the most unconventional education

gotta start em young

17 May 2024

It was May 15th, 2003. I was 7 and my dad, ever the portrait of parental judgement, brought me to a 9pm showing of Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowskis' second installment of its new R-rated cyberpunk trilogy. We shuffled up to the ticket counter, where a disenchanted teenager ripped our stubs and, in a tone drier than the Sahara, informed us, “Upstairs, Theater 12”. As if we didn’t already know. Theater 12 stood before us, its doors still firmly shut, and so we joined the lengthy queue that snaked its way from the wide doors and down the staircase. Like a pair of startled deer who’d meandered into the wrong thicket, there was my dad, who spoke barely any English, and me, the only kid in a sea of couples that looked like they had walked off the set of an early 2000s MTV show — goateed bros with tribal tattoos and their girlfriends, dressed in crop tops and low-rise jeans. Clouds of Drakkar Noir hung in the air as buddies caught up, talking over each other about how mind-blowing the first movie had been. The crowd swelled with anticipation, and the line behind us stretched further down the stairs and into the lobby.

Then, at the bewitching hour of 9pm, the doors parted and the crowd erupted into deafening cheers. The human stampede surged forward in a mad scramble to secure the best seats (it’s hard to imagine a time when seat reservations didn’t exist). I scurried along, taking wide and fast steps, determined not to be trampled by my lumbering elders.

Even at a young age, I grasped the significance of that moment. I understood that: one, this was a night of great importance for cinephiles everywhere. Two, I learned that other people shared my dad’s fervor for the silver screen. And three, as I became acutely self-conscious of being the only kid in a sea of twentysomethings on their way to see an R-rated scifi shoot-em-up movie, it dawned on me that just maybe, this said something about my dad who had brought me there.

This wasn’t my first age-inappropriate rodeo, mind you. My earliest movie theater memory dates back to when I was 5 and by that point, I had a decent grasp of the English language, including the F-word which had become deeply ingrained in my young mind as a bad word, thanks to my teachers at daycare. So when the F-bomb was repeatedly dropped during the stoner film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I knew in my still-developing heart that this was no place for a child. But my dad didn’t seem to care, so why should I? It’s not like I was gonna give up an opportunity to go to the movies, an oasis that sat on the same tier as McDonald’s in terms of bringing happiness to children. On another occasion, during a nude scene in some dreadful shark movie, my dad shielded my eyes with his hand — how thoughtful of him to preserve what little remained of my dwindling innocence.

I don’t blame my dad for being blissfully unaware of age ratings. He had immigrated to the States from a post-Soviet wasteland just a few years prior. Did they even have age ratings in Mongolia then?

But I do fault him for bringing me to the movies under other wholly inappropriate circumstances that, in hindsight, should’ve been common sense. By the time the Matrix Reloaded credits rolled, it was nearly midnight, which meant that I would only get a mere 6 hours of sleep before I had to get ready for school the next day. My dad repeated this transgression a few months later when the final installment of the trilogy was released, and naturally, my dad had to see it on opening night. Again, I had school the next day. This time, though, the situation was much worse because I had a raging fever and at some point during the movie, an unpleasant, sour taste gradually pooled in my mouth. Moments later, I found myself hunched over an AMC toilet seat, vomit in my hair.

Despite my dad’s juvenile pursuit of personal pleasures, I thank him for planting in me a love for films. When we weren’t in a large, dark room with a bunch of strangers comforted by the aroma of buttery popcorn, we perused through the aisles at Blockbusters and eagerly tapped the screen at the local Redbox kiosk. Every Friday night, without fail, we would stock up on DVDs for the week — my dad had his set of movies, and I had mine. I would replay my DVDs incessantly, convinced that each repeat viewing would unveil some profound insight previously missed. To the casual observer, movies were simply movies — mind-dumbing diversions to be watched once and then discarded. But not for me. I’d fixate on the miniscule details, from the subtle facial expression of a background character to the symbolic meaning of the gardner’s teal-blue shirt from that one scene — they were secret messages for me to decipher.

You know how, as kids, the adults would warn us about the brain-rotting effects of television? Well I never really believed that rule applied to me. In fact, movies were an integral part of my upbringing. With a dad who spoke limited English (and me losing the Mongolian language over time), the cinema became my instructor on art, culture, passion, and meaning.

In recent years, my dad and I grew apart, our communication dwindling down to one or two phone calls a year. But whenever I come back home to Denver, a visit to an AMC theater is always on the agenda. Despite us speaking different languages and having distinct perspectives on life in the US — with him being an immigrant, and me, American in so many ways — the only thing that really brings us together is our shared love for film. Looking back, I realized that maybe, my dad’s seemingly reckless disregard for age ratings was a testament to his unwavering belief in the power of cinema. Maybe, he saw it as more than just entertainment; it was an avenue for connection and a way to bridge the growing cultural gap between us. Or maybe he simply couldn’t find a babysitter at the last minute. But either way, whether intentionally or not, my dad indirectly instilled in me a profound passion and the most unconventional education.

© 2024 Uka Battulga