Kids and the Cinema

I don’t always agree with the ratings assigned to films by the MPAA, but as a parent I question the sanity and judgement of someone who takes their 8-year-old to an R-rated film.

I know, I know, we all snuck into an R-rated film or two as youngsters. I remember telling my parents I was going with a female friend to see the PG-rated Sister Act (1992) when we saw the R-rated Boomerang (1992) instead. Not exactly the most daring of R-rated movies, but that’s what I had to work with. With that said, taking your kid to an R-rated film is a different story.

That fact is these people are always the worst. There’s a great art theater we attend that has a lounge in it. You can buy beer, mixed drinks, or even wine and take them into the theater with you (for maximum movie snob points I enjoyed a glass of Francis Ford Coppola’s Sofia Blanc de Blancs during a showing of Black Swan (2010)). Apparently, not all guests at the theater are privy to this info, because a woman was appalled to learn that my wife and I were enjoying a couple of beers during a film. I thought she was a regular kind of idiot until I realized the reason she was upset. She had her kid with her (who looked no more than eight or nine years old). Here’s the crazy thing, we were at a showing of Cedar Rapids (2011) (an R-rated comedy starring John C. Rielly who makes sure the film deserves its rating). She brought a young kid to a movie full of sex jokes and yet she’s concerned that I was drinking a beer in the same room as her kid?

The Avengers (2012) is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference”. When I saw the film in the theater, directly in the row in front of me was a guy with two young boys. One looked about six years old and the other one around four. This father thought it was a good idea to have a four-year-old kid sit through two-hours-and-twenty-three minutes of superheros beating the crap out of each other and trying to kill each other. First off, have you ever known a four-year-old to sit still for two hours? Also, do you really want your kid to look up to a group of superheros who spend most of that two hours fighting and arguing with each other? Guess what? The kids didn’t stay seated, luckily the seating was in such a way that I could still see over the their heads, but it was still distracting and the kids were obviously bored.

When I was young, my friends were all talking about horror movies, most of which were R-rated. Raised in a home that didn’t allow such films, my parents told me horror films would give me nightmares and that I should never watch them. At the time, my parents had me convinced they were right and I stayed clear of horror for many years. Meanwhile, my friends were all watching horror films and they seemed just fine, but I still wasn’t willing to risk it. Sometimes I wonder if this played a subconscious role in my love of horror films as an adult.

As I got older, I learned that my friends had been affected by watching these films at a young age. A friend of mine recently revealed to me that he watched many horror films with his mom when he was young. He said that after watching Night of the Living Dead (1968) with his mom, it took him years to stop looking out the window expecting zombies on his lawn as the first signs of the coming apocalypse.

On the other side of the coin, despite my parents best efforts to keep me from films that could traumatize me, it was often PG-rated film that traumatized me the most. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old when my parents showed me my first David Lynch film, The Elephant Man (1980). Their goal was a noble one, they wanted me to understand people who were different from me and wanted me to understand how important it was to treat them with respect. My parents succeeded in their goal, but with one small side effect. I had nightmares about the deformed elephant man. John Hurt was terrifying as John Merrick. It turned out that the deformities of the elephant man were more terrifying to me as a child than any horror film I could imagine.

It didn’t stop there, while the PG-rated Beetlejuice (1988) was a huge influence in my life as a kid, it also contained a moment of terror that caused me to cover my young eyes while sitting in the back seat of our car at the local drive-in. The scene when the Maitlands return from the grave and then start rapidly aging terrified me. There’s apparently something about messing with the human face that freaks me out on a deep emotional level.

I was 14 years old when my dad took me to see Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), while I may have been a bit young for this R-rated action film, I never had one nightmare about the apocalypse or cyborgs from the future coming to kill me (perhaps I didn’t feel I’d do anything influential enough to warrant that kind of effort to bring about my early demise).

A few years earlier, however, my dad had become a certified cave diver. With cave diving there’s always the chance of happening upon a dead body in a cave. Many people die each year cave diving, most of whom are novice divers who have no business being in an underwater cave in the first place. In an effort to prepare himself for such an event he rented Faces of Death (1978), a film presented as a collection of real death footage (years later the filmmakers admitted that while most of the footage is real, some of the scenes are fake). My dad asked if I was interested in watching it, and while I wasn’t excited to see real death scenes, I was curious.

My dad popped in the tape and we watched as death after death unfolded before our eyes. I don’t remember anything we discussed during or after the film, and I don’t remember having any nightmares because of it, but as I got older it became difficult to watch footage of real deaths, and today I avoid them at all costs. I can watch Saw (2004), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) without batting an eye (well, maybe not Henry, that film is seriously messed up), but real death is too much, probably because I get an emotional connection with what I see on-screen when it’s real.

I may never see eye to eye with the MPAA or any other movie rating system, but parents need to think about what they’re showing their kids. While I think we can all agree that an eight-year-old shouldn’t see an R-rated film, the real nightmares may very well live in the PG-rated family film.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New Empress Magazine.