During the cold months before and after Christmas, my wife works most weekends, and since I’m a typical male parent, I soon—very soon—run out of educational activities for the kids and opt instead for a Saturday matinee. Maura, not a big movie fan, doesn’t feel left out. So we—the boys and I—become regulars. The teenage girls at the ticket booth smile when they see us coming and stop asking me for I.D. They guess which movie we’re seeing. Both boys love it and we pass some fine afternoons together. But with Colin there are perils.
On the way in or out, Colin insists on studying every single movie poster in the theater: he scrutinizes the images and reads off names of actors and directors, and the reviews: “Dad, A must-see family extravaganza!” Or “Two thumbs up, way up!” Or taglines like: “You’ll never be the same after this!”
He reads out loud the rating descriptions imagining what each might foretell. He struts down the theatre hallways from one poster to the next—sometimes enchanted, sometimes afraid, always spellbound: “Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images,” “Rated PG for mild adventure action and brief language,” “Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.” He doesn’t resist when I tell him we won’t be seeing that one. Then he finally comes across a G-rating, he shouts out in amazement: “Dad, Look! Bring the whole family!”
Observing an entire hallway lined with life-sized action posters advertising Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (part 2), Colin says, “That’s definitely a two-parent movie, dad. I tell you. Parents strongly cautioned! Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images!” Then afraid he may have made too strong a case and I may never allow him to see the film, even when he turns 13, he says, “But I love fantasy violence!” Oh boy. How do we make sense of all this?
So many subtle clues he can only guess at: thematic elements, momentary smoking, brief historical smoking, teen drinking, racial issues including violence and epithets, brief sensuality, partial nudity, pervasive language, images of genocide, slime and gore, fantasy action violence and peril. As he rattles these off hours later like a kind of litany, I get worried. How can he remember so much? How can I protect him? I’m trying to sort it out myself. What exactly is the difference between sustained sequences of Sci-Fi action/violence and sequences of fantasy action, frightening moments? There is action violence, some intense images, and disturbing violent images. Sometimes it’s a matter of degree or how long it is sustained. But at what point do we cross the line between entertainment and actual trauma?
Of course I do my best to steer him away from the grisly and suggestive posters, but sometimes he gets a few steps ahead of me or the poster is hanging on the wall as you go up the escalator. There’s no avoiding it. On the way to see Winnie the Pooh you’re likely to encounter a poster for the latest horror flick or teen romp. He catches bits of description ranging from “sequences of fantasy action” to “strong horror violence” to “strong brutal bloody violence throughout, terror.” I wonder who pays to go to these movies. And the large poster images: even when seen only for a few seconds from across the room can dog Colin for weeks. I have to coax him out of the theater and away from the gruesome posters with promises of ice cream at Dairy Queen or theater popcorn for the trip home.
Just the poster for the Oscar-winning Black Swan frightened him so much, he wouldn’t return to any place he had seen a poster for months after. At Super Target, he backed away from the door, saying, “Black Swan on October 15,” referring to the day he last saw a poster in the store. “I’m not going to take the chance, dad. It’s in there. I know it.” We had to switch theatres for a while and avoid magazine racks in grocery stores and even his once favorite McDonalds with its offending RedBox that displayed a baseball-card sized ad for the film.
Back home Colin applies the movie rating system to Mary Pope Osborne’s voluminous Magic Tree House books. He’s can’t resist a series. He’s going to make movies of all of them. He holds up a book: “This one will be rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences, creature violence, and some scary images.” He also applies his own quasi movie ratings to me if I’m impatient during bedtime or while trying to get him dressed for church: “Dad, you’re rated PG-13 for brief mild language and sequences of scary moments and epic talkativeness!”