Back in the late 1990’s, when Titanic was first released on home video, it came out in VHS format, DVDs still being pretty much in the novelty stage. By taping over a couple square holes on a VHS tape, you were able to record over it, and this gave one group of concerned citizens a great idea. They set up a tables in various places where Titanic was being sold, and after you purchased a copy, you could drop it off with them. A day or two later, they would return your movie to you, having edited out Kate Winslet’s topless scene. This, they proclaimed, would now make the film suitable entertainment for the whole family.
They were serious.
Now, there were reasons why I kept my Knucklehead from seeing Titanic when he was a toddler, but Ms. Winslet’s bosom were not two of them. I was a little more concerned about the honest depiction of human beings drowning to death. It’s appropriate that the film would show in graphic terms the terrible loss of life, including of children and entire families. But I was worried that these images would horrify a young knucklehead to the point of nightmares.
Kate Winslet’s tits? Not so much.
I open with that story to illustrate the complexity of dealing with adult-themed films. We know that it’s a bad idea to expose children to R-rated films, but we tend not to look past the MPAA rating, which often leaves parents scratching their heads. Titanic, for example, was released with a PG-13 rating, which apparently made the cameo appearance of Thing 1 and Thing 2 that much more unsettling.*
But there’s a larger issue afoot, and it’s the companion to the alcohol issue I addressed last week in “Beer and The Knucklehead.” Why exactly is something OK for adults, but not OK for children? It’s the question your knucklehead will be asking, even if she doesn’t put it into words. And I learned long ago it’s the unasked questions that need answering even more than the spoken ones. It’s fine to tell your child that R-rated films, or violence, swearing, nudity, or drug use in a movie makes it a “bad” movie, it really is, if that’s what you believe. That’s a simple, direct solution. But if you’re going to tell your kid that, then you’ve no choice but to lead by example and purge your own life of all adult-themed entertainment, even when the kid’s not around. Because he’ll sniff that out, and instead of asking you why you appear to be a hypocrite, he’ll just assume that you are a hypocrite.
I was not ready to expurgate all graphic entertainment from my life. I think it has a place. A good fight scene can be thrilling, athletic, and add dramatic impact. Vulgar language is often overdone, but when used well can add humor, authenticity, and emotional veracity to a script. George Carlin called vulgar words “intensifiers” and felt that they were appropriate when a vulgar or scatological situation needed to be directly identified for what it was. For an example, in Martin Ritt’s overlooked 1976 film The Front, about television blacklisting, Woody Allen’s character at the end of the film calmly tells the House Un-American Activities Committee: “Furthermore, you can all go fuck yourselves.” It’s a shocking line, especially coming from Woody, but it appropriately calls out the rape of free speech, which is far more obscene than any one-syllable word. Nude scenes can be gratuitous, or they can underscore vulnerability, ferocity, or sexuality in a visual medium. Scenes of violence can force us to recognize the real effects of actual violence in this world.
If you think graphic nudity or violence have no place in a moral film, I have two words for you: Schindler’s List.
OK, OK, I hear what you’re saying. Most of the time nudity, violence, and swearing in films are not used for higher moral effect. In fact, according to a statistic I just made up, 95% of the “adult content” in R-rated movies is just there to get the 16-25 year-old male demographic into the theaters (don’t like that number? Want to go as high as 98-99%? Knock it down to 85%? Help yourself. I’m just making an illustration). But isn’t that sort of fun, too? Isn’t it kind of a hoot to hear Samuel L. Jackson unleash a torrent of obscenity on some fool? Aren’t ‘splosions kind of awesome? Doesn’t it feel just a tiny bit gratifying when the bad guy gets dropped off the top of Nakatomi Tower?
It does, but that’s where adult judgment comes in. As adults, we’re supposed to have culled the kind of experience that lets us know when we’re looking at something realistic versus over-the-top fantasy. We’re expected to know the real cost of violence in this world. We’re supposed to be able to tell when our baser sexist, racist, or homophobic frailties are being played on. Many adults don’t have that kind of judgment. Children never do. So we protect our children from images or language they’re not yet mature enough to process, or dismiss out of hand. And even if the content is honest, the very young sometimes need protection from that, too. The brutal honesty of Saving Private Ryan can wait until a child won’t be scarred by it.
So you’re faced with the choice of either protecting your child altogether from the temptations of the adult world, or giving your child a reason why something is OK for you, but not OK for him.
I have a film collection that has now grown to over 1,000 titles. I didn’t want to “hide” the titles The Knucklehead wasn’t ready for, because that felt sneaky and a little bit dishonest. Also, to be truthful, it was going to be a real pain in the ass to have to go looking for a movie every time I wanted to pop one in. So my strategy was to hide in plain sight. All my films were out on the shelves, everything mixed in together alphabetically.
For the most part, Knucks lost interest; the movies just became part of the furniture. But if he asked about any movies, I wanted to have an answer ready as to why I didn’t think he was ready to see it, and when I thought he might be ready to see it (more on this later). My reasons usually fell in some combination of five categories:
1. Sex or Nudity. Sex or nudity is for adults, not young children, because, well, this is simply an adult topic. Also, I want your childhood to be spent getting to know girls and boys as people with feelings and ideas and personalities, and naked people are a distraction from that. Only once you are thoroughly experienced in appreciating people as human beings like yourself, you can start investigating sexuality.
2. Vulgar language. Vulgar language has its place, but it has its costs as well. Some people will simply stop listening to you once they hear a “bad” word. So while you’re a child, you need to get used to expressing yourself without those words. That way, when you’re an adult, you’ll know when they can be used judiciously, instead of having no other way to express yourself.
3. Violence. People in movies don’t experience violence the way people do in real life, and you need to know the difference first. In real life, a punch to the face often has long-term consequences you never see in the movies. Also, in real life, getting shot in the thigh leads to sepsis, and not a limp. There are too many examples in the movies of problems being solved by violence. Better learn from experience about solving problems non-violently before you can understand that the revenge fantasies in movies are just that: diverting fantasies from real life.
4. Horror. Some movies are designed to give you the thrill of being shocked or scared. Nothing wrong with that, but like habanero peppers, it’s an acquired taste. Partaken before you’re used to it is simply too much.
5. Satire. Sometimes, you just need to have read and seen a lot to understand that a film might have a different message than it gives you on the surface. A lot of adults, for example, thought Fight Club was promoting the idea of violent anarchy, when I believe it was making a completely different point on the emasculation of modern men (note, for example, that the followers are sheep, and the main character is ultimately insane). The more you watch and read, the more acute your judgment, the better you can spot things for what they really are.
All this in age-appropriate language, of course, but if you have these explanations at the ready, it becomes easier to say “no” to your knucklehead when he needs to hear it. You’re not only telling him why he can’t see a movie yet, but why it will be OK for him to see it someday. And, by extension, why it’s OK for you to own a copy of it and enjoy it.
Every so often Knucks would pull a movie off the shelf and ask me to tell him about it. I would. I would outline the story, tell him why I liked it enough to buy it, why I thought he was or was not ready for it. It became kind of a game when we had a free evening. But he would sometimes ask me, “When can I see it?” And that’s when things became interesting.
Sometimes I would throw out a random age, but often that seemed arbitrary. Usually I would try to do better. And this is where Michael Corleone comes in.
Knucks once asked about The Godfather. Maybe he was 11 at the time, I don’t remember. I honestly answered that this was one of the best films ever made, along with Part II. I told him about the graphic violence, and he accepted that as a reason why it was off limits. But as I told the story of this “crime family” I told him how a lot of the movie was about putting those two words – crime and family – together. And justice and family. And violence and family. And about this man who didn’t know how to get out of this terrible life where protecting the people you loved meant making mortal enemies of other people, who were also trying to protect people they loved. We talked about the larger appeal of gangster movies, and why you could be fooled into thinking that justice was being meted out when you never saw the consequences of the violence outside the organized crime world. “Tell you what,” I ended up saying. “When you’re old enough to read Shakespeare, you’ll be old enough to watch The Godfather.”
It’s a promise, that when he reached high school and Romeo and Juliet, I kept. He was ready for the film, and we had a great time watching and talking about it.
And so on. Kill Bill (and remember, he was a student of martial arts): “Sixteenish, because of the truly horrifying violence and some language. But in the meantime, we’re going to watch A Fistful of Dollars and the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy and Enter the Dragon and Shane and Billy Jack and Enter the 36th Chamber of Shaolin because all of these were influences on this film for Quentin Tarantino. That way, you’ll enjoy it even more.”
You get the idea. Give your knucklehead appropriate previews of her adult life to come. Let her know that her childhood is a precious time spent in careful preparation for an interesting, engaging, and fulfilling adult life. Use these films as an opportunity to talk with your knucklehead, not just brush her off with a quick, “No, it’s bad.”
One last example before I go, because I want to illustrate the fun surprises this can sometimes give you. The Knucklehead one day, while still in elementary school, asked me to tell him the story of Run Lola Run, the 1998 Tom Tykwer film. It’s glorious. It’s a German film about a young woman who answers her phone to find that she has twenty minutes to raise 100,000 Deutschmarks in cash, or else gangsters will murder her boyfriend. It moves like lightning, it’s playful, it’s exciting, it’s brilliant. I told Knucks that the language and gunplay made it an adult movie, but I liked it a lot because you couldn’t help but think what you would do if you had to make that choice. He asked me one question about the film:
“How long is the movie?”
My chest swelled with geeky pride. “Knucks,” I answered, “the movie is 90 minutes long. I can’t tell you why without giving away its secrets. But I have to tell you that I have told maybe fifteen people about this movie, all of them adults. And that is the first time anyone has ever asked me how long the movie runs. And that is exactly the first question a thinking person should ask about this film. Great question.”
That, friends, is my Knucklehead.
*See my previous post, “The MPAA and The Knucklehead.”