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?