One recent gorgeous summer evening, I flipped through the channels with my niece (12) and nephew (14). We lucked into Harrison Ford’s Airforce One, a goldmine of hilarity. I did my whole jokey uncle routine, an act honed in the years since the broader stylings of “Silly Uncle Eddie Poopyhead.” The kids were game, if not totally getting all my awesome jokes. They got that an Uzi-toting President rappelling between jetliners makes for quality entertainment, but I could tell they caught no aura emanating from the lead actor.
“You know, Han Solo?” I asked, “Indiana Jones?” Not raising my voice, not adding “goddamn it,” not elaborating that Ford’s magical presence alone is what separates this from your garden-variety hijacking flick (with apologies to the serviceable, unspectacular Executive Decision) and makes the movie, okay not exactly believable, but certainly more real, even as he heightens the sublime sense of idiocy. As the kids stared back blankly, it dawned on me that this wasn’t something they often did, sit and flip channels after a long summer’s day, legs flung over an armchair’s arm, each click a chance to crack on TV’s endlessly great and terrible offerings.
We also came across Enemy Mine. More realness. Last seen as a child, the movie’s limpid clarity betrayed how my brain had it preserved whole, tucked it into a fold of gray matter, tapped by all kinds of real-world stimuli over the years, producing in me a vague, unplaceable familiarity. I now saw that this familiarity originated here, in Dennis Quaid’s beard, or in the meteor-pocked planet he gets stranded on, or in the off-brand sci-fi critters that threaten him. Or, especially in Louis Gossett, Jr., the enemy alien Quaid must befriend to survive. LG Jr. really stamped himself on my cerebral cortex. His head looked like they wrapped a sea urchin around a bike helmet, but when he did his velociraptor moves and that purring vocal gargle – Chewbacca with a speech impediment– it could not get any more real for me.
The kids and I watched the scene where a pregnant LG Jr. goes into labor and promptly dies after a tender goodbye to Quaid. A foundational scene in my personal mythology. I distinctly remember attempting to cry while watching it. I did this at the suggestion of my friend, Steve, a pudgy older neighborhood kid who’d rattle off movie plots when I’d accompany him on his paper route. (To this day, Top Gun pales in comparison to the holy vision provoked by Steve’s flushed and breathless, scene-for-scene rendering the day after he saw it, narrated with his signature mix of and-then-so’s and that’s-how-comes, embellished with nimble, flat-handed maneuvers for dogfighting Tomcats.) Steve said this Enemy Mine scene made him cry, so the next time it came on, one Saturday morning after The Snorks, still in my fire-truck red pajamas, I got up close, on my knees inches away from the screen, and tried to eke out tears during the farewell speech by LG Jr., right when he clasps his three-toed claw around Quaid’s hand, then expires, leaving his bereft friend to pry open his spiny-membranous chest cavity and pull out a gooey, Quato-esque newborn muppet. I clasped my own clammy hands together and offered up my misty eyes as a testament to my fathomless emotional depths, my tears a measure of mature, magnanimous adult sensibilities that brooked no squeamishness.
I have no idea how my niece and nephew processed what was on the screen, but I had no jokes for them. Where to start? They have no Quato reference point, saw none of the Alien movies, are likely only dimly aware of the Muppets via an Elmo connection I don’t want to hear about. They sat in unamused silence. These suburban kids today, I guess, imbued so early with a nascent professionalism, a drilled-down competence. Even-keeled and time-managed and super duper well-behaved. Unwilling to crash land on an alien planet they can’t handle.
But this is not a lament for today’s youth, rather an accounting of my own. I watched a shitload of television as a kid. Enemy Mine came out in 1985, when I was ten, and it turns out I remember it better than the third grade. If I close my eyes and focus on my childhood, an Oscar-style clip montage of movie trauma runs alongside and intertwines with bits of real life: Moe Green lifts his head from the massage table, puts on my dad’s glasses, and gets shot through the eye; Michael Myers gets stabbed in the face with a knitting needle as my mom holds cold scissors at my nape while cutting my hair; the parents in Time Bandits touch Pure Evil in the toaster oven and explode.
I recently looked up a list of movies released during those heady years after my family welcomed into our home both Cablevision and a mammoth VCR (first rental, The Outsiders, watched backwards the next day). Focusing on the top-100 grossing movies of 1983, 1984, & 1985, and excluding those I first saw after age 14 (a cut-off point of 1989), by rough count I watched 223 out of 300. Consistent per-year splits of 71 / 74 / 78. I watched every top-20 movie, averaged only 5 missed per year in the top-50 (sadly, this). If you allow for my congenital Dudley Moore intolerance and remove his six (!?) top-100 films, my ratio edges up to 76%.
Not to diminish your own no doubt impressive tallies, but I find this astonishing, particularly when you consider that I wasn’t some nauseatingly precocious kid with a bowl cut and oversized glasses and a high-minded Scorsese-esque appreciation for film aesthetics. Nor was I a mouth-breathing completist who methodically picked over entire genres like slabs of ribs. On my planet Cool Dude (hi!), Star Wars had about the same gravitational pull as Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. I was just a dumb kid, one with parental restrictions, transportational limitations, and other life commitments, like the daily Prozac of mind-numbing afterschool re-runs, your Brady Bunches and What’s Happenings, plus M.T.V., prime time sitcoms, and maybe here or there a stray MacGyver. Then, as now, I watched whatever crap was on, built an enduring, astronomical tolerance for whatever crap. Not a healthy lifestyle, but nobody I knew did any different. We all watched shitloads of television.
Mysteries abounded in the snapshots my memory associated with these titles. Why did I go to see Max Dugan Returns in the theater? Was I an 8-year- old Jason Robarbs fan? Wanting to know more, dig deeper, I printed out the list and carried it around. The details came: WarGames got me so excited about the prospect of nuclear annihilation that I puked at McDonald’s after; my dad called The Natural “horseshit,” he made us fast forward through the astronaut sperm collection scene in The Right Stuff, he turned off Yentl during Family Night for being Yentl; watched Breakin’ downtown with Marcus, my one black friend; liked Salieri better than Mozart (except for the farts), and The Time better than Prince; Spock wasn’t dead in Star Trek III, just kinda bummed; saw Octopussy a hundred times and never tired of Bond defusing a bomb while dressed as a clown; out of the title Greystoke my memory conjured an image of Tarzan surfing down a staircase, drunk, on a serving tray, but I don’t think it actually happened; loved the music in Eddie and the Cruisers, the rapping in Rappin’, the adult kitchen dancing in The Big Chill; loved the shit out of Ghostbusters; pretended to love Red Dawn during a birthday party, but when I later lay curled up in bed, terrified, all I could see was the dead kid at the beginning, his bloody head hanging out of the classroom window after a wicked machine gunning by Cuban paratroopers.
Here is a pie chart of how I viewed the top-100 grossing movies of 1983-1985, as reconstructed from memory.
Steve looms large during this period, with 5% more viewing time than Family Night. Fittingly, Steve (not his real name) also revealed to me the truth about Santa Claus, showed me how to kick off sneakers without undoing shoelaces, and let me borrow Iron Maiden’s Live After Death. A latchkey kid who loved Soviet military technology and his pet parrot Albert, Steve lived in a rambling, untidy, and regularly parentless house allowing for all kinds of adult content via Invasion U.S.A. and Doctor Detroit and Scarface and everything else I’d picked out in advance from the cable guides’ parental warning codes. Boobs aplenty, I assure you.
But some surprising choices, like Testament, still the grimmest movie I’ve ever seen. Steve told me it made him cry on first viewing and “no, but really” we shouldn’t watch it. Steve was a softie when it came to films. He also giggled when he ran, an involuntary ebullience that fatally offset the military-trained aura he cultivated. The only time I actually saw him cry was one summer evening a few days after his brother got shot walking home from a metal club. Steve didn’t want to play Kick the Can, so feigned interest in the leaves on a tree, choked back sobs. This is the same brother I later saw doing cocaine while we watched ‘89’s Moscow Music Peace Festival on pay-per-view, who that night drove his fist into my left nut with his wheelchair-pumped arms so hard I thought my testicle might blacken and fall off like a fingernail caught in a car door. A different brother had years earlier bashed my plastic ice cream truck to smithereens with a baseball bat, the very truck I was sitting on when I met Steve at three years old.
Steve and I stayed glued to our respective couches when the nuclear holocaust began in Testament and everybody in a Californian town died slowly, excruciatingly, from the radiation sickness caused by the fallout. I looked away often, at the tooth-notched edge of the plastic cup full of iced-tea, at the smudges of parrot shit and cigarette burns on the couch. I remember a mom bathing a dead kid in the sink. I was about nine years old, but I didn’t cry. I never cried at movies, Enemy Mine experiment notwithstanding. Not even when the kids gave speeches about the injustices of being a kid, like Drew Barrymore in Irreconcilable Differences or Scotty Schwartz in Kidco., the surest way to get me emotionally riled.
That look I give when I hear “I don’t own a television” is not so much disgust at your lifestyle choice, as it is doubt about your existence. All I see are screens. They’ve multiplied. They’re all connected. I lack sincerity. No really, I am sincere. I haven’t heard from Steve in over 20 years. My inner child died like this. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms.
Edward P. McKenna: Sexy Beast