Sundays on the Couch with Lars

On Sundays, the husband and I have a tradition of reading the New York Times, slumming around the house, and watching (with one eye) whatever dreck is on television. We don't have cable, so we are at the mercy of the broadcast networks, which resort to sports (putting three channels out of the running), "Knitting with Nancy" fare on PBS (one more down) or the re-hashing of terrible movies from the last couple of decades. This is where we park the very limited dial. One might ask why we subject ourselves to this potpourri of cinematic pablum. Truthfully, it's good background noise. We don't have to pay very much attention to the swill running across the screen as we read articles about the latest political atrocities or scan the New York society page (meaningless to us in the Northwest, but entertaining anyway). But there is something else at work here, some sort of eager fascination and perverse interest in the filmic detritus that heaves itself upon our television shores like pods of hapless whales. Huge anachronistic stinkers, all of them, but delightful curiosities none-the-less.

For a while it was requisite that Jim Belushi was the star of every Sunday afternoon movie--total pieces of crap which remain incomprehensible creations, rendered more amazing due to his present success on television in spite of his atrocious film resume. Then there are the Brat-Packer's solo career vehicles: Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, and Ally Sheedy, whose films include such non-classics as "Mannequin" and "Maid to Order." Sometimes, if we're lucky, we are even graced with performances by future Governor of California, Mr. Schwartzenegger in such movies as "Twins" (the "Opposites are always funny" movie) and "Kindergarten Cop" (the "Tough Guys stuck with kids are always funny" movie).

On some Sundays we are blessed with a team-up of these Sunday stars in an unholy alliance of second-raters. For instance, who could forget (or remember) the Schwartzenegger/Jim Belushi buddy vehicle, "Red Heat"? There were several weekends in which "Red Heat" seemed to be the only film the networks could afford as they cycled it from one crappy network to another. And who doesn't get a thrill from "Top Gun," starring perhaps the perfect Sunday ensemble cast, led by an utterly unwatchable Tom Cruise, and co-starring a host of Sunday movie regulars, including the eternally earnest Anthony Green and the handsome but annoying Val Kilmer (also introducing a pre-stardom Meg Ryan, and featuring Tom Skerritt, the grandpere of Sunday afternoon movies). "Top Gun" single-handedly launched a tsunami of Sunday afternoon films, including "Cocktail," "Hot Shots," and "Days of Thunder," all readymades for Sunday viewing. And then there are the Sheen boys: Charlie and Emilio, forming the dynasty of Sunday movies, a cottage industry of Sunday fare. Pretty much everything they ever made, especially if they made it together, is fodder for Sunday viewing.

One charming element of the Sunday afternoon movie is the element of chance. Who knows what sort of window on the past we will be peeking through that day? It's always a special surprise, but a movie that we would never choose ourselves. It's a lottery of cultural detritus, the wheel of cinematic fate! One day it will be Whoopi Goldberg in one of her dubious nun movies (a special horror I have yet to sit through) or perhaps a buddy cop movie (a very popular theme for Sundays, for some reason), starring either Gregory Hines or the Prince of Sundays, Jim Belushi. Adult themes seem not to be a factor in deciding our viewing fate, so Sharon Stone's crotch movie ("Basic Instinct"), minus the crotch shot, has been screened many a Sunday. Last year I had an enjoyable repeat viewing of "Saint Elmo's Fire," in which it was revealed how much of a product it was of a very specific period, and exposed itself completely as poorly written, poorly acted fluff on par with a moderately engaging soap opera. Sometimes it takes the passage of time and the luxury of leisure to realize that the iconic films of our youth were actually completely devoid of relevance, and reflected almost nothing about who we were or how we viewed the world.

There is a special "Who's Who" of Sunday afternoon viewing. A part of some divine order, the actors are always mainstream stars from a specific era, in movies that launched many of them into the public eye, movies which look extremely dated a few scant years later. Today's Sunday special is the hideous remake of "Father of the Bride," a part of Steve Martin's sappy movie trifecta, which also includes "Parenthood" and "LA Stories," all regular features of the Sunday afternoon movie slot. Once a huge box office success, now the characters look like stale Wonder Bread, and the production design is so emblematic of the early nineties as to be a parody of itself. Steve Martin narrates over the entire movie (virtually no scene is left unmolested), making it more a documentary-style biopic than a romantic/family comedy. This is such a horrible trait that I find difficult to imagine Americans sitting through it in the theater, but so they did, in great numbers, insuring that there would be a "Father of the Bride II," guaranteed to show up some Sunday afternoon in the near future.

There is also something perversely satisfying about seeing these big-name actors in movies that they would perhaps rather forget existed. Rob Lowe has had a successful resurrection on a lauded television series, but there was a day when he was both the "it" boy of movies, and his own worst publicity machine. Movies like "About Last Night" (co-starring the double-Sunday-whammy of Demi Moore and Jim Belushi) and "Bad Influence" (co-starring James Spader, another big Sunday actor) remind us that he's human and capable of the same dumb career missteps as the rest of us. And then there's the perfect Sunday Tom Hanks vehicle "Turner and Hooch" which gives a titillating thrill because of the high caliber of it's crappiness, and the history lesson of our latter-day Jimmy Stewart's strange road to double-Oscarness (it also features two classic Sunday afternoon movie stars, minor Brat-Packer Mare Winningham and the forever forgettable Craig T. Nelson, second banana in seemingly a good third of Sunday fare).

There is also a strange sub-category of Sunday afternoon stars, men and women who have made a career out of dubious cultural stereotypes which now seem as bizarre as Mickey Rooney's unfortunate turn as Mr. Yunioshi, the Japanese landlord, in the otherwise perfect film "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The Martin Short's and Bronson Pinchot's of the cinematic world, they briefly thrive as character actors and are then ghettoized in the faggy Frenchmen roles they never suspected would be their downfall. These characters dot the entire landscape of the Sunday afternoon romantic-comedy genre in supporting roles, although their more sinister kin also crop up in thriller/cop movies as Soviet and Arab villains of the waning Cold War or the first Gulf War. Vile enemy or absurd comedy relief, they are always reduced to the worst cultural stereotypes, which sheds an illuminating light on how little has changed in Hollywood. After all, these are not movies from the Fifties, and we aren't supposed to revel in the caricature of the eunuch/ineffectual Chinaman, but there he is, choreographing Steve Martin's obscenely expensive wedding for his spoiled, bland daughter ("Father of the Bride" actually provides us with two such characters, including Martin Short as the indeterminate European, definitely gay wedding planne--making this movie great for stereotypes. Throw in a black sidekick and you've got the Three Cherries of comedy stereotypes: Asian, gay, black!).

Finally, these movies are often so bad that it's easy to see the craft (or lack there-of) behind the creation. As I watch these movies, I can see the poor actors slogging through half-baked dialog, hitting their marks for the camera, trying desperately to retain some dignity in the face of sloppy filmmaking. A painful experience for them, but interesting to me as someone who's curious about the craft of movie-making. As a viewer I'm completely unburdened with following a plausible or gripping plot, making it relatively easy to see through the glitz of filmmaking. I can examine the design, listen to the gimmicky soundtrack, follow the lighting tricks with relative ease. It's always a good thing to keep some perspective on movies, since pictures are so influential and often so devoid of substance.

The lights have come up on the "Father of the Bride" and I have changed the channel to watch some Kim Cattrall/Craig T. Nelson "Jaws-y/Alien" looking movie. From what I can gather, it involves voodoo, genetic engineering, and hybrid shark-men. It's great to only pay attention out of one eye--the movies become a form of non sequitur surrealism. How is voodoo involved with the strange genetic hybrid shark-men? Who knows? Who cares? But it's genius in some way that I choose not to examine too closely. Another terrific feature of the Sunday afternoon movie? It never matters if you miss some of it. Start during the middle, watch only the end, turn the channel at the climax, it doesn't matter because there is little personal investment. Another Sunday well spent.