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“I hate you, Dad.”
I’ve heard this line more than a few times over the last few years, typically directed at me by my teenage son.
But this time, my son turned around to add an extra zinger:
“Oh, and by the way, when I apologize tomorrow and tell you that I love you, I want you to know that I’m lying.”
In a way, I kind of admired him for that line. In the inevitable power-grab of parent/child relationships, that statement effectively put our status into a Matrix-like vortex, keeping reality in doubt at all times. Clever boy, that one.
(Side note: I know that even the possibility of discussing the complications of one’s parenting journey is hair-raising. Rest assured that I love my son, I’d do anything for him, etc. But if any of you think of fatherhood as providing nothing but constant joy and affirmation while love bunnies float magically in the air sprinkling candy dust on your eternally happy children…well, good for you. Call me the first time your teenager tells you to fuck off.)
I’d like to say that every one of our disagreements/arguments/apocalyptic meltdowns are my son’s fault.
I’d like to say that, so I will. They’re all his fault. Glad that’s settled.
But really, I know there are more complicated factors at play. I may not always show the most self-control in those moments. My choices to elevate a conflict to “make a point” are well known in my domicile. My wife has read every parenting book ever published, but in my case, the chapters on “Choose Your Battles” and “Be The Adult In The Relationship” seemed to slip through my limited cognitive abilities.
So yeah, some of this may be on me too.
If I’m being truthful, I can cop to the fact that there has been a growing distance between me and my son for some time now. Some of that is natural, as he grows into an independent human being capable of making his own decisions, like insisting on wearing shorts in the snow or eating half a pound of Cracker Barrel without pausing to breathe.
But some of our distance came from a different place entirely. We just don’t like the same stuff, which makes it hard to find a common language.
But that can change.
Over the last few years, my son developed an intense fascination with the Academy Awards. After filling out a random Oscar poll one year (and watching the telecast with us to keep the tally), he began to obsessively research the history of the films that won and lost. He became an Oscars expert within weeks. This is not an exaggeration. Ask him and he’ll tell you the nominees for Best Supporting Actress in 1993 (if you’re reading, I’m a big fan, Marisa Tomei) and why it doesn’t make sense that Raging Bull didn’t win Best Picture in 1980.
But it dawned on me that, as much as my son knew about these acclaimed films, he’d never actually seen most of them. This didn’t make sense to me. Imagine a food critic that never ate, or a music nut that read Rolling Stone instead of listening to his collection.
So one day, on a long car ride, while my son was watching his 300th consecutive hour of YouTube videos on his phone, I made my move.
“I have an idea”, I said. This usually provokes an immediate groan, but I continued. “You know so much about these Oscar movies, but you haven’t actually watched many of them. Instead of clicking through random videos on your phone, what if you used that time to try to see the movies you’ve been reading about?”
I gripped the steering wheel in anticipation of the fight. It never came. He lifted his head from his phone, looked at me and said something never uttered before in the history of our relationship.
“That’s a good idea.”
For the rest of the ride, we devised and organized a plan. We would select 50 movies, all of which had to be respected films that he hadn’t seen already (and had to be made after 1970, since anything before then must have been produced by another species). And we’d work over the year to watch the films on the list together.
And so we did.
Since then, my son and I have sat down together for hours, not just watching the films on the list but also talking about them, comparing them, putting them in context with films they preceded and that followed. He surprised me with his love of Annie Hall, discovered a passion for Quentin Tarantino and Charlie Kaufman, kicked me out of the room to watch Boogie Nights (understandably) and asked how other war films compared to Saving Private Ryan. And for the first time since he was a toddler, he let me share my thoughts with him to help build his own perspective.
Compared to the halting and occasionally explosive dialogue of our past, this felt like we had discovered a common language. Finally, we found an interest that we could share with each other. To be clear, things still aren’t perfect between the two of us. Relationships are complicated by nature, and we can’t fire up Netflix every time our conversation devolves into an argument. We’ve had some blowups, and the occasional fall back into old habits and fighting corners.
But I can feel a difference. I know it.
In case you’re wondering, my son’s favorite film from the project was Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, a film about love and memory. It’s also about a broken relationship, but one that finds itself repeatedly pulled back together by an undeniable force. Their bond won’t let the relationship break, despite their obstacles. It’s weird and uncomfortable at times, yet hopeful.
That feels familiar to me. And kind of perfect. He’s my son, and I’m his father, and our bond is still strong.
And watching movies is our thing.
Michael Wolfe is a father of twins in Westport, CT and is now thoroughly exhausted. His wife and kids seem OK with his perpetual oversharing on his blog (www.toolazytowriteabook.com).
If you’re curious, here are the movies from our project list (remember the rules: my son couldn’t have seen it before, it had to be Oscar nominated (if even for an actor or actress) or universally acclaimed, produced after 1970, and some were added or removed by veto):
- Almost Famous
- Annie Hall
- Being John Malkovich
- Boogie Nights
- Breaking Away
- Brokeback Mountain
- Dallas Buyers Club
- Dances With Wolves
- Do The Right Thing
- Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
- Gangs of New York
- Hurt Locker
- It Follows
- Kill Bill
- LA Confidential
- Lost In Translation
- Million Dollar Baby
- Moulin Rouge
- Mystic River
- No Country For Old Men
- One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest
- Raging Bull
- Rain Man
- Raising Arizona
- Requiem For A Dream
- Reservoir Dogs
- Saving Private Ryan
- Schindler’s List
- Spirited Away
- Terms Of Endearment
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- The Big Short
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- The Departed
- The Fighter
- The Godfather
- There WIll Be Blood
- The Sting
- The Theory Of Everything
- Training Day
- When Harry Met Sally
There’s plenty missing here…wish I had slipped an Animal House or Airplane in there somewhere, it’s a heavy list. But we set the rules, I had only 15 to choose from. Don’t yell at me, that’s his job.