Some people, including my wife, think my method of selecting films for children is a bit strange. I once notoriously showed Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" to a group of eight-year-olds. I have allegedly traumatized a friend's son by letting him see "Arachnophobia." I guess I have to admit that when it comes to the issue of violence in films, I have always had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude. Most people, young and old alike, enjoy a good scare, and I just don't believe that marauding seagulls and bird-eating spiders are going to cause anything worse than a night or two of restless sleep.
The flip side of this is that, being something of a movie maven, I'm often consulted by people who want to know if a film has inappropriate content (my wife likens this to the Sierra Club going to Charlton Heston for advice). One friend called the other day to ask if I thought it was okay for her 14-year-old son to see a certain "R"-rated movie. I had to tell her that I pay no attention to these ratings whatsoever. As someone who resists E-Z Pass for fear of government conspiracy, I'm certainly not going to invite the Feds to dictate the viewing habits of anyone in my family. Besides, a lot of R ratings have to do with nothing more than foul language; I'm sure my 14-year-old hears just as much foul language in the schoolyard as he would from a Chris Rock video. When my wife comes to me distressed because she heard our son listening to rock music going on about "My [Anglo-Saxon expletive] is bloody because I [Anglo-Saxon expletive] a corpse," my reaction was, "And your problem is...?"
That isn't to say there haven't been times when my judgment clearly failed me. My younger son, six years his brother's junior, was around five when he came upon the two of us watching the Harrison Ford thriller "Witness." He tiptoed into the room just as the little boy in the film was witnessing the violent murder of a man in a train-station bathroom. As my extremely irritated wife reminded me as we tried to settle him down, my little boy didn't need to see this.
If I really stopped to think about the level of violence in the music and films my kid is exposed to, I suppose it might make my hair stand on end. But, then again, the level of violence in our society is pretty hair-raising. My family and I live on a quiet country road in upstate New York where a neighbor boy of 17 killed four members of his family. I wound up doing a book on it and my kids spent formative years knowing that Daddy had more than a nodding acquaintance with murder and mayhem. But there are times when I too start freaking out about the level of violence. There are movies, those starring people like Wesley Snipes and Steven Seagal, where the verbal and visual violence is so over the top that it bespeaks a kind of repellent exploitation. I'm not so much bothered by the homicides and terrorism portrayed in these films; these things exist. I'm bothered more by the callous mentality that equates a high body count and an ocean of blue language with real entertainment.
In other words, the issue of violence in the media boils down to a matter of choosing your battles. I believe in pre-viewing films, reading reviews, and making my own judgments about appropriateness. This past year, when my son was 13, I decided to take him to "Boys Don't Cry." It is violent and full of "adult content," but I felt he was ready to see it so long as he was seeing it with me. He did find it disturbing, but we were able to have a valuable discussion about how some people become victims in our society.
Picking your battles gives you amazing credibility with teens. The one instance I remember staking my ground was around a film called "Kids," directed by Larry Clark, who brought us those "heroin chic" Calvin Klein ads. "Kids" follows a group of aimless, amoral New York teens, including an HIV-positive boy who is a serial deflowerer of virgins. It's a devastatingly disturbing film and I really didn't want my then-13-year-old son to see it. Of course, he nagged and nagged, as is his wont, but this time I would not budge. I just felt he wasn't ready for it. Soon thereafter, he was at a friend's house and what does he wind up seeing? You guessed it: "Kids." A few days later, my son had a complete anxiety attack that he was HIV-positive even though he was not sexually active nor did he use intravenous drugs. He needed this? Hardly. Listen to your father, I told him. There isn't much I won't allow, so when something comes along that I don't feel is right for you, just take my word for it, will you?
This tack worked so well that I used it the next time a film came out that I didn't want my son to see. The film was "American Psycho," about a yuppie who murders women. It is supposed to be a sophisticated, witty satire on modern mores, but somehow I really didn't feel that my kid needed to see some guy carving up women with a chainsaw, no matter how witty and sophisticated that can be.