Movies are a medium with the rare power to bind us together as families. Who doesn’t have a cherished memory of watching “E.T.” or “Casablanca” or “Back to the Future” with mom or the old man or, conversely, introducing them to one’s own kids?
But movies also have the power to spring unholy surprises that can cast a cringe-y pall over the rec room or the ride home. Who doesn’t have an equally traumatized memory of that sex scene popping up in the lighthearted comic romp you watched with Grandma when you were 12?
The subject came up when my editor and I were discussing some of the films we saw at the just-concluded film festival in Toronto. “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” for instance, is a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman that delves into his penchants for bondage and menages a trois. Or the upcoming “Battle of the Sexes,” with Emma Stone as tennis star Billie Jean King: Mothers and teenage daughters looking to share an inspiring empowerment story will get that — and also tender lesbian love scenes that may or may not prompt silent wishes for double trap doors to open up in the floor beneath the seats.
We all have stories, don’t we? God knows I have more than a few. Like my mother and I going to see “The Last Picture Show” in 1971, when I was 14, and watching Cloris Leachman and Timothy Bottoms have joyless black-and-white 1950s sex in a squeaky bed. We treated the matter in the grand WASP tradition: We never spoke of it again.
You’d think I would have learned by my 30s, when my parents and I rented David O. Russell’s debut film, “Spanking the Monkey.” Yes, the indie comedy about incest. Until his death, my stepfather liked to remind me about the time I made him watch “the one where the boy dinks his mom.”
Like all thoughtful parents, we pass the virus on to the next generation. My wife decided, when our daughters were very young, to show them her favorite movie of all time, Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord.” And of course she forgot about the scene where the lady who runs the tobacco shop bares her enormous Fellini breasts and mashes the young hero’s face into them. Fifteen years later, the girls still have scorch marks on their retinas.
It says something about American moviegoing mores, though — something not particularly flattering — that we can take in scenes of violence and gunplay without feeling uneasy about the parent or child or date next to us, but nudity or sex completely cross our mutual wiring. The phenomenon makes you realize how much we don’t talk about with those close to us, how carefully we circumscribe our conversations so they never wander into the weird or taboo. Sharing dodgy movie scenes reminds us that family members are autonomous sexual beings, and, really, nobody wants that.
Looking to confirm some of these thoughts, I turned to the anecdotal social scientist’s primary resource: Facebook. Among its other assets and devilments, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network is a natural wellspring of shared embarrassment, a kind of mortified community bulletin board. Did any of my 1,338 nearest and dearest friends have similar tales to tell?
Did they ever. Here’s where I wish I could just screen-grab the whole conversation, which scrolled on longer than the original manuscript for “On the Road.” I heard from the college classmate who took her 11-year-old son and his friend to “Bad Santa”; I’m sure their vocabulary broadened noticeably. I heard from my wife’s cousin, Bill, who watched “Silence of the Lambs” with his grandmother; when jailbird Miggs tells Clarice Starling he can smell her, uh, lady parts, grandma turned to Bill and asked “What did he say?”
Likewise, a high school friend remembers seeing “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with her younger brother and her “very proper Upper East Side grandmother” and squirming through the sex scene between Robert Redford and Katharine Ross; afterward, the grandmother called my friend’s mother and told her, “Betsy, I’ve ruined the children.”
I heard about church youth groups taken to see hippie classic “Alice’s Restaurant.” I heard about a drive-in screening of “Barbarella” that ended with the dad peeling out of the parking lot while the mom threw a blanket over the kids’ heads. I heard a wonderful story about a high school history teacher who showed her class “The Name of the Rose,” then covered the screen with her body when an unexpected sex scene popped up; the class just watched it projected on her front.
There were a lot of bad-parent tales of taking the kids to see “Anchorman” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” but, honestly, you’re not getting any sympathy from me. It’s a modern Hollywood comedy; there will be bodily fluids. Nor can I feel too sorry for colleagues who reported on abysmal first-date choices like “A Clockwork Orange,” the Romanian abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” or “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.” This is one of the reasons movie critics exist in the first place, as a first line of defense. (Although I wonder about that last couple: Where did they eat afterward?)
Because many of my Facebook friends are in my generational cohort, though, certain titles came up again and again. This makes sense: We negotiated our adolescence just as the movies started getting frank about sex, violence, and language, and our unsuspecting parents were the ones who took the fall.
Who would take a kid to see “Last Tango in Paris”? Apparently more than a few of my friends’ mothers and fathers. To wit: “Mom really wanted to see it, so she covered my eyes during the butter scene.” “Summer of ’42,” from the spring of 1971, seems to have cast its veil of shame over almost everyone I grew up with; maybe our folks wanted to show us that their own teenage years were as sex-obsessed as ours.
And there were many, many stories of suddenly having a parental hand come down over one’s face when “The Godfather” cut to Sonny having sex with the maid of honor during the wedding banquet. (Come on; page 28. We already knew.)
Again, it’s a little depressing that Luca Brasi getting garroted or Sollozzo having his brains blown out didn’t provoke a similar response. Broadly speaking, though, this remarkably common experience — call it Cineshame — is an unspoken rite of passage, dreadful to sit through and generally hilarious in retrospect. You say it hasn’t happened to you? It will. It’s not a question of If but When.
(Thanks to all who shared. Readers, now it’s your turn.)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
A previous version of this stoy misattributed a quote from “Silence of the Lambs.” It was said by Miggs.