“One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” ~ Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
As far back as I can remember, I’ve found it easiest to relate to people when talking about movies and pop culture. While my most basic conversational skills boil down to me just asking a shitload of questions, movies really make my heart leap and my eyes widen.
This aspect of my personality was made most evident to me when trying to relate to my Dad. As kids we can never truly understand our parents, so, at least in my mind, we have to look for ways or keys into their mindset, if we care to.
My Dad passed away recently, and weirdly one of the first thoughts I had, within the flood of emotion, was “What was the last movie we saw together in a theater?”
Mom And Dad: Movie Buffs
My parents were both movie fans from their youth. Both grew up poor, and of all the luxuries that they would sometimes be monetarily afforded, going to the movies in downtown San Antonio, Texas was coincidentally the favorite of both.
Mom enjoyed Jimmy Stewart movies and the old Universal monsters, and Dad was engrossed in Westerns and cops-n’-robbers stories.
It’s incredible to me to imagine them, based on old photographs, as little kids enjoying a movie.
My Mom’s dad, who passed away before I was born, was a strict disciplinarian, so I imagine my Mom quietly sitting and enjoying the movie lest she invoke her Daddy’s wrath.
My Dad, on the other hand, was a troublemaker. He and his older brother were often unleashed on the town without parental supervision. All they needed was bus fare, and the city was theirs. When they found themselves not enjoying a particular movie, they would pitch their giant concession-stand pickles at the silver screen. My Dad would laughingly recollect to me the way the giant pickles would explode when they struck the screen, leaving behind stains and chunks of pickle innards.
Mom And Dad Shape My World
My earliest memory, at age 2, is of watching The Empire Strikes Back in the theater. The most vivid image to me from that time is of the AT-AT vehicle legs moving across the screen, their heads blasting lasers like there was no tomorrow. Obviously I never recalled much detail, but I do remember that scene. I also vaguely recall Luke Skywalker screaming and crying, which I recall made me sad, during the now-infamous “I am your father” scene.
I don’t know what my parents thought of this, but I always thought it was pretty damn cool that my first memory is of a movie, most especially a STAR WARS movie. I am incredibly grateful to my parents for dragging me along on so many of their movie dates.
Consequently, over the ensuing years, it was the movies we watched together that not only shaped my childhood, but also the way I looked at my Dad.
Because I don’t have a theory or even a point to this article besides just getting this off my chest, I will break this writing down into the various movies that make my heart feel lighter in the midst of my sadness. These are the movies that speak to me regarding my Dad, and to a lesser extent my younger brother.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
I was already an adult when my Dad told me that The Magnificent Seven was his favorite movie of all time. Up until the moment he told me, I had no idea that my Dad even had a favorite movie, much less one that was his all-time champ. I was more than a little surprised to learn this fact. You think you know someone!
My Dad was a practical man. Everything he purchased was for a reason, be it food, clothing, fishing tackle, hunting gear, or car parts.
Movies on VHS were things that my Mom bought for us, and Dad, being the stoic man he was, never let on that he wanted to own any piece of cinematic history. He would watch and enjoy whatever we owned, but he never bought any movies for his own enjoyment, nor did he for the sake of passing them down to his kids as pieces of culture.
I first saw The Magnificent Seven when I was 28 or so, on DVD, shortly after my Dad told me it was his all-time favorite. I went right out and bought it and watched it. More than just a new movie experience for me, it was a small way to look into my Dad’s soul.
It’s a good movie, full of the standard Hollywood cowboy types, and the always-excellent Eli Wallach. Knowing that my Dad enjoyed the outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing in West Texas, it wasn’t hard for me to see how this movie captured his heart and imagination at age 12. To my delight, it features a classic score by the mad genius Elmer Bernstein (To Kill a Mockingbird, Spies Like Us).
The Muppet Movie (1979)
I don’t recall seeing The Muppet Movie in the theater with my parents but they’ve told me that we all went together.
Mom was and remains a huge fan of the Muppets. My first birthday was Muppet-themed and my room was decorated and filled with all things Henson. Sesame Street (something I am delighted to watch with my 3-year-old daughter) and the Muppets were staples of my childhood.
Dad wasn’t as big a fan as Mom and I, but he did enjoy them for the outlandish comedy.
This image, more than anything else in all Muppet-dom, would make Dad crack up laughing. More than once he recounted to me how much he enjoyed it and how hard he laughed when Kermit came striding purposefully out to face Doc Hopper.
As a family we saw each of the subsequent Muppet movies, but none would ever equal the first in the way it made my Dad smile, and his knowing it would make me smile, too.
The Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)
Dad tolerated science fiction. He had little use for it as a storytelling mode and even less care for it. He despised Star Trek, calling it boring and nerdy, and Star Wars was only marginally more well-received.
But he knew that I was in love with it, so he tolerated it. More on this later.
My Mom is the sci-fi and horror fan. Through her influence and the genius craftsmanship of George Lucas and Co., I fell in love with the original Star Wars trilogy and I’ve never looked back.
Yet Dad knew the names of every single one of my Kenner action figures and vehicles:
“You left Chewbacca in the backyard and look how Pancho (our dog) chewed him up!”
“You forgot Snaggletooth and Squidhead at your aunt’s house.”
When the wings on my Imperial Shuttle lost their grip and wouldn’t stay in the landing position anymore, Dad took it apart and rigged it for me so they worked like brand-new.
When the prequel trilogy, and years later The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, were released, my Dad asked if I had “seen those new Star Wars movies.” I knew this was his small way of reaching back to that point in our lives when he could still lift me off the ground and hug me. I would just smile, nod, and say, “Yeah. They were ok, I guess.”
As I’ve said, Westerns were my Dad’s favorite genre of movies. I say “genre”, but he wouldn’t have known the meaning of the word. For Dad there were Westerns, “crime” movies, and then everything else.
Silverado, more than anything else, was a return to the old days of Western movies. Rowdy heroes, two-faced villains, high adventure, and a pretty lady to soften the harsh landscape. God bless Lawrence Kasdan for daring to make such a simple, well-told, old-fashioned Western in the midst of the 80’s.
Of note is the cast, several young members of which would soon go on to become household names:
- Kevin Costner (The Untouchables)
- Jeff Goldblum (The Fly)
- Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon)
When my Mom purchased a copy of this movie on VHS, I recall my Dad making it a point to sit down to our Friday-evening ritual of pizza-and-a-movie and pop in this tape.
It remains one of my favorite Westerns.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Fast-forward a few years. I’m a teenager and my relationship with my Dad takes a turn: nothing I do is right, I’ve suddenly become lazy and sleep ’til noon, and my haircut is disgraceful. Typical stuff.
I even had to argue my case to see certain movies. I didn’t do it very often because financial times were tough for us then and the answer was often “no”, but still I tried.
One time in particular that I chose to basically beg my parents for a trip to the movies was after I saw this trailer:
My Dad, never much of a TV watcher, hadn’t seen the trailer (which we called “previews” then) until I managed to catch it on a commercial break and call his attention to it.
He was unimpressed. He hated sci-fi.
One evening after lights-out, my parents were talking in the kitchen as they cleaned, and I heard my Mom ask him if he would take me to see it. I don’t know why she did me that favor but God bless her.
Cutting to the chase, we saw it. My Dad and I exited the theater in a state of elated shock.
Other than laughing during a movie, my Dad never really reacted much. This particular shot/sequence elicited a stunned, very loud “WOO!” from him:
Dad drove an 18-wheeler for a living for much of his life. The stunts performed in this movie using big trucks absolutely delighted him. From the canal chase to the scene above, my Dad was completely sold.
That evening, again after lights-out, I overheard him tell my Mom that he was glad we’d seen it and that he really enjoyed it.
The Lion King (1994)
More than anything else, this movie reminds me of my Dad’s relationship with my younger brother.
My parents separated early in 1994 and weekends with Dad were most often spent at the movies, which suited me just fine.
And 1994 was a banner year for movies.
Forrest Gump. True Lies. Speed. The Lion King. The Naked Gun 33 1/3. Wyatt Earp. Blown Away. The Shadow. Clear and Present Danger. The Shawshank Redemption. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Stargate. Drop Zone. Dumb and Dumber.
We saw them all and probably half a dozen more. As you now know, my Dad hated sci-fi so I saw Star Trek Generations by myself while he and my brother saw Miracle on 34th Street.
The beautiful opening sequence of The Lion King, as you may know, ends with a smash-cut to the title in red font against a black background.
My Dad shocked me once again in that moment.
I didn’t know he had perfect comedic timing, but in that fraction of a second as the title card lingered, he looked at my then-seven-year-old brother and said, “Wow, what a great movie that was!”
Dad made as if to stand up and leave, and my brother instinctively followed suit, a dismayed look on his face.
I knew there was more to the movie so I stayed put, just laughing at the joke my Dad had pulled.
When my Dad, my brother and I walked out of the theater after witnessing Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat we looked at each other silently, unsure if we were perhaps floating on air or just elevated by the movie we’d just seen. We then talked about it all the way home.
One thing was certain: we all wanted to see it again immediately. Because it’s a three-hour movie we had seen the last showing of the evening, and as fate would have it, by the next week it had ended its theatrical second run (“dollar” movies).
Robert De Niro’s character in this movie reminds me so much of my Dad. They even sorta look alike. No nonsense. Straight talk. Sage wisdom. Tragically unable to help themselves.
I graduated high school a few months later and began living like a heathen. My Dad knew enough to let me have my space, and room to grow and make mistakes.
Never again would my Dad and I connect over a movie.
No Remorse, No Regrets
I look back on it all now and wish to God that I had just one more evening in a crowded theater to sit down and watch any or, hell, ALL of these movies in a marathon, with my Dad and brother.
And concession stands be damned. We routinely smuggled food into the theaters, one time going so far as to eat hamburgers and fries.
I’m guessing this feeling is normal in grief, because I have no experience with loss. This is the closest person to me that I’ve lost.
For the last 20 or so years of his life, Parkinson’s disease robbed my Dad of much of the joy in life. No more fishing. Couldn’t hold his grandbabies. A stroke finally got him, but more than this, I suspect he was just tired of fighting and his body gave out.
I just want to encourage you all to let those closest to you know that you love them. Tell them in no uncertain terms.
If any of you have strained relationships, please make the first move to try and heal them. Even if it doesn’t work out, maybe you’ve taken a first step toward forgiveness in your own heart which will start to do you a world of good.
To those that have lost loved ones, I hope time really does heal all our wounds. I’ve had my heart broken but never have I had a piece of it removed permanently.
Love to you all. I sincerely wish the best for you and your relationships.
Love you, Dad. This ain’t the Sabbath you loved but it’s still Ozzy and he’s the man.