Saturday, 18 July 2009

National Lampoon’s Animal House

First of all – the context. How much you enjoy a film, is largely to do with how you see it. When I first tried watching The Crow it was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and I watched it while tidying my room. I didn’t think much of it. One of the greatest modern film noir horror stories, was lost in my distraction and the situation. There are films to be focussed on, and films to be treated as Saturday matinees.

Also I am a 32 year old English guy, who has never seen Animal House.

Knowing my wife would never sit down and watch it, I snuck it in between other things – while she was in the shower, doing her bit of the cooking, or on her way home from work. In 4 instalments, I watched the film, alone, and generally in the early evening. I gave it my full attention, and was well aware that this is reckoned to be a comedy classic. Empire gave it 4 stars out of 5. “Arguably the most influential comedy of our time.” So my expectations were pretty high. IMDB users have given a score of 7.6 out of 10 and they aren’t generally far off.

For the 4 people who read my twitter feed (and the 62 people who think that I might buy their porn/dating/entertainment services if they follow me too) I put a few of my thoughts down for them as I watched. My first tweet was “12 minutes in. Not laughed once yet. Should I have?” I mention laughing – I mean internal laughter too. I hadn’t identified a joke, or a comedy situation by that point. Of course, I then identified that certain other things had been referencing this film – most notably an episode of Futurama called “robot house” when Bender enrols in Mars University. One of the robots spends the whole time in a little beanie hat, which now becomes funnier, as I have now seen the reference material (I laughed a lot after first seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as it made the Simpsons so much funnier.) Next tweet, after the Futurama reference, was “36 minutes, I sort of smirked”. I have no idea what I smirked at. Following this – “This film is so bad, I’ve stopped forward winding the adverts” (in my defence it was on at 3am on ITV4, so the ads were entirely pretty girls trying to get me to ring premium rate phone lines).

I suspect this was the first film to dare to show pretty girls with their tops off. However – the accessibility of boobs is now so easy, my standards are considerably higher. My tweet that the “topless pillow fight would have been better if they weren’t all wearing MASSIVE granny pants” made me realise that this is something that would have been cutting edge in 1978. I remember when “Y Tu Mama Tambien” was on in our local cinema, and some of the scrotey kids came in, knowing it would have some nudity – they went straight out again when they discovered the main reason for the 18 certificate was a pair of teenagers masturbating into a swimming pool. I guess they would have loved a topless pillow fight – granny pants or otherwise.

I went a little controversial on my next one. “Belushi. Only remembered as good because he died early? With him on the guitar smashing at parties though”. Everyone who has ever been jealous of the smarmy bloke who plays the guitar and has the girls cooing on his every note has wanted to do that. Otherwise, he is playing quite the most charmless and one dimensional character I’ve ever seen in cinema. Deeply unpleasant and unlikable. Anyone whose party trick is crushing a can on his own forehead gets no sympathy from me.

I was now a good half way through the film, and had not identified any plot. I found myself entirely sympathizing with the group of new kids – who have somehow made it to college (later I discover this is the only reason they aren’t being drafted to fight in the Vietnam war, which I can sympathise with, but if going to college is the only way you are going to avoid getting killed in a ludicrous conflict, then surely you’d do all you can to stay there), they are searching for acceptance, friendship and like minded people. Unfortunately for them, they apparently only have two choices – the posh, rich and intelligent kids, or the complete brain dead losers. There was apparently no third choice. The posh kids wouldn’t have them, and the losers couldn’t care less, so the join Delta House, (I still can’t work out where the name “Animal House” came from. I had always assumed it was the name of the fraternity, or at least a comedy misnomer, used in the film – I guess it was descriptive, but maybe it would be explained in the deleted scenes on the DVD?) who are already on “double secret probation” (what the hell is that – how are you supposed to know you are in trouble if you aren’t told about it – that’s like smacking the kid “when Dad gets home”. He won’t know what he’s being punished for!) After various illegal activities, underage drinking, underage sex, hints at date rape (we believe his conscience got the better of him) horse murder, in addition to academic infarctions, such as NOT GOING TO ANY CLASSES or having grade point averages of less than zero, they seem somewhat surprised and shocked when they are expelled.

I did identify a few attempts at humour in the process:
• The inability to open a bra strap has now become such a cliché – and I know it wasn’t a new joke when this film used it – that it is purely not funny.
• The moment when Belushi’s character puts pencils up his nose while in the Dean’s office might have been funny, if he’d removed them on replacement of the Dean’s glasses – although maybe the fact that I was expecting that to happen makes it funnier, although not that much funnier.
• Sex with 13 year old girls isn’t funny either.
• Blatant racism in having a bunch of white kids walk into a bar full of black people, and immediately get threatened with flick-knives, - is that funny because my preconceptions are that this really isn’t realistic behaviour?
The closest thing for me to an actual comedy moment, was when the house was being emptied and a cow was led down the front steps.

In protest at their expulsion, our (anti?)heroes decide to get their revenge, ruining the homecoming parade, an event that the good people of the town were very much enjoying, they assault, molest and pretty much attempted murder their way to notoriety, finishing off with driving their “death wagon” or some such into the platform holding the Dean and his wife. How am I supposed to have any sympathy for people who have no idea that they are in control of their own destinies, that they are guilty of all the charges against them, and completely deserved everything that happened to them? If there was any sense of injustice against Delta House, it might have been a different matter, but these idiots did themselves no favours at all.

31 years have not been kind to Animal House. I grew up with Alison Hannigan doing things with her flute in American pie. With Terrence and Philip singing about inappropriate relationships with their uncles in South Park the Movie. Having your trousers pissed on by a drunken lout (and accepting it) is gross, but not funny. Humour has moved on, and maybe going back in time to where it all started was never going to work for me.

Is it right to love something for what it was, or what you remember it for? Yes – totally. You can’t say 10 Million Years BC is rubbish because Jurassic Park looked so good. Maybe if it was 1978 and I was a bit drunk, at the cinema with my friends, and I’d not already seen Austin Powers, Superbad, or Clerks, maybe that would be the time and the place for me to enjoy Animal House, but I think for me – I’m never going to get it.

Next time - The Goonies - One 90 minute knob gag.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Michael Jackson's “Bad”.

Like many others, I was saddened and surprised to hear of the untimely death of Michael Jackson. I was a fan. I had the albums, some of which had been purchased multiple times across various formats. I even bought “Invincible” (how ironic a title for what would become his final release) although I waited until it was £2.99 in the Tesco bargain bucket before buying, on account of being pretty sure it would be a big old pile of bilge (it was – I don’t think I even stuck with it till the end of the initial listen – it is there for completeness, although I don’t have all the Motown stuff - I’m more of an Epic fan myself).

I suspect I’ve mentioned before, that it is very hard to give an album purchased at the age of 32, when you have several hundred (it might be into the thousands by now) albums to choose from, any real love and attention. I love the Pet Shop Boys enough to buy their albums on the day they come out, in special edition form, even though I know they’ll be discounted soon enough, but I don’t think I’ve listened to the new one more than half a dozen times.

I have a theory on value for money in purchased material. Consider anything you buy (CD, DVD, Blu-Ray) to be worth one pound per hour’s worth of entertainment. Therefore, if two of you watch a film twice (ever) it is worth £8. (2 hours x £1 x 2 people x 2 viewings). That copy of Invincible is worth about 75p, my Pet Shop Boys CD is worth about £8 already, as Lisa’s given it a couple of listens (we saw them live the other day, stunning show, and Lisa needed to research the new stuff). My copy of My Chemical Romance’s “The Black Parade” is probably worth £20 already (it is so good, I listen to it all the time and relive my angsty youth.)

My cassette of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” must be “worth” hundreds based on this scale. It’s 1987. An unusual looking guy in an amazing outfit has made a great album. I know it is – my friends (HannaH for one) have been going on about nothing but for months) and I want it. There is only one problem.

I’m 10.

My pocket money is about 50p a week, and I suspect I’m hopelessly addicted to Mojos. I don’t have a tape player. Or any tapes. Every so often we’ll go to Monmouth shopping, and I’ll pop into Woolworths, and covet the cassette of this album. It calls to me. I want it, but I can’t afford it.

January comes, and its my 11th birthday. Mum takes me to Monmouth. We have about half an hour before the shops close, and the January sales are still happening. I’ve asked for money for my birthday, with a view to adding up the (hopefully) £5 notes I’ll get from all my relatives, in order to be able to afford my dream. I believe I totalled £30.

First we go to Woolies – £5.49p later and I now own Michael Jackson’s Bad. Then it is time to find something to play it on. There is a midi system in the lounge, but a boy needs music on his own terms.

Off to Dixons (that’s what became Currys Digital in the 21st century kids), and we find just what we’re looking for. Radio and single cassette. £25. It’s probably a Matsui, the cheap as chips anybrand that only Dixons sell. After some (attempted?) negotiating with the staff, (the sale finished the day before, but they strangely left the sign up, I’m not sure if they agreed to the price or mum advanced me the next ten weeks worth of allowance) it was mine. 5.55pm, they shut up shop, and back to the car and home.

That cassette was my pride and joy. I listened to it so many times I learned the words by heart, then I looked up the words in the 2 feet of folded inlay card (downloads are killing inlay cards) and re-learned them correctly, then went back to what I’d worked out originally, as I couldn’t sing the actual words and make them sound like MJ did. (how is that “Come On” how?)

Of course then I started finding out about the man. The Oxygen tent. The chimp. The llama, the elephant man’s bones, the plastic surgery. None of that mattered. It was all about the music for me. I got blank tapes and recorded the albums of Off the Wall and Thriller (since purchased on CD – in case the copyright police are reading – home taping isn’t killing music, it is freeing it to a whole new (poor) audience, and we’ll buy it eventually).

Dangerous was the first CD I ever owned, and was held very highly in my affections. I never truly loved Off the Wall or Thriller like I love Bad and Dangerous, because I wasn’t there. (I remember staying up late to watch the Thriller video on channel 4, but mostly because it gave me proper nightmares. In my defence – I was only six.)

I never did understand hysterical fans. Those who would scream and cry at concerts, who’d queue all night for tickets and (now I know) wee into bottles all day to ensure their place at the front of a stadium concert. I’ve done my fair share of front row gigs (and I did queue all night at Wimbledon once) and it is pretty amazing getting that close to the action, and being able to reach out and touch your heroes. There was quite a tear in my eye when the Pet Shop Boys launched into “It’s a Sin” the other night. (IMHO the best pop song ever written – sorry MJ).

I registered for, but didn’t attempt to buy tickets for MJ’s comeback gigs. I would have loved to have seen a fully in-form Michael Jackson performing the hits and reminding the world why we loved him, why we ALL bought Thriller, and nearly all of us bought Bad. Somehow I knew it wasn’t meant to be. Every expected gig and personal appearance for the last 15 years has ended in disappointment, and I didn’t want my memory to be of that. I also didn’t expect the gigs to happen, but not for the reason they didn’t happen.

I’m not going to go too far into the negative aspects of the Michael Jackson story. I hope he was innocent, but anyone who lets kids who weren’t their own share their bed is more than a little odd, and I hope and believe in his mind anything that happened was completely innocent – but I agree with my big brother that someone really ought to have pointed out that this is not the done thing. People will make assumptions - there will be smoke. In many aspects of his life, no-one was able to tell him when to stop. From spending money to having sleepovers, I have a horrible feeling that if someone told him this wasn’t the best course of action, then he would have found someone who thought that it was.

As has been the case with many who have been taken before their time, the surprise seems to be mistaken for additional grief. I’m sad, but I’m not 36 hours of blanket news coverage sad.

I think the media are making sure MJ will be remembered as a Groundbreaking Genius, with one or two issues in his personal life. This is probably fair, as this is the only thing which is beyond reasonable doubt. People ask why he paid $20,000,000 to have a child abuse case dropped. If someone had reason to accuse me of such things (I don’t share my bed with anyone except my wife) and I could pay an equivalent percentage of my personal wealth, probably the price of a packet of crisps at the time to make those accusations go away, I think I would.

I listened to the first “side” of Bad on the tube today. I still love it.

I still can’t make the lyrics I’m hearing to “Speed Demon” make any sense at all.

That makes me love it all the more.