It’s just a coincidence that I happened to watch a new cable TV show, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, about the same time I got around to seeing the movie Super 8, so now the two of them are mixed together in my mind and you have to suffer for it. Sorry. Think of it as a media vs. media version of Deadliest Warriors, in which fighters from different eras and regions are pitted against each other in crazily illogical re-enactments and computer simulations, Gladiators vs. Apaches, that kinda thing. (Damn, that’s an enjoyable show! And controversial too—though if you ask me, they called it right, the Apaches totally would’ve won. But I can’t get sidetracked here.)
There’s a new show on Comedy Central called Jon Benjamin Has a Van, featuring H. Jon Benjamin, the guy who’s the voice of Archer in Archer and Bob in Bob’s Burgers. But he stars in this show in the flesh, and pasty, unattractive flesh it is, too.
It’s a bad show, though it contains a good impulse: it’s investigating in a mock-documentary way our weird modern lives and how readily they seem to morph into surreal and disastrous scenarios of the sci-fi persuasion. That good impulse puts it ahead of producer-director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, the moderate hit that’s been called the best movie of the summer by a bunch of addled critics. Super 8 contains a nominally threatening sci-fi plotline erupting out of so-called normal American life, but it’s downplayed and comes to nothing, really, because the filmmakers’ main goal was to create a close approximation of Steven Spielberg heartwarmers like E.T. Not coincidentally, Spielberg is one of the producers of Super 8 and has been Abrams’ personal mentor for decades, so this film is like Steven Spielberg kissing himself on the lips for a hundred and twelve minutes.
I say we don’t need any approximations of moldy Spielberg creakers because we’ve still got old Pop Spielberg in person, and we’ve never NOT had Spielberg since the ’70s. Which, I bitterly remind you, are receding way, way back in the rear-view mirror of life. Back in those dark ages critic Pauline Kael accused Spielberg and Lucas of “the infantilization of cinema,” and though she was a huge pain in the ass, Pauline Kael occasionally came up with snappy observations that were sorta true. That was the era when the target movie audience became the fourteen-year-old boy, and grown men, wanting to be the target audience forever, soon began wearing shorts and sneakers and baseball caps as a uniform, and civilization ended. That perpetual fourteen-year-old boy is always blubbering for his imagined youth, the one Spielberg invented, which is how we wind up with weepy double-dip nostalgia films like Super 8.
It figures that we wound up enshrining the dimmest, sappiest, most boring early-adolescent boy who ever lived. I’ve met early-adolescent boys who were pretty sharp, but do we hand our pop culture over to them? No.
Remember how Ralph Waldo Emerson said we should revive the greatness of American culture by founding it on the shrewdness, fearlessness, honesty, non-conformity, and sturdy independence of a ten-year-old boy? No, you don’t remember? Well, he did say it, and clearly those kinds of boys all died out by Spielberg’s time, or else we stopped liking those kinds of boys, or else something terrible happens to boys between the ages of ten and fourteen, or else Ralph Waldo Emerson made the whole thing up and such boys never existed. A lot of options there. Anyway, the point is, the whole Spielbergian cinematic tendency needs to be ruthlessly crushed out of existence for the betterment of our nation. Excepting Jaws—always excepting Jaws—he’s made American pop culture worse. Duller, dumber, mushier.
At least the Jon Benjamin show, crappy as it is, wants to get out there and see odd unaccountable things in the actual known world and tinker around with them. It purports to be a documentary series featuring Jon Benjamin tooling around North America in his van reporting on regional stuff which always become swiftly surreal and sci-fi as soon as he starts. For example, Benjamin tries to do a story on the diminishing neighborhood of Little Italy in NYC, then gets introduced to the super-diminished sub-neighborhood of Little Little Italy, a tiny town populated by canolli-sized people, and he falls in love with a Lilliputian local which sets off a lopsided gang war between Little Italy and Little Little Italy.
Or he goes to the famously secretive military stronghold of Area 51 and finds that it’s all open and de-classified now except for the truly secretive sub-stronghold of Area 54, the illicit nightclub for military personell plus slumming Warhol Factory Era stars like Mick Jaggar, Cher, and Elton John. Having a peaceful drink there, Jon Benjamin is arrested, sent through a stargate in his van, and finds himself on trial for his life in an alien court.
I know, these two scenarios sound like they have roughly the same story structure, don’t they? You delve into the region or sanctum, you fall down the rabbit hole into the metaphorical substrata hidden within the intial area of investigation, then launch out into otherworldly deep-space. But then we’ve all noticed how crazy it immediately becomes, once you penetrate any enclave or institution. Personally, I’ve only edged my way into a few of these voluntarily, academia and independent film and Catholicism and one or two others that are equally shaming, but they’re always nuttier and more destructive the farther in you go. So all righty then! This could work.
But Jon Benjamin and company just aren’t up to the job. Mostly the show is deadly unfunny, and it proceeds at a hobbling pace. The ensemble cast playing Benjamin’s small cable TV crew is unmemorable, and even Benjamin himself is not good. That’s shocking. Benjamin’s got a perfect comic voice; you get those occasionally, people who can make any line funny. Ed O’Neill has one, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson had a good one, W.C. Fields had the best one, and so on. But they had the comic faces and bodies to match. Whereas Benjamin is great as long as he’s just a voice, but aim a camera at him and you cut his effectiveness by 90%. He’s a short, podgy, balding guy with a beard and big, unblinking, pale blue eyes, and somehow he doesn’t look like anybody you imagined when hearing his voice. As a matter of fact, I wish I’d never seen him. I’m afraid I’ll think of him while watching Archer and Bob’s Burgers.
Still, it’s the thought that counts, and the show is bound to get axed in a few weeks anyway.
Meanwhile, back at the multiplex, Super 8 is doing pretty good business as a sloppily sentimental summer film featuring as a protagonist a saintly boy (Joel Courtney) who carries around a locket with a picture of his now-dead mother holding him as a baby. A locket, mind you, which is a hoary old device suitable to silent film melodramas, and so is snuffling over idealized mother figures.
The death of the mother is announced in the form of one of those Safety Record signs in industrial plants, “NO WORKPLACE ACCIDENTS FOR ___ DAYS”, just as a worker takes down the big number that previously filled in the blank, in order to replace it with a tragic zero. It makes any right-minded person think immediately of the opening of The Simpsons, with its racing eccentric theme music and the sign always getting set back to zero because of Homer Simpson, who’s causing another accident in the foreground. But in Super 8, the music is elegaic and the sign is beautifully faded, worn, hand-painted wood, as if Depression-era elves carved it.
The next scene is the funeral, where the lead boy, radiating angelic sadness, sits outside the house on a swingset in the snow, pitied by all who gaze out at him. They talk about how he loved his mother, and she loved him, and he loved her back even more, and so on into infinity. Though there’s a foot of snow on the ground and Ohio winters are raw, he doesn’t look the least bit cold, and you can’t see his breath in the air. It’s a small point, I realize, but indicative. Reality can’t get a toe in the door of this film.
There’s a small attempt to get some sort of edge going by having the lead boy’s friends in the funeral buffet line express fascination at the way the dead mother was killed, so crushed to pieces she wouldn’t fill a regulation-sized coffin. Yeah, the movie keeps angling right up to comedy that way, then squelching it. So they’ve worked in a bit of The Bad News Bears too, shoving it in with the likes of E.T. and Stand By Me, I thought bitterly—the little blonde kid even looks like like the wonderful fight-crazy kid in Bad News Bears. It’s just a gesture, though; there’s no real attempt to resurrect the tough-mindedness of that superior movie. (There are George Romero tributes, too, which are equally annoying.)
If we want to keep an eternal flame burning to a kid-centered film, why not Bad News Bears instead of Spielberg’s junk? I can chart a lot of my cultural alienation back to the day I saw E.T. and realized everybody else in the audience was mirroring back to the screen faces of awed adoration, except me.
Jesus, those stupid interminable close-ups of Dee Wallace-Stone’s suburban-mom face, upturned and simpering—will I ever be able to scrub them from my memory?
I guess not. Not while we’re basically replicating those shots, anyway, in the upturned faces of other actors supposedly watching other extra-terrestrials depart homeward. That’s the whole finale of Super 8. Do you need a spoiler alert before finding that out? Probably. Well, fine. Spoiler alert for everything from here on down.
Super 8 is about a group of small-town kids in 1979 shooting a zombie movie who accidentally record evidence of a terrible train wreck plus what looks like a spidery alien life form escaping from the wreckage. Don’t focus your attention on the alien, though, because nothing interesting is going to happen with it, other than all the dogs in the town running off to equi-distant spots away from the town, creating a circular unsafe-zone that would’ve given smarter townspeople a clue. The alien is destructive and kills people up to the third act, when the Spielbergian pressure to make nice overcomes it, and then it becomes a very large, big-eyed E.T. that’s misunderstood and just wants to go home.
Like all of us Americans just want to go home to our sweet Reagan-certified heartland dwellings that never, ever existed. Except me, and one or two others—you know who you are.
The film is set in 1979, in a industrial town in Ohio, and everyone in it is very innocent and rosy-cheeked and nice except for one local Bad Dad (Ron Eldard) with long scraggly hair and sideburns and a hard-drinking, dead-end looks that actually resembles what someone might’ve looked like in blue-collar towns back then, when they were collectively turning into what we call the Rust Belt. (Even he turns out to be innocent and nice, though not rosy-cheeked, in the end.) All the other characters, I can personally attest, are strictly from Fantasyville.
Take that square-jawed, straight-nosed marvel of patriarchal authority, the deputy dad (Kyle Chandler) whose great sin is he isn’t quite cloyingly fond enough of his son, the kid who carts the mom-locket around. The movie invests a lot of time developing the tension over whether or not this guy will sufficently demonstrate his love for his son by the end. Don’t worry, though! He does! Hugs the daylights out of him! Hugs him at the same time the Bad Dad hugs his daughter, the two different father-kid hugs showcased side-by-side in the same shot, enabling us to compare the quality and duration of the hugs! So there’s that to look forward to, cinema-lovers!
Pleasantly shot, though, the whole thing. Plush color scheme, slick camera moves, handsome actors, gorgeous children, clever use of 8 mm footage, all the trimmings. It made me long for something ratty and low budget and unbeautiful, so Jon Benjamin Has a Van showed up to advantage there too, since it was made for fifteen bucks an episode, I presume.
Jon Benjamin Has a Van is a rotten TV show that still beats Super 8 according to this new media rule I’ve appropriated from somewhere: First, Do No Harm.
Read more: Archer, Bob's Burgers, Deadliest Warriors, E.T., J.J. Abrams, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, Pauline Kael, sci-fi movies, Steven Spielberg, Super 8, The Bad News Bears, Eileen Jones, Entertainment, movies
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