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New Father In Search of Limb-Cracking Action

by Greg Berman

Soon after my wife got pregnant last year, my friend Laura, a fellow film buff and the mother of a one year old, advised me to "get all the movies out of your system now, before the baby comes, because that's the thing you are going to miss the most." As my wife's pregnancy unfolded, I heard echoes of this advice from many of my movie-loving friends with children.

Now that my daughter Hannah is three months old and I have suffered through more than 12 weeks without a trip to my local cineplex, I've come to see that my group of advisors missed the point, if only slightly. What I have come to long for is not so much the movies themselves, but the desensitization that comes from repeated exposure to film violence. And it's not just the violence that I want to be anesthetized to: its also the sappy, heart-rending stuff.

I came to this conclusion last Friday night, when my wife Carolyn and I finally managed to escape long enough to catch a flick. Against my better judgment, we chose You've Got Mail. (Actually, in our marriage-preserving system of alternating movie selections, You've Got Mail was my wife's revenge for being forced to sit through the latest Jackie Chan vehicle.)

Before the film even started, I was in tears.

Like many men, I pride myself on being something of a stoic. I've sat placidly and watched Steven Seagal snap adversaries in half. I've yawned as Arnold Schwarznegger pumped lead into the chests of assailants. I've even taken Quentin Tarrantino's best shots without spilling my popcorn.

Nor have I been easily moved by sentiment. Terms of Endearment? Old Yeller? Philadelphia? Fine films all. But none of them left me with so much as a moist eye.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when I found myself crying halfway through the first trailer last Friday. It was a preview for a Michelle Pfeiffer weepie in which her character somehow manages to misplace one of her children. After many years, the child magically reappears on her doorstep. In the span of about 30 seconds, I managed to go from moist eye to sniffling nose to out-and-out waterworks.

What was going on? Why had I reacted so strongly to such a shameless bit of audience manipulation? I spent the next two hours of You've Got Mail clutching my kleenex and trying to figure it out.

I came to two conclusions. Obviously, having a child of my own had opened up previously untapped well springs of emotion. It also occurred to me that there might actually be something to the argument that cultural conservatives have been advancing for generations--namely, that prolonged exposure to popular culture leaves each of us coarser and less human. Even a three month vacation from the movies seemed to confirm this logic--I had somehow been rendered kinder and gentler.

Call me cruel and unusual, but I miss the guy who could watch hours of mayhem and gore without squirming. I think my daughter might be better served by a desensitized father than an emotional one. Because in many ways, the extremes of film violence and sentimentality prepare us for both the harshness and sadness of daily life. How do we learn to cope with the injustices of the world--the illnesses of our friends, the deaths of our relatives, the dissolution of our families? One reason we can endure this unhappiness is that we see much worse suffering every time we go to the movies. Movies toughen us up. And I know that I, for one, need to be tough if I am to meet the challenges of raising a daughter in New York.

So when my friend Adam asked me for some parenting advice the other day, I knew exactly what to say: see plenty of movies--and take your baby with you.

Copyright © 1999
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