“You should change into a suit.”
Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.
In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.
The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.
Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.
The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage. Continue reading →
First thing this morning, I received the following security alert sent by campus police:
“the UA campus is NOT on lockdown. Reports of clowns or any immediate credible threats on the UA campus are not true. These are unsubstantiated rumors. UAPD is patrolling campus.” Clowns roaming a college campus–who knew?
The fact is that numerous stories in varied media outlets have appeared concerning sittings of clowns in a variety of settings. These stories have tapped into a cultural phenomenon concerning our bizarre relationship with clowns. So, it seems logical to repost an earlier piece on the fear of clowns and comedy. Perhaps, it may help calm our fears, but in the meantime, please follow this basic bit of advice: do not follow a clown into the woods. OK?
Clowns are terrifying.
I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy…
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An Exceptional War Cartoon
Over the last fourteen years I have seen hundreds of war cartoons depicting the various situations that reflect America’s involvement in international conflict. After a while, it seems like I am seeing the same satire reflected in nearly the same way but with a different picture. However, now and then I get a pleasant surprise. Someone publishes a cartoon that suggests a different angle of a conflict. The following cartoon does just that.
Tom Toles, “You’re Here to Help, Right?” Washington Post, 4 September 2016.
Vultures circling or, as they are doing in this drawing, assembled in a tree is as common a theme in cartoons about death as the Grim Reaper. However, the way the vultures are used, representing more than the idea that something is dead or dying, but representing the victim’s potential rescuers, is a trope that is not often used.
Toles suggests that Syria’s neighbors are merely waiting for Syria, under the leadership of Bashar al-Assad, to kill itself so that neighboring countries can take over what is left. The vultures are the nations surrounding Syria. The Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad, and The Syrian National Coalition are not among the vultures, they could be best described as the cancers within that are slowly causing Syria’s demise. However, the estate of the cancer victim is up for grabs when Syria becomes a corpse. That is what the vultures are after.
Syria’s neighboring countries have done nearly nothing to help end the war in Syria (and it is no coincidence that there are five vultures in the tree). Iraq has its own problems. Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon have had a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy toward al-Assad and his nation (if he, indeed, has a nation). Taking sides will rankle someone and those three nations do not want any more enemies than they have now. Turkey has had to defend itself from the confrontations between the three cancers in Syria in order to prevent itself from getting infected. Turkey is doing nothing to help the victim, but is doing its best not to harm the victim either. Those are the vultures in the neighborhood tree.
Russia and the United States are also principals in the Syrian conflict. Their interests are merely implied in this cartoon. The United States would like al-Assad to abdicate. Russia would like for him to remain in power. What’s the reward, for any of this? Even though Syria is the 68th largest oil producing nation in the world, they both want the oil. Now that the price of oil is under $50.00 per barrel, why should anyone care about Syria’s oil. The conflict began when the price of oil was much higher and, historically, once a country is in a conflict, it is difficult to get out without paying a high price. And while energy is always an issue with Russia and the U. S, there is also a matter of reputation at stake. As it was during the cold war, neither Russia nor America will back down.
Tom Toles uses an embedded panel to make a secondary comment in his own cartoon. In the lower right corner, Toles depicts himself at his drawing board watching the scene in front of him. The practice is similar to Pat Oliphant’s Punk the Penguin who gets the final say in his drawings. Toles says of the vultures, “They know how to pick their friends.” He is suggesting that when Syria finally dies, and the cancers (combatants) die with it, the surrounding nations will get their slice of Syria. Let’s hope that when the time comes there is something worth taking because few people believe that there is anything of Syrian leadership that is worth saving.
This cartoon is among the few that cannot be copied in a few decades, change the labels, and have a cartoon that reflects the times. This cartoon stands out as one that depicts the uniqueness of the Syrian conflict and only the Syrian conflict.
In earlier posts, I have mentioned that when we think about Southwestern humor, three or four authors come to mind out of the thirty or forty who were actively writing at the time. Johnson J. Hooper is one of these three or four, classified as “The Big Bear School” of sketch writers from the 1830s-40s. In classifying Hooper this way, scholars such as M. Thomas Inge, Walter Blair, and Franklin J. Meine defined the school as authors who used the regional vernacular speech, letting the characters speak for themselves. In addition, the authors used a content set of tales that included the fact that they were con men of sorts, and the stories often described horse races and swaps, camp meetings, swindles, and generally bilking both the common people and the politicians alike. Often the tales deflate the egos of those who believe themselves smarter or more moral than the less educated back country population. They receive their comeuppance in the tales by being outsmarted by the main character. Hooper’s recurring character is Captain Simon Suggs, late of Tallapoosa County.
Although Hooper fits this definition in the content of most of his sketches, in other important stylistic ways his differ from the “standard” Southwestern sketch—specifically, he uses much more exposition and much less dialog than other authors from this “school” like George Washington Harris (the Sut Lovingood tales) and Thomas Bangs Thorpe (“The Big Bear of Arkansas”). I would like to suggest that Hooper does so based upon his own personal understanding of what good writing ought to be for a Southern gentleman.
That Hooper was such a gentleman is evidenced by his upbringing in pre-Civil War Georgia. He is one of the earliest of this type of yarnspinning along with Augustus Baldwin Longstreet (Georgia Scenes) and William Tappan Thompson (the Major Jones stories). His great grand uncle was a Boston minister and one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. His family were early emigrants to Georgia territory; His father brought the family to Georgia, where Johnson was born and raised. His father was a literary man, but not, unfortunately, a businessman; thus Hooper, as the third in a line of sons, grew up in more straightened circumstances than his older brothers. He inherited his father’s love of literature and writing, but not much else. In his lifetime, Hooper was an author, an editor for several newspapers, and a historian of the politics of the Southern cause before and during the Civil War. His Simon Suggs stories were early writings in his career, used as fillers for his newspaper editions, but became very popular, and were later published in both the Spirit of the times and as a collection of short tales.
Like many of the Southwestern humorists, Hooper first published his work in William T. Porter’s Spirit of the Times. Porter was instrumental in helping Southwestern humorists like Thorpe, Harris, and Hooper gain national attention both through the magazine and through his two collections of work from the Spirit in The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Stories and A Quarter Race in Kentucky. In this capacity, Porter was instrumental in negotiating the collected works, Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers: Together with “Taking the Census” and Other Alabama Sketches, for Hooper, which was published in 1845.
Generally, those authors most closely associated with the Big Bear School follow Wayne C. Booth’s (much later) description in The Rhetoric of Fiction. They “show” rather than “tell”—that is, they contain much more dialog than description. The characters do the talking, and the reader is left to interpret what the characters say. For example, in the tales of Sut Lovingood penned by George Washington Harris, a reader will find one or two short paragraphs at the beginning of the sketches by a narrator (Sut’s friend, George), setting up for the oral story then told by Sut himself in dialect. The sketches may also contain a final sentence or two by that narrator, thus framing the tale on both ends.
By contrast, Hooper’s stories and sketches contain much more description of place, time and situation, with correspondingly less dialect, primarily in the form of quotations of Simon’s speech. Harris’s choice to let Sut tell his story creates the effect of a raconteur, a good storyteller, presenting an oral tale. Hooper’s choice to tell most of the story as an unnamed narrator creates a very different effect—that of a well-educated gentleman telling a story he has heard, occasionally letting Simon speak so that the reader gets the “flavor” of Suggs’s speech. This separates the author from the speech of the sketch, demonstrating for the reader the difference between author and character. This would be important to an educated Southern author from a “good” family, who would have been expected to write erudite prose.
A sample taken from “Simon Fights ‘the Tiger’ and Gets Whipped—But Comes Out Not Much the ‘Worse for Wear’” should demonstrate this stylistic difference and its effect. The reader will notice that “the tiger” (in this case, referring to games of chance) and “the worse for wear” are both offset by quotation marks, by which the author indicates that they are slang. Simon himself uses slang terms more often than not, but does not bother indicating that the words are such, as that is his natural form of speech and he does not distinguish them from “proper” English.
In setting the stage for the story, the author begins with two long paragraphs showing where Simon is and what he is doing:
“As a matter of course, the first thing that engaged the attention of Captain Suggs upon his arrival in Tuskaloosa, was his proposed attack upon his enemy. Indeed, he scarcely allowed himself time to bolt, without mastication, the excellent supper served to him at Duffie’s, ere he outsallied to engage the adversary.”
Word and phrase choices such as “engaged the attention”, “mastication”, and “outsallied” are choices that would be foreign to Simon himself, but demonstrate that the author’s vocabulary is an elevated and educated one. The description takes up two paragraphs. Anywhere within it necessitating slang always sees it appear in quotation marks:
“As he hurried along, however, hardly turning his head, and to all appearance, oblivious altogether of things external, he held occasional “confabs” with himself in regard to the unusual objects which surrounded him…”
When Simon does speak, the contrast between himself and the narrator is striking:
“Well, thar’s the most deffrunt sperrets in that grocery ever I seed! Thar’s koniac, and old peach, and rectified, and lots I can’t tell thar names! That light yaller bottle tho’, in the corner thar, that’s Tennessee! I’d know that any whar!” (italics Hooper’s)
The sketch goes on to detail Simon’s encounter at a tavern in which he is soundly beaten at cards, loses all of his money, and manages to get one of the spectators to bankroll him—in the process gaining back more cash than he started out the evening with.
Is some ways, the contrast itself between Hooper’s narrator and Simon Suggs creates its own brand of humor. Readers, more educated than Simon, find his manner of speech alone funny. However, the more interesting question for scholars is why Hooper was not content to allow Suggs to speak entirely for himself as did many other authors from this School, in this time and place. I argue that this inability to leave Simon to his own devices, which would be much more realistic, derives from Hooper’s desire to be known as an educated author. For a Southern gentleman, writing was a major part of demonstrating one’s erudition to the public. Joseph Glover Baldwin, another Southwestern humorist less well known today, sums this philosophy up in a letter to his son, Sandy in 1855 :
“Write in a clear, vigorous, pointed style, natural and easy; always say common things in a common way: study to be clear—have a definite meaning in your mind and represent it in your words….Avoid all exaggeration. Rise to the subject—but don’t go beyond it. Overstatement very generally is worse than understatement. Don’t strain after wit. Quiet is best. Uproarious bizarre humor is not quite the style of a gentleman or a scholar. The best speaking and writing is strung sense with the point of wit on it: Like an axe made of iron with the edge steeled. “
While it might be fine for Hooper’s country bumpkin storyteller to use slang, over-exaggeration, and belaboring of a point, the author himself, as a gentleman, should never do so. The fact that Hooper was mindful of his reputation is made clear later in his life. His fame, much like Baldwin’s own fame for Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi, was based upon his Simon Suggs sketches, while his essays, political opinions, and journalistic writing were less popular then, and relatively unheard of today. So much so, in fact, that when Hooper made appearances anywhere, he was often referred to as “alias Simon Suggs.” At the 1860 June Democratic Convention, which Hooper attended both as journalist and as a Southern Rights Democrat, word went around on the floor that the author of Simon Suggs was present, and the call went out for “Suggs” to come forward. Hooper refused to acknowledge this call. Much like Mark Twain, who in later years was embarrassed by his early story, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calavaras County,” Hooper preferred to be known for his non-humorous writing.
The moral of the story, for Southern gentlemen of the nineteenth century, at least, appears to be that it is all well and good for a man to write humorous sketches and stories for the entertainment of other refined Southern gentlemen; however, the “proper” texts for a gentleman are history, essays, and hard-nosed journalism—not humor.*Quotations from the sketch, “Simon Fights ‘The Tiger’” are taken from Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, M.E. Bradford, ed. Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders and Co., 1993. The original edition was published in 1845 by Carey and Hart.
Saint Louis University
*Quotations from the sketch, “Simon Fights ‘The Tiger’” are taken from Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, M.E. Bradford, ed. Nashville, TN: J.S. Sanders and Co., 1993. The original edition was published in 1845 by Carey and Hart.
*Baldwin’s advice on good writing to his son, Sandy, is taken from a letter Baldwin wrote to him on 22 February, 1855
*The biographical information given here is summarized from Alias Simon Suggs: A Biography of Johnson Jones Hooper, Hoole, Stanley, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970.
This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part one here.
“The law? Law is a human institution.”
The Invocation of the Muse, swinging picks building into rhythm, human voices chanting in song – the sound of the men working on the chain gang. Black men in black and white stripes, washed out color film.
And so the Coen Brothers begin the new millennium with a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi – as a musical comedy.
Smooth talking Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from the chain gang (for practicing law without a license), shackled to two dimwitted fellow convicts. He is set on a journey home to see his estranged wife, Penny, and their daughters.
Along the way they encounter a blind prophet on the railroad, real-life delta bluesman Tommy Johnson (who, like his better-known namefellow Robert, allegedly sold his soul to the devil), Lotus-eaters in the form of a mass baptism in the river (the Coens continuously mash up Homer’s Greek traditions with the Christian themes of the film’s Southern setting) washerwomen Sirens, a Cyclops Bible salesman and the Ku Klux Klan (robed as white sheep) all while being pursued by the empty-eyed Poseidon devil, in the form of a relentless Sherriff in shades.
They even manage to record an unlikely hit record.
Like all the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song of the American South. The song dates back to the turn of the last century, but was popularized in the 1950s by the Stanley Brothers. In the early 1960s it became a folk staple. Bob Dylan included a version on his debut album.
If I were asked to name an unofficial Patron Saint of Hard Living, Charles Bukowski would come to mind.
This prolific writer was unabashed about his drinking, turbulent love affairs with woman, and unconventional lifestyle. To his mind, those who met the status quo were the depraved ones. Read him for a while and you may decide he was right.
Out of his thousands of poems, most weren’t humorous. Here are three that are:
Van Gogh cut off his ear
gave it to a
who flung it away in
Van, whores don’t want
I guess that’s why you were
such a great
when you’re young
a pair of
in the closet
can fire your
when you’re old
a pair of shoes
the other day we were in a
bookstore in the mall
and my woman said, “look, there’s
“I don’t know him,” I said.
“we had dinner with him
not too long ago,” she said.
“all right,” I said, “let’s get
out of here.”
Bob was a clerk in the store
and his back was to us.
my woman yelled, “hello, Bob!”
Bob turned and smiled, waved.
my woman waved back.
I nodded at Bob, a very
delicate blushing fellow.
(Bob, that is.)
outside my woman asked, “don’t you remember him?”
“he came over with Ella. re- member Ella?”
my woman remembers everything.
I don’t understand it, although
I suppose it’s polite
to remember names and faces
I just can’t do it
I don’t want to carry all those
Bobs and Ellas and Jacks and Marions
and Darlenes around in my mind. eating and
drinking with them is difficult en- ough.
to attempt to recall them at will
is an affront to my well-
that they remember me is
Their films reveal a host of influences, especially an inimitable fusing of the absurdist screwball comedy of Preston Sturges with the dark moral lessons of film noir. The films of the Coen Brothers – whether dark and violent or roariously silly – share many themes and aesthetic traits. The comedies have a philosophical moral undertone and the serious films are peppered with comedy.
The Jewish brothers from Minnesota are essentially co-auteurs (if such a word is allowed). They write, direct, produce and edit their films together. (Early credits assigning direction to Joel and production to Ethan were required by rigid guild rules. They edit their films under the alias Roderick Jaynes.)
Their films share a unique visual tapestry and a careful attention to sound and music, often working in tandem. The atmosphere of their stories is accentuated by a combination of original score and perfectly cultivated source music.
“Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else… that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, an’ down here… you’re on your own.”
The brothers’ first film announced the arrival of a new cinematic voice. 1984’s Blood Simple, a low budget neo-noir, somehow contains the multitudes of their entire body of work to come. Continue reading →
Donald Trump is a gift to political cartoonists and satirists in general. His policy positions are extreme, though some are extreme left while others are extreme right. His public statements are the definition of “gaffe.” It would seem Trump is a godsend for political cartoonists. While that may have been true during the beginning of the election cycle, that may no longer be the case.
How many times can a satirist lampoon, once again, Trump’s misogynistic rantings? How many different ways can a satirist expand on Trump’s xenophobia? How many times of pointing out Trump’s misuse of statistics to the point of outright lies finally becomes tiresome? Because of these limitations, cartoonists ignore his missteps and look for other issues on which to direct their invective, and other ways to caricature Trump.
With few exceptions, satirists do not want to get the reputation of repeating themselves to the extent that readers expect a “Trumpism du jour.” That gets as tiresome as the candidate himself. Cartoonists attempt to push beyond the cliché. In fact, after one of the most catastrophic events in American history, the attack on the World Trade Center, Ann Telnaes excoriated her peers for being overly and overtly patriotic, “We shouldn’t be flag-wavers. You can do that on your personal time. — I flew a flag — but not in your cartoons. We’re supposed to be a voice of other possibilities.”[i] That principle is not only applicable after tragedies, but it applies to overused punch lines in cartoons as well.
Therefore, even those satirists who are most adamantly opposed to the possible election of Donald Trump must reach beyond Trump’s daily inappropriateness to the reality of Trump’s attractiveness to a large portion of the electorate and examine why that is happening. That gives rise to a class of cartoons that portray Trump in a positive light. True to the vast majority of American cartoons, however, is that if Trump is depicted positively, something or someone else is the foil.
This analysis comes with a disclaimer that since the subject is pictorial humor, there may be some difference of opinion among readers as to whether the artist’s primary target was Trump or the alleged foil. These cartoons were chosen because the author’s first impression was that Trump was not the primary target of the humor. With that in mind and the distinct possibility that there will be differing opinions, here are cartoons that contain Trump, but make Bernie Sanders the foil.
Published on May 19, 2016, Robert Ariail depicts a boxing match between Trump and the Republican Party symbolized by the elephant. The fight is disrupted by a riot between various Democrats, symbolized by the donkeys at ringside. While there is one donkey with a Hillary sign, the most vicious of the asses are depicted as Sanders partisans. The reason why this is pro-Trump is that despite the “Stop Trump” movement and various powerful Republicans (including the entire Bush family) refusing to endorse Trump, the Democrats are depicted as more combative than the Republicans.
Robert Ariail, 19 May 2016.
Jack Ohman depicts Bernie Sanders handing the presidency to Donald Trump on a silver platter. This cartoon, published on May 20, 2016, also depicts Hillary Clinton at a nearby table with a goblet in front of her and shrouded in gossamer. Despite Trump’s beatific yet condescending expression, the cartoonist is decrying Sander’s poor judgment in harshly criticizing Clinton for her vote to invade Iraq and pandering to Wall Street types. The artist suggests that Sanders is handing the presidency to Trump, a person within the wealthy class that Sanders had been stridently campaigning against.
Jack Ohman, 20 May 2016.
The following cartoon is a direct comparison between the careless statements of Donald Trump toward various immigrants and the carelessness of Clinton in her handling of State Department emails. While Bernie Sanders may have been sick of hearing about those “damned emails,” Republicans can’t hear about them enough. On June 23, 2016, Lisa Benson filled that void by comparing Clinton’s criticisms of Donald Trump to her own mistakes of using a personal computer to email classified information. In the background, is that the silhouette of a foreign spy who is reading the contents of Clinton’s brief case? Maybe it is an FBI detective who will later regard her handling of the emails as “extremely careless” but not criminal.
Lisa Benson, 23 June 2016.
Finally, the most common foil for the positive Trump cartoons are the ones that depict the Republican Party in disarray following the successful campaign by Trump to win more primary delegates than any of the Republican candidates for President in the 2016 race. In those cases, the whole of the GOP is depicted as an elephant. And, true to the nature of political cartooning, the beast is put into the most precarious of situations.
International cartoonists also get into the act of satirizing American politics. After all, if the winner of the U.S. presidency is considered the “leader of the free world,” American politics is fair game overseas. Heng Kim Song of the Straits Times (Singapore) depicts Donald Trump dragging a reluctant bride to the marriage altar. The reluctant bride’s fingernails are gouging the carpet to the amazement of spectators. Contrary to physics and American satire, however, the dress is still maintaining the dignity of the bride. This illustrates the uncomfortable position that the Republicans find themselves after having allowed a radical to infiltrate their party and win. Clearly, in this depiction and in electoral politics, Trump has defeated the stalwarts of the GOP.
Heng Kim Song, 30 May 2016.
One of the oldest and clearest depictions of a political election is as a race. It is easy to depict and there is little confusion that when one candidate crosses the finish line and the others have not, a winner can be declared. The race as a metaphor can also obscure clarity of a contest. Take the following cartoon of May 31, 2016 by Clay Bennett as an example. Donald Trump is depicted crossing the finish line. The cartoonist depicts the tape not having been broken and the two GOP members who were holding the tape refuse to let go. Has Trump won the race or not? We will find out at the convention.
Clay Bennett, 31 May 2016.
In political cartoon culture, cartoonists are given one opportunity to state the obvious on an issue. After that, they are challenged to look beyond the obvious and examine underlying realities. Cartoonists are expected to push the boundaries of convention and cause the public to consider ideas that are neither readily apparent nor popular. Ranan Lurie called the editorial cartoon “the most extreme form of expression that a society will accept or tolerate.”[ii] In this case, readers are asked to consider that there are some entities worse than Donald Trump.
I will leave readers to mull that one over.
[i] Dave Astor, “Editorial Cartooning Post 9-11,” Editor and Publisher 4 February 2002. Internet: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/news/editorial-cartooning-post-9-11/.
[ii] Chris Lamb, Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004. 22.
It wasn’t until 1972––58 years after President Woodrow Wilson made Mother’s Day official––that Father’s Day become a nationwide holiday. On Sunday, June 19, 2016, Americans will again honor and celebrate paternal bonds.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!
To celebrate the summer and to coincide with an impending Father’s Day, I am reposting this piece on National Lampoon’s Vacation. I reassert that the film is a formidable contribution to American humor, a fact made even more evident by the lame updated version of the film released in 2015 (simply titled Vacation), written and directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. The return to the Griswold family featured an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) repeating the desperate but loving efforts of his father all those years ago. The film is just plain awful but still managed to make substantive money at the box office. I see that success as testament to the legacy of the original film along with the enduring appeal of disastrous family vacations in the American psyche. The original film remains the seminal statement of this beautiful and dysfunctional family ritual.
In the summer of 1983, Americans were treated to one of the best comedy films to examine the American family vacation and its inescapable heart of darkness: National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, who based the screenplay on his short story “Vacation ’58.” The film stands as the best cultural document to exploit the humor of the American family vacation, that mainstream celebration reasserting the right to own the landscape and be miserable in the process–and all at great expense. There is no cultural behavior that is so consistently marked with promise year after year and also, in equal proportions, disappointment–unless we talk about marriage itself, but I dare not suggest that.
Few movies tapped into the zeitgeist more effectively than Vacation. This is not only evidenced by its success in the marketplace, immediately in that big first summer (most online sources assert a box office of $61,000,000 and a budget somewhere around $15 million) ; then also with the continuing payoff from the sequels it encouraged and the high-rotation syndication it has earned for the last thirty years. There are few film or television families with greater reach into American culture than the Griswolds.
The film is especially poignant to American fathers who, no matter what other factors come into play, enter upon this challenge as if they are performing a noble duty to God and Country. (I hasten to add that women–mothers–have their own nightmares of the family vacation, primarily built around having to recreate the domestic space in any and all spaces occupied by the family–talk about exhaustion!–but Vacation is driven in all ways by Clark, the failed provider.) When a father begins a family vacation, the task is taken on out of a feeling of obligation first and foremost, not a desire for relaxation. As Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) puts it; the family is on a “quest for fun,” a perpetual search just as elusive as any effort to find the Holy Grail.
It is the delving into the pathetic psyche of the mainstream American father who chooses year after year to endure the ritual that makes Vacation such a compelling example of American humor. Every father is Clark Griswold, a bumbling simpleton with a good heart but very little understanding of his limitations.
Chevy Chase, in his dream role, deserves an Oscar in his creation of Clark Griswold simply for making him worthy of our sympathy. He is both ridiculous and believable. He is a first-rate idiot, bless his heart. But he keeps trying because he understands what all American family vacation providers understand: he cannot stop. Stopping is failure. Deep down he must always believe that the obeisance of such a powerful ritual will be repaid. Marty Moose owes us.
As I write this, I am on vacation, and I am exhausted. I can’t wait to get home so that I can get some rest. I am going to float the idea of leaving a day early. But in the meantime, today is for sea kayaks. The four of us will explore like Lewis and Clark. The sea looks a bit angry today, but what could go wrong? Good family fun, with a hint of danger, or at least….hassle.