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Context is Everything
February 1, 2007 — 3:15 pm

Most days, I work at the newspaper from mid-afternoon to around midnight, then come home and work on web stuff through the night. I’ll either listen to music or watch TV while gettin’ it all done — and when I’m working on stuff that requires a fair amount of concentration I usually stick to the familiar, so I don’t feel obliged to divert attention from the task at hand.

Late last night, while flipping through the cable channels, I stumbled across Slums of Beverly Hills, which I hadn’t seen in a long time, so I left it on while clacking away at my laptop keyboard. Later, I heard the door to my dad’s bedroom open, just down a short hallway off of the living room — a late-night bathroom trip. During the five seconds or so it took for him to travel from his bedroom to the bathroom, this was the featured TV dialogue:

Natasha Lyonne yells at David Krumholtz:
“I don’t talk about your morning boner, so don’t talk about my tits!”

A few nights ago, sorta the same thing happened. I don’t recall the movie, but it was something with perhaps one brief (tame) sex scene in the entire film — and my dad walked from his bedroom to the bathroom exactly during the three or four seconds of loud orgasmic climax, missing the rest of the aurally unobjectionable content.

This hasn’t come up in discussion. I’m not sure what my dad thinks I’m watching out here, or if he heard it clearly at all. Presumably he knows that context makes a big difference. But there’ve been a couple other times where a moment isolated from the rest of a film has led to misunderstanding.

A couple years ago, I was watching The Triplets of Belleville with my sister, and her husband walked into the room at the precise moment during the opening musical sequence when Josephine Baker spent maybe 10 or 15 seconds dancing topless in an vaudeville caricature, which also included guys like Fred Astaire and Django Reinhardt. There wasn’t a conflict per se, but my brother-in-law seemed astonished. Stopped short, mouth dropped open, “What are you watching?” We assured him this scene was unrepresentative of the rest of the film, and he stuck around to watch some more.

But it can be difficult to assure someone that it was a complete coincidence they walked in at an unrepresentative moment, if that moment is all they’ve seen. Once at a family reunion in the mid-1990s, several members of the extended family were hanging around in my grandma’s living room, watching Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Pretty tame films, right? They’re both rated PG in the United States. But in the second film, there’s a scene toward the beginning in which the main character, a beautiful young shepherdess played by Emmanuelle Béart, takes a shower outdoors. Underneath a small waterfall, or something. We’re meant to understand the lust of the characters watching her surreptitiously without wallowing in the view ourselves. The scene is brief, and there’s nothing else like it in the film. But that’s exactly when my uncle walked into the room — even more astonished than my brother-in-law later was by an animated Josephine Baker.

This led to an extended argument, and he threatened to leave the reunion and take his family with him (the kids were playing elsewhere in the house) unless we turned off the film, and didn’t turn it on again. He refused to heed our assurances that this scene was a complete anomaly in an otherwise tame family film. In fact, this argument may have been the touchstone for a years-long estrangement between two of my uncles, although other stuff certainly contributed to that. But we agreed to turn it off, and we (mostly) reconciled. But I suspect to this day, on some level, he thinks he caught us watching a naughty movie about naked girls showering outdoors. Context is everything.

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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