I did not participate in today's CriticWire poll about "Inappropriate Viewing" (an entire generation of Feisty Film Writers traumatized by James Cameron, apparently—but man, is Richard Brody's entry a doozy!) not out of mean-spiritedness or laziness (OK maybe laziness) but because I've told the damn story before. I thought that said story was reasonably accessible on The Web but time flies when you're killing your career and it turns out I wrote the post I was thinking of all the way back in January of 2008, for the Premiere-affiliated "In The Company of Glenn" blog, much of which has been flushed, I mean strewn, down the Internet Rabbit Hole, but remnants of which can be salvaged via Internet Archive Wayback Machine, God bless it. The piece was retrieved there, and I reproduce it below with no revisions, original headline and illustrations and perhaps non-working link intact, strictly to observe the historical record.
Damn, I wish A.O. Scott had been MY dad...
Well. I thought the vogue for Benjamin-Spock-inspired/derived "permissive" parenting had come and gone, but I suppose I thought wrong. I'm sure many of you caught New York Times lead film critic A.O. Scott's Friday front-page Arts piece headlined "Take The Kids, and Don't Feel Guilty," in which he regales readers with anecdotes concerning his childrens' reactions to R-rated films, e.g., the fact that his sixth-grader son totally dug Sweeney Todd and was more concerned with the foreign policy implications of Charlie Wilson's War than with the toothsome hot-tub nudity of its opening minutes. "Damn," I thought, "If only my folks had let me have it so easy with R-rated movies when I was a kid!" Also, having met Scott's entirely charming boy, I can report that Tony (as Scott is known to friends and colleagues) allows the child to wear his hair way longer than my own parents did back in the day.
And back in the day indeed it was; I joke in my own head, above, about wanting to have Tony for a dad, but he's a full seven years younger than my creaky self, and besides, I don't mean it. (I'd send hugs and kisses to my own father here, but, as he tries to follow the example of Anthony Lane in all possible respects, he doesn't read blogs.) But Scott's free-and-easy (only to a point, as we'll see) attitude brought back some amusing memories of my early days as a freakishly young cinephile.
This weird-ass French stuff was one thing, but the R-rated material I had clamored to see was something else entirely. Back in '69, a summer-school teacher had rhapsodized to a group of his charges about Easy Rider, a film that said A LOT, he insisted, about where "this country" "was at" today, and I begged my folks to let me see it, but they said, no, I was ten and that was it. Then I got pneumonia and they bought me the movie's soundtrack album as a sympathy gift. By '72, as students of that era of filmmaking may recall, almost every picture worth seeing was R-rated, but my parents weren't budging. It wasn't as if, pace Mr. Scott, they were gonna feel guilty for exposing me to this material. They just DID NOT WANT me exposed to this material. But I was insistent, a.k.a., whiny. When Slaughterhouse-Five came out in early summer, I touted its literary value. Come on—I already KNEW what the adult content would be (mass death, Montana Wildhack's beautiful tits—I didn't say "tits"), having read the book. What further harm could be done? My folks gave up, kind of. Their terms: If I could get an adult other than themselves to take me (it was tacitly understood that said adult needed to be a relative), then, fine.
Score. I enlisted an uncle—my mom's younger brother, about ten years older than me, a with-it guy who was kind of a buddy (he used to get a kick out of reading my MAD magazines) and who'd been in 'Nam. This was a pretty cozy screening. Richie (the uncle) brought a girlfriend. I don't remember if he had read the book or not, but I recall we both agreed that the casting of Valerie Perrine as Montana Wildhack was just right.
So far, so good, I thought. Soon after Slaughterhouse Five, master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock was making a comeback of sorts, with his first feature since 1969's rather flat Topaz: Frenzy, an apparently daring and "modern" variant on his "wrong man" formula, about a down-on-his-luck fellow mistaken for a notorious rapist-strangler. The real rapist-strangler is, of course, a prosperous, well-liked "friend" of the suspect.
Well. Frenzy was rated R, too, and my parents weren't having it, but they held out the same deal they did for Slaughterhouse Five. And so I appealed to Nanny Kenny, my 73-year-old grandmother on my father's side. The last Hitchcock picture she had seen was Rebecca, and she recalled it fondly. I was set.
Things went smoothly enough at first. The nude female corpse floating in the Thames was a little grisly, but at least she was face down, and Hitchcock's funny cameo was around that time, so it was okay. What neither Nanny Kenny nor myself were prepared for was the first scene in which we see the necktie strangler, Robert Rusk (played by Barry Foster) take a victim—in this case the estranged wife of the "wrong man" Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a rather prim woman who runs a matchmaking agency.
It's not, as those familiar with the movie know, that Rusk kills Brenda. He first submits her to humiliating exposure, baring her breasts and pronouncing them "lovely." He then rapes her in her office chair, repeating the word "lovely" with every thrust, as Brenda, poignantly, tragically, recites the 91st Psalm. This seems to go on forever.
And it's only after Rusk is, um, finished that he strangles Brenda to death with his necktie.
And there I am, twelve years old, sitting next to my grandmother, watching this.
Man, that was some awkward drive home that night.
Fortunately, shortly after this, I had a freakish growth spurt that shot my height up to six foot four inches. I could be my own "adult guardian," or rather, my pals' adult guardian. And so we went—to Magnum Force,Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, The Exorcist, etc. And we lied to our parent about it. "What did you and Joseph do today?" "We went to the movies." "What did you see?" "Mame." [pregnant pause.] "With Lucille Ball?" "Yup." [equally pregnant pause.] "Did you...like it?"
Early in his piece, Scott says: "I'm not going to advise anyone to subject young eyeballs to the cruelty of There Will Be Blood [...] or the menace of No Country For Old Men."
And there's the rub. Because, honest to God, I know that if I was 12 years old today, those are the movies I'd be clamoring to see.