I’ve just seen for the first time two movies, comedies, that I missed when they came out in 1987 and 1997, respectively: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Grosse Pointe Blank. Neither was anything like I had imagined from what people had told me about them, and both were so deeply weird that they made me wonder what planet I’ve been living on all these decades. Am I weird, or are they?
During the time these movies were made, I was living with someone from another generation and continent, and we were taken up with traveling to Eastern Europe, Russia, and Japan, trying to help people get out of the East Bloc before communism fell, and attending international karate tournaments both before and after. So I was a no-show in my own culture. My American clock had pretty much stopped in the late ’60s, when I met Jacques (I count 1972 as the late sixties, culturally), as witness this book I wrote in the ’80s, which was soaked in nostalgia and a naïve, dated idealism that was already being left in the dust of the hippie hinterlands by the streamlined new Wall Street types, and that has since become packaged as New Age, with its aftertaste of spiritual high fructose corn syrup. One distinction I made in the book that seemed crude yet valid was between a “first wave” and “second wave” of baby boomers, the division falling around 1950: the first wave all earnest and mystical, the second wave hip and ironic. Psychedelic drugs, for example, were kozmic revelations to first-wavers and extreme party drugs to second-wavers, occasion for hilarity more than for epiphany.
I have a vague sense that it was Saturday Night Live that set the sensibility of the “second wave,” and that it is out of that SNL sensibility that these bizarre comedy movies emerged. I had a moony “first wave” sensibility and then my clock got stopped, so I never got with the SNL sense of humor. Television has also never really taken with me—the way some lucky people try cigarettes and just don’t get it—and particularly television sitcoms. (Jacques was horrified, when we met, that I didn’t have a television; he got me watching shows from Star Trek to Kojak to Hill Street Blues to ER; I adored The Sopranos, which pretty much ruined regular TV for me; and now that Jacques is gone, I’ve reverted to not having a television.) Bear with me, I’m giving you this background to show you the alien place I’m coming from, in America but not of it when it came to the sitcom and multiplex culture. I also couldn’t take the cruelty of a lot of the humor—Kenny being killed over and over again in South Park; whichever that wildly popular movie was in which the dog was thrown out the window and showed up in a body cast? Something About Mary, right? Never saw it.
Watching these two movies now, I’m amazed by how little they seem to have to do with any recognizable reality. Well, no. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which I expected to be about your worst travel experiences à la Airplane (and which has at least one truly great comic scene, the one that ends “You’re fucked”), is more like one of those nightmares in which you’re trying to get somewhere and you can’t, and obstacles keep multiplying between you and it, pushing you farther away or off in the wrong direction, and you’re trying to call to tell them you’ll be late but none of the phones work. (Dated, pre–cell phone nightmares.) Its weird blend of horror and sentimentality creates a dreamlike alternate universe in which “the world” seems malign and remote. And Grosse Pointe Blank, with its retro 1980s high school reunion that looks as square as a 1950s cocktail party, and its contract killer whose supposed profession never really materializes as anything more than a high-concept plot point, is even more surreal and detached from anything recognizable as experience.
Where was I when my culture was dwelling in this place?? Eastern Europe was just as bizarre in its way, and far more byzantine—literally, with millennia’s worth of intrigue, intricacy and subtlety that makes everything American look as simple as a handshake—but it was, at least in the 1980s, connected to a rock-bottom reality, which was oppression, stagnation, and hardship. There were the secret police and the long lines for bread and the fear of speaking freely. The actual conditions of existence were the referents of culture, in contrast to the great disconnect between Americans’ actual lives and their hallucinatory entertainment.
So I’m like a visitor from another planet looking at this curious phenomenon. My sister and I were wondering tonight why Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (which she saw back around the time it came out) seemed so much funnier then than it does now—has the culture’s sensibility, and ours with it, changed that much? And, an even more unsettling question: did the entertainment of those years emerge from something about American life, or did it emerge from Hollywood—a place disconnected from reality—to influence American life? Did that sensibility have anything at all to do with “the conditions of existence” (the one phrase I’d like to save from a burning of Marx’s books) for the audience, or was it foisted on us, imposed as a sort of overlay, by a bunch of people who were . . . to put it bluntly . . . on cocaine? If the latter, then maybe it did not help us to think about our actual lives but served as a massive distraction or misdirection, like those tests where you have to name the color of a word on a screen, and the letters are yellow but the word they spell is “red.”
Anyway, I am curious about the relationship between actual American life in the 1980s and 1990s and, specifically, the comedy of those decades, which was so massively influential. Was there any relationship? Is one reason why drugs are so rampant now the self-medicating of cognitive dissonance? Is that where Hollywood’s Pied Piper leads?
Or am I the alien, and there’s something to get that I’m just not getting?
You may not believe this but this sort of ties into the previous post. When I was a wee lad, I was quite the taper of things….not video tape, but audio! I taped everything I could; TV shows (nearly all the Peanuts specials), radio….what have you. When I heavily got into classical music, I had no records except an 8(!) disk set of 78’s of Bruno Walter conducting the Beethoven 5th. These disks….could have been back up shields for Captain America, man, they were heavy! I failed horribly trying to put them on the skinny spindle my sisters used to cue up their 45’s.
Detroit had a host of classical music on WJR, Karl Haas, who had a show called “Adventures in Good Music”. Haas was fine, but he never told you about pieces he had just finished playing, only what was coming next! So one day I would up recording something I really loved, but had no idea what it was! I thought it was Haydn or maybe Mozart. I would play this thing over and over just for background music when I was on a tear of reading… Finally I figured out it was the 3rd movement of the Beethoven Piano Concerto #3. This was electrifying for young Ron…loving a Beethoven piece without even knowing it was one!
I mention all this because I’ve come back around to it again…in my old ways, with 20 things going on at once in my head. I cook, I watch and emjoy my tree, I read online 10 things at once, writing crazed notes about subjects I know nothing about…but want to know. And of course, I write….and like a conversation in rhythm, Beethoven is right there, right in my ear, my heart, my head, sometimes even adjusting how I type my ideas in “keyboard rhythm” to the music. I don’t even see myself doing this, sometimes, and really notice when it stops!
So I knock off this little post, just to share for you….in the hopes that you too can find that rhythm for something you love….and want to do more of.
. . . at three a.m. may have been the cats chasing something round and round the house. I didn’t know whether it was a giant roach or a house gecko, and I didn’t want to know, though from the zeal and style of the hunting—a rapid slapping down of paws in which running doubles as serial pouncing—I suspected the latter, having seen Buzzy hunt an anole the same way.* This morning I found the gecko, tailless (the least of its troubles), multiply punctured, and bled-out pale. It was still alive, and it cocked its head and looked up at me, as if to say, “Are you going to torture me now?” When I stroked it with a finger instead and put it on the outside stair landing railing, it closed its eyes wearily. A little later I found tiny ants already probing it. Alive, it had haunted me; almost as soon as it was dead, its little sand-colored scrap of a body merged into the inanimate, and it was of no further separate significance, except as a bonanza to the ants.
That’s how our consciousness has to withstand being hunted and tortured by death until it can’t hold out any longer, too much damage has been done.
The next time I hear such hunting I’m going to get up and gently intervene.
*I did save the anole from Buzzy in time. It appeared dead, but on closer inspection could be seen to be surreptitiously breathing. I laid it in the sun, and when its protective death-mimic shock wore off, it took hold and ran away. I think I have seen it, tailless but robust, going about its lizardly business.
So on Facebook the other day, Amba — remember her, bantamweight, the Bulldog Drummond of copyeditors — mentioned that the Chinese may make Detroit a Chinese City. Now, I thought, why? Don’t they have enough empty cities of their own? Or are they trying to complete the set, like baseball cards?
But there must be a million things we could do with Detroit. They’ve already got a new business in “ruin porn” tourism! Can’t screw up that by fixing their problems, can they? It would be just like Detroit to do just that. So I put it to the floor — what would you do with it? Blow it up? Make it into an 11,000 hole golf course? Maybe a place to test new weapons! Oh, we do that now? Never mind. Maybe Detroit is the cutting edge of America’s future….the canary in the fiscal coal mine, setting the standard for collapses to come. Endless possibility — that’s what Detroit has always been about!
My post title comes from Bruce McCall’s Bulgemobile series from the old National Lampoon. His cool book is The Last Dream-O-Rama.
Thankfully, these are all positive.
First, my idiot fugitive neighbor got arrested again Thursday. So he now sits in cell BRC3CN7 of the Orange County Jail. (He had skipped his trial date of April 14th on the hit and run and became a fugitive. He showed up several times next door after that.) Now just awaiting the foreclosure and then his girlfriend and their dogs will be gone permanently.
Second, Disney claimed the other day that they actually HAD cancelled my ‘benefit’ on February 28th. But it took them until April 30th to process the incorrectly billed statements and mail something to the diagnostic lab. Hopefully that is FINALLY sorted.
Finally, some friends are in town this week, and I’m hoping to finally meet them. If lucky, we might even get an appearance from our hostess.
Anyway, hope things are going well elsewhere, too.
UPDATE: Looking forward to tomorrow!