Friday, July 07, 2006

DVD Report: Elephant Parts

In the heady days of the dawn of the 80's, we here in our small town had one video rental store, and its stock was evenly divided between Betamax and VHS. Betamax people were as tetchy as Mac people still are about the superiority of their platform and the moral implications of using The Other One. (And yes, I use a Mac on regular basis, and yes, I love it, but come on, people. These are hardly the great questions of our time.) Videos cost about $80 each (or so they assured--that is, charged--you if you lost one), and there were maybe 200 tapes of either size in the tiny storefront next to Chuck E. Cheese. An unimaginable conucopia!

Pause here to note the radical shift in the consumption of filmic text in the last 20 years. When I tell my kids about waiting for the one night a year The Wizard of Oz was shown on television, they snort in derision. Truly, they "own" movies--many hundreds of them--in a way we never did. That must have an effect on their perceptions, don't you think? I know a kid who once watched Toy Story every day for a solid year. Before tsking at the parenting or lack thereof implied by such a remarkable fact, dwell for a moment on the ideological implications, the silent Althusserian effect of such repeated viewings. Pavlov only wished he had that kind of access. End of digression.

So there weren't very many videos, and music videos tended to be limited to things like The Last Waltz: fabulous, but most people had seen it as a midnight movie, and the idea of owning a film in order to watch it over and over again was really quite new. My eldest brother, who essentially flipped a coin and chose VHS over Betamax (which is how I come to have a still pretty watchable copy of early MTV videos), was always looking for the next thing. A single man living in a crappy apartment with 8' ceilings, he had all the new techno toys and staying with him was a privilege my next older brother and I fought over. He had a cable box with ten buttons on top, this new channel, HBO, where movies were shown without commercials, so you'd better go to the bathroom before they started, all kinds of cool shit.

And one day he brought home Elephant Parts.

I grew up in the country: we didn't have cable TV. My town cousins did, though, and I was fascinated by the reruns on channels 5 and 11 from New York. Unfortunately, when we visited, the kids were generally thrown unceremoniously out of the house and sent to the park, so kung-fu movies and The Monkees were rarely glimpsed treats. (NB: I was born scant weeks after the release of The Monkees' first album: no, I don't remember them that first time around.) So I knew who Mike Nesmith was, had some sense of his role in all that, but wasn't really on top of the whole White-Out/Pacific Arts Corp. stuff.

My recollections of the film were mostly being confused by the comedy bits and liking the music videos, the most popular of which was called "Cruisin'."

"Cruisin'" actually got a fair amount of airplay on early MTV--of course, back in those days they had about twelve videos, so anything they had they played frequently. (My boys Shoes were on all the damn time, for example.)

Here's a pretty even-handed review:
In 1981, Michael Nesmith decided to branch his comedic abilities into a new style and uprooted a Saturday Night Live-like movie that has become a cult classic. To watch Elephant Parts in 2003 is a somewhat disarming experience—in a way it's like being transported back to the (somewhat) innocence of the early 1980s. There are a few of gags that are still pretty funny (the bit with the Elvis Drugs is particularly amusing), though a lot of the material falls flat on its face. The placid nature of many of the skits is due mostly in part to the fact that times have changed and so has the country's sense of what is funny. Whereas a Marines skit featuring an effeminate gay man with a lisp was hysterical in 1981, today it's just downright un-PC (though I will admit I did let out a minor giggle…after all, I'm only human). As for the musical numbers, they're standard video stuff with Nesmith playing a few funny characters, like a smooth lounge singer or a smitten '50s rock and roller. Chiming in at around an hour, the film's often blandly obnoxious nature ends just as you're ready to pull the plug. While this isn't fall down funny TV, it does have its charming moments that will work best with nostalgia fans and those who think big game hunters shooting supermarket vegetables is fascinating entertainment. Otherwise, stick with Mr. Nesmith's original TV effort.

This is getting long, but there's one thing that struck me pretty sharply about the DVD: drug humor. Remember drug humor? It was pretty standard by the late 70's, and then all but disappeared in the Reagan Era. In thinking about the various ways in which Elephant Parts just isn't "of our time," this is, I think, the most striking. Eric Schlosser, in his excellent book Reefer Madness, emphasizes not only the tectonic shift of the role of drugs, but the alarming speed (and hypocrisy) with which they were demonized and excluded from popular culture. Nesmith's sketch "Name that Drug," which features a narcotics agent vs. a Marin County hot-tub salesman trying to identify pot on a game show--"I can name that drug in four tokes." "I can name that drug in three tokes."--is not all that funny, but it's a cultural artifact from the other side of that historical divide.

And his tirade about peak oil and gasoline prices is just freaky and prescient.

It won the very first Grammy for best video. Of course, there wasn't much competition. Whether that makes it visionary or crap is up to you, I guess.

(Oooo! I see that in its day, it was avalable on Videodisc! Shades of SLC Punk!! "See this! It looks like a shiny record! But there's a movie on there!")

Conclusion: worth seeing, though primarily as historical record. I got it from Netflix, myself--not sure I'd actually buy it.

UPDATE: Nesmith has a new record and a decent website. Enjoy!


Emerson said...

I remember Elephant Parts being the weakest of the 70's sketch comedy movies. Groove Tube and The Kentucky Fried Movie were much more popular. In the 80s there was Amazon Women On The Moon, which wasn't that great either.

Around 1980 I paid 80 smackers for a Japanese import VHS of XTC videos. Japan had everything.

Nesmith's mom invented White Out.

NYMary said...

Oh, absolutely. As I noted, lots of it isn't so much funny as historically fascinating. I guess the big differences between the Groove Tube/KFM and Elephant Parts was that this was only intended to be seen at home, not in the theater, and that Nesmith's music is woven in. In that sense, it's trying to be two things, possibly failing at both, but interesting nonetheless.

dave said...

Actually, "Elephant Parts" is a compilation of stuff that Nesmith put together for Nickelodeon's pre-MTV MTV. They were little bits meant to be inserted in between whatever the hell else was being shown, so while they may not hang together so well being seen one after another (neither, frankly, do those old "Rocky and Bullwinkle" episodes, and I'm a "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fan), seeing one or two an hour in between other stuff might up the hilarity quotient.

And let us not forget, Nesmith was the guy who brought "Deep Thoughts" to TV.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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