Monday, September 23, 2013

My son's first movie

Not everyone can be lucky and have something like Star Wars be the first movie they see in theaters.

Some people, like my son, have to settle for Planes.

I was on the cusp of my fourth birthday when I went to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977. While I can't swear it was the first movie I ever saw in the cinema, I'm pretty sure that it was, and I don't care to ask my parents to have them correct that impression. In any case, neither of them were great cinephiles (though my mom has become something of one), so I doubt they would have pressed me into service any earlier than that.

Me, I'm a different story. I am a cinephile, and I've been waiting for this day to come ever since I took my son to see a Mommy and Me screening of Little Fockers (see here for the account of that) back in December of 2010.

In fact, a movie like Star Wars seems like a rather odd choice to introduce your child to the movies. It would be kind of like taking my son to see Star Trek Into Darkness as his first movie. A bit mature, if you ask me. I mean, stormtroopers are getting blasted left and right, spaceships are exploding (and no one's parachuting safely into space), and one of the most beloved characters disappears to his death after being hit in the side by a lightsaber.

Something like Planes is the more responsible choice, if inevitably less classic.

And so it was earlier this summer that I targeted Planes -- "from the world above Cars" -- as the first movie my son would see at the movies. He loves everything related to Cars, and has since added Cars 2 to his list of conquests. One factor was probably also that I'd willingly leave Planes in the middle if he just couldn't continue in that environment. Well, not willingly, but I'd do it.

The release date -- the U.S. release date, that is -- was also only a couple weeks before his third birthday. I decided that age 3 would be my own line of demarcation between "too young" and "mature enough to watch a movie in theaters."

Truth is, I was probably pushing it, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The Australian release date of Planes was this past Thursday, timed to take advantage of school holidays. In a sign of something you would never see in the U.S., Turbo -- another movie that owes a big debt to Cars -- was also released that day. I haven't found (or looked for) a source to check Australian box office figures, but I'd be surprised if those two movies didn't split their audience and make half the money they could have made if they'd had their own weekend free from competition. That's not to mention Smurfs 2, which opened only a week before, also to take advantage of the aforementioned holidays. My wife explains to me that they wouldn't want to open these films in winter (i.e. July and August) because the kids don't have a break from school providing them an opportunity to drag their parents to one of these movies -- it'd be a bit like opening Smurfs 2 in mid-January or mid-February in the states. I see the point, but I still think it's less than ideal.

Anyway, this did leave the theater less than half full during a prime Saturday afternoon slot at a beautiful art deco theater in nearby Yarraville -- a theater so beautiful that it deserves its own post on another occasion. It was initially going to be an excursion undertaken by just my son and me, giving my wife some time on her own. But she decided it was a milestone she didn't want to miss, so she accompanied us to The Sun in Yarraville for that 1:40 screening.

The strong start

The first chance for my son to react poorly to the situation was when we sat down to a very large image of a racing snail. The trailer for Turbo was on, and how he responded to the cinema-sized image would be key in determining whether he was really ready. His eyes were as wide as saucers, and my wife and I exchanged one of those looks of parental pride that make your children roll their eyes by the time they're 10 or 11.

The 20-minute itch

To my surprise, it was my wife who had to get up to leave the theater first. She did this after only 10 minutes. I figured she needed to use the bathroom -- she's pregnant, so this is a frequent need -- but in fact, she had to text her friend whom we would be visiting after the show for an early dinner. She returned with a bag of Jaffas, a terrific chocolate candy with a thin outer shell that she'd introduced to me back home, having returned with some bags from a solo trip Down Under. Jaffas are a traditional Australian theater snack, and I was overjoyed to be reminded of their existence.

My son was immediately all over the Jaffas, which was fine -- anything to distract him from his itch to get up and walk around the theater. That worked for about two or three minutes. Then my son was scrambling to the floor and trying to make it past one of the two of us -- which one didn't matter.

We each had a turn scooping him back up to his seat, but young children are tough -- they're both very determined and very wriggly. He was going to go wandering, or die trying.

I let him escape to the aisle, where he walked down to the front row and across. The whole front section was empty, so he wasn't bothering anybody, and if this had been one of those Mommy and Me sessions, I wouldn't have cared too much. But it wasn't. I thought maybe he just wanted to sit in a different seat, so I followed him down and plopped him in my lap in the front row. This is, of course, a terrible way to watch a movie, so I was somewhat relieved when that wasn't the cure-all to his fussiness. Soon he was on his feet again, and it was clear that scooping him up again and bringing him back to our seats again was going to be an exercise is Sysiphean futility. 

Only 20 minutes, I thought. We're going to have to leave after only 20 minutes.

There had been mention beforehand that if one of us had to leave with him, I'd be the one to do it, as a treat to her. This, however, was when we thought he might get too fidgety to continue with only 20 minutes or so left. Only 20 minutes in? Well, we had no plan for that.

She ended up taking the initiative to take him outside, and I started to panic a little bit. How long would they be gone? What was I supposed to do? I'll take any chance I can to watch a movie unimpeded, but if they were gone for more than five minutes I knew I'd have to follow them out.

Less than two minutes later, they filed back in, and it was clear my son had a renewed determination to sit still. I don't know what she said, but it worked like magic.

For a while.

The repeated empty threat

Little kids have very short memories, so his resolve to behave himself didn't last the whole movie. Far from it. In fact, it was probably less than ten minutes later that he started to renew his escape attempts.

However, we found we could placate him temporarily by hauling him onto our laps. I also bought him off for a few minutes with a bag of cookies in my pocket. But what really worked was something we both discovered independently of each other:

"Do you want to leave?"

I knew this was an empty threat, because we wouldn't have given up that easily. And he often sees right through our empty threats. But he was apparently enjoying Planes enough that he truly feared we might carry this one out. Each time he was asked this question, he shook his head.

"Okay, then you have to stay in your seat."

And miraculously, he would.

For a while.

Our darkest hour

Everyone knows that a protagonist's darkest hour comes right at the end of the second act, and this was the part of Planes when I faced my own greatest challenge to finishing the movie.

My son just could not be contained anymore, and I decided it was finally time to "parent up" and take a short excursion in the lobby with him. I steeled myself for the idea that it would be a permanent departure from the movie. It's clear he was in exploring mode, and when he scrambled up the stairs outside to some of the third-floor screening rooms, it seemed for certain he'd given up on the movie.

One delightful result of this excursion -- which I should be saving for that theoretical post devoted to The Sun -- is that this theater has a special Hogwarts dining hall room upstairs, which can be booked out for parties. It's maybe 1/20th the size of the "actual" Hogwarts dining hall, but it was all ready for today's party when we got there. Finger sandwiches and other goodies were laid and just waiting for the kids to get out of either Planes or Turbo. To my surprise, my son didn't actually go for any of the food.

When he was content to descend the stairs again, I tried one last attempt at reasoning. I explained that the movie was almost over, and pulled out our sadly overused bribe: I told him he could have a treat afterward if he was good for the rest of the movie.

It cost us an overpriced cupcake at a nearby coffee shop, but we did get to watch the end of the movie.

Thoughts on Planes

It looked gorgeous and had incredibly generic characters and story. That's about all you really need to say.


Although this screening was pretty much a success, my son had nothing to say about it afterward. We kind of expected him to be asking to get his own Dusty Crophopper toy, or talking about a career as a pilot. But all he cared about was the treat. In the end, yes, our son is a little too young to be going to the movies.

So we decided we'll wait another six months before we take him again.

That'll put him close to the age I was when Star Wars left me wanting to grow up to be Luke Skywalker.


Travis McClain said...

My first movie in a theater was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. I was a little past 3 years and 7 months when it opened. I have no way of knowing whether my mom took me to see it when it opened or if we went after it had played theaters for awhile. In my case, it was my viewing that was interrupted; my mom had a panic attack during the movie and we wound up leaving. (My faulty wiring is hereditary.)

Even now, though, I can still recall the overall impression the cinema made on me. I was captivated not so much by the movie as by the concept of all those people sitting in a quiet, darkened auditorium to watch a glorified TV. It was the fact that the viewing was such a shared experience, while simultaneously one that suppressed individuality, that intrigued me.

To be honest, I think that's still what appeals to me about going to a theater. I love that it's something you share with dozens, maybe even a couple hundred, other people with whom you will never speak and in all likelihood you will never interact at all. And yet, for the duration of the presentation, you're this little sub-community of sorts. You can make the experience miserable for one another, but you can also make it more enjoyable. As a child, I found that fascinating even though it took me years to really process that that was what I had observed.

In high school, a buddy of mine talked me into taking a child care services class on the flimsy basis that we'd be the only two guys there. We were, but it didn't help either of us as far as dating went. Our classmates were no more into us because we were demonstrating any kind of paternal/nurturing sides of ourselves than they were in any other classes.

Anyway, through that program I wound up taking a part-time afterschool job at a daycare where we had done practical work. We once took the kids to a showing of Oliver and Co.. My core kids were the school-aged kids, and there were only about eight of them. They were pretty well behaved, but most of the entourage consisted of their younger siblings, ages 3+. I was surprised that I only had to chase after one kid the whole time. Admittedly, I had to chase after him several times, but at least it was just him.

If I had any advice to offer for your next cinema excursion, get there early enough so that you can let your son explore the lobby and soak up the ambiance of the place before you even go into take your seats. If possible, let him guide you to where he wants to sit. (Make a big deal out of it, like Goldilocks choosing which bed to sleep in, so that he understands the permanence of his decision making.)

After that: Do not negotiate. Because it starts with a cupcake to let you finish sitting through Planes, but then later he's shutting down an entire government to get his way.

Vancetastic said...

Great analysis, Travis, thank you. Now I am imagining John Boehner (born November 1949) wreaking havoc at a showing of Peter Pan, the highest grossing movie of 1953.

Those are great ideas about how to get him more acclimated to the theater. I think the magic moment when he's ready for his next venture will come when he stops running, kamikaze-style, toward the street. He's very good about actually looking both ways when he crosses the street, but he does hurtle toward the precipice at alarming speeds.

I do have hope that he can be like your three-year-olds at Oliver & Co., but he also tends to wander while watching TV shows, so we'll wait to get that straightened out as well.

Travis McClain said...

Now I have an image of young Ted Cruz (b. 22 December 1970) pitching a fit and halting a screening of 1974's highest-grossing film, Blazing Saddles, because as a Canadian he had universal health care. And also, by not understanding humor whatsoever, learning to resent black men in positions of authority.

Son of a bitch. IT ALL MAKES SENSE.