(As the marquee on the Circle JM Drive-In Theater in Lakeview, Oregon proclaimed, in big red letters, when John Wayne's The Green Berets came to town in 1968, the big one is here! Sorry in advance about the unwieldy length of this post. This is one of those beasts I warned everyone about when I first started this blog. I only hope it isn't a tax on too many of your attention spans. I promise, some short observations and my ten-best list are forthcoming later this week.)
CHEER AND LOAFING IN EL SOBRANTE
December 3, 2004. The same week I finally saw Sideways, chance would have it that I also got to spend a weekend away with my best friend Bruce at his home in the East Bay Area near San Francisco. The two college buddies in Alexander Payne’s caustic and painful comedy who head to Santa Barbara County for a week of wine tasting and come face-to-face with how little they really have in common bear only a superficial resemblance to my friend and I, thank God—one is a frustrated writer (Paul Giamatti) who takes a paycheck as an eighth-grade English teacher (and who is also a wine connoisseur, and an alcoholic), the other a sex-obsessed actor (Thomas Haden Church) whose career peaked 11 years ago in soaps and who now trolls (apparently lucratively) in national commercials. But the movie, a road picture of middle-aged discontent and fear which finds lyricism in the ordinary (much as Virginia Madsen’s Maya does in a glass of pinot noir), and which celebrates the first few steps these self-centered schlubs take toward change after a lifetime of hiding away (while pretending to do the opposite), allows for a degree of viewer identification without insisting on condescending to either the characters or the audience. This lack of condescension is a hallmark of the movie, despite what you may have heard in this post-critics awards, pre-Oscar season of hype (in which a hearty Sideways backlash has inevitably reared its head), and it makes seeing oneself in either of its two disillusioned protagonists a somewhat less apocalyptically depressing experience than it might otherwise be.
(In the interest of full disclosure-- and the comfort of a little distance-- I’m a would-be writer who takes a paycheck in a job marginally related to my interests, and though I tend more toward good tequila than fine wine, I’m not exactly locked into an exorable march toward alcoholism. And Bruce is an actor-- not an overly sex-obsessed one-- whose lively career in Bay Area theater is on an artistic upswing-- he just returned to the U.S. from Florence, Italy, where he was featured in a well-received production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which originated this past summer in San Francisco.)
Sideways might be Hunter S. Thompson for paunchy, middle-aged failures, a kind of Fear and Loathing in Los Olivos that replaces mescaline and rum-soaked ruminations on the national nightmare with emotional paralysis and mourning over missed opportunities. By contrast, the weekend Bruce and I just spent together could be more accurately described as Cheer and Loafing in El Sobrante. No hallucinations of man-eating bats in the desert or snarling wolverines on a circus trapeze; no attempts to deceive, seduce or otherwise harass female waitresses and/or wine tasters (both Bruce and I are happily married); no wild trashing of hotel (or motel) rooms; just an all-too-rare chance to spend one-on-one time with my best friend lounging, laughing, talking about family and life and, of course, seeing movies together.
That Friday Bruce found me waiting curbside outside Terminal 2 of the Oakland Airport, and, as usual, once we hit the road it didn’t take us long to fall back into the familiar rhythms of speech, humor and observation that have been the benchmark of our friendship for nearly 30 years. It is always a fairly marvelous thing to experience that familiarity, which has only once come close to breeding contempt (we spent a tense summer together in a camp trailer in 1980 while working at a string-bean cannery in Junction City, Oregon) and has always otherwise been a safe harbor into which we, even more infrequently than ever these days, are allowed to dock. Amidst the ease and happiness of being together again, the not-so-long, but definitely slow drive up the freeway from the Oakland Airport couldn’t have mattered less—if Bruce and I have learned one thing about spending time with each other, it’s that the context, the geography, the circumstance is far less important than the chance to be yourself again with the person who’s known you the most profoundly, excluding, perhaps, members of our immediate families, over the longest period of time (our friendship predates his marriage relationship by about six years, and mine by about 11).
Before making our way to Bruce’s house in El Sobrante, a suburban community nestled in the hills of the East Bay above Richmond, we stopped at a CostCo to drop off some photos and buy some inexpensive tequila. We found a jug of Jose Cuervo Especial (1.75 liters, $21.99!) and made our way back through the DVD section, where I spied a Spongebob Squarepants Christmas DVD collection ($9.99!) and snapped it up to bring back for my daughters. Even the mundane wholesale warehouse surroundings weren’t enough to dampen our enthusiasm for the weekend ahead, though the abundance of shoppers, always a threat to my sense of mental well-being, would have come perilously close, had I been in any frame of mind to give them half a chance. I flopped down the two purchases at the register, never for a minute considering the juxtaposition that the checker picked up on immediately. “Cuervo Gold and Spongebob—sounds like a happenin’ Friday night,” he chuckled, sizing up the two men in their mid-40s that he must have figured were far weirder and/or kinkier than they actually are. After I hurled the DVD directly at his head in a haughty rage (Pure fabrication – Ed.), Bruce and I got a pretty good laugh out of it too, because although Spongebob certainly wasn’t on our entertainment radar for the weekend, it surely could have been. Had he known our actual movie-going agenda, the checker might have imagined us as just as creepy, perhaps even more so, but probably even less interesting than the Spongebob buy implied we might be. But Bruce and I never had a plan. We would, as always, let the movies we saw together be a kind of place-setting, a context for the conversation, the being together that was the real attraction of the weekend.
After settling in at Bruce’s house, that evening we made our way into Oakland to the Parkway Pizza and Pub Speakeasy Theater (http://www.picturepubpizza.com/), an old neighborhood theater in a not-so-bad area of town which serves pizza and beer in two separate auditoriums (one a converted balcony). Patrons can lounge on couches, or in regular run-down theater seats at the back of the room, get blasted (if they so choose) on several varieties of draft and bottled beers, and enjoy first and second-run features for $5.00 a ticket. The feature that night was, as it presumably always is, preceded by a charmingly low-tech video presentation spotlighting the two owners, who have the crack timing of a seasoned comedy team—one is a giggly, slightly goofy black man (think Tony Todd, the Candyman, on laughing gas), the other a sardonic white guy in a baseball cap (imagine a near-fatally deadpan Michael Moore), who take a comfortable amount of time enjoying the moment and clueing the paying audience in on what’s coming up at the Parkway. Coming attractions the night we were there included several African art films I’d never heard of, a typical slate of second-run fare, and a January screening of Jason and the Argonauts, part of their “Thrillville” matinee series (the day previous to our attending, “Thrillville” showcased a pretty rare screening of the underrated George Lazenby-James Bond entry On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The Parkway reminds me a lot of good revival houses we used to attend in years past, with that collegiate, throw-anything-into-the-mix film-buff sensibility very apparent in its scheduling, the genially scruffy atmosphere of the lobby, and even in the demeanor of the ultra-friendly young woman running the box-office. We felt instantly comfortable, even though I’d bet Bruce and I were a good 10-to-15 years older than anyone else attending that night’s late show screening of Team America: World Police.
The movie itself did nothing to make me feel younger, that’s for sure. Speaking as someone who thinks South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is some sort of masterpiece, I was really looking forward to seeing what Trey Parker and Matt Stone would do with a post-9/11 take on terrorism and the United States military imperative. And though I support the right of those in the public eye to stump for political awareness and specific causes in any way they see fit, I was admittedly ready to see some of the wind taken out of some the more self-righteously vocal elements of the Hollywood left. Team America’s biggest disappointment then, in my view, is that it turns out to be, regardless of the hype designed to make you believe otherwise, ultimately far less politically daring—in fact, it’s far less authentically political, period—than South Park: BL&U, and far less funny.
Despite a strong start, in which the gung-ho Team America squad descend on Paris to thwart a terrorist attack and end up decimating a large portion of the city in order to neutralize the danger, the movie starts to wobble almost immediately with an ostensibly outrageous musical parody of Rent (“Everybody Has AIDS”) that encapsulates Parker and Stone’s decision to jettison a coherent point of view in favor of a pathological penchant for the baddest bad-boy behavior they can muster. But when the realization dawns that Parker and Stone’s actual target is the bombastic excesses of ‘80s action movie formulas as embodied by the films of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and by extension, director Michael Bay, the nonstop obscenity and sophomoric raspberries they blow at anything that moves lose their shock value because their satiric subject is unworthy of all the vitriol. Parker and Stone put a take-no-prisoners face on attacking movies that most everyone has already seen right through; the effect is like a guy on a street corner putting on a political puppet show demanding an end to the U.S. occupation of Grenada. By the time you get to their musical lampoons of Bay’s Pearl Harbor and the annoying habit of directors who employ hackneyed montage sequences to gloss over tedious plot points, the movie has settled for regurgitating a formula plot that could have emerged whole cloth from one of the movies being “parodied,” and we ended up wishing we were watching that corner puppet show instead.
As for Parker and Stone’s puppets, they’re good for a few laughs initially, especially when you see the staging of that Paris siege and rescue. Familiar action movie clichés and stunt set pieces look pretty damn humorous when executed on miniature sets populated by marionettes whose strings are plainly visible. It is funny the first few times you hear some of our wooden heroes swear, even though their tendency toward profanity makes no sense within the story, as it did in South Park: BL&U—what Tom Cruise hero ever spoke so boldly about having his cock sucked? (All that was sublimated and coded quite proficiently by the likes of Top Gun director Tony Scott, thank you very much.) And the movie’s most notorious sequence, the hardcore, multi-positional sex scene between two of the anatomically incorrect freedom warriors, is undeniably hilarious, largely because it’s new and authentically rude, but it takes on its real potency (no pun intended) due to the implications brought to the forefront of the format in which Parker and Stone have chosen to make their movie—action cinema, and pornography, as puppet show-- a format again unrelated to the parodic target being deflated. (Come of think of it, though, that extended puking scene was pretty hilarious too...)
The movie’s biggest surprise is how limp and undercooked its satiric points are, and how quickly it settles for dumbed-down political platitudes that, salty language notwithstanding, might make George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Lee Greenwood stand up and salute. If you go spelunking for the edge of irony that just must be lurking within the movie’s recurrent theme song, “America, Fuck Yeah!” you will come away a-wanting. Because, unlike with Parker and Stone’s (and Marc Shaiman’s) brilliant “Blame Canada,” what you see (hear) in the new tune is what you get—an unapologetic anthem of American aggressive can-do muscularity, one that wouldn’t be out of place on a Toby Keith album, that ends up encapsulating the attitudes prevalent in many an ‘80s action movie, attitudes that, as it turns out, aren’t being satirized here at all.
So, what we’re left with, simply, is undiluted anger at celebrities who take political stands, which is about as funny as it sounds. As I said before, I’m not particularly sensitive about the likes of leftist big-mouths like Janeane Garofalo and Alec Baldwin taking their licks. But Parker and Stone would have you believe that these guys, spewing extremist reactionary vitriol to match that of any right-wing nut job, are somehow alone on the celebrity political spectrum, and that their very participation in the political process, boorishly carried out or not, is evidence that they’re essentially a more insidious evil than a maniac like Kim Jong-Il, or Osama bin-Laden who (like George W. Bush) goes essentially unmentioned within these 90-or-so minutes. Is the creeping disease of celebrity political endorsement and electoral participation essentially a plague only as far as the left’s implication in it? If Matt Stone and Trey Parker really are out to leave no sacred cow unslain, then surely there might have been enough time to include Charlton Heston and Bruce Willis on the skewer. But since what really matters to Parker and Stone here is getting people’s backs up, perhaps they thought their goal would be more swiftly achieved by attacking Sean Penn or Michael Moore as puppets who unknowingly facilitate the agendas of terrorist tyrants rather than examining why other celebs might think the kind of unchecked jingoistic propulsion embodied by the Team America marionettes is A-OK (just who do Parker and Stone think are pulling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s strings, after all?).
Bruce and I stumbled out into the cool Oakland night somewhat perplexed by what we’d seen and how witless it all was, and we remembered with much fondness how opposite our reaction was to South Park: BL&U. In the summer of 1999, some reviewers went so far as to suggest that film was this generation’s Duck Soup. I commented that Parker and Stone might, on some level, have been aware of those comparisons when fashioning this new movie, but then got cold feet (or perhaps recognized they would be getting in over their heads) over engaging the far more jagged and complex political perspectives seen in the shattered mirror of our current post 9/11 version of geopolitical reality. (Why else retreat to the sensibility of the ‘80s, a time when the Evil Empire mindset provided far more digestible villains du jour?). Bruce agreed, countering that Parker and Stone set their own standards with South Park: BL&U and many episodes of the TV show. They might balk at the assertion that they should be held to expectations set by the heights their comedy is known to have scaled, but so what? It’s not unreasonable for intelligent audiences to approach a movie like Team America: World Police with such expectations (the patrons at the Parkway seemed fairly evenly divided into those who reacted as Bruce and I did, and those, mostly slumped on the forward couches, whose beer intake seemed to dictate their enthusiasm for the film, as well as their inability to contain that enthusiasm). Neither is it unreasonable that TA:WP should be seen as a disappointment for not rising to the occasion for the black comedy, and satire, waiting to be mined in the subject with which Parker and Stone flirt, obscenities and outrage worn plainly on their sleeves, and then from which they so meekly, yet still profanely retreat. In a year that has seen so many cinematic voices on the right and left refuse to shy away from the chance to craft political debate, Team America: World Police steps up and dares to be stupid, and that has to qualify it as one of the year’s biggest missed opportunities.
We made our way back home and, sparked by the experience of watching films together again, stayed up far too late reminiscing about family and work, talking about recent favorite films, and just enjoying the knowledge that no hour was too late, for there was nothing on the morning’s agenda except getting the rest we both felt like we needed. And rest we did—I don’t remember the last time I woke up at 12:00 noon, but I did that following Saturday. The morning’s agenda turned quickly into the afternoon’s, and there was but one item therein: grits and eggs, a hearty breakfast Bruce introduced me to years ago, which I in turn passed on to Patty (my daughters have yet to see the light, though). Fairly heady from carbohydrates and protein, we assessed that, at the middle-aged rate of speed with which we were moving there would likely be room for only one movie that day. I said that I’d like to see something at one of the old movie houses around the East Bay that still exist, and with that in mind we considered seeing Ray at the old California Theater in Berkley which, according to Bruce, is still a very ornate and exciting setting, with an inviting art deco marquee. But the Taylor Hackford movie was about two and a half hours long, the show started at 4:30pm, which meant we wouldn’t get back to El Sobrante till 7:30 or later, and Bruce’s wife Pattie was planning to make crab risotto, which we could eat together before, yes, watching another movie on their sublime wide-screen TV. Then Pattie cautioned us that the already insufficient parking in Berkeley had recently been made even worse by the demolition of the very parking garage I had envisioned us using, so that pretty much put the kibosh on Ray at the California.
The town of Orinda, located very near El Sobrante, has a lovely old movie palace, but unfortunately was showing absolutely nothing of interest. I suggested The Incredibles, since it was playing at the spectacular Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, another gorgeous establishment I’d yet to visit (the Grand Lake gained some notoriety this past summer by openly refusing to enforce the “R” rating on Fahrenheit 9/11). Show times did not cooperate with us here either, yet the suggestion of the computer-animated film struck a chord in Bruce. So off we went to the familiar halls of the Regal Foothill Cinemas in nearby Richmond, a well-constructed, if fairly typical late ‘90s-early 21st-century multiplex in which we’d seen many films together, for his first (and my third) experience with The Incredibles.
His enthusiastic reaction was very gratifying to me, as I’d been plugging it as Pixar’s high-water mark, and writer-director Brad Bird’s masterpiece, ever since seeing it nearly a month earlier. My best friend was completely taken with it in much the same way I was, though for him I think there was an added extra thrill of being so close in everyday life to the epicenter of the film’s brilliance. The Pixar studios are located a stone’s throw away in Emeryville, and there are several sly references (as there apparently always are in Pixar films) to the geography of the East Bay, all of which I suspect added to Bruce’s enjoyment-- the movie’s opening car chase is described by a police dispatcher as having started along San Pablo Avenue, an artery of travel well known to Bruce in his many years of living in this area. I was glad for that extra level of appreciation. After all, I live in a city that has stood in for every place on the globe for over 100 years of movies and 50 years of TV, and the sight of Los Angeles on television or in the movies has become a signifier of corners cut and imaginations left unexercised (see Michael Mann’s Collateral, just out on DVD, for a rather glorious exception to this generalization). It’s hard not to become jaded at seeing one’s surroundings represented absolutely everywhere, so it’s a welcome event to see terrain unfamiliar to the average moviegoer, and especially to the average Los Angeles moviegoer, get such a clever workout.
(On that note, has anyone seen the reportedly brilliant documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which has as its subject the history of how Los Angeles is represented throughout film history, and how Hollywood-ized Los Angeles iconography has become prevalent over the reality? I have not yet myself, but it sounds so fascinating that if I hear of a screening, on cable or in theaters, anytime soon, I will sound the alert…)
It was also interesting to note how much more alive politically was The Incredibles than its counterpart from the previous night. Bird’s movie was engaging on so many levels, not the least of which were its observations regarding the dogged American pursuit of mediocrity. The movie takes place amidst a well-orchestrated hodgepodge of pop culture signifiers, at once suggesting the architectural design trends of the ‘50s melded seamlessly with technological and attitudinal trends that indicate a more up-to-the-minute chronology. But the fact that the movie’s time cannot easily or accurately be placed is no hindrance to the potency of its ideas regarding the suppression of natural brilliance at the behest of the societal “norm.” In fact, such temporal fluidity suggests parallels between the well-observed conservative trends of the ‘50s, a past which easily lends itself to condescension and assumptions of ideals that have been left behind, and the perhaps even more fearful times in which we live today. The thought is made explicit when young Dash, who is made to hide his natural ability with speed in order to blend in with others his age, defends the delinquent behavior for which he is punished as being the result of his not being allowed to go out for sports and having no other outlet for his energy. He doesn’t understand his mother’s insistence on his keeping his powers secret-- the family risks exposure and extensive litigation under the Superheroes Relocation Program, which has provided them anonymity in exchange for the suppression of their super abilities, measures made necessary by past lawsuits and infamy bestowed upon them by an ungrateful populace. Dash just wants to know what’s wrong with being special. When his mother rather resignedly replies, “Everyone’s special, Dash,” his equally weary reply is, “Which is another way of saying that no one is.” (This notion is later echoed by the villain, Syndrome, who plans to design creatures of destruction that only he can destroy, then, after a lifetime of being hailed by an appreciative public, sell the equipment that gives him those defensive abilities to that same public, in essence creating a culture whose very accessibility to power will make everyone super, “and when everyone’s super… then no one is.”) The Incredibles doesn’t advocate for the superiority of the supers for superiority’s sake, but rather for a society that values individuality over excessive homogenization (as Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek accurately observes, how else to explain why Dash throws the race at the end of the film?) Contrast that with Parker and Stone’s offend-‘em-all tactics, which bow to the pretense of a political sensibility, but in fact work to flatten out and reduce responses from every perspective to essentially how one reacts to hearing the words “dick,” “asshole” and “pussy” positioned as ideological symbols. When everyone’s supposed to be offended, guys, then no one is.
That night at Bruce’s house, crab risotto was indeed consumed and appreciated. Pattie has always been quite the cook, and if anything she’s not only getting better, but more intuitive, and that’s always a marvel and an inspiration for someone like to me, who aspires to some facility in the kitchen, to witness firsthand. Unfortunately, the movie we chose to while away our Saturday night with over dinner was The Terminal, which fulfills the bleakest implications of its title with an embarrassing gusto the likes of which there is no equal in Steven Spielberg’s oeuvre (one that has never shied away from a sentimental gesture).
This is surely Spielberg’s worst movie, a tepid attempt to locate a microcosm of American society in the everyday workings of the international terminal at JFK, where an unfortunate man with a very cute Eastern Bloc accent (Tom Hanks!) finds himself without a country, and therefore without legal means to enter the United States, when his homeland is routed in a coup d’etat just as he attempts to pass through customs. Never mind that the man whose real-life experience this movie embroiders was somewhat less than whimsical—the man, stranded for several years, apparently still roams the chambers of the Charles De Gaulle Airport in France and is quite understandably deranged. To Spielberg, Hanks and company, this poor bastard’s plight isn’t cause for a stab at bitter realism, but an opportunity to paint a portrait of post-9/11 America as perhaps a mite tattered and paranoid, but ultimately a forgiving, inclusive society whose open arms stretch wide enough to encompass all the wacky foreigners and other working-class stereotypes who drift across their somewhat privileged radar screen. Hanks’ everyman is a saint, as expected, but alarmingly, so is everyone else, except the airport official (Stanley Tucci) whose career somehow would be in jeopardy should Hanks ever exit into the city. (It’s never made convincingly clear just how—just calling it We Need A Villain Syndrome would be to enrich it with more thought than the director apparently did.)
By the time Hanks meets cute (several times) with lovelorn stewardess Catherine Zeta Jones (her wayward boyfriend is played by Michael Nouri, who should be so lucky), constructs a makeshift “restaurant” behind a construction zone within the terminal in which to properly wine and dine her, and then decides to build an impromptu mosaic wall in her honor—right there in the terminal, over no audible objections from airport officials—Bruce, Pattie and I had put our crab risotto at risk from all the excessive whimsy and realized that Spielberg, Hanks et al were operating on a level so removed from that of everyday experience—how else could they come to work every day and craft this junk without being totally cynical?—as to come close to giving up the privilege of ever being taken seriously again. Would Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone be so kind as to direct an invective or two toward these Emperors of Hollywood next time? Or would that be politically, not to mention professionally incorrect?
Is it any wonder Bruce and I were driven to crack the seal on the Cuervo? Yes, the Mexican nectar flowed that night, and we had an even grander time talking about Bruce’s recent trip to Italy, our expectations for the future, the various eccentricities and stresses of our extended families, and, of course, movies. As the shot count passed three, we decided it was time to dabble in our favorite genre, horror, and for tonight we’d picked a title neither of us had seen—Mario Bava’s lurid shocker Baron Blood (1972) starring Joseph Cotton, Massimo Girotti and Elke Sommer. I remember having a bit of a time adjusting to the rather languid pacing, which was unusual compared to the other rather rapid-fire choices of the weekend, but also given the other horror films of the time (I’m thinking primarily of the Hammer films of the period). Bava works fairly deliberately here, and even the crudity of the dubbing and the apparent unfamiliarity with English of most of those who provided the voices did little to diminish the exceptional sense of dread that the director builds. All of which is fortunate because, as the titular character, it takes Joseph Cotten nearly 45 minutes to make his first appearance, by which time Bava has done just about all he can do with dread-building. By shot number five or so (I’m back to the tequila here—there were considerably more than five shots in the first 45 minutes of Baron Blood), the grue finally began to get into high gear, an important consideration for fans of ’70s horror films, and Bava films in particular, not to mention impatient and increasingly sideways cactus juice sippers. An unfortunate Igor-type is trapped in a coffin with large spikes on the inside, and Bava treats us to a nasty sequence, edited so that the timing catches us slightly off guard, in which this guy’s screaming mug gets perforated on camera.
What comes after, through the end of the film, is only slightly more routine, but we need not have worried (nor did we, as I hazily recall)—the movie’s entertainment value, though solid enough on its own, was most certainly spiked by the unimpeded flow of the agave. By the time Cotten gets his fake-blood-spattered come-uppance, Bruce and I had wrecked three-quarters of that 1.75 liter bottle and were well on the way toward regretting ever hearing the name Jose Cuervo. We popped out the Baron Blood disc and began navigating distractedly through the widely derided Ashley Judd sex thriller Twisted. After only about 15 drunken minutes of viewing, I tilted my very heavy and increasingly gyroscopic head and noticed that Bruce was no longer in the room, but instead watching Judd’s stilted performance through an opening connecting the TV room to the kitchen. It took me far longer than it should have to realize that Bruce had had enough. We shut off the TV, and as I stumbled to the guest room it didn’t take me much time at all to realize that I had had enough as well. Oh, how I wish, for the sake of anyone still reading, I could elaborate upon this story of innocent inebriation with a few grotesquely overscaled and fictionalized details that might make the evening take on some element of significance, or at least sickening comedy. But, alas, I did not end up fully clothed and brandishing a Bowie knife in the bathtub, soaking in a mixture of piss, shit, grimy suds and grapefruit rinds, begging Bruce to wait until “White Rabbit” peaks on the radio before throwing the appliance in the tub, thus uniting me in electrocution with Grace Slick in the ultimate orgasm of high-voltage death. No, instead I merely stumbled into bed, closed my eyes and hoped for the best as I drifted off to sleep.
11:00 a.m. the next day, and the best was not yet to come. I should have drank some water and taken some Advil before going to sleep. But one does not do one’s best thinking on nine shots of cheap tequila, and therefore I didn’t make the connection that might have saved me from the Technicolor yawn that loomed before me upon rising on that bleak, spike-in-the-head Sunday morning. Yawn I did, and Bruce, in the adjoining bathroom, got to hear it all, lucky bastard. But once completed, my body’s best-defense mechanism proved functional and I did feel marginally more human. Bruce and I broke out the grits again, and this time we taught ourselves how to poach an egg (or four) in boiling water, sans nifty little Teflon-coated cups in which to cleanly mold the finished product. The eggs were good, and the successful poaching was a small moment of triumph for two men who had imbibed in a most foolish manner the previous night, and who felt a whole lot like nothing was going to be very pleasant or endurable for the rest of this day. We’d reached down and pulled ourselves up by our puke-stained boot straps (or at least mine—Bruce managed to avoid the retching madness he had swerved so near during the first moments of the Ashley Judd picture), and we felt like facing the world again… but slowly.
That afternoon we met Pattie at an outdoor antique fair on an airstrip in Alameda and had an agreeably languid time culling through old comic books, radios, cameras and other fascinating knick knacks—it really was the perfect way to slough off a mean drunk. We made it back to El Sobrante, where the tequila bottle still sat on the kitchen counter, mocking us, daring us to look at the golden liquid within and remember what we’d allowed it to do to us, challenging us not to get sick all over again at the mere sight of it. Yet some streak of pride made us leave it right where it stood, as if to put it away was some kind of admission that we’d been defeated by it, that our time together had been dictated, and then ruined, by our refusal to stop pouring those damned shots. Pattie again cooked dinner, this time a spectacularly good roast chicken, more balm for the alcohol-weary. She had no interest in the other movie we’d rented, P.J. Hogan’s terrific adaptation of Peter Pan from last year, and instead suggested we see Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven again, ostensibly in preparation for the sequel, which was being released the following weekend. I eagerly accepted the suggestion, Bruce less so, having not been particularly impressed by it the first time around. But it turned out to be a good idea, as it was a much more diverting experience for him upon a second viewing (I like to think the company had something to do with it).
Oddly enough, Pattie and I had watched it together the last time I visited, while Bruce was at a performance, so there was no doubt in either of our minds that revisiting this breezy, well-crafted, enjoyably off-the-cuff (or so it seems) caper comedy was the right thing to do. The movie ably achieves the sense that the viewer is an insider here too, along with the Eleven, which makes its breezy associations between acting/performing and criminal behavior take flight even more readily. And the fact that the caper seems to make sense, that Soderbergh and his screenwriter Ted Griffin haven’t cut any major corners, allows the viewer to accurately sense throughout that his intelligence isn’t being trumped. Only in thinking about it afterward do any questions arise, which, come to think of it, is the mark of a good diversionary entertainment, and a good heist too, I suppose.
The wearying effects of the previous night's tequila fest were catching up with the two of us as the hour approached midnight. Soderbergh's opus wrapped up, Pattie packed it in, and Bruce and I were left to sit in the TV room and contemplate the end of the weekend, which was now more than just a dot on the horizon as Monday morning officially checked in. Neither of us felt like moving, but we eventually did-- to the kitchen. I have a vague recollection of concocting what turned out to be a very tasty cheese sandwich, which gave me a bit of a boost, enough perhaps to get me to drag my ass to bed, and I may be mistaken, but I think Bruce made one for himself as well. On my way back to the TV room I passed the shelf where the Lundys keep their DVD and VHS collection, and a rather vivid logo jumped off the spine of one box on that shelf and nearly screamed, "Watch me! You're not too tired! I'm only 70 minutes long! You can hack out another 70 minutes!" I pulled the box off the shelf and examined it for the second time that weekend. The first time I looked at it was a couple days earlier when Bruce described watching it with his brother-in-law and getting the distinct feeling that he never got on the movie's wavelength the way Bruce had hoped he would. So when I suggested it to my weary host, he perked right up and within minutes we were into a screening of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon's Village of the Giants.
Gordon is the distinctive auteur of the "things get real big and go on a rampage" school of science fiction-- from the early '50s through the mid '70s he made 11 mostly terrible movies that featured some sort of creature, or creatures, usually made gigantic and very angry by ill-advised scientific tinkering or atomic-age disaster. His The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel, War of the Colossal Beast, are iconic science fiction cheapies, excellent encapsulations of the ups and downs of a very prevalent theme in B-movie science fiction of the time. The director usually wrote his own scripts, often in collaboration with others, and the Colossal pictures were no exception. But Gordon, along with co-screenwriter Alan Caillou, would go to the well of a very different science fiction master for inspiration when it came time to craft this 1965 masterpiece of young hoodlums who grow to be 30 feet tall and become no less the authority-flaunting thrill-seekers for it. Yes, the hep cats frugging in strange fringed bikinis and furry swim shorts behind the opening credits of Village of the Giants may be the swingin'-est thing happening during this sequence, but it's by no means the strangest. No, that status goes to the moment when this credit pops on screen over all that frugging and wild surf music: "Based on the Novel The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells" !!! At that moment it ought to have been pretty damn clear that we're not in for Merchant/Ivory-esque tortured fidelity to the original text with this particular literary adaptation, though for Gordon Wells' novel clearly was a major work-- he would "adapt" it again in 1976 for American International Pictures, this time calling it The Food of the Gods and focusing exclusively on giant rats, chickens, et al, leaving the juvenile delinquent populace to frug (or whatever we juvenile delinquents did in the mid '70s-- I forget) at their normal size.
The opening credits are followed by a scene of unleashed carnality so astonishing that I was forced to put down my cheese sandwich and put off further chewing until after it was finished. The camera pans over to a wrecked car that's been run up on an embankment just before the cameras rolled (Mr. Gordon was, as you may have guessed, a budget-conscious filmmaker fond of such shorthand imagery). Inside are six teens, three guys, three girls, and as they stumble out of the wreckage it becomes clear that they are not, as you or I might be, stunned in the aftermath of a car crack-up, but instead somehow turned on by it. They're downright giddy, in fact, and contemplate hoofing it to the nearest burg so they can channel their energy into further wild adventures traveling around the countryside causing trouble for various locals. And then, before they start easing down the road, a couple of the chicks start dancing, man, in that insinuating way that seems strangely familiar, kinda like what we saw under the opening credits, and before you know it they've got the guys shimmying like it's a roadside edition of American Bandstand, and everything's getting wilder and wilder... and that's when they start rolling around in the mud and tossing great huge clumps of it at each other in the wildest pre-Jack Valenti scene of barely sublimated orgiastic not-exactly-sex that I can remember ever seeing.
And that's just the first eight minutes. How can the movie ever hope to match or surpass it? Well, the fact of the matter is, it can't, really. But the good news is that it doesn't matter, because Village of the Giants comes pretty fully loaded with energy, a couple of pretty decent tunes courtesy of the Beau Brummels (and inexplicable musical numbers by some generic crooners that are on the opposite end of the scale from "pretty decent"), plus scene after scene of enlarged creatures (a pooch, a duck and a common household tarantula, for starters) attacking or otherwise interacting with a dazzlingly unimpressed citizenry. Gordon isn’t interested in any highfalutin existential ideas that might steer this romp toward becoming a reverse of Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. As the SCTV film critics might have said, he just likes to see things blow up real big.
Then there’s the cast. That’s bombshell Joy Harmon and co-bombshell Tisha Sterling as the two JD babes, Mickey Rooney’s son Tim as another of these teenage blights on society, and Beau Bridges, supremely blissed out in that Dennis Wilson-warm-California-sun kind of way as the leader of the pack. Just imagine how formidable these ruffians become when they ingest the mysterious “goop” concocted by the precocious “Genius” (essayed by little Ronny Howard, in a characterization remarkably similar to that of his indelible Opie), which causes them all to become 30 feet tall and drunk with their newfound power over the law (and all the weaklings they used to lord it over anyway). But that’s not all. “Genius” has an older sister, Nancy (generically appealing good girl Charla Doherty), whose boyfriend Mike (ex-Disney icon Tommy Kirk) heads the resistance against these ginormous bullies, with help from best buddy Horsey (The Rifleman’s own Johnny Crawford), bohemian babe Red (soon-to-be-famous choreographer and ‘80s one-hit wonder Toni Basil) and the local sheriff (played by Tyrell Corporation CEO and Overlook bartender Joe Turkel). And prefiguring a career of attaching himself to his son’s projects, there’s even a brief appearance by Rance Howard, though I can’t for the life of me remember in what context he appears. When all these folks gather for a community picnic, the main course of which is the aforementioned giant duck, skinned and roasting on a spit smack in the middle of the town square, I turned to Bruce and proclaimed that Village of the Giants could end right now and still be the automatic winner of Most Unabashedly Fun Movie of the Weekend in my mind.
The movie is full of obvious and on-the-cheap optical effects employed to grant the newly gigantic beings their oversized grandeur. And one in-camera trick, a sneaky perspective shift that tricks you into thinking you’re actually seeing the teen giants growing (and then shrinking) is actually pretty resourceful and effective—it’s a low-tech harbinger of that shot in Jaws, and so many subsequent thrillers, where foreground and background move in opposite directions along the Z-axis, creating a dolly effect with no actual camera movement that leaves the subject of the shot queasily adrift in the middle of the frame.
But no special effect or trick shot in Village of the Giants ends up having half the impact of Tommy Kirk’s hairdo, a wildly elevated ducktail that exposes the aging teen star’s hairline impairment and retreats from his eerily appropriate duck-like facial features to such a degree that I began to irrationally (perhaps it was the hour—there was no tequila imbibed this night) suspect that some unholy alliance of the movie’s hairdresser and his own body had conspired to make the actor look as smarmy and Anatidaen as possible. This graphical connection between the “teen warrior” (no surprise that Kirk was actually 24 when the movie was filmed) and his oversized foes—especially that big quacker—lend his sleepy-eyed battles a fuzzy sense of familiar set against familiar—you know, like a cockfight, only with mad ducks. (Maybe I did have something to drink after all…) And when Kirk rips off a hunk of that glistening, roasted giant duck and starts munching on it, while Freddy Cannon croons in the background, why, it’s just a hop, skip and jump from Bert I. Gordon’s proportionally perverted universe to the cannibalistic frenzy of Jack Hill’s nearly concurrent Spider Baby (1964).
The greatest compliment I can think to give Village of the Giants and, by extension, the entire MGM Midnite Movies DVD series, is that it makes me really wish there were someplace to see these movies that might even more accurately replicate the context in which they were most often showcased. If I win the lottery, I’m going to find a big patch of land just outside a city where I’ve always wanted to live, and I’m going to build a drive-in movie theater that will be devoted to screening exactly this brand of exploitation fare, with as much creative programming and exploitation as I can muster. And if I’m flush with lotto fever, then maybe I can bring Bruce along into the venture, and we can wind our way toward retirement and beyond together in a reverie of drive-in-inspired enthusiasm that’ll make a 24-year-old Tommy Kirk and his epic ducktail trying to pass as a teeny bopper look positively restrained. These are the thoughts that our late night screening of Village of the Giants led me toward, and for that I offer thanks to the ghost of Bert I. Gordon (who actually isn’t dead, unlike his particular brand of irony-free B-movie thrills, but what the hell). I can’t think of a better note on which to end an excellent weekend with my best friend.