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April 06, 2004

  • At The Movies…With My Dad
  • My dad annoying his granddaughter by asking too many questions about Blue’s Clues while watching

    Families ultimately survive, whether they know it or not, through the existence of elaborate rituals. Whether it’s the evening dinner (“How was your day?” “Grunt.”), or the Friday night watching of 20/20 by Mom and Dad, or the kids washing dishes to the sounds of Wheel of Fortune, the modern family use a lot of mundane routines in ways that I would suggest border on the liturgical. For most families, The Questions do not begin with, as they do at the Passover Seder, “Why are we here this night?” but rather “Where are you going?”

    When I go to Oakville to visit my parents, one such ritual is The Watching of the Movie on Video. This is an activity I have engaged in with my parents for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to deconstruct the whole enterprise in an effort to find some meaning behind what occasionally seems random and bizarre.

    The Watching of the Movie on Video is an elaborate, bordering on arcane, process that takes far longer than the actual watching of the movie. The Watching of the Movie on Video usually begins in the car, most of the time driving home from Tim Horton’s (itself another fascinating familial ritual). My father will usually indicate a willingness to stop by Blockbuster on his way home, and so… the service begins in your prayer book on page 185…

    The Determination of Whether my Mother Will Watch.

    This is almost a ritual unto itself. In the car my father and I first try to ascertain whether or not my Mom will be joining us this evening:

    “Oh you pick something out for yourselves,” she’ll say, “I’ll just go upstairs and watch Biography and Dateline.”

    At this point my father will either accept this claim outright, or attempt to convince her to be included in The Watching of the Movie on Video. This results in 3 possible outcomes:

    1. She is convinced
    2. She is convinced, based on what we ultimately decide to rent
    3. She reasserts that all she wants is a night out with Stone Phillips

    It seems almost supplemental, but actually it’s a key part of the ritual. What my mother will watch is a very narrow subset of the things my Dad and I are willing to watch together: Subtitled films are out with Mom. So are violent films. (One of the stranger moments of the past four months came when my Mom expressed an interest in seeing The Passion of the Christ—a violent film that is entirely subtitled). It can’t be too racy. Don’t even go near action films.

    (I can’t begin to express how important it is to find a film that does meet with her sensibilities. I’m still scarred from the time I blithely rented The Piano almost ten years ago)

    As a result, if my Mom accepts the offer to watch, we have an all important sub-ritual, The Determination of What Film my Mother Would Watch. This involves going through the new releases section with a divining rod, figuring out what would be enjoyed by the woman who gave me life:

    “How about this?” My father is holding up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
    “Absolutely not.”
    “Maybe this one?” We’re looking at Lost In Translation.
    “I don’t think she’d like it.”
    “What about this?” It’s The Runaway Jury.
    “Hmmmm. Maybe. Just maybe.”

    I’ve developed a pretty good sense for such things, though there are still movies which figure into the other sub-ritual Movies Which My Mom Will Watch the First Ten Minutes of Before Bailing. Recent films include The Runaway Jury.

    Take my Mom out of the picture, and my Dad and I can usually come up with something in, oh, about a minute and a half. The half a minute is to argue about whether or not we could just rent another volume of The Sopranos Season Four box set.

    The Inevitable Puttering Before The Film.

    This begins with my Dad calling me down to go watch the film. At which point I get out of whatever e-mail I’m reading, whatever column I’m writing, or whatever illicit item I’m downloading, and come downstairs…to find my father unloading the dishwasher.

    “Why’d you call me down if you’re still unloading the dishwasher?” I’ll ask the man with whom I share way too much DNA.

    “Oh.” My Father notes, as though this only just occurred to him.

    This is followed by several sub-rituals: The Finding and Making of Popcorn by Dad and The Quest for Soft Drinks in the Basement by Graeme. Eventually we sit down to watch the movie.

    At this point I must bring everyone out of the narrative to point out an important detail about myself: I am incredibly anal-retentive when it comes to how I watch movies on DVD. I go for “as though I’m in the theatre” experience: no lights, watching it all the way through with no talking.

    Let’s just say, therefore, every time The Watching of the Movies on Video happens I get my comeuppance. This is related in the next several aspects:

    The Explaining of the Film

    My father, it needs to be said, is an amazingly good sport when it comes to watching movies. When I was a film-school nerd, he watched Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre with me, and enjoyed it. He will watch action films with me. Hell, he’ll watch French Canadian films with subtitles. And he’ll enjoy all of them. And, believe me, I love that opportunity to bond in a cultural way.

    Except for one thing: My father cannot process the visual experience of watching a film.

    In my screenwriting classes, we were always given the mantra: Show, don’t tell. The movie-watching audience this was intended for did not include my father. My Dad was raised on radio in his formative years, and I fear the dependence The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman had on a Narrator to carry a story has forever stunted his ability to process visual storytelling. I’d be concerned it was early Alzheimer’s, except he’s demonstrated it since I was a teenager.

    “So what is he?” My Dad asks of Bill Murray’s character in Lost In Translation.
    “He’s a movie star. He saw his face on a billboard a minute ago.”
    “Oh. He was the one on that billboard?”
    “Oh, I see.”

    This continues for the entire movie.

    Every last plot detail is queried, and I, as interlocutor, am required to connect plot detail A with visual image B related at some other point of the movie. This becomes a little tricky when it involves a plot detail that has not been explained yet.

    “Why does she walk with a limp?”
    “I don’t know Dad, we haven’t been told yet.”
    “What’s in that briefcase?”
    “I haven’t seen the film yet. We’ll find out. There’s this thing called expository dialogue…”
    “Why are they doing that?”
    “You know, Dad, Aeschylus invented this interesting thing called drama…”
    “Who did he just shoot?”
    “For f—-‘s sake just watch the film!”

    Heaven forbid that it be a movie that cannot be so easily interpreted. Watching Beloved with both my parents just about had me in agony trying to get them to understand the intricacies of magic realism. Halfway through The Thin Red Line I simply turned to my Dad and said, “You’re on your own.”

    The Need to Urinate (or Have a Cigarette)

    No film watched by the Burk family will ever be watched uninterrupted. There will come a point about half-way in (and, believe me, it’s eerily accurate how close it is to the half-way mark of any film) when my father will need to go pee. He used to need a cigarette before he was forced to kick the habit, but it’s clear now that addiction or bodily functions have nothing to do with it.

    The Visit by my Mother

    At some point, almost inevitably near a climactic moment. My Mom will decide to come downstairs—having had her fill of Stone Philips and Katie Couric—and go to the kitchen and make something to eat. And she will start talking to us as though we haven’t been watching a film for the past two hours.

    “How’s the film?”
    “It’s good.”
    “The Smiths called. They want us to come for dinner next week.”
    “Watching film now, Mom.”
    “How do you like the new curtains, Graeme?”

    The Chorus of Noisy Appliances

    And my Mom will turn on the dishwasher, or the washing machine, or the dryer. And we’ll turn up the volume. And then—having been reunited with Harry Smith—she will call down from upstairs with exasperation “Do you have to have it up so loud?”

    The amazing thing about all this is that every weekend I’m home I return to this ritual without fail.

    Ultimately, I would go so far as to say The Watching of the Movie on Video is actually a mindset, a state of Zen that one gradually surrenders themselves to over a three or four hour period. And, oddly enough, it’s an experience I actually miss if I’ve not been home overnight for a few weeks.

    “Why is he wearing an eyepatch?”

    Or not.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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