Why I am (Why am I?) Watching Private Practise

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So, a couple of weeks ago I started watching the show Private Practise starting from the beginning. I had never seen the show before but I was familiar with Grey’s Anatomy, the show PP spun off from.[i] Since I started watching PP, in fact only moments into the first episode, it supplanted True Blood as the worst show I watch. Not that these shows are the worst television has to offer. I recently watched some of the unaired Wonder Woman pilot. If you think that the average TV show is bad,[ii] try watching the shows that aren’t good enough to be on TV. Anyway, although PP is formulaic, transparently manipulative, melodramatic and all around not good at all, I can’t stop watching it. The reason—there are two things about this show that I can’t stop thinking about. First, how morally self-righteous all of the characters on PP are and second, that I think they are nearly always wrong.

The show’s main character, Addison Adrienne Forbes Montgomery, was first introduced on Grey’s Anatomy as one of that show’s villains. On Grey’s, as I remember, she was the evil wife of a doctor known as McDreamy, played by the guy previously known either as the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love or the least-good looking guy in Mobsters. She cheated on McDreamy by sleeping with McSteamy. And McDreamy and McSteamy were best friends until Addison Adrienne Forbes Montgomery cheated on her husband. She is a neo-natal surgeon, one of the best.[iii] And she is rich.[iv] The private practise of the show’s title is Oceanside Wellness, a California medical practise where everyone sleeps with everyone else. They make decisions for each other. They go behind each other’s backs. They cheat on each other. This is a group of people who hurt each other. A lot. But at the same time, every single character always thinks they are in the right. In fact, they are always sure they are right.

Now, there are episodes that diverge from the PP formula—a bit. But, generally, each episode parallels the sex lives of the doctors with the health and well-being of their patients. One or more of the doctors learns a moral lesson from their sex life that informs a medical decision they later make in the episode. At the end of the episode a slowed-down cover of a song plays while something sad happens.[v] This is slightly different from the formula on Grey’s. The typical episode of that show will parallel one of the main characters’ hardships, typically related to their sex life, with a patient’s condition, which figuratively represents a literal trauma experienced by that patient. For instance, the doctors might be attempting to separate conjoined twins on the same episode that two doctors are trying to decide whether they should break-up. Or, if a patient had a heart attack, in that same episode one of the characters will have a “broken heart.” See, they both have broken hearts. Only one is a life threatening condition. And the other is because someone got dumped by the guy they recently started dating. But they are basically the same thing. Grey’s also plays the exact same type of music that PP does.

On PP patients have their mind changed about things that impact their life (and death) by doctors though coercion and bullying. These doctors always think they know best and forcefully press their opinions on others. The doctors of Oceanside Wellness blur the boundaries between doctor and patient. In the real world people complain about the lack of attachment and personal care that doctors, especially surgeons, demonstrate. Maybe the show is reflecting this. These doctors are most definitely personally involved with their patients. But when you see it on screen, emotionally involved doctors, the alternative seems horrifying. I wonder if the people who love this show would like these people to be their doctor? Psychiatrist? Co-worker? Friend? Casual acquaintance?

In one episode a fourteen year old musical prodigy wants a surgery to preserve the use of his hands that risks paralyzing one of his legs. This episode does have of the best scenes of the show. At one point the boy plays a piano at the same time he has surgery performed on his brain. And yes, that really happens. Cooper, a paediatrician, thinks the boy should have what he feels is the less dangerous surgery and that a young person couldn’t possibly know what he wants. Apparently, only Cooper can know what his patient wants. And this thing happens all the time. Invariably, when one the patients doesn’t want to do what their doctor recommends, one of the show’s doctors shows up at that persons house to unload their own personal demons and badger the patient into changing their mind.

In another episode Cooper cannot forgive (although it’s TV so he eventually does) his girlfriend for only one of the following three transgressions she makes while they are together: 1 )having sex with someone else, 2) opening a business designed to put his out of business and 3) being married when she was much younger and not disclosing this. Since you know I am making a point you probably guessed the marriage thing. Out of all those things Cooper chooses to be most upset by his girlfriend not admitting she was previously married. In an earlier episode her father dies and she says, tearily, that she doesn’t know if she wants to get married so soon after his death because she wants her father to walk her down the aisle and Cooper gets mad and this. The thing about Cooper is that in the first few episodes of the show several characters tell us that he is a paediatrician and a jerk. And then shortly after the pilot the characterization of Cooper changes so that he is now written as a jerk and the show now tells us he is a good guy.

Anyway, these people are really mean to each other. In fact, why I keep watching the show is because every time characters fight or argue, which is all the time, in nearly every instance I find myself coming down on the “wrong” side. I am always on the side of the person who eventually apologizes for a transgression that I invariably fail to understand as a transgression. At times, it sometimes even makes me wonder if Private Practise is a better person than I am.

One character in particular, Violet, a psychiatrist, seems like a selfish jerk. But it seems that the show thinks she is the most altruistic, caring character on the show. Characters on the show describe her as caring and giving—most of the time. Occasionally, someone tells it like it is. One of the main storylines of the series involves one of Violet’s patients drugging Violet to surgically remove her baby on the floor of her house, which the patient is convinced is actually her baby, and Violet’s gradual recovery from the trauma of having her baby literally ripped from her body. She survives and gives her baby to the father, Pete, because she doesn’t feel she can emotionally cope with taking care of a baby. She almost moves to New York. She then writes a book about her professional and personal life. She once again leaves her child and Pete, who she is now married to, to go on a book tour. And then Pete has a heartattack which she doesn’t initially know about because she left him and her son to go on a book tour.

One of the striking things about the show is, from time to time, one of the main characters, in a fit of anger, will accurately describe the moral shortcomings of another main character and be completely right. At the end of the fourth season[vi] the practise is under investigation for medical malpractice after Violet publishes her autobiography and consequently loses her medical license. The things they are accused of are all true. Also, on PP people’s morals change all the time. Not to get caught up in a discussion over the absolutism of morals but the characters on PP, a show where all of the characters demonstrate extreme levels of moral absolutism, most often expressed in their getting angry at someone for something they themselves do/did, I think if one were to ask each of the characters they would argue for moral absolutes.

The characters on PP are characterized by the show in ways I don’t always understand. Television is often criticized for relying on/creating archetypes rather than functional, developed characters. Shows like The Wire are praised for three-dimensional characters. I like The Wire but I also like The Man with No Name. I don’t think archetypes are the problem. Archetypes can be great fun to watch. For me, the problem with many shows is that the characters don’t actually conform to the archetypes, we are told, often ad nauseum, they belong to. Perhaps the worst/best example of this is Sex and the City. The show is ostensibly about a group of four New York women seeking empowerment through having sex and buying shoes. Miranda is the workaholic intellectual. Samantha is the always fabulous older woman who has a lot of sex. Charlotte is an uptight princess. And the show’s main character, Carrie, is the neurotic writer struggling to be an optimist. Ask most people who are even slightly family with the show and they will be able to provide a description of the main characters very similar, although perhaps less cynical, than the one I just gave. The thing is—it is wrong. We see all four women working about as often (which isn’t that often). They all have a lot of sex with a lot people. They are all neurotic and constantly seeking approval. They are all actually very conservative in their opinions. These four, affluent women are actually the same person. It reminds me of the TV show The View, ostensibly a talk show about a group of women with different opinions, trying to “hash things out.” But the spectrum of opinion these women represent is roughly equivalent to violet through blue on the visible spectrum. Amazingly, the title of the show, The View, tells us this before we even see an episode—these women have one view.

Anyway, one thing I think that both Private Practise and Grey’s Anatomy do well is showing how fragile the human body can be. Just about every episode/week someone new gets sick or dies or gets sick and dies. Which, in the real world, happens all the time.


[i] For some reason I do not recall, I spent the first two weeks of my Master’s doing little more than watching every episode of Grey’s Anatomy I could get my hands on.

[ii] Which it is.

[iii] Nearly everyone on PP seems to have graduated top of their class at an Ivy League school and are now the best (fill-in-the-blank).

[iv] Hence the four words in her name. Rich people have long names.

[v] Despite most episodes ending on a downer, most episode begin with an upbeat song and something fun.

[vi] Yes, I am watching too much of this show. In fact, all of this show.

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Who Is a Good Father (And Why Aren’t We Talkin’ About Them?

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Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?) is a documentary about American singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. The title of the movie alludes to the mostly-known-by-music-snobs Nilsson’s most recognized song, the theme from Midnight Cowboy. Despite being a prolific songwriter, writing in a variety of styles and genres (including children’s songs), Nilsson just sang the song, he did not pen “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Rather, that distinction belongs to Fred Neil—a folk artist whose rendition of “Everybody’s Talkin’” is just as good as Nilsson’s. The movie is, well, not that great.  Like the 2009 film I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, this documentary about Harry Nilsson juxtaposes the relative obscurity of a very talented person with an abundance of interviewees talking about how they, unlike most people, actually know who this person was.  Chances are, if you are watching a film about John Cazale or Harry Nilsson, you probably already know who they were. A lot of the film consists of talking heads in the form of Nilsson’s friends, such as Micky Dolenz and Eric Idle, talking about Nilsson’s destructive lifestyle including his drinking and drugging. And the film keeps repeating how Nilsson’s music, and Nilsson himself, was liked by The Beatles. A lot. I guess because if John, Ringo, George and Paul like you, you must be good. The movie sometimes leaves things unexplored such as Nilsson’s involvement with Phil Spector[i], Popeye or how his drinking affected his family. The movie’s timeline of Nilsson’s life is sometimes confusing. For instance, unlike other artists described as self-destructive, such as Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison, Nilsson died when he was fifty-two. Like many films about celebrities, at times it seems as if the film’s makers, interested in getting cooperation and access, sacrificed their ability to ask difficult questions. Now, I generally try to/do separate an artist’s personal life from what I think of their art. I can still listen to Phil Spector and I still like Beetlejuice. Part of this stems from my belief that you can never really know someone without, well, really knowing someone. Also, I think that A doesn’t take away from B.[ii] And, despite being quick to judge just about everything in life, I try to keep an open mind[iii] about people. But, sometimes I just can’t. Since watching Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?) I haven’t been listening to Nilsson. And to be clear I love the music of Harry Nilsson. The range on Nilsson Schmilsson is incredible. His singing on his cover of “Without You” is chilling. I even think his work on Popeye is amazing.[iv]

But, lately I just don’t want to listen to his music. The reason: Harry Nilsson may have been a bad father. According to this film, he was a loving and devoted father—to his second family. Nilsson, on a trip to Ireland, met his third wife and future mother to six of his children, Una. Nilsson and his second wife separated, largely it seems, because Nilsson liked alcohol more than being a father or husband. In the film, Nilsson’s drinking is never discussed in relation to his home life, only in relation to having “fun” with John Lennon and others. Una is, understandably, quiet about this matter.  Nilsson’s response to his second divorce was the underproduced song “You’re Breaking My Heart” and its juvenile refrain of “Fuck You.” Among the film’s interviewees are Nilsson’s eldest son Zachary. The moments with Zachary are among the most interesting for me and, along with the scenes with Nilsson Schilsson producer Richard Perry,[v] are the closest we get to learning who Nilsson may have been. These moments are also the most heartbreaking. First, because Zachary is so sad. Second, because, despite his pain, his love for his father is clear.

For me the greatest problem with the film is its adherence to the simplistic narrative of the male American rock star. In this narrative, talent doesn’t just absolve the sin—it erases it. Family, love and responsibility just get in the way of having a good time and making great music. In reality, this might be true. Doing bad things can bring success. According to this narrative, the way that Harry Nilsson may have treated people, including the ones he was supposed to protect and respect, is just fine as long as he wrote songs that people like. In the film Walk the Line there is an exchange between Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian, played by the now-popular Ginnifer Goodwin. Vivian is upset at John for never being around, not taking care of their kids let alone spending time with them, not spending time with her, etc.. As I recall, she doesn’t even bring up the drug abuse/always cheating on her thing. John’s response is “But I want to have fun and play the guitar.” Instead of treating this moment as a grown man’s pathetic shirking of responsibility, we are supposed to be on John’s side. Our assumed reaction is to think Vivian is an overbearing nag who doesn’t respect John’s need to make music. Maybe if you decide to make babies, you don’t get to make as much music as you like. The onscreen Vivian is anxious about John’s success. What if he doesn’t make it? Who’s going to buy diapers then?  The only possible transgression that John is in danger of making is not becoming successful. If he makes it, then how he did it is okay. And what if he doesn’t? Given how many wannabe rock stars actually become non-wannabe rock stars, maybe Vivian has a reason to doubt, even if, in hindsight, Johnny Cash could afford diapers.

Later in the movie John becomes a survivor because he is able to overcome his addiction to drugs and finally marry one of the women he has an affair with[vi]—we are supposed to interpret this as true love. And maybe it is. The film version of Johnny Cash (and probably the real one) had a difficult life that I can only begin to understand. Vivian, on the other hand, assumedly becomes a single mother of four in 1960s America and is never heard from again.

It is probable that if Johnny Cash took better care of his first set of kids the world would have less great music. Johnny Cash’s seeming neglect of his children doesn’t directly affect my life. I have no stake in it. What I do have a stake in is his renditions of The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Look at Them Beans and One Piece at a Time. I like those songs. I like listening to those songs. Now, I don’t know what the real kids of Johnny Cash think about their father. They are entitled to judge him and love him and know him, for better or worse, and I am not. Ultimately, the issue for me isn’t whether or not Harry Nilsson, Johnny Cash or John Lennon or any other rock star were good fathers. Nilsson had the right to do what he wanted, it is none of my business and “Jump into the Fire” is one of best songs ever recorded. However, I do take issue with the way that fatherhood is represented in popular media. In films like Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everyone Talkin’ About Him?), Walk the Line and Ray, fatherhood is either invisible or presented as an obstacle on the way to celebrity. I think fatherhood is important. I think fatherhood is complicated. And I think representations of real-life fathers should do a better job of saying so.


[i] Nilsson co-wrote the Spector produced song “Paradise”—one of my favourite songs.

[ii] Look at the personal lives of some of the people who have fought/are fighting for civil rights.

[iii] Relatively.

[iv] Combining two of my favourite things—Shelley Duvall and songs by Harry Nilsson.

[v] Perry, who is clearly smart, talented and perceptive, makes the case for the strongest thesis about Nilsson—that he placed the most value on things with the lowest value.

[vi] As I recall we don’t see any of his other affairs.

Today I Watched Revenge of the Nerds: Part II

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So, as a general rule I don’t pay attention to song lyrics. I first noticed this only moments after my partner pointed it out to me. Seems I was making my partner mix tapes/cds with really sad lyrics. I thought I was making a tape with songs that really affected me and thought the same would happen when they listened to those songs. This is also the same time that I realized I like depressing music. They thought I was trying to communicate something I wasn’t trying to communicate. Anyway, sometimes I do pay attention to song lyrics. For instance, I pay attention when I am watching RoN commercially uninterrupted for the first time in my life. Actually, the music in the movie is pretty good. The film’s theme song lyrics are actually, at times, astute. Remember, this film was released in 1984, a time when Apple Computers was just raising their public profile with Ridley Scott’s amazing 1984 commercial. No one was on the internet, videogames were just a “fad,” and nerds were still in the closet.[i] The rise of the nerd had yet to happen. One phrase,One of these days we will turn it around. Won’t be long, mark my words. Time has come for revenge of the nerds!” succinctly describes contemporary culture. Below are the lyrics in full:
Okay nerds. Let’s go!

Mom packs us a lunch and we’re off to the school,
They call us nerds ’cause we’re so uncool.
They laugh at our clothes, they laugh at our hair
The girls walk by with the nose in the air.

So go ahead, put us down
One of these days we will turn it around
Won’t be long, mark my words
Time has come for revenge of the nerds!

Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds

We wear horn-rimmed glasses with a heavy duty lens
Button down shirts and a pocket full of pens
Straight A students, teachers’ pets
They call us nerds but with no regrets

So go ahead, put us down
One of these days we will turn it around
Won’t be long, mark my words
Time has come for revenge of the nerds!

Revenge of the nerds

Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds

While the jocks work out with the football team
We’re trying to score with the girl of our dream
You know we ain’t good looking but here’s a surprise:
Nerds are great lovers in disguise

So go ahead, put us down
One of these days we will turn it around
Won’t be long, mark my words
Time has come for revenge of the nerds!

Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
So if they call you a dork, a spazz or a geek
Stand up and be proud, don’t be meek
Hey! Beautiful people, haven’t you heard?
The joke’s on you, it’s revenge of the nerds

So go ahead, put us down
One of these days we will turn it around
Won’t be long, mark my words
Time has come for revenge of the nerds!

Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds

Who, me?
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds
Revenge of the nerds

Also, amazingly, the song’s writers predicted the fashion trend of button down shirts and horn-rimmed glasses over 25 years before it actually happened. Even before the birth of some of the hipsters wearing button down shirts and horn-rimmed glasses.

Watching the film I noticed that it shares many cast members with the television show The West Wing. Actors who appear both in The West Wing and RoN include: James Cromwell, Timothy Busfield, John Goodman and Ted McGinley. As well, RoN II: Nerds in Paradise features Bradley Whitfield and James Wong. Also, coincidently, during the credits of RoN II, when you see associate producers Richard Chew and Paul Schiff listed, it first looks like Richard Schiff—also on The West Wing. I can only assume that before he was writing The Social Network, the most highly-acclaimed nerd movie, Aaron Sorkin was avidly watching Revenge of the Nerds, the first nerd movie.[ii]

Beyond the films’ strange stature as screen-test for a show about Martin Sheen running a country, the cast of the movie has some strange pedigrees which bear mentioning. The movie stars Anthony Edwards[iii] as Gilbert Lowe and Robert Carradine as Lewis Slotnick. [iv] Although RoN is the first and only time Edwards stars as Gilbert, he does return in the second film as an Obi-Wan-like figment. This must have been a favor to Carradine or something because Edwards did this after Top Gun. Edwards has had a respectable career on both TV and film including David Fincher’s Zodiac. Digression: this has led me to suspect that Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher met back in, maybe, 2000, and they talked and talked about Revenge of the Nerds and bonded over how it was a formative influence in both of their careers. It was during that same conversation, where not only did they agree to make their own movie about nerds and the internet once mainstream audiences started to like Fincher and Sorkin had some free time after he was fired from the show he created, that Sorkin pointed out to Fincher just how great Anthony Edwards really is, with Sorkin at one point exclaiming that Edwards is “awesome, especially in Revenge of the Nerds.”Anway, the film’s lead, Lewis, is played by Robert Carradine who is part of the Carradine acting dynasty that includes his father John, brothers Keith and David and niece Martha (Plimpton). The film also stars J.D. Salinger’s kid. And yes, that is actually true. So, in the movie you have Kwai Chang Caine’s brother and Maverick’s wingman teaming up with that red-haired guy from Thirtysomething to defeat J.D. Salinger’s kid and the guy who gave Marcy D’Arcy her name.

Back to the plot. The nerds are told they need a national sponsor if they want to become a fraternity so they decide to become Lambda Lambda Lambda’s (Tri-Lambs)—an all black fraternity.  Now, this is where a tentative positive reading of the film is possible. Not to ignore or forgive all the terrible things in the film, it is just that RoN, like most things, is inconsistent. Now, why they decide to pledge an all-black fraternity is never made clear. Only one of the nerds, Lamar, is black and other than the guy who says “hair pie” all the time, the rest of the nerds are white. It is possible that their desire to be in an all-black fraternity was included because it is supposed to be a joke. If that is the case I don’t see the joke. But, keep in mind, that the “humor” of the film relies on devices like the sexual abuse of women, the existence of queer people, etc. so it is often very unclear exactly what in the film the makers thought was funny. Let me be clear: this is not a funny film. Anyway, the nerds have a meeting with two adult men who represent the Tri-Lambs. Gilbert says that their chapter won’t discriminate—the chapter will be open to people of all races and creeds[v] and Lamar adds “and sexual orientations.” Now despite what comes before and after this scene, when Gilbert and Lamar state their desire to create a positive space, they actually seem sincere. And so does their desire to be part of the Tri-Lambs. Now, I don’t know if the actors, embarrassed at what they are willing to do for money, saw this as their one opportunity to sincerely say something positive let alone not offensive. Maybe the writers of the film actually thought this was the message their film was communicating. Surprisingly, this is sometimes the case.

On one hand we are supposed to laugh at the nerds for being losers. In order to qualify as one of the title’s “nerds” you don’t actually have to be a nerd—or at least as I understand the word nerd. The nerds introduced in the third film, dubbed “the next generation,” are really just losers. Now, Gilbert, Lewis, Lewis’ dad and Poindexter conform to/created the definition of 80s nerd. A nerd was/is a heterosexual male who is intimidated by heterosexual females, isn’t good at sports, wears glasses, ugly clothes and likes computers. At the same time, the movie caricatures nerds as having some qualities I found surprising. For instance, in RoN II Poindexter takes a lot of medication (I think this is also supposed to be funny). Nerds also tend to have allergies.[vi] As I’ve already intimated, Lamar is a nerd by virtue of his sexual preference. One of the most confusing inclusions might be Toyota, played by Tennessee native and standup comedian Henry Cho. Toyota, a Korean-American half-naked Elvis impersonator, is treated as the one cool nerd in RoN III. Anyway, at the same time we are supposed to be rooting for the nerds and thinking they are not losers and have every right to be included as much as the guys in the other fraternities. If this material were handled differently, there are some positive messages which may not have been lost. At the same time that you have so much hate in this film, aimed at getting a laugh, the film is about a group of people, the nerds, not belonging, and how that is wrong. The nerds are the film’s heroes. As much as we are expected to laugh at Lamar just because he is gay he is also one of the film’s protagonists and I think we are expected to want him to be as accepted as the other nerds. When Lamar enters the javelin contest and throws the javelin specifically designed to accommodate his queer, “limp-wristed throwing style” I really do want him to win. Spoiler: He Does.

Some random things about the movie:

They somehow got the license to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” which plays after Booger distributes joints to every guest at a crappy party that instantly turns awesome.

They also got the license to Talking Heads. “Burning Down the House” plays when a house burns down.

Throughout the whole film series the Lambs seems to have mastered robot technology. But, this was the 1980s (the first two films anyway) and even Wall Street features a robot-butler.

The movie does have some interesting moments. In one scene, the nerds rap for a talent show as part of the fraternity competition they are forced to compete in. This was just two years after “The Message” was recorded and a time when many people might not have heard a rap song. This same scene is basically repeated in RoN II except in that movie the scene feels like it was just included to capitalize on the growing popularity of rap music which, by 1986, was difficult to ignore. By the time it’s repeated, yet again, in RoN III, the scene is terrible (and cut short).


[i] I remember a minor turning point in my life was when I started publicly admitting I pretend to be an elf, wizard or vampire from time to time.

[ii] I think Sorkin identifies with Poindexter.

[iii] Goooooooooooose.

[iv] Gilbert Newton Lewis was a famous American chemist. Get it, Gilbert N. Lewis…Gilbert n’ Lewis. Clever, huh.

[v] Even if the movie is not.

[vi] I have really bad allergies so they might be right about this one.

Today I Watched Revenge of the Nerds: Part I

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I recently decided to rewatch Revenge of the Nerds. Like many films of the 1980s, RoN is misogynist, racist, homophobic, etc. At one point a character actually says, “Step aside mama, I want to see some of that muff.”  This is right before the nerds go on a “panty raid,” install hidden cameras in a woman’s dorm room and stay up all night watching unsuspecting, half-naked women.[i] That is, everyone except Lamar, the film’s queer-nerd. So, it is not necessarily that Lamar is the only nerd with anything passing as morals (although he does seem like he would be the nicest in real life), it is just that he is not interested in “muff.” Also, one of the nerds, Takashi, is a Japanese student who seems to only know the words “hair” and “pie.” Oh, and one of the nerds designs a javelin designed for Lamar’s “limp-wristed throwing style.” So, it’s offensive. At times, shockingly so. Now, my experience of this movie is that when I was young enough to actually want to watch it, my parents wouldn’t let me re. the whole misogynist, racist, homophobic, etc. thing. Watching it now, I can safely say they were in the right. By the time I was old enough to see it, I didn’t really care to. RoN is one of the those movies that most of us have only seen on TV, heavily edited, clicking around, having missed the beginning and left before the ending. However, we have done this enough that we have probably seen most of the movie at one time or another. The only reason I decided to watch this movie today is because it is on Netflix, I have Netflix and I thought I might have something to say about it.

The movie is about a group of mostly American nerds going to college for the first time. They arrive on the campus of Adams College, nervous to be entering such an exciting phase in their young lives. Because their residence burns down the nerds are forced[ii] to form a fraternity chapter so they have somewhere to live. This leads them into conflict with the Alpha Betas lead by jock Stan Gable. The Alpha Betas are jocks and since jocks hate nerds the Apha Betas hate the film’s protagonists. This is one of the many syllogisms the narrative presents. Now, despite what we are sometimes led to believe, the Alpha Betas are not cool. But then again, when you watch movies, especially ones from the 1980s, the cool kids are rarely, if ever, cool kids. Mostly they’re just jerks who play sports and date blonde women who end up leaving them ten minutes before the end of the movie. One of the Alpha Betas, Donald Gibb’s “Ogre,” goes on to play a more prominent role in RoN’s sequel Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Ogre is very stupid which is maybe why the first time Donald Gibb played Ogre he was thirty. Stan Gable returns in two of the three sequels.

A major subplot of the film is Lewis’s pursuit of Betty, a woman who attends a nearby sorority. He expresses his “love” for her by placing hidden cameras in her bedroom, selling naked photographs of her at a carnival (hidden underneath pies which are actually just whipped cream sprayed into pie plates—the film really gets its money’s worth using the double-entendre of the word “pie”) and tricking her into having sex with him by dressing in disguise as another man—this convention is often referred to as the “bed trick” but, in plain language, is rape. The ramifications of all this? She leaves her boyfriend soon after and announces her love for Lewis owing, mostly, to her perception of his sexual prowess. As Lewis explains, because nerds don’t think about sports, and as sports and sex are the only two things that men think about, they get to spend twice as much time thinking about sex. See, there are many “thoughtful” syllogisms in the film. There are several things I find shocking about this. First, the movie is glorifying rape. In fact, in later installments of the series Betty is married to Lewis. Lewis’ behavior is not only not punished within the narrative, it is rewarded. He specifically gets what he wants because of his extended abuse of Betty culminating in a rape. The movie is not making the point that many women are married to their abusers, it is simply glorifying the sexual abuse of women. The second thing I find shocking is that this is not an exceptional 1980s movie in this regard, although it is probably one of the more extreme examples. Although teenagers became a demographic that movie producers began capitalizing on in the 1960s, not until the 1980s were teenagers a driving force at the box-office. And part of this trend was the so-called sex comedy. Although the abuse of women onscreen was/is nothing new, in the 1980s it seemed to reach new lows. Unlike earlier films depicting the abuse of women, these were films for youth. Sixteen Candles, still adored by many, has a date rape scene. Weird Science shows two teenagers literally creating their dream girl/slave out of, in part, a Barbie doll—the metaphor is no longer a metaphor. Mannequin stars a young Kim Cattrall as a mannequin who only comes alive for one man and reverts to an immobile statue when he is busy doing other things in his life. My memory of St. Elmo’s Fire is that Emilio Estevez stalks a woman. Although a film like RoN, for instance, received an R rating in the United States, given its immature content it was clearly targeted towards young adults and teenagers.[iii] These films were made for young people still forming ideas about who men and women are and leaning how they are supposed to interact with each other.

Nonetheless, maybe the most shocking thing to me is that most of these movies from the 1980s didn’t burn themselves into my mind. I am more shocked by what I don’t remember rather than what I do (the one exception to me not remembering the offensive content in any detailed way in these movies is the date rape in Sixteen Candles). Now it could be that most of these movies aren’t very good, which is the case, and, being so formulaic, which is also the case, are easy to forget, but that seems too simplistic. Although I am pretty confident that many of these movies (Porky’s, the Police Academy films, anything with Rodney Dangerfield in it, most of the John Hughes films) are incredibly offensive, I can’t recall the specifics. These films, especially the John Hughes ones, such as Sixteen Candles, are rarely acknowledged for the attitudes they are espousing and, when they are, they are often forgiven as being a part of their time. However, rather than looking at these offensive movies as part of the time why not look at them contributing to the time. In other words, Hughes was creating what he saw in suburban Chicago as much as he was observing it. This is especially problematic as the 1980s continues to be a decade nostalgized by young people.[iv] Many young women, it seems, love Sixteen Candles. Now, I might recall that Long Duk Dong is one of the most offensive depictions of any racial group but I don’t remember the details. I think that maybe when I first saw these images as a youth I wasn’t bothered by them. Part of this is I am sure I just didn’t know any better. I still remember my fourth grade teacher, upon catching two students looking the word “condom” up in a dictionary, becoming very angry and telling the whole class she could bring one of her husband’s condoms to show us if we were that curious. I found this very troubling as a child because I thought “condom” was another word for “penis.” For the next few days I remember being terrified that she was going to pull a jar out of her purse with a penis preserved in formaldehyde.  Anyway, I don’t think it is just because I was too young to know better, but because these things are so normalized within my culture they are made invisible. When I think of the strong female characters that did appear in films from the 1980s, many of them are victims of sexual or physical violence such as Jodie Foster in The Accused, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist.


[i] Actually, the DVD is available in a “Panty Raid Edition.”

[ii] I use the word “forced” lightly. I am sure they could have come up with another solution but the movie’s narrative presents this as their only recourse.

[iii] The sequel to RoN even begins with a Star Wars crawl explaining the events of the first film.

[iv] This, despite the existence of the 1970s.

Five Things I like, You Might like Them Too #6

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1. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

2. Lana Del Rey—”Videogames”

3. John Cazale

4. Lime Crush[i]

5. The Anne of Green Gables TV show


[i] I have a rule (The Lime Crush Rule) that whenever I see Lime Crush, so rare in most places, I am obligated to get some. Unlike most rules in life, I like this one.

All the Time in the World to See a James Bond Film

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Robert Rodriguez has made another Spy Kids movie. Nothing really special about that except the movie claims to be in 4D. Now, I can’t conclusively claim that to be a falsehood as a) I have never seen the film and b) being a human, and not therefore able to perceive the fourth dimension, couldn’t actually see the movie “the way it was meant to be seen,” but I have my suspicions.[i] The full title of the film is Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. It is the film’s subtitle that I find worth mentioning. I can only assume that whoever named the film knew that the phrase “all the time in the world” refers to a commonly used cliché. I assume that they know the Spy Kids series makes numerous references to the James Bond film franchise. I can also assume that they knew that “We Have All the Time in the World” is a song written by John Barry and Hal David, originally recorded by Louis Armstrong for the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I cannot assume they know that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is not only the most underrated James Bond film but were it not for starring the stale George Lazenby instead of then franchise regular Sean Connery,  it would be considered one of, if not the, best James Bond film(s).[ii] But that is neither here nor there. Now, for those who haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,[iii] and I suggest you do, I don’t want to give anything away. However, I will point out that the song “We Have All the Time in the World” is used in the film ironically. The song is used to communicate that we, people, do not have all time in world. Rather, the song tells us that life is short and most people do not know how long it will last. Nor do we know how long the ones we love will be around. The song reminds us that love is the most important thing in life. It is a thoughtful and sad meditation on life.

Now, it would seem that one of two things could be true. First, that the people who named the film never bothered to research or understand the reference they were making. Perhaps they thought, “It refers to James Bond and that’s enough. Besides I’ve seen the Pierce Brosnan ones and the old ones are…well, so old.” The second possibility is that whoever named Spy Kids: All the Time in the World really does know what the song means. If that is the case, that person wanted to make a kids movie with a title that reminds us of how life is too short and we never know when we are going to die. In other words, the makers of the latest Spy Kids film want children to know about their own mortality. Oh, and Jessica Alba is in it.


[i] Yes, I know they called it 4D because it is the fourth film in the series and, presumably will be screened in 3D, which does exist. I just think that is kinda dumb.

[ii] The presence of Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas as Erst Stavro Blofeld certainly helps.

[iii] This film is also one of those movies like Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate that people assume is terrible without actually seeing.

Being Someone Else…Bit by Bit

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I am a member of an all-girl band called The Sweater Set. My name is Summer Barlowe. My sister, who is also in the band, is called Winter Barlowe. She plays lead guitar and I sing. We started the band, along with Autumn Jones and Harper Blair. Although none of us really like Harper, and secretly suspect she is just in the band to create enough of a name to start a solo career, she plays a mean bass. We changed our names once we started the band. We fancy ourselves as the modern equivalents of The Ronettes…maybe with a bit of Karen O thrown in. We only play covers, sometimes of songs we don’t even like. In fact, we play a lot of songs we don’t like. All of this is true…in so far that all this exists only in the videogame Rock Band (Rock Band 2 to be more precise).

Part of the appeal, maybe even the only appeal, of playing videogames is being someone else. And not just anyone someone else.  I don’t want to be Cathy from HR—I want to be Batman. Why be the guy who works in the phone kiosk when you can be Ripley?[i] I have heard it said that when people make roleplaying characters (yes, I am referring to, for instance, Dungeons and Dragons) they make one of two characters: someone they want to be or someone they want to sleep with. When we inhabit an alternate version of ourselves we want that version to be better than our real selves (at least I do).  Further, I want control of who I am pretending to be. This is why, despite my excitement over the prospect of Beatles: Rock Band, I much prefer Rock Band proper. The reason is simple—I want to wear the clothes I want to wear and I want the hairstyle I want to have. In Rock Band you name your band, pick your clothes, instruments, tattoo, etc. You decide who you are. And I would rather be Summer Barlowe than John Lennon. I want to be the alter-ego of myself, not the real ego of someone I admire. In fact, although I stated that I want to be Batman, the experience of being Batman in, say, Batman: Arkham Asylum does not live up to my fantasy of being Batman. Again, the reason is simple—when I become Batman, Batman often loses. In the comics Batman may not be perfect,[ii] but he doesn’t die all the time. He is never unable to make a jump or beat up a minor thug. However, when I am Batman, Batman gets lost. He can’t remember what he was last doing. He gets surprised by squishies. He walks hesitantly because he is worried about someone jumping out and scaring him. In short, my Batman is as lousy at being Batman as I would be in real life. As I play Arkham I become frustrated not because I keep failing but because Batman keeps failing. For me, the fourth wall of the game was continually challenged by the fact that I am not very good at videogames. My Batman challenges my ideas of who Batman is. If I am Batman, then Batman is no longer who I want him to be. Ultimately, I don’t want to be Batman because that means that Batman is kinda crappy.

Which brings me to Rock Star’s L.A. Noire. L.A. Noire, a videogame, is a cross between Grand Theft Auto and L.A. Confidential. It is really indebted more to the nostalgia and homages of 50s noir and procedurals than to the original films and shows of the time period it is set in. The game, heralded as one of the next giant moves forward in videogames is, somehow, a letdown. People have asked me if I like the game and I have been telling them yes. I haven’t been lying[iii]—I think it took some time to realize that I don’t really like the game that much. I won’t say I hate it. It really does have some remarkable moments.[iv] In some ways, it quite obviously represents a move forward in videogames. The acting in it is superb and the facial recognition is unbelievable (“Hey, isn’t that Matt Parkman.”). The critical consensus is nearly universal that this is a great game. This is a game you are supposed to like. But if you actually read the reviews they are strange. Despite the praise for the game, nearly every review I have read seemed cautious, hesitant, as if there was something about the game they found amiss but couldn’t identify what it was so the reviewer tried to ignore it. L.A. Noire is one of the most realistic games I have ever played and I think that is the problem.

In the game you play Cole Phelps (Ken Cosgrove), a war hero and LA police officer working his way through different “desks”, solving crimes and sometimes shooting bad guys. But do I really want to be Cole? He seems a decent enough fellow and he certainly does things I am not capable of.[v] Yet, at the same time my Cole is sometimes unable to find a telephone. He can’t make a three-point turn let alone parallel park. In fact, he often prefers riding shotgun because it just makes his life easier. He has a hard time reading people. He walks into walls.[vi] Just as I make a crappy Batman, I make a crappy Cole.

I think you can write a good story around this character and the makers of L.A. Noire certainly have. But just because I think that Atticus Finch is a compelling character does not mean I want to be him. I don’t want to play the Mockingbird RPG. Nor do I think Cannery Row would make a good videogame. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie MMORPG? A great story, it seems, does not make a good videogame. In fact, as I play the game I wonder if a better experience may be to watch someone else play the game like back when the first kid on your block got the latest Nintendo and invited you over to watch them play. This is a compelling story to watch, it’s just not one I want to live. But alas, c’est la noire.


[i] Except for the whole “thing in my stomach” thing.

[ii] For a great example of this check out the underrated Ten Nights of the Beast.

[iii] I may be lying now about not lying.

[iv] For instance, a chase scene on the set of Griffith’s Intolerance.

[v] Shooting a gun or extracting a confession, for instance.

[vi] People also seem to yell at him a lot.