Thursday, August 21, 2008

Modern Problems


Cheech and Chong films of the '70s and '80s were cultural milestones, and wildly successful, in spite of their unavoidable looseness of structure and limited production values.

Hey what do you expect; they're dope movies.

They're on DVD, but in plain-vanilla versions with no extras. They've been effectively dumped. (Universal must somehow be embarrased by their irresponsible content. Which is why they're so perfect for their times.) They're not available for midnight shows either - no 35mm prints are in circulation, and possibly aren't in existence anymore.

John Landis's "Animal House" in 1978 started a whole wave of rude college-age adolescent films, and great hay of being irresponsible. "Animal House" owes much of its frission to the fact that everyone is supposed to be in college and above such antics by then.

That was a booze movie.

Films about drugs don't seem to be popular in the modern culture so much anymore. The grosses of "Harold and Kumar," "Half-Baked," and arguably "Pineapple Express" bear out the fact that stoners don't tend to go out to see themselves depicted in movies. It's tempting to say that they aren't clued in, but that's a cliche' - they're all over the shit. They simply don't get around to seeing it before it leaves theatres. Like most of us.

(Of course, the DVD impulse buys 6 months later at 7-Eleven makes up.)

Is pot humor no longer relevant? I'm not so sure; at least 75% of the adults I know do or have smoked pot (maybe I'm running in the wrong circles). It's not like cocaine, which seems to have receded into the been-there-regretted-that revisionist phase of the past. It's so '80s.

Being politically correct has ruined humor in films. When's the last time you were really shocked in a comedy? Judd Apatow's films have their share of rude humor, but I'm cautious of their lurching half-assed gentleness that's disguised as pants-down adolescent confession. His films, even the excessive (on the wrong levels) "Superbad," blithely sidesteps the angry base heart of more socially aware "slob" comedies like "Animal House," with everything from handjobs to dead horses to dean's wives, or real counter-culture smartbombs like Ralph Bakshi's "Coonskin" or "Heavy Traffic" (which demonstrated 30 years ago a truly subversive disregard for boundaries I don't think Bakshi quite understood or could ever harness again).

These films - these comedies - seemed somehow dangerous. The new generation of "American Pie" films don't - they're closer to the fart jokes of old Mel Brooks. Sure, they get the parents into the act. Why should the teens have all the Porky's fun? But it's grade school softball. The Mary's hair gel bit in "There's Something About..." is only 30 seconds long. They didn't know what to do with it.

Eddie Murphy used to make us nervous - until he began talking to the animals in Anthony Newley remakes.

Even John Landis couldn't remain irresponsible forever. He killed Vic Morrow and a couple of Cambodian kids, and his career (which was meteoric if short) thereafter hit the "Old Boyfriends" brick wall of "Oscar." "Three Amigos" already had us gunning for him anyway.

But in that dark period he did sneak "Into The Night" past the thought police - which may be the ultimate "up all night" film. It stars a gimbel-limbed and sleep-deprived Jeff Goldblum, our lady of the cocaine-mistress Michelle Pfeiffer, a hopeless spy subplot, and is fueled by a speed adrenaline that's relentless, seductive, and hypnotic.

It's not just content - it's attitude. It not only depicts transgressive behavior - it personifies it to its core. There's something peculiarly Michael Milken/Wall Street takeover about it - ruthless and material. "After Hours" and "Miracle Mile" are two more late '80s cocaine up-all-night films which, if viewed through the right rose-colored glasses, may seem like precedents to Apatow/Rogan's "Pineapple Express," with drug-informed meditations on being "up," being out of control, out of your element and surrounded by excess.

"After Hours" disguises itself as a romantic comedy. "Miracle Mile," perhaps more revealingly, turns into an apocalyptic nightmare.

The difference between those 2 and Apatow's/Rogan's "Pineapple..." is that the later is a pot film. The others are cocaine films. There's something personal, intense, and paranoid about cocaine that the laid-back feeling of pot doesn't quite translate when drug dealers are being shot 100 times right next to you and bleeding all over your serge suit.

Rogan thinks its a right joke. Landis and De Jarnatt are stone serious.

Cheech and Chong were of their times. They reflected the age, and the audiences that partaked in them. In the old days, you could actually smoke pot in movie theatres. I grew up in a simpler, less uptight movie-going age. The security guards didn't come crack a flashlight upside your head when you lit up back in the midnight movie years. All they were worried about was someone sneaking in the side exit. (Now they're worried you'll steal the movie. You already did.)

The moving-going experience is different now. Since you can't fire up while the film's going on, you might as well wait until the DVD or Tivo it on PPV and have the party at home.

In 1981, Chevy Chase starred in "Modern Problems." He develops supernatural powers, and wrecks (and reeks) havoc with his neighbors and bosses. At one point he snorts a 15-foot-long line of "demon powder" (talk about art mirroring life) and masturbates Patti D'Arbanville "telekinetically" to a wild orgasm.

Just another party movie. This got a PG rating. The kids could come. It was directed by Ken Shapiro, a NFL cameraman who hit it big on the midnight circuit with his "The Groove Tube," the most memorable scene of which involves an actual talking penis facing you on the big screen for about 4 minutes.

This wouldn't come across the same way in this age of video, iPods and home screens. You'd just have to be there, seeing it at midnight after a couple of 40 oz.'rs or a shared spliff, with 100 other impressionable college students. Seeing it at home, by yourself with access to a remote, seems a bit cold and pointless.

They don't make 'em like they used to.

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