NEStalgia Week Pt.8; We’re Off to See The Wizard

The wonderful wizard of pause? Ugh, forget I typed that.

As NEStalgia week got rolling, I knew that at some point I was going to watch The Wizard.  It’s the only movie that’s really about Nintendo games, as opposed to being based off of one.  It is unapologetic in being a commercial for the NES, for instance, some of it’s titles abroad include; Joy Stick Heroes in Germany, Game Over in Finland, and the straight-forward Video Game Genius, Videokid and Gameboy in Brazil, France and Sweeden, respectively.  Only Japan joins the US in playing it non-literal with the title Sweet Road, which is bitterly ironic considering all the torture the kids in the movie go through on their journey.

Few things have ever served the dual purpose of epitomizing a moment in time and advertising a product as well as The Wizard, and no walk down NES memory lane would be complete without a viewing.  My memories of it are fond, but I didn’t expect it to be a great movie.  Well, I suppose all things considered, it’s not, but I did thoroughly enjoy watching it again, and unexpectedly, it reminded me that as much as life moves forward, everything always comes full circle.

First things first, if you haven’t seen The Wizard, it’s available in it’s entirety on youtube.  To sum up, Fred Savage plays Corey, half brother to a younger kid named Jimmy who was traumatized a couple years earlier by the drowning of his twin sister.  Jimmy lives with his mom now, while Fred Savage and Christian Slater live with their dad (Beau Bridges), the family having fallen apart after the drowning.  Jimmy doesn’t say much, except for the word “California”, but he does keep trying to walk there.  His mom and step father decide to “put him in a home” to use the only phrase the movie ever employs in describing Jimmy’s treatment.  Fred Savage is outraged by this but unsuccessful in convincing Beau and Christian to take action, so he decides to break Jimmy out on his own and run away together and take a trip.  When he gets to “the home” and suggests this to Jimmy, his little brother’s only response is “California?”.  And so they have a destination.

One time and one time only did The Wizard miss such a ripe opportunity for product placement.

Along the way, Fred Savage notices Jimmy has mad Double Dragon skills.  They also meet the plucky young Haley (Jenny Lewis!!), who, after being hustled by Fred Savage and Jimmy, suggests they go to Video Armageddon in California and try to win the $50,000 prize.  She promises to help get them there for half the money.  So they all set off together.  Along the way, they find Jimmy a rival- the infamous Power Glove toting Lucas Barton.  They also manage to get robbed a couple times, and to get Fred Savage beaten up by some kids he and Jimmy hustled.

Meanwhile, in the finest NES racing game fashion, they are pursued by two players; PLAYER1 is the two headed monster of Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, a father and son duo who were doing some serious fighting at the beginning of the movie.  Beau is initially determined to go after the boys alone in spite of Christian Slater’s insistence, until they are comfronted by PLAYER2, the excessively sleazy Putnam, a bounty hunter who goes after children, and who promises to bring back Jimmy and only Jimmy, and insinuates consequences if anyone gets in the way of his bounty.  Next to Lucas Barton’s presidential nuclear football style case for his Power Glove, the idea that anyone would allow Putnam to have anything to do with their children is the least believable thing about this movie.

Well, hardships aside, the rest pretty much writes itself.  Beau Bridges and Christian Slater learn to love each other AND Nintendo games during their trip together in pursuit of the runaway boys.  Sleazeball Putnam almost nabs Jimmy a couple times, but is thwarted by the plucky young Haley and some of her trucker friends.  In contrast to his being hired to safely return a child standing as the movie’s least believable plot point, his being arrested and drug out of a casino accused of molesting one stands as the movie’s most believeable scene.

Fred Savage and Haley develop a pseudo-romance.  And Jimmy beats Lucas Barton and wins Video Armageddon!  He then finally finds “California”, which turns out to be the Cabazon Dinosaurs, where the family had once road tripped together when his sister was still alive.  He sets down his lunch pail of memories of her, and Jimmy leaves with Beau, Christian, Fred and Jenny Lewis.  Now, they have enough money to do what they had planned all along.  Oh, wait, they never said what they were going to do with the money.  I really think this is the only movie I’ve ever seen where the main story arc was going to win a big lump of money and that money wasn’t even intended for any purpose.

Video Armageddon is not a means to an end in The Wizard, it IS the end.  The main message of the film is that Nintendo games are awesome, and in this message, it is successful beyond belief.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best selling games ever in North America, and it exploded onto the scene fueled by the hype and anticipation kids had after watching Jimmy play it in the film’s climactic sequence.  Every major character in this movie who is not a slimeball loves and plays Nintendo by the end of it.  It was unanimously panned by critics at the time of it’s release- Roger Ebert amongst others dismissed it as being a thinly veiled commercial for Nintendo products.  I didn’t have a problem with it as a kid because NINTENDO IS AWESOME was the level of my thinking then.  I don’t have a problem with it now because not only is Nintendo still awesome, well, the veil just doesn’t seem that thin.  There is nothing about this movie that doesn’t claim to be anything but an ode to the NES and it’s games and peripherals.

Some of the products it advertised were more successful than others, of course.

It is exactly what you would expect overall, very much a cheesy 80’s movie that at this point can be enjoyed both nostalgically, and also for it’s unintentional humor.  But for me, the journey was ever so slightly more personal, and watching it again, I realized a couple things.  My life has moved forward in a linear sense- I’m older, a working man, in a 5 year relationship, and like both Jed Clampett’s kinfolk and little Jimmy, we said “California is the place you ought to be” and loaded up the truck and all that.  But 23 years later, I’m pretty fond of Jenny Lewis, I’m all into my Nintendo again, and still jazzed about playing Super Mario 3.  Even if The Wizard is the longest and most well directed commercial ever, I’m glad it reminded me that as much as things change, they always stay the same.

Irrational Fear: Harry and the Hendersons vs. the SyFy Channel

So much of the way we experience life comes from the choices we make.  These choices are not just our day to day actions, like whether to get the open-faced tuna melt masquerading as a sandwich, or the Po’Boy for lunch.  We also make less conscious choices in the way we percieve and relate to the world around us. It’s not always as simple as just deciding to see things differently, but you can choose to view the glass as being half full as opposed to half empty, to use the most well worn example.  It’s a matter of forcing yourself to count the positives and focus on those instead of the negatives. The angle from which you choose to observe life will determine most of the way you feel about it, and the same is true for our fears- we can face them confidently and positively or we can shrink away from them in terror.

As it is true with everything else, so it also goes with Bigfoot.

Yeti, Sasquatch, Skunk Ape, Abominable Snowman (thank the British press for that one). The creature has as many names as there are languages on the planet.  It’s presence in the human psyche has never been adequately explained by psychologists, but the fact is that every society past and present has had myths and legends dealing with large creatures who are slightly less than human but also some product of the natural world.  It might be a superstition with roots all the way back to when Neanderthals and early humans were still competitors, but no one really knows for sure.  Suffice to say, fear of the unknown is a powerful enough pull on the human mind that the belief persists well into this supposed age of science and reason.

Irrational fear, patiently waiting to use the phone.

Could Bigfoot actually be out there?  To be diplomatic, it’s extremely, extremely unlikely, but it’s not a complete impossibility . It’s also utterly irrelevant to the question of why people see it or believe in it’s existence.  Sure, there are those who perpetrate hoaxes for attention or for money.  There will always be hucksters and con artists in any field, so why would cryptozoology or psychology be any different? I only mention it because hoaxes are always the first tool of evidence used against those who believe in cryptids, but examples of fraud are not necessary to disbelieve in their existence, nor do they invalidate the beliefs of those who sincerely think they’ve seen a creature they do not understand or recognize.

I remember that as a kid, the rumor that there was Something In The Woods was always present.  It was passed down from generation to generation on the playground the way all the enduring games, songs and legends of childhood are, and it held up for me, like everyone else I knew, from the time I first wandered out to play with other kids all the way up until the reality of girls and junior high washed away any time for the lingering superstitions of youth.

Goodbye to BigFoots/Hello to Big Butts, if you will.

Now as a rational adult, I no longer believe there’s anything mythical or unknowable in the woods, but I recognize that there are certainly people out there who do, and that their beliefs are genuinely held, even if most of them can probably be explained by some unconfronted or deep-seated fear in the mind of the believer.  In other cases, Moonshine seems to be the most likely culprit.

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Fear of the Other is something different from Fear of the Unknown but both are present at some level in everyone, and they are often exploited by politicians, religions, nations, and virtually every other group that ever gets together to wave flags.  They are also there for film makers, although much less consequentially.  It’s obvious that any movie that deals with Bigfoot is going to have to confront both of those fears in one way or another.  And so if you’re making a movie, you have a choice: You can make one that rationally and positively deals with these very human fears, or you can make one that’s panicky and irrational towards them.

Yes, SyFy Channel, I’m talking about you.

If you’re the type of person who wants to see a darkness, The SyFy Channel’s got you covered with Devil On the Mountain. (Actually, SyFy has you covered many, many times over, most recently with the simply titled “Bigfoot“, starring Danny Bonaduce and Barry Williams as a DJ and a Conservationist who team up to fight a killer Yeti. It sounds wonderfully schlocky when you distill it down to a sentence, but the SyFy Channel of course features nothing but the most joyless camp since Crystal Lake. This is all a roundabout way of saying I haven’t seen it and am not going out of my way to catch it anytime soon.)

Devil On the Montain was originally titled Sasquatch Mountain, until someone at the network decided that if the movie itself didn’t have a single ounce of mystique or intrigue, then by God, neither should the title. It’s exactly as awful and ridiculous as every other SyFy movie you’ve ever seen, maybe even more so. Where a movie like Harry and the Hendersons, which we’ll get to in a minute, tells us not to fear the unknown other, Devil On the Mountain is so utterly terrified of it that it’s narrative takes kidnappers, their victims and the police trying to catch them and unites all 3 against the ‘real’ danger. To call the dialogue wooden would be to insult the trees that were chopped down and pulped up to serve as the paper it’s compost pile of a script was written on, and to call it a waste of money is a slap in the face to every rich asshole that ever lit a cigar with a hundred dollar bill.  It tells it’s ridiculous tale without a single sympathetic or relatable character, and it is one of the longest and most arduous 90 minutes I’ve ever spent.

Not pictured: Me weeping for my lost 90 minutes of life.

For the rational thinking viewer who wants to catch a glimpse of Bigfoot, you really don’t have many choices aside from the 80’s staple Harry and the Hendersons.  John Lithgow and his family hit a Bigfoot with their totally rad station wagon, think he’s dead, strap him to the roof and bring him home, where they quickly find out- whoa, holy crap, no he’s not dead!  It’s at this point the movie could just put Harry and the family in a jar and shake it to see if they’ll fight like a couple of spiders, but they succeed in facing their fears and empathizing with the Bigfoot, who soon becomes almost another member of the family.  They also succeeed in not letting Bigfoot get shot by a snotty French hunter, and also in hooking him up with a little bro time with the ever charming Don Ameche before it’s all said and done.

French Hunter and Don Ameche- fears faced, conflicts resolved.

Look, it’s no Citizen Kane, but it’s a warm-hearted, decent drama with some laughs sprinkled in that treats all of it’s subjects maturely, and at the very least succeeds in warning us of the danger and pointlessness of irrational fear of the unknown.  I suppose it also warns us unintentionally of the dangers of people who wear fingerless gloves, but the 80’s were a more adventurous time for hand fashion, and that’s probably a story for another time anyways.

Unfortunately Harry and the Hendersons is in the clear minority, as most Sasquatch related movies, even those few that aren’t produced with the SyFy Channel’s special blend of television and feces, aren’t quite ready to handle the subject in any kind of even handed manner.

So, as always, the choice is ours. Will we deal rationally with things we don’t know or understand? If we face life’s experiences with an open mind and willingness to look for the positives, then we’ll probably turn out richer and wiser for it, like John Lithgow and Don Ameche, or even the fingerless glove clad French Hunter. On the other hand, if we choose to succumb to our fears of others and the unknown, we’re probably going to wind up like Lance Henriksen- participating in some stupid pointless bullshit that we hate and going through the motions just for this week’s paycheck, because nothing we’re doing makes any god damn kind of sense.