Thursday, August 25, 2011

The First One’s Free. That’s How They Hook You

My Daughter’s First Trip to the Movies
My local cinema has a summer program: every Wednesday and Thursday, you can bring your kids to the movies—for free. I’ve been wondering when might be a good time for my little girl’s first trip to the movies. “Free” is a good motivator. It takes the sting out of the very real possibility that she’s going to demand to go home the moment the lights go down.

Football coach “Red” Sanders is NOT famous (since it’s always misattributed to Vince Lombardi) for saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Now, I don’t think movies are everything or the only thing. They can be an engaging, illuminating … oh, who am I kidding? Movies have been at the center of my life since I was a kid. Back in the day when broadcast television was filled with old movies, you’d find me on the couch all hours. Today I teach cinema studies and my employer might be interested to know I’d do it for free (which I practically do, but that’s another story. Seriously—teacher’s pay? So NOT what’s wrong with our economy).

When we entered the theater, the place was packed with rambunctious kids, most wearing day-camp t-shirts. So … there’s a day camp around here that promises healthy, vigorous outdoor activities and takes the kids to the movies instead? Sounds like my kind of camp. Today’s film is Shrek Forever After—The Final Chapter, which was released in 2010, and we won’t be seeing it with its 3D effects, at which point I remind myself that it’s free.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Shrek franchise; thought all the pop-culture references seemed like lazy screenwriting. I reckon if you took out all the pop references in Shrek you’d have a thirty-second movie. But this is an experiment in interest and attention. And my daughter seemed very excited to be among all those kids. As the lights went down, she excitedly said, “It’s dark!” and I thought of a line from the world’s first talkie, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

My daughter’s face lit up at the sight of the images on the big screen. (So far, so good.) She’s not old enough to get the jokes. But I am. And for once, the references aligned just the way I like ’em. This Shrek is a riff on one of my favorite “sap” films: It’s a Wonderful Life. Want to see me cry? Just say, “Don’t you see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.” I like that film on every level: as pure entertainment; as the idea that you can’t take just one brick out of the wall; the profundity of the big question of whether we really matter; and the simple answer that love and friendship are all. I’m a sucker for It’s a Wonderful Life. So I liked this Shrek, too, since it was the same film. And the good news: my daughter liked it just fine. Yeah, she’d drift in and out of attention with what was up on the big screen, generally tuning out during the talky bits. But when the screen held her focus, she seemed to be in heaven. No big surprise, she liked the physical comedy, the chubby cat, and the funny donkey. But there was something else: she seemed to really enjoy the moments when all the kids laughed in unison.

When the lights went up, she looked delighted, happy to be able to see all the kids with whom she had just experienced “the movies.” I felt like she was going to call for a group hug. You can’t buy an experience like this; okay, you can. Every time you go to the movies. Like my daughter seemed to realize intuitively, the essence of the attraction IS the communal experience: sitting together, enjoying each others’ muffled reactions (or with kids, not so muffled), oohing and ahhing together, validating each others’ feelings and reactions, and just laughing together. But the cinema “community” disperses quickly after lights up, and we shuffled out with everyone else.

I asked her if she liked the movie but she was already onto the next thing, trying to get through a door marked “private.” When I asked her again if she liked the movie, she asked me, still trying the door handle, “Can you open this door?” Okay. I won’t press. I’m going to be grateful that she was able to sit still for the length of a feature film and seemed to enjoy herself. Don’t you see, Julia? Life as a moviegoer can be a wonderful life. Now you’re a part of it. I would have paid for this one.

Do you remember your first trip to the movies? Have you taken your kids to the movies yet? What did you see? Share it here.


  1. I totally remember my first trip to the movies! My parents said we were going to look at houses which my sister and I were not to excited about so we we floored when we pulled up to the theatre! We watched Bambi and I had nightmares about forestmp fires for a week! My isn't quite 2 1/2 so we've got a little bit before we take her for her first movie. Maybe by next summer! We head to Disney in 2 weeks so we'll see how she does at the shows!

  2. That's so interesting to hear that Bambi was your first film, as I just did a piece on Bambi. I thought the death of Bambi's mother was the scary scene, but the forest fire--sure, didn't realize that was a nightmare inducer, too. Would love to hear how your 2 1/2 year old likes Disney.