Who’s the Alien?

May 25, 2014 at 1:26 am (By Amba)

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?


  1. amba12 said,

    OK, I’m “getting” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles better this morning. It’s not about travel hassles, it’s about how being out of your element, losing control, having all your inhibitions, boundaries, tastes, distastes, wishes, and fears violated, surviving frustration and disgust, can open your heart and make you a better human being. It’s a morality play. It’s not as “of its time” as I thought, it’s kind of outside of time.

    That was just so not what I was set up to expect, which was a side-bustingly hilarious movie about how awful travel can be. NOT!

    It was very striking that, while we’re now used to the word “fuck” being thrown around with reckless abandon from the first minute of a comedy, in this movie it was very noticeably absent for the entire first 20 minutes. I wondered if that was a reflection of the times, or what? In retrospect, I realize it was a reflection of the Steve Martin character’s uptight sensibility. It made us share his prissy world. Saving that word for the scene at the car rental counter when it comes spewing out of him about 50 times — that may have given the rest of Hollywood permission to henceforth splash the word around like a toddler playing with shit, but if so, they missed the point. Besides being the one scene that really DOES hilariously capture the pitch of frustration we have all experienced while traveling, that scene is a pivotal piece of character development, the beginning of the character’s transformation. It’s genius.

    R.I.P., John Hughes.

  2. mockturtle said,

    Does Hollywood reflect our culture or influence it? I know the answer to that one every time I hear female ‘journalists’ across the country all babbling away with their truly irritating Valley Girl voices . Or, alas, when I look at [or listen to] my grandchildren. :-(

  3. Icepick said,

    Annie, back in high school in the 1980s, everyone who was going anywhere in life had a high-concept plot point going for them. If you didn’t, you weren’t. Looking back on results, I’d have to say it was an accurate judgement.

  4. amba12 said,

    Ice: so does that mean Hollywood was influencing our lives or reflecting them? MT: no kidding!

  5. Icepick said,

    It also helped to have a certain moral flexibility. Wall Street taught us that. (Charlie Sheen’s character was “winning!” in that movie until he got a sense of morality. And then he lost it all – the money, the power, the prestige and the exquisite Darryl Hannah. So remember boys, if you want the exquisite Darryl Hannah (and all the rest of it), lose the sense of morality. Oliver Stone wrote great immortality plays.)

  6. Icepick said,

    Both. It was a positive feedback loop.

  7. amba12 said,

    “Greed is good.” Seems that’s been the motto ever since.

  8. amba12 said,

    So Planes, Trains is more like The Inferno (it is “The Divine Comedy,” after all) or Pilgrim’s Progress than it is like Airplane,

  9. Icepick said,

    It was the motto before that too. Stone just made it explicit.

    So what were Martin’s Purgatorio and Paradiso?

  10. kngfish said,

    Ha ha! Wow,this is the first time I remember, I think I got you writing. Maybe I’m wrong there, but it feels like it!

    I have no idea why this question even concerns you. Am I in/out/besides American culture? I have no idea, nor do I care! Look, I take what I want from all culture as I find it, high, low, new, old, “popular” or not, I use what I need and move on. Why do you even care if you “fit”? (or don’t) A lot of my mistrust of those leaning towards “academic culture” is their lazy and uncritical assumptions about what they are “above” or what they “Can’t” interact with for some silly ass “religious” reasons about cultural products that make a fig of sense to me.

    Do I like….Tacitus, Mad Men, Schopenhauer, The Cramps(a band), Jascha Heifetz, Nietzsche and the Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge stories of Karl Barks? Hell, to the YEAH! to all of the above!

    Know Your Bliss….and the rest is just dross, whether it comes from Harvard or Warner Brothers.

  11. amba12 said,

    Ice: Paradiso, clearly, was the newly appreciated Thanksgiving dinner with his family.

  12. amba12 said,

    KngFish, I don’t care whether I’m personally in or out of American culture (I’m fine with it “as is”). I’m just trying to figure out whether having been outside of it to the extent I was gives me some outsider’s insight into the bizarreness of the relationship between American comedy and reality in those decades, or whether I’m missing something that’s self-evident to everyone else. In other words, in this case I’m not writing about me (except as a means to an end), but about the culture.

  13. amba12 said,

    Obviously, if I was enjoying Star Trek and Kojak, and I was, I don’t have an exclusive high-culture fixation. It’s specifically comedy I’m talking about, a particular era and kind of comedy, call it the Cocaine Absurd. I love Louis C.K. and I loved George Carlin, but they seem more connected to actual life.

  14. Icepick said,

    Amba, American comedy has had some sort of problem since about 1989. It seems very … meta … for lack of a better word, and very self-centered on the writers hang-ups about being comedians more than anything else. It also seems to be a way for people to state that they’re not like the rest of the rabble, but are better than them. Thus a lot of comedy is about putting down the everyday, rather than remarking on its absurdities, vagaries and oddities.

    Personally I blame Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and the Humanities departments of American universities from about 1950 onwards. But I may have too much Allan Bloom on the brain!

  15. Icepick said,

    Thus a lot of comedy is about putting down the everyday, rather than remarking on its absurdities, vagaries and oddities.

    Or amusing pleasures! There’s much to be said for listening to one’s four year-old talk for putting a smile on one’s face.

  16. karen said,

    On CBS- about the only shows we are able to watch w/2 still quite young girls- are ~The Big Bang Theory~ &sometimes ~The Millers~. Even those are riddled w/insinuations of sex &smut. Ok- not so subtle or insinuated.

    I have a very sensitive barometer when it comes to shit like that. I don’t think i’m a prude- i just think i often feel like i’ve been slapped in the face when i hear the baseness of these new comedies. They aren’t as funny as say- 3’s Company or the Golden Girls or Taxi. They all now have one button to push- the same little pony to ride… &i don’t feel the pleasure in that.

    Also, the nastiness of discourse is so tiring. Defensiveness, cheap shots and downright kicking the other when they are face down on the floor makes me feel shame in watching.

    This morning i was listening to Npr- and 2interesting topics caught my ear. One was about the constant putdown of the female as a body rather than a being- in our culture. How sexualized everything is and how the culture is reflected in that, especially the music videos of today… &the other was… i can’t remember- hah!! In hearing these woman pine over the days when…oh- i know- same topic, different perspective on men and women and interactions… something about Fathers.

    This made so much/&so little sense to me, in hearing these women opine… who is of the era when Patriarchy was mortifying to the enlightened??? And, who was of the time when women could wear and say and look and do what-ever-the-hell they wanted w/out any adverse repercussions on their character or their gender? By that, i do not mean we can’t do or say or be or look- i mean… we have to dance to the tune we called to begin w/. Pink saying we can call e/other and ourselves whores, sluts- bitches- and take the sting of the word- the Truth of the original meaning- away by using it everywhere- neutering it…is a smokescreen to Truth everywhere. I think, personally- we are now the anti-culture- we can eat, drink, sleep and pee wherever we want to and who can say otherwise. Even in private {;0p.

  17. karen said,

    … in conclusion to my rushed thoughts above, i sighed when i listened to Npr and said, “Duh”. And, have we come full circle yet in the appreciation of being female?

  18. amba12 said,

    Ice: Allan Bloom is a fine thing to have on the brain.

  19. mockturtle said,

    And there is the ‘bimbo phenomenon’. Not, I believe, what we in the women’s rights movement envisioned for our daughters. :-( Why do all the female news anchors look more like they are posing for Cosmopolitan than presenting the news?

  20. mockturtle said,

    But to answer your original question: I believe we are the aliens—strangers in a strange [and getting stranger] land.

  21. mockturtle said,

    Karen, there is such as thing as truth and, as you point out, people just aren’t interested any more in finding it.

  22. kngfish said,

    Karen, these contemporary shows are worse than 3’s company? Suzanne Somers did not become famous then because of her Blanche Dubois! She, like her peers on Charlie’s Angels, were called “jiggle queens” back then, and were responsible for the Collapse of The Nation back then. Suzanne went on to be famous for being the spokesperson for the ThighMaster, and yes, the ButtMaster .

    As for the tone of comedy itself….yeah, I have no particular love for most of it, but look at as an idea that sticks with creators of something which persists until…something else overrights it. And that always happens, although when and how long something persists is hard to figure.

  23. mockturtle said,

    My idea of high comedy is [i]Young Frankenstein[/i]. :-D But, then, when I used to get high, everything was funny. ;-)

  24. mockturtle said,

    Ooops. I mean Young Frankenstein ;-)

  25. kngfish said,

    BTW, a brief point about John Hughes. Even more than SNL I think the defining part of our humor are the writers of the National Lampoon. (Not that there isn’t considerable overlap!) I know the writer/director Hughes, creator of those modern fables, Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller, and Home Alone from his famous Nat Lamp scribbles like “The Civil War Between The Negroes and The Jews”, or “How To Tell What Girls Look Like Under Their Clothes”. An amazing combination of suburban sentimentality and supersnark!

  26. kngfish said,

    Young Frankenstein, Mock? Tell me if we could make Blazing Saddles today! :0

  27. amba12 said,

    And if not, why not?

  28. amba12 said,

    I think part of the reason why women continue to be relentlessly reduced to their bodies, even as they now work and earn money alongside men, is that our entire culture is so relentlessly visual (which itself translates to male bias in the culture because it’s men who tend to be more visually oriented). As we spend more and more time indoors looking at screens, our other senses AND our sense of subjective “inner” space are dwindling. We judge everyone, not just women, by their outside — their appearance, performance, impression, possessions. Our abilities to detect invisible qualities at all—whether it’s “the scent of a woman,” the sound of a voice, or a soul—are dwindling.

  29. kngfish said,

    I’d agree that our ability to detect invisible qualities is reduced….due to our more compressed sense of time? Or were those invisible qualities overrated in the past and are now getting their “just” due?

    And yet it’s those more verbal, more emotionally connected women (if you believe that to be true) who are doing better in colleges, and perhaps in culture overall? We have need for more jobs that would have been done primarily by men in the past….but hasn’t the whole culture moved away from praising such jobs?

  30. wj said,

    I think it helps, when inclined to worry about being out of touch with “American culture” to distinguish between “pop culture” and culture overall. “Pop culture” (which includes most of the sitcoms I have encountered) seems to be aimed primarily at those who have nothing (outside maybe work) to do with their time and no interests in the rest of the world. Which, of course, pretty well lets out everybody around here.

    Karen, I stumbled across a sitcom called “Growing up Fisher” which actually turned out to be amusing. And lacked the “features” that you dislike in most other sitcoms. (Maybe having 30 minute episodes meant they didn’t have to fill airtime with smut aftrer running out of anything better to say?) I’m afraid it is done for the year. But if your cable company includes past shows, it might be worth checking out.

  31. karen said,

    wj- thank you for the head’s up, but we don’t get cable down our road- and we don’t have a dish or satellite, either. By choice, actually. We might miss a lot of opportunities to learn, but-OTOH, we seem to spend more time together w/out the amusement of tv. Trade offs!!

    I just googled a show i found so amusing back in 1989- it was probably stupid, poor acting- i haven’t watched a youtube(if they even have one)- Heartland (1989 TV series). I especially liked the episode where the younger Grandson tried to ~cross~ a pig w/a sheep, but couldn’t keep the lamb’s wool seat cover on the pig long enough to entice the ram. I still chuckle over that!! Maybe it’s my rural sensibilities :0)

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