One Friday evening when I was about eight, my mother came home and announced that Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, recently re-released, had opened at a theater on 57th street, a little over a mile away. If we started walking that very minute, we could just catch it.
It was an indescribably tense moment. On one hand, the idea seemed a mortal insult to what I already considered my manhood. On the other, money and leisure time being tight, it was exactly the wrong moment to make such a principled stand. I may have tried to smile agreeably, but I failed.
“You don’t wait to see it, do you?” My mother asked, wearing the weary look of a person who’s been tried and found wanting. I was searching for words by which I might recant or excuse myself when she did something that was to alter the course, not only of the moment or the evening, but of my entire life.
“Fine,” she sighed. “We’ll see Blazing Saddles instead.” That film, too, was undergoing a re-release. We went and — what can I say? — it made me the person I am today.
That scene came back to me yesterday evening, when a friend was telling me how seeing the new Harry Potter film just wouldn’t be the same now that her oldest daughter was married off and living a time zone away. The Harry Potter series is probably what most people have in mind when they hear the words “family entertainment” — that is, free of sex, enlivened only by stylized violence, and intelligent in ways that will trouble only those who crave intelligence. But such perfect packaging makes everything too easy. Family entertainment should do more than grease the gears of family politics To be truly familial, and truly entertaining, it should give them something to chew on.
It might, for example, involve a heroic sacrifice from one party that instills a sense of obligation in the other. This seemed true of Blazing Saddles. Even if my mother, the mother, feared not to expose her eight-year-old son to jokes about Lili von Schtupp: the Teutonic Titwillow, surely my mother, the Jane Austen scholar, blanched at the campfire scene. Years later, I would remind myself of her largesse on this point — and on other similar points, e.g., Police Academy, Parts I through IV or V — every week, when she invaded my room to watch Golden Girls on our only TV.
I learned I’d done the math completely wrong when my mother confessed that she was not only a Mel Brooks fan, but a rabid Mel Brooks fan. As a grown woman and Catholic University dropout, she’d written the great man a mash note. (In his gallant reply, he advised her to become “a writer, or a tap-dancer, or anyway, something jazzy.“) But even if the debt was mis-charged to my account, I’ve never stopped paying it forward. Thanks to bonding moments with the children of various divorcees, I can sing the theme song to Spongebob Squarepants, and the Veggie Tales’ “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.”
When I was a college sophomore, I spent a weekend at a girlfriend’s house, being nursed through a flu bug while her younger sisters played Ferngully on the family’s VCR in what still seems like a continuous loop. As I write this, I am signing the cross three times and spitting over my left shoulder, just so Robin Williams’ song, “Batty,” doesn’t start playing in my head. Hopefully, the little philistines remember me fondly.
At its best, family viewing works like Gonzago’s murder worked on Claudius in Hamlet. Somebody in the family has a message to convey to someone else. It’s a ticklish message, so he lets the players do it for him. In this way did NBC’s Cheers help my mother declare to me her love for the man who remains her boyfriend to this day. My mother has always shared certain surface characteristics with Diane Chambers — the highbrow tastes, the sense (at the time) of having landed beneath her natural station, and (occasionally) even a hint of a Translatantic accent. Her boyfriend wasn’t like Sam Malone in the sense of being a dolt or a rake, but he was unaffected and friendly, and — unlike what I suspect she’d taken for her type — didn’t dress or act like a fallen seminarian. I liked the show as much as I liked the man, so I blessed the union without hesitation.
It was a couple of years later that I began insisting she join me in watching The Young Ones, the BBC2 sitcom that ran Sunday evenings on MTV. For those who have never seen it, imagine the Three (in this case, four) Stooges with a grudge against Thatcher’s Conservative Party, and you’ve about got it. I picked it as family viewing because it marked the exact spot where my mother’s coarse streak ended. I was about to enter high school, and knew that personal development would demand I put in a few years as a beer-guzzling lout. I wanted proof she’d continue loving me even if I didn’t grow up to be Allan Bloom. By sitting beside me, grimly hugging her knees as the boys smashed each other in the groin with cricket bats, she offered it.
On our weekends together, my father did his yeoman’s service, taking me to various Rocky and Rambo and Missing in Action movies. After I reached the age when I might be tempted to get myself knifed sneaking into a Times Square peep show, he began leaving a tape of Young Lady Chatterly lying conspicuously on his bookshelf on those evenings when he had a date. In its own way, it was a very tender paternal gesture — in fact, somewhat of a tradition. See: “Pictures of Lily.”
He waited to call in his chits until after I’d left for college, by which time his tastes had turned maudlin. When I visited him during term breaks, he rented movie after movie about Jewish fathers bonding with their Jewish sons. The ploy was about as subtle as an axe, and almost drove me, like Claudius, screaming from the room, distemper’d with choler. The perversity of my reaction varied according to the quality of the films themselves, which meant that The Chosen left me feeling much more Jewish and filial than Life is Beautiful.
But if we had a film that we could truly call ours, one that held a mirror to our relationship and gave it its own comic dignity, that would have to be A Fish Called Wanda. We were both Otto: we withheld and demanded apologies with equal resolve, and absolutely hated to be called stupid. Seeing our alter ego onscreen, foiled and buffered by an all-star cast, we could begin to relax and enjoy it. Perhaps apes are more philosophical than the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis will give us credit for being.