Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
(Note: This is less an article, and more of journal of random thoughts compiled over the past few weeks. You have been warned.)
I just recently returned from a mammoth, two-week European vacation with my family (there were TEN of us, including my father, brother, step-mother, step-sister, step-brother, step-brother’s girlfriend, former foreign exchange student, former foreign exchange student’s current boyfriend, my wife, and me. See? Just a small, intimate affair). While tooling around Italy in an oversized minivan, something profound occurred to me: Europe might have absolutely cornered the market on high culture…but they don’t know SHIT about pop culture.
This fact first became apparent to me on the flight overseas. Given how incredibly long the flight was, the airline naturally offered a menu of movies for their passengers to watch, in order to help pass the time. I flipped through the movie guide, and found that while the choices for domestic flights contained some relatively watchable choices, the same could not be said for the international ones. For us, the best choice for spending two hours watching a movie was The Benchwarmers. Let me repeat that: the VERY BEST CHOICE was The Benchwarmers. One more time: of SEVERAL movies that people could choose to watch, the one that had the most appeal of all of them…was The Benchwarmers. (Writer’s note to Jon Heder: Hey man. What’s up? Cool. Hey listen…you have GOT to take better care of your career, dude. You still own credibility and cachet for starring as the title character in one of the iconic comedies of this century, but you are in REAL danger of pissing it all away before anyone knows your actual name. Look, comedy actors – ESPECIALLY comedy actors who grow to fame with a very specific shtick – tend to have a short shelf-life. There’s a VERY thin line between comedy and acting like an asshole, and no matter who you are, you will ALWAYS, at some point, lose sight of what is really funny versus what YOU think is funny. The key is to
make good choices early, and establish yourself as more than a one-trick pony BEFORE people become tired of your shit. Here’s my point, Jon: you followed up Napoleon Dynamite with The Benchwarmers. Obviously, someone told you that your character in the first was so beloved that people would flock to see any movie you do so long as you do a similar character every time. This is just not true, buddy. This movie is terrible, and the only thing you added was your name to the list, with David Spade and Rob Schneider, of who slummed the worst in making it. I see from your IMDB profile that you’re making a movie with Will Ferrell now. This MIGHT be a better fit for you, given his recent track record of success, but given my personal feelings toward that guy, you can bet that I won’t ever know. Just…think about your career arc, okay? If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself as the center bottom square in the 2020 re-launch of Hollywood Squares saying "Vote for Pedro," with no one ever asking about your current projects. That’s all.) Needless to say, I opted to forego movie watching for the flight. In fact, I THOUGHT I was going to try to sleep, but I was in fact WAY happier to listen to the bratty colicky baby bitch and cry for six straight hours. In fact, just as I thought it couldn’t get better…the mother of this adorable little tyke traded seats with my neighbors, so that she and her kid could sit RIGHT NEXT TO ME while he cried and whined! It was awesome!
(Another side note: I have often attempted to start geek-based conversations by asking people what super-power they feel they possess, following the rule that this super power is something they can actually do, just better than anyone else in the world (my super power is making analogies; I can make analogies faster than Superman going faster than a speeding bullet.), yet an interesting follow-up to that question is to find out what everyone’s kryptonite is, following the rule that a person’s kryptonite is the one part of life that they always fuck up, or the one power in the universe that always fucks them over. While MY kryptonite is the uncanny ability to stand, while in a crowd, exactly in the walking lane of every fat person who desperately NEEDS to get by me, my wife has the UNBELIEVABLE ability to sit directly in front of, or behind, the bratty colicky baby on ANY flight. Seriously, if you are ever in agony as some snot-nosed shit howls while you’re trying to relax, look on over and wave at us. We’ll be there.)
Once I actually GOT to Italy, I have to say that, while I saw next to no examples of pop culture, I really didn’t seek it out too vociferously either. There would be something very odd about going to a different country, where you didn’t know anybody, and then actively seeking out films, books, and television shows where you couldn’t understand a word of it. So cut me some slack, if you would. That first week, the closest I came to getting a taste of European pop culture was checking out the marquees at some local movie houses (they are WAY into Cars, it seems) and asking various Italians if they knew my friend’s father, who coaches basketball over there.
In fact, to the best of my recollection, only two things happened during the trip that bear mentioning here. First of all, I saw posters ALL OVER ITALY for an American movie that was being released on DVD. That film…was Rising Sun. That’s right, the blockbuster 1993 smash hit starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes was THE hot property on the streets of Rome! I honestly can’t think of a more random choice for a film to push hard to consumers. Are Italians really so desperate for American entertainment that we can just throw any old film at them and they’ll buy it? If that’s true, can a massive DVD release of Switching Channels be far behind? How about Saturn-3 ? Wait until they get to A Scanner Darkly in the year 2019; it’ll win a Vinnie (Italian Oscar, I’m willing to bet) for sure! The only other explanation for this, that I can come up with anyway, is that Italians get SO excited about American films that they can only handle so many per year, and as such, they have an enormous backlog. In that case, Rising Sun is a new DVD release, and presages some other highly anticipated releases, such as The Hudsucker Proxy, Dolores Claiborne, and How Stella Got her Groove Back. Look for them on Roman streets near you!
The other thing that can be connected to pop culture was something my step-sister said to me one night while at dinner. While we all described what we did during a brief respite from the entire group, she informed the group that she had watched Family Guy in Italian, and that even though she couldn’t understand it, it was “just as funny.” Lady, I call bullshit! Maybe…MAYBE…if you had been watching the Looney Tunes, or Tom and Jerry, or a cartoon that relies on the grace of the characters’ movements for classic slapstick comedic effect, I could go along with this assertion. But to pick a cartoon that is almost all talking heads and obscure late-1980’s pop-culture references, and to pretend that seeing this in a foreign language gives you just as much enjoyment as if you had seen it in your native tongue…this is just not possible. As these thoughts passed through my head, it occurred to me that I have no idea how Family Guy could be seen as funny to ANYONE outside the U.S. That show is crammed so full of references that most of US don’t even get, I can’t imagine how lost a non-native would be. (the closest I can come to that feeling is watching original, non-classic Monty Python sketches, or perhaps parts of the original Office, where David Brent points at a monkey as though expecting a laugh, or accusing a co-worker of “whinging.”). I remember a scene in Family Guy where two kids lick a toad, and have hallucinogenic flashes. One of them says “I finally get Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night! It was a comedy…that was too good…to be funny!” Now what percentage of Italians, watching that show, stared in good-natured befuddlement at the screen when that came on? I’m guessing over 99%.
Other than these two isolated incidents, the most interaction my party had with pop culture was in our tendency to be one day early, or one day late, for some truly impressive events. On our very first day in Rome, as we fell asleep eating fettuccini at a place called Alfredo’s (they had a house recipe), Billy Joel and Bryan Adams were giving a free concert outside the Coliseum. Only a day or two after we left Rome, Madonna repeated this feat. And on our final day in country, we watched a huge crew set up a massive stage, where Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour was going to perform two nights of concerts, only a few hours after we left. All of these things felt kind of like what it must be like to get a phone call telling you that you just lost ten dollars in a raffle that you didn’t know you had entered. When you find out, you feel a sense of loss, even though you were never expecting anything in the first place. (I’m not really bitching here. I do love Billy Joel, despite not being old enough to really relate to him, and not being young enough for him to want to fuck me, but it’s not like we traveled to see performers we could watch in Albany, NY if we wanted. I bring it up merely because it was funny.*)
When we finally ended our trip, my wife and I separated from the rest of the group, and spent a weekend in London. In the world of pop culture, this is equivalent to a blind man suddenly regaining his sight while facing due east at sunrise. It was EVERYWHERE; talk about a culture shock! Several things jumped out at me:
1. They love American movies, and release them later – All throughout the streets and in the tube, there were loads of ads for upcoming films. In every single case, the films being advertised were American, and already released months earlier in the States. It makes it pretty funny to see people looking anxiously at the You, Me, and Dupree poster, or wishing that Friday would roll around so they can FINALLY see Nacho Libre . When we left, they still almost a month to wait before they could see Superman Returns ; I didn’t have the heart to tell them.
2. When it comes to TV, the US wants to be the UK, and vice versa – Many of the MONSTER hits on British television are American series shown months after they have aired domestically. They are still flocking to see “new” episodes of Lost, and the presence of 24 is felt EVERYWHERE. Conversely, it is clear that most reality shows we have on OUR airwaves were done first and better overseas. Big Brother (the show that has run for the past six years on CBS that you have never seen) has a British version that is HUGE! The cast members are all over TV, and magazines, and newspapers, and not even in a mocking way! And talk about cutting edge; there’s a show called You Are What You Eat that scares fat people into having better diets, that features a segment where the host, with that episode’s subject, examine a steaming mound of the subject’s excrement! That would NEVER fly in the Red States!
3. The Music Scene in the UK still kicks ass/everything in the UK is VERY expensive – an odd combination of revelations, I admit. However, at one point, I drove past an intersection that my hosts informed me was the Abbey Road crosswalk. I was impressed, and was truly struck by just how much good music there was, is, and continues to be from England. I was then dropped off at the Tube station, where I found an Abbey Road gift shoppe (note the British spelling!), where you could buy a T-shirt commemorating your seeing that famous crosswalk…for $40.00 American. Basically, London prices are reasonable…if they replaced the pound sign with a dollar sign. When you realize that the exchange rate is actually about 2:1, then you come to understand that you are actually getting fucked EVERYWHERE YOU GO!
Our trip ended the way it started, with an overlong flight that included terrible movies. The best of this bunch was The Sentinel, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer yelling at Michael Douglas, while Eva Longoria looks hot. Naturally, this movie wasn’t working, so we got to choose between Ice Age 2, and Walk the Line, starring Antonio Banderas as Michell Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds plus Paul Mercurio in Strictly Ballroom…not that this movie was formulaic or anything.
A mere twelve hours later (about ten of them in the air, where we weren’t allowed to bring books on our flight due to some assholes trying to blow up a plane a la Jeremy Irons in Die Hard 3) we were back home, where we once again were allowed to sit back and bask in the glory that is all things American. Can you BELIEVE that it took us TWO FULL WEEKS to learn that Mel Gibson is an anti-semite, or that Lance Bass was gay? TWO WEEKS!
Man, it’s good to be home.
*to us, anyway.