When The Knucklehead was 13, I screwed up. Not for the first time, of course, nor the last, but more spectacularly than usual. I took him to see an R-rated movie. Not just any R-rated movie, mind you. He’d seen some of those already, carefully selected for redeeming content. As you may have read in an earlier post, MPAA rating alone tells a parent little about the suitability of a movie for a child. Parents need to pre-screen and use their own judgment. I failed to do either of those, because I took my son to see Tropic Thunder.
For those of you who have seen Tropic Thunder: I know, I know, I’ll get to how it happened in a bit. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a comedy about the movie business. Ben Stiller plays a dim-witted action star who’s trying to convince the world he can really act by taking the lead in a Vietnam-era biopic of a tragically wounded veteran. Jack Black is a comedian known for a string of movies about a farting family, who’s battling a drug addiction and public career meltdown. Brandon T. Jackson is a hip hop artist trying to move into film while retaining brand appeal. And Robert Downey Jr. is a method actor who, to prepare for his role as an African American infantryman, has his skin surgically pigmented to “become” a black man. So enamored is Downey’s character of himself and his craft that he is oblivious to the enormity of the offense his 21st-century blackface has on… well, everyone. All of these actors, while filming their Vietnam War flick on location, find themselves in a real firefight with an actual drug cartel.
Great movie for the kids, right? You have no idea.
In my own defense, The Knucklehead even at age 13 had been raised on a fairly sophisticated diet of film. I had already screened for him, and discussed with him, High Noon. Stagecoach. Wings. The General. North by Northwest. The Sting. E.T. West Side Story. The Matrix. Citizen Kane. And since he was a student of martial arts, he was no stranger to Asian martial arts films. When he was five years old I remember sitting on the couch, The Knucklehead on my lap, as we watched Seven Samurai, me reading all three hours of the film’s subtitles aloud to him. I knew movies. I knew my kid. The normal rules of parental judgment clearly didn’t apply to our situation.
Yep. I got cocky. And lazy.
The Knucklehead and I had both seen previews for the movie, and he thought it looked pretty funny and wanted to see it. I didn’t do my usual pre-screening before taking him. I figured I could get enough of the gist from the previews. But to be honest, the biggest reason I agreed to take him to see Tropic Thunder at age 13 was that I’d fallen chump to the biggest Dad-trap of all time. I wanted to be the Cool Dad. I wanted to be my son’s R-rated movie buddy, when we had both our adult lives ahead of us to do that.
There should be alarm bells that go off when you want to be Cool Dad. There probably were; I was just ignoring them.
It turns out that Tropic Thunder is what people in the film industry call a “hard R.”
It wasn’t just the violence, though there was plenty of that; dudes getting blowed up, loss of limbs, organs, and heads. It wasn’t just the language, though we were soon as hip-deep in F-bombs as we were in gore. It wasn’t just the drug references, or the thousand other adult themes that marched through the film. It wasn’t even Tom Cruise gyrating in a bald wig. It was all that together, when it finally got through my head that I was the stupidest man on the face of the earth, when I finally said to myself, “You thoroughly screwed up here,” that Tropic Thunder offered me its final lesson in parenting: Jack Black’s Blowjob Soliloquy. Jack Black’s character, tied to a tree (never mind why), deep in the throes of heroin withdrawal, launches into a graphic, lyrical – almost operatic – description of the oral sex he will perform on anyone willing to bring him some drugs.
To this day I can even remember in which seat in the theater I had sunk, so deeply had I slouched into it, my hand over my eyes. I didn’t dare look over at The Knucklehead. I couldn’t face him. We left the theater in silence, each afraid to broach the subject. When we got to the car, I knew I had to say something; I couldn’t leave the poor kid hanging like that.
“So… that was a pretty inappropriate movie for a father to take his 13-year-old to.”
“Um… yeah,” Knucks admitted. He chanced a small grin, suspecting he might be off the hook.
“I’d love to give you a reason I thought it would be a good idea. But I got nuthin.”
We rode in silence for a while.
“Did I ever tell you about the time my dad took me to see Dog Day Afternoon?”
* * *
I was also 13 when my father took me to see Dog Day Afternoon. To this day, I don’t know why my father would have taken me to such a movie. My best guess is that my mother had told him he should do something with me, and I had come up with the idea of going to the movies. My father didn’t know from movies. I don’t know how I’d become aware of the film, but I knew I wanted to see it. I was a big fan of movies, and was lucky enough to be coming of age in a decade (the 1970s) that was glorious in American film. I was also lucky in that the teenagers running the ticket window at the local theater were fairly cavalier in the R-rated audience policy, so I got to see whatever I wanted by myself. With four kids in the house, my parents were sure not to notice one of the quieter ones missing, so I took off for a matinee whenever I could. So long as I was home by dinner, and not coming back via cop car, they had bigger fish to fry.
But seeing a movie with my father was practically unheard-of; I don’t remember ever having done this with him before. Though I’m fuzzy on the circumstances leading up to it, I remember the day itself like it was yesterday, and I remember wanting to be on my best behavior. But I pretty much screwed it up from the start. At least that’s how I remember it.
It started badly. My father was buying the tickets, and I remember the woman behind the window asking him how old I was. “He’s twelve,” my father replied.
“No, Dad,” I protested with all the wounded offense of a kid being accused of being younger than his true age. “I’m thirteen!”
“Oh, right,” my father said. Dumb kid that I was, it didn’t occur to me until we got into the theater that my dad was trying to save fifty cents on a child admission, and I had just blown it for him. Not only that, but as a local pastor, my father always wore his clerical black shirt and white collar everywhere, so I had just totally busted a reverend for trying to gyp the Bijou out of four bits. For years, I felt guilty about that. It didn’t occur to me until years later that if the man had simply said to me beforehand, “Look, I need your help. I want to stick it to The Man for half a buck – can you play along on this caper with me?” I would have been all in. It would have been a great bonding experience. “Sure, dad, you can count on me!”
As we walked in, the film had already started. Even then, that would have driven me up a wall. Hell, especially then – the previews were the only real chance you had to get a long look at what was coming out, in those pre-internet days. We’re walking in as Sonny is taking over the bank, the first of the F-bombs drop, and my father says to me, “I don’t appreciate the language.”
I hadn’t even thought about that. I’d spent the summer seeing R-rated movies, and I’d become fairly accustomed to the language and violence in ’70s film. None of that, by the way, had crept into my own life. I understood that the movies were a whole different world where different rules applied. That was one of the cool things about movies – they were so much more interesting than my small-town life. But my father never went to the movies. Of course he was going to notice the language.
And the violence. And the rebellion. And the grit. And the whole plot of the man trying to fund his gay lover’s sex-change operation via armed bank robbery. I thought it was all really cool, big-city stuff. It was outrageous, but I also knew that it reflected a reality that existed somewhere outside of my experience.
What was my father thinking? Probably some of the same thing I would be thinking in a movie theater 30-some years later.
I never forgot it when my father said, “I don’t appreciate the language.” I still can hear him saying it. I thought he was angry. I thought he was blaming me. After all, I’d chosen the movie. It made me feel awful. It made me feel like I’d done something terrible. I’d ruined one of our few outings together.
Looking back, I think my father may not have meant to be that accusatory, Maybe he did, I don’t know. But it’s possible he said that because he felt like he should say something. Maybe he just panicked, and thought, “I should probably say something or he might think I think it’s OK for him to swear like that. I should have checked this movie out first. I feel like I’m a bad father.”
* * *
I told The Knucklehead that story on the way home from the theater, mostly because I wanted to be sure my kid knew I blamed myself, not him, for my lapse in judgment. It wasn’t that I thought the movie would do him any real damage – it wasn’t that bad, and actually quite funny and even witty in spots – but that the embarrassment of sitting in the theater with Dad on this one was all on me, not on him. “It was actually pretty funny,” I admitted.
“It was,” he laughed.
“And now,” I said, braving eye contact with him for the first time since the film, “let us never speak of Tropic Thunder again.”