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Thursday, March 31, 2011

“Party On, Dudes!”: History's Hidden Despotism in Stephen Herek’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”

The John R. Cherry III Cinema Convention is an annual forum hosted by Grand View University in Des Moines, to which I was honored to be invited this past February. Fifteen Midwestern film critics and writers gathered on the stage and discussed motion picture art for a live audience of 300 students and academics, in addition to National Public Radio. Professor and revered film writer Wendell Bryan Jennings (whose out-of-print A Port Dock Hound is the best book ever written about film criticism) emceed and brought the significant questions to the stand. The most hilarious aspect of the evening was how an Amway convention went long and delayed the Cherry conference, keeping us on the perilous east side of Des Moines two hours too long. Consequently, by showtime most the panel was drunk and/or had eaten too much Taco Bell and Fazoli's.

We struggled to keep our sentences straight through questions that demanded both provocative insight and jargony adlibbing secretly amounting to nothing. I personally found myself partaking in the latter when I was asked to compare my own published views on Greenaway's The Pillow Book to those of my notorious intellectual adversary, Professor N. Zukic out of New York, who had some take involving communication, phallocentricism, and "the body" or something. I said the word "diagesis" a few times, mentioned Adorno once, and concluded by adding, "Zukic can say whatever she wants, she's wrong! She's a silly academic stupid-head!" This was the array of Aqua Velvas talking, being that I hadn't read Zukic's paper on The Pillow Book for some years, and even then, I confess, I only skimmed it because I wanted to date her.

The crowd bought it and my anxiety was relieved. You have to take the questions you don't want to answer along with the questions you thirstily can't wait for. At the end of our two-hour allotment, we were asked to name our choice for "best film of all time" – that question one both hates and loves to answer. It is an irritant, because it hurts to limit the decision down to one; but then again, it is the fulfillment of the ego naming what it favors most. The Cherry forum was probably the best platform I had ever been offered to give such an opinion.

The usual suspects were named by my colleagues: Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, Troop Beverly Hills, Raging Bull, The Godfather I & II, Nashville, Knife in the Water, Wages of Fear, The Third Man. Good enough. But then my turn came. Being my first time at the conference, I was tempted to massage the ego of my patrons by listing a film by the director after which the conference was named, the great John Cherry. Or Bertolucci's The Conformist or some shit. But world events being what they were, and also being haunted by the opening line in a Thomas Mann book I had recently reread (the line being: "What is time?"), in addition to a recently invigorating screening of the Triple H vehicle, The Chaperone, I was compelled to publicly validate the genius of filmmaker Stephen Herek. Certainly I could have just as well named Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, Murnau's Nosferatu, or 8 ½. I also felt the pressure to distinguish myself, seeing how I wanted to impress a young blond journalist seated in the audience. That son of a bitch Duluth Gazette critic had made the maverick selection of Wages of Fear, and she was smiling at him too much for my comfort. Instead, I selected Herek's sometimes neglected masterpiece, a complicated rumination on time, the soul, history, and language. I can only be talking about Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

I began my explanation thusly: "Perhaps Kane is the best film of all time. Certainly its only competitor for the first half of the 20th century is Pierre Tukalow's Franco-Grecian documentary about perilous tuna hunting, cross-cut brilliantly with sandwich eating contests, The Big Fish, all too often confused with Tim Burton's 2003 tearjerker. Either choice is legitimate. But if one film challenges Kane, for me the most legitimate choice for a personal favorite is Herek's Bill and Ted, which takes Resnais' Last Year at Marianbooth or something to a whole new level." Journalist chick was smiling. They always fall for that Resnais crap. You don't even have to get the titles right. Nagasaki, Mon Amour or whatever would have worked just fine.

The genius of Bill and Ted has only become more amplified in retrospect when we think about the context of its release. In early 1989, Reagan was leaving and George Bush was entering. Communism was on the brink of collapse and the Cold War was almost at an end. The fall of the Berlin Wall was bringing West and East together. We would have to look seriously at history, our nation's history, if we were to seriously move forward into the 1990s and then the 21st century. It has been pointed out by Dolores R. Utzbig in her fascinating study on '80s cinema, I Sure Am Glad It's Raining: Cinema at the Climax of the Cold War from Raging Bull to Wild Orchid, that the United States was not unlike Inigo Montoya at the conclusion of The Princess Bride: we've been in the revenge business for so long that, once our mission is accomplished we do not know what to do with our lives. Bill and Ted climaxes with the triumphant revision of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, an invocation of American history that references the 19th century schisms created by slavery, and is here dually meant to portend East/West geopolitical relations on the brink of a new age. The question that we have to ask ourselves is given to us in the philosophy of Bill and Ted (played brilliantly by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, their casting highlighting Winter's Western features in collision with Reeves' Eastern ones), here voiced by Lincoln (Robert Barron): "Be excellent to each other…and…party on, dudes!" Indeed, the ideals of a post-Cold War world would contain mutual excellence to one another, but unfortunately, late capitalist opportunity did more harm to the provinces of the former Soviet Union than could ever be anticipated. The ideal future, such as given to us by the Wyld Stallyns, is a perfect balance of "being excellent to each other" and "party on, dudes." Bill and Ted is a warning and prophesy about history.

We cannot succeed in partying unless we are also excellent to each other. Being excellent to each other is no fun without the partying. The question is, given the exuberance with which the film greets Lincoln's proclamation of "Party on, dudes!" is Herek and his two writers, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, critiquing our own euphoria? For decades, failure loomed over capitalism and the free world. In the end, we were "most triumphant," but at what cost? It is then significant that "Party on, dudes!" is the credo of Ted as opposed to Bill, being that Bill is, of these two characters, the more conscious of feelings. Because of his father, Ted is linked to militarism and unrestrained patriotism.

Our euphoric conquests are best represented in the most highlighted of the historical figures, Napoleon (played by Terry Camilleri in a scene stealing bravura performance). A military genius, Napoleon engages in each sport – whether bowling or watersliding – with care, perhaps too much care. But when he at last becomes a glowing participant, his tragic flaw is an overabundance of self confidence. Napoleon loses all trace of reason, even butting in line, his heinousness best exemplified when he stops a little girl from going down the waterside so he can go again. We know from our own historical knowledge that Napoleon's infatuation with waterslides will spell his doom whenever he goes back to 19th century Europe, and his fateful defeat at Waterloo. Woe to the line-budder.

And what of Napoleon in San Dimas? There is something to how everyone can essentially understand him, or makes the best effort to interpret him. Ted tells him of Waterloo, "I don't think it's going to work," though Napoleon has not uttered a single word in English. Napoleon's flaw, in his righteous exuberance, is that while others understand him, he does not understand them. Ice cream even confuses him at first (yet once the concept of the "Ziggy Wiggy Ice Cream Pig" makes sense, he becomes a Ziggy Piggy champion). He finds himself isolated, withdrawn, and abandoned, not even sure how to settle a food and bowling bill ("Pay?") Herek's complex characterization of Napoleon is surely the reason why Kubrick never resurrected his passion project of Napoleon, shelved in 1969.

The problems – and miracles – of communication are a key motif to this marvelous picture, showing how signs transcend temporal boundaries. It is significant that one of the first adventures for Bill and Ted (after rescuing Billy the Kid) is in Ancient Greece, where they encounter Socrates (Tony Steedman), mispronounced by the boys (so as to rhyme with "Grates"). "All we are is dust in the wind, dude," Ted, a better communicator than Bill, says to Socrates, who is struck by the profundity of what he is told. Jerald Schymie's essay, "Dust, Wind, Dude: Socrates in Film and Literature," explicates this, pointing out the significance of comparing Ancient Greece to the album cover of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy. "That one of the standout tracks is "Over the Hills and Far Away" is an intertextual allusion to the destination not only for Socrates the character, but for Western civilization, both ending up in San Dimas 1988, just as Bill and Ted's Wyld Stallyns will pave another future path for civilization." We know the anxiety of the "modern" in San Dimas 1988 when we listen to the San Dimas High football player stumble over his own speech at the final history class presentation, "These computers…" he says to himself, unable to form coherent sentences, but his thoughts clearly voicing the chief quandary of the burgeoning Information Age of the late 1980s. The only way that he can escape from the burden of intellectual history is to fall back on familiar simulacrums devoid of introspection: "San Dimas High School Football Rules!" This moment, highly significant yet often overlooked by critics, pinpoints the danger of an ignorant Party On, Dudes! philosophy.

Symbols of the present align with those of the Past to make History coherent. Socrates is not only Led Zeppelin, but also Ozzy Osbourne. Beethoven (Clifford David) loves Mozart's Requiem and Handel's Messiah, but also Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. Even in the casting, there is the symbiosis of the transcendent modern pop psychology and antiquity. Jane Wiedlin from The Go Go's plays Joan of Arc, a character whom we should notice also wants to bring spiritual excellence together with physical excellence. Soul and Body are to be perpendicular, just as Past and Present are. Only then can the Future be the Clean Utopia that opens with Rufus (George Carlin).

Historical personages have different meaningful references devoid of their origin. The first words uttered by Bill in class are, "He's dead?" This is his answer to the question, "Who is Napoleon?" Yes, Napoleon is dead, as we all are in history. The resurrection for us in this dead and blank existence is the active presence of the Self in the past. This happens later on, when Bill is activated out of his "Party On, Dudes!" leisurely attitude in King Henry's kingdom by Ted's apparent death. When Bill sees the possible murderer of his best friend, Bill screams, "You killed Ted, you medieval dickweed!" Magically – or coincidentally – Ted is resurrected. We must seek for the ecstatic nature of history, not the mortal or passive: such as Caesar (rendered as food: a "salad dressing dude") or Joan of Arc (who is simply the passive female, "Noah's wife.") This is why casting the great deconstructor of language, Carlin, as our guide Rufus was another stroke of genius. (Communication and language or speaking has significance reinforced by the fact that the Time Travel mechanism is a Phone Booth).

Much has been written about the dynamics of the Time Travel philosophy in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and for that I would recommend specifically "Strange Things Are Afoot at the Circle K: The Circuits of Time in Stephen Herek" published in Film Comment magazine. However, I honestly do not think that the time travel science or logic in Bill and Ted has much to do with its genius. There is a huge debate between academics and cultural critics, for example, as to whether Bill and Ted is more closely aligned with Terminator rules or Back to the Future rules. This is a deliberate red herring on Herek's part. If we focus too much on the specifics of history, making it "other" from the present, we lose ourselves and become like the San Dimas High School Football players. Accepting that Time is itself all one thing and one's only responsibility is to be respectful of that time (the clock is always ticking in San Dimas) brings history into the present, together instead of apart. It is transcendence over death (Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, and Billy the Kid exist now without the duress of impending assassinations and executions) as well as the ability to reflect on oneself in the present (Bill and Ted meet their doubles). In the Future, they struggle to catch up to who they are. "It's you," one of the council members says to them. "Yeah," Bill replies. "It's us. Who are we?" (Also see Jane Kitzburgh's "Woah and Whoa: Language in Bill and Ted," published in Pooky's Journal, Vol. IV Issue 12).

A magnificent piece about Bill and Ted is found in Hugh Walpole's anthology of film writing, Camera Shake Hump Monkey, in a piece by Florence Peasley entitled "It's Your Mom, Dude: Sex in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Beginning from the Oedipal problem plaguing Bill, in love with his stepmom Missy whom we suspect may be copulating with Bill's father on Bill's bed in Bill's room, we note how these two characters are almost driven obsessively mad by their sex drives. In the end, the only pathway to peace is the eradication of sexuality, which seems to have happened in the future when we look at The Three Most Important People in the Universe (which addresses a class subtext in the film) and the other members of the Future Council: everyone is androgynous. Sex is a thing of the past, and that makes Bill and Ted almost bittersweet. Bill and Ted find "historical babes" in England, and Rufus even saves these women later so that they can complete Wyld Stallyns.

But ultimately sex is an impediment, as the attachment to Missy (Bill's stepmom) causes friction between Bill and Ted in addition to Bill and his father. By that same token, we know that Ted's father's own fears of failure and inadequacy (it is conspicuous that there is no woman in the household, indicating that Ted's dad is a failed husband and possibly impotent; his bald head makes him resemble a phallus) has created friction between himself and Ted. If Ted's father did not need erotic fulfillment, there would be fewer problems, and there would be no transferences of inadequacy onto Ted. The most beautiful woman in the picture is Weidlin's Joan of Arc, but she is never eroticized. She is above sexuality, her spiritual excellence anticipating the world to come in the present, indicating that the Future (which is "not History," and thus out of time, as evidenced by the dialogue shared in the Future Council sequence) is possibly an afterlife beyond space and time. Sex and the cycle of repercussion is the cycle of failure and pain, a point written at length about in Adrian Stebley's essay, "Putting Historical Babes In The Iron Maiden: The Excellent and the Bogus in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure's Erotic Violence." The endgame is ultimately to get out of the circle of sex and dying. Sex is always an impediment in this film (as it is in other Herek pictures, like Mr. Holland's Opus in addition to the plethora of hidden meanings in The Three Musketeers, the latter being perhaps the most avant-garde Hollywood production to come out of the early 1990s); Sigmund Freud (Rod Loomis) may be the smartest of the film's historical figures, but with his corn dog and vacuum hose, "Siggy" is a "geek." In the cycle of sex, Freud is blind to the meaning of "geek," whereas the celibate Socrates understands it immediately. Sex may make us "very excellent barbarians," like Genghis Khan (Al Leong in his startling follow-up to Lethal Weapon), but we only lose our heads, like the mannequin at Oshman's Sporting Goods.

What is the final analysis of Bill and Ted? Would our post-Cold War picture agree with the prophecy of Abraham Lincoln? Herek is a smarter filmmaker than we give him credit for, and I believe the utopia of the future is a snide joke on his part, wishful thinking, a stage of irony playing into our own base expectations as lazy moviegoers. Could his film actually be a condemnation of Bill and Ted and Wyld Stallyns? The future is "clean," but it's also, if we look behind George Carlin, very dark. There's nothing there. And though sex causes frustration, is it not sex what makes life interesting to begin with? We are creating nothing in creating peace. Though Herek is critical of the triumphalist capitalist mindset that wins in the Cold War, the unease between the two superpowers was a dialectic, a friction that created boundless imagination. Bill and Ted videotape themselves in a garage, waiting on a higher power (Eddie Van Halen) to make their dream real. They become Gods themselves, but also reduce all communication to effete air guitar. This is a profoundly sad film.

It's too bad then that Herek did not direct the sequel, which could have been a wonderful second act. Attached to helm the sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey before suddenly dropping out, we can spot Herekian themes like the cyborg destroying self realization, altering history on a whim, to say nothing of the imminence of Death, beaten by Bill and Ted at both Battleship and Twister. Bill and Ted, like Nietzsche's Ubermensch, "go under to overcome," descending into hell and then emerging triumphant with death on their shoulders. But unlike the more detached and obscure cognitive challenges of Excellent Adventure, Bogus Journey has themes that are too overt, not nearly as delicately handled. Though there are minor pleasures afforded by this sequel, it remains a ghostly chant of the "could have been" and Herek's absence is a great loss.

As our own present day, still haunted by the Cold War and its implications twenty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, looks to be even further from the utopia of Rufus' time, Bill and Ted becomes more interesting: both as a critique of our culture, and a celebration of what it used to be. It warns of the Computer Age, while promising progress through struggle and sacrifice. Herek has continued to be one of the world's most sage and significant filmmakers. As I mentioned, his new film The Chaperone is one of the year's best films, easily, and possibly the first masterpiece of the new decade. For while many will praise The Social Network, The Chaperone gets right what The Social Network could only make oddly opaque. Casting professional wrestler Triple H as a hard-nosed ex-con chaperoning grade school kids on a bus that comes under attack, Herek has made a film exemplifying the perils of the Obama Age, as the figurehead must endure insurmountable circumstances. There is a three-way irony here, though, that Herek wants us to pay attention to: professional wrestling, politics, and film writing are all simulations, all faked however exciting and impassioned. The film is a veiled farce and razor-tongued satire on where entertainment and politics have gone since Herek's heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whereas Bogus Journey is the sequel in name, I think that The Chaperone, if we read Bill and Ted as an ironic text that is critical of itself, is the true revised sequel, and as such it ranks with other follow-up masterpieces such as Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, and Ernest Goes to Jail.

We are locked in the movie theater and forced to applaud the future we are told to dream of, just as the San Dimas High School class is forced by Billy the Kid's gun to "put your hands together" and adulate Bill and Ted for a history paper/project that ultimately has very little content. Herek certainly had Triumph of the Will on his mind when filming this scene, where the historical personages are less about themselves and more about right now, in worship of San Dimas, California, and by association, our new Leaders and Dual Fuhrers, Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan. Socrates loves Billiards and Baseball, but he really only loves San Dimas. And Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address is revised to have no historical context regarding slavery. Instead, this rally is to honor Bill and Ted, and the Dionysian thrill of Party On, Dudes! A close examination of all the film's characters reveals doubles – all save for King Henry. The trick is that King Henry's doubles are Bill and Ted both, who are destined to lose their souls in imperial despotic reigns as Keepers of the Universe. All will hail allegiance to them. And those who don't?

"Put them in the Iron Maiden."

It will be excellent indeed. Which is code, among the poor hypnotized masses, for "heinous."

Next year: The Oeuvre of Yahoo Serious, auteur behind Young Einstein, Reckless Kelly, and Mr. Accident.

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