My dad died last week. He enjoyed movies well enough (he recently saw Get Out and liked it quite a bit) but wasn’t a buff by any means. When we were growing up, movies were often a means to an end — plunk the kids in front of a VHS rented from the grocery store on Saturday night and get time for a quiet dinner with my mom. But he liked watching and sharing movies with us too.
We’d seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade, but my mom had forbidden Temple of Doom, that classic of cultural insensitivity and gore that helped create the PG-13 rating. So when she went out of town, we badgered my dad into renting it for us and it immediately became the best Indy movie. (My mom was none too pleased when we told her about this years and years later.) My dad liked the gross parts (monkey brains!) just as much as we did.
He liked dramas fine but really enjoyed a good comedy. He introduced us to Monty Python, although he also rented Yellowbeard because of the Python connection and that didn’t go over as well. But he also introduced me to The Naked Gun and then Airplane! and Police Squad and the idea of ZAZ humor in general, which pretty much destroyed any chance I had of not developing a sense of humor as goofy and deadpan as his own.
Us kids were a good excuse to watch the classics. Christmas Vacation‘s “shitter’s full!” became a family shibboleth (having a relative traveling from house to house by RV helped matters). As a veteran of many horrible road trips, my dad loved Vacation, particularly the gruesome fate of the dog. “Poor little guy probably kept up for the first mile or two…” he’d wistfully sigh. And of course The Jerk — he showed it to us well before I knew what was behind the “special purpose” gag but could very much appreciate the sublime idiocy of “He hates these cans!”
And I could share things back. Somehow, my dad had missed Top Secret! (perhaps dealing with my two-year-old self and an infant in 1984 prevented him from catching it in the theaters) and when I “discovered” it, I was able to laugh with him at Val Kilmer’s landscape painting and the backwards bookstore and the Pinto gag. We’d watch the Simpsons reruns at 6 and 6:30, especially on Friday pizza night when we could bring dinner into the den. One lazy Saturday morning, I came across the wonderfully bad Jaws knock-off Grizzly on TV — my brothers joined in watching it and then my dad did too, mocking the horrible acting and cheap (“A buck 2.80,” in my dad’s nomenclature) effects.
I assume he rented The Goonies for us because it was a kids’ movie and it was a Saturday night. The movie has developed a reputation as an overrated fetish object of 80s kids but my dad was a huge fan. He was one of several unruly kids being raised by a single mom and I think that gave him extra enjoyment watching the Fratellis smack each other around. But his favorite part by far was the litany of confessions blubbered out by Chunk after he’s captured, concluding with a disgusting tale of fake vomit leading to a mass puke-a-thon at a movie theater, and I can hear my dad’s low chuckle building as Chunk sobs out his story. Just reproducing the fake barf noise Chunk makes — HWUAGHH! HUAGHHHHH! — could made him laugh every time.
Movies we share create a shared language, jokes become in-jokes and shorthand. And things around and outside of the content of movies are part of that vernacular too, from circumstance (“Remember when Miller rented Sin City to watch on Christmas?” has been a standard for years, to my dismay) to a goof on a formatting note. When I watch movies with my wife and that notice comes on, I make the same joke my dad did, I have for years now. The routine of it and the guarantee that it is stupid and annoying is its own satisfaction, I think that’s certainly part of why my dad told it and his many other bad jokes over and over. But they also created their own shared language and the people who couldn’t get away — the people he was closest too — learned that language and spoke it with him. I miss that — I miss him — so much, the only thing I can do now is watch the movies and say the words.