Friday, November 28, 2014

The last time I saw "The Seventh Seal"


     "Let's watch a movie!" my older son, fresh from college, said brightly, as soon as we had polished off our Welcome Home pizza. If life were a TV sitcom we'd all groan and exchange glances.  But really it was more of a collective flinch. Ross has many wonderful qualities, but his effect upon the family movie-watching dynamic is not one of them. He wants films that are challenging, disturbing, edgy. It's always, "Let's watch 'Lost in Translation' for the fifth time," or some art film with Bjork. In the three months he was away at school, the Steinbergs happily reverted to watching old films we like, or seeing new movies that seem entertaining. Now, for the duration of winter break, that is over, and we are back to obscure Italian comedies. I believe the boy takes as much pleasure in our squirming as he does in whatever movie he supposedly wants to see.
     We ended up not watching a movie of any kind (we did, just as in the column below, play chess, only it was Blitz, with me getting six minutes on my clock and him getting two. He beat me every time). I was reminded that, with my older boy, it is now as it twas always, as this column from a dozen years ago is evidence.

    There are 8 billion people on Earth, so I hesitate to call any human scenario unique. But as I stood in my 7-year-old's bedroom one morning this week, reading to him from the Book of Revelation, it occurred to me that he is probably the only Jewish first-grader to be absorbing Christian end-of-the-world theology before his Rice Krispies.
     Furthermore, the terrifying thought struck me, standing there, open Bible in hand, reading about the Beast and the Lamb and the wasps with human faces, that this is how people lose their kids to the Department of Children and Family Services. One wrong comment in school—"Can I have a red crayon for my sea of blood?"—and there's a white van in the driveway and our boys are being hustled into foster care.
     All my fault. I admit it. I'm a bad dad. One morning, two weeks ago, I was playing chess with the 7-year-old. He was taking a long time to move. I am also a blowsy kind of guy who feels compelled to fill silences. So, vis-a-vis nothing, I raised my hand, waggled my fingers, and said, "This is my hand, I can move it, feel the blood running through it. The sun is high in the sky, and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with death."
     Which is more or less what Max von Sydow, the knight, says in "The Seventh Seal."
     You'd think this isn't the sort of thing that would catch a first-grader's attention. But that's the crafty thing about kids—you never know what is going to click. My son snapped out of his what-move-next? reverie and asked about what I had said. I told him about the movie.
     Everything else faded away. He whined, morning, noon and night, to see "The Seventh Seal." I, of course, resisted. "It's not for little boys," I said. "It's about death, plague." His eyes glittered, hungrily. "Besides," I said, groping. "It's in Swedish. I'd have to read you the subtitles."
     This went on for days. To my credit, I held my ground. Until last Saturday morning. We're in the Northbrook Public Library, getting movies to watch over the weekend. I tell the boys to pick one movie each. They run off. My 5-year-old returns with some cutesy cartoon thing. And my older boy—you see this coming, don't you? I didn't—returns with "The Seventh Seal."
      There was a slogan during World War II: "Is this trip necessary?" used to encourage people to avoid needless travel. I have adopted it as a maxim of parenthood, and I trot it out when I find myself going over the same ground again and again. With all the exploding heads and fountains of blood that pass for entertainment, is 90 minutes of dark Ingmar Bergman imagery really going to damage my boys? I hadn't seen the movie in years, but remembered pretty well the scenes that might disturb him. The corpse of the plague victim. Grim allegories of cruelty and suffering.
     And, of course, old Mr. Death. I was about to put the movie back, when I saw that it was dubbed into English. I weakened. At least I wouldn't have to read the subtitles. I rented it. He was happier than when I took him to the circus.
     We all gathered on the couch the next night, with our snacks and our blankies, and followed Antonius Block and his more-or-less faithful squire on his journey home from the Crusades, through his famous chess match with the stern master, Death.
     I tried not to look at my wife, particularly when the penitents—dragging huge crosses, beating themselves, wailing—came onscreen. But when Block said he'd keep asking questions, even if he didn't get answers, we did exchange a look. Our oldest asks lots of questions.
     After, I asked each what they thought of the movie. "Good," said the 5-year-old. "Good," said the 7-year-old. "Very good," said my wife.
     I was pleased. I thought I had gotten off scot-free, but the oldest wanted to know where the seven seals were in the movie. He thought there'd be actual seals, the kind with flippers. I explained about how in olden times important letters were sealed by wax, and about how in the Christian Bible there is a story about the end of the world.
     The next morning, he ran into my office, hugged me, as always, but instead of asking for our chess game, he asked for "the story of the movie." I wasn't quite sure what he meant — at first I thought he wanted me to read from Roger Ebert's The Great Movies, since my wife and I had read the entry on "The Seventh Seal," afterward, as commentary. But no, he wanted the Book of Revelation.
     Tell me, what would you do? Say no? Make it a Big Deal? A Mystery? So I sighed and grabbed my New Testament — kept for reference not reverence — and started to read.
     Eventually, my wife came in and sat down on the bed. I was reading, "When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake, the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars fell to earth ... " Finally, I worked up the courage to look at her, and was greeted with that just-what-kind-of-idiot-are-you? look. Eventually, skipping ahead, I got the seals opened, and managed to close the book. Then the questions came. Did this friend believe it? And did that friend? And what did we believe? ("We believe," I said, making it up as I went along, "that the world will just go on and on.")
     A few days have passed. DCFS hasn't shown up, yet. I'm hoping the danger has passed. Next time we're playing chess and I feel like opening my big yap, I'm going to quote from "Scooby-Doo: The Movie."


  1. When I was that age, way back in the 1950s, I loved horror movies, the stranger, the better.
    But I have to say, your boys have really weird tastes in movies.

  2. Don't know if it can be seen around here, but your kids should enjoy "The Imitation Game," which opened in New York to good reviews. Benedict Cummerbach playing Alan Turing. Eveyone should know about Alan Turing. The biography by Andrew Hodges is well worth reading too, despite the higher mathamatics.

  3. We let our younger daughter watch The Shining when she was about 3 (well, we didn't kick her out of the family room)...something that she has brought up to us whenever we would uneasily venture that certain flicks might not be appropriate for her friends (not for her, of course!). Now that she has reached an age where she may stroll into any film she likes, she's recently brought us to see The Theory of Everything, and we're going to The Imitation Game when it opens in Chicago. Thomas Evans, I mentioned this to a 50-something friend and they asked, "who's Alan Turing?" Jeez.

    Neil, here's a movie I highly recommend for the whole family: Shadow of a Doubt. The first time I saw it years ago, I was concerned only with the bare plot, but when we saw it the other day, my reaction was "Holy Cri! That is a great movie." The general filmic composition, the story parallelisms, the peculiar features of certain shots, like...why is young Charlie's face in shadow when she talks to the detective in the garage? Why does she stand on a higher step at the end of the movie? Great static shots with people staring at their antagonists, or just casting super-long shadows. See it!

  4. I said it before and I'll say it again, that older son of yours is gifted, but don't let him get away with too much. ;)

  5. What a great kid! And, no, you were — are — a great Dad. Love when your wife gives you “that look.” And your last line about reading Scooby Doo next time, priceless!


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