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Dad and Me and Netflix

I stopped making fun of my dad’s trouble with technology and started embracing it. Here’s what happened

Not long after I started managing my dad’s Netflix queue, I was getting obsessive about the email notices the company would send me whenever they mailed a DVD out to him, or received one he’d returned.

Since the next movie couldn’t go out until he returned the last one, I hoped he would send them back quickly after watching them, so we could keep them coming. We live three hours apart, so I couldn’t do much to make sure he mailed them off, but I needn’t have worried—this is my dad we’re talking about. I think he was even driving them to the post office the day after he watched them to make sure they got back right away. At nearly 80 years old, the man has never been late in his life, and it was turning out to be no different with this Netflix experiment we had embarked upon.

Until one day, when I suddenly realized I hadn’t gotten an email notice in almost a week. We were on an Expendables kick, so I had moved Expendables 2 to the top of his queue. According to my Netflix emails, it had gone out to him, but hadn’t been received back after several days.

I called him up. “Dad,” I said. “Did you watch Expendables 2 yet?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I just put it in the mail today.”

“Finally! Did you like it?”

“Oh, it was terrible,” he said, with a groan. “No story at all. The whole movie was just shoot-em-up, blow-em-up—blow everything up. They got this big all-star cast, and none of them even got to do anything!”

“Really?” I asked, mystified. “Then why’d it take you so long to get it back in the mail?”

“Well,” he said, “it was so bad, I had to watch it twice.”

 

INTO THE QUEUE

That right there is why I love talking to my dad about movies. I always have, ever since I was a teenager and actually felt like I was starting to know enough about movie culture to discover some good films, especially older ones. I’d watch, say, Double Indemnity, and when I’d tell him about it, he’d say, “Oh yeah, with Fred MacMurray. You know, until then he was known for being the goofy dad on My Three Sons.” Wait, the guy I just saw plot a cold-blooded insurance-scam murder in a hardboiled film noir? Mind blown.

Dad has always been unpretentious about it—to this day, he claims he doesn’t even know much about movies, but I know I got my love of them from him. He took me to the original Star Wars when I was five, and to Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was 9. (Yikes, dad, there were melting Nazis in that!) Once we got a VCR in the early ’80s, he and I and my mom and sis would watch everything from old Abbott and Costello movies to Star Trek flicks to The French Connection. We about wore through a dubbed video from one of his friends that had The Natural on it. It also had—tagged on to the end—Bob Clark’s rare early film Deathdream, which began my lifelong love affair with cult movies.

There is also a strange thread of movie culture that runs through our family history. His mom and dad met while working as ushers in a movie theater during the Depression—movies being the rare industry that thrived in that era, as people flocked to them to take their minds off their troubles. And, for reasons that even my dad isn’t sure about, we have a ring given to his father on the occasion of my dad’s birth by none other than legendary Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner.

So movies are in my family, in a way, and when I got a job running a national movie magazine in L.A., my dad used to go to the Texaco gas station where he lives in Paso Robles to buy every new issue, even though he knew I was going to give him a copy for free. To this day, that’s the thing that means the most to me about that gig.

Movies came to mean something different though, after my mom died three years ago. After almost 50 years of marriage, he was devastated. He’s a very social person with a lot of friends,  and memberships in at least three car clubs. But he confided to me that it was the nights—when he’d come home to an empty house after doing all his social things—that were the hardest.

About a year after mom’s death, I got an idea. What if on some of those nights, he had a movie waiting for him to watch, and he wouldn’t necessarily even know what it was going to be? He hadn’t rented a movie in years, and was mostly just watching the same DVDs and VHS tapes in his collection over and over, which I knew couldn’t be helping all that much.

Meanwhile, I was a big Netflix user, and I thought he’d enjoy it, too. Streaming was out of the question—the guy barely trusts his computer enough to get on it for email—and even with the DVD service, I had a feeling if I just signed him up and expected him to go hunt around to find movies to put in his queue, he wouldn’t. So I told him that for Christmas I was getting him a Netflix subscription, and I’d manage his queue—with his input, of course.

Now, like a lot of Internet-era sons, I have always enjoyed razzing my father about his flat-out rejection of technological advancement, and the lengths to which he takes his unwillingness to upgrade. This is a man who kept his VCR running by replacing the broken drive belt with a rubber hair tie. That ancient tape machine and his Sony DVD player are hooked up to his current TV—and I use the term “current” loosely, as he bought it in the early ’80s. How it’s even able to communicate with a DVD player in the first place, I have no idea. And yet, as with all the appliances he somehow manages to make last for 30 to 40 years, he’s not entirely convinced he’s gotten his money out of it. Did I mention he was born at the tail end of the Great Depression?

But this time, I completely changed my attitude. Rather than fight his tech resistance, I resolved to help him through it. The queue became a mix of movies I dropped in because I thought he might like them and things he mentioned he’d like to see. We’d talk about the great racing movies, and then I’d put them all in the queue. He’d tell me his favorite baseball movies, all the way back to 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees (and damn, does he know baseball movies), and into the queue they’d go. I’d send him current stuff I hadn’t even seen, and he’d tell me if it was good. My favorite part was—and still is—talking to him about each movie after he’s watched it.

Last December, he told me, “Hey, for Christmas this year, just do that Netflix thing again, if you don’t mind.” Mind? It’s like my favorite thing.

 

A LOOK BACK

Before I write this article, we sit down at his dining room table and talk for an hour and a half about what this whole experiment has been like for both of us. I tell him that even though we’ve always been close, this has been a bonding experience I didn’t expect. He tells me that before we started this, he had no idea what it’d be like at all, and that there have been plenty of times he’s opened that red envelope and wondered what the heck I just sent him, and why. Some turned out to be great, others not so much. (Here are my dad’s top three complaints about movies, in order: 1. “It was so slow”; 2. “It was slow”; 3. “It just was kind of slow.”) There have even been a few that were so bad, he had to watch them twice.

And of course we talk about mom, and I’m constantly reminded how much he still loves her and misses her, just like I do. It’s a hole in his life I can never fill, no matter how much I wish I could. My dad’s always a step ahead of me, though, like when the subject of her favorite movies comes up.

“Your mother liked that Richard Dreyfuss movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. She would watch it over and over,” he says. “I haven’t played it since she died.”

“Oh jeez, yeah, I understand,” I say. “Like it’s too emotional to watch it because it reminds you so much of her.”

He looks down at the table, with a long sigh. “No, I never cared that much for the movie.”

Slowly, a smile breaks through the deadpan, and then a sly laugh. He got me again, for about the millionth time. Just for that, dad, I’m putting a certain heartwarming movie about a music teacher bonding with his high-school students into your queue right now.

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