And Awaaay We Go
Sometimes, the past can take the sting out of the present, no matter how trivial the source. On Saturday, my long-awaited DVD box set, "SNL: The Complete First Season" arrived, much to the wife's chagrin, as she doesn't share my enthusiasm for the old show. Still, she watched a few bits with me and wasn't completely put off, but it was my son who expressed the most interest, asking me if he could sit in on one of my viewings. I explained to him that some of the references were over 30 years old, and that he wouldn't understand them all; but once again I learned that comedy has its own language, regardless of age.
We watched the Desi Arnaz episode, one of the more solid shows of that first season, and the boy really got into it. There was enough strangeness, absurdity and slapstick to appeal to him, and I was mildly shocked that he laughed at some of Chevy's Weekend Update jokes, repeating them to himself and laughing some more. Then we watched the first Elliott Gould show, and again, the boy got a lot of the humor, especially the Killer Bees sketch that broke the fourth wall, which he loved.
"I like how you can see the studio and all the cameras," he said, as a younger Lorne Michaels strode to the control room to confront the drunk director, Dave Wilson, whose cameras were off-kilter. "It's like everything is part of the show."
I smiled and thought of how "SNL" first grabbed me. Of course, that was in real time, and I was a few years older. But watching these original shows reminds me of how pure that first season was -- not perfect, not always funny, but you can really see the effort the cast and writers put into it, as if they had nothing to lose. The pace was slower, but the comedy was deeper, much deeper than it is now, or really in any other period of the show's history (some exceptions exist, of course). The political humor of that time was far sharper than now, with jokes about CIA secret wars in Africa and US alliances with openly fascist figures like Spain's Franco. Tina Fey has said that she would be afraid to work on the original "SNL"; and judging from her work on the show, I can see why.
The holidays turn our home into a screening room, since all of us are film fanatics of one stripe or another. And New Year's Eve is always the strangest and usually the funniest night, as we watch as many extremely awful movies we can before collapsing. This year, the wife bought a mega-DVD set of drive-in movies from the 50s through the 80s. Instead of scrounging through the local video store's backlog, looking for that one Loni Anderson drama that might put us over the top, we now own 50, count 'em, FIFTY, truly shitty efforts. And thanks to the thorough synopsis that's provided for each movie, we know going in what to expect -- well, we have a general idea, anyway. Because with some of these films, the synopsis serves as a teaser. Images and lines that you thought you'd never see or hear, or indeed, never imagined at all, hit you from nowhere, catching you off-guard. That's what great about bad cinema: the unexpected pleasures.
This year proved to be a bumper crop. The first film, "The Manipulator", stars a bearded, long-haired Mickey Rooney, who plays an odd ringmaster of sorts, but allow me to quote directly from the DVD sleeve itself, since I cannot match this precise plot description:
"A has-been movie make-up man (Rooney) has gone over the edge by kidnapping an actress and hiding her on the back lot sound stage of an old movie studio. While there, he forces the actress to perform scenes from various productions, all the while shouting orders to imaginary crewmembers and spiraling further into madness. Faced with death through starvation or by his hand, the actress must try to reason with a man who has clearly lost his mind."
You can see why this served as our opener.
The film, surprise surprise, makes very little sense, but Rooney is in fine mad form, delivering insane monologues, applying mascara, lipstick and rouge to his little round face, dancing to carnival music, shouting non-sequitors, and so on. Keenan Wynn briefly wanders in, and either dies or goes to sleep, I couldn't tell which. And there's a nice fantasy sequence showing a classical string quartet in full formal wear, playing music inside a meat locker, slabs of slaughtered cows swinging into their instruments. Most of "The Manipulator" is shot in the standard, low-budget early-70s style, with plenty of fish-eyed lens shots and swirling colors. I suspect the filmmakers tried to make it look experimental, or maybe they had no idea what they were doing. In any case, Rooney never lets up. It's a long way from the MGM soundstages of the 1930s and 40s, but Rooney, ever the pro, gives it his all. Phoning it in would seem obscene to him.
As much as we enjoyed "The Manipulator", it was nothing compared to the next offering, "Twister's Revenge". The plot here is simple: Mr. Twister, a monster truck that has a computerized brain and can talk though his speakers ("My Mother The Car" meets "Knight Rider"), is pursued by three rednecks who want to use the truck for their own nefarious purposes. And that's pretty much it. Lots of chase scenes through rural settings carried by banjo solos. Plenty of bad intentional comedy. Explosions and house and barn demolitions. And, of course, Mr. Twister shows why he's the king of the monster truck circuit, crushing smaller vehicles while laughing in a computerized voice. Take it from the Son, this is a very funny movie -- that is, if you find a Grade Z "Dukes of Hazzard" knock-off amusing. It was the perfect way to end 2006.
The new year was ushered in with "Invasion of the Bee Girls", a 1973 horror/sex offering in which suburban California women are turned into semi-bees by an alluring female entomologist, and are ordered to kill as many men as possible by fucking them to death. This being a 70s film, however, fucking is called "balling," a word that's used many times to describe each murder scene, but not as poetically as when an outraged male citizen yells out at a police press conference, "Eight men have been balled to death in the last week. What do you intend to do about it?" The wife and teen liked this movie far more than I did, as I found it quickly repetitive. But the scenes where detectives are trying to ascertain who's doing the lethal balling are humorous, though you'd think that a hive of bee women would be easy to find in a small community.
The following day, the fam went to a local relative's house to eat nachos, drink beer and watch Michigan play USC in the Rose Bowl. This visit had the potential to turn into a bad production of its own. While we are close to these people, we cannot discuss politics, or religion, or sex, or drugs, or the war, or really anything else that might be going on apart from cultural diversions like college football. These people are pretty rightwing in their politics and Christianity, so we knew what to expect. But I didn't anticipate rubbing shoulders with a couple of real nutjobs, both of whom I'd met before, and had hoped to never see again.
The first person is a woman in her early 20s, a soldier in the Army Reserve who served a brief tour of Afghanistan. A mutual friend of the family who grew up with this girl told me that she was insane, and she did little to dispel that reputation the first time I met her, eyes glazed as she spoke of the wonders US-led wars, how America was guided by God and the rest of it. Apparently, visiting a dirt poor country in chaos like Afghanistan did little to shake her faith, in fact, it hardened it. When the national anthem was played before the start of the Rose Bowl, this woman literally stood at attention in front of the large screen. I thought it was a joke, but no -- she was absolutely serious. Once the anthem ended, she let out a whoop, widened her eyes and told the rest of us how excited she gets when she hears that song. Everyone other than my immediate family smiled back and nodded their heads in agreement. I went to the kitchen to see if there was any vodka.
The other person is an ex-high school football star turned rightwing Christian minister. Man, there is nothing worse than a religious jock, given that most jocks buy into the authoritarianism of sports anyway; and when you add an extreme interpretation of the Bible . . . Lord, help us. This guy, simply put, is a royal asshole: loud, belligerent, convinced of his personal holiness and of the evil in those who disagree with him. I've seen him in action at weddings and other gatherings, and he tries to steamroll people into seeing God his way, using his massive (and now bulging) frame to press his point. And then there are the moments when he assures all that not only is Jesus in the room, the Son of God is standing right next to him, telling him what to say -- sort of like Jimmy Stewart in "Harvey", but without the charm or intelligence.
This day, the guy made sure that everybody knew he was in room, attempting to get each and every person to acknowledge his presence. I ignored the guy as best I could and focused on the game. Before long, however, he strolled over to where I was standing and planted himself right next to me. I could feel him breathing on my cheek, and saw him, peripherally, studying my profile. I almost turned to him to say "I appreciate the attention, but I don't swing that way." However, in that room, such a comment would violate the No Reality rule (as did my quip about the Michigan marching band playing "Stairway To Heaven": "What's this?" I wondered aloud. "A tribute to stoner music of the 70s?" This met with complete silence and stares). So I simply kept ignoring him until he gave up and left.
Jesus, on the other hand, remained for a moment and whispered to me, "Isn't that guy a complete knob? Still, I must show mercy to him. It's what I do."
Amen to that. I have the feeling we're gonna need lots of mercy in the months ahead.