I am seven years old. My dad and I are late getting into the movie theatre to see Reign of Fire. I lag behind him, tripping up the stairs, not quite able to keep up. We settle into our seats and I look over at him in the darkness. Onscreen, Matthew McConaughey is inexplicably bald.
My father and I have a secret celluloid language all of our own. It’s a conversation that has continued through the decades, in air-conditioned cinemas and at home when the dark has settled in for the evening and no one bothers getting up to turn on the lights. It’s a discourse we have nurtured over years – a dialogue incomprehensible sometimes even to ourselves.
The first movie I ever see is Waterworld. It is a critical bomb of legendary proportions; I am two months and two days old. To this day my father is proud that he could take me into the theater and I would neither cry nor fall asleep – silently watching the story unfold onscreen. I imagine myself silent as I stare at Kevin Costner’s bare chest, impossibly high before my eyes, seeming to rise up to the sky. I imagine myself safe in my father’s arms, and I wonder now if that feeling was why I never made a sound.
I am eleven years old. Although he should be asleep after a long day of working with his hands and his body, my father takes me to a midnight premiere screening of Spider-Man 3. When the trailer to The Happening plays before the movie, someone shouts at the screen, “This is your last chance, Shyamalan!” When Harry Osborn sacrifices his life at the end of the film, I hold back tears.
Over the years I become an anthropologist of my father’s life, puzzling over broken pieces of the debris of his stories. I collect these fragments at family parties, from old sepia-toned photographs and from dinnertime conversations among adults, giants of monstrous proportions. I know that my father grew up in a rural town in Mexico. I know that his father was a community leader – eventually elected Mayor. My dad was one of the youngest children in a huge family full of rambunctious brothers; they’d play in the river with rocks slippery-slick, worn down by the weight of accumulated centuries.
At sixteen, my father crossed over to the United States. I imagine him at my age, learning a new language, a new culture, in the easy darkness of the movie theatre. I don’t know what he was running from. I think it might have involved his father. He tells me sometimes how he’s trying to do better. No more or less real to me than the details I intuit are the facts I can observe with my own eyes. I know I’ll rarely see him at home because he works two, three, four jobs. I don’t know how it’s possible for someone to work that much. Sometimes we go and have lunch with him during his fifteen or thirty-minute breaks. When I see him at work, or on the few days we are able to have full family outings, I observe his ability to light up a room with an easy, street-wise eloquence all his own – able to connect with complete strangers, or else to find some old acquaintance, at each and every place we visit.
There’s so much more I want to know about him. I long to know not just how he became the way he is, but what made him unable to tell me these stories himself. I know somehow that he doesn’t have the words for this, which means I don’t have the words to ask him. What we have instead are the movies.
Years later, trying to make sense of what is happening in my childhood, I’ll obsessively track down strands of film history; I’ll learn about the cinema of countries around the world; I’ll learn how to argue why Raging Bull is about Christian grace and how Johnny Guitar is Nicholas Ray’s underappreciated masterpiece. But as a child, all I know is that my dad loves the movies, and that few things will ever taste better than the first bite of freshly buttered popcorn as the trailers roll. My dad can’t be said to have the best taste, but he says he doesn’t care about movie critics. He takes me to see action movies, comedies, dramas. I’ve otherwise always known him to be reliably taciturn, so it becomes a private, lonely game to see which movies spur him to displays of emotion. To see my father cry makes me feel like I’ve made my way down a corridor to come across a long-forgotten room, hiding something I’m not meant to see. I catalogue in my mind the moments and the scenes which bring on these displays, feeling that if I can piece them all together I will uncover something essential and vital.
I am thirteen years old. My dad and I are watching Pursuit of Happyness at home. Onscreen, Will Smith implores his child, played in the movie by his real-life son: “Don't ever let somebody tell you – you can't do something. Not even me.” Next to me, my father weeps in the dark.
I grow up in a one-bedroom apartment, our family struggling to make ends meet, but we have dozens of VHS tapes in our household, and later on, hundreds of DVDs. As a boy, I don’t yet know about the demographic labels that might be applied to us: low-income, working class. I just know that we are a family. At no time is this more true than when we are all enveloped in the comfortable, cool, and safe darkness of the movies.
My father rarely tells me outright to watch a movie; instead, he only suggests. I’ll latch onto each and every one (Forrest Gump is his favorite). Steadily, I make my way through his collection. When he comes home from work – usually for a few hours before heading back out for the night shift – he doesn’t have the energy to do much but watch movies. At home, he’ll go through movie after movie, usually falling asleep before the end of the night.
Years later, I am admitted to an elite university, one of the best in the world, on a full scholarship. When I call home, the only way I can possibly convey to my father what it is like to be there is that it resembles a movie. I imagine my experience here is as far removed from his upbringing as my childhood was from the fantastic tales we watched unfold unscreen. At school I navigate social events with waiters who look like me and my father if we could afford a tuxedo. I think easily of Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness, another of his favorites – how he fakes the confidence he needs to navigate the world of high finance. I understand now how my father has been preparing me.
Eventually I grow old enough to start sharing my own movies with him. When I recommend them, it’s in the same language of suggestion he would use, too tentative to be denied. “Hey dad, I think you would like…” “Hey dad, this movie reminded me of you…” Afterward I’ll always ask him what he thinks.
“Pretty good,” he says.
Over the years our conversation becomes a dialogue across time. Re-watching a movie, I see not just my father and his own story (sometimes I’ll see his father, too), but myself as well – the person I was at seven, eleven, thirteen, twenty-three years old. I see the messages he has imparted to me at every stage of my life, changing over the years but set in motion decades earlier.
I am reminded sometimes of a scene in I, Robot, the sci-fi schlock we saw together when I was nine years old:
Generic Sci-fi Movie Scientist (in a pre-recorded hologram): Good to see you again, son.
Will Smith (again): Hello doctor.
GSfMS: Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.
WS: Is there something you want to tell me?
GSfMS: I'm sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.
But in this encounter I am meeting not just his past and present selves but my own, too, each of us refracted across the ages. These selves stretch out ahead, into the endless future; I know that I will continue, through the decades, to encounter us both here again. Sometimes I wonder whether we are trapped in this place, forever.
I am twenty-three years old. In a remote log cabin I watch the Netflix premiere of Springsteen on Broadway. Bruce interrupts his song for a monologue: “All we know about manhood is what we have seen and what we have learned from our fathers, and my father was my hero. And my greatest foe ... I had this dream, I’m on stage, I’m in front of thousands of people ... I kneel next to him in the aisle … and I say, "Look dad. That guy on stage – that's how I see you."
However I might have imagined my father as a child, I know that he’s not one of the characters we watched onscreen – not a villain or superhero, not monster nor god. And yet. And yet.
I know that he has done the best he could. Growing up, my father doesn’t always have words, but there’s a deeper and more eloquent language that he taps into when he shares his movies with me. As best he can, he is teaching me to transcend the man he was, as I think he has sought to overcome who his own father was. He is teaching me to be better.
I could see my favorite movies a dozen times and enjoy them all the same, though I know the same story would unfold across the screen every time. I tell myself that it’s a trap to think our lives will play out the same way — to imagine that my father and I are forever fated to act out these roles we have been cast in.
I am twenty-five years old. My partner is complaining that all I ever want to do on date nights is watch old movies. I don’t know how to tell them it’s the surest expression of love I know.