“And don’t gimme that weak shit, ‘Well, I love my children!’ Fuck you. Everybody loves their children. Doesn’t make them special.” – George Carlin
So, we had a baby. Her name is Lucille, and she’s just over two months old, and I’ve mentioned her before. About three weeks after she was born, as our first “night out” without her, my wife and I went to a media screening of Gravity, and, well, the movie clobbered us like a bag of hammers. Much of this, certainly, was due to the craftsmanship of Cuaron’s filmmaking, the sensitivity of the acting, and the power of the picture’s spiritual themes. But who are we kidding: the movie affected us like it did because it spoke so powerfully to our recent experience. And in processing that reaction, and defending it, I’ve gotta be honest: I’m starting to turn into the kind of person I used to loathe.
Beware of spoilers, if you haven’t seen Gravity yet: in the course of the amped-up outer-space drama, we discover that Sandra Bullock’s neophyte astronaut has, in her past, a tragedy. Her young daughter was killed in an accident, a bit of history that motivates her character’s ultimate turnaround, and mirrors the primary action of choosing to press on in the face of crippling adversity. But for my wife and I, sitting in the screening room, our thoughts never far from the baby girl at home with Grandma, it conjured up the previously unthinkable, unspeakable idea of what it would be like to deal with such a tragedy. We cried like babies.
A few weeks later, when the film was released, I found myself getting angry at the infrequent — but insistent! — negative notices mixed in with the heaps of critical praise. This is nothing new; there’s always a handful of movies in a given year that I care so much about, I take on an almost protective posture towards them, taking as my dubious responsibility the job of fending off the dueling forces of contrarianism (“Everyone likes this, so I hate it! Look at me!”) and hyper-criticism (I like to think that I go into a movie giving it the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve encountered more and more people who go in insisting on the burden of proof, as though being a critic means taking on a default “hate everything” position).
Because this film had hit me personally, I took these criticisms personally. And there was one strain of them that I found particularly infuriating: attacks on the Bullock backstory. I read that it was hacky. I read that it was phony. I read that it was maudlin. I even read a puzzling piece (written by a friend, even!) positioning Gravity as a future camp classic, because of the “PATHOS” of the “TRAGEDY in her past.” And the more of this stuff I read, the more I started to notice a trend: those who sneered at the death of Dr. Stone’s daughter were, almost to a one, young, and male, and childless.
I’m going to do my best to tread lightly here, because rest assured, I realize that this classification is fairly dickish, the kind of breeder snobbery that rightfully infuriates most reasonable people. And I’ve always considered “you just didn’t get it” to be the last, desperate refuge of criticism (and criticism of criticism), and the idea of one’s own personal experience and interaction with a work of art to be the basis of not just criticism itself, but appreciation in general. A film review is, by definition, an opinion, and your opinion is going to be informed by any number of factors: personal preferences, prejudices, background, education… hell, a lousy trip to the theater. Anything and everything plays into it, and your takeaway is your own.
So I’m not claiming that you have to have a child to “get” Gravity — I know plenty of people who don’t and have loved it, and I’ve heard from some who have children and didn’t like it anyway. But I’m saying this: it helps. The idea of losing a child is something that can only really exist in the abstract until it becomes your reality, and the dismissive manner with which too many of these writers regarded the element of the picture that had reached me most profoundly (beyond the effects, beyond the symbolism, beyond the performances) just plain rubbed me the wrong way.
And so, like a grown-up, I went and yelled about it on Twitter. “Could we get a moratorium on young, childless male critics bitching about how phony and manipulative the Bullock backstory is in GRAVITY?” I wrote, and as soon as I hit “tweet,” I realized: I’ve become one of those “I see things differently now that I’m a parent!” assholes.
It’s not that we went into this blind to the dangers of becoming the people we dread. Entering parenthood fairly late in life, my wife and I had plenty of opportunities to observe vibrant, intelligent, thrilling friends turn into zombies, clogging our Facebook feeds with baby pictures, regaling us with what David Cross called “these wonderfully long-winded stories of banal minutiae of what the kid did,” and assuring us, with straight-faced solemnity, that everything was different now, their entire lives had changed, nothing would ever be the same, etc., etc.
I wish I could tell you that we bucked the trend — or even made an effort to. That would be a baldfaced lie. The pictures were on Facebook before we left the hospital. (My daughter’s folder in our iPhoto library has topped a thousand images.) Our friends have heard surely less-than-spellbinding tales of her sleep patterns, eating habits, and astonishing alertness. Everything is different now, we have told them. Our entire lives have changed. Nothing will ever be the same. And, to their credit, none of them have punched us in the face.
For all of the enthusiasm I hold for this Major Life Change, parenthood was something I approached with some trepidation, or perhaps even skepticism. My parents were 17 when I was born, and as you might imagine, they screwed some things up. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become aware of how their worrisome traits have become mine, and in looking back on my formative years, I’ve started to understand how an offhand comment here or a bit of casual manipulation there worked its way into my own personality. At risk of putting too fine a point on it, I was reluctant to become a parent because I was so acutely aware of how easy it is for a parent to fuck up a kid.
But for all of my worries about what kind of a parent I’d be to my kid, I was mostly worried about what kind of a parent I’d be in the eyes of other people. And I don’t just mean in terms of being a braying, self-involved parent — though that was certainly a concern (and probably not one done any favors by the rambling treatise currently in front of you). I mean in terms of being a giant buzzkill, the sort of wet blanket whose deep concerns about his children were reflexively expected to become those of society as a whole.
I grew up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and, in retrospect, it feels like I spent giant swaths of that era defending the things I liked from the encroachments of other people’s parents. I adored R-rated movies and gangsta rap, and in that Dole-and-Tipper epoch, those were public enemies number one and two; it seemed like every time you turned on a television or opened up a newspaper (no, seriously, you had to open them up back then), some hidebound scold was bloviating about how dangerously influential Straight Outta Compton or Natural Born Killers was. They were assholes, and I couldn’t ever imagine being one of them.
Of course, their broadly stated “concern,” that such violent words and imagery would inspire real-life violence, was ridiculous, and the real issue — suppressing anti-authoritarian thoughts and inclinations — went unspoken. But a funny thing happened on the way to being a grown-up. As is so often the case, my multi-gigabyte iPod is as much a shrine to my bygone youth as a survey of classic or contemporary music, and a lot of that stuff is on there. It comes up, ever so often, in a shuffle rotation. And I have to admit — a lot of it doesn’t sit so well anymore. The blow-by-blow gang violence narratives aren’t even what bothers me; that stuff is what it is. But every once in a while, a slut-shaming track like Ice Cube’s “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dugout” will pop on, or a misogynistic piece of work like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” and I’ll listen to the lyrics (really listen) for the first time in years. And then I’ll all but break my neck flying across the room to hit the track skip button before my wife hears the stuff that used to go into my ears.
I’m not the only one. I recently visited a good friend who’d returned to Austin from New York after he and his wife had a baby girl, in order to maintain a home base closer to their families. I’ve probably never known a hip-hop devotee as hardcore as this guy, but he made no bones about his current intake of the stuff around his daughter: “She’s never heard rap,” he told me. He plays it in the car, and only when she’s not in it. The enviable collection of gangsta 12” records is only spun when she and mommy are out. Neither of us ever bought into the idea that music was corrupting young people’s minds. But we’re also old enough to known that it can affect (at impressionable ages) the way you think about and approach the world. So we’re not taking any chances.
On one hand, this kind of thinking is probably healthy. If approaching what I look at and listen to through the prism of how my daughter will see and hear it causes some of my own reconsideration, all the better — that’s her making me a better person, one of the other tired tropes I’ve always heard from cliché-spouting parents. But there’s also the fear that having a child is turning me into some sort of conservative hand-wringer, forever worrying and protecting and raising objections of the “what about the children?” variety. Maybe some of it is just a byproduct of getting older (I’m pushing 40); it certainly feels that way when, say, reading that much-linked Washington Post pan of the new Arcade Fire (a band that here I was thinking I was cool for liking) album and being told, “It’s something conservative pretending to be something bold. It’s Sandra Bullock’s hack dialogue in Gravity.”
Maybe WaPo’s Chris Richards found Bullock’s dialogue hack. But it made me weep. Roger Ebert loved to quote the critic Robert Warshow: “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” To this truisim, Ebert added, “Clip it out. Stick it where you can see it. It’s not only about the movies.” He’s right. I have a two-month-old daughter now, and I see movies differently. I see everything differently. I am that man. Sorry, 17-year-old self.