Perils of watching movies with my mother

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By By Adam Wahlberg

On Mother’s Day, sons of cinema-loving mothers across the land will be asking the same question: “So Mom, it’s your day. What do you want to see?” Some will choose the thriller “Poseidon.” Others the Robin Williams chuckler “RV.” Not my mother. She’s more of a “Notorious Bettie Page kind of gal.

Movies, especially the daring ones, are hemoglobin to my mother. She’s attended at least one film a week for as long as I can remember, despite the pressure of raising three children and working full time as a social worker. Even today, as a 69-year retiree with an artificial hip and a handicapped-parking tag hanging from her rearview mirror, she continues to frequent Twin Cities theatres, seeking out the bold and original. And she’ll see anything. All that matters to her is if “it’s supposed to be good.” If it meets that standard she’ll want to see it. And she’ll likely want me to see it with her. That’s when things get tricky.

Watching Fred Ward have sexI have seen hundreds of films with my mother. Most of the experiences have been perfectly pleasant. Most of them. Then there are the outings that scream out for university study.

It started when I was in grade school. For some reason she had confidence that at a young age I could handle mature material. Don’t ask me why; I wouldn’t say I was an emotionally advanced young man (I thought pro wrestling was real well into my 20s). But she knew I shared her love of movies and must have thought this was something we could enjoy together.

So while my friends were queuing up to see “Star Wars” for the ninth time, she was sneaking me into R-rated films like “Saturday Night Fever.” As a result, I became accustomed to watching the occasional steamy scene with her. Nothing too lurid; Bill Murray’s Aunt Jemima treatment in “Stripes” was as erotic as it got. Things didn’t get uncomfortable until I got older. How uncomfortable? Three words. Henry. And. June.

It’s been 16 years since we watched that film and I’m still reeling. I was living at home after graduating from college — my Costanza period — and considering a career as a writer. Knowing this my mother suggested the film since “it’s about the novelist Henry Miller!” I figured why not.

Now there are moments when a 21-year-old man wants his mother around: at his wedding, to co-sign for a loan, when he’s starving. Not during a movie in which Fred Ward has sex with Maria de Medeiros like the plane is going down. I was aghast. My mother, of course, was oblivious. Her only comment as we walked to the car was “Well that was really good, wasn’t it?” I guess. I just didn’t know how I was going to pay for the inevitable years of therapy. And I still haven’t been able to read “Tropic of Cancer.”

Then there was the time she brought home a rental of “Damage,” the sexy Jeremy Irons-Juliette Binoche thriller. Not the theater release, mind you, but Louis Malle’s director’s cut. Good lord. Now I can appreciate some hot screen sex; I know the Billy Bob Thornton-Halle Berry scene in “Monster’s Ball” like others know the Zapruder film. I just don’t want to watch it with my mother sitting next to me sipping Diet Pepsi and knitting.

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Thanksgiving Day traumaWhich brings me to Thanksgiving Day 1994. My mother, who is a traditionalist and quite conservative in her personal choices, if not in her films or politics, had prepared a feast for the family. As we were finishing up, she announced the evening’s film (we always watch a movie after a holiday meal): “The guy at the video store recommended this one … it’s called ‘Spanking the Monkey.’”

I spat a brussels sprout across the table that nearly took my sister’s eye out. “‘Spanking the Monkey’! Good god, Mom, don’t you know what that’s about?”

“No,” she said. “I just heard it was by this interesting young director and it was supposed to be good. Why, have you seen it?”

I had seen it. For those who haven’t, it’s David O. Russell’s first film and it features some excellent acting, a marvelous soundtrack, and a scene where Jeremy Davies, there’s no other way to put this, bangs his mother.

“Mom, didn’t the title alone make you think this isn’t a family film?” I asked.  “I’m not watching that with you. No way.”

Ten minutes later my dad had fallen asleep, my brother was reading a magazine and my sister was on the phone. I was sitting next to mom watching the film. I half expected someone from the county to burst in and separate us. But we watched it. It really is a pretty good movie. And, you know, the mom is hot.  

And Todd Solondz shall lift you up on eagles’ wings
I’m not the only one who’s been traumatized by my mother’s zealous pursuit of provocative cinema. One time when I was living in Seattle she called and asked what I’d seen lately. I told her that the new Todd Solondz was interesting. The following week she told me, “You know, Adam, I really enjoyed that movie you recommended, but no one from my gospel choir did.”

After I picked up the phone and stopped hyperventilating I said, “What?! You took your gospel friends to that? Are you a crazy person?”

“You said it was good so we went after rehearsal.”

The movie was “Happiness.” You know, the one that gives a rather sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile. I can only imagine the cries of “oh sweet Jesus!” that went up in that theatre.

This is just how my mother is. She means no harm. And she’s no vulgarian. She is just so completely comfortable in her own skin and so open to new experiences that shocking art doesn’t shock her. It just interests her. She doesn’t like everything she sees — she thought Solondz’s latest film, “Palindromes,” was bleak and inaccessible — but she’s not afraid of new thinking. She’s vivacious and curious and funny and in many ways larger than life. She’s a female Mrs. Doubtfire.

And for every awkward cinematic experience she has initiated she gets credit for plenty of enriching ones. Like the time when I was eight when she took me to “Breaking Away,” the biking movie about a dreamer who doesn’t quite live in reality (I can’t imagine how she thought I’d relate to that). Or when she sent me a chapter of Madelon Sprengnether’s book “Crying at the Movies” so I could better understand the nature of films as memory triggers. Or whenever she leaves a long, excitable message on my machine about something she just saw (the one for “Malcolm X” topped two minutes). She has taught me that life can be made richer through the exploration of unique and challenging cinema. And it has been.

Still, I’m steeling myself for Mother’s Day. It’s her choice and that can mean anything. I’ll do my duty: I’ll pick her up, buy the tickets, lay our coats over two good seats as we get popcorn. It’ll be the two of us in a movie theatre and that’ll make her happy. I’ll be happy too.

But if I see a preview for “Spanking the Monkey II” I’m out of there. 

Adam Wahlberg is the executive editor of Minnesota Law & Politics (“Only Our Name Is Boring”). He can be reached at .