Culture that represented adulthood
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
I was 10 or 11 when the Atom Egoyan movie Exotica came out, and I remember being really intrigued by it. It seemed, in my mind, to be this sophisticated, adult movie—the kind of thing real grown-ups watched instead of action films and romantic comedies. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to watch it. Are there any similar cultural items which represented “adulthood” to you as a child? And did you ever check them out? If so, how did they play to your expectations? I eventually rented Exotica as a 19-year-old, and found it kind of boring. —Kristen
As a relatively timid kid who grew up on Disney films and rarely got to go to theaters otherwise, horror movies always represented a form of adulthood to me—both because there was no way my parents would ever take me to one, and because clearly you had to be grown-up to make it through one emotionally intact. I was particularly fascinated with a few horror films with particularly lurid, suggestive poster art — Alien, The Prophecy, and Friday The 13th. I actually read Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelization over and over as a kid, trying to imagine what it would look like on the screen, and I was thrilled (and a little chilled) when I finally saw, of all things, a jigsaw-puzzle picture of the alien and thus had an actual image in my head for the thing only barely described in the book. I finally saw the movie in college, and while it’s great, I’d long since moved past thinking of movie choices as any sort of badge of adulthood. I didn’t get around to watching Friday The 13th until I wrote this 2008 piece about it, by which time it was more vague, ancient curiosity to me than rite of passage. And I still haven’t seen The Prophecy. At some point, I saw stills of what its mutant-bear-monster actually looked like onscreen, and it’s so far from the hideous thing on the poster—and the fevered monster of my youthful imagination—that I can’t imagine the film being anything but disappointing. Kind of like adulthood, in some ways. But who knows, maybe I should Watch That On Purpose at some point. It’s a John Frankenheimer movie, after all.
Tasha, I saw The Prophecy in an edited-for-television version as a kid, and it scared the crap out of me. Maybe it’s because I had no reason not to believe nuclear waste—or was it just pollution?—couldn’t create deformed, bloodthirsty bears. (Was it bears? The memories fade, but the vague sense of terror lingers.) My own passage into adult filmgoing involved a downtown Dayton, Ohio theater called The Dayton Movies (now called The Neon Movies). Specifically, I remember my indulgent father driving me to downtown from the suburbs to see Jean De Florette (the first subtitled movie I saw in the theater) and Swimming To Cambodia. He didn’t stay for the movies—nor would he have liked them much, I suspect—but he was willing to drive his weird son downtown without asking too many questions. Outside, I needed a ride. But inside, I’d found my way into a world of movies that felt like they were for grown-ups.
I was a voracious movie-watcher when I was young, and was lucky enough to have seen a lot of great films on television. Somewhere, though, I’d developed the snob’s notion that real movies, adult sophisticated movies for grown-ups, were not made in America (or, presumably, any other English-speaking country), so I was convinced I had to see movies with subtitles in order to really know what the medium was about. Unfortunately, unlike Keith, I didn’t have an indulgent father willing to cart me to wherever they might be playing, so I had to wait until I was in high school and college to seek them out for myself. As a result, like Tasha, my passage into the world of grown-up movies was marked by horror films—one in particular. While my parents were both fairly devout religious people who kept a close eye on what I read and watched, they were also very busy working-class folks who, by necessity, let me become a latchkey kid. Because of this, I was able to see the television première of The Exorcist when I was a few months shy of 11 years old. Even the heavily edited TV version scared the shit out of me, but after a few days of hiding under the covers, I realized that the movie was supposed to have scared the shit out of me, and I patted myself on the back for having “correctly” experienced it.
I was 11 when the first season of thirtysomething aired, and the acclaim it earned put it on my pop-cultural radar. Aside from a few minutes here and there, I never watched it, because, well, I was 11, and couldn’t have cared less about the trials and tribulations of a bunch of whiny old people. Even though the show has stuck with me 20 years after it went off the air, I have few actual memories of it—that one guy who rides his bike dying (hmm, tied to my pop-culture anxiety, perhaps?), Timothy Busfield and his beard, but mostly tedious drama. I’ve considered watching season one on DVD, but I’m just not that interested, and possibly afraid of how familiar it may seem. I’ve tied a lot of my concepts of aging to my sisters, who are 11 and 13 years older than I am. As I’ve gotten older, it’s freaked me out that I have clear memories of them at my age, and thirtysomething creates similar anxiety: I’m now in the peer group of the cast! Don’t even get me started about how I was only three years older than Bart Simpson when The Simpsons began, and now I’m only a few years younger than Homer. The Simpsons MUST go off the air before we’re the same age, or I’m gonna lose it.
I hope I’m not stretching the questioner’s definition of “as a child” here, but at 15 or so, I found a very unhealthy kind of hope in Annie Hall, and by extension, most other Woody Allen films. As a protagonist, Allen never fails to discover an endless—and diverse!—supply of women willing to put up with him for some period or other. At the time, I took this to mean that I could easily get by as an adult while continually nursing my debilitating anxieties, resentments, and inclinations toward childish cynicism and sarcasm. “Just you wait, everyone,” I must have been thinking as I watched Allen snipe his way through a soul-hollowing (excuse me, "transplendent") date with Rolling Stone writer Shelley Duvall, “I’ll turn out like that, and you’ll all be jealous!” The melancholic black-and-white of Stardust Memories only helped me further justify this attitude with what I imagined was extra-artsy sophistication. I still love those movies, but I no longer consider them an excuse-delivery system.
I guess I was a less sophisticated child than the rest of y’all, because my definition of “adult” was always more or less the Supreme Court one: sex and violence as far as the eye could see. I led a pretty sheltered/cordoned-off childhood, so the first time I finally ran into this was a family vacation with late-night Showtime TV. I’m sure you can see where this is going: the big event was Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, featuring irony just heavy-handed enough for a 13-year-old to pick up on, generous Jennifer Lopez nudity, and violent death aplenty. These days, thank goodness, my definition of “adult” isn’t the same, and I’m pretty sure it’s a terrible movie, though I’m too scared to revisit it. We all have to start somewhere.
When I was a kid, adult entertainment meant three things: The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, and Eddie Murphy movies. As an 8-year-old, my greatest ambition was to see Beverly Hills Cop. It seemed so naughty, so transgressive, so beyond the reach of kids. I knew Murphy swore and was cool, and the kids on the playground couldn’t stop talking about him or Delirious or Raw and his many, many hilarious AIDS jokes. I eventually got to see my first Eddie Murphy movie when I was 13: Coming To America at a drive-in. It was an excellent entryway to his oeuvre, though for some reason, I have not seen Beverly Hills Cop to this day. Maybe I’m just waiting until I’m just a little more grown up.
Teenagers are practically grown-ups to little kids, which is why The Breakfast Club fascinated me in the ’80s. I remember my parents renting it and saying it wasn’t for children. (I don’t know whether they liked it, but my dad did mention a few years ago that when Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” came out, he and my mom were convinced it was the greatest song ever written.) From what I gathered from bits caught during censored, televised versions, the movie was about people with serious problems. They coped with those problems in the most adult way I could imagine: by swearing and kissing. High school seemed so foreign, and this particular school couldn’t have been more exotic. They have to go in for detention on Saturday! The school’s library has a giant abstract sculpture in the middle of it! I’ve since seen the entire thing and I’m not a fan, especially when it comes to the ending. The weird girl gets “fixed” to win over the guy she has nothing in common with, and the romantically unattached nerd does everyone else’s homework, two scenarios that sting—even now that I’m an adult.
I had a hard time getting my head around this question, I think because nothing much was forbidden in my pop-culture intake as an impressionable youth. It did remind me of a time I was specifically allowed to watch most of a movie, for a reason that actually sort of pleases me as a grown-up. My dad rented Star 80—this must've been about 1985—and told me I could watch it even though there was a lot of nudity, but that I couldn't watch the ending. Mostly interested in the nudity (Mariel Hemingway!), I agreed. For those not familiar with the movie, it's the true-ish tale of Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who was killed in a murder-suicide by her raging ex-boyfriend (played in the movie by Eric Roberts). The movie documents her rise to fame with nudie detail, but I think by the time the movie was reaching its ugly climax, I knew something horrible was going to happen. Moral of the story: Star 80 is not a very good movie, but I’m happy my dad thought it was okay for me to check out some boobs, but not a grisly murder.
I was 14 years old when my parents got their first VCR and their first video-store membership (back when memberships cost money… 50 bucks, as I recall), and one of the first movies they rented was The Big Chill, which they let me watch with them even though it was rated R. I watched the movie again recently, and found much of it problematic—especially any scene where the characters wring their hands over the prospect that they’ve lost sight of their ideals—but I still saw plenty of evidence of what appealed to me about the movie as a precocious teen. There’s something very romantic about the idea that a group of random people would meet in college, become friends, and then go off to become TV stars, lawyers, celebrity journalists, sporting-goods magnates and moody drug dealers—all while carrying with them what happened when they were 20 years old. There’s no more powerful message about adulthood to send to a teenager than the idea that the friends and feelings of his youth matter terribly, and will continue to matter for decades to come.