Thursday, April 7, 2011

Heir Apparent

I’ve been thinking a lot about how our movie tastes are formed. For many of us, I suspect, our parents were our first teachers—in this as in so many other things. Of course, I know that some from my generation were shuttled off to the movies every Saturday, to see whatever was playing at that week’s kiddie matinee. The Saturday afternoon regulars probably came to view their movie outings as a chance to slip away, however briefly, from parental influence (and their parents doubtless appreciated those matinees as a source of cheap babysitting).

Older kids, of course, have always delighted in ferreting out movies that undermine the safe, sane worldview of their parents. Back in the day, this was part of the allure of Roger Corman-style monster flicks. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins) told me as much: “The whole thrust of these cheap movies was that they were movies your parents wouldn’t want you to see.”

Still, conscientious parents have long used moviegoing as a way to instill their own values into their offspring. An African-American filmmaker I know remembers that from an early age she was introduced by her mom and dad to the films of Sidney Poitier as well as every movie that touched on the black experience in America. Some parents share with their kids a taste for science fiction or for musicals or for foreign films with a leftwing slant. As a boy, novelist David L. Robbins regularly accompanied his mother to the picture show. She had a passion for heroic epics like Ben-Hur and El Cid, and David’s whole concept of manliness evolved from those afternoons in the dark. As he confessed to me, “I even to this day still have some sort of internal moral compass: it’s not What would Jesus do?, but . . . What would Spartacus do?”

And me? I was the child of good-hearted liberals who liked films that illuminated the great social issues of their day. When they let me stay up past my bedtime to watch an old movie on the Late Late Show, it was always a quiet kind of teaching moment. From The Ox-Bow Incident, I learned about the dangers of mob rule. Through Gentleman’s Agreement, I discovered that bigotry can lurk beneath a polite facade. The Best Years of Our Lives introduced me to the concept that no one really wins a war. Citizen Kane convinced me that the ultimate source of mystery is the human psyche. No monster movies for me—I grew up conscious that the world could be a difficult place, but also that you could find something approaching a happy ending at the final fadeout.


  1. This was a wonderfully nostalgic piece, Beverly. I did a three part article cataloging the bulk of my movie memories from childhood, only mine were dominated by things that go bump in the night and terrors from beyond space.

    My mother was very adamant about keeping me away from anything that had sexual themes in them, but everything else was fair game so long as it didn't get too gory. We used to go to two different drive in's on the weekends where there would be kung fu movie double and triple features. Those were the ones I was allowed to watch while there, anyways.

    I vividly remember my mom and her sister arguing with my dad and uncle over allowing me to watch HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP with them after recording it off of HBO. They were so passionately against it, they secretly taped over the film so when me, my dad and uncle went to watch it one evening, they discovered the movie had been erased! This of course, led to another arguement, lol. Still, I did manage to sneak and see GALAXY OF TERROR in 1982 without parent supervision, though.

  2. Thanks, Brian. Always good hearing from you. There's lots of controversy about the nudity Roger added to Humanoids from the Deep -- maybe I'll get to that one of these days!

  3. I was allowed to watch anything on broadcast TV from my earliest memories. When we got Showtime in 1979 it became a different story. And as is usual for Americans - my parents were much more severe about sex and nudity than violence. I remember watching Straw Dogs with my mom a couple of years later - 1981 or so, I would have been 14 or thereabouts - and she was within millimeters of making me leave the room when the rape scene started. But I stuck it out, and we had a talk about the movie after it was over.

    I like the "message in the ravioli" method of teaching through entertainment your parents favored. Would you say your movie tastes have changed since those days, and if so, how and how much?

  4. Interesting question, Craig. I still love the movies I discovered through my parents. I still love old musicals too. Working for Roger Corman taught me to have new respect for science fiction and horror, especially for imaginatively-conceived films like "The Terminator." At this point in my life I can be interested in just about anything, from dumb sex comedies to action thrillers, but gross-out horror films are not my cup of tea. One of the few movies I didn't see through to the end was "Saw." Yuck!