Road House: a meditation

Whew, Road House. MST3K’s Michael J. Nelson calls it “the Fanny and Alexander of bad movies.” Roger Ebert saidRoad House is the kind of movie that leaves reality so far behind that you have to accept it on its own terms.” They are not wrong. Watching Road House is a bit like watching Last Year at Marienbad or Synecdoche, N.Y., if those movies were a little more nonsensical and, oh yes, risibly awful.

The only reasonable way to engage with Road House is to accept that it takes place in its own universe, a world that is cosmetically and physically indistinguishable from ours, but where our social and legal norms do not apply. Let’s examine the social, economic, and legal forces at play in this world, shall we?

Dalton, our hero, is a famous Zen bouncer. Patrick Swayze conveys the “Zen” part by delivering his lines with a blank, Keanu-esque lack of affect. [1. In this universe, evidently “Zen” = “vacantly stupid.” 2. In this (presumably also pre-internet 1989) universe, there are famous bouncers. How do the throngs of fans learn about the top-notch bouncers? In bouncer-specific magazines and journals? Playbounce? Bouncer Homes and Gardens? Can you pick up Bounce Fancier at the news stand?

He’s so renowned that a club owner from a smallish Missouri town pays Dalton $500 a night (plus $5000 upfront and all medical expenses) to come oversee the bouncing squad at his seedy smalltown roadhouse, “the kind of place where they sweep up the eyeballs at closing time.” [3. In this universe, a smallish town can provide enough low-life-loving heavy drinkers to support an enormous bar — so enormous that it requires a squad of half a dozen full-time bouncers, and so remunerative that the owner can pay the new head bouncer somewhere between $2500 and $3500 weekly for an indefinite period.]

Dalton moves to town and finds a fully furnished residential loft space above a nearby barn, conveniently within view of the home of his nemesis, the evil liquor distributor, mwah-hah-hah (played with growly relish by Ben Gazzara, mwah-hah-hah) who will eventually start killing people with startling sang-froid, mwah-hah-hah. [4. In the rural Missouri of this universe, residential housing is notably rare — a whole town has only two houses — yet the few available spaces are lavish and the unhoused never remark upon their homelessness. 5. Smalltown businessmen harbor personal grudges to such an extent that they routinely commit or incite others to commit murders. 6. Though this universe has police sirens, they have no actual police force.]

The whole scenario has an uncanny sense of being both familiar and deeply foreign, a potent sense of the Unheimliche. Compounding the audience’s cognitive dissonance are several images and outtakes that make little social sense in our world: an all-but-nameless love interest (Kelly Lynch, listed in the IMDb credits as “Doc”) who remains fully clad and blankly impassive during the big love scene, only to showcase her boobs and butt for the soulsearching midnight chat; a bucket-o’-blood dive bar refurbished into what looks like an Applebee’s/rollerdisco where the local bourgeoisie clamor for a table; the venerable Sam Elliot smilingly unbuttoning his trousers well past the point where most venerable actors would stop unbuttoning, for goodness sake!; “Pain don’t hurt”; a trophy room that might as well be a museum; a polar bear attacking a bad guy.

You can watch it in muted confusion or hollering hilarity; there’s little middle ground for Road House. I’m telling ya, if David Lynch had directed Road House, film students would be discussing in hushed tones its surrealist leaps, its measured ambiguity, its self-contradictory pseudo-pacifist theme, and its sojourns into magical realism. But he didn’t, so instead we watch it with hoots of derision and hilarity.

by its cover

The A.V. Club’s recent column on contributors’ pop-culture rules has sparked similar discussions among my friends and acquaintances and fellow online forum users internerds. I quickly realized that though I have no firm rules, I do have a great many rough guidelines. Whew, a great many!

– I almost never see films in a first-run theater, where the fools in charge let other people in, too, with their cell phones and their chatter and their candy wrappers. That’s not a pop-culture rule but an avoid-temptation-to-criminal-assault rule. Crowds, cost, and the threat of poor storytelling all diminish my patience with other people and/or nonsense, so clearly a blockbuster in a first-run theater is a perfect-storm situation for me.

– Because I like to be surprised by entertainment, I rarely research enough to apply the Bechdel test before the fact, but I do notice and appreciate when a filmmaker or author:
1. has two or more named female characters
2. talk to each other
3. about something other than a man
just as if they were real people or something.

– I will watch any movie directed by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, or the Coen Brothers, and probably more than once, even if I wasn’t crazy about it the first time. These directors more than any others have earned my trust and gratitude, despite a few misses and a very few absolute stinkers. Oh, Terry Gilliam, I can’t say no to you, either, you hapless bastard.

– I will watch almost any Shakespeare adaptation, with or without the text intact. Yes, the one set in a greasy spoon. Yes, the one in post-war Japan. Yes, the kids’ movie rip-off.

– I don’t mind if a sensible adult thinks my choice of entertainment is silly or juvenile or embarrassing. Maybe I see some deeper value there; maybe I just like the silly thing. I’m not easily embarrassed. Or, uh, I am, but I’m also used to it.

– I am unlikely to sit still for a straight-up romantic comedy. Ditto a straight-up war movie. Indeed, anything that looks like a formula Hollywood picture, with characters slotted into a template, is of no interest.* I am especially not interested in the whitewashed Hollywood bio (see A Beautiful Mind) or other Oscar bait. I skip a lot of blockbuster movies and feel no pain over it.

*Unless is is a horror movie, in which case I miiiiiiiight tolerate the formula. I don’t know why I might, but I might. Additionally, with a horror movie, the low-budget/no-budget risktaker entices me far more than the splashy, shiny big-money movie. The no-money filmmakers have to push their creativity and plan their storytelling instead of relying on special effects and retakes.

– While we’re on the subject of formulas and failure: no Michael Bay. NO. NO. No, Michael Bay, No! I thoroughly respect the appeal of stuff blowin’ up real good. I don’t want to see stuff blowin’ up all sloppy.

– I shy away from remakes, especially English-language remakes of contemporary foreign-language films. However, a few marvelous remakes have made this more of an inclination and less of a rule. Criminal comes to mind: the original is fantastic, the remake is different but fantastic — I loved both. And I am the rare J-horror fan who actually preferred The Ring to Ringu.

– I do not like to see brief short stories transformed to full-length features. Padding rarely improves a story, but if it’s a favorite story, I almost always give in and watch it. For this reason, I am dreading The Yellow Wallpaper, but happily for me, it’s evidently stuck in some post-release limbo.

– I will [never/almost never] choose to watch a Jim Carrey or Robin Williams slapstick comedy. I will often watch Jim Carrey in a dramatic role. (Yes, this means I watched the hilariously, gut-splittingly awful The Number 23. Youch.)

– I will try reading almost any author or story once, in any genre or type: literary fiction, popular fiction, pulp fiction, academic no-fiction, popular non-fiction, graphic novel, whatever. Sometimes, I can’t make it more than a 20 pages before giving up in disgust, but I do try it in earnest. (I even tried to read The DaVinci Code out of curiosity, but its prose made me very cross indeed.)

– I believe that sometimes, you really can judge a book by its cover.

meep

updated to add: Even better than the Ode to Joy clip (at the end of this entry) is Beaker’s Habanera with The Swedish Chef and Animal. Enjoy!

Students at Danvers High School in Massachusetts are forbidden to utter the nonsense word meep.

Uh-huh.

Evidently, the students have appropriated Beaker’s all-purpose word for their own constant use, to the annoyance of the faculty and administrators. The principal’s balanced, sensible response, which was not at all silly, misguided, or destined for spectacular failure: he prohibited students from uttering the sound meep. Well, that oughta do it.

Two aspects of this story puzzle me, to startlingly different degrees.

First, the minor puzzle: since when has “meep” been an expression belonging only to younguns? I’m old enough to have watched the original broadcasts of The Muppet Show, and whenever I’ve had occasion to utter a tiny meep! of dismay or alarm, no one has seemed too terribly perplexed by it.

Second, the major puzzle: has this principal or any member of his administration ever, I dunno, met any high school students? Barring that, have they ever interacted with any group of humans? Have they any basic understanding of human psychology?

A quote from the second link:

“It has nothing to do with the word,” [Danvers H.S. principal Thomas] Murray said. “It has to do with the conduct of the students. We wouldn’t just ban a word just to ban a word.”

No, because banning a word will not work, and in fact will be counter-productive. The administration has now identified the word as a guaranteed provocation and enshrined it in legend.

In solidarity with the Danvers High students and for the sheer delight of it, I offer you: Ode to Joy, performed by Beaker.

Sugarbaker

Fashion your own Julia Sugarbaker rant, courtesy of NPR. Before you read the text, make a quick list of:

an appetizer
a famous criminal*
an inexpensive retailer
a small amount of money
a metal
a breakfast cereal
an environmental problem
a popular gadget
a junk food
a reality show
a kind of candy
a sporting event
a historical figure named “John”
a celebrity named “John”
an article of clothing
a home electronics component
a chain restaurant
a city in the southern U.S.
a popular toy
a literary figure

You will insert these, Mad Libs style, into the text of the rant. My rant:

I would rather spend two hours sharing a plate of escargot with Claus von Bülow* than watch a woman who apparently purchased her intellect at Claire’s Boutique for three dollars a satchelful chase twenty-five men with biceps made of zinc and heads packed with Cap’n Crunch.

Because when future generations look upon what we have left for them, which may by then be little more than melted icecaps and millions of non-biodegradable pedicure eggs, I fear they will conclude that they would have welcomed bread and circuses if only they had realized the alternative was Funyons and MILF Island.

[sits down and crosses arms, but then immediately stands back up]

And let me tell you a little something about romance: Handing out roses like you are a mascot throwing Pixie Stix to the assembled hooligans at a cockfight is not my idea of romance. Romance is a man who knows the difference between John Adams and John Mayer and who is capable of putting on a pair of shoes without scratching his head as if he is connecting an iPod docking station without the instruction manual.

So do not ask yourself why I do not particularly enjoy a television show where the assembled male candidates represent romantic prospects inferior to the workers on the night shift at the Applebee’s in Valdosta. Ask yourself whether, after a lifetime playing with a cultural paddleball and dancing on the grave of Henry James, you will ever…recover…your dignity.

*or, in this case, a defendant in a murder trial.

The Happening: a movie review

happeningLike many moviegoers, I was thrilled by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, and I positively shivered to think of the exciting stories he would tell a generation of viewers.

Sigh. I keep hoping…

The Happening (2008) is a frustratingly vivid illustration of that hope, sustained and smashed in one blow. Revolving around a mysterious but pervasive danger, graced with witty art direction that winks playfully to the viewer in almost every scene, and blessed with a potent use of ambient sound, this movie should be good. Better than good — it should be a work of subtle menace on par with Hitchcock’s The Birds.

But it ain’t. The problem, as so often in Shyamalan’s films, is in the dialogue and motivations: the tone-deaf, stunted interactions between the cardboard cut-outs who prop up the story. It’s infuriating to see the central characters used as mere wind-up toys driving the plot — especially when the peripheral characters hint at such absurd richness.

In a fever of frustration, I finally opened the DVD audio menu, switched to another language, and discovered to my delight that with the dialogue obscured a bit, the film’s visuals and sound well up and mute the petty stupidity of its script. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s an effective and fun little chiller. The bad news: if you’re fluent in Spanish. French, and English, you’re out of luck.

Confidential to M. Night S.: This is how far I will go to avoid your dialogue. Stop writing. Stop writing. Sweet fancy molasses, man, stop writing.

To Whom It May Concern

I am horrified in retrospect. I applied for a job two years ago and just now looked at the cover letter I attached to my resume. It began “Dir Sir or Madam”… I suppose I was still so caught up in German at the time that “dir” (meaning you) completely slipped my notice. Hey, you sir, you are not dear to me.

Am loving the new place so much. It’s not the high life we had in Mandurah, but I am so completely happy, especially with all the garage sale/second-hand store finds. Today I bought a jarrah bookcase for $30 at a market in Dallyelup (or however it’s spelled–everything ends in ‘-up’ around here.) Tomorrow we’re calling the removalists to see if our goods from Alice are arriving. They’re supposed to be here before Christmas and I’m counting on that because some friends are coming down for New Year’s which is also JM’s and my tenth anniversary. Ten years. Holy cow. So much to unpack, so much to celebrate.

embarrassments

age 14: The high school assigned each new student a locker and a lock, sternly admonishing us to record the combination somewhere safe to avoid the cost and inconvenience that would come if the maintenance staff needed to lop off the original lock and replace it. Confident that my enormous brain could hold a 3-digit combo, I threw away the scrap with the number on it… and promptly forgot the combination. I wasted weeks and weeks muddling along in classes without most of my books and notebooks, hoping to remember the combo before everything was gassed beyond repair by the tuna sandwich also contained therein.

age 17: I struggled in vain against the Krazy Glue with which I had inadvertently (well, duh) bonded my hand to a metal banister in the now-empty rehearsal room, counting the minutes as they ticked away, making me later and later for homeroom.

age 23: Sitting at the counter of my favorite proto-hipster diner, I was chatting away with Terry, one of the servers there. Apropos of nothing, Terry waved vaguely and chirped, “Hey, Elsa, you know Matt, right?” I responded not “Matt, the graphic artist?” or “Matt, Chuck’s friend?” nor even “Gosh, I know a bunch of Matts. Which one?” No. I pealed out, “Matt? Matt with the basketball head? Sure, I know Matt. Why?”

Terry blinked slowly, his face otherwise unchanging. I slowly realized his vague wave was a gesture of reintroduction, just as he announced in measured tones, “Because he’s standing right behind you.”

How I failed to see the shadow cast by his big enormous round head, I’ve never understood.

age 25: I celebrated the bright warm spring day by wearing a (brand-new!) light and gauzy skirt and sweater in soft pastels. My lunch break came along. Eager to enjoy the air and sun, I quickly hit the washroom, then bustled outside. I spent the next thirty minutes walking around the center of town. Just as I exited work, a woman walked up to me, eyes on my skirt, hesitated, then said, “Pretty skirt.” I beamed my thanks.

At the corner, a woman walked up to me, paused, stammered, and finally said, “Pretty skirt!”

In the town square…

In line at the coffee shop…

As I walked down Congress St….

My lunch break drew to a close. Just as I reached the door to my place of work, a woman stepped up to me. I smiled at her, readying myself for the compliment. “Um,” she said, then dropped her voice to a hiss. “Your skirt is tucked up into your waistband.” I reached around to discover that I’d been walking around for 30 minutes with my flanks and one buttock exposed to the fresh spring air.

age 27: On a fine summer day, I propped open the door to the posh boutique where I worked. In the process, I somehow slipped off the doorsill, tumbled onto the sidewalk, and found myself sprawled on the curb, limbs in the street, my fine linen frock tossed up over my head baring my panty-clad bum to the denizens of my small town. I stood up, smoothed down my skirts and frills, waved reassuringly to the small crowd that had assembled (including a car that screeched to a halt a few feet from me, to help or to gawk), and went back to work.

age 38: Donning the fuzzy fuchsia slipper-socks sent (along with an adorable handmade nightie) by my sister, I announced, “These things are slippery. They’ll kill me.” That might sound like hyperbole, but The Fella knows me well enough to hear the truth when it’s spoken: he urged me not to wear them, even for a moment. I scoffed, “Hmmph, I think I can survive one night.” Three minutes later, he heard a series of ominous thumps and slamming sounds, then me meekly calling out, “I’m okay!”

This barely skims the surface of embarrassments. Half-expect this to become a series. Category, even.

Spectacle

My vision is astonishingly poor. My first instinctive act upon waking is to reach out for my glasses; if my hand does not immediately fall upon them where they were carefully placed at night, a small panic ensues because, you see, I cannot find my glasses without my glasses.

I cannot read without my glasses or contacts. If I hold a book close enough for the blurs to resolve into text, my own face blocks out the light necessary for reading.

All I’m saying: these glasses, they are powerful. One old boyfriend would urge me to hand them ’round the table at the coffeehouse, assuring his friends, “When you put them on, you can see through time.”

For the first time in many years, I have new glasses, with a markedly stronger prescription. Understandably, it takes a while for the visual cortex to reconcile itself to the exciting new world outside the brainpan. I’m having just a smidge of trouble with depth perception, by which I mean I am banging about like a drunken raccoon in a blindfold. Some notes to myself on the fine-tuning of perception:

– That butterfly flittering charmingly about you is a few inches away, not a foot or more, and if you inhale sharply it will be perilously close to getting sucked into your mouth.

-Yes, those are your own feet, so tiny and distant, on the pavement. It is not strictly necessary to watch them at all times.

– Quit blinking already.

– Perhaps you should wait for the walk signal and not cross against the light, no matter how reassuringly distant that car seems to be.

– Those large starfish-shaped blobs moving around outside your field of vision are people. They, too, are closer than they appear, and you know some of them, so it is acceptable, nay, desirable, to look at them and say hello.

– It is not strictly necessary to look directly out the exact center of your spectacle lenses at all times; you are allowed, even encouraged, to use your (now sadly limited) peripheral vision, which will save others the sight of your disconcerting new tendency to turn the entire upper body toward any object of interest, you freak.

– Look out, you’re gonna walk straight into that stop sign! OUCH! … Told ya.