Bad gets better

The 1980s’ pop cultural legacy is not a particularly strong one, with the decade seeing some of the worst music (“We Built This City”), TV (“The A-Team”) and movies (“Soul Man”) ever produced. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the ’80s rank tops in my book in the worthy category of “So Bad It’s Good” entertainment. While every era has its share of SoBIG fare, my favorites tend to originate from this artistically deprived decade.

What qualifies as SoBIG? “So Bad It’s Good” is exactly what it sounds like — entertainment (mainly films for the purposes of this discussion) that is so poorly conceived and executed that it’s actually a pleasure to watch. Don’t confuse this with the painfully bad. There’s plenty of that from any decade, but its tendency to present itself seriously is what separates it from SoBIG. SoBIG movies walk a fine line between the earnest and the ludicrous, offering a wink and a smile that not every viewer catches. Critical commentary is wasted on them, and to offer any only identifies yourself as one who didn’t “get” it. “Getting” it means both engaging and suspending critical thought in a joyous exploration of plot holes and non sequiturs before allowing yourself to go along for the ride.

Without further ado, I’ve compiled some of the necessary components to a successful SoBIG film, with cited examples taken from five of the best to come out of the ’80s:

  1. “Tango & Cash”
  2. “Roadhouse”
  3. “Footloose”
  4. “Flashdance”
  5. “Top Gun”

A ridiculous premise: I can only imagine the opening pitch to any of these films awaiting the green light from producers ending with “Hear me out.” As in: “So there’s this town that outlawed dancing. Wait, wait, hear me out…” In each case, producers did, and the result was a situation — be it an out-of-control honky tonk or a masterful criminal frame-up of rival cops — that allowed the actors to do what they do best. And what they do best is…

Action, whenever possible, substituted for plot, dialogue or character development: The first 20 minutes of “Flashdance” consist of little more than dancing. I’ll give it credit for staying true to the title, but at some point we need some background as to what’s causing all this dancing. Or do we? Though the characters’ motivations eventually reveal themselves, we find ourselves not caring too much, because…

Completely unbelievable circumstances: Jennifer Beals may be a struggling aspiring dancer, but she takes on much of that struggle in the comfort of her cavernous warehouse-style “apartment.” And speaking of those aspirations, ever been to a bar like Mawby’s, which serves up Pittsburgh blue collar burgers and brew to go with super high-concept dance performances that fall somewhere between avant garde and soft porn? And I realize it’s tough finding things to do in “Footloose’s” no-dance town, but have you ever, anywhere in America or the world, known teenagers to pass idle time playing chicken with powerful (and expensive) tractors?

Completely unbelievable behavior: Tom Cruise and his buddies down beers and shots while serenading Kelly McGillis at the local drinking establishment — hours before undergoing the tremendous physical strain of jet-powered aerobatics in a cut-throat flight school. My brother calls this phenomenon “movie drunk” (or alternately “movie stoned”): the ability to go from wasted to lucid, even insightful, in a matter of minutes. This of course defies human physiology. I find it difficult to run a coffeemaker after a night on the town, but hey, Max McGee caught the game-turning touchdown for the Green Bay Packers while nursing a wicked hangover at Super Bowl I. I suppose Top Gunners can keep their wits (and their breakfast down) while pulling several Gs in their F-14s with last night’s whiskey on their breath.

Nonsensical dialogue: Patrick Swayze tells his bouncer apprentices, “I want you to be nice… until it’s time to not be nice.” It sounds somewhat deep, perhaps cryptic, until you actually string the words together and try to make sense of them. If I’m in that room, I’m just going to nod my head and say “OK, boss.” But Jack Palance does Swayze one better in “Tango & Cash”. When Kurt Russell asks “Who the hell are you?” the legendary actor clearly establishes himself as the film’s villain with this gem: “Just think of me as someone who… doesn’t like you very much.”

A learned mentor: Swayze benefited from the wisdom, and presumably fighting knowledge, of grizzled graybeard Sam Elliott. Elliott is a Yoda of sorts, a legendary figure in bar-bouncer circles who endeavors to teach and uphold whatever the code is that bar-bouncers live by (see “completely unbelievable circumstances” if you’re struggling with this). Likewise, Beals finds inspiration for her dancing dreams in the enigmatic Hanna, whose connection to Beals is unclear and of whom we learn little other than she was an accomplished artistic dancer in the distant past. Both Elliott and Hanna die in predictable turns, allowing their proteges to first grieve, then grow in a necessary if lazy step to move the plot forward.

An evil foil: SoBIG bad guys tend to display comical levels of evil — there’s “Tango’s” over-the-top diabolical Yves Perret, embarrassingly played by Palance, while Lee Ving hams it up as “Flashdance’s” resident street thug Johnny C. Jon Lithgow shows the greatest depth as “Footloose’s” town preacher who leads the anti-dance campaign, only to “cut loose” after some soul searching. Val Kilmer delivers an “Ice”-y performance as Cruise’s nemesis in “Top Gun,” though the bad blood dissipates after the two aces make quick work of MiG fighters in the film’s closing air battle.

Absolutely terrible music: “Footloose” and “Flashdance” are ’80s pop staples, probably because of their association with the films rather than the other way around. They share many wedding playlists with “Top Gun’s” “Danger Zone,” which could have been churned out by a 1986 Coleco programmed to cram disparate hooks, power chords, drum fills and lyrics into a cohesive song. It doesn’t work. But of course that’s not the point — there’s about as much perfectionist detail paid to the music as the movies that contain them.

Predictability: What’s going to happen is never in doubt. How it happens can sometimes surprise you — Kurt Russell in drag is one I didn’t see coming — but we all know where this is heading. The good guys win, we share some laughs and, for at least 2 hours, we forget about our troubles.

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Name games

What’s in a name? If it’s like mine, not much. Just words that let people get my attention, or organize me alphabetically in a classroom setting. But in rare instances, there’s a whole lot more to a name. There’s power.

Take for instance “Audubon,” as in the society dedicated to all things birds. John James Audubon, the man for which the society is named, certainly had a passion for winged creatures — he shot thousands of them over the course of his career in a crude, if effective, method of cataloging the various species. Yet because of the reputation the Audubon Society has built, his name shares rarefied air in naturalist circles with the likes of John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

Mention the name “Tommy John” in a baseball locker room, and you’ll likely send more than a few shudders through the pitching staff. Forget that John won 288 games on the mound; most associate his name with the revolutionary arm ligament surgery that bisected his career. News of a pitcher requiring Tommy John surgery generally poses two sobering considerations: a lengthy rehab, followed by an uncertain future. Although John went on to pitch in three World Series after the procedure, the surgery that bears his name carries the weight of an athletic death sentence. That’s power.

And then there’s “Uncle Tom.” Few names conjure up such cultural baggage as the protagonist from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. The association of Uncle Tom, particularly among black people, is not a positive one: he’s seen as happily deferential to whites, accepting of his subordinate position and, possibly most harmful, bereft of any sense of racial pride. However, it’s been noted and it bears repeating that anyone who assigns those traits to Uncle Tom isn’t likely to have read the book. Do so and you’ll find a surprisingly different man. True, he accepts his lot as a slave, but only because his deep, unyielding religious faith carry his spirit to a higher plain. His belief in the glory of God and a greater reward allow him to submit to varying levels of bondage, from the relatively benign Kentucky farm to Louisiana and the geographically and spiritually forsaken plantation of Simon Legree.

A high school English class can easily identify Tom as a Christ figure, both through his emboldened expression of faith and the increased suffering it brings upon him. Through gentle persuasion, he rises, Christ-like, above his mortal surroundings to become a beacon, for his tormenters as well as his fellow sufferers. In the process his character demonstrates a superior standing among his antebellum contemporaries that defies the conventional “inferior” Uncle Tom characterization that society since has come to embrace.

Yet embrace it we have. “Uncle Tom” is not a name thrown around in good cheer among black people, and it probably never will be. Though he desperately wished for his freedom, he never acted upon those wishes, even when given chances by indulgent masters. Why? He was too honest (a quality distinctly lacking among the white people in the novel). It’s possible that by standards of subsequent generations of both blacks and whites, that’s viewed as a moral failing. All the high-minded religious devotion he brings to the table doesn’t make up for his unwillingness to fight back, thus giving the negative “Uncle Tom” connotations the edge in the court of public opinion. Judgment has been passed, incorrectly or not, and that’s where the name derives its power.

Laughing with them, not at them

Look beyond the requisite silliness of the characters in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, and you’ll find an endearing humanity. While the chief aim of any Guest project is to play up genre archetypes in over-the-top fashion, what makes the thing work is a heartfelt appreciation for the people he’s spoofing.

Consider the eclectic cast of competitors in “Best in Show,” who despite their obsessive, even neurotic tendencies display a love of dogs and a passion for showing them that’s completely believable. Same with the community theater buffs of “Waiting for Guffman” whose enthusiasm for the stage more than makes up for their lack of acting chops. And while the brash facade of the aging but no-less testosterone-fueled rockers of “This is Spinal Tap” provides the laughs, the sweet, lifelong friendship between the band’s two leaders gives the film an empathetic balance. As the saying goes, we laugh with them, not at them.

“Spinal Tap” in particular hits surprisingly close to reality. Anyone who follows rock music, and particularly heavy metal, can easily recognize the paradigm captured on screen. This occurred to me last week as the annual onslaught that brings washed up has-been bands to the summer festival/county fair circuit got into full swing with Night Ranger coming to Celebrate De Pere.

Ah yes, Night Ranger. First and foremost rockers, but not afraid to show their soft side, Night Ranger was a band built for 1980s middle America. A string of hits including “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “When You Close Your Eyes” and the monster ballad “Sister Christian” ensured the band’s place in the second tier of classic rock alongside the likes of Styx and REO Speedwagon. And for those of us who considered ourselves “serious” music fans, they were eminently mockable. Nickelback-level mockable. Like most of their contemporaries, Night Ranger featured cheesy videos and cheesy album covers that make it hard to believe they don’t chuckle a little themselves these days. Here’s a taste:


So here was Night Ranger hitting the road, and as I had no pressing plans that night, I considered my options: 1) deliberately stay at home and maintain a respectable level of cool, or 2) head down to De Pere, plunk down $10 and stoically wince through the set list while maintaining a smirking sense of distant superiority. I left it to a coin-toss game-day decision, but as the concert got closer, a third option emerged: It might be fun. “When You Close Your Eyes” actually isn’t a terrible song, and, amid the healthy roster of cover bands that blanket our market, how cool would it be to hear “Sister Christian” performed by the band that recorded it? Add to that the people-watching potential at any festival, and I was in.

But it was not to be. Celebrate De Pere, held every Memorial Day weekend, when the weather in Northeastern Wisconsin tends to be the most volatile, has a long history of storm-related postponements and cancellations. As I hopped in the car around 8 o’clock I couldn’t help notice dark skies to the southwest. Really dark. By the time I got to De Pere, it was nighttime black, getting windy, and rain was imminent. The only question was how bad it would be. The gate person letting me in for free wasn’t a good sign, but I waited it out under a beer tent as it began to sprinkle. There was grumbling around the tent that the police had halted beer sales — also not a good sign. I snickered at the thought of people coming to grips with the prospect of seeing Night Ranger sober. Finally, I got word from two passersby coming from the stage area — the show was off. And for a brief moment, I was disappointed.

I’m sure it would be fairly easy, properly motivated, to find a way to see Night Ranger some day, but I doubt the stars will align in such a fashion, as they did last week, that I couldn’t say no. There’s a certain unforced charm to a scenario that enables me to shrug my shoulders, turn off my cynic alarm and go with the flow. And like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, I usually don’t realize it until it’s over.