1980s, Action-Adventure, Comedy

Airplane! (1980) / Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors/Screenwriters: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Coscreenwriter on Top Secret!: Martyn Burke

By Roderick Heath

Known collectively as ZAZ, the writing and directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams started their careers in that comedy Mecca, of Madison, Wisconsin, where they were key members of a satirical sketch troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. The burgeoning American, Canadian, and British fringe comedy scenes of the 1970s became a proving ground for so many of the talents who would become stars in in the 1980s, but ZAZ were some of the relatively few from such scenes who found their place behind the camera. They graduated to the big screen in collaboration with John Landis on the 1978 film The Kentucky Fried Movie, and soon were given the chance to make their own movie. The trio decided, rather than simply offer a string of sketches as they had in their previous outing, they would present a mostly coherent lampoon of a specific type of movie and use it as a scarecrow to hang their jokes on. ZAZ, with their encyclopaedic sense of pop culture and authentic streak of movie buff fondness for the sorts of films they would nonetheless ransack for camp and kitsch, decided to take a whack at sending up the disaster movie genre that had been huge business throughout the 1970s for Hollywood. The resulting concoction, Airplane!, released in 1980, was a hugely profitable hit and quickly became enshrined amongst the most beloved comedy cult films.

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By comparison, ZAZ’s 1984 follow-up Top Secret!, a panoramic swipe at spy, war, and Elvis movies, gained a comparatively muted response and lingered more quietly on video store shelves and occasional TV showings, although it too eventually gained veneration. The trio also stumbled with their attempt to create a TV series, Police Squad! (1982), but gained their revenge when they adapted it as a movie, The Naked Gun (1987), and scored another popular hit that birthed two sequels. After tackling a script written by others on Ruthless People (1986) whilst still a team, the trio split to take on solo directing works: Abrahams tackled Big Business (1988), Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990), and the more ZAZ-like Hot Shots! films (1991, 1993). Jerry Zucker proved the most willing to go off-brand with the supernatural romance Ghost (1990) and Arthurian tale First Knight (1995), before stalling with Rat Race (2001), a tribute to one of the ZAZ stylistic influences, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). David directed the first two Naked Gun entries, worked with the creators of the very ZAZ-like TV series South Park on BASEketball (1998), and later took over the Scary Movie franchise from the Wayans brothers, before undoing himself somewhat with the right-wing patriotic screed An American Carol (2008).

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With Airplane!, ZAZ reinvented the movie parody genre, one that had only known sporadic stabs anyway over the years, and which was generally left to television, which could speedily assimilate and produce a send-up and move on. A good feature-length lampoon, by contrast, had to amass decades’ worth of clichés and points of reference to work. Bob Hope had made his name in movies poking their tongues out at other movies, with the likes of the horror movie burlesques The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Western-disassembling farce The Paleface (1950) and its Frank Tashlin-directed sequel (1952). Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) had made sport of the gothic horror revival of its day and the Carry On films had often revolved around making fun of familiar genres, from historical epics to spy movies. ZAZ spurned however the relatively traditional approach of many of these, for they also channelled the bristling linguistic and behavioural anarchism of the Marx Brothers, frenetic zaniness of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the free-for-all aesthetic of MAD Magazine, the protean, associative strangeness of Looney Tunes, and the provocative black comedy of Harvard’s National Lampoon, which was also trying to leverage a turn to the big screen around the same time as ZAZ.

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ZAZ’s immediate forerunners as Jewish wiseacres turned comedy auteurs had been Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had many of the same influences. Allen had leveraged his own movie career with genre-specific send-ups like What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and Take The Money And Run (1969), whilst Brooks, with the Western survey Blazing Saddles (1974), had kicked off his own popular imprimatur as a movie satirist with a willingness to distort cinematic reality through a jarring blend of retro mores and contemporary attitude, even with meta-movie twists in Blazing Saddles. Where ZAZ went one better than him was in adopting an ever faster pace of gag deployment, and in adding an extra zest of panoramic social satire. One reason for ZAZ’s success in this regard lay in their eager embrace of simultaneous styles of humour: Airplane! maintains its giddy rush of gags simply by trusting that one funny thing is as good as another. For lovers of older movies, the impact of the ZAZ style, like that of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be a mixed blessing, as it can be hard to appreciate the particular pleasures of the sorts of movies they aimed at without feeling a little hectored. And yet, unlike the Monty Python team, who with their films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), liked to deconstruct stories in time with assaults on social conventions, ZAZ maintained a less cynical affection for the movies they liked to pull apart, and honoured despite their sarcasm the basic story logic of such models.

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Undoubtedly, the greater part of Airplane!’s success lay in the way it offered a machine gun volley of jokes without rhyme and scarcely any reason, a velocity of laughs that made Brooks look positively lackadaisical. But the pace of humour disguised other, deftly organised principles. One smart move was in avoiding directly mocking any particular entry in the ‘70s disaster cycle, instead taking as its basis a lesser-known progenitor to give it a proper narrative backbone. Arthur Hailey, who had written the novel Airport that was filmed in 1970 and kicked off the disaster movie craze, had dabbled in the theme of aerial crisis years earlier, with the Canadian TV play Zero Hour, adapted into a film starring Dana Andrews in 1957. That film, with its story of a war-damaged flying veteran pressganged into landing a passenger plane after its aircrew go down with food poisoning, offered a perfect narrative structure, because it allowed the disaster situation to be at once static and open-ended. Airplane!’s power derives from the way, despite every impediment it throws in his path both plot-wise and comedic, it still credits protagonist Ted Striker (Robert Hays) with a traditional hero’s journey as he tries to overcome self-doubt and trauma and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in the course of saving the day, an aspect enabled by Hays’ skill in both delivering deadpan humour and evoking everyman empathy. But perhaps the deepest source of Airplane!’s specific pep lay in its driving sense of ironic contrast, between the slick neatness of Hollywood narrative and the bizarre lilt of modern American life circa 1980.

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The Kentucky Fried Movie had already unveiled ZAZ as a team with a delight mixed with derision for the commercialised accoutrements of the ‘70s lifestyle obsession, spawned from the team’s old habit of leaving their VCR recording late-night TV and making sport of the esoterica they found that way—Zero Hour being such relic. Airplane! is obsessed with many of its characters as free-floating bodies of unhinged wont, from Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) as a discerning reader of Modern Sperm magazine and advanced-studies purveyor in paedophilic overtures, to his wife in bed with her equine lover, and the rank of people delighting in a chance to deal out some brute force to a hysterical woman. The famous early gag of two announcing voices on a Los Angeles airport PA system, whose disagreement over what the various zones are for soon shades into an argument over the woman getting an abortion, exemplifies this aspect: drab functionalism warps into a deeply personal spat over the fallout of sex and intimacy, inspired by aspects of Airport. ZAZ consciously set up two ways of experiencing movies in opposition. The old, square, WASP style was represented by the cadre of actors once regularly cast as stern and serious types, including Leslie Nielsen, Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. They collide with a more contemporary landscape, one infected with a polyglot of rich and perverse players. Stack’s adamantine action man Rex Kramer, once a battler of enemy nations during “The War,” is now reduced to calmly hacking his way through a score of pestering new age proselytisers.

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The Airport films had already displayed distinct aspects of knowing camp, which made sending them up, like the Roger Moore-era James Bond films, a difficult task as they were already in essence self-satires: nobody could take Helen Reddy as a singing nun entertaining a deathly ill Linda Blair seriously. Airplane!’s dichotomous strategy helped it pull off the trick. Many ‘70s disaster movies fed parasitically on a faded ideal of movie glamour and star power, casting former big-name performers and finding creative ways of killing them off. ZAZ by contrast dug up actors to get them to repurpose their images, ironically doing better by such actors and even transforming Nielsen and Bridges into late-career comedy stars. This approach rewarded viewers who also remembered and delighted in those old, cheesy movies, and even ones that weren’t that old – Nielsen’s presence was directly inspired by his contribution to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – but worked just as well if you didn’t: I dare say that as a kid watching Airplane! (when I knew it by its Australian release title, Flying High!) was the first time I’d encountered many such performers and conventions, thus also making it a kind of miniature film school. It also contrasted the more traditionally comedic, hammy, neo-vaudevillian shtick Brooks was keeping alive. Not that Airplane! suppresses that shtick as an influence. The film’s most perpetually quoted exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” is so pure in channelling those roots you can easily imagine Groucho and Chico Marx uttering it, but it’s given a very specific quality here via Nielsen’s utter conviction in delivering the punchline. Only a highly professional actor with decades of experience in the soul-weathering art of making terrible dialogue sound vital could truly do it justice.

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Some of this explains why immediate precursors to Airplane! didn’t gain nearly so much traction. Neil Israel’s Americathon (1979) had a very similar pitch of exacerbating zeitgeist trends with a strong dose of randy, post-yippie smart-assery, but it had an inverse proportion of political and lifestyle satire to pop culture joking to Airplane!, and its shots at the latter aspect were too vaguely observed to offer the same frisson. James Frawley’s The Big Bus (1976) beat Airplane! to the punch in mocking the disaster movie craze with a very similar approach including casting self-satirising stars and mixing in a panoply of genre movie influences. Indeed, it took on some common touches with enough effect ZAZ didn’t have to bother with them, like the smarmy lounge singer act, but played a much cleaner game and lacked the later film’s all-encompassing licence. ZAZ’s twists tend not to just take a cliché and reproduce it for smirking recognition but build on it, like the notion of a couple of non-English-speakers in the midst of disaster causing contention for the crew here offered via the two black men (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) who speak only in incredibly dense jive argot. This is then given further layering by making the unlikely translator for their native language Barbara Billingsley, the mother from Leave It To Beaver, and then having them regaled by The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974) songstress Maureen McGovern in the guise of a singing nun whose version of “Respect” inspires profuse vomiting.

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One further aspect of Airplane!‘s special brilliance lay in the way ZAZ revealed themselves as proper filmmakers, with ready ability to balance comedic performance with cinematic movement. They shift nimbly between set-ups to give each joke its necessary space in a way that strongly contrasts the tendency of today’s comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig to indulge rambling pseudo-improvisation and any-shot-will-do indolence to contain the humour. Some of Airplane!’s best gags, like an airline mechanic (Jimmy Walker) tending to the plane like a gas station hand in the background of a functional scene, or a mockery of beatifically smiling faces leaning into frame as they listen to a beautiful song including one man descending from overhead, depend on a poise of visual exposition beyond many comedy directors. Airplane!‘s willingness to go off-brand in sourcing its laughs, if one that from a certain standpoint refuses to obey any ground rules and so seeming a touch mercenary, nonetheless helped to free up its reflexes rather than merely offer a checklist of honoured cliches. As well as disaster movies Airplane! sidesteps to take swipes at old war movies and then-recent hits, most hilariously illustrated by Ted’s flashback recollection of meeting Elaine in a seedy nightspot, the Mogambo, “populated by every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta – it was worse than Detroit.” This sequence ticks off such familiar flourishes of the old movie dive bar as the sexy sauntering legs accompanied by saucy jazz (the owner of the legs here blowing a lick on a trombone) and two soldiers getting into a fight over a card game (except the uniformed battlers here are a pair of girl scouts).

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This skews unexpectedly into a mockery of John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977) as genuinely ebullient as it is pitiless in excavating the postures of contemporary urban warrior fantasy encapsulated in the model, as well as its dodgy showmanship, knowing full well the Travolta vehicle sold the notion of the modern cowboy as a duellist on the range of slick moves and quick sex. Airplane! incidentally depicts once-suppressed subcultures becoming conversant with each-other, an idea made into literal jokes with the Jive dudes and the sight of a nun and a kid each reading a magazine on the other social subset’s lifestyle, but extended throughout the narrative more implicitly as ZAZ obey Terry Southern and Lenny Bruce’s project for American satirical comedy as an unveiling of the basic hungers of US society in a way unadorned by high-flown cant. Johnny (Stephen Stucker) is deployed later in the film to wield shafts of camp anarchy (“Fog’s getting thicker!” “And Leon’s getting laaarrrrgggeeer!”). In perhaps the film’s funniest and filthiest sustained gag, Elaine has to refill the plane’s inflatable Automatic Pilot (Otto) in a literal blow-job that leaves the intruding Rumack bewildered and concludes with both lady and dummy smoking in suggestive bliss. This scene works as a totally random excursion into sexy humour but incidentally offers a sharp capsule summary of the Airport series’ preoccupation with contemporary sexual mores: Elaine getting it on after a fashion with Otto is also an act of sensual liberation commensurate with Ted’s recovery of his manly mojo.

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Some jokes don’t fly so well now. Ted’s account of his and Elaine’s stint trying to school a remote African tribe takes a poke at white self-congratulation as Ted suggests his “advanced Western teaching techniques” help the tribe learn basketball when they clearly, instantly grasp and master the game, but also feels a bit graceless in taking on racist cliché. ZAZ’s tilts at ‘70s licentiousness also mediate the looming spectre of ‘80s Reaganism. The many pot-shots at the about-to-be-President, including a running joke based on his 1940 film Knute Rockne, All-American (“Go out there and win just one for the Zipper!”) bespeak ZAZ’s suspicion that the desire to vote for Reagan was also the desire of an America tiring of contemporary lunacy to live in an old movie. Indeed, David Zucker’s later conservative turn suggests he might have empathised with it even then. The mid-film pause for a sing-along as stewardess Randy (the splendid, astonishingly underemployed Lorna Patterson) comforts heart transplant patient Lisa (Jill Whelan) sees her belting out Peter Yarrow’s internationalist anthem “River of Jordan,” an affirmation of general idealism hilariously undercut by not noticing she’s knocked out Lisa’s IV tube. Here ZAZ identify with lacerating exactitude not just silliness of the model scenes in Airport 1975 (1974) but also the way the ‘60s version of poptimism became supplanted by Me Decade obliviousness.

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Similarly, Kramer’s rampage through the pestilential proliferation of airport badgerers depicts exhaustion with the whole panoply of consciousness-raising and social issue-mongering. Airplane! ends gleefully with Ted landing the plane safely and the pompous Kramer continuing to explore the nature of trauma over the radio (“Have you ever been kicked in the head with an iron boot?”) past the point of necessity, and the lifestyle aspect is given its last wink as Otto gains an inflatable mate and takes off to the wild blue yonder. Elmer Bernstein’s ingenious score gives the film a deal of cohesion as he imbues even absurd scenes with a dramatic tenor equal to that of the square-jawed old actors, and sends the film out with a grandiose march that underlines the carnivalesque sense of all-American good-humour. Top Secret!, when it arrived four years later, was already contending with a different social landscape. The old-fashioned values ZAZ had made fun of were regaining currency in mainstream movies; Ted Striker’s redemptive arc soon became that of John Rambo and John McClane and Martin Riggs. The kinds of old spy and war movies the story was based in had already been bundled together with extra lashings of action and spectacle as well as wry knowing in the Indiana Jones films.

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The film’s Elvis stand-in, Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, making his movie debut), has made his name performing trend-riding, sub-Beach Boys hits. The opening credits depict a music video for his hit song “Skeet Surfin’”, a ditty explaining the pleasures of blasting clay pigeons whilst hanging five, complete with random shots slicing off beach umbrellas and bringing down hang-gliders. Nick is invited to East Germany to participate in a cultural festival being held by the local Commie Nazis as a last-minute substitute for Leonard Bernstein. The festival is being staged as cover for a plot to unleash a device that can wreck NATO warships, a device invented by the imprisoned Dr Paul Flammond (Gough). Flammond’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) is an agent in the underground although he thinks she’s in the Stasi’s hands. Nick becomes involved when he saves Hillary from an assassin during a ballet, arrested by the authorities and imprisoned, where he encounters Flammond and learns of the plot. He and Hillary make contact with a resistance cell led by an agent who proves to be Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the man Hillary grew up with whilst shipwrecked on a desert island but whom she presumed to be dead. Together they launch a mission to rescue Flammond from prison, but of course someone in the resistance ranks is a mole.

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The relatively substantial plot and carefully developed visual and verbal parodying clearly advances on Airplane!. But there remains a similar free-form mix of jokes, with gags based in such random epiphanies as revealing men’s ballet costumes, with a ballerina prancing upon a raft of bulging crotches. One of the most magnificently odd sight gags in movie history comes half-way through when Nick and Hillary sit in a park with a giant statue of a pigeon, upon which flying men land and defecate. Other jokes are based in more specific reference points: Omar Sharif’s spy character Cedric is trapped and crushed in a car a la Goldfinger (1964) only to turn up later stumbling along encased in the crumpled metal. The standard moment in Westerns where some horses are stampeded to forestall pursuit here sees Nick shooing off a herd of waiting pushbikes. Ian McNeice appears as Cedric’s underground contact who poses as a blind seller of novelties and party tricks, several of which he inflicts on the hapless spy in the name of covering their communication. Despite the German setting, Nigel’s underground cell is filled with French resistance warriors whose names are all Francophone clichés: “This is Chevalier…Montage…Detente…Avant Garde…and Déjà Vu.” “Haven’t we not met before, Monsieur?” The unfortunate member Latrine constantly turns up in a state of bloodied suffering.

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The horrors of repression and torture are often found to be less terrifying than some more prosaic forms of torment — after a terrible dream of being back in High School, Nick is blissfully relieved to awaken and see he’s only being whipped by Stasi thugs. Said thugs are a terrifying prospect: “Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch. Klaus is a moron, who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” Top Secret!’s relative failings in comparison to its predecessor take a little teasing out. Whilst it offers a similar survey of familiar actors mocking their stock personas, including Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough, most of their contributions aren’t as sustained or clever. Whilst Top Secret! still takes a time-out for a send-up of a recent popular hit, in this case The Blue Lagoon (1980), it’s a reference point that offers no similar opportunity for a discursion as dynamic as the Mogambo dance. Where the very end of Airplane! gives the film’s comedy and its relative straight aspects a perfectly entwined send-off, Top Secret! seems more to just stop. Whilst the film still contains some good riffs contending with sexual mores and perversities (the Anal Intruder) and satirical jolts, it lacks the cohesive comic substrata that aspect offered in the earlier film.

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That said, other aspects of Top Secret! improve on Airplane!. The running jokes are developed with more patience and sneaky wit, like the constant difficulties with language and translation in regards to both languages and spy codes. The choice of tethering a send-up of films based in geopolitics to the fantasy vision of Elvis Presley’s movie vehicles (particularly Harum Scarum, 1965), with their implicit promise of carefree deliverance through worshipping the beautiful idol of rock’n’roll, turns Top Secret! into a sustained interrogation of America’s place in the world at the height of renewed Cold War tensions. Top Secret! offers American leadership in the post-WWII era as a sustained act of show business. Nick repeatedly makes an impact upon the hidebound East German establishment by dint of his rocker showmanship, beating a Soviet tenor to the punch in performing for a ritzy audience, winning over everyone except the fuming military chiefs (even the elderly house band quickly adapts to a rock ethos) and rocking out a pizza parlour when the resistance fighters demand proof he’s not Mel Torme. Nick’s performance at the festival sees him cranking up James Brown’s theatrical desperation with gestures like trying to hang and gas himself. By contrast the East German anthem is a hymn of sinister caution (“Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first”) set to the music from a Wisconsin high school’s song.

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The cultural satire here echoes a lot of overt propaganda issued around this time about the west’s free and easy attitude compared to the browbeaten tenor of the eastern bloc, with the twist from ZAZ that acknowledges Nick’s espousal of freedom was considered quite a distance from what a lot of western leaders felt desirable too just a few years earlier. By implication ZAZ consider Hollywood moviemaking and pop music potent forms for creating a mythology for combating repressiveness whilst also perhaps blinding people to the west’s own failings in this regard. That’s a frontier of satire ZAZ mostly shy away from, except when Hillary, explaining her own father’s narrow brush with political collapse as an immigrant to the US: “He was one of the lucky ones, he managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency,” and decries how disengaged US youth is: Nick can only protest in counterpoint that his high school history class once spent a week in Philadelphia. The alarm over Reagan’s rise mooted in Airplane! is now solidified: Cold War politics are now plainly being administrated as if in an old movie in broad strokes of morality. Meanwhile the returned Nigel delights Hillary as she measures up various parts of his anatomy and aggravates the nonetheless understanding Nick, although Nigel seems to be harbouring pretty happy memories of being ravaged by the sailors who rescued him from the island. Of course, Nigel turns out to be the mole in the unit, obliging him and Nick to fight it out.

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By comparison with Airplane!’s targeting of films still fresh in the public memory, ZAZ felt Top Secret! might have stumbled in comparison by taking movies greatly receded in pop culture’s rear-view mirror. This aspect nonetheless reveals the second film as a work more deeply ensconced in a film buff’s sensibility, and casual gags hide riches for fellow travellers. Like Cushing’s Swedish book store owner, first glimpsed with a huge bulging eye glimpsed through a magnifying glass only to lower the glass and prove to actually have a huge bulging eye: this works as a casually surreal visual joke but also happens to recreate and mock an image from a couple of Cushing horror vehicles. A glimpse of a looming telephone Kemp’s army bigwig picks up turns out to actually be ridiculously large rather than a product of dramatic forced perspective. Whilst Airplane! showed ZAZ had abilities as visual jokesters, Top Secret! is a much freer, far more deftly staged work of physical comedy and moviemaking style, closer to the style of Richard Lester (to whom Top Secret! nods by tossing in a singing horse that warbles “A Hard Day’s Night”), with some touches even approaching the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, with reaches of staged comedy Airplane! only briefly reached for in moments like the plane crashing through a terminal window.

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The film’s very start offers the sight of Cedric and a German soldier battling atop a train, with Cedric ducking to allow his foe to be swatted off by a bridge only for the bridge to crumble around the soldier. Nick’s introduction sees him trying to paint the rural landscape from his train window and proving to have skilfully recreated the motion blur. The Resistance’s battles with the Germans sees the hulking, cigar-eating Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe) knocking out squads of enemies with improbably good shooting. Later he causes a German armoured car to swerve off the road with his shooting, although it takes the car slightly tapping a parked Pinto to cause a devastating explosion. A stop at a train station as Nick and his manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) sees the platform itself start rolling away leaving the stationary train and a passenger chasing after it, in a poke at the set-bound action of a lot of classic Hollywood movies. Kilmer and Gutteridge perform a ridiculous traditional dance whilst arguing politics, a very Brooksian touch. The to-and-fro dashing of the Resistance fighters pauses to become a Broadway kick routine. A German soldier tossed off the prison battlements hits the ground only to shatter like a plaster statue. One of the best violations of the fourth wall in any movie comes when Nick rattles off all the improbable events that’s befallen him and Hillary, and she acknowledges, “Yes, it all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” Whereupon she and Nick stand stiff and awkward with their gazes turning ever so nervously towards the audience.

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Kilmer’s physicality and authentic movie star lustre are invaluable to the movie’s energy, Kilmer performing Nick’s dance moves and dashing through the comedy action scenes with a gusto no other film’s ever asked of him, not even his sorry outings as Batman and The Saint. His performance of “Straighten Out The Rug” in the pizzeria sees Nick do a breakdance spin so well he saws a hole in the floor, whilst dancing guys swing rag doll partners around their heads. Kilmer is almost too much the real deal for a burlesque. The brilliantly strange climax sees Nick and Nigel fall off a truck as they fight it out and plunge into a river where they engage in an underwater fist fight in a sunken Western saloon, a sequence that must have taken some extraordinary effort to achieve. Nick knocks out his foe and strides out through the swinging doors to the Bonanza theme. The very end feels abrupt in a way that suggests problems with editing, and indeed ZAZ did leave a lot on the cutting room floor, but it does honour its models again as Hillary contemplates with sad wisdom, like many an old war movie heroine before her, whether to stay in the fight or wing away to a new life: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.” The fight for freedom in a world where an actor or TV celebrity can be elected president goes on.

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1970s, Blogathon, Comedy

Americathon (1979)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel

The White Elephant Blogathon

By Roderick Heath

I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.
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There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, failings that can make seemingly worthless films fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. But a bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.

And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.

For about 15 minutes.
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Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).
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The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Kicking off with one of the jaunty songs provided for the soundtrack by the Beach Boys, Americathon deploys a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979, as a dystopian state is played for mordant humour. Without petrol to run them, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.
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George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.
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The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”
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Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.
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Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s portrayal of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).
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Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying spur for this flight of fancy is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and The Simpsons, especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.
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Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.
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Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. But the potency here is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.
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Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.
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This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon: it sets up a semblance of traditional plot and character arcs, but fails to utilise them effectively. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.
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Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.
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I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.
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So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.

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