Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
In the 1970s, the motion picture began utilizing a rating system that identified films as G, PG, R and X. To eager adolescents, this Puritanical grading system held just out of reach a celluloid apple from a delicious and corrupt garden.
An R or X rating instantly perfumed a film to a point that any boy under the age of 14 would risk eternal damnation for the glimpse of Julie Christie's breast. Most parents attempted to divert their children from these polluted images, while secretly viewing them after the children had gone to bed. They warned us that if we attempted to watch these promiscuous pictures that our heads would explode and various body parts would fall off and the remaining bits would be used by Satan to feed his pot belly pigs.
We became knights in search of the holy grail of explicit films. It was each boy's quest to see an R- or X-rated film. Perhaps your brain might melt, but like many other trappings of adulthood -- you would enjoy every minute of it.
My father worked very hard and got little relief parachuting into a hostel of four truants each evening. He found his catharsis in violent detective and action films. He called them "shoot-'em-ups" -- mostly PG 13- and R-rated gangster and detective movies. In a world where bad guys often slithered their way out of accountability on a liberal legal technicality, there was nothing more reassuring than to see justice administered with a .44 magnum.
My mother experienced milder versions of crime and punishment every day raising her boys and found no escape in films like "Death Wish" and "Shaft." On those evenings when he could not persuade her to join him at the movies, my dad would catch my eye, and my mother would mount a weak protest. I would soon be settling into a rich faux velvet seat supplied with popcorn and my pregnant anticipation. It was sheer joy spending a school night watching Charles Bronson rid the world of pimps, two-bit hustlers and injustice. I would dream all night of drug deals gone bad, hustlers and yes, female anatomy. I would hold court the next day at school recounting every frame to a wide-eyed, jealous knot of fifth-grade boys.
Yet, the R-rated gravy train did not last. Our attendance of graphic films ended one fateful night when my father convinced my mother to bring the entire family to a new Western called "High Plains Drifter" with Clint Eastwood. Our prepubescent entourage included my then 5-year-old younger brother due to a shortage of baby sitters. My parents had once again had a date night foiled as their dwindling list of caregivers had canceled at the last moment.
Desperate to escape the house that evening, my mother consented to attend the movie that my father described as "a brilliant avant-garde Western that got great reviews." As we listened through the heating duct, he went right to the hard sell her for bringing us along. "Look, it's a 9:45 p.m. movie. They will all be asleep by 10 p.m. They won't make it past the credits."
In a rare moment of weakness, my mother relented. When we pulled up to the box office, she was very unhappy to see that the film was rated R. We were delighted. I sat as far from her as I could so she could not cover my eyes during the more graphic parts of the movie. The film opened to a dusty high desert town in some remote, god-forsaken part of the American West.
I glanced over and saw that my youngest brother was still very much awake and watching as the rider dismounted and entered the windswept ghost town. A provocatively dressed woman with a parasol appears strolling down a storefront sidewalk. The exhibitionist stops as she sees the stranger dismount and walks toward him -- clearly trying to gain his attention. When The Man with No Name does not acknowledge her, she curses him -- chastising him for not tipping his hat to a "lady."
In a sudden burst of erotic violence, Clint hoists the woman over his shoulder and into a local barn where he proceeds to have his way. At first, she resists violently but inevitably yields.
The scene concludes with a vertical shot of Clint buttoning his trousers while the woman lays exhausted on a dirty pile of hay. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater. Suddenly, an innocent voice broke our cinematic silence: "What did he do to her, Mom?"
The entire theater burst out in repressed laughter. My mother, horrified by the fact that my brother was still awake and suddenly self conscious that we were the only children in this movie immediately insisted to my father that we leave. I can still see him hanging back as we exited the movie -- trying to get one last glimpse of Clint as he visited vengeance on the corrupt townspeople. It would be a six-year drought before another Turpin male would get a bite from the R-rated apple.
It is now 2011 and there are more side doors and invisible entrances to Internet and cable peep shows. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite taking a harder line with my kids having seen "Shaft in Africa" before my 14th birthday. However, the specialists reassure me that my upbringing was truly a result of being raised in the Jurassic period of parenting and as such, I am allowed to be as two-faced as I want in the name of protecting my kids from the barrage of graphic and violent images all just a click away.
In retrospect, a few R-rated movies did not turn me into Ted Bundy or put me on the roof of a building with a high-powered rifle. However, I do remember those dreams. It was a restless sleep where the world was a disturbing urban cesspool populated by sociopaths where a single vigilante would sacrifices himself like Christ to save an indifferent world. I could not resist taking a bite from the apple and with it, came banishment from Eden -- a loss of innocence, the real price of admission to an R-rated film and adult knowledge.
As The Outlaw Josey Wales once mused, "A man's got to know his limitations."
Check out Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.