Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Going outside the marriage for ... movies

I sometimes feel like I'm cheating on my wife.

With the movies.

Oh, it's not the rivalry for my affection you might think I'd be positing in a scenario like this. Like, I'd rather spend time watching movies than with my wife.

Rather, I'm cheating on her in the sense that I'm watching movies she might want to see, without waiting for her to be ready to see them.

Unless you are married to an equally passionate film fan -- and how many of us are lucky enough to have that -- there's probably a disparity between the amount of movies you want to watch and the amount of movies your partner wants to watch. Actually, my wife loves the movies, and has written a number of screenplays. But on any given night, given the choice of watching a movie or watching a TV show, she will choose a TV show almost every time. (And before you think my wife is some kind of philistine who prefers television to the movies, I should let you know that she also likes to keep things clean, and gets worried any time our DVR gets too close to its capacity -- which is pretty much always.)

To continue this analogy between relationships and watching movies, I sometimes feel like asking her to watch a movie is like a hard-up husband asking his wife for sex. The experience is replete with fears of rejection, which would naturally be followed by deep shame.

So I watch as many movies as I can on the sly. You know, after she's gone to bed. When I'm home alone babysitting. When I'm at the gym (on the stairmaster, in case you're wondering about the logistics of that). And I don't necessarily keep her apprised of what I'm watching. I just do my best not to watch things that I'm pretty sure she wants to watch with me. Keeping with the analogy, watching movies by myself, secretly, is the movie equivalent of masturbation. You don't want anyone to know when you're doing it and how often you're doing it, and you don't want to get caught. What's more, the whole experience can involve plenty of shame.

In order to not get caught, I try not to telegraph to my wife what I'm up to. If it's clear she's going to bed and I've already stated I'm going to stay up a little longer, the most practical thing for me to do, to ensure that I'll watch a significant chunk of the movie before I fall asleep, is to get going on it right away, while she's still futzing around on her computer. But then it's clear that I'm trying to "have a little time alone with myself" (still doing the analogy). Because of the corresponding shame, I like to make pretty sure she's off to bed before I start things up. I'm not so concerned about it that I'll hurriedly shut off the TV if she has a surprise return to the living room, but let's just say I like to stack the deck in my favor as often as possible.

Sometimes, however, I do get caught -- not even in the middle of it, but days or weeks later. Any longer than that, and it becomes unclear how recently I saw a given movie -- it could have been any old time. But there was no faking it with a movie like Melancholia, which is only just now in theaters, following a limited pay-per-view run that preceded its North American theatrical release. I had to have recently cheated on my wife on that one ... and if I'd thought about it, I probably would have known it was cheating, which I'll explain in a moment.

"You know what I also want to see is the new Lars von Trier film," my wife said to me on Sunday morning.

Caught. If I pretend I didn't see it, it's a lie. Have to fess up. Only choice.

"Oh, I saw it already."

"You did? When?"

"I saw it on pay-per-view."

This was like double cheating. Not only had I seen it without her, but I'd added extra money to our cable bill in order to do it. Good thing she didn't know that the cost of this movie was $9.99, about double the normal pay-per-view price -- a fee they were able to get away with because the movie hadn't yet hit theaters.

This was a particularly bad movie to see without her, because my wife counts Lars von Trier as one of her favorite directors. She had never said that to me in so many words until Sunday, but I might have inferred it. After all, she was the inspiration behind us watching both seasons of von Trier's Danish TV show The Kingdom, starting last Christmas. Perhaps I didn't make the conscious connection because she and I had never actually seen a von Trier movie together.

So why did I risk her "wrath" and prioritize seeing Melancholia by myself a couple Friday nights ago?

1) I'm a big fan of watching movies on pay-per-view that are currently in theaters, especially at the end of the calendar year. It's around this time that I'm beginning the home stretch toward my year-end ranking of 2011 movies, from first to last, which I finalize in January on the morning Oscar nominations are announced. Movies released late in the year are always at a premium, because you usually have to go to the theater to see them, and there are only so many trips to theater a person can make in November, December and January. The ones available at home, even for the steep sum of $9.99, are like slam dunks for inclusion on the list. Besides, $9.99 is a couple bucks less than I would expect to pay if I actually went to the theater to see it. And I had only a limited window, because the pay-per-view engagement ended on November 10th.

2) I'd watched von Trier's most recent film, Antichrist, by myself under similar circumstances (watched it on PPV, didn't tell the wife right away -- in fact, maybe didn't even tell her until our conversation on Sunday). I knew that Antichrist contained disturbing images you can't unsee, though I didn't know exactly what those images were until I saw it myself. So I didn't think my wife would necessarily ever be interested in seeing it, and certainly not under some artificial time constraints I imposed in order to qualify the movie on my year-end list. Besides, a baby falls out an open window right at the start of that film, and that topic would have made her squeamish right around the time we were trying to conceive for the first time.

3) I just didn't think of it. That's the big secret of being a husband, either a real husband or a metaphorical husband in a metaphor that equates secretly watching movies with cheating -- we're dopey about a lot of things. Sometimes it just doesn't occur to us.

The thing is, if I kept my wife apprised of all the movies I saw, it might exhaust her. She might think that I truly had a problem -- that I'm the movie equivalent of a sex addict. (Just saying "movie addict" doesn't describe the obsession well enough.) Also, she might deduce that I watch a fair number of movies when I'm acting as sole caretaker for our son. While I think this is perfectly fine -- it doesn't distract me from checking out what he's doing, and I'm ready to pause at any moment -- she might view it as me putting my needs before the needs of our child. Also, we're still unclear on exactly how soon we plan to expose him to television that's actually intended for him. Basically encouraging him to watch whatever movie I'm watching in the background could have some nebulous negative impact on him -- an impact that might become more concrete if the movie had images of sex or violence. (So, I wouldn't watch either Antichrist or Melancholia with him there. The indie dramedy Terri, which I saw while watching him yesterday afternoon, is perfectly fine.) He doesn't usually watch for more than a minute or two, but he'd have the option of sitting there and watching if he wanted.

Look, I don't really want to do this. I want to be completely above board about everything. I would love nothing more than to keep her apprised of most if not all the movies I see, and give her the opportunity to be involved in the viewing of each one.

But that's simply impossible. Yesterday I offered to her that I probably watch five movies for every one movie she watches, which means I have to watch a lot of things without her, some of which she may want to see. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't given her a 5:1 ratio like that -- not only does it basically tell her that I'm "sneaking out" to see these other movies more often than she might have thought, but it's also probably an exaggeration -- thereby inadvertently making a bigger deal out of my secret movie watching when I should be trying to make less of a big deal.

On the other hand, the meaning behind my statement is something I feel pretty strongly about. She and I probably watch one or two movies together at home per week, and then we each probably see one more movie in the theater. But while she's comfortable with seeing only three movies I week, I usually have ambitions for six or seven. That leaves three or four movies I have to see without her, and they can't all be movies she's not interested in seeing. Even if there were film genres she consistently avoids, which there aren't, I'm not ready to confine myself to just those genres in the films I see by myself.

So yeah, every once in awhile, a great opportunity to see a movie together -- say, Melancholia -- gets botched. It happens.

The good thing is, the little friction that arises over a situation like this, as it did on Sunday, never lasts long. She knows that I have to see movies on my own to "fulfill my needs," and she's perfectly okay with that. She also knows that if we don't see one movie together, there will always be plenty of others neither of us has seen. It's the price she pays in order to prevent the kind of logistical traffic jam that tends to stress her out. If I always got her approval of the order in which I'm sorting the Netflix queue, or if I mentioned every single time I was planning to stream a movie or watch something I'd borrowed from the library, she wouldn't love that. She wouldn't love it at all.

So we have kind of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- she doesn't ask what movies I'm seeing, and I don't tell her. She knows I go outside the marriage for movies, but she just doesn't want to have to hear about it.

Is it rational for me to feel shame about watching movies without my wife? Not really. But when you're a parent, there are other factors involved. For example, if it's clear I stayed up past midnight watching a movie, I've kind of forfeited my right to be tired the next day. If I fail to live up to my full parenting responsibilities, it might be clear that I traded sleep for watching movies. And since I made that choice to sacrifice my own sleep, it could be interpreted as another instance where I'm putting my own needs before the needs of my family.

If this all sounds funny and perhaps a bit alarming to you, I should remind you that I'm really only demonstrating a point through an extended marital/sexual metaphor. And I may be stretching certain points in order to fit the metaphorical scheme.

Look, it's a way to make things work in a "mixed marriage." See, there are some couples who don't watch many movies -- they have movie night together every Friday night, but that's all either of them sees in a whole week. And then there are some couples who don't care much for TV but obsessively watch movies together every occasion they get. And then there are relationships like ours, where I'm an obsessive and she's only an enthusiast. She's excited to see most new acclaimed movies coming out, and she's also excited to see classics and other movies she's heard good things about. Me, I want to see all those, as well as acclaimed movies she hasn't heard of, and then also a bunch of other mediocre crap.

So you have to have a system to make it work. And our system will be to watch movies together where a mutual interest has been established, and leave everything else for me to watch at my leisure.

The semantic key in interpreting this system is when a mutual interest has been established, and when it hasn't, and when a mutual interest should safely be assumed. That, I can get better at.

It's if we stop talking -- about movies, mind you -- that we'll know we really have a problem. If I start saying "I better not talk about this movie with her so I can see it by myself in good conscience," that's when an addiction actually starts to have a demonstrable negative impact.

Fortunately, I don't think that's going to happen. Because one of the reasons our marriage -- both our literal marriage and our movie-watching partnership -- works so well is that we both love talking about movies, and we're both happier if the other has seen the movies we've seen, so we can do just that.

Also, there's a lot less shame and sneaking around.

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