What About Bob? [1991)

We all need a little therapy.

Laughter 🙂

And sometimes we need a story that hits real close to home.

For me, this one does the trick.

Multiple phobias would be an understatement.

And I can relate.

You know, it’s sometimes these types of movies which make me the most weepy-eyed.

But only temporarily.

Bill Murray really knocks it out of the park on this one.

But Richard Dreyfuss is equally essential to the “trading places” dynamic at work here.

And not least, Frank Oz directed a sort of masterpiece with this film.

Bob, the protagonist, would make an excellent spy (in some regards).

His stalking skills are world-class (bar none).

But Bob has no malice in his heart.

He just needs help.

But woe unto the genius who becomes the apple of Bob’s eye.

Yes folks, Richard Dreyfuss’ patience is tested as much as Herbert Lom’s (as Chief Inspector Dreyfus…one “s”) ever was by Peter Sellers as Clouseau.

That is very much the dynamic which is at work in our film.

Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss…”ss”) is a very bright psychiatrist.

He prominently displays his bust of Freud in his office and, while on vacation, at his lakeside home.

His son is named Sigmund.

His daughter, Anna.

And his wife looks much Jung-er than in her picture.

[I couldn’t resist]

But Bob is the kind of guy for whom the “block caller” function on your iPhone was invented.

As I said, however, Bob would make an excellent member of the intelligence community if he were not a practically-paralyzed nutbag.

Bob has problems “moving”.

But, to be frank, Bob has problems with everything.

Each and every activity which most people take for granted presents a unique hurdle for the perpetually-nervous Bob.

And I can relate.

Boy, can I!

Yet, what Bob lacks in conventional “people skills”, he makes up for with an endearing, warmhearted ease that he imparts to everyone he meets.

People love this guy.

If they take a second to get to know him.

And so we start with a patient (Bob) and a doctor (Leo).

But the lines blur early and often.

And so what director Frank Oz seems to be pointing out is something which Harvard professor Clay Christensen pointed out in his book How Will You Measure Your Life? not so long ago.

While Dr. Christensen makes clear that his former classmates at the Harvard Business School all seem to share a certain dissatisfaction with their lives (regardless of their tony jobs at McKinsey & Co., etc.), his thoughts on “disruptive innovation” occasioned an invitation from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak on this latter phenomenon.

So what I mean to say is this:  yes, this is self-help, but it’s serious, serious stuff!

Funny enough, that seems to describe Bob quite well.

Operation Nifty Package could have been shortened by nine days (and spared the royalties to ASCAP and BMI) had a Bob Wiley merely been sent in to chat with Manuel Noriega 1989/1990.

Which is to say, Bob Wiley represents that person we all think we know:  the most annoying person in the world.

They don’t come along often.

But when they do (and we are their captive audience), it makes psychological warfare look like child’s play.

So indeed, from the perspective of Dr. Leo Marvin, Bob Wiley must have seemed like a human weapon intent on wrecking his life.

The problem was that Dr. Marvin had become more focused on accolades (Good Morning America) and money than on the excellence of his caregiving.

Dr. Leo’s kids see this quite clearly.

Kathryn Erbe is excellent as Anna.  She shows true generosity to Bob and an open heart.

Charlie Korsmo is wonderful as Sigmund.  He does the same.  He treats Bob as a person, not a patient.

But this film is therapeutic for me in that it shows (albeit in caricature) some of the very problems I go through on a daily basis.

Fear of the edge.  Ok, let’s just make this the edge.  No no, I can’t see what you’re doing from back there.

Bob has a certain bit of Forrest Gump in him.

Dumb luck.  Or serendipity.

But really, Bob is an expert on psychological problems…because he has lived them.

Mind as battlefield.  You might see it on the endcap of your local book store.

But for Bob, that’s not just a catchy title.

It’s life.

You’re in a lake…for the first time ever…because someone has just pushed you in…and you are kicking your legs, trying to get back to the pier…but you swim under the pier, because you’re nervous…and all you can say is, “Am I gonna die?”

It’s funny.  Unless you’ve lived a situation which maps neatly onto that microcosmic display.

So slowly we see Dr. Leo deteriorate.  It’s partly because Bob is so bonkers, but it’s also because Bob is succeeding where Leo is failing.

Saying a kind word.

A compliment.

A smile.

A joke.

Laughter.

Fun!

We don’t any of us hold all of the cards.

You might be beautiful, but you might be a moron.

You might be rather homely, but simultaneously brilliant.

Human talents and intelligence(s) operate on an infinite number of intersecting planes.

For each of our talents or attributes, we are weighed by the “market” of human opinion.

Illustrating that great scientific query:  “In relation to what?”

One human in the lonely crowd.

And one attribute in a body and mind full of vast potential.

Bob looks pathetic in a rain slicker at 1 a.m.

With his knee-jerk reactions to thunderclaps.

And Bob looks thoroughly bizarre with his goldfish in a jar around his neck.

But these are the humans we need.

These are the spice of life.

Some would condescend and venture “salt of the earth”.

But I am sticking with spice of life.

What really gets it is when Bob pulls a sort of witless Al Kooper and ends up on live national television via Joan Lunden.

And so we return to patience.

That virtue.

It’s a test.

And patience is its own reward.

You will find the value society places on this most essential human attribute.

Yet, this patience must be tested.  Stress tested.  Like a bank.

Over years of potentially infuriating situations.

If you make it through, relatively unscathed, there’s a good chance you picked up the tools necessary for significant patience.

But we cultivate our own patience when we recognize its priceless effect upon our own lives.

How many times would you have been up shit creek had there not been a patient person there to pull you in to shore?

If we are smart (and lovers of humanity), we emulate this patience we’ve seen in action.

We make it part of our persona.

But it will be tested!

As in a crucible!!

And so what about Bob?

Bob is the oddity which places us in just the right perspective.

A bit like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Yes friends, Dr. Leo has some issues which he is not working through.

He never saw a Bob coming.

He had no contingency for this sort of personage.

And so he is off-guard.  Mean.  Ugly.  Nasty.  Snotty.  Vile.

Dark humor doesn’t have to be that dark.

How do you deal with your fear of death?

Consider developing a fear of Tourette’s syndrome.

Et voilá!

The great Paul Laurence Dunbar understood this concept…that in helping others, we magically forget about our own pain.

One more possibility about Bob as an intel employee.  If he found a superior whom he highly respected, there would be a bond of trust which would be invaluable.

This has been Death Therapy, with your host:  Pauly Deathwish. 🙂

-PD

Spies Like Us [1985)

Hulu lost me.

Hello Netflix.

Hulu is like an inept intelligence agency.

They had the goods.

The Criterion Collection.

But as that oeuvre was surreptitiously phased out, Hulu was unable to offer any value whatsoever to the thinking person.

And so perhaps it is ironic that my Netflix relationship (no chilling here) starts with a spy spoof of sorts, but make no mistake (as the woeful Barack Obama is wont to say):  this is a very intelligent film.

It was a childhood favorite of mine.

Perhaps I was a strange child.

[no doubt]

But we all want to be James Bond to a certain extent, right?

Details disappear.

Even Putin had his cinema heroes.

Consider the film Щит и меч from 1968.

iMDB seems to fill in where Wikipedia fails.

Because these details tell so much.

To know one’s opponent.

But Vladimir Putin is not our opponent.

As long as our election stands.

Perhaps the answer is Stanislav Lyubshin.

Or was it Oleg Yankovsky?

The real answer is comedy.

Even spies need a laugh.

Spies are humans too.

Spy lives matter.

And so we get the provenance of the Pentagon basement meme.

A favorite of mine.

And this film.

Integral to who I am.

I had a cousin who worked in the Pentagon.

I don’t think she worked in the basement 🙂

But God rest her soul.

She is no longer with us.

And she was the most kind lady perhaps I ever knew.

She served her country.

I believe she did something in the health care field for veterans.

But yes…I identify extensively with Austin Millbarge.

In my own way.

Dan Aykroyd is stellar here as Mr. Millbarge.

And then there’s Emmett Fitz-Hume.

Chevy Chase is at his best in this film as Mr. Fitz-Hume.

Frank Oz is classic in his role as a test monitor.

Yes, Yoda and Miss Piggy were the same person.

How’s that for a mind fuck?

For young know-nothings like myself, this was a likely first exposure to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).

And it speaks volumes that the DIA “recently” fielded its own band of covert operatives (in direct competition with the CIA).

There is, it seems, a palpable mistrust between the CIA and the U.S. military.

Different cultures.  Actually, a class difference.

[Not to get all Marx here…]

But it’s real.

I can’t define the parameters other than those intuitive, nebulous sentiments just expressed.

It is (very) interesting to note that Dan Aykroyd’s wife Donna Dixon, who stars in this film, was born in Alexandria, Virginia…

Hmmm…

NoVA.

We get Pamir Mountains.

We get Tajikistan.

But before that, we get Pakistan…and Budweiser…and Old El Paso tortilla chips.

And the intel cutout Ace Tomato Co.

And while we’re on the subject of failed businesses (Hulu), we should note that we definitely shan’t be accepting Indra Nooyi’s invitation (“Why don’t you gentlemen have a Pepsi?”) any time soon.

No…we’d much prefer to look at B.B. King’s Jheri curl blowing in the Nevada breeze…or watch Bob Hope “play through” on the Road to Bali.

But let us get back to that old enigmatic chestnut of our youth:  the road to Dushanbe.

“It’s…’Soul Finger’…by…The Bar-Kays.”

“They must be having trouble getting gigs.”

God damn…best line ever!

“Doctor.  Doctor.  Doctor.  Doctor.  Aaaaand Doctor.  Did we miss anyone?”

So many lines in this film which hit just the right mark.

Rarely do I write about screenwriters (it’s the auteur theorist in me), but Dan Aykroyd and his cowriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo (!) Mandel deserve major credit for the quality of Spies Like Us.

And yet, the direction of John Landis is fabulous as well!

Landis is no slouch.

I’ve previously written about the timelessness of Trading Places.

And I am sticking with that assessment.

But let’s take a break here…

Is there anything more lovely than seeing Vanessa Angel emerge from that tent?

Well, at least we get the cultural edification of some Lithuanian dancing to a boombox blasting Stax/Volt goodness around a Stolichnaya campfire 🙂

Back to the essential stand-down aspect of the false flag/stand down.

And for this we will always be indebted to Dr. Steve Pieczenik (and to a far lesser extent Roberta Wohlstetter).

We again refer to the FBI’s 1989 raid of Rocky Flats and the heavily-armed DoE agents guarding that facility.

Perhaps some U.S. Army Rangers are in Michael Chertoff’s not-too-distant future (to name but one grand conspirator).

“Ohh…I’m sorry Paul Wolfowitz!  The correct answer is ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’!!!”

 

-PD

 

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles [1987)

When I was a kid, this was a big family favorite.

It was one of those rare times when profanity got a pass.

That second time Steve Martin goes off…on Edie McClurg (the rental car lady).

But even funnier is the first time Martin pops off…in the Braidwood Motel in Wichita, Kansas…and John Candy just takes it.

Yes, there are some priceless moments in this film.

In some ways, this film defined an era.

Trading Places was an early-decade success (1983) for John Landis.

And then Walter Hill succeeded with a similar type of story, treated in his inimitable way, in 1985 (Brewster’s Millions).

But by 1987 the decade needed summation…and this particular genre which transcended classification needed a testament.

This is that film.

Funny enough, this was the same year the Coen brothers really started hitting ’em out of the park (Raising Arizona).  That film also is a veritable classic, but it is forward-looking.  It is almost like comedy in the hands of a David Lynch.

John Hughes was seemingly retrospective with Planes, Trains and Automobiles…like the J.S. Bach of the 1980s…summing up a decade of dirigist American comedy.

Hughes had a lot of career left to go in 1987, but this was a sort of highpoint…especially if considering only his directorial efforts.

Sure…Hughes was more counterculture earlier in the decade, but he wasn’t above putting his heart into a morality play like this one.

But to paint this film as a vanilla affair is not really accurate.

Consider Steve Martin’s yuppie character…a “marketing” professional on a business trip to New York from Chicago.

Martin’s character represents everything that was wrong with America in the 1980s.

Sadly, Neal Page (Martin) represents the problem which persists in America today.

Perhaps Isidore Isou’s famous class distinction fits here.

Neal Page, marketing professional, is an intern (as opposed to externe)…a cog in the wheel of production.

The Neal Pages of today would learn their marketing from an abomination such as Marian Burk Wood’s The Marketing Plan Handbook.

The Neal Pages of corporate America read a Wood phrase such as, “For the purposes of developing a marketing plan, advertising’s two basic decisions concern the message (what content will be communicated) and the media…,” without ever thinking Marshall McLuhan.

A savvy seller of used books might file The World is Flat in “Sociology” (in addition to the more strictly-applicable “Business”) in an effort to unload what must surely be one of the most overprinted books of recent memory.

But what bookseller ever thinks to place Understanding Media:  The Extensions of Man (1964) in the “Business” section…or in the Marketing/Advertising “disciplines”?

Marketers, no doubt, would have a glib answer.

But marketers rarely know more than their insular, myopic areas of pseudo-specialty.

The “right” answer…the culturally literate answer…the answer Marian Burk Wood was either too dumb to include…or too convinced that her dumbed-down readers would not get…is McLuhan’s:

“…the medium is the message.”

The first sentence of the fucking book!

Chapter 1 (also, conveniently titled, The Medium Is The Message):

“In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message.”

But the character Neal Page wouldn’t have known that…and that’s why he gets “schooled” in business by the portly, genuine Del Griffith (John Candy).

Of course, Candy’s character wouldn’t have known this either…but at least he wouldn’t have been a venal, meretricious, entitled prick like Neal Page.

And so Neal Page didn’t really go the extra mile in business school…  He just took all the bullshit shoveled down his throat as gospel truth.

Therefore, Page wouldn’t have known this gem either…a parallel to McCluhan from just three years later (1967).

Again, the first fucking sentence of the book:

“The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.  All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

Ok, so I gave him two sentences.  Those are the words of Guy Debord from his masterpiece La société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle) [translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith].

Notice the similarities to McCluhan.

But, of course, Debord was referencing the big daddy of them all:

“The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’…”

Karl Marx.  Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1867).  Translated by Ben Fowkes.

And so today’s marketing professionals are either brain-dead (thanks to authors like Wood) or craven cynics thanks to equally worthless authors such as Philip Kotler and Kevin Lane Keller.

These last two have contributed a tome to the pseudo-discipline of “marketing” entitled A Framework for Marketing Management.

If anything has ever called for the revocation of tenure, it is the appalling lack of intellectual curiosity these two professors (from Northwestern and Dartmouth, respectively) show over the course of their overpriced bible for aspiring C-level automata.

Consider their statement, “…make low-profit customers more profitable or terminate them.”  Now do you see why America has problems?

And again, “Spend proportionately more effort on the most valuable customers.”

Thank God for the Del Griffiths of this world.

People are not statistics to be terminated.

God bless John Candy and John Hughes for poignantly reminding us of the only true value in life.

Relationships.

Not to be “leveraged”.

Just people.

Plain and simple.

As Del Griffith says, “What you see is what you get.”

Genuine.

THAT’S the marketing of the future!

And it can’t be contrived…

 

-PD

 

 

Trading Places [1983)

At one point in my life I could honestly say that everything I knew about business I had learned from the movie Trading Places.

This film came on TV all the time when I was a kid.

And it never failed to pull me in.

But back to business…it’s that one scene:

coffee, wheat, pork bellies, gold, and (of course) orange juice.

Ok, so I mixed up the order a little bit.

But that’s the “breakfast” of commodities which sits before Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) as he is given a crash course in commodities trading by the Duke brothers (Randolph and Mortimer).

It always made a big impression on me…pork bellies.

And now as I descend from the halfway point of my MBA studies this film carries a richer meaning for me.

The gorilla comes with a bill of lading.

That’s not the type of stuff you catch as a six-year-old.

And I must admit that this film is all the funnier when the expletives are put back in.

And the nudity.

Yes, it was usually the sanitized version we saw on TV.

But maybe sometimes…on a special channel…the real version.

At any rate, this is truly an American classic.

Not least because it was produced by a true American hero like Aaron Russo.

Why do I call him a hero?

Because he stood up for something worth standing up for.

It’s no wonder.

Watching this film.

The agog camera views of the World Trade Center.

But let’s stick to the teaching tool at hand.

Trading Places was just that:  a beautiful teaching tool.

In some ways, therefore, it is aiming at the same thing as Le Gai Savoir.

The particular argument at issue is the famous “nature vs. nurture” debate.

Perhaps my attempt to connect John Landis’ wonderful film to Godard is a bit of a reach, but there is real, American beauty at work here.

Consider, for instance, the opening montage of Philadelphia streets set to W.A. Mozart’s overture from the opera Le Nozze di Figaro.

Notice, if you will, the African-Americans playing basketball with a plastic milk crate attached to a piece of plywood…on a telephone pole.

There are some loving politics at work here.

What we have is a film about unity.  Dan Aykroyd.  Eddie Murphy.  Black and white.

There was a positivity to many American comedies of the 1980s.

I remember hearing “feel-good” used as a descriptor for movies (particularly summertime offerings) more than I care to remember.

But they were “feel-good”.

Trading Places, however, is more than just a feel-good film.

It is a film with a conscience.

That’s what makes it timeless.

I’d like to imagine that Aaron Russo’s conscience was already ticking…ticking.

It wasn’t until later that he made truly political films.

I don’t want to attempt a more profound framing than this thing deserves [too late].

Suffice it to say that Trading Places is as applicable today as it was in 1983.

We may no longer bandy-about the word “yuppies”, but we still have Wall Street.

Perhaps the trading pits and quote boards look hopelessly antiquated now.

But so much transfers.

Exeter.  Harvard.  Winthorpe.

And, of course, kindness transfers.  Jamie Lee Curtis.

So there you have it.

Trading Places is acerbic criticism on race in America.  Racism.  Opportunity.

Eddie Murphy will have you laughing your ass off.

This is truly an indispensable bit of 80s comedy…and so much more.

 

-PD

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery [1997)

I imagine I’m the only film critic in the world simultaneously engrossed in the oeuvre of Godard and the semi-genre of spy spoofs.

Yet it’s true.

And this film sets a sort of modern standard.

When I first saw this picture it didn’t have the same effect on me which it does now.

The difference?

Total immersion in the James Bond series.

This brings me back to my first statement…stated differently:

How could a person delve into the deepest recesses of French intellectual film and yet appreciate a notoriously shallow succession of pseudo-cinematic pap?

The James Bond franchise succeeded in its early years on sheer will of confidence (expressed in the nonchalant swagger of Sean Connery).

And so for those of us who are drawn to films such as Dr. No like moths to a flame Austin Powers provides just the right measure of fun to mercifully deflate our nonsensical ambitions.

Truth be told, most average citizens (myself included) would make horrible secret agents.  We can’t keep secrets.

We can’t outrun a young assassin.

But we like to dream.

There are always analyst jobs.  Perhaps…

But let’s get on with it…

What makes this film special?

It is that outsider/outcast aspect which plagues Austin “Danger” Powers.

The most poignant (poignant?) touch is Austin in the casino bar flashing a peace sign (V) of naïvete to a tableful of unsympathetic twits.

It should be noted that Mike Myers actually does a formidable job of not only referencing the various minutiae of Bond films but also of evoking the humanism of Chaplin embodied in the closing speech of The Great Dictator.

Put simply, this is a very smart movie.  Don’t let the fart jokes fool you.

Sure…some aspects of this film have not aged so well, but it was made in a spirit of fun.

Did this opening installment in the franchise pander to the mediocre intelligence of American movie-going audiences?

Of course.

But hey…that spirit has powered (no pun intended) some of the great films of all time.

What Austin Powers brought to the world was really a reawakening of the American comedy zeitgeist from the 1980s.

Think of those great, enjoyable films like The Three Amigos (and especially Spies Like Us), Trading Places, the National Lampoon movies, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles…  I don’t care what anyone says:  those were great movies!

Those are the films I grew up on.  Airplane, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure…heck, even Romancing the Stone pulled me in every time it came on TV.

Director Jay Roach did a really nice job of providing that enjoyable experience with this film.  We all need some laughs.

Life is too hard; too sad.  Too serious!

But Austin Powers is most of all the gold standard of Bond spoofs.  When you can’t watch Goldfinger for the umpteenth time, give yourself a break with this film.

It will feel like a masterpiece.  We all need a funhouse mirror in which to see our own reflection and laugh.

There’s no shame in that 🙂

-PD