Mongolia, Mom, and the Multiplex

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Sometimes, I wonder if movies have messed everybody up. By “messed everybody up” I mean at least as much as my family and I.

Submitted: January 04, 2008

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Submitted: January 04, 2008



mongolia, mom, and the multiplex

Sometimes, I wonder if movies have messed everybody up. By “messed everybody up” I mean at least as much as my family and I. The thought occurred to me the other evening, while I was watching The Story Of the Weeping Camel.
But nonetheless, the eponymous Weeping Camel didn’t catch my attention as much as the two children in the movie did. They had two names that were somewhere in that foreign void between unpronounceable and That Sounds Like A Dirty Word In English. They were adorable. The boy of about ten was strong-willed, mature, and kind. His younger brother was giddy, even joyous in a life he spent in the Mongolian wasteland. I found the tale of these simple nomads fascinating, and not because of their lack of technology, their primitive ways, or their seeming defiance that the 21st century was going on in the rest of the world.
What struck me was how these two brothers acted. Or rather, didn’t.
They didn’t act like anything. They spoke when they needed to. They played when they were bored, they cried when they were sad, and they slept when they were tired. They never owned a television set nor spent their Saturdays at the multiplex. They didn’t grow up with MTV or VH1 or CBS or HBO or any other three-letter acronyms.
So I wondered: where would my friends, my family, and myself be without our entertainment-charged upbringing? What would we say to each other? How would we know what was witty or cool?
My parents are big into movies, my mother more so than my father. He claims he “can’t sit still through the whole damn two hours”, but let the record show: he opted for my younger brother’s name to be “Michael” after Pacino’s character in The Godfather. Not Saint Michael as my mom would tell you, a lie I believe she has actually convinced herself of, still to this day. Hell, I was supported in my choice of the conformation name “Santino” (Sonny, played by James Caan), just because I wanted to play along. My given name, however, was chosen in reverence after a character in Gidget. So, from the bat, I was fucked.
Sometimes, entire conversations can be had at our dinner table on major holidays (federal and/or religious) composed entirely of obscure movie quotes. Usually, there is no sense to the conversation beyond the underlying game of one-up-manship, a spot of “Yeah, I just quoted that little gem, and you’re surprised that you even know it, that’s how good it is” and so on.
Example: Thanksgiving. Pick any year.
Dad, from the kitchen, calling us to eat: “Soup’s on!”
Michael: “I thought this was shish-ka-bob.” (Edward Scissorhands.)
Nice one. My brother has pulled out an obscure line, one of Johnny Depp’s only ones in the movie, and from the forgettable barbeque scene, nonetheless. I catch the reference and counter it as we sit to eat.
Me: “Nice ham this year, mom.” (Annie Hall.)
That was good, since we’re not even having ham. I’m alluding to the family dinner scene in one of our family favorite movies. Michael decides to counter with something complex. He stays with the filmmaker, Woody Allen, branches to an earlier work, and alters the quote to reflect the upcoming dinner.
Michael: “Is there anything in the stuffing I should know about, like something with the body of a crab and the head of a social worker?”
Bizarre, but it works. He’s replaced “future” with “stuffing” and we know he’s referencing Sleeper. It gets some light laughter.
My father places the freshly carved turkey on the dining room table, uttering a simple “Ta-tonka.” (Dances With Wolves.)
Yes, it’s a lame Kevin Costner movie, but he scores points for alluding that our turkey feast is somehow related to the Sioux Indian buffalo hunt.
There’s a knock at the door. My sister, Joanne, is joining us for dinner, just in time. Mom’s always good for a Moonstruck quote or two, and she throws one of the hundreds in her arsenal out to welcome Joanne.
After some uncomfortable hugs and hellos during which we have to be ourselves, we settle back into character. My father serves us each a bit of the beautiful bird, and when he finishes, he sits down and says, “A perfect wine, every time.” He always says that when a meal is ready. I still don’t know what that one’s from but it has to be from something.
Michael makes a “Yum” growl while he’s eating, and I see an opportunity to lurch into Young Frankenstein.
“I’m not partial to desserts myself, but this kirsch-torte is delicious,” I say.
“What’s that, now?” he asks, immediately becoming Marty Feldman’s Igor character.
“Well, you just made a yummy sound,” I say.
Dad jumps about an hour ahead in the movie, his favorite line from the Gene Hackman cameo: “Cigars!”
And we laugh again.
I can’t tell you where my sister works right now or whether she has a bachelor’s or master’s degree (and what they would be in.) I can’t tell you what grade of high school my brother is in, the name of his girlfriend, or his three closest friends. I forget my mom’s birthday and my parents’ wedding anniversary almost every year. I don’t know the full story of how my parents met or what they were like when they were younger.
But I do know the following:
If you’re going to be doing one-on-one quoting with Michael, you can have fun with most 80’s films (cheesy horror stuff like Nightmare On Elm Street is a bonus), Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, and almost any lame action movie you can think of. Joanne’s good for comedies; classic stuff all the way up to Anchorman. Dad’s a little bit all over the place: lots of Godfather, but you can also throw in stuff like It’s A Wonderful Life or Dog Day Afternoon or Airplane. Mom’s probably your all-around best bet, from Doctor Zhivago to Dude, Where’s My Car?
It spreads beyond dinner, however. I hope you realize this. All of this encroaches on our relationships with Outside People.
My sister has recently been dating quite a remarkable guy. He's a man who’s kind and trustworthy, a man who loves and respects her, a man whose Pez dispenser collection doesn’t bother me, for some reason. What more could you ask for?
Well, this motherfucker’s never seen The Terminator, okay? His lack of movie knowledge is almost criminal in our home. You’ve never seen The Right Stuff? (Petty larceny.) You’ve never seen The Abyss? (Fraud.) You’ve never seen Raising Arizona? (Vehicular Manslaughter.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? (Has a dungeon in his house where he keeps little boys and sexually tortures them.) Goodfellas? (You personally crucified our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, didn’t you, you son of a bitch?)
It’s gotten to the point that whenever he and my sister visit Mom and Dad, he is forced to leave with a big plastic bag full of videos and DVD’s from my parents’ massive collection, stuff that he missed the references on throughout the evening he was there.
My mom will actually quiz him when the films are returned. It doesn’t matter that he’s planning for he and my sister’s future. When will he be planning, we ask, to see the director’s cut of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil?
It’s sad really. He’s a nice guy.
It spreads beyond this, you know.
This shit has burrowed deep inside my mind.
When I wake in the morning, and it’s a beautiful day, and I’m getting ready to go out and enjoy it, I hear, actually hear the same music that Ferris Bueller was listening to as he was getting ready for his day off. (Sadly, I know the name of the song is “Love Missile f1-11” by the new-wave group Sigue-Sigue Sputnik- in case you were wondering.)
If I flip through the Ikea catalog whilst sitting on the toilet, I picture Tyler Durden standing behind me, telling me what a worthless little wimp I am, asking me how much I could really know about myself if I’ve never been in a fight.
Every time the subway jostles, I imagine a nuclear exchange has just taken place above me, and when I get out at Union Square, I will not see the farmer’s market, but the landscape of Mad Max, or even better, Escape From New York.
Anytime I get into an elevator by myself, I get the sensation- for just the briefest, possible moment- to rip the ceiling out and play around in the elevator shaft. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen Die Hard about a hundred times. I don’t know.
These flights of fancy, or delusions, or whatever you’d call them, these are not problems that our camel-keepers must deal with back in Mongolia. However, The Story Of the Weeping Camel ends with the younger boy finally getting a wish he made known throughout the course of the movie: a satellite television, a gift from the filmmakers.This, to me, is quite sadder than any camel doing any amount of weeping it can possibly do. I wonder, little boy with a funny name, what could your brain have come up with on its own?
If the filmmakers went back to Mongolia a few months from now, to check in with your nomadic family, what would you have become? Unfortunately, all I can picture is this scene:
You are upset that there are chores to be done and the television sits silent, black, and blank, waiting for you. You pull the flap back from your hut, a bucket of feed swinging low in your right hand. It is time to feed the camels. Your grandmother looks on while she does some sort of grandmotherly chore.
As you approach the camel to feed it, like you will do today and many days after it, you suddenly put on your best Napoleon Dynamite voice in an English you barely understand, and cry out to the stupid beast: “Tina, come get some ham!”
Later, when you begin the long, dusty ride with your brother into town for supplies, you call out to your family, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
But- maybe that’s not so bad.
Maybe your family smiles at you because they get it, and you smile back. Maybe those are some smiles that otherwise might not have been.
And thousands of miles away from you, little camel jockey, I’m thinking maybe it’s okay to let Mel Brooks speak for us when we’re lost on what to say. Maybe it’s better to be more frightened of Jason Voorhees than The Terrorists. And maybe the best moments with my family have been in silence, while we sat and shared emotions that emanated from that flickering box or that giant screen in front of us.
Maybe it’s not so bad that my girl thinks it’s cute when she says, “I love you”, and I reply with, “And I you,” in my best Scottish accent.
That’s from Braveheart, by the way.

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