Sunday, February 08, 2009

National Lampoon's Vacation

(Movie Review)

Continuing my 3-part journey through classic comedy of the 80s (see previous post). This is one of those classics it seemed everyone in the world but me had seen already, so it was probably time for me to get it out of the way.

Watching this movie, I was reminded of the Bill Bryson book "The Lost Continent" (which I read last spring).
In the book, Bryson, who was coming back to the US to do a road trip after years in Europe, describes how peculiarly American the long family car trip is. In America it is considered common to drive for days to get to your destination. In almost all other country, these kinds of distances would be considered epic, and you would most likely cross several national boarders in the process. In America, the same amount of distance would just get you through the corn fields of the mid-west.

Bryson indicates that the Europeans have trouble even getting their heads around the concept. And for that matter, the same might be said of the Japanese. When you try and explain to them that Michigan isn't really close to New York, most of them have no concept of the distances involved.
To give an example of the difference in scale, the entire island of Kyushu, (of which my home of Oita is just one of 7 prefectures/states) is geographically smaller than just the state of Michigan by itself.

And so, it was with a certain nostalgia for America that I watched this movie about one family's cross-country drive.
(Unlike the father in this movie, my own father usually preferred to fly rather than take long family car trips, given the option. But I wouldn't be an American if I didn't have some childhood memories of multi-day car trips. )

Most aspects of the typical American vacation are captured in this film. The long stretches of corn, the cheesy tourist stops along the way, the fighting siblings in the back seat, the arguments over music, et cetera

And yet, mixed in with all these innocent childhood memories is a lot of (ahem) rather risque themes.
When I first popped in the tape, I thought to myself, "You know, I wonder why I never got around to seeing this until now."
After about 30 minutes, I decided it was probably no accident that I hadn't been exposed to this movie as a child.

Profanity, nudity, drug use, masturbation jokes, scatological jokes, sexual situations, and even incest jokes are mixed in with these childhood memories. As well as a lot of black humor. Not all of the characters survive the trip. And the dog in particular gets a rather gruesome (although off camera) death.

By today's standards, it's nothing. TVs shows like "South Park" and "Family Guy" have built entire franchises by juxtaposing young children and innocent family scenes with very adult situations.
But I was a little surprised to see all this in a movie from 1983. Maybe I shouldn't have been. (1983, after all, is not exactly the same as 1953).

Still, I'd be curious to know whether this movie was considered ground breaking at the time.

Perhaps that's why it became so successful and spawned so many sequels.
Because, honestly, just based on the jokes, it didn't seem that funny or remarkable to me. I mean it was funny in a mildly amusing, pleasant waste of time, sort of way. But it certainly wasn't laugh out loud hilarious by any means.

Additional thoughts:
These kind of cross country car trips were far more common in our parent's generation than in our own childhood. We grew up after cheap and affordable air travel had became the norm for the middle class. It's no surprise to find out that the original story this movie was based off of took place in 1958 (w). When the producers changed the date to 1983, they had to come up with reasons why the family didn't just jump on an airplane (namely by making Chevy Chase's character a bit of a crank.)

But with the future of the airline industry and sky rocketing fuel prices, one wonders if the next generation of family vacations might revert back once again to the old days. Perhaps these type of cross country trips might once again become the norm for the next generation. And this film could become eerily relevant again in the near future.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on the economy

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