Nature of Shame:
Unopened Scorpion Blu-ray purchased because Etoile was Black Swan before Black Swan was Black Swan. And I don’t care who you are — it’s good to see 1989 Jennifer Connelly.
Hooptober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s #Watch1989
I kicked Hooptober up a notch by watching a horror movie that wasn’t really a horror movie at all, despite the imagery of a black swan beak-stabbing a ballerina on the gorgeous poster art.
Etoile Elevator Pitch
Claire, an American ballerina (Connelly), enrolls in a prestigious Hungarian ballet school. Meanwhile, Jason (Gary McCleery), a young man assisting his uncle (Charles Durning) in a quest for antique clocks, falls in love with the beautiful ballerina. As their relationship blossoms, Claire becomes inexplicably obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Strange happenings intervene and Jason becomes determined to unravel the mysterious powers behind it all.
‘Etoile’ Means Star
Etoile toiled in obscurity until the release Black Swan — at which point it toiled in near obscurity as a few seen-everythings lauded Peter Del Monte’s film as a clear source of inspiration for Aronofksy’s Black Swan. Certainly thematic connections exist. The experience of playing the lead in Swan Lake causing fractures in personality. The dancers’ connections to the ballet approximating religious zealotry. Aronofsky also incorporated elements of The Red Shoes (1948) and The Fly (1986). It’s not exactly the 1:1 parallel that some have suggested.
Del Monte’s film feels more like a toothless Suspiria (1977) than Black Swan feels like Etoile. If this were an SAT question, the answer would have been Etoile : Suspiria :: Black Swan : The Red Shoe Fly (Don’t Bother Me).
From the opening scene where Claire arrives at the Hungarian ballet school, Etoile invokes Suspiria‘s alienation and importunate old world mysteries. Both stories depict the attempted corruption of the ballerina by apparent supernatural forces. This narrative easily integrates into the obsessive and often torturous world of ballet. That the act of training for ballet takes the form of torture permits the co-mingling of high art and horror — something that Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria re-imagining made far more than subtext.
Etoile pumps the breaks as it approaches and dabbles in genre motifs. The story downplays witchcraft and the ghostly presence that invades Claire’s life. Though Del Monte doesn’t play a smoke and mirror game with regard to the explanation for the ballerina’s obsession, he doesn’t at all sensationalize Claire’s descent into “madness.” Argento goes full tilt on the grotesquerie of witches, and Aronofsky mines Natalie Portman’s psychological and physical trauma. Etoile just is and while that makes for a mostly pleasant experience, it’s also forgettable in light of the other far more successful films in this unsettling cinema of ballet.
Final ‘Etoile’ Thoughts
Connelly gives an engaging performance in a film that doesn’t really provide her with the meaty bits that allowed Jessica Harper and Natalie Portman to engage the audience beyond the face-value substance of the part. As Connelly’s Claire becomes consumed by her “upcoming performance,” Gary McCleery becomes a leading stiff. He’s not bad, but he’s an American that looks the part of a B-grade actor who’d star in a lesser Lucio Fulci film. For what it’s worth, he’s worked with Peter Yates and Paul Mazursky, and I’m certain he was also wallpaper in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Harry & Tonto.
Etoile‘s chockablock full of gothic imagery and Del Monte’s final climax contains some memorable cross-cutting between the Swan Lake production and Jason’s struggle to free Claire’s soul from the tormented production. In the end, however, it’s all a rather bloodless and tepid psychological thriller without much bite and a total waste of the clock-obsessed millionaire played by Charles Durning. In the on-disc interview with director Peter Del Monte, he expresses regret about the swan “special effects.” The production ran out of money, but the demonic swan show must go on. He might not be pleased to hear this, but after Etoile rolls its credits — that swan is the one piece of the film you’ll remember. It’s not a bad film, and in fact I’d suggest Etoile‘s worth a watch just for some visuals alone, but it just fails to establish a consistent and memorable tenor.
Nature of Shame:
Unopened Blu-ray that I ordered years ago for some really good reason I’m sure.
Hooptober Challenge Checklist: Decade: 1980’s #Watch1989
Kicking off Hooptober with some unseen Wes Craven from 1989 to combine multiple misguided moviewatching endeavors: #Watch1989 and the Cinema Shame Hooptober Watchpile Shame-a-thon. There will be many more as I’ve saved all 1989 horror movies for this wonderful time of the year.
Shocker Elevator Pitch
A local teen football star (Peter Berg) catches a serial killer / cable TV repairman, condemning him to the electric chair — only this bad guy has found the Satanic loophole to transform him into radio waves/electricity in order to continue his murderous ways after his execution.
But radio waves and electricity are not the same thing.
I’m not sure that matters. Nobody cares about science. They might as well be the same thing.
No. They’re really not. Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation. This is relevant. Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of radio waves through his unified theory of electromagnetism in 1870. In 1886, Heinrich Hertz applied Maxwell’s findings to construct a method by which he could send and receive controlled radio waves by using household goods. The unit of frequency of an electromagnetic wave (1 cycle per second) is called a Hertz in his honor. So in a way Heinrich was also responsible for this website, Thirty Hertz Rumble.
You’re losing readers before you even start the review.
I don’t have readers.
I can’t argue with you there.
The ‘Shocking’ Laws of Electricity
Wes Craven’s Shocker follows a predictable blueprint. Though the parameters have shifted somewhat, Shocker directly recalls A Nightmare on Elm Street in the ways teenagers take on a big bad who’s found an alternative reality through which he can perpetrate his grisly murders. A TV repairman with a limp comes up decidedly lacking against the hugely charismatic Freddy Krueger. It’s no stretch to reimagine this as a late-series Elm Street with Robert England’s Krueger using the television/movies to invade dreams. Mitch Pileggi’s an adequate presence and boosts Shocker‘s dark humor, but there’s a sizable fray in Shocker‘s wiring that he can’t possibly overcome.
Shocker should have been better — could have been better if not for the brazen disregard for the rules of the game. Once Pinker sidesteps his own execution by becoming some kind of electrical charge that can be transferred from person to person or through electrical wiring or via television waves. There seems to be no limitations and therefore no way for the viewer to feel any real stakes. When a villain seems capable of doing anything he pleases, it’s impossible to feel any tension. Shocker‘s status as a black comedy helps ameliorate these shortcomings, but without an ability to foster suspense it can’t rise above horror or comedy mediocrity.
In combating a villain of limitless power, Jonathan Parker’s (Berg) actions to finally corral the electromagnetic killer also feel arbitrary — meant to end a film rather than combat a foe with any narrative relevance. When you completely disregard setting boundaries for the villain, the hero must also follow suit. While the final battle showcase an elaborate special effects sequence and provide a playground for Craven’s finest self-referential humor, it also becomes escapist frivolity completely detached from Shocker‘s already scattered logic.
Final ‘Shocker’ Thoughts
Minor, fleeting entertainment. Wes Craven’s horror has a definable quality in the polish and innovation; however, in Shocker the polish and apparently boundless creativity belies the horror beneath. The slasher construct requires rules and limits to build tension. We’re left with an average, bloody comedy — based on idea that was given a more definable and effective shape in the John Ritter comedy Stay Tuned (1992).
Helen: I always like to think I live for love. What else is there? Food?
Sea of Love (1989)
At some point during my ongoing #Watch1989 marathon, I polled Twitter for some suggestions. I received many wonderful ideas — one, however, stood out due to the presentation. I wish I’d taken better notes so I could give specific credit to those who stepped forward and whispered Sea of Love, like it was a dirty, dirty, oh so dirty little secret.
I’d always been conscious of Sea of Love without knowing much about it. Al Pacino. Ellen Barkin. I could also describe the poster. Pacino pointing his gun forward like he’d been startled by the sudden arrival of a wayward James Bond gun barrel. As he turns to seize his moment, he realizes he’d mistaken the gun barrel for the space between necks of almost smooching silhouettes. Then his gun jams, and he just makes “pew pew” sounds to salvage the moment. This is where I show you exactly how all of this plays out on a two-dimensional poster. Zoom in on the look on his face. I nailed it.
It wasn’t the actual recommendation that teased me. It was the guilt behind the recommendation. I’d seen that guilt before in the eyes of moviewatchers with whom I’ve discussed the secret pleasures of Jade (1995). I queued up Sea of Love on Netflix DVD and awaited sexy times in my mailbox starring Al Pacino and perhaps the most captivating and least appreciated actress of the era, Ellen Barkin.
How Sea of Love slipped through the cracks
Released the week before Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, the two prowled the same adult-thriller audience. Both succeeded moderately, but neither left a lasting impression.
I rented Black Rain as soon as it hit video. Black Rain popped up as a rainy day movie at baseball camp. Someone gave me a Black Rain DVD. Naturally, I picked up the Blu-ray. I wasn’t Black Rain obsessed, but it was as if Black Rain was obsessed with me. Michael Douglas and his dead-eyed gaze watching from behind the bushes in my backyard. Meanwhile, Sea of Love just seemed like a lukewarm trifle, a jilted lover, the movie that lost out to the more aggressive suitor.
Based on trailers for the film, Sea of Love just looked like every other barely scandalous Hollywood thriller. For comparison’s sake, let’s watch the trailers for both Black Rain and Sea of Love. You tell me which one you’d rather watch just based on the trailer.
Sea of Love:
Black Rain or Sea of Love
Some of you probably picked Sea of Love. Congratulations on your ability to see through ham-fisted September studio marketing. Neon veins coursing through a dark and gritty Tokyo in the Black Rain trailer made me a believer. It might sound like I’m suddenly anti-Black Rain. I enjoy the movie for what it is, but those slightly guilty suggestions that brought Sea of Love to my attention understood something about the film — even if they didn’t articulate it in words.
The Appeal of Mainstream Sexy Times
Based on a screenplay by novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money), Sea of Love marks Al Pacino’s first film in four years after the disasterfest that was Revolution (1985). Despite solid scripting, plotting, and entertaining performances from Pacino and vampy Ellen Barkin, fans are often hesitant to admit their affection, like the film belongs to some kind of cultish and unsavory underbelly of mainstream cinema.
Becker’s serial-killer thriller knowingly plays with Film Noir conventions and conscripts them into a thoroughly modern genre film that also touches on existential loneliness and mid-life crises. John Goodman co-stars as Pacino’s investigative partner and provides some welcome comic relief. It might feel like a guilty pleasure, but Sea of Love joins a storied tradition of steamy 1980s R-rated potboilers born out of the subtext and embers of Film Noir.
There’s a major difference, however, between Sea of Love and something like Body Heat. Body Heat, for all its deliciously sweaty double-crossing (and Ted Danson) wears its Noir convention as proudly as Noel Coward wore ascots. Price’s script dares to transplant and update the formula to foreground modern anxieties and uniquely late-20th-century ennui.
Al Pacino’s Frank Keller appears on screen already in the middle of an existential midlife crisis. The killer finds his/her prey through the singles ads in the paper. While the technology of finding love through a print publication dates the film, the mechanics behind the narrative device easily translate to online dating. Looking for love while simultaneously hunting a killer provides a powerful playground for emotional fragility and cocksure swagger from both leads. Al Pacino’s not the only scene hungry thespian in this movie (and I’m not referencing Sam Jackson’s boisterous 20-second appearance).
The Ellen Barkin Factor
Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (and scores of other classic Noir), at once obsessed with cash money and Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, Frank’s blinded by his desire for connection, for this intervention into his ordinary New York life. Midway between greenhorn and retirement. Divorced. Lonely. Not only is his police detective fallible, but he’s often downright unlikable. He wallows, drinks, picks fights with Richard Jenkins, and makes late-night phone calls to his ex-wife seeking emotional affirmation.
In one of his last pre-Scent of a Woman roles, Pacino contains the eruptions that plague many of his later performances. He’s terrific, but like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Sea of Love hinges entirely on the guile of its female lead. The viewer must see what Frank sees in Ellen Barkin’s Helen — a potentially deadly femme fatale with the power to heal a mid-life crisis with a torrid affair. It’s not just that she’s sex in designer heels, she also has to be a grounded single mother and career woman. We have to expect her guilt and hope for her innocence.
If you doubt the power of prime Ellen Barkin, pair Sea of Love with Mary Lambert’s unfairly maligned Siesta (1987) — only available on a region-free Italian release. While Kathleen Turner received higher profile roles in better movies, Ellen Barkin toiled on the fringe of superstardom. It’s unfortunate that many of Barkin’s films just didn’t deserve her.
Al Pacino gets the clammy, “Who Me?” spotlight on the poster, but Ellen Barkin sells this movie. Ellen Barkin is sex and fragility; she’s a dominatrix living with her mother and doing her best to exist in a cinematic world that doesn’t know how to put a label on her.
Sea of Love Verdict
Harold Becker made a few standout films in his career (Malice and The Black Marble, for example), so the “discovery” that Sea of Love proved to be a competent and knowing manipulation of the genre shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.
The way Price’s script inserts elements of the romantic comedy into a drama about an apparent serial killer makes for a movie that constantly puts he viewer on uneasy territory… until it lets everyone off the hook in the final moments. I’ve read nothing about the production, but I’ve seen enough of these “movie things” to recognize the telltale signs of studio intervention. Between an atonal final scene to an easy-bake ending, Sea of Love does all the heavy lifting but lacks the conviction to follow through on the promise of something more daring, something that would have catapulted the film into genre royalty.
Don’t let any of that dissuade you. Despite last-minute whodunnit stumbles, the Sea of Love serves up a delicious dish. It’s sexy, but not scandalous. Tense with a side of nail-biting and naturally funny when it needs to break tension. I just wish it had dared to be great instead of aiming for a higher test-screening CinemaScore.
As one of the biggest surprises of my #Watch1989 series, I’ll point you in the direction of the other surprising pleasure for a wild double feature. It’s not a perfect pairing, but I wouldn’t mind indulging in fun the double of Sea of Love and Gleaming the Cube. Give it a chance. You’ll come around.
The Importance of Being Jack: Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) places Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker on unstable moral ground. They’re each branded at different times social outcasts or saviors of Gotham through the news media, and the film itself is about the manipulation of public opinion through the press. (Even typing that sentence in 2019 made me wince due to our current state of political affairs.) Likewise, the film’s narrative provides a playground for intertwined character arcs. The Joker presides over Batman’s origin story just as Batman presides over the Joker’s transformation at the creation of his permanent, toxic grin.
Gotham City Always Brings a Smile to My Face
Since the Joker’s on everyone’s mind with the buzz concerning the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker later this year, it seems the perfect time to reflect upon the iteration of the Joker that brought the character back into the cinematic consciousness. First, however, it’s entirely relevant to trace back the origin of the Joker.
Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and (maybe?) Jerry Robinson, the Joker made his debut in the debut issue of Batman on April 25th, 1940 (about a year after Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27). The team had originally killed off the character in that very same issue, but a last minute editorial “intervention” allowed the Joker to survive the issue and ultimately become Batman’s archenemy.
The criminal mastermind first appeared as a psychopath with a sadistic sense of humor – the relative levels of depravity dictated by didactic cultural trends and authoritative censorship of the moment. Most generally, the Joker, with his bleached skin, green hair, red lips and preference for chaos over order serves as Batman’s aesthetic and moral antithesis.
The source of the character’s iconic visage predates even his first comic appearance by twelve years. Robinson fed Bill Finger scattered ideas about his personality. Finger took these notes and for his first concept sketch of the joker drew from a picture of Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s silent masterpiece The Man Who Laughs (1928) — a movie I plugged on Netflix’s Inside the Envelope earlier this year.
Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928).
Like the Joker, Gwynplaine has become disfigured with a permanent grin. He becomes a freak show in a traveling carnival. Unlike Victor Hugo’s source novel, Leni’s film allows for a happy ending and a measure of solace for its tortured protagonist. Not so for our Joker – who from the earliest stages of creation had been earmarked to become Batman’s Moriarty. (It should be noted that Finger, Kane and Robinson disagreed about who actually played a hand in the character creation. Finger and Kane say Robinson had nothing to do with it beyond bringing in a Joker playing card. Robinson meanwhile gives himself a full one-third credit.)
The Town Needs an Enema
Considered a dormant property through the 1970’s the notion of a Batman movie gained traction after the success of Superman (1978). Producers Michael Uslan, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters and Peter Gruber pitched the project around Hollywood until Warner Bros. decided to accept the film on its production slate in the early 1980’s.
Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure — the reason we have a Tim Burton Batman film.
A 1983 script by Tom Mankiewicz floated around for a number of years (with filmmakers like Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante attached at various points), but Warner Bros. eventually attempted to woo to a hot young director by the name of Tim Burton, fresh off his first success Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Burton contacted screenwriter and comic-fan Sam Hamm to write a screenplay. Hamm dispensed with the origin stories that had been a focus of earlier drafts and used flashbacks to help “unlock the mystery” of the Batman.
After Beetlejuice became a surprise box office success, Warner Bros. finally put up Tim Burton’s bat signal. It was producer Jon Peters who suggested Michael Keaton for the role of Bruce Wayne (despite public skepticism from his partners), having seen the comedic actor’s nuanced dramatic performance in Clean and Sober. With WB blessing the Keaton casting decision, Burton officially agreed to direct the film.
Michael Keaton in Clean & Sober (1988) — a sneak peak into the darker side of a Keaton that led him to play Bruce Wayne in Batman.
Haven’t You Ever Heard of the Healing Power of Laughter?
Casting the comic Keaton (best known for films like Beetlejuice, Johnny Dangerously and Mr. Mom) coupled with a director best known for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure caused protests and widespread panic that the movie would reflect the campy 1960’s TV series. The next step, publicly casting the Joker, had to assuage premature and unfounded concerns about the film’s tonal direction. Jack Nicholson had been the first choice of producer Michael Uslan and Bob Kane (acting in an advisory role) since they first tried to pull the project together in 1980.
Tim Burton wanted to cast Brad Dourif, but the actor’s name carried no cachet. Other actors like Robin Williams dropped their own names into the contest, but “Jack” remained everyone’s first choice. Nicholson finally acquiesced but made a number of specific demands in his contract, including top billing, the number of hours he would work each day, the number of weeks he’d be willing to shoot, and days he’d need off to attend Los Angeles Lakers home games.
Costume designers took a number of cues from Cesar Romero’s wardrobe in the Batman TV series just as Nicholson borrowed mannerisms from Romero’s flamboyant histrionics. Despite the similarities, Nicholson’s Joker became a creation distinctly “Jack.” It would be easy to trace Nicholson’s “Clown Prince of Crime” back through his own roles in films like The Shining and The Witches of Eastwick.
Here was a legendary acting icon taking hold of a comic book villain and molding it into something new and cinematic. Romero had owned the small screen 21 years prior, but Jack commanded the big one. For many (like myself) it was their first chance to see a live action Batman, and The Joker immediately became the greatest on-screen villain since Darth Vader. Manic and unpredictable, Jack’s Joker portrayed a brand of nihilism that felt dark and dangerous but oddly relevant in that some of his “crazy” actually made sense.
The Pen is Truly Mightier Than the Sword
Tim Burton populated his Gotham City with moral grey. Neither was the Batman wholly altruistic (as was the case in Adam West’s incorruptible incarnation) nor the Joker purely, soullessly evil. Just like advance, pre-release buzz on the film, the war between Batman and the Joker played out in the public sphere. The enemies waged a cerebral war of information rather than a physical struggle.
In keeping with the notion of Batman and the Joker being two sides of the same coin, the characters shared nearly identical screen time. Bruce Wayne/Batman appeared on screen for 32:30 while the Joker clocked in at 32:15. Burton made the Joker a primary character — and rightfully so. The audience couldn’t focus on anything else but Nicholson and his purple suit and bleached face makeup.
The Joker’s nihilism played into the film’s narrative construction as well. Take for example the scene in which the Joker and his goon’s deface the Gotham City Art Museum. I particularly enjoy this scene because it almost entirely serves the development of the Joker’s character. Set to Prince’s “Party Man,” Nicholson defaces the paintings with a swath of paint and a comedic malice. He’s destroying priceless works of art for his and the viewer’s own entertainment. Burton gives The Joker the best lines, the best scenes and the best asides.
None of this, of course, should suggest a deficiency of Michael Keaton’s Batman. By nature the reclusive Bruce Wayne would stand back, observe and protect. The Joker steals the spotlight while Batman hides in the neighboring shadows. Such little confrontation actually takes place in Tim Burton’s Batman that it’s misleading to consider it an action movie at all — a construction that would surely confound modern superhero aficionados visiting Batman (1989) for the first time.
Never Rub Another Man’s Rhubarb
Tim Burton created a superhero character study that wowed a generation of moviegoers. For many including myself, Batman remains an iconic, untouchable piece of their childhood. I walked out of the Plaza 2 in Kalamazoo, MI a changed 10yo human. It became a landmark moviegoing experience, the black letters on the while marquee emblazoned on my brain.
That summer of 1989 came to define the ultimate moviegoing summer, in no small part because of my immediate affection for Batman. I can pinpoint the day and date that I became a proper cinephile, thirsting for more and more cinematic exposure. I began a quest to watch every Michael Keaton and every Jack Nicholson film. I’d dub rental tapes and a log them chronologically on a divided shelf. The left side for Michael Keaton, the right for Jack. There’s no other explanation for my affection for The Squeeze (1987).
I wouldn’t learn about the troubled behind-the-scenes production or the disastrous studio distrust of Tim Burton until much later. For many years I’d imagined a perfectly honed vision, a delicate balance of comic mania and brooding malaise. But in many ways that more recent realization almost deepens my fascination with the film — how so many incompatible voices could stumble into something so iconic.
The only thing that maybe the producers had a handle on seemed to be the casting — despite clamorous dismay, they followed through on Michael Keaton and snagged their big fish in Jack Nicholson. After that everything just fell into place, more or less, despite Tim Burton’s skepticism and the studio’s meddling.
Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman — the reason we have a Tim Burton Batman film.
Bill: So-cratz – “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing”.
Ted: That’s us, dude.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the cinema. It snuck into theaters and snuck out of theaters before I or any of my friends really knew what to make of it. I remember, vividly, however the Friday I rented the VHS. In Marcellus, Michigan, a town of only about 2000 residents, we were blessed with as many video rental locations as gas stations/convenience stores (2). Surprised to see one copy remaining on the first weekend of release, I grabbed it and rushed to the counter.
On the following Saturday afternoon, I convinced my parents to sit down and watch this movie about high-school dimwits who travel through time. At this moment in 1989, I can say with the utmost assurance that I’d worn out my father’s patience for movies featuring dimwits. I was, after all, a devout Police Academy (and its sequels) fan and watched Three Amigos! almost every week.
My father boasts a laugh of a certain magnitude. It’s impossible to mistake pure enjoyment from snores of indifference. If he does not care for a movie he will just fall asleep or start reading a book and then probably fall asleep, totally immune to anything happening around him. He watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from start to finish. I don’t remember his exact words (he’s always prepared with an immediate post-movie assessment) but it felt like “Let’s watch it again right now.”
Why Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Resonates
To me, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure represents the best of the 1980’s modus operandi. An inherently absurd high-concept that falls apart upon any scrutiny — but the viewer’s too entertained by the movie’s pure joy of existence (and puerile historical gags and references) to bother with anything as tedious as how an entire high school career can depend on a single oral history report. Screenwriters built and entire decade on arbitrary goals.
The film also — and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Bill and Ted’s success — celebrates positivity rather than sneering derisively at its characters. Consider the basic differences in approach between Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and something like the certain Bill & Ted descendant, Dude, Where’s My Car?
Despite the slacker wrapping, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan are given agency that turn caricatures into fully-rendered, relatable humans. A movie in which two failures (in the near future) have already saved the world with the power of a transcendent guitar riff — but first have to pass an oral English exam by traveling back in time to collect figures of historical interest.
Bernie Casey had a long and interesting acting career, but he’ll remain best known as Bill and Ted’s history teacher.
It’s like borrowing the 1927 Yankees to coach your kid’s T-ball game — if upon that T-Ball game the fate of the world rested. If you spend too much time dissecting the time travel mechanics of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure you will break your brain. It will also lose the magic that makes it special.
The Problem with Critics and Low Intelligence Characters
Contemporaneous critics struggled with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because it was, as Chris Williams of the LA Times suggested, “a glorification of dumbness for dumbnesses’ sake.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “painfully inept.” WaPo’s Hal Hinson: “undernourished.”
I’m not going to give critics a pass just because they’re critics. I’ve been in their seat and I chose to walk away after a couple of years because the job of being a critic started to suck the joy out of moviegoing. If my job is to watch a movie and find fault, my focus naturally drifts toward negativity. I found reasons to dislike movies and hated the terrible movies even more. Dumb characters in a high-concept movie full of logic gaps and impossible (not just improbable) scenarios almost necessitates a killjoy hammer.
One of the most ingenious casting decisions and happy accidents of all time — George Carlin as Rufus, Bill & Ted’s “Virgil.”
How often have you read a review by a critic that acknowledged that a movie fails most standard narrative tests of success, but excels because it’s just a good time? (It happens, but it’s rare and I’m always surprised to see it.) Can you ever imagine Bosley Crowther admitting something was pretty dumb but still a ripping good time? (If you know of a review in which this happens, I’d love to read it.)
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure outsmarts its audience?
Moviegoers, however, are not saddled with the honus of specific scrutiny at the expense of the overall experience. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, like the best of the pure entertainment 1980’s, presents joie de vivre. The characters’ intelligence doesn’t pose an artificial barrier to their success. In many instances stupid characters arrest the narrative as a result of an inability to movie the plot forward.
Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter boast tremendous on-screen chemistry, as if they’re acting as displaced halves of the same brain. You could analyze Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from dozens of different directions, but the success of the film relies on this synergy.
Napoleon fighting a teenage girl for the last spoonful of ice cream remains an inspired narrative aside.
Though lacking in book smarts (Caesar will always remain “a salad dressing dude”), Bill and Ted demonstrate quick wits and even an ability manipulate the logic of the film, thereby outsmarting the viewer that’s assured himself of his higher intelligence because he knows a thing or two about Napoleon. One of the most magnificent moments in the film undermines that relationship and involves Ted’s dad’s missing keys.
Early in the movie, Ted’s dad asks Ted about these keys, but he has no clue to their whereabouts. When Bill and Ted need to rescue their historical figures from jail, they claim they’ll go back in time, steal the keys, and put them outside the police station. Presto! The keys appear, as if by magic behind the sign — but it’s not magic — it’s our “dumb” characters riffing on the concept of the time-travel film and playing with audience expectation. They might not know how to pronounce “Socrates” correctly, but they’re clever enough in a crisis to manipulate time and space on the fly. “Hey! It was me who stole my dad’s keys!”
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Final Thoughts
When I revisited Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in many years, I worried it wasn’t going to hold the same spell over me. Indeed, I started to dissect the movie to see how the nuts and bolts held it together. I focused on the time-travel fallacy and questioned how or why any of it would have worked.
It still didn’t matter.
The “circuits of time” have no aged well, but they still fit the scale and aspiration of the film.
I found myself enjoying the ways the movie manipulated expectation (the scene with the keys, for example, or the early meeting of the Bill and Teds) despite acknowledging the smoke and mirrors. A viewer will only care to pick apart a narrative if they’re not entertained to distraction. Pure entertainment doesn’t necessitate the “how” or the “why;” it just requires a willing ignorance… or embrace of our own dumbness as viewers. With regards to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure I’m more than happy to glorify my own dumbness if it means I can still feel childlike enjoyment while watching movies.
The face-value absurdity of Joan of Arc taking over an aerobics class or Genghis Khan attacking a sporting goods store on a skateboard, Beethoven commandeering two electric pianos. Napoleon throwing a tantrum at a water park called Waterloo. These remain simple, bordering upon lazy gags — albeit simple gags blessed with an ingenious high-concept wrapper.
Director Stephen Herek had a solid 1980’s movie career before the studios got ahold of him and ushered him into routine, forgettable fare. He began his career with Critters, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and The Mighty Ducks (all crowd pleasers) before taking on more “grown-up” films like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Rock Star, and Holy Man. The pace of those so-called “dumb” movies just agreed with him.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure cost $10million to make and returned $40million, but it wouldn’t be made today. $10million for a dumb teen comedy (without more exploitative elements) has no place in our present day box office. Thankfully its stars and writers (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon) recognize that the Bill and Ted chemistry remains special. Even if studios would never greenlight that movie today — at least someone had the sense to continue the Excellent Adventure.
Casting Martha Davis (The Motels), Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band) and Fee Waybill (The Tubes) as the Leaders of the future made for great cameos that I wouldn’t totally understand until I finally recognized Clemons. And I was a big fan of The Motels.
Bill and Ted will return in the Summer of 2020 with Bill & Ted Face the Music. Not bad for two idiot teens from Sam Dimas, California that surprised us all with a deceptively smart, super dumb movie back in 1989.