By: Joe Lofranco
I walked out of the 7-11, an ice cold can of Pepsi in hand, and was almost run over by a mob of 8-year-olds. They pushed by me and streamed into the convenience store, their eyes alight with an all-consuming lust. What was it for? Cherry Bombs? Swedish Berries? Maybe it was Pixie Stix. It could have been any of the childhood treasures that can be procured for a simple penny. I turned and watched through the window and grew nostalgic. My reveries were interrupted before they could begin however, as I saw the swarm surround the DVD rack, a decidedly un-nostalgic apparatus.
They pulled one of the movies from the rack and stared at it. I couldn’t quite see the title, but it didn’t matter. I caught a brief glimpse of a muscled, camouflage-covered celebrity on the box and I knew what obsession had taken hold of their souls; it’s easy for a junkie to recognize those who share his burden. The waves of nostalgia started flooding back.
Eight is an odd age. Still firmly entrenched in kid-dom, and yet starting to skirt the borders of adolescence. My initial thoughts had been wrong, it wasn’t candy they were after, it was action.
The movie most likely involved an ex-military man, or maybe a dishonored cop. A lone wolf who played by his own rules. The film also included many, if not all, of the following: Helicopters, The Jungle, Missiles, Seedy Cocaine Dealers, an Interstellar Enemy, a Time Bomb, a General/Admiral/Sergeant, a Car Chase/Explosion, The Desert, Mud, Evil Robots/Cyborgs, a Rogue Paramilitary Organization run by the Lone Wolf’s ex-partner who wears an eye patch. These are the ingredients that make up the finest of all of Hollywood’s many genres: the action flick. They range in quality and caliber and sometimes it’s not easy to pick out the good from the bad based on cover art alone. But it gets inside you. Every boy loves them, and every man needs them.
I thought back to when I was 8 years old and how we used to determine the value of an action film. The MPAA, in an attempt to protect our innocent minds, had devised a convenient ratings system for parents to use. It was also a convenient way for us to decide which films would be good and which would be terrible. The higher up it goes, the better the film will be. As an 8 year old, this was not a guideline or suggestion; it was law. Action movies were our religion. And our Holy Grail was rated R. My mind drifted back…
“Hey Guys! Guys!” Laurent Lazard scurried up to us as we sat around the old baseball diamond chucking rocks at stuff. “You guys wanna come to my birthday party Saturday?” he asked, digging the toe of his white Reebok Pump sneaker into the dirt. We were by no means the cool guys in school, but we were certainly a cut above Laurent Lazard. At (almost) 8 years old, Laurent had still to lose his baby fat and, on top of that, his recent involvement in the “Gifted” program, as well as his advanced reading level, had led to some animosity. “Naw…” replied JP, officially the Coolest Guy in our group because of his recent acquisition of the GI Joe Cobra Command Center. Coolest Guy was a rank that changed weekly, based on a variety of ever-evolving criteria. Schoolyard politics were reminiscent of many African nations in the 60s and 70s. There was a coup every other week, with a new leader taking charge and steering his people in whatever direction he desired until his successor supplanted him. The coups were bloodless, usually coming about as the result of the usurper’s newfound Coolness, perhaps the result of a new Transformers toy, or maybe mouthing off in class. With each new despot, daily life changed little. Maybe Frozen Tag would become the new game-du-jour rather than Rock Tag or Foot-Hockey rather than handball, but ultimately things remained the same.
“Well, there’ll be cake and pizza and pop and loot bags and we’re gonna rent some movies…” Laurent had upped the ante. “What movies?” I asked. The VCR was a relatively new invention and had yet to penetrate into every household. Its ubiquitousness still years away, the ability to ‘rent’ movies was as intriguing as the movies themselves. This was a shrewd move by Lazard, a man who’d had, to this point, no real involvement in politics. To have a movie at his birthday party would vault him to the top of the popular heap, and if it was a good film, his position would be secure for at least a few weeks. As of now, however, he was still viciously uncool and to be seen at his birthday could be potential political suicide for the rest of us.
“What movie? Umm… probably Predator,” Laurent replied. Our jaws dropped as we all turned our eyes towards the birthday boy in an attempt to glean some further information from his face. Was it true? An R-Rated movie? No. It could only be a ploy to lure us in. He had said ‘Probably’ meaning it was anything but definite. “Shut up!” was the most anyone could muster in our disbelief. “No. Really,” he replied, “My mom and dad are gonna rent it.”
I’ve never been a gambling man, and it would be years before a man named Pascal and his Wager would enter into my own personal lexicon, but at this moment the odds became blatantly obvious and I knew that to not accept the invitation would be ludicrous. If there were R rated movies and I wasn’t at this party, I would be missing what could potentially be one of the most important moments in Grade School History. If there were no movies, then the worst that happens is I get to eat pizza, ice cream, and birthday cake. AND I get a loot bag to boot.
“Sure I’ll come!” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I had not conferred with the rest of the group. I was operating on pure instinct. The others turned to me, but there was a glazed look in their eyes. They too had regressed to that primal stage, that place just before Human and just after Animal. We were all beginning to froth at the mouth at the prospect of reaching the highest of heights, of finally finding the Holiest of Holies.
To an adult an R film may have garnered such a rating for a variety of reason: scenes of sexuality, violence, or drug use. To a child, however, there is only on type of R: Scenes of Violence – Not Suitable for Young Children. That was it. In the early 80s films by Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Van Damme led to intense academic debates during recess. Round tables were convened and points were made and refuted, all in a futile attempt to determine 1) Who was the greatest action star? and 2) Which was the greatest action movie? The irony was that the debaters had not yet seen most of the films being debated, since they were rated R. They were operating solely on the basis of Movie-Poster-Coolness. On occasion a key-note speaker may be brought in from grade 6 or 7, usually someone’s older brother, which invariably led to a certain degree of smugness and, indeed, credibility, for the younger sibling.
The others all nodded or mumbled their acceptance of Laurent’s invitation. Laurent turned and ran away happily, leaving us to contemplate the events that had just transpired. No one said anything for quite some time. Finally Kowalchuk uttered the words we were all thinking: “Arnie’s the greatest action hero ever. My brother says that Predator beats Bloodsport hands down.” Nobody contradicted him. At this moment, there was no debate.
The week leading up to Laurent’s birthday party was the longest of our young lives. The schoolyard was rife with groups of 3 or 4 kids, sitting and talking about Predator, each kid trying to prove to the others that he knew more about it than they did. There was a tension running through the classroom when we sat and listened to Ms. Szkurhan’s feeble attempts to impart the basic laws of multiplication on us. We were restless, she knew, and yet for once she had no idea why. Over the last week, the only significant change she could see was the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Crayola-made likeness in all the boys’ notebooks, and the word “Predator” in stylized pencil crayon. But this was just a shift from last week’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. A quick check with her coworkers in the teacher’s lounge confirmed that the word in the schoolyard was standard. There was an unusual emphasis on action movies, but nothing that would lead to the palpable feelings of potential unrest that hung over her classroom like a thundercloud. No fighting, no girls, no big tests coming up. It was all a mystery.
The particular reason for our general anxiety lay in the fact that every boy in the class knew that there remained a great obstacle in between all of us and Predator. The first, the most obvious, the Big Kahuna, the constant: our parents. If anyone’s mother or father got wind of what was about to go down, the jig would be up! All it took was one overexcited party goer or one jealous kid brother looking for revenge after for all those stolen Gummy Bears, to let our secret slip!
A greater danger lay with Laurent’s parents themselves. Maybe they were crazy and didn’t get that little kids shouldn’t watch these movies! Maybe they would casually mention it to our mothers when they called to RSVP! What would we do then? Nothing. All we could do was sit and wait, trembling and sweating with fear that this great gift would suddenly be torn from our grasp. We would mourn it the way a mother would mourn her lost child.
After breakfast on the day of the party, my mother grabbed me by my collar as I was about to retreat to the TV room to begin my meditation on the great works of Mel Blanc and the Warner Bros. “Go put your shoes on,” she commanded. “But Bugs Bunny’s on!!” I retorted and, assuming she would have been awed by my flawless logic, turned to continue on my way to the TV room. She grabbed me again and yanked. “Get ’em on now,” she said. Excellent counter. Well, as a gentleman I knew when I had been beaten, so I decided to bow out of the argument gracefully: I started to cry. “Quiet! We’ve got to get your friend a birthday present don’t we?” She continued to reprimand me as she tried to slip my shoes on my feet, but all her words now fell on deaf ears. I was going to the party! That meant that my mother had spoken to Laurent’s mother! She had gotten the directions, the time, all the details… and Laurent’s mother hadn’t spilled the beans! A smile crept over my face as my mother stuffed me into my winter coat, pulled my itchy toque over my head and tied my shoes. I was in a daze. I was going to see Predator! But wait. I had yet to outsmart my mother. Despite my many attempts, in 8 years, she still held a flawless record. Perhaps this was some type of subterfuge. How had something like this gotten by her? She always did her Due Diligence. I decided that I wouldn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. In the end, the reason meant little to me; I was going to be attending the greatest birthday party ever!
Attending a birthday party is the highlight of any young child’s month. All the things that you aren’t normally allowed are now present in abundance. Caffeine and sugar-filled soda, toxic-orange-dye-containing Cheesies, it was like being on Big Rock Candy Mountain, without the whole Hobo aspect. Laurent’s party was no different than any other I’d attended. His parents had done a wonderful job of providing for the kids. By the time my Father and I arrived, Mr. & Mrs. Lazard were already a mess, icing on their clothes, hair all askew. They welcomed me into their home with sheepish smiles and I could hear my father chuckling to himself as he returned to the car, “Suckers.” My memory is vague as far as the actual party goes, and to be honest, the gritty details are rather inconsequential. By the time Laurent was opening his presents, the whole party had become silent. There was polite, scattered clapping, but really all we could think of was Arnie. Laurent’s parents herded us into the living room with ease. We all sat down, our mouths salivating at what was about to come. “Now, we have two movies to choose from tonight, so we’ll put it to a little vote.” Two movies? What the hell was going on here?! “ We’ve got a movie called Alien, and another called Predator.” Two R rated movies!? Laurent had, in one fell swoop, eliminated any political opponents he may have had on the playground. It was a brilliant move and an excellent example of the “Outside-the-Box” thinking that our school’s Gifted program so strongly endorsed.
The vote was over before it began. Predator had acquired a mythical status in our minds and Arnie had been deified over the last week. Who in their right mind is going to give up the chance to see a god in action?
As an adult I still fall into the trap of building movies up to a point that I’m utterly disappointed once I’ve actually seen them. I suppose it’s a testament to my imagination that my mind always comes up with a way cooler movie than the filmmakers do. Or maybe they’re just not making action-flicks like they did in the 80s. Predator was as close to Nirvana as I have ever been. All the daydreaming, the debates, the anticipation, everything came to a perfect resolution. I experienced none of the terrors that my parents had assured me would come with witnessing an R Rated movie. I didn’t pee my pants from fright, no nightmares followed, my marks didn’t drop in the ensuing weeks, and I didn’t turn into a violent homicidal maniac. It was amazing. And I left that party the happiest almost-8 year-old in the world…
“Sorry mister!” The little brat hit me with the door as he ran out of the store. I turned and watched him and his friends speed down the street in search of their next adventure. Maybe Cherry Bombs, maybe Pixie Stix. I took a sip of my Pepsi and stepped back into the 7-11, hoping that there may be a copy of Predator on that DVD rack.