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.
American family vacations are funny things. There are many reasons for this, but the humor derives most from the core incongruity that defines the practice. It is filled with hope that does not learn from previous failures. Even though I am consciously overstating the case, it still strikes me as fair and accurate. My memories of my childhood family vacations are all incredibly pleasant, even the one where we spent three rainy days in a Myrtle Beach hotel room before my Dad proclaimed he had had enough. He checked out, drove home to borrow a camper from his father, then picked up my Mom’s parents to join the three of us for a drive up to Chesapeake Bay. Why? Because it was there!
Given the chance to declare defeat to the whims of the weather god, my Dad chose, rather, to double-down and make the rest of his vacation a journey across a big bridge and tunnel and include extended family as well. Reckless!
It was great, especially when the camper (a pick-up truck with a camper set on top) broke down on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. It came to a pitiful, coughing stop on one of the few “islands” between the long tunnel segments. If we had broken down within one of the tunnel sections, according to my Dad, he would have had to bury his father-in-law on the spot. My grandfather had terrible claustrophobia, and he had agreed to make the trip ONLY if he did not have to enter the tunnel. The plan was to drop him and my grandmother off at a hotel before the beginning of the tunnel and to pick them back up on the return. My Dad ignored all signs and plowed ahead, certain that his father-in-law would appreciate the experience (Oh, man, that was gutsy. A bit stupid, too. But funny.)
I loved the whole trip. At age 8, what was not to love? The Chesapeake Tunnel was cool, despite the car trouble. The motel room at Myrtle Beach was cool, too, despite the rain. Just now, in my middle age, I am fully realizing all that was going on. My brother and sister had moved out in the previous year (they were nine and eleven years older than I was), and this was the first vacation with simply the one, youngest child. That must have seemed all wrong for my parents. But it was wonderful for me to be completely oblivious to exactly how miserable the grown-ups were–and, more importantly, how hard they were working to give me a vacation to remember. There is something in that. And such things take place every summer in America.
Americans love vacations with a vengeance. It seems worthwhile to hope against hope that the next one will come together perfectly. My family, for example, will come back to the beach next summer and do all of this again. And the year after that. And each time we will reaffirm hope that our children will one day remember and cherish how much fun they had. I hope also that they will be amazed at how oblivious they were to how exhausting the whole damn thing was. And laugh as they tell the stories.
Good talk, Russ.
(c) 2013, Jeffrey Melton