Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Celluloid Heroes Never Really Die

My favorite podcast, Filmspotting, recently offered up a Top 5 list of favorite “nostalgia” movies—movies that they, personally, felt nostalgic about. I’ve given it some thought, and come up with a list of my own. It’s tough to narrow it down to just five.

I figure it’s best to start with the runners-up. The most recent film on the list, The Breakfast Club was the first R-Rated movie I ever saw in the theater, and while I can’t say I know how well it speaks to high-schoolers today, I know that when I was in the theater watching that movie, I know that when I was watching it that first time (and every time thereafter) I was struck with one feeling: This gets us.

Then there’s the Jason & the Argonauts/Clash of the Titans twofer – movies I remember more for scenes than for the entire throughline. Jason seemed to be on every Thanksgiving or Christmas at my Aunt & Uncle’s house, and somehow there’d be a TV with it on that I could watch while other people were crowded around a football game. There is nothing more spectacular than that skeleton fight. As for Clash, it’s not so much for the movie itself (though the bow-wielding Medusa was terrifying), but instead the fact that my pal Jeff and I stayed up all night in a tent in his backyard so we could go back into his house at 3 a.m. to watch it on HBO.

Another cable classic was The Man With Bogart’s Face, a movie about a private eye (Bogie-lookalike Robert Sacchi) who loved old movies so much that he got plastic surgery to look like Humphey Bogart… and who, of course, gets involved with a Maltese Falcon-like mystery. I’d never even seen any Bogart movies at that point (I was probably 12 when it was in heavy rotation on Prism, the Philly-area pay-movie/sports station we subscribed to), but this light mystery drew me into the mystique completely. I found it on VHS a few years ago, and enjoyed watching it even as an adult. (The cable-overkill comedy Scavenger Hunt might be on this list, except I rented that a decade or so back, and good grief, it was bad.)

And one more cable classic: Airplane. Absurd humor for every angle. There’s a new gag with every line, and I ate it up, watching this movie again and again when I was a kid. I just picked it up on DVD, and really can’t wait until I’m in a silly enough mood to pop it in and relax.

Now onto the top 5:

History of the World, Part 1: I actually think Airplane is a better movie than this (though no doubt about it, History is screamingly funny). But I might have watched this every day for a year on my friend John’s VCR. And as I look for a job as a stand-up philospher, Bea Arthur’s words at the unemployment office ring truer than ever: “Oh, a Bullshit Artist! Did you bullshit today? Did you try to bullshit today?” Each and every day, Bea.

The Poseidon Adventure. High Drama on the High Seas – I probably know this movie better from the Mad Magazine parody (“The Poopsidedown Adventure”) than the movie itself, but boy did I watch it on its yearly TV rotation. There are certain movies that, when they came on TV, it was an event. The Poseidon Adventure was one, at least at our house.

The Wizard of Oz. This might be higher on the list, except it feels less personal, and more universal to me. It’s a great movie (and another TV event), but I realize there are scenes that are larger in my imagination than they were on screen. For instance, I can picture the Cowardly Lion jumping through a window in the palace in Emerald City: a slow-mo, head-on shot with green glass shards flying everywhere. No such shot exists; he just ducks off to the side. But in my head: Whoa. We’re talking Michael Bay effects, but with characters that I’ve known so long that they’re nestled in my heart.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This Steve Martin movie was the counterpoint to The Man with Bogart’s Face –at the very least, it’s part of what gave me my appreciation for old crime movies. It’s kind of crazy how a send-up of those movies was so accessible to a kid who’d never really seen them before, but the private eye tropes were all around our culture (including The Electric Company: Remember “Fargo North: Decoder”?) and the editing trickery (intercutting Martin with films of yesteryear) and the silly spy story really got to me. Plus: Cleaning Woman!?!?!?

And finally:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I’m not as candy-centric as my wife, but I know a wonderland when I see one. But the thing this movie gets so right (and so much so-called “children’s entertainment” gets wrong) is that it accentuates the sweet with a large dollop of bitter. Slugworth is terrifying, Wonka is worn down, cruel and defeated, and all the kids (save Charlie) are horrible brats. This gets to be my number one nostalgia movie in large part because it doesn’t seem nostalgic for childhood at all. It’s nostalgic for goodness, wherever it can find it, and knows it's scarce. But the film also shows that goodness sometimes can inspire goodness in others, even when they don’t expect it. It’s almost a Scrooge story, and it’s a surefooted delight.

So that’s my list. What are your nostalgia movies?

(Because I fascinate me: More here.)


Brian R Tarnoff said...

Good list.

Wonka: I can particularly recommend the DVD with the commentary track with all the kids grown up, it's strangely charming as it's just a bizarre reunion as they've had nothing to do with each other, and only one of them stuck with acting. Topics include the cameo by the director's son and which of the girls had a crush on him, and how they nearly killed the german kid and blueberry girl. I think Charlie's a vet now.

Rob S. said...

Wow, that sounds awesome, Brian. Almost like the 7 Up films... except the people you know at the outset are fictional.

Travis said...

Cool list, Rob. Even I haven't seen all of them. I haven't seen "Dead Men" since I saw it on cable some time during the '80s. I remember seeing "Clash of the Titans" at the theater and then sometime later at a friends slumber party we had it on an endless loop all night.

Sharon GR said...

I borrowed Airplane from the library last week. I still haven't watched it and may have to return it before I do, unfortunately. Haven't had time to sit down and watch it, and we're really unconvinced that we should let the kids watch it (even tho we were Oldest's age when we saw it for the first time.)