Saturday, February 27, 2010

Brief Classification of Student (By Movie Title): Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused is the guy who sits in the back—you know, the one sporting a hoodie so that you won’t notice he’s got ear buds stuffed into his head. Even when the climate turns chilly, he wears cargo shorts and flip-flops. He’s consistently disheveled, with a scruffy beard and Medusan locks that don’t appear to have been shampooed in days. (In a culture in which squeaky-clean appearances trump all else, you have to admire this brand of nonchalance.)

In class, Dazed and Confused possesses all the traits of the “ideal student” since he’s so quiet and stares at you quizzically during lectures, leading you to believe you’re saying something incredibly thought-provoking and original.

In truth, he’s got no idea what you’re talking about since, in general, he doesn’t tune in until twenty minutes or so into class (that is to say, if he tunes in at all). He laughs at your jokes, especially when they’re at the expense of corporate America, and he nods in agreement when you pontificate about the importance of cultivating a creative sensibility and “thinking outside the box.”

Outside of class, if you run into him, you get along famously, chatting about Dylan and indie flicks and other miscellaneous topics that have nothing at all to do with what you teach. When you mention that he should consider buckling down to put more effort into his assignments, he waves his hand and assures you, “Ah, man, definitely.”

At the end of the semester, you feel a tad guilty giving Dazed and Confused a less-than-stellar grade since he recommended so many great places in town to hear live music.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ants Attack: WWSD?

Whenever actress Suzanne Somers pops up in conversation, we generally mention her stint as airhead Chrissie on Three’s Company. If the issue of talent enters the picture, we may discuss her more “serious” work, the film American Graffiti, or perhaps the family sitcom Step by Step. If we’re in the mood to poke fun and get vicious (this is too often the case), we lovingly recall the onslaught of infomercials from the late 90s in which she tried to peddle all gadgets, jewelry, inspirational books and face creams that changed her life. (Check out Tracey Ullman’s impersonation of Somers on the show State of the Union.)

Personally, I think it’s sad that we don’t talk much about a lesser-known gem from her early career called Ants! (AKA It Happened at Lakewood Manor).

Have you seen Ants! ? Then let me tell you about it. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous and implausible made-for-TV thriller that came out in the late 70s. It takes place at this plush mountain resort suddenly infested with killer ants. Tension is built around the fact that many of the surviving guests are holed up in a room on the top floor. We viewers are supposed to wonder if help will arrive before the ants eat their way to those panicky few.

Suzanne Somers plays one of the ants’ hapless victims. One minute she’s laying in bed. The next minute her semi-naked body’s covered in ants. She screams and tries to get them off her skin, but to no avail.

I first watched Ants! as a kid. Almost every Saturday afternoon, I sat in front of the tube and took in two or three “animals attack” movies—Piranha, Grizzly, Kingdom of the Spiders, Cujo. Commercials interrupted. Fowl language was bleeped. Nudity was cut. But I didn’t care. I loved these movies. Human stupidity abounded. For example, Why didn’t the characters get out of the water? Why didn’t they run? Why didn’t they start their cars and drive away? No matter what course of action the characters took, they found themselves face to face with angry Mother Nature. I began approaching anthills and fish tanks with caution.

A few nights ago, I was out for a walk in my neighborhood. I expected to see the cranes, armadillos and deer I always see when I walk along the banks of a nearby pond. But I didn’t expect to look down and find fire ants crawling greedily all over my loafers and ankles. I hop-scotched to the sidewalk and tried to brush off as many as I could. Fire ants, I’ve learned, love to widen their mandibles and clamp your flesh, sometimes releasing a protective venom. I ended up taking off my loafers and socks and completing my walk barefoot.

On the way home, I thought about Ants!, which led me to think about Suzanne Somers. “WWSD?” I asked. What would Suzanne do? Try to brush them off without breaking a nail, without breaking a sweat. Help develop an anti-ant skin cream. Then, grin wide for the camera and sell it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

If They're Here, I'm Gone!

Poltergeist, a film that instilled in my generation a deep fear of clowns and carnivorous trees, can essentially be broken down into three distinct movements. In the film’s largely expository first movement, we are introduced to a handsome, likeable family living in a cookie-cutter suburb somewhere in California: architect Dad, spunky housewife Mom, pretty Big Sister Dana, dorky Big Brother Robbie and, finally, little Carol Ann, the most adorable “creepy kid” in all American cinema. After Carol Ann’s parakeet dies, things get spooky: spoons and forks bend by themselves, unseen forces stack kitchen chairs into a pyramid, and Carol Ann, beckoned by Casper-like spirits to a blurry television set in the middle of the night, turns to us forebodingly and announces, “They’re heeere.”

Thus begins the second movement, in which Big Brother is nearly eaten alive by a tree and Carol Ann is kidnapped. We’re scared, sure, but when Mom and Dad enlist the help of a team of paranormal researchers to find Carol Ann, we suspect a happy ending lies around the corner. And we’re right: the spirits return Carol Ann to her mother, the music swells, Mom and Dad cry with joy, the paranormal researchers cry with joy, we cry with joy. All good in the world is restored! What a nice, heart-warming movie!

Not so fast.

When I was little, HBO played this movie ad nauseum. I’m serious. Saturday morning, Thursday afternoon, Monday night—it didn’t matter. HBO, it seemed, was enslaved to Poltergeist. Whenever I stood before the cable box surfing through the channels, Poltergeist was playing. And for whatever reason, it was never the cutesy first movement or the tense, triumphant second movement I caught: it was always the sinister, scared-the-living-hell-of-me third movement. You know what stuff I’m talking about. Toy clowns coming to life. Some dragon-canine-ghost thing keeping anybody from entering the children’s bedroom. Skeletons slithering in mud pits. Houses crumpling like kicked-in tents and disappearing into thin air. And lots and lots of screaming.

One afternoon, a girl in my neighborhood was having a birthday party. I arrived at her house to find a bunch of kids congregated in her living room. “Guess what movie my parents are letting us watch?” Emily asked excitedly.




I recall nothing else of that little party, so chances are, I ran back to my house on the next block and cowered in my bedroom, a room perfectly television-less. “You’re not allowed to watch that movie,” my mother once told me in a tone that implied I’d be punished if I did.

If my mother or father uttered the name of the movie, even to tell me I was forbidden to watch it, my body filled with dread and panic. It got so bad that my parents eventually cancelled HBO altogether (how I missed Fraggle Rock!) and took down a clown painting that hanged on the wall over my bed.

Years later, when I was a teenager, I watched the movie in its entirety. By this time, I’d heard all about the so-called “Poltergeist Curse.” Apparently, during filming, odd, seemingly-supernatural occurrences disrupted the set. Dominique Dunne, the actress who portrayed Carol Ann’s big sister, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend shortly after filming wrapped. And of course, Heather O’Rourke, the girl who played Carol Ann, died during the making of Poltergeist III.

As an adult viewer, I’ve learned to appreciate the film as more than just a horror flick. (I should mention, too, that a very wild drinking game can ensue if you take a shot every time one of the characters yells, “Carol Ann!”) If I do get choked up, it’s because the movie makes me so ridiculously nostalgic for my childhood. I see Robbie’s Rubix Cube and think about my own, how solving it made me feel as though I’d climbed Mount Everest. I get nostalgic for the clown painting. Life was certainly easier, back then. All a kid worried about was lightning. And carnivorous trees. And clowns.

And when I hear Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful score, my eyes sometimes glaze. The music makes me think less of Poltergeist and more of Heather O’Rourke herself. If she were alive today, would she still be acting? Would she have earned an Oscar by now? Would she have put acting on the back burner and decided to devote her life to something scholarly, like mathematics or literature? At any rate, if she were alive today, she would be in her early thirties.
I’m thirty.