Letter from the Editor

by Elizabeth Cantwell

It’s lowbrow. It’s juvenile. It’s crude; it’s course. It’s impulse, not intellect. It siphons its humor from someone else’s pain. It’s not something you can explain.

(Donald O’Connor hospitalized himself after filming the “Make ’Em Laugh” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain. Buster Keaton fractured his neck filmingthe water tower scene from Sherlock, Jr.)

There are the pratfalls, the pie fights, the banana peels, the stuck hats, the anvils, the perfectly-timed trips, the lost pants, the wide-eyed camera muggings. There are the falling ladders, the exploding cars, the hairdos on fire, the hidden slippery patches of ice, the hot irons, the spilled marbles. There are the men maniacally throwing themselves in the dirt over and over. There are the women unabashedly bashing their various limbs on every corner.

(In the book Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain, by Louise Peacock, there is a section entitled “Types of Pain Analysed.”)

There is something primal and lasting about the slapstick comedy routines and screwball comedians that we’ve chosen to focus on in this month’s issue ofBright Wall/Dark Room. Once you’ve seen a spoken joke with a punchline, youknow that punchline, and your odds of genuinely laughing out loud at that punchline steadily decrease with the joke’s repetition. The joke becomes familiar—amusing still, sure, but no longer doubled-over hilarious. But no matter how many times you've seen Lucille Ball’s Vitameatavegamin episode or watched her and Vivian Vance’s Ethel Mertz frantically stuff candies into their mouths, something uncontrollable and untraceable is guaranteed to bubble up inside you. You can’t watch Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fall over their own telephone cords without cracking a smile.

(My son laughed for the first time because he accidentally bashed his head into my husband’s head so hard it made my husband flinch.)

So it’s not like we gave this month’s writers a challenge or anything. I mean, it’s super easy to break down this inexplicably innate response to broad physical comedy in an essay, right?

Since we didn’t want to saddle you with the task of reading a whole lot of essays trying to explain why a man falling down stairs and hitting his head on a wedding cake is funny, many of our pieces this month take a somewhat different approach to the films and performers our writers chose to spotlight. Nick Rallo, for example, interviews a chicken who once shared the screen with Charlie Sheen. Kara Vanderbijl presents us with a very peculiar piece of San Francisco news that may or may not have something to do with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Christopher Cantwell gives us a behind-the-scenes peek into a long-lost Burt Reynolds film. Chad Perman looks at the ways in which admittedly silly comedies can create lasting personal bonds. Though this month’s pieces cover some pretty disparate topics—from the Coen Brothers to Jackie Chan to Seinfeld to Chevy Chase—they all hold one central tenet: if you’re going to do a fart joke, just make sure you commit 100%.

After all, that’s really what we admire in our greatest physical comedians—their unwavering, overwhelming, absolute commitment to getting a laugh. No table is too strong to crash through, no unidentified goop too gross, no expression too unflattering, no scene too tiring to continue running take after take. And we count on that; we depend on it. We need someone who can take the plate glass crashing around her ears time and again. We need someone else to keep scrambling to his feet after we’re exhausted, to absorb the horror of our own embarrassing, stupid mistakes. Yes, there’s a comfort to the clichés, a stability in the familiar sequences. No one makes it through this life without falling down, losing something, embracing sudden pain.

(When the walls of our own houses fall down, we have to believe there’s someone out there standing by—inviting the open window to crash around him—willing to take that risk just for us—devoting himself to bringing a smile to our faces even as the very shelter we’ve always depended on recedes and dissolves.)


—Elizabeth Cantwell, Managing Editor


A Slap on the Back and Heavy Mist Before the Eyes

by Karina Wolf

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

The Philadelphia Story begins with a kind of homage to silent film: Morning, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) follows her husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) to the doorstep of their impressive mansion. She wears a nightie, he packs up the car. Wordlessly, she offers his golf bag—pulls out a club, breaks it in two over her knee and tosses it at him with a smile. In return, he pushes her by her charming face to the ground. We’re left with the image of Tracy, more churlish than wounded, glowering from the lintel. And that preface sets the tone for the film—and our position while watching it: Anything reprehensible in action or dialogue is utterly countered by the charm and glamour of the pitch perfect cast.

The film has been described as a comedy of remarriage; what’s notable about this designation is that its peers, say His Girl Friday, (also starring Grant, with Rosalind Russell), are often workplace comedies where the husbands are matched or outmatched by their wives. The women are not indifferent to the charms of their former mates but they’ve seen through them. In The Philadelphia Story, the question of professional competition is irrelevant, except for secondary characters found lower on the chain of capitalism. We’re free to focus on more intimate matters, namely the personal development of one Tracy Lord.

Katharine Hepburn is perfect for the part. Her Tracy Lord is the embodiment of Yankee privilege – sporty, lean, self-reliant, and imperious. Despite a failed marriage, Tracy is unhindered by self-doubt; she hasn’t yet encountered the limiting weaknesses within her own character. Hepburn found early tragedy in life (with the suicide of her brother), but she seemed to defend herself with ambition and talent. She has a distinctly Northern edge (biographers say Hepburn picked up her accent as a student at Bryn Mawr which is cheek by jowl with the Lord’s Main Line home). She was utterly convinced of her own opinions, stubborn (famously a wearer of trousers to the dismay of studio chiefs) and relentlessly independent. Early in her career, Hepburn was a hard star to love—audiences didn’t quite know what to make of her willful persona and spare physique. Hepburn was thought box office poison for most of the thirties, which prompted her (with Howard Hawks’ help) to acquire the rights to the play The Philadelphia Story, in an attempt at a big screen comeback.

The film was adapted by David Ogden Stewart, and its first achievement is addressing, dead on, any resistance that an audience might have to Hepburn. “She’s sort of cold, isn’t she?” asks Tracy’s puckish sister Dina, who becomes instrumental in sorting out Tracy’s mismatched romantic pairings and helps (or meddles) in redelivering Tracy to her first husband.

Think of the Lords as the better off and better kept Philadelphia relatives of the Beales of Grey Gardens. They speak with a now-defunct accent that’s geographically locatable only in the social registers of Hollywood’s upper class in the 1930s and 40s.

Their concern is discretion. Not only is Tracy divorced and on her second marriage, but more scandalously her father has left the family home to pursue a relationship with a dancer. (The Main Line inflections imply all sorts of ideas about the variety of dancer Tina Mara might be.)

A commoner leads us through this world: tabloid publisher Sidney Kidd asks Macauley Connor (James Stewart), a down-at-heels writer and his official photographer/unofficial girlfriend, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) to infiltrate the Lord wedding. Dexter (Grant) ensures their entry, agreeing to vouch for them as friends of an expatriate relation. To protect the family honor, Tracy tells Dexter she’ll play along with the charade and act ignorant of Connor and Ms. Imbrie’s actual identities. But never a victim, Tracy ferrets out the invading reporters’ personal discontents—Connor views himself as a failed novelist; Imbrie pines after Connor but is hampered by embarrassment over an early marriage.

The ensuing film is a kind of Midsummer’s Night Dream within America’s social elite. There are multiple romantic rhombuses—can any contemporary film boast as many fully-drawn characters with conflicting desires that are examined, parsed and resolved? And since a love object is a reflection of self-perception, both actual and aspirational, Tracy’s very ego identity is at stake in the matter of her marriage. She thinks better of herself for choosing a man of the people; but, like a pair of celebrities who believe their own publicity, George and Tracy relate to each other as a set of symbols. Tracy has decided to be a dutiful wife. George is an anodyne figure of broad-shouldered diligence. At the start of the film, Tracy asks her mother and niece: “Can Tracy pick ‘em or can she pick ‘em?” The question is part self-congratulation and part unease about her choice.

The film follows an outdated hierarchy—the lower-caste characters are Irish, the upper class are Quaker—and the merits of those backgrounds are upended with its characters’ contradictory behavior. “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” This colossal line of dialogue, the film’s humanist credo, is the reason I’ve loved the movie for so long. It’s a confounding thought, really, because while it gives a rosy view of the human capacity for change and forgiveness, it also contains the unnerving warning of our unpredictable and kaleidoscopic selves. We’re the sum of our behaviors, let’s say, and have a number of opportunities to revise who we are in the world’s and our own eyes, for better or worse.

Amidst this rather democratic sentiment the film itself reinforces the glamorous values of Hollywood—the rich are charming and eccentric, flawed but vulnerable, at license to pursue their desires and follow the mandate of their feelings, with fewer consequences. The tiresome—the dull workhorse that is Tracy’s would be second husband versus the charming silver-tongued first spouse—merits less of our attention.

The film charms us exactly the way Cary Grant does. As with many actors, Grant was an invention; as with great stars, he was more a myth than a man, and a creature of a very particular and peculiar moment in filmmaking. In America, he was an emissary of British sophistication, but quite literally he was a carnie, having started his career in the physical comedy of circus, stilt-walking and mime. He had the expressiveness of a silent star, the comedy chops of an old vaudevillian and the mutable accent of someone who had reinvented himself on foreign soil (you can hear a bit of Bristol if you listen for it). He’s not all posh—but Grant is the hazy idea of something perfectly placeless. Not only did he have a perfect profile and a dimple in his chin, he had a perfectly attractive remove.

For most of this film, Dexter is a mischief maker—it takes a long time to recognize the progression of wounded pride to the self-interest that propels him to meddle in Tracy’s wedding. Grant’s Dexter wants to protect the Lord family but he also wants to win his wife back. Like many good seducers, Grant seems utterly appealing but reveals very little—until the end when he rescues Tracy with a surprise proposal. He’s more genuine than he seems, but only through the more open-hearted interlocutor, Connor, do we understand Dexter’s unvoiced hopes.

Casting is an alchemical process. Imagine the romantic mismatch if Spencer Tracy (as Connor) and Clark Gable (as George Kittrege) had starred in the film. Both those actors are rougher than this drawing room fiction requires; it would have thrown off the equation. Jimmy Stewart is lighter and more graceful than Spencer Tracy; virile Gable would have overpowered Kittrege, and miscalibrated the romantic implications of the story. Instead, we get a George who seems to want to impersonate Gable. Tracy assesses her fiance’s weaknesses—he has the poor man’s reverence for wealth and its trappings. Her natural impulse is to rough him up a bit. When George shows up to the stables, Tracy exclaims: “You look perfect.” And she tackles him to the ground and starts to rub dirt and gravel into his newly purchased riding costume. George is inflexible—he has neither the irreverence that accompanies privilege or the disdain that comes from never wanting it. It’s hard to imagine Gable wanting to play such a bore.

Macauley Connor is my favorite Jimmy Stewart role. He’s best when his aw-shucks ingenuousness is tempered with darkness (we see it in his later Hitchcock films). In this case, Stewart’s Connor is hampered by moderate literary failure and extreme self-abnegation; this discontent produces some savagely comic lines when he wanders among the wealthy. The tag line for his character, quoted by Tracy when she pinches his slender volume of stories from the nearby library: “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience.” He is at once impressed and bemused by the rococo absurdities that comprise the life of the Lords.

C.K. Dexter Haven had a drinking problem during his marriage to Tracy, and we discover he read Connor’s book as he attempted to get sober. The implication is that people turn to words when in need of a world outside of their experience. Dexter Haven seems to be the only monied character who meets his unhappiness with self-examination. Though he is sharpest to Tracy, he is her most agile sparring partner for her. He’s not intimidated or too worshipful, and he understands her when she’s awakened to her own flaws.

Films, especially this one, which originated as a Broadway play, were indebted to drama, where characters reveal and know themselves through speaking. It makes much more sense that the very verbal Dexter or Connor make better matches for Tracy, who can slay all opponents with her nimble mind (“Is she human?” asks Ms. Imbrie before Tracy retracts her verbal claws).

According to her father, the flaw that keeps Tracy from being a “lovely woman” is her lack of an understanding heart. For her happiness, the film suggests, Tracy must be humbled. Perhaps it is a bit disturbing that a proud and powerful woman should be taught such a lesson. Subtract the word “woman” from the sentence and replace it with “human being” and you have a better idea of what the best of the film suggests. “With your fellow man, always a little patience.”

What people overlook or don’t notice is how very good Hepburn was at adoring her co-stars—when she respects them. She’s particularly good with Grant, perhaps because this was their fourth film together. Her Tracy is able to resist him in the stiff and wary manner reserved for a worthy adversary, and then rely on him when she realizes he’s what she wants and needs.

Fans may protest the ending—I know there are legions of Jimmy Stewart supporters who find that Connor might be the better partner for Tracy (and maybe Hepburn did, too, since she originally envisioned her longtime lover Spencer Tracy in the role). “So much thought and so little feeling, Professor,” Tracy levels at the cerebral writer who romanticizes people but resists his impulses. Connor is a bit of an adolescent, and when his partner Liz suggests that she doesn’t want to entrap him in a marriage because he has some growing to do, well, she shows wisdom.

Take Connor’s solution to Tracy’s dishonor. George believes that Tracy spent the night with Connor and calls off their wedding. Connor steps nobly forward to save her reputation by offering marriage, but Tracy recognizes the stricken look on Liz Imbrie’s face and demurs. Not that it quite seemed a match between Tracy and Connor—for though Connor can spend much of the movie making light of Tracy’s world, he’s also in awe of it. Connor doesn’t want to be a citizen of the upper classes, but he does want to retain a close relationship with its chief goddess—like George, like all of us.

George Cukor directed the film—as with so many other Hollywood songs and stories, a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side imbued feeling in a myth of Americana. The surprise is how his collaborative fantasy rewards, Purple Rose of Cairo-fashion, when these glamorous people stand for us; we are elevated, persuasively, and quite beautifully, by matters of their hearts.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


Car Chase Ends in Bay Swim, Police Say Screwballs Involved

by Kara VanderBijl

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

San Francisco Chronicle
July 17, 1972

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Frederick Larabee, founder of the Larabee Foundation, was among more than a dozen people involved in a high-speed car chase that ended in the San Francisco Bay yesterday afternoon, according to police.

The chase occurred not long after a non-fatal shootout at Mr. Larabee’s private residence, during a luncheon intended to honor musicologist Dr. Howard Bannister.

“They started throwing cream pies at one another,” one of Mr. Larabee’s staff confirmed.

Dr. Bannister (as in, “sliding down the”) was one of two men honored at a musicology convention this weekend, hosted by the Larabee Foundation at the Hotel Bristol. Although specific details aren’t yet available, Mr. Larabee stated during a brief press conference this morning that the trouble started when four identical plaid overnight bags got mixed up at the hotel.

One of the bags carried Dr. Bannister’s igneous rock formations, which he intended to use to demonstrate a musical theory at the convention. This bag came to be in the possession of three alleged mobsters, whose purpose for the bag is unclear. Their identities have not yet been confirmed.

“They are Italian,” was the only lead a witness could supply, flipping his hair.

Another bag belonged to socialite Mrs. Van Hoskins and contained hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewels. While fraternizing with mostly young, good-looking police officers, Mrs. Van Hoskins shared that she’d been “beside [herself] with worry” when the gems went missing.

“I ran into the hotel lobby screaming,” she said. “Hans, the concierge, could not console me.”

According to sources at the Bristol, there is no concierge named Hans — only one named Fritz.

A further plaid overnight bag belonged to drifter Judy Maxwell. Miss Maxwell, always enrolled, never a graduate, kept clothing and other personal items in the bag, which ended up in the possession of a man who goes simply by “Mr. Smith,” whose own overnight bag mysteriously ended up in Miss Maxwell’s hands. Witnesses at the scene described the contents of this final bag as “top-secret government papers.”

In a surprising turn of events, Miss Maxwell also happens to be the daughter of the judge presiding over the case. Judge Maxwell had to be rushed to the hospital after the court hearing, during which at least twenty people mobbed the stand. During the court session, Miss Maxwell inexplicably hid her identity from her father by wearing a blanket, and remained close to Dr. Howard Bannister throughout the proceedings, although she referred to him repeatedly as Steve.

In addition to the courthouse, the San Francisco Bay, a pane of plate glass, a ladder, five cars, a city staircase, a freshly-paved alley, a Volkswagen bus, and a costume shop, both the Hotel Bristol and a historic Chinese New Year parade sustained damages.

Dr. Bannister’s room at the Hotel Bristol mysteriously caught fire after a domestic altercation turned sour.

“I began knocking on Howard’s door at exactly 10:05 p.m.,” Miss Eunice Burns, Dr. Bannister’s fiancee, shared with investigators. “There had been a lot of noise, and I was concerned.”

She would not admit to a domestic altercation, claiming that she and Dr. Bannister “know the meaning of propriety.” A room service waiter, who was the only other person present at the scene, insisted he’d seen nothing out of the ordinary when he brought dinner up to Bannister’s room.

Miss Burns also lost a wig valued at precisely $25 in the chaos, and claimed she has never gone by the name “Burnsy,” although the name appears on the bailiff’s list of defendants.

An expert examined the Chinese dragon that Miss Maxwell and Dr. Bannister dragged behind a stolen grocery delivery bike during the high-speed chase.

“I don’t see any damages,” the expert deduced.

“Well, there’s not much to see actually, they were inside the Chinese dragon,” a bystander explained.

“I just want my bike back,” another witness, a grocery delivery boy, shouted.

Dr. Bannister and Miss Maxwell declined to comment, although when pressed, Bannister asked, “What overnight bag?” He then offered to give a musical demonstration on his igneous rock formations. Bannister and Maxwell underwent mandatory psychiatric evaluations before being released on bail.

The Chronicle also interviewed a man who’d been walking in the vicinity and claimed to have been chased by “a horde of possessed garbage cans.” However, his testimony is being withheld from evidence until his blood is tested for illicit substances, and it is not yet clear whether or not he was directly involved in the incident.


Kara VanderBijl is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago, drinks tea, and falls asleep at parties. She is a former senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room, the previous managing editor of This Recording, and a former arts & culture contributor at Gapers Block.


Laughing All the Way

by Chad Perman

all photos courtesy of the author

all photos courtesy of the author

"Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh."
—W.H. Auden

The VCR accepts the battered, hand-labeled tape with its familiar loading hum. Two boys sit, rapt, waiting for the film they’ve already seen a dozen times, knowing each line by heart and already anticipating the laughs in store. A few days earlier they’d gone so far as to record their own version of some of their favorite scenes together, repeating the funniest lines back and forth into an old cassette boombox late at night, trying their best not to collapse into a fit of giggles. The lines never get old, and they live off that laughter for days.

*

I’ve been fortunate to have the same best friend for my entire life. Our parents had already been friends for nearly a decade by the time we came around, so Matt, all of four months my senior, literally visited me at the hospital when I was born. We had our picture taken together at a professional studio when we were less than a year old (and, unfortunately, again when we were twelve years old, wearing neon colored shirts, sunglasses, and bicycle shorts). We grew up together in a shared world of baseball, religion, funny movies, action movies, and Billy Joel. And, like most great friends, Matt and I developed a conversational shorthand together—a secret, coded language honed over many years—that is all but impenetrable to those around us, even our wives. “I don’t understand like even half of what you guys are talking about,” is a not uncommon refrain.

“Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.”

What most people don’t understand, though, is that a significant part of this secret language is actually comprised of quotes from the 80s comedy movies we watched endlessly together while growing up. Fletch, Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Ernest Goes to Camp, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, U.H.F., Spies Like Us, National Lampoon’s Vacation—we mainlined these films like street drugs as impressionable kids and, for one reason or another, the effect still hasn’t worn off to this day. I have no doubt that it’s maddening to those around us at times, but when we get in that zone, that bubble, it becomes entirely about one thing and one thing only: making each other laugh.

And what’s accomplished in these moments—even in a random text message after not talking for a month, quoting some silly line from a film we likely haven’t seen in years—is not just a quick laugh in the middle of a work day or a brief hit of nostalgia, but also this: that we shared a childhood together, filled with all the magic, wonder, and confusion that childhood contains, and that all of that still remains easily accessible to us, even today, in a very particular way. It’s a reminder of everything that’s connected the two of us throughout this strange life, and the shared sense of humor that’s run underneath it all, a steady constant despite the many different phases we’ve gone through as individuals, and the many miles that have separated us geographically for most of our adult lives. Texting lines from Spies Like Us to each other in the middle of the day, we’re no longer just workers, husbands, parents, responsible adults—instead we’re granted a kind of instant access to the nine-year-olds we used to be: spending the night at each other’s houses, sneaking candy and watching VHS tapes rented from the grocery store, endlessly rewinding our favorite scenes and quoting them back to each other for weeks on end.

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

Films like Airplane! and Fletch were directly responsible for a good deal of the trouble Matt and I got into for talking too much, often being separated for being too hyper or “not paying attention” at school, church, baseball practices, music lessons, camping trips, family get-togethers. Mostly, we wore it like a badge of honor.

It’s hard to say what exactly drew us to the particular films we gravitated towards, but they definitely had a few things in common. Slapstick comedy—broadly defined as ”a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of common sense”—was certainly a primary throughline, and it’s perhaps not all that difficult to see why a couple of restless, active boys would be drawn to such a thing. We were also endlessly tickled by sarcasm and innuendos, and the movies we watched most were often filled to the brim with both.

“Looks like heroin, Gene.”

Our own fathers, a comedic duo of the highest order in our young minds—having hosted our elementary school’s Amateur Hour show together, complete with a pie-in-the-face opening number—encouraged such things, both directly and indirectly. Although very different men by nature, mine full of manic restless energy and little filter, his dryly sarcastic and observational, they instilled in us a great appreciation and love of humor from a young age. And, as most kids of funny people quickly learn, not a whole lot in this world feels better than getting a well-earned laugh from your parents.

*

To be in love with Ernest P. Worrell, the way that I was in love with Ernest P. Worrell, you probably had to be a nine-year-old boy in 1987. Having spent a handful of years living in Southern California earlier in the decade, watching He-Man and Heathcliff and Land of the Lost on television every afternoon, I was already quite familiar with Ernest due to his ubiquitous presence in several California-area commercials. My brain had been primed to joyously guffaw whenever he uttered his trademark "Knowwhatimean, Vern?" catchphrase, having volleyed the phrase back and forth with my dad for years by the time Ernest finally showed up in his first feature film, Ernest Goes to Camp.

I'm tempted to think I was only responding to Jim Varney’s rubber-faced hilarity and knack for endearingly well-intentioned stupidity the way most any young boy would, but the truth of the matter is, my love of Ernest had a whole lot to do with my dad, and California, and being a certain age at a certain time. In some inexplicable way, I had grown to equate the joy of seeing Jim Varney on a screen with the joy of being my father's son, of laughing with my Dad on our old blue sofa with the sun shining bright through the living room windows and the bike he'd just spent hours teaching me how to ride lying patiently in wait on the patio by the back lawn.

Like Matt, my dad was a sucker for silly movies. I have no idea what we found so great about Ernest Goes to Camp—it’s certainly not an opinion shared by most people—but it tickled us in the same way that films like The Shaggy Dog and theHerbie movie had a few years before, or like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would just a few years later. It was absurd and silly, and we loved it.

We don't often get to choose the things that end up staying with us from our childhoods, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that something like Ernest Goes to Camp would stick with me in all the ways in which it has, or that it would in any way define a part of my relationship with my dad. Still, it did (or it does: he’ll randomly call me "Ernest" or "Vern" at times even today), so now I’m left to make sense of that, more than two decades after the fact.

I pulled up the film on YouTube last night, curious to see what memories it would spark, what neural pathways the actual film itself still clung to, and how much of my nine year old self I’d still be able to access by viewing it. I hadn’t seen a single frame of Ernest Goes to Camp in at least twenty years, but I surprised myself by remembering every single line. And I could hear my dad—the way I saw him as a kid—right there beside me, laughing along.

The film itself was rather awful, at least in retrospect, but that didn’t matter to me last night, lost as I was in its old familiar rhythms and beats. It felt like I’d stumbled upon an embarrassing childhood photograph—like a studio portrait of Matt and I in spandex and sunglasses, perhaps?—before quickly realizing that embarrassment was entirely beside the point. What mattered far more was that the moment ever existed at all.

*

My dad is almost never not joking. It’s long been his primary means of interacting with the world, his panacea and his best defense. Laughter is how he communicates, how he endears, how he disarms. If you met him right now, he would be trying to make you laugh before you even had time to finish this sentence. He loves to laugh—in fact, he often laughs louder at his own jokes than anybody else—but even more important to him is making you laugh. He uses humor and laughter, constant quips and puns and teasing, as a way of connecting, of bringing people together, of getting through awkward times and appreciating joyous ones. He deploys his tremendous sense of humor as both a bridge and a wall, an invitation and a deterrence: he wants you to have a good time, almost desperately wants you to like him, but doesn’t really want you to get too close.

In this way, perhaps more than any other, I am my father’s son.

But you also have to understand that, as a kid, my dad essentially was Clark W. Griswold. Tone down the more extreme pratfalls and absurdly outlandish behaviors (especially in the final act of National Lampoon’s Vacation), strip away just a bit—and only the tiniest bit—of Clark’s boundless enthusiasm for family traditions and adventure, and you have my father. A man of big plans and inspired ideas; of endless energy and eternal optimism; of lists and reminders and schedules that hung at times like a hornet’s nest over my childhood; of family outings and the importance of family traditions and togetherness; an overgrown kid with a big heart, full of love and capable of grand, if occasionally misguided, gestures. Although he’s changed a good deal since my sister and I grew up and left the house half a lifetime ago—has relaxed a bit more and learned how to let life happen at its own pace—he is absolutely still Clark W. Griswold at times, especially in our family’s collective remembrance. And mostly, he likes it that way.

“Honey, we're not normal people. We're the Griswolds.”

*

Around third or fourth grade, Matt and I began to worship at the church of Chevy Chase and quickly made it a habit to attend regularly, together or alone. Outside of our fathers, he was the funniest man we knew, a bumbling and hilarious presence to us no matter where he managed to show up. It’s no doubt a bit difficult for a modern audience to appreciate just how good Chase was in his heyday, how he brought the funny on a consistent basis for nearly a decade before his career devolved into an unfunny tailspin brought on by poor decisions, arrogance, and a really bad talk show. In 1985 alone, Chase starred in three of the year’s top fifteen box office films, a feat few actors have ever managed, before or since.

For two years straight, Matt and I lived on a steady diet of Foul Play, Seems Like Old Times, Fletch, Fletch Lives, Vacation, European Vacation, Spies Like Us, Funny Farm, and The Three Amigos. We knew these movies inside and out, memorized them as well as any Bible verse or baseball stat. If we weren’t busy watching them we were busy trying to make each other laugh remembering them, involved in a continual, hysterical game of one-upmanship, with bonus points for drawing out the other’s laughter at the most inopportune or inappropriate time. It’s a game that continues to this day.

*

Male relationships can be a strange things at times, with intimacy and closeness much more likely to be sensed or appreciated rather than directly commented on. Sitting on a couch with Matt or my dad, as a kid or in my thirties, watching something funny on a screen (or talking about something funny we’d recently seen on a screen), I feel more comfortable than at most any other time. It’s one of the very few social situations in my life in which I’m not actively trying to do or be anything, when I’m fully in the moment itself rather than lost some place in my head. It’s an unspoken connection as simple, pleasant and fully felt as anything I’ve ever experienced. These silly films, and the laughter they illicit, are a conduit to that closeness, a quick way into a lifetime of shared connections.

A popular theory among those who study such things is that laughter likely evolved before language, serving as a primal human tool, “a signal that things at the moment were OK, that danger was low and basic needs were met, and now was as good a time as any to explore, to play, to socialize.” While it came to serve many other purposes along the way—diffusing group tension, dispelling nervous energy, displacing aggression, subverting authority, attracting mates—it developed first and foremost as a way of bonding. “It taps into the core of what we are as social creatures, expressing from one person to another what often cannot be said in any other way.”

*

Last summer, my wife and I took our kids to Disneyland for the very first time. We rented a car to drive to Anaheim, where the Magic Kingdom patiently awaited us. I was keenly aware of how much I was looking forward to taking my kids to this mythical place, how much I hoped they would have an experience that they would remember for the rest of their lives. As such, visions of The Griswolds’ infamous journey to Wally World were never far from mind. For years I had seen National Lampoon’s Vacation through the eyes of Clark’s teenaged son, Rusty. But now, as a father myself, imbued with a paternal yearning to create the perfect family experience, the film began to take on an entirely different meaning for me.

On the drive down, my seven year old daughter suddenly decided she needed to use a restroom, right now, and so we pulled off at the nearest exit, in search of a restroom. We ran into the closest hotel off the freeway and, in what fairly be called one of the single greatest coincidences of my entire life, soon discovered that we had randomly stopped at the actual hotel where scenes from National Lampoon’s Vacation were shot way back in 1982. The odds seemed beyond astronomical, and I was left with an almost sure sense that the universe was smiling down upon me.

I tried to explain the monumental nature of what we had just stumbled upon to my wife, who politely indulged me by feigning interest for a minute, before reminding me that we needed to get back on the road. I tried to explain the moment’s significance to my children, but they’re nowhere near old enough to watch the Vacation films yet (but oh, someday!), so neither one of them had even the slightest idea what I was talking about.

Not wanting to leave the hotel before feeling my excitement matched in at least some small way, needing to feel a sense of connection with someone who could understand and validate this magical moment in my life, I quickly texted Matt a picture of where we were and how we got there. The response was immediate:

We were a thousand miles away, responsible adults and parents, now nearly thirty-seven years old. But just like that, we were kids all over again.


Chad Perman is the Editor-in-Chief of Bright Wall/Dark Room. He is a writer and therapist, living in Seattle with his wife and their two children.


Physical Comedy in Modern Times

by Greg Cwik

© Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainmentd

© Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainmentd

Like Joseph Cotten standing over Harry Lime's secretly empty grave, moviegoers have been mourning the false death of physical comedy for almost 70 years. In his seminal essay on Comedy's Golden Age, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” published in Life in 1949, James Agee laments the usurpation of comedic artistry by the talkies. Meaning well, Agee argues that lazy reliance on dialogue killed comedy. Instead of using exaggerated facial tics or riotous slapstick, people used their words to tell joke, much to Agee's chagrin. His article spurred a renewed adoration for Buster Keaton, who had been dwelling in an alcohol-saturated stupor for years, but it didn't spur a physical comedy New Wave. Dialogue, that bastard, prevailed, while the idle class of silent comedies stayed silent.

A little over a decade later, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers injected slapstick with a dose of pure, undiluted stupidity, turning the bumbling, thickly-accented French inspector Clouseau into a cultural icon. Then in 1963 Stanley Kramer’s sprawling It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World collated the era's top comedians, tossing in a few throwbacks for kicks (i.e. the Three Stooges, whose very presence is presented as a joke), but traded in the sharp timing of the silent comedians in favor of a seemingly endless deluge of jokes. Some work, some don't, but with so many spilling out all over the screen, you don't really have time to sift between the good and the bad. In America, physical comedy lived on in a bastardized form, the accidental heroics of Keaton and Lloyd transmutated into stupid people doing stupid things with almost ontological luck. At the same time, French auteur Jacques Tati offered a style of physical comedy antipodal to Kramer’s; Andrew Sarris pointed to the sly, acerbic wit of Tati as a possible successor to Keaton's calibrated comedy, though by the time Tati made Playtime, his solipsistic masterpiece, the filmmaker eschewed the outright comedy of his earlier efforts, instead conjuring worlds of gleaming glass and concrete carrion, a modernity inhabited by drones in suits. He now had a political edge, slapstick replaced by satire. With dialogue relegated to background noise, akin to the incessant hum of a neon sign, Playtime is a more esoteric Modern Times.

In the subsequent 50 years, what happened to mainstream physical comedy? Did it go the way of the radio star after the advent of MTV? As recently as last year, with the Criterion release of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!, critics have pondered what happened to that reliable retailer of American chortles. But contra the arguments of the nostalgic, physical comedy didn't actually die with Keaton and Chaplin. As with so many formerly American enterprises, it got outsourced to China, by way of a young man named Jackie Chan.

*

To best appreciate Jackie Chan's innovations, and they are many, one must first understand what made the progenitors of physical comedy so great to begin with. For this, I'll defer to noted gadfly and lifelong curmudgeon David Thomson for assistance. (Important: Thomson's not a fan of Chan, for rather silly reasons I'll soon disclose.) I find myself physically uncomfortable whenever I agree with Thomson, the man who dismisses Scorsese in a few paragraphs, and whose entire analysis of Fire Walk With Me is, simply, “The worst thing that Lynch has ever done.” But his musings on Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin admittedly offer insight that eludes most other writers, and helps parse Chan's style. It's a subject he returns to again and again, the styles of Keaton and Chaplin acting as a root note around which he enwreathes his singular snark, sharp and incisive:

"That is what strikes us today as the most admirable thing about Keaton: the serene capacity for absorbing frustration and turning a blind eye to fear and failure. If Chaplin’s films are always working toward self-centered pathos, Keaton never disguises the element of absurdity in a lone romantic’s dealings with the world… Keaton is the more profound artist because he was not beguiled into comfort by his own self-pity. He saw that the conscientious, humorless hero he played must prove himself by facing frustrations and disasters without ever cracking."

In elucidating the most significant difference between the styles of Keaton and Chaplin, Thomson inadvertently extrapolates what makes Chan's own contributions to physical comedy so important: as with Keaton, his is a world of hostility, replete with bad guys waiting to steal your girl and punch you in the face; and yet, Chan remains jocular, even with a literal hole in his head. He does violence with a smile.

Jackie Chan is the only actor-director-stuntman whose vast body of work (and whose broken body) can rival that of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. Despite the myriad skirmishes, drunken brawls, and chaotic fight choreography that most associate with Chan, his breed of physical comedy comes from the same lineage as the aforementioned masters, characterized by the same perils, the same theatrics, the same persistent search for that perfect stunt (the opening scene ofDragon Lord allegedly holds the record for most takes of a single shot, though details are sketchy). Of course, Chan doesn't cop the style of his predecessors; he dapples allusions lovingly and expounds on their innovations, takes the vertical stunt work of Lloyd, the nonchalance of Keaton, and the slapstick violence of Chaplin and amalgamates them into something special, an East-Meets-West action-comedy hybrid some 13 years before Rush Hour made Chan a celebrity in America.

Chan began his career as a stunt double and supporting player in martial arts movies, notably getting his ass kicked by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Chan segued into lead roles and engendered a new style of comedic martial arts with Drunken Master in 1978. (Worth noting: two years later, Sammo Hung's Encounters of the Spooky Kind mingled comedic martial arts with horror, giving birth to the jiangshi genre; Hung worked as a stunt choreographer for Chan on several of his finest films.)

In 1983, Chan helmed the ambitious Project A, which co-stars Hung as a pudgy (but deceivingly fit) con man aptly named Fats. The film displays Chan's dilating aspirations: the actor-director taps Lloyd, dangling from a clock tower before plummeting 60 feet through canopies onto the ground. Without cutting, he keeps the camera's gaze on himself as he’s dragged to his feet and continues with the scene, which is maybe the most amazing part of the whole set piece. In that same scene he fights a henchman on a rotating cog, harkening back to Chaplin's Modern Times. The film essentially plays like a highlight reel of incredible stunts and set pieces, loosely knitted together with a story about 19th-century pirates and the Navy. In one of the standout scenes of the film (and of Chan's career), Chan rides a fixed-gear bicycle through the narrow confines of a small village while thugs chase after him. With shades of Keaton circa Sherlock, Jr., Chan crafts a send-up of New Hollywood's fascination with car chases with a decidedly Chinese bend.

In Project A part 2 (a title that surely suffered in its English translation), Chan riffs on Keaton’s iconic Steamboat Bill stunt, literally dropping a house on himself, with only a precisely placed, man-sized window allowing survival. There are also nods to the Marx Brothers, and a memorable extended gag about Chan being handcuffed to the film's villain while a gaggle of different baddies chases them. This is Chan at his most fun, every action and reaction calculated for maximum entertainment.

While Chan's occasional use of modern societal issues takes its cues from Chaplin (Police Story 3 has some obvious but admirable gender discourse tossed in), he noticeably draws far more from Keaton and Lloyd than he does the Tramp. A distinct seek-sorrow quality pervades Chaplin’s films—he’s hostile to the world around him—whereas Keaton, and subsequently Chan, depicts the world as hostile, and they manage to get by through perseverance and good fortune. In his fairly dismissive entry in New Biographical Dictionaryon Chan, Thomson harps on Keaton's stoicism, opining that Chan is a lesser filmmaker because a dopey grin adorns his face, while Keaton's sad sack is a true artist. Of course that's an asinine argument; the brilliance of Chan's comedy is rooted in his cordiality.

As with Keaton there’s no chicanery, no trickery. Chan has the emergency room bills to prove it. And yet the discursive, yet tightly-choreographed fights of bothProject A and Drunken Master II (1994) rank as Chan’s most successfully comedic films because Chan exudes an amateurish air—that perpetual look of affable anxiety on his face, the way he can wait until the very last second before dodging or striking. Comparatively, his excellent Police Storyseries, which is based in modern times and thus makes use of gunplay and bloodshed, feels heavier, almost mean. People actually die when you plug them with an Uzi, and Chan appropriately plays his character, nicknamed Supercop, straight. He's not a dunce or klutz, like Project A's Dragon. He's a professional. In his comedic offerings, Chan performs feats of physical prowess that beguile and boggle, but gives the impression that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Think of Keaton sitting aloof on the locomotive’s drive rod as it vacillates, or Chaplin just barely avoiding the open sidewalk grates while gazing at his reflection in a window: Chan channels this sense of obliviousness to keep things exciting.

This faux-nescience extends to the pantomimic martial arts. Chan’s style of fighting, especially in Drunken Master II, isn’t really fighting. It’s play fighting—elaborate, genuinely life threatening, but artifice all the same. The thrills don’t come from wondering who’s going to win a scrap, since that’s never really in question; you don’t wonder if Keaton will be crushed by a house, and you don’t ponder if Chan will lose to a horde of nameless cronies. The thrills come from the complexity of the choreography and stunts, the celerity with which he reacts to objects thrown his way—fists, feet, buckets, brooms, bamboo, sharp stabbing weapons, chairs, everything including the kitchen sink.

Chan continued to incorporate his masters’ influences as recently as 2003’s would-be blockbuster Shanghai Knights, the sequel to the 2000 would-be blockbuster Shanghai Noon. In the otherwise forgettable film, Chan grabs an umbrella while fighting off a gaggle of goons. The camera takes a wide, sideways view, almost an arcade brawler-style shot, and Chan procedes to fight the baddies with the umbrella as the music from Singin’ in the Rain starts to play. He’s not even trying to hide his influences here. It’s easily the best fight in the film, that rare moment endowed with magic. The kicker to the scene is a young boy (played by the not-yet awful Aaron Johnson), watching Chan from a hiding spot, who looks profoundly inspired by the acrobatics going on in front of him. That young boy’s name is Charlie Chaplin.


Greg Cwik writes, often about movies, sometimes for money. He's a regular contributor to Vulture and Indiewire, and his work also appears in The Believer, Slant, Sound on Sight, Movie Mezzanine, and elsewhere. THE SOPRANOS > THE WIRE.


Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

by Elizabeth Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I am not a Carrie. I am not a Miranda or a Samantha or a Charlotte. I’m also not a Rachel or a Monica (although I’m sometimes a Chandler, just like I’m sometimes a Liz Lemon, although not nearly as often as my glasses would have you believe). I love watching Peggy and Joan and Sansa and Arya, but I’m not any of them, either.

I’m an Elaine.

Of course, playing the who-am-I game is essentially an exercise in fantasy. The girls and women who claim to be Samanthas or Joans really want to be like those characters. Whether they actually are is another question entirely. And sure, some of the same fantasy is at play in my own psyche when I say “I’m an Elaine”; when I mentioned this to my husband, he wasted no time in responding, “You WISH you were an Elaine.”

So, okay, guilty as charged. I wish I were an Elaine! But why? What is it about Elaine that I love, when I love so shockingly few women on TV and in the movies? Which of her characteristics do I admire, covet, adore, envy?

The correct answer to this question should probably be “none of them.” Elaine is not someone to emulate. In fact, if you’re emulating anyone on Seinfeld, you’re doing it wrong. These are awful, selfish characters, as the infamous season finale shows us in no uncertain terms. They’re petty, mean, self-absorbed, lacking in empathy. Over the course of the sitcom, George shoves children and elderly people out of the way to escape from a burning building; Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye from an old woman; Kramer carelessly leaves a lit Cuban cigar by some newspapers in Susan’s family’s cabin, burning the cabin to the ground; and Elaine abducts a neighbor’s dog and drives it miles out of the city before leaving it on a random doorstep. And these are just token examples of the near-hatefulness that these characters incubate in their deepest, darkest selves.

Elaine: All right, all right, look, I don’t have grace, I don’t want grace, I don’t even say grace, okay? (“The Chaperone”)

But despite this bleak reality, I can’t help myself. I love almost everything about Elaine. I love that she’s obnoxious, that she can be crude at a moment’s notice, that she is the worst dancer on earth. (That last one is made all the more wonderful by the sheer unabashedness of her bodily malfunctions, the freedom with which she makes a mockery of the dance floor.) I love that she’s allowed to be weird, to be unattractive—for example, she’s told by a blind date that she has a huge head (“The Andrea Doria”), and a pigeon later confirms this by running into it.

I love that she eats on screen—a lot—and it’s so normal that she doesn’t even have to say a bunch of jokey punchlines about it. Liz Lemon is perhaps a good counterexample here—she was also often portrayed eating, but whether it was a donut or a pizza or a piece of cheese, the food was usually the punchline to a joke. Because watching a cute woman eat a lot is just HILARIOUS to us! But Elaine? She just walks into Jerry’s kitchen and starts eating cereal—or ice cream, or muffins—while talking about the weather or about how she hates her roommate or about toupees. Not one word about the food. It’s almost as though she’s just eating because she’s hungry or even—gasp!—because she simplywants to. It’s maybe the healthiest portrayal of a woman’s appetite I’ve ever seen on screen.

Speaking of appetites, Elaine is also granted the license to have a sexual appetite—a pretty ravenous one, at that—but, refreshingly, Seinfeld and Larry David don’t use that to define who she is. She has sex with a lot of guys, sure. And it’s played for laughs sometimes—who can forget “The Sponge,” in which Elaine’s preferred method of birth control is being taken off the market, and she has to decide whether a man is “sponge-worthy” or not? She even masturbates (“The Contest”)!

But though she operates as a sexual being, it’s not her primary function, as is common with so many female sitcom characters (there are probably about five minutes total of Sex And The City during which the main characters are not talking about 1) trying to get with a man, 2) how they’re dating someone but having problems, or 3) bemoaning the end of a relationship). Elaine’s a lover, but she’s also allowed to be a writer and a woman with an IQ of 145 and an Orioles fan and a French literature major and a friend . We’re not forced to see her through the lens of sex – but, refreshingly, she’s also not excluded from that lens.

Kramer: I got news for you: handicapped people, they don’t even want to park there! They wanna be treated just like anybody else! That’s why those spaces are always empty.

George: He’s right! It’s the same thing with the feminists. You know, they want everything to be equal, everything! But when the check comes, where are they?

Elaine: What’s that supposed to mean?

Elaine rarely gets the one-liners. She’s more in the business of dry asides. And I like her that way. Upon re-watching some of my favorite episodes, Jerry Seinfeld’s delivery seems almost unbearably cheesy. (Seinfeld delivers his lines like Jimmy Fallon right before he’s about to crack in an SNL skit—the smug smile, the bemused I’m-making-a-joke attitude.) Kramer is hilarious, but his comedy is purely physical—and the whole racism thing still taints Michael Richards a little bit for me. Jason Alexander is still funny—sometimes brilliantly so—but his character is so over-the-top that he verges on grating. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, however, is the comedic cornerstone of the group. She’s pitch-perfect in her delivery. She flies under the radar. Her timing is impeccable in its subtlety.

Elaine transcends the ’90s heyday of the show and stands alone as a strange and beautiful and frustrating commentary about what it means to live in a world where it’s Every Man For Himself. This might stem, in part, from the character’s unnatural conception. Elaine was, after all, written into the show subsequent to the original script because NBC was concerned about drawing in a female demographic. And Jerry and Larry, in turn, were concerned about not being able to write in a voice that was convincingly “female” enough. So what we get is a woman who’s stuck in this world just because it didn’t have a woman to begin with—this paradox of a thing, this pH strip of a person who appears out of nowhere to reflect back to these delusional men a little corner of their actual existences.

I’ve read some essays criticizing the character of Elaine from a “feminist” perspective for just being “one of the guys,” and thus not being an accurate reflection of female life. I think that’s unfair. Hanging out with a lot of men doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to be a man, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re not an authentic woman. It just makes you … a woman who gets along with guys. I grew up with far more male friends than female friends; at various points in my life, I was used to being the only woman in my social group. There’s nothing good or bad about that. I’m a woman who has made a career out of building walls, who gets anxious about hugging, who can become defensive at the worst times, who secretly enjoys wearing huge, bulky cardigans and blazers that would be a better fit on her dad.

Who, sometimes, lets the mask slip and is brutally exposed.

Elaine: Let me tell you, I didn’t intentionally bare myself, but now, I wish I had. For it’s not me who has been exposed, but you! For I have seen the nipple on your soul!

Watching Seinfeld is an adventure in exposure, in seeing the nipple on your own soul. We know, as we see George eating from the trash, that these people should disgust us. But when the TV turns off, in that moment just between being swallowed by a fantasy and attempting not to be swallowed by your own life—in that moment when you’re alone with yourself—it’s clear that you’re too much like these characters to feel repulsed by them. You can empathize far too easily.

Sometimes we watch television to escape our lives. The best television refuses to let us. It turns the tables.

Watching Seinfeld , all I can do is take the first step: admit that I have problem. I, too, am a woman who sometimes drinks too much and tells secrets. I, too, am vindictive; even manipulative. I’m a horrible driver. I cry too much, just like Elaine cries when she hears the Bubble Boy’s story. I make fun of people behind their backs. I always want a big salad, and I can never spare a square.

My name is Elizabeth, and I’m an Elaine.


Elizabeth Cantwell is the Managing Editor of Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the author of one full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband (screenwriter Chris Cantwell) and their son, and teaches Humanities at The Webb Schools.


All Hail the Mustard King

by Thomas Willett

© Universal Pictures

© Universal Pictures

I have been fat since I was young. As I moved between childhood and adulthood, through schools, friends, and life events, my size has been the one continuity. Some pictures look great; others embarrass me. Sometimes I viewed the skinny crowd with simple envy; occasionally, I contemplated what I now recognize would have developed into anorexia. Today, although I’d say that I have gotten some of my problems under control, my weight becomes an issue again whenever I’m faced with it in public, or more commonly, through pop culture. I’m still annoyed by how much weight Jonah Hill was able to lose.

It’s not the skinny people that bother me, at least not specifically. What bother me are those fat people who turn their obesity into easy punch lines. It’s a standard go-to for the overweight comedians to stuff their faces with food, or fall clumsily from lack of equilibrium, and these standardized jokes are a big reason why my weight has long troubled me. No amount of "All About That Bass" or body affirmation propaganda can remedy my years of conflicted feelings. I don't want to be associated with a stereotype that has barely progressed beyond bumbling sidekick. Are fat people in the movies doomed to a life of lazy self-deprecation? Where’s the heart?

Still, I don’t feel it's irresponsible for fat people to perform physical comedy, if instead of jiggling the pounds for a cheap visual gag, they can be creative with their movement; relying more on choreography and treating their bodies as more than just a shortcut to an easy punchline.

And when it comes to the dark cloud of stigma and cheap tricks that hang over fat comedians, John Belushi is the ultimate silver lining.

Over the course of his tragically short career, Belushi managed to be both manic and refined, depending on the demands of the role; he could move like Joe Cocker one minute and turn into the quiet Don Corleone the next—perhaps because he was a trained actor before teaming up with the original Saturday Night Live gang back in the early 70's. Dubbed the first rock and roll comedian, Belushi brought an unpredictable charisma to SNL on a weekly basis. He could be a fly on the wall or the life of the party, simply by raising his eyebrows.

Belushi embodied the sort of physical intellect that’s essential for fat comedians. Nuanced and heartfelt, he was adept at knowing when to shout and when to shut up in order to best emphasize a joke. Chevy Chase might have been the immediate breakout star of the SNLcast, but Belushi left a bigger impression because he was different in more subtle, inimitable ways. Simply put, nobody could manipulate a laugh as effectively as Belushi could. In his short and wonderful career, he produced eight movies, two of which are stone cold classics.

Now, though, I have to turn to the obvious elephant in the room: If I’m so sensitive about weight humor and its intersection with physical comedy, how can I admire a man who, inAnimal House (1978), puffs his cheeks full of food and sprays it on an unsuspecting party? Or dumps mustard on his chest and downs an entire bottle of Jack Daniels in one go? Technically, it’s repulsive. But I can reconcile it mostly because Belushi brought to Animal House what he'd started onSaturday Night Live: rabid humor with occasional dives into lowbrow nonsense, all of it intentional; calculated in its wildness.

Animal House follows a college fraternity, Delta House, which is known for a grade point average featuring two C’s, two D’s and an F, and for pulling elaborate pranks. Ignoring their homework, Delta frat brothers Eric “Otter” Stratton (Tim Matheson), Daniel “D-Day” Simpson and of course, John “Bluto” Blutarsky (Belushi) take their college experience and use it to plan parties and sabotage authority figures. Belushi’s most noteworthy moment of quiet charm comes when the Delta House teams up to prank Omega House chairman, Douglas C. Neidermeyer (Mark Metcalf)—who refused to accept Otter as a member—by kidnapping the chairman’s beloved horse from the stable and placing it in his office. Appointed as a lookout, Bluto runs ahead to provide surveillance. He jumps, spins and runs in every direction as if he believes himself to be a spy on a Mission: Impossible episode. Even walking up stairs, he's hilarious — and completely silent. Leaving most of the conversation to Otter and D-Day, Belushi chimes in only to intimidate Otter, or to provide an expletive reaction when the horse accidentally dies from shock.

Animal House is full of these near-silent, scene-stealing moments. Belushi sticks pencils up his nose and raises his eyebrows as he leers at women from a ladder. In the film’s iconic closing scene, as Delta House destroys a school parade by driving through the crowds and leading a marching band through an alleyway, Bluto climbs buildings and swings to rescue a woman who doesn’t need saving. His most memorable line from the film might just be“TOGA! TOGA!”, but what everyone seems to remember most is his overall performance; his undeniable presence.

And that's the brilliance of Belushi. Animal House is one of the finest college films ever made, mostly thanks to its anarchic heart. We don't meet Belushi with a smile and a handshake, but when he’s urinating outside the Delta House. His expressive face turns moments—like the one where he smashes a guitar and says no more than “sorry”—into comedic gold. Big and aggressive in the moment, he knows how to use his movements economically. As with Charlie Chaplin, we are more likely to remember how he moves rather than what he says or does. Belushi’s work transposes silent film techniques to a story full of alcoholism and pranks; innovative in its juxtaposition.

His performances always embodied something positive about bigger people to me. In a world where I feel forced to embrace obesity because it's who I am, John Belushi is one of the few who understood that being plus-sized isn't a defining feature. He could fill a scene with personality, dance like people half his size, and act loud or obnoxious when necessary. His enthusiasm outweighed his weight.

There have been a few other heavy comedians who have filled Belushi’s shoes since his death in 1983, but I look back to him when I need to be reminded that I don’t have to feel ashamed of my weight problems; I am so much more. If I want to, I can crack raunchy jokes or write elegant prose with the best of them. It’s an odd lesson to learn from Animal House, but an important one. No one can put me in a category I don’t want to be a part of. I’m not jailed by my physical form. No prisoners.


Thomas Willett is a writer based out of Long Beach, CA who has been writing about film and TV since 2008 through Optigrab and various other websites. If you have any other questions, feel free to bug him yourself on Twitter.


Far From a Good Thing

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I don't do well with love stories. I skip through parts of Moulin Rouge! without shame. I spent most of a viewing of Sleepless in Seattle on my phone. Call me a masochist, call me a pessimist, call me whatever, but I'm so much more interested in a Revolutionary Road or Force Majeure collapse of a relationship than I am watching the story of two crazy people who fall in love. That's boring to me.

Thankfully, Raising Arizona is a comedy. It's a really funny comedy, with manic physical comedy and ludicrous situations; characters get slapped and tripped, they get punched, they fall. They fall spectacularly. I laughed when I watched it. I didn't laugh the way I do at most things from the past few years. Recent films want you to know how clever they are. They want you to nod or chuckle quietly and say, "yes, I understand this is a clever joke."Raising Arizona is not that kind of comedy.

But before I laughed, before any of the zany antics get going, a man named H.I. (Nicholas Cage) gets his mugshot taken by a police officer named Ed (Holly Hunter), and I thought, "oh no."

"Oh no," I thought to myself, "this is a love story."

Then I watched the way H.I. looks at Ed as she takes his mugshot. "Turn to the right," she tells him.

"You're a flower, you are," H.I. tells her. She glares at him.

Their hands meet as she takes his fingerprints.

He smiles.

And I think, "Oh, these are the crazy people I want to watch fall in love."

That said, the romance between H.I. and Ed is merely the foundation for the story of Raising Arizona; important, but what’s really impressive is what gets built upon it. The real situation at hand is what happens when two selfish people can't exactly get what they want. H.I. – Cage in his most wiry and loosest physical persona to date – and Ed – played with tiny but fearless strength by Hunter – can't conceive a child. This kooky duo, united in an inexplicable but powerful love, can't do the seemingly most basic human thing.

I have fallen, or slipped, rather, into relationships with such gusto that I didn't realize how harmful they were. This was a madness I knew. Raising Arizona was the madness I wanted.

It's this initial frustration, this first roadblock in the path they take to normalcy, that leads them down a path of insanity. Ed asks H.I. to delve into his old criminal ways with him, and together, they conspire to steal one of the famous "Arizona Quints"––five babies born to a wealthy furniture mogul. Their theft of “Junior” leads to a whole mess, including blackmail, a vengeful, fire-spitting biker, a few dozen screams and punches, and because it's a Coen Brothers film, John Goodman.

You see, Raising Arizona is a film that encapsulates so much of what's wonderful about the Coen Brothers' work; it's unapologetic in its absurdity. There's little to no explanation for the madness of this film; when someone gets hit, they go flying ten feet back; every scream or shout is comic, cartoonish. It is what it is. These are two people who have a quick wedding, then jump full-on into something more ridiculous and silly than either of them could ever have accomplished on their own. You don't doubt though. In the brief prologue of the film, the Coens introduce two characters you fully trust with their love. You root for them. They're impossible. They're difficult. One of them has been to jail more than a handful of times. But what they want is something we all want.

Raising Arizona is a messy, ridiculous love story, and despite the fact that it's a film where a person literally explodes, it feels so honest about romance in a way I haven't seen before. It's not always a question of whether or not you love another person; it's more likely the question of what happens when you're together. For H.I. and for Ed, there's scarcely a reason to doubt their dedication. But being together isn't necessarily a good thing for them. They're both perfectly stubborn and crazy in their own rights. Allow me to remind you: they steal a baby.

This is the romance that feels realistic to me. It's not necessarily the romance I want–in fact, it's far from it–but it is the romance I understand. I know what it's like to feel so sure and confident in another person, regardless of their background, regardless of what everyone else says, regardless of, well, just about everything else. I have fallen, or slipped, rather, into relationships with such gusto that I didn't realize how harmful it was. This was the madness I knew. Raising Arizona was the madness I wanted.

That's not to say it's a good thing. It's far from it. H.I. and Ed disagree like a normal couple. He keeps his friends over too late, and they're too loud and disorderly. Ed wants him to be more of a presence around the house. There's a heightened level of tragedy to H.I. and Ed's arguments being so normal, so grounded in recognizable tropes, in the realization that they're not special. Their whirlwind crazy romance–and it is, no doubt, crazy–suffers from the mundanity of everything else. Their problems may be wacky and far-fetched, but they suffer and hurt like everyone else.

Towards the end of the film, H.I. takes a moment to reflect on his relationship as he and Ed return their stolen baby to the Arizona household.

"I think the wife and me are splitting up," he explains to Mr. Arizona (Trey Wilson). "Her point is that we're both kind of selfish and unrealistic, so we're not really good for each other."

H.I. hasn't fallen out of love with his wife. In fact, by the end of the film, it's possible that he cares for her more than he ever has before. But he recognizes, in perhaps the most sympathetic scene in the film, that their relationship is not necessarily a good one. It's possible to love unconditionally and still know that things are bad and selfish and ridiculous when you are together.

I spent so much of Raising Arizona laughing but at this final moment, I thought, "this is so sad." There's little resolution left beyond H.I.'s realization at the end. He decides to sleep on it, and dreams of a type of paradise where he and Ed, still childless, grow happy and old together. But of course, that is a dream.

What's left, then, when everything falls to the ground? Can you rebuild love even after it’s left scorched trees and ash in its wake? When he wakes up, there's still a whole reality out there. There's always room for rebuilding but there's also room to walk away to another place altogether. One has to wonder what would have happened if H.I. and Ed had stuck to the original plan: settling down, being a normal family. They might have stuck it out. They might have made it. But knowing them, knowing their extraordinary circumstances and their larger than life universe, it never would have played out that way. It would have always crashed and burned in the most spectacularly explosive way possible.

In the end, there's a desert stretching on, and two people who should perhaps be far, far away from each other. A quiet Arizona wind just stirs in the night.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


Ranger's Gambit

by Christopher Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Ranger looks up to see the devilishly handsome WHISKY RAWLINS (JAMES BROLIN) sally up next to him at the bar. Decked out completely in denim with a red bandana around his neck.

WHISKY RAWLINS
If it isn’t Ranger McCoy. Race legend
turned two-bit car thief.

RANGER
Bounty hunter Whisky Rawlins.

WHISKY RAWLINS
I heard you been pretty down and out
these days.

RANGER
Yeah. An’ I heard your pecker got
bit off by a gator in the ‘glades.

The Burt Reynolds Comedy is a genre unto itself, and rightly so. Each film—save maybe a few of the earliest forays like Semi-Tough (1977) and the later Stroker Ace (1983)—ages like a fine wine. Even ‘Lesser Reynolds’ continues on like a vivid second-tier blend available from the best Napa vineyards. But no vintage embodies a richness and vitality quite like The Cannonball Run (1981). Yes, some of Cahiers du cinema’s stricter classicists may argue thatSmokey and the Bandit (1977) stands as the most full-bodied representative of the Reynolds canon, but closer examination reveals Cannonball as a step off the proud and tall shoulders of Bandit into true perfection.

But many are unaware of how—emboldened by the success of Bandit and even rowdier fare like Hooper—Reynolds was nearly sunk by a subsequent project embarked upon as the 70s turned into the 80s. Off this near-cataclysm, he was somehow miraculously able to recover and, with lessons learned, produce the nearly flawless piece that is The Cannonball Run.Cannonball’s comedic genius, airtight plot, celebrity cameo billfold, and populist acclaim in fact owe much more to this oft-overlooked project than Bandit or any of the others before it. This “lost” film, entitled Ranger’s Gambit (1980), has since disappeared to time, but in several aspects it is Reynolds’ most fascinating work. While troubled and problematic,Ranger’s Gambit may be his true masterpiece, without which his canon might lack real cohesion or a more profound arc in cinematic auteur history.

First, let’s look at some of the components of The Cannonball Run that make it so successful: Hal Needham (Bandit, Hooper) as director, Dom DeLuise as faithful sidekick, Farrah Fawcett stepping into the role of the Beautiful Woman, and no truly threatening antagonist. The movie clocks in tight—under a hundred minutes—and concerns itself entirely with an easy-to-understand mechanism—a race. Each character’s motivation is clear—to win the race. In simplicity there is great beauty. But this is a lesson that Reynolds had to learn the hard way.

On Memorial Day weekend, 1979, a concussion during a touch football game in Encino put 34-year-old 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Schneider in the hospital for a day and a half. While Schneider waited for his pupils to un-dilate and for his stool to soften, his girlfriend (he was having an affair at the time), a waitress at the Lamplighter Restaurant in Sherman Oaks, brought him two paperback novels she’d bought at a discount from the turn-style by the front register. One was Ordinary People, by Judith Guest. The other was Ranger’s Decision, by Victor McClure. Schneider found People boring and tedious, putting it down after the first chapter. Passing on this project would ultimately cost Schneider his job at Fox, and later, in the 90s, Schneider would blame his choice that fateful day on residual brain swelling.

Regardless, it was Gambit that drew Schneider in from page one. Based on true events of a zoo escape in South Texas, Gambit told the story of a former Army Ranger hired to recapture fleeing animals, journeying from San Antonio to Frederickburg over the course of two weeks. The titular “gambit”? Whether or not to shoot and kill the more dangerous escaped specimens. The book ends with a heart-wrenching scene in which the Ranger blows the head off a gorilla in order to save a group of cornered school children just outside Brownsville.

The book captivated Schneider. When his girlfriend arrived the next morning to pick him up, she found him teary-eyed in the hospital room, still lingering on the book’s conclusion. Before even saying hello, he turned to her and uttered, “I have to make this movie.”

Schneider returned to Fox the following week, and within days had acquired the rights to the novel. The book's author, Victor McClure, had tragically died in a ballooning accident off the Gulf Coast the year before. That left Schneider to contend with his wife, Amanda, a cantankerous middle-aged woman who worked in a local bottling plant and remained fiercely loyal to every word written by her late husband. Though Amanda was quick to option the rights to the novel, she would prove a difficult creative partner throughout development and production. Of Schneider, Amanda was rumored to have said, “I never liked him. I never trusted him. He painted himself as this tan intellectual, a West Coast Ivy Leaguer looking to make meaningful movies. But the truth was, he was just a jock who could forget any integrity at the slightest hint of possible starfucking. After I saw the final picture, I found myself wishing that touch football game would’ve killed him.”

Schneider’s recollection of Amanda McClure was as follows, “That bitch never appreciated Burt, or me. I hope she died alone.”

*

INT. STATE TROOPER’S READY ROOM -- LATER

Whisky Rawlins and the giant stand next to SERGEANT MENDELBAUM (GENE WILDER), a full-on Texas state trooper, cowboy hat and all, but also a man with a high-strung air.

Mendelbaum addresses a small cadre of rough and tough Texas State Troopers who sit at briefing desks.

MENDELBAUM
Now let me be... clear. This man.
This... Ranger McCoy. Is... an...
OUTLAW.

The shorthand collaboration Hal Needham and Reynolds had developed by the time The Cannonball Run started principle photography is evident in the ease of the cast in every frame. Cannonball exists as a true paradigm in that it is 1) an excellently entertaining comedy and 2) a project where everyone seems to have had a truly great time with each other. It’s unclear which is the byproduct of the other, but one only has to look at the outtakes rolling along with the credits in order to appreciate everything in front of the camera and behind. This infectious positive energy enhances enjoyment of the film exponentially, despite Roger Ebert giving it a half star out of a four and calling it “an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition.”

EXT./INT. CAMARO -- AFTERNOON

Lefty drives while Ranger sits in the passenger seat, cowboy hat pulled over his eyes. Lefty picks up an Pabst beer can from the back seat, shakes it. Empty.

LEFTY
Bad news, Ranger.

Ranger slowly wakes up.

LEFTY
We’re halfway through our beer and
we only been on the road a day.

 

Lefty tosses the can out the driver side window.

By the time Ranger’s Decision landed on Burt Reynolds’ desk—or rather, his fold-out card table behind the bar at Brewin’s, a Westwood strip joint where dancers were comprised of an unofficial rotating roster of UCLA coeds—Schneider had already had the book rights for seven months. He’d been gunning for Reynolds since the very beginning of the option period. It was Reynolds who was playing hard to get. He finally invited Schneider over to Brewin’s in February of 1980, and it quickly became clear that Reynolds had not read the book. He had his own vision of the story to pitch to Schneider—a down-and-out race car driver left at the altar is recruited by the Army to hunt for a specially-trained gorilla on the run in Texas. The film would be a comedy. There would be no decision for the ranger to make. There instead would be a dance number, and the gorilla would go to work on the pit crew once Ranger was restored to NASCAR grace. Without hesitation, Schneider agreed to the changes. Now he had a star, which meant he could get the movie made, which meant that he could afford his divorce (his wife had left him in December).

With Reynolds attached, Schneider went back to the Fox higher-ups, looking for money to hire a writer. But Fox was hesitant, even with Reynolds’ name potentially on the marquee. Bud Williamson, who’d been instrumental in All About Eve in 1950—and who still regarded Star Wars as an oddity full of robots and hard-to-read blue end credits—said of Gambit, “It’s never funny when a gorilla gets killed.” Schneider begged and pleaded, but the brass only agreed to fees a few thousand dollars above scale.

Meanwhile, Reynolds had given the book to Wes Avis, a 19-year-old longboard surfer hooked on heroin who was currently living above a Fatburger near Venice Beach. Reynolds had met Avis while walking on coals at Jerry Lewis’ house. Avis had never written anything before, but loved the book. According to him, it was Reynolds’ suggestion that he adapt it into “something fuckin’ hilarious.” Avis set about working at the beginning of March and had a draft in three days. He was astonished when Reynolds then wrote him a check for three million dollars—“a mil for each fuckin’ day”—out of his personal account. Avis would subsequently be rewritten by sixty-three different screenwriters (and an irate Gene Wilder on set), but he still fondly looks back on that moment of his career as the best it ever was. “Burt didn’t have to pay me a dime. But we were so high on amyl nitrate that night, and the check cleared, so for that I’m eternally thankful.”

Schneider was thrilled to have a script in hand, even one that was only 59 pages. He was even more happy that he didn’t have to pay for it. He and Reynolds (now an executive producer) agreed to fast-track the project, with cameras perhaps rolling as early as May. But then came two questionable moves: hiring Peter Hames to direct, and choosing Kris Kristofferson to play the co-lead of the film, a character named Lefty Luckenbock. Reynolds had already worked with Kristofferson on Semi-Tough in 1977, an amicable enough experience. Kristofferson, who had just recorded a four-sided country album full of songs about the Moon, took the job for purely monetary reasons. Kristofferson questions that decision today, saying “The script was written by a surfer hooked on H. Of course it was going to be a piece of shit.” As the film moved into production, Kristofferson would become increasingly aloof, neglecting to memorize lines (often making up his own) and looking into the lens of the camera for no reason.

Hames, on the other hand, hailed from Leipzig. His first job had been apprenticing Werner Herzog on Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1971. Hames was the consummate self-important artist, granular in his attention to detail and excessively abstract about cinema. Before Gambit, Hames had made a series of silent films about human digestion which, while profitably vacuous, had been well-received by critics in Austria and the Baltic Region. He was desperate to parlay his critical European success into Hollywood momentum. Schneider, trying to counterbalance the joke-filled screenplay Avis and Reynolds had turned in, decided to take a chance on him. He would come to regret it.

*

The Cannonball Run’s numerous cameos are managed deftly. Jimmy the Greek has a tertiary appearance as himself that still functions within the world of the Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Trophy Dash—he’s taking bets on said race. Peter Fonda plays a biker that fights the Cannonballers in a climactic brawl. Nothing strays too far afield from the plot at hand. This is a clear course-correction after Ranger’s Gambit’s cameos threatened to collapse the film under its own weight.

As word of the picture spread throughout the industry, Reynolds fielded call after call from celebrities dying to participate. Speaking roles were generated for the sake of cameos alone. When Gene Hackman was given a waiter part with one line—“I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take American Express,”—Reynolds and Schneider knew they had a problem. But at that point, the cameos were beyond their control: a self-perpetuating virus sans vaccine.

The studio was especially worried about one cameo in particular—Wayne Newton—and the intention to violently kill him on screen by Gene Wilder’s State Trooper character:

Mendelbaum steps forward to shoot. As he moves his leg... HIS PANTS RIP OFF, CAUGHT IN THE DOOR

Revealing tall leather boots, white boxers with red hearts. Ranger takes the opportunity...

LEAPS FROM THE SECOND STORY INTO THE COURTYARD

Lands and rolls, looks back over his shoulder just as Mendelbaum, pantsless, aims his gun. Ranger bolts away...

MENDELBAUM FIRES, STRIKES WAYNE NEWTON IN THE CHEST

The singer catching the bullet as he innocently passes by. He grasps the wound and stumbles back...

WAYNE NEWTON
Ugnh! They got me!

Said Fox’s Bud Williamson: “Why the fuck would you kill Wayne Newton?” But Schneider and Reynolds would not budge. Newton himself was reported to like the gag, recalling in 1989: “I thought it was a gas. I mean, I’ve always been preoccupied with thoughts of my own death, so here was a chance to explore that without alarming those close to me.”

A plethora of unwieldy storylines joined the problematic cameos as production continued. Reynolds complained even before production that there were “too many fuckin’ people in the script”—countless factions of characters with separate storylines. There was Ranger McCoy and Lefty Luckenbock and their cadre; the Texas State Troopers; the secret Army division running the gorilla-apprehension operation; Whisky Rawlins (James Brolin in the worst performance of his career) as a bounty hunter out for revenge. Schneider tried in vain to pare it down. By the end of March, 29 writers had done passes on Avis’ draft—the last of which was Dom DeLuise in a hot tub with six hare krishnas at the Chateau Marmont—but the script just kept getting larger in scope. It is hard not to seeCannonball’s simple, stripped-down plot as a direct reaction to Gambit’s problems.

One byproduct of DeLuise’s draft—“the funny draft” (Reynolds)—was that it crystallized for Reynolds how brilliant DeLuise was in a kind of lieutenant role both on- and off-screen. His turn as Walter Fukeman (intentionally mispronounced throughout Gambit, a joke subtly repeated in Cannonball with Arthur Foight’s name) brought him closer into the Reynolds fold. After lackluster dealings with Kristofferson, DeLuise would step into the role of sidekick and fill it out more thoroughly in Cannonball as Victor Prinzi/Captain Chaos.

But Gambit’s character over-population particularly affected the three female love interests, played by Ali MacGraw, Goldie Hawn, and Heather Locklear. Each was dissatisfied with her lack of screen time and dimensionality, especially since the protagonist, Ranger McCoy, concludes the film by discarding these three and instead marrying all of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders at once—yet another mistake Reynolds avoided in Cannonball, where Farrah Fawcett is the singular love interest, and the hierarchy of desirable women is sharply delineated beneath her (with Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman operating casually as an attractive racer team in spandex uniforms).

RANGER SWINGS, THE GORILLA CATCHES HIS FIST

Twists his weight and TOSSES Ranger into a glass case which SHATTERS on impact...

LEFTY CRAWLS BACK OVER THE FRONT DESK

Runs at the gorilla, but...

THE GORILLA SEIZES LEFTY BY THE NECK, HOISTS HIM IN THE AIR

Choking him with both mighty hands...

MASON DIXON (HEATHER LOCKLEAR)
Ranger, do something!

RANGER
(exhausted)
I’m tryin’, gimme a second...

Ranger stumbles over to a wet bar, grabs the seltzer bottle. Makes his way to the gorilla as it strangles Lefty...

RANGER SPRAYS THE GORILLA’S CROTCH WITH SELTZER

Until finally the creature drops Lefty, flees from the wrecked front of the hotel, clutching its nuts...

MASON PULLS AN AR-15 FROM THE CAMARO AND OPENS FIRE

At the end of April 1980, one week before production was to begin in earnest onRanger’s Gambit, Schneider called the leads together for a table read of the latest draft at Mel’s Diner on Sunset, summoning Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, James Brolin, Jim Neighbors, Dom DeLuise, Gene Wilder, Goldie Hawn, Heather Locklear, Ali MacGraw, Lee Majors, George Hamilton, and Willie Nelson (recently brought on to play the role of Jesus Christ). It was the first time Reynolds and Wilder would meet, and things were immediately icy after both ordered what turned out to be the last brownie sundae and Reynolds automatically assumed it would be his.

Peter Hames directed the reading, which—thanks to his frequent interruptions and thick accent—lasted over six hours. At two a.m., the increasingly bored DeLuise, Nelson, and Majors began huffing an open can of paint thinner they’d found in the men’s restroom. By three, DeLuise had stolen a table cloth and wrapped it around himself, loudly shouting that he was Captain Chaos and Hames was the devil. Ultimately, DeLuise, while urinating on an apple pie, was arrested by the Hollywood Sheriff’s Department—but all of this later proved to be wonderful inspiration for DeLuise’s character’s alter ego in The Cannonball Run. Of course, the film version of Captain Chaos is far less profane, but no less enjoyable, even without the foaming mouth or ravings about the 1976 Argentinian coup d’etat.

Shortly after this table read, Hames began to proclaim that Gambit really needed an ending where Ranger McCoy and the gorilla commit suicide together. It was an idea that only elicited Reynolds’ signature laugh at first, but ultimately became one that Hames could never let go of, eventually causing him to leave production during the hotel bar-fight climax. A desperate Schneider brought on William Friedkin to replace Hames. Friedkin immediately took Gambit to a darker place—strongly evidenced in the hotel bar-fight. Not only is Wayne Newton shot and killed, but Friedkin lingers on the crooner as he bleeds out and drowns slowly in a four-inch deep ornamental pool. This is where The Cannonball Run can once again be seen as a fresh redux on the errors of Ranger’s Gambit. In Cannonball, Needham and Reynolds let their best players play, allowing actors to do bits that fall squarely in their wheelhouses. Dean Martin drinks, Sammy Davis Jr. doesn’t fight anyone because he’s so small, and Jackie Chan manages to turn the entire sequence into a thrilling martial arts demonstration. The fighting is good-natured, with an emphasis on humor over violence.

The fight scenes in Ranger’s Gambit tend to go the other way. In the first bar-fight scene in the film, Ranger and Lefty break not only James Brolin’s neck, but the necks of thirty-seven other men. This scene horrified Fox executives; Bud Williamson was said to have vomited in the screening room. He angrily confronted Reynolds and Schneider in the hall after the screening, hurling vitriol at them until he interrupted himself with a quivering jaw, on the verge of tears. Williamson retired from Hollywood in 1981, becoming a moss farmer in British Columbia.

MASON DIXON
Don’t worry. I can see how strong you really are.

RANGER
Yeah?

MASON DIXON
Yeah.

RANGER
Probably because of where I come from. I’m an 8th Cherokee. On my mom’s side. Loved growing up and hearing my great granddad’s names for creeks, hills by my house. All of ‘em different from what the signs said. I liked his names more. They were descriptive. Simple. He lived on the land like he was part of it, you know?

MASON DIXON
Sounds nice.

RANGER
I looked up to him. Tried to learn as much as I could... and my dad, too. He was a tracker. Could pick up the trail of anything. He could follow a single blackbird through all of Union County.

(pause)

I don’t know where I went wrong with this gorilla.

With Friedkin now at the helm, principle photography on Ranger’s Gambit stretched into August 1980. Wilder and Reynolds grew more combative, and Amanda McClure, now sleeping with George Hamilton, demanded access to the set. Unfortunately for the production, she arrived incognito on the very day of the Terry Bradshaw masturbation scene. Within 72 hours, her attorneys had managed to get Fox to freeze the production. Everything was shut down indefinitely. Schneider and Reynolds began to wonder if they’d made the biggest mistake of their careers.

Reynolds and Schneider huddled together in a motel, along with Wes Avis and Robert Towne, rewriting an ending to Gambit that could be shot with a skeleton crew. Within a week, photography was complete, with the character of Ranger McCoy abruptly ejecting from the film’s entire plot, marrying all of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and racing Jesus Christ in a single duel at Daytona (Nelson had since become unavailable and was replaced by Joe Walsh).

Despite the film’s technical completion, Reynolds sank into a deep depression and considered leaving Hollywood. Fox refused to widely release the film, putting it up at Graumman’s Chinese for a single weekend, after which it was replaced by Flash Gordon. Despite critical praise—Ebert himself gave it three stars, claiming the film’s avant-garde ending placed it alongside the works of Truffaut and Godard—the film grossed a meager $1.2 million (relatively impressive, considering it only played at one theater for three days); The Cannonball Run would gross over 72 million just one year later. Reynolds was said to have been so upset at Gambit’s performance that he hurled an NBA trophy he’d recently acquired from Christie’s Auction House through the windshield of his Maserati.

RANGER AND MASON RUN

Him leading her by the hand. They don’t get very far until...

ANDRE THE GIANT STEPS INTO THEIR PATH, BLOCKING IT

Ranger pushes Mason behind him, stares up at the lummox...

HE KICKS THE GIANT STRAIGHT IN THE BALLS WITH HIS BOOT

As hard as he can. It does nothing. The giant just smiles, begins to move toward him. Ranger steps back, looks around wildly, sees a fire extinguisher mounted to the wall and pulls it off...

RANGER SWINGS THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER INTO THE GIANT’S CROTCH With a thick CRUNCH, which causes the giant to hesitate...

RANGER SWINGS AGAIN, ANOTHER TERRIBLE BLOW

The giant begins to groan, falls over against the wall. Ranger doesn’t stop--he raises the extinguisher over his head...

SWINGS THE EXTINGUISHER DOWN AND DOWN AGAIN INTO HIS NUTS

Destroying the giant’s crotch. Finally, Mason pulls him away.

MASON DIXON
Stop! Stop!

RANGER
(genuinely afraid)
I just wanna make sure that thing never has kids.

Despite his experiences on Ranger’s Gambit, Burt Reynolds agreed to Hal Needham’s request to be in The Cannonball Run. On Cannonball, he was able to make more mature, almost visionary decisions. Yes, Reynolds views his acceptance of the role of JJ McClure (the name itself a nod to the original author of Ranger’s Decision) as a mistake:

"I did that film for all the wrong reasons. I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham. And I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out so I couldn't really object to what people wrote about me."

But history should be kinder to The Cannonball Run, and, for that matter, Ranger’s Gambit. The author of this piece has only been able to find a VHS recording of the latter, made during the film’s only broadcast airing on a Kansas City affiliate in 1982. The tape, alas, does not contain the entire film; Fox is rumored to have destroyed every negative. After seeing the film at Graumman’s on the weekend it was exhibited, Sally Field—Reynolds’ co-star inSmokey and the Bandit and Hooper—said, “Seeing that was the worst goddam decision I’ve ever made, and that includes trying crack cocaine.”

Now, sadly, Ranger’s Gambit is a thing of pure legend.

Thankfully, we still have The Cannonball Run as proof of one man’s genius.


Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season.


An Interview with The Chicken in Hot Shots: Part Deux

by Nick Rallo

©20th Century Fox

©20th Century Fox

Sometime before 1993, actual chicken and actor Cluck Wingston walked onto Stage 14 of the 20th Century Fox Studios on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. He was anxious, clacking a cheap Zippo lighter open and shut. The stage hummed with heat. Cluck’s big scene was coming up, so he fidgeted. He stretched his spindly legs; kicked a fat, mesh cord on the ground. His script was rolled up like a cigar and stuffed into his posterior feathers. Wingston waited.

What followed was the filming of a scene that would change Cluck C. (middle name “Chicken”) Wingston’s life forever. Topper Harley (played by two-time Global Human Award-winning actor Charlie Sheen), out of arrows for his immense bow, was scripted to fire Wingston—like any other arrow—directly into the chest of a terrorist.

It was Wingston’s look of shocked surprise as he sailed inexorably through the air that converted millions to the chicken actor’s fandom. The American Film Institute (AFI) called it “the funniest thing in cinema since Steven Spielberg’s raucous comedy, A.I,” and the chicken currently holds a perfect IMDB StarMeter score. In the scene’s final moments, his beak buried deep in the terrorist’s dead heart, Wingston gives a muffled crow, then pops out a pristine white egg. His egg marked an important moment in the history of slapstick comedy: The death of the rubber chicken. The chicken actor was born.

It’s an iconic scene, one that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has scheduled to be placed into the Great Film Vault before the onslaught of the upcoming Water Wars of 2019. After the global success of Hot Shots, Wingston disappeared. He has rarely been seen—certainly not in public—since the 90’s. It wasn’t until Bright Wall/Dark Room tracked his movements to a bucolic, tiny home in Banff National Park that Cluck committed to sit for an interview.

BW/DR made travel arrangements and met Wingston in Los Angeles, at Silver Lake’s popular coffee spot, Intelligentsia. The following is BW/DR’s tense, raw, and exclusive transcript of the first sit-down with Cluck Wingston in more than a decade. (Warning: Coarse language is occasionally used in this interview)

[clanging of cups, chairs pulling out from the table]

BW/DR: Oh great, did you get the Angeleno?

CLUCK WINGSTON: Yes I did. It’s very foamy.

BW/DR: Haha.

CLUCK WINGSTON: Shit. Sorry. Spilled some. It’s hard for me to hold mugs.

BW/DR: That’s fine—we’ll edit that out. I’m actually already recording, so why don’t we just jump into it.

So! It’s amazing to have you with us, Cluck. Thanks so much for coming to Los Angeles.

CLUCK WINGSTON: Thanks for flying me in.

BW/DR: We’re just excited to finally getting to sit down with you—I guess it’s been over a decade?

CLUCK WINGSTON: (laughs) Yes, I guess it has.

[sound of distant cars screeching in road, honking]

BW/DR: Not to be blunt, but...where have you been?

CLUCK WINGSTON: Well, it’s been an interesting path. After Hot Shots, I sort of just hit the pavement. I felt a lot of pressure—I was just worn down. I had bags under my eyes for the longest time, and a really bad back from the chicken lecture circuit. The spot light was too strong. I just had to get off the road for a while. Chickens have been in films for years, but just playing chickens. You know?

BW/DR: Absolutely.

CLUCK WINGSTON: With Hot Shots, I became something bigger, something more, and I was good. Really good. But I revealed myself on camera, and that was brutal. That’s what made life hard.

BW/DR: Why was it hard?

CLUCK WINGSTON: For starters, I felt like I was creating problems in other people’s lives, which trickled down to my life. I remember a few months after the film got big, I was eating at BJ’s Pizza in Burbank. A server recognized me. He was carrying two pizzas at the time, and he got all star-struck, and one of the pizzas flew out of his hand. It slid under the foot of a chef, who happened to be walking by and a carrying a big knife, and the chef pizza-skied across the floor. He was wildly chopping at the air to stop his fast movement, chopping and chopping, and he cut a rope that was holding up a chandelier. No idea why the chandelier was so flimsily tied, but it fell on a woman’s head and she crashed into a multi-tiered dessert cart. Her body crushed a whole wedding cake like it was nothing. She was in the hospital for 10 months. I had to pay for her rehab.

BW/DR: Well, I feel like that’s the price you pay for being a public figure.

[Seconds of silence]

CLUCK WINGSTON: OK. Well, sure, I guess? I’m not sure.

BW/DR: I just mean—you have to know you’re taking that risk going into the life.

CLUCK WINGSTON: It’s kind of a big fucking leap from getting your picture taken by thePapparazz [paparazzi] to a woman being put in the hospital. Don’t you think? Don’t you think you’re being a little glib?

BW/DR: I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I offended you.

CLUCK WINGSTON: Sure. Fine. (bangs table)

[Clanging of cups, awkward silence for nearly five minutes]

CLUCK WINGSTON: It’s just, you don’t seem sorry.

BW/DR: Listen—let’s move on.

CLUCK WINGSTON: Now I don’t want to move on.

BW/DR: Why don’t we get through the interview?

CLUCK WINGSTON: You know what? This is just some pageview-getting bullshit. I think I’d like to leave.

BW/DR: Wait, no. Seriously?

[Sound of table creaking, glass crashes to concrete]

BW/DR: Hey! Cluck--

[Sound of Cluck running into road, cars coming to screeching halt. Sound of reporter screaming Cluck’s name]

BW/DR: (Sarcastically into the tape) I guess we’ll cut—

Following the interview, Wingston was seen in and around LA for a few days. According toVariety, he was photographed at LAX, in a heavy scarf and sunglasses, boarding a plane back to Canada. Attempts to contact Wingston have since gone unreturned.

In 2018, The AMPAS plans to place the original negative of Wingston’s scene into The Great Vault before the Earth’s projected destruction. The reel will join a museum of comedic treasures containing some of the world’s most hilarious clips, including a scene from Part Deux where Saddam Hussein runs into a bug zapper; a scene where a villain blows up a boat by firing into a box of jalapenos; and a brilliant scene from the original Hot Shots (1991) wherein Lloyd Bridges falls out of the door of a landed plane after proudly saluting. The vault’s goal is to preserve the funniest moments in movie history—the ones that make you laugh now as much as they did when you were a kid—until the end of the road.


Nick Rallo lives in Dallas, and writes about burgers, fast foods and occasionally a music thing for the Dallas Observer. His work has appeared in the The LA Weekly, Passion of the Weiss, and Houston Press