My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March 31, 2020: 80s Comedies: Ghostbusters

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. Leading up to a special weekend post on one of the best comedies, and films, from 2019!]
On two distinct ways to analyze science and the supernatural in the classic scary comedy.
First things first: Ghostbusters (1984) is a really fun, funny, scary, entirely successful film, full of great performances, great music, and lines and moments that have stuck with me to this day, and that seemed to hit my sons equally hard when we watched it for the first time over this past holiday season. (The less said about Ghostbusters II [1989], the better; I’m not even gonna hyperlink that one.) It’s important, in the course of these kinds of analytical series, not to lose sight of the fact that both comic films and summer blockbusters are designed and intended, first and foremost, to entertain—that doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t also be smart or interesting (none of that “It’s not supposed to be Shakespeare” crap here, bud), just that we can’t overlook the qualities that make them fun and make them endure. And Ghostbusters has endured as well as any summer blockbuster I know, and indeed largely created (and certainly popularized) a new genre—the horror comedy—that to my mind has never been done any better than it was done here.
But if you think that means we can’t also analyze Ghostbusters—well, you clearly didn’t read my post on Baywatch! And when we start to turn our analytical attention to the film, it seems to clearly take a side within the longstanding and ongoing debate between science and the supernatural (or spiritual). The film opens with our heroes getting fired from their university research job because of their focus on the supernatural. Its main antagonist (yes, Zuul is the climactic villain, but this guy’s hostility drives much of the film) is William Atherton’s incredibly annoying EPA agent Walter Peck. And when the Ghostbusters convince the Mayor to side with them over that EPA agent, they do so by arguing that what’s going to happen to New York is “a disaster of Biblical proportions… Old Testament, real Wrath of God type stuff.” Just as Weird Tales did in their own era, the film suggests that all our modern science isn’t sufficient to engage with another side of the world, an older and perhaps more primal supernatural side that demands its own understanding—and its own heroes to combat it.
Yet at the same time, the way those heroes combat the supernatural is precisely through science: their energy streams and containment units, all that they had been working on in that university research role and brought with them to their “private sector” alternative. That is, we could read the film’s attitudes as divided not between science and the supernatural, but rather traditional vs. experimental science, cautious and bureaucractic perspectives such as those of staid academics and the buttoned-up EPA vs. the more liberated and forward-thinking ideas of Egon and his partners. Those latter perspectives are certainly willing and able to engage with the world’s oldest and deepest spiritual truths, but they are also much better equipped to come up with modern answers for those supernatural threats. In that way, we could see Ghostbusters as an example of a modern American Gothic—recognizing a world full of darkness and the supernatural, but ready to push back with courage and rationality. Who else you gonna call?!
Next comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?

Monday, March 30, 2020

March 30, 2020: 80s Comedies: Airplane

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. Leading up to a special weekend post on one of the best comedies, and films, from 2019!]
On what makes a successful parody, and what makes a truly great one.
1980’s Airplane! wasn’t the first comedic parody film made by the brothers David and Jerry Zucker (that would be 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie), and it certainly wasn’t the first prominent American parody (that honor might go to Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York). But Airplane! was one of the most influential parodies and comic films of all time, in many ways launching both the Zucker Brothers and a decade of high-profile parodies including This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Spaceballs (1987), and many many others. It certainly achieved that level of influence first and foremost through doing what a good parody has to do: identifying and ever-so-slightly tweaking a large number of elements of its main target, disaster films (along with many late 1970s secondary targets along the way), until we see them for the true silliness they are. Perhaps the best single example of that is the airport manager played by Lloyd Bridges, a high-profile serious Hollywood action star whose role in the film (as that hyperlinked montage illustrates) starts with a classic disaster movie cliché (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking”) and gradually devolves until total comic chaos (until he’s sniffing glue and hanging upside-down from the ceiling, natch).
Yet Airplane! is more than a successful parody: it’s a truly funny and enduring film, one that stands alone even for audiences who are not particularly or even at all familiar with serious disaster films (which was the case for me when I first saw Airplane!, and likewise for my sons who enjoyed it a great deal as well). One big reason why is its introduction of an element that would remain key to all of the Zucker Brothers films: truly inspired comic wordplay. We’re all familiar with “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!,” and I may well have used that line a couple or a couple thousand times in my life to date. But for my money, that’s neither the funniest individual moment of wordplay nor the best recurring wordplay joke: for the first I’d go with, “It’s an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether.” “[Everyone] It’s an entirely different kind of flying!”; and for the second I’d go with the film’s many variations of, “We have to get him to a hospital!” “A hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building full of sick people, but that’s not important right now.” I suppose you could argue that these lines are still parodying clichés from disaster films, but I would say that they’re more representative of the comic genius of the Zucker Brothers and their collaborators, and add a vital layer to the film in any case.
That wonderfully witty wordplay helps individual lines and moments stick with an audience, but for a film as a whole to stick, even a comic parody film, I think it also needs memorable characters, and Airplane! has them in spades. Bridges’ airport employee and Leslie Nielsen’s doctor (he of the “Shirley” lines) are probably the most famous, and rightly so: both of them were well-known as serious actors and action stars, and Airplane! thus both cast them against type very successfully and launched their wonderful second acts as comedy legends. But the film is full of amazing supporting characters, including one (Stephen Stucker’s Johnny) who in the 21st century treads pretty close to offensive or even homophobic but who (thanks to a very effective performance and some really great one-liners) is also still just consistently funny. And as the straight-man hero and heroine (and romantic leads), Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty take what could be thankless roles and invest them with not only humor but genuine backstory and emotion as well. For all these reasons, Airplane! remains one of the great comic parodies and films of all time, and there’s no better movie to launch a decade of comic films (and a series on said decade!).
Next comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 28, 2020

March 28-29, 2020: March 2020 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
March 2: Boston Sites: The Freedom Trail: For the Boston Massacre’s 250th anniversary, a series on Boston sites begins with what the wonderful historic trail leaves out, and how to fill in the gaps.
March 3: Boston Sites: The Black Heritage Trail: The series continues with three of the many reasons to walk an under-appreciated, parallel Boston historic trail.
March 4: Boston Sites: The U.S.S. Constitution: What the historic ship turned museum helpfully highlights and what it minimizes, as the series tours on.
March 5: Boston Sites: Remembering the Massacre: On the Massacre’s 250th, three media that have contributed to our collective memories of the influential event.
March 6: Boston Sites: Other Exemplary Boston Sites: From the Gardner Museum to the Harbor Islands, five other spots to experience the historical, cultural, and natural wonders of Boston.
March 7-8: Boston Sites: My Talk at MHS: The series concludes with three reasons why my book talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society was one of my most inspiring yet.
March 9: Last Week Recaps: SSN Boston and 2020 in Massachusetts: A series on a busy scholarly week kicks off with the latest from the Scholars Strategy Network’s Boston Chapter (the May event I mentioned there has been postponed, of course, but watch this space for more!).
March 10: Last Week Recaps: Serena Zabin’s Book Talk: The series continues with two takeaways from a wonderful talk on a vital new book.
March 11: NeMLA Recaps: Andre Dubus III: Turning to the 2020 NeMLA Convention, my recaps begin with the inspiring words of our creative keynote speaker.
March 12: NeMLA Recaps: Three Great Panels: The recaps continue with three of the many wonderful American Area panels I had the chance to attend.
March 13: NeMLA Recaps: Mentorships: The recaps conclude with two more overt and one subtler form of mentorship through this wonderful organization.
March 14-15: What’s Next for NeMLA: So if you want to get involved with that organization, here are two ways you can do so ahead of next year’s convention in Philly!
March 16: StoweStudying: Stowe beyond UTC: A series on Harriet Beecher Stowe starts with three sides to her life and identity beyond her most famous novel.
March 17: StoweStudying: Dred: The series continues with two reasons why it’s crucial for us to better remember Stowe’s second novel.
March 18: StoweStudying: New England Local Color: How and why to link Stowe to the popular 19th century literary movement, as the series reads on.
March 19: StoweStudying: Tomitudes: The very complicated, confusing, and crucial case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin toys and games.
March 20: StoweStudying: Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The series concludes with the fraught but vital question of whether we can blame an uber-popular cultural work for its misappropriations.
March 21-22: StoweStudying: The Stowe Center: A special weekend post on three inspiring sides to the Hartford historic and cultural site beyond its own StoweStudying.
March 23: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Lori, Emily Meade, and Exploitation: A series on David Simon and George Pelecanos’ wonderful TV show kicks off with the actress who performed the most inspiring work, both in front of and behind the camera.
March 24: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Eileen, Pornography, and Film History: The series continues with how my favorite character can help us better remember and recover forgotten feminist filmmakers.
March 25: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Ashley, Abby, and Activism: Two compelling characters who embody two distinct forms and outcomes of activism, as the series rolls on.
March 26: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Paul, Gay New York, and AIDS: The initially minor character who more fully emerges alongside a community and a crisis.
March 27: AmericanStudying The Deuce: Alston, Goldman, and NYC’s Changes: The series concludes with the police and political figures who reflect some of the show’s key themes and debates.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!