People file into seats, their shoes sticking mildly to the soda drenched floor, and they sit down. The lights come down, and the emerald screen bathes the audience’s faces in the words “This preview has been approved for all audiences”. A collage of trailers and commercials that last nearly half the running time of the actual film plays before our eyes, and finally, when the film begins, the experience begins. Five minutes into the film, my mouth filled with popcorn with enough salt to rival the Dead Sea, I look to my right. Unsurprisingly, my father is there, his head arched back, his body relaxed, his mouth slightly agape, his eyelids fluttering, his snoring, at the moment, just light background noise masked by the Dolby Surround Sound of explosions and/or husbands and wives bickering. I’m not surprised by this image; as a matter of fact, I’m surprised it took this long. He was normally out by the second commercial. But seeing him asleep, there was something in that that was comforting. It was the kind of image I assumed I would always live with.
How do you write about your father’s death? How do you write about anyone’s death and make it intimate and meaningful (for you, the writer) and avoid the false sentimentality and cliché that often pollutes such stories? I would rather not hear a medley of songs by Sarah McLaughlin when I read that kind of story. My father, Charles Turner, died a month into my freshman year of high school from a subdural hematoma after a car hit him the previous evening. He died in his sleep. The last thing we watched together was the Disney Pixar film Up.
The last time I wrote about my father was shortly after his death for a series of autobiographical essays for English class. I chose that event because I didn’t think “the day I watched Transformers” was an appropriate response to the prompt: “What was the worst day of your life?”
As much credit as I give to my mother for introducing me to my favorite films, like Bringing Up Baby, it was my father who, probably unconsciously, fostered my love of film. It was he who would take me to the movie theater so often and it was he who is primarily to blame for my bourgeoning film collection.
He was prone to falling asleep during films. That was a trademark of our dynamic. I would watch movies and he would sleep through them, like some fathers and sons play ball games or deal drugs. So watching films with him was less about watching the movie and more about spending time with him. It was soothing lying next to him, or sitting by his reclining chair, or sitting next to him in the movie theater. I didn’t have to look over to see he had fallen sleep during the film. That roar and pulsating explosion wasn’t from the bomb or series of gunshots in the film, it was my father’s snoring.
A story my mother often relates to people involves my sister waking up in the middle of the night during her teenaged years, walking up wearily and sleepily to my insomnia suffering mother asking why the neighbors were using a chainsaw at 2 in the morning. I can picture my mother’s biological daughter rubbing her eyes annoyed, as my mother looks up from her tome of spells and ways to make people’s lives miserable to say, “That’s your father, dear.”
I suppose the aural battle between the snoring and the film’s soundtrack was what helped me become more acutely aware of sounds in film. I had to crane my head forward at home when listening to dialogue, to make sure I didn’t miss something crucial. All the while, my father would sit back, sleeping away, and I, as a seven or eight year old, would pick as his feet the way some young apes pick flies from their elders scalps. It was just a thing we did, yet another quirk of our relationship.
I never realized how formative my relationship with my father would be with regard to film until after he died. Were it not for him, I probably would not have stepped foot in a movie theater in the first place, at least not until much later in my life. I do not think even he realized, or would realize today, how important his contribution to my passion was.
During what I call “middle school”, which was actually a private school the size of a house and with a small enough number of students that filling a bus meant quadrupling our student body, my parents separated briefly. The fights they would have would be painfully recalled during scenes in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road and episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants. My father moved back home, into the house where he grew up and where his mother still lived. His bedroom was on the top floor, and attic like space that had a television and whose internal architecture reminded one of the barber shop of Sweeney Todd, only more decrepit. It was brown and musty, dust painting every inch of the place. But it was large enough to also house the African grey parrot he had, Loki, who, though he never learned to bark my name, did once say Star Wars in my presence.
It never occurred to me how conventional this kind of arrangement was; to me, divorce was something that I heard about in the movies he would let me watch. It didn’t occur to me explicitly that my parents, though they could not afford it, were on the brink of that move. I guess the fact that my parents kept slipping me books like “How You as a Child Can Deal with Parents on the Brink of Divorce” and “It’s Not Your Fault, Even Though You’re Probably Going to Require Years of Therapy” into my room should have been my cue.
My father would pick me up from school on Fridays, and on those days, we would go to the movies. We would watch action movies, romantic comedies, and animated films. (My father did not live to see the fruit of his efforts: an unapologetic film snob.) And throughout each showing, there was a kinetic bond between us; we weren’t experiencing the same thing when we went to the films and we weren’t there for the same reasons, but the connection between us was always strongest when the pictures were moving.
The first year or so my father would take me to the movie theater, I would plug my forefingers into my earholes the moment the sound came on. Six year old Kyle was a bit too young for blasts of gunshots and the roar of terrible political dialogue written by George Lucas. (“You’ll never know the power of the Dark Side!” Senator Palpatine would yell.) My feet barely touched the ground and, more often than not, I would fold into the chair, a crumpled Halfling being consumed by a movie theater chair.
While the film played, I would occasionally look over to my father even though I knew exactly what I would see. This man who wasn’t so much rotund so much as he had a pot belly that reminded one of Santa Claus almost reclining. He looked kind of like Ted Levine in Heat or Monk. He always wore flannel and he always wore shorts, even in the dead of winter. His mustache still had specks of color. I think he seemed to enjoy going to the movies as much as I did, partly because his multiple sclerosis did not permit him to stand for very long and partly because it was our thing.
As the credits would roll, we would roll on out, on our way to Walmart for some errands. As my father would shop around the store, I would hang around the movie section, of course. You can blame about half of my film collection, if not more, on my father. It was like giving someone prone to drug addiction their first taste of speed. And I needed my speed to have two discs and lots of special features.
What was strange about this was not necessarily the fact that I enjoyed spending my time just wandering around this one section of the store, stacking DVDs in my arms, but that I made an acquaintance there, whom I believe still works there. I’ll call him Tom, with his shaggy hair and scruffy, unkempt, unshaven look and his Walmart uniform whose smiley tag would be better suited to be placed upside down. We would talk about movies, what we had seen lately, what the new releases were, what films I hated, etc. We did not, however, discuss whether or not he lived at home. It became a routine. Every Friday, I would head straight to the DVD section and there Tom would be, his shirt baggier and more faded than the last time. His shirt went, from the time I spoke to him to the time we stopped going, from navy blue to snow white. At least with the snow white, the pieces of dead skin from his scalp that would fall on his shoulder blended in with the color of the shirt. He was nice enough, and seemed to know a bunch about films. I was a budding film enthusiast and I had not developed my blog yet, but I watched voraciously nevertheless. I kept track of some of what he recommended to me in a notebook I would carry around. It would be these films that I would convince my father to rent, kind of like the way the dictator’s right hand man convinces him to enact a policy for his own advantageous reasons.
After somehow convincing my father to get me some film, the start of my bourgeoning collection, we would go to Hollywood Video, otherwise known as the Poor Man’s Blockbuster. I’m old enough to remember when video rental stores were not only a thing, but my main outlet to discovering good, bad, and strange movies. I swear, every time I walked in the place, with its rows and rows of Western-centric films, “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would play over the speakers. Occasionally, I would talk to the store clerks about movies, usually what horror movies I had seen. These were probably the only people who were impressed by my ability to name all of the James Bond films in backwards chronological order in under thirty seconds. Someone had to.
I would spend a good three or four hours in the store trying to decide what to rent. I had not developed a pretension for any kind of film or genre at that time, so I was fairly open to most things. It was not uncommon, though, for a stranger to “suggest” something else. By the time I did have my blog, I was allowed to watch nearly anything just short of pornography. (To be honest, I had watched The Dreamers at this point.) After I had started my blog and it had gotten some recognition from people online, my mother threw the rules out the window, saying, and “It would be like forcing the horse back into the barn after they’d entered the Kentucky Derby and started a blog about it. Just without the funny hats.”
One rainy evening, my father and I were looking in the horror section for something good to watch. We were about to settle on a film called Mr. Brooks, with Kevin Costner. As we were reading the back of the box, a man who was probably in his mid-thirties and wearing flannel walked up behind us and said, “Are you sure he should be watching that?” I was probably fourteen at the time, but I was able to hold my own. I had watched The Exorcist when I was ten, and I was a frequenter of the horror movie marathons that played on AMC every Friday night. This film would be nothing. I think I was probably more offended by my father, who quietly batted him away in an amiable “I think I know what I’m doing” way. “Gee, thanks mom!” I nearly retorted. There was a self-righteous tone to what the man was saying, as if he should have been picking out the film for us.
This was not the first time that someone would try to parent for my father with regard to what films we watched. After Hollywood Video had gone out of business, we would sometimes use Redbox or Netflix, prior to the age of digital streaming. We were in Stop and Shop, and, like the previous time, had decided on a film: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Behind us, in a matronly tone, a woman in her forties asked my father, “Are you sure your son should be watching that?” The film was released in 2007 and was on DVD by 2008, so I was 14, hardly a baby and old enough to grasp some of the deeper thematic content of the film. So, again, I was offended at the assumption that a) I was, like, nine years old and b) that at fourteen I was not old enough to decide for myself what films I could watch. I glared after her as she walked away, cursing her existence. I balled up my fists, about to shout, “I’ll see you at my Pulitzer Prize reception!” Unfortunately, my father put his hand over my mouth.
My father was by no means irresponsible in allowing me to watch what I did. Actually, were it not for his somewhat apathetic stance on ratings, I would not have the view of cinema and art that I have now. Everything within reason. I knew what gratuitousness was, and I did not squirm through it, unless it were something like medical procedures or scenes that involved children being a nuisance to the adult protagonists. He may not have known the extent to what he was doing, but he wasn’t dumb about it either.
Around this time, I was interested in Oscar fare, so I would voluntarily drag my father to see the kinds of films I occasionally flock to now, middlebrow crowd pleasers that’ll undoubtedly make Academy members swoon. In line for Atonement, the lady at the ticket booth tried a hybrid of parenting and being a critic, something that, as someone who aspired to be the latter, annoyed me. She said in a snobby tone of voice that “it wasn’t as good as everyone said it was”. I said, “I think I can make up my own opinion on the film, thanks.” And, being the coward I was, I ran away towards the concessions. My father smiled, slightly bemused at the exchange, and followed me to get popcorn.
I feel bad for my father, now, for having spent as much money as he did at concessions on subpar food I would never finish. Having gone to movies by myself now, I have learned not to get anything from concessions unless someone else is buying. It’s terribly manipulative of me, I know, but what can you do? My father and I shared a good traditionalism when it came to theater snacks: popcorn with no butter and a soda. It was as simple as that. What is it with movie theater popcorn that makes it taste so good, so different from microwave popcorn? I actually don’t want to know that answer, as it will probably give me nightmares.
At home, we were ice cream guys. We would get pints of ice cream from Cumberland Farms and indulge in our pleasures, as creamy and silky smooth as they were. Only later did I hone my skills at crying into said pint of ice cream.
On our trips to Cape Cod in his RV, we would visit the Drive-In Theater in Wellfleet. I consider myself really lucky to have had the experience of going to the drive-in. There were double features and previews and cartoons, and it felt like walking into a piece of the past. I was experiencing a nostalgia for something that I technically did not have the capacity to have nostalgia for. It was after my first time seeing something at a drive-in theater, eight years ago, that I started my blog and started writing about film.
I didn’t fully realize how important movies were to my relationship with my father until I thought about writing about my father in some way. Indeed, the fact that he took me to the movies so often was present in my mind (maybe two dozen films a year), as it was a point of contention during therapeutic appointments with my mother, but what was formed during those experiences didn’t come to mind until I opened this Word Document. Inadvertently, he gave me exposure to all kinds of films because he didn’t put a limit on what I saw. Most importantly, he supported and, in his own way, nurtured my love for cinema.
Sure, he might have been asleep half of the time, but there was something there, something that I miss. It has not been replicated since then, the closest being watching films with my best friend Joe, who, serendipitously, shares my father’s birthday. It may have been fate that I found someone for whom film means as much to them as it means to me. When the lights came down and the speakers went up, and our faces, one rapt with attention and the other calmly nodding off, stared at the bright screen, there was an undeniable connection between father and son. There we were, waiting for the coming attractions.