block away, parents on both ends of the transaction stand outside, watching, making sure there's a visual hand-off so everyone knows where the kids are for every single second they are awake. I know that in my own childhood, I had freedom that my kids will never know, and it is sort of heart-breaking. And, sure, you can say we're over-protective, but a few years ago, there was an honest-to-god stranger kidnapping in which a couple of men took a pre-teen girl out of her bedroom in the middle of the night that took place less than two blocks from the room where my own kids sleep. It's not the same world that it was when those kids walked across Castle Rock, and it never will be again. As much as it's about confronting mortality and that moment where you transition from the freedom of childhood to the burden of adulthood, “Stand By Me” is a memorial to a way of life that is gravely missed. Many of the experiences that made me who I am took place away from adult supervision, in that private land of childhood with its own rules and mores and customs, and there are no equivalent experiences that kids today have. Even when my kids are here with me, they are always under my direct attention and care. There's no place they can go where they would be completely alone, truly unsupervised.
The boys laughed at a lot of the movie, and the Lard-Ass Hogan sequence was greeted by shrieks of horror and joy. There was a moment where Toshi recognized Corey Feldman and we ended up having to pause the movie while he explained to Allen who that is. After all, “The Goonies” is a film that Toshi loves, and both of them had a very memorable encounter with Corey Feldman at a trampoline place in Northridge. Toshi was really impressed by Feldman's work in this film and told me afterwards that Teddy made him sad. “I don't think Teddy's gonna work out,” he told me, as succinct a summary of the character's future as I can imagine. I'll confess that I forgot just how profane the film was. Even Allen, who is six and currently fascinated by swearing in a way that only little boys can be, turned to me halfway through the film and said, “Daddy, they say too many bad words.”
But the film is so smart, and so moving, and so right on in the values of friends and freedom that I felt good about the screening. Afterwards, there were some questions. “Daddy, what does it mean when he said to suck his fat one?”
Toshi fielded that question for his brother. “He meant his gun, Allen. Did you see how big that gun was?”
“Ohhhhhhhh,” Allen agreed. “Right. That would make him bleed a lot. I get it.”
We had a break to do some other things, including a dinner out, before we picked up with our second film for the night, “Minority Report.” I argued against this one, telling them both that I thought we were jumping the gun, but they have been on a Tom Cruise kick lately. Allen has been teaching himself to run like Tom Cruise, and when I see him do it, I laugh until I hurt. It's amazing to see how much they love him as a movie star, and so when they pushed and pushed, I finally relented and told them they could watch it. Toshi didn't realize it was a Steven Spielberg film until it began, and that got him even more excited. It's a good thing Toshi was up for it, too, because he spent the entire rest of the movie explaining what was happening to his brother.
Every five minutes, Allen would loudly proclaim, “I DO NOT GET ANY OF THIS.”
Toshi would explain what was happening, exasperated. I decided not to interfere, and what ensued was a long, complex, and near-complete misunderstanding of the movie on both their parts. As I suspected, they liked looking at it, and they thought certain set pieces were fun, but it was way too dense in terms of story detail for them. Oddly, though, about a week later, I was talking to Toshi, and out of the blue, he said, “So the whole reason they made Tom Cruise look guilty was so no one found out who killed Agatha's mommy?” It took me a minute to even figure out what he was talking about, but then I had to admit that is about as precise as you can get in describing the plot of that movie.
That's what I find interesting about Toshi right now. He doesn't just watch a movie and then set it aside. He will chew on a film for weeks before he comes back to me to talk about it. He will think about a plot point for months before he asks a question. He will make connections that I've never made, and he'll sometimes jump right to something that I didn't get my first time watching something. He's a bright kid, and he treats each new movie like a piece of a larger puzzle, like if he sees the right movies and digests them fully, he'll figure out the whole world.
He's not wrong, honestly. That's kind of the point of all of this. I want him to tell me what he wants to watch. I want him to tell me what interests him. He's not drawn to horror films at all right now, and so I'm not even gently suggesting them. Science-fiction films, though? He's all in. So when he asked for his first film this past Saturday night, I wasn't surprised. He's been carrying around the toy Spinner that came with the “Blade Runner” Blu-ray box set anytime he's over here for the last few months, so I knew it was coming, and I decided to finally let it happen. I used the fact that both “Minority Report” and “Blade Runner” were based on material by Philip K. Dick as a way of linking the two screenings together.
Everything that didn't work about “Minority Report” seemed to work about “Blade Runner.” It was a home run with both of the boys, and part of it was because Harrison Ford, looking pretty much exactly like he did in “Empire” and “Raiders,” is already a huge favorite for them. Part of it is because the film works more like a drug than a movie. I showed them “The Final Cut,” which I consider the most beautiful version of the movie. I asked Toshi if he wanted to see the '82 version first.
“What's the difference?” he asked me.
“Well, there were changes made to the movie that change the meaning of it. It's pretty much the same movie in both versions, but those little differences add up.”
“Which one do you like?”
“I like them all.”
“I want to see the final one, then. That sounds good.”
During the film, every time Allen had a question, he called Harrison Ford's character “Blade Runner,” and again, when he had his questions, Toshi was the one who jumped in to answer them. I was impressed with how well Toshi seemed to track the details of the film. Even before Deckard said it, Toshi announced that Rachel was a Replicant. He was absorbed by each new stop by Batty or Leon or Pris. He thought the James Hong scene was amazing and asked to see it a second time before we moved on. And when Tyrell finally comes face to face with Batty, Toshi watched it all from between his fingers, completely tense.
I'm pretty sure neither one of them took a breath during the entire final confrontation between Batty and Deckard, and when Deckard jumps for the second rooftop and misses, Allen jumped to his feet. “BLADE RUNNER'S GONNA DIE!” he announced loudly, upset.
“No way. He'll climb up. You've seen Indiana Jones. You know he always climbs up.”
Then Batty made the jump and stood there, looking down at the struggling Deckard, and Allen bellowed again, “LOOK, TOSHI! HE CAN'T HOLD IT! BLADE RUNNER'S GONNA DIE!”
Toshi didn't answer that time, because suddenly he wasn't sure. And when Roy catches Deckard, pulls him up, and then gently sets him down, Toshi leaned in much closer, brow furrowed, and I'm sure he didn't see or hear me or his brother at that point. Batty delivers his famous final lines and dies, and Toshi leaned back, exhaling like he'd been punched. He looked flummoxed by everything, suddenly unsure of how movies worked.
The last few scenes played out, and when Deckard picked up the origami unicorn, Toshi stood up and pointed at the screen. “No way,” he said. The credits began, and Toshi repeated, louder, “No way.”
“What? No way what?” Allen asked.
“Blade Runner is a robot,” Toshi said.
“No, he's not,” Allen replied, saying it like Toshi had just told him that dogs fly and speak French.
“Yeah, he is. He had that dream about that, and then the guy could tell what he was dreaming, and so he's got the fake memory. He's a robot. Blade Runner's a robot.” He looked at me. “Is that right, daddy? Is Blade Runner a robot?”
Allen stood up and began to march around the apartment, and I had to fight back my laughter because I'd never seen him so upset by a movie. “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!” he demanded. “BLADE RUNNER IS NOT A ROBOT!”
Toshi, completely confident that he got it right, started to walk back to his bedroom. “He was a robot, Allen.”
“NO WAY. THE ROBOTS ARE STRONG! THEY BEAT HIM UP!”
“He was a robot.”
“YOU ARE STUPID, TOSHI! YOUR BRAIN IS A TOTAL BUTTHOLE!”
On that note, I figured things had escalated enough, and as entertaining as it was to watch the last 30 years of fandom play out in my living room, I told them that they needed to get ready for bed if they wanted to do the second film in the double-feature. Pajamas were changed into, teeth were brushed, and the two of them piled onto the couch to watch Allen's pick for the night.
The boys love the “Pink Panther” movies, particularly numbers three through five, and the minute I picked up a Blu-ray of “The Party,” they started asking me about it. Toshi recognized the names Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers on the cover, and Allen was determined to watch it because he wanted to laugh. He said he was freaked out by “Blade Runner,” which he called “weird” after he finally settled down, and the moment “The Party” began, he climbed up into my lap and settled in.
There is something sort of low-key and charming about “The Party,” and I wasn't sure it would really work for them. They started laughing at the first scene, as Hrundi V. Bakshi (Sellers) overacts the hell out of his death scene in what they immediately recognized as a “Lawrence Of Arabia” style epic, and when he accidentally blows up the fort in the second scene, Allen got a massive case of the giggles that pretty much never subsided for the rest of the running time.
While they loved Sellers in the film and took to repeating “Birdy num nums” to each other over and over, they also equally loved Steve Franken as the waiter in the film who keeps sneaking drinks off every tray he carries out of the kitchen, eventually getting completely shitfaced. It's a beautiful bit of physical comedy, perfectly modulated by Franken, a little more drunk each and every time we see him. By the time he and Hrundi collide at dinner, the mere appearance of Franken onscreen had the boys in tears.
Overall, it made for a perfect way of spending an evening together. Intense conversation followed by the release of helpless laughter, two totally different types of films that each landed in different ways. Right now, it feels like I don't see nearly enough of the boys, and these evenings we spend are a wonderful way to cover a lot of emotional ground in a relatively short time.
We've got some interesting movies ahead in the next few months, and I hope to have an announcement for you in the next month or so about a Film Nerd 2.0 book. Your continued support for this column remains one of the most important things to me, and I hope to find even more ways to share this experience with you in the year ahead.