The List: Americathon (and some Moebius)

An odd thing, this watching movies because someone has died. I mean, it seems wholly justified to watch Head after the departure of Davy Jones a couple of weeks ago, but I woke up this morning to the sad news of the death of French artist Jean Giraud, better known, perhaps, under his signature as Moebius. His stories were one of the reasons I kept buying Heavy Metal after the readable Ted White years, and long long after the allure of thinking “That’s a really well-drawn breast” had worn off. His stories, besides being brilliantly drawn, were puckish, unusual, and often mind-blowing. And much as I respect his body of work, there is no way in hell I am going to watch the Heavy Metal movie in his honor. Maybe some day, I should examine why I hate that movie so much. Maybe.

The one movie I do possess which would be more in line with my current viewing template is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, for which he did design work and has a story credit. That, however, is on laserdisc. Current duties prevent me from setting up my mothballed player. He did concept art for Tron and Masters of the Universe, but again, no way in hell. There is Alien, and The Fifth Element (which is everything the Heavy Metal movie should have been, but was not), but I’ve seen both of those too recently.

The movie which would be most appropriate only exists in a parallel dimension: Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune. I’ve had a strange yen of late to watch the Lynch version again, but that is nowhere near the same thing. I guess I should dig out my copy of The Lost Incal, the impressively whacked-out comic series Moebius did with Jodorowsky – that would be a much better tribute than watching a flick only tangentially associated with his genius.

Anyway.

Yesterday (Friday the 9th, as I write this) brought the news that Peter Bergman of The Firesign Theatre had passed away. It literally stuns me that people only ten years younger than me will say “Firesign what? Who-?” Perhaps Firesign was too distinctly of its era, but I can’t really get my head around that. Funny is funny, and it’s not like the four guys who made up Firesign were overtly political or topical. Perhaps it was the fact that their best work was pretty much in the form of long radio plays, strange science-fiction constructs with pyrotechnic wordplay. Their occasional forays into video were pretty hit and miss, running the gamut from brilliant (Nick Danger and the Case of the Missing Yolks) to disappointing (Eat or Be Eaten).

Well, Number One on The Other List was Americathon, which the box assures us is “Written by Firesign Theatre veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman”. The movie credits claim that the “Adaptation” was by Proctor and Bergman from their play, with a screenplay by director Neal Israel, Michael Mislove, and Monica McGowan Johnson. Such mongrelized credits are not uncommon in Hollywood, but it does cause one to wonder just who is to blame for Americathon.

With a phrase like that, you can assume I was somewhat disappointed.

Now, the movie starts well enough, if you can get past the literal lynching of then-President Jimmy Carter. By 1998, America has run out of gas, oil, and money. It owes 400 billion dollars to multi-billionaire Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), who wants his money in 30 days or he’ll foreclose on the country. Our hero, media expert Eric McMurken (Peter Riegert) wakes up in his car. You see, he lives in a trailer park where all the trailers have been replaced by cars. He gets on his bike and goes to work, on a street, and finally a highway, populated only by bicycles of every make, skateboards, and joggers. Even a passing firetruck is actually mounted on a bicycle.

The freeway actually vacant of any powered vehicles is a pretty bracing sight, and sets you up to hope for great things. The president is Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter), an EST graduate who was elected purely on his last name. He and his First Old Lady are in the Western White House, a condo sub-let in San Diego. McMurkin is called in to help find a media solution to the current crisis, and that ultimate solution is a telethon to raise 400 billion in 30 days.

A villainous Presidential advisor, Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard), though, is in cahoots with the United Hebrab Republic (Israel and the UAE having made peace once they realized they both liked blonde shiksas), which wants to buy America once it’s been foreclosed upon. Vanderhoff attempts to sabotage Americathon first by hiring faded matinee idol and egomaniac Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman) to MC the show, then insisting only government-cleared acts perform, resulting in five days of ventriloquist acts. Ultimately, the money is raised, thanks to Rushmore’s getting wounded live and on the air by Hebrab terrorists attempting to kidnap McMurkin, and Birdwater himself ponying up the last $100,000 because he really liked the show.

I’d love to say Americathon was a glorious mess, but it’s really just a mess. I can see Proctor and Bergman’s sense of absurd insanity peek through every now and then – Birdwater, for instance, made his fortune by foreseeing the great Clown Shoe craze of the 80s, and then high-fashion roller-skates once the gas started giving out. China turning into a major capitalist power is accurately predicted, though it is fast food that powers its rise to prominence. Meat Loaf appears as “Oklahoma Daredevil Roy Budnitz”, whose act on Americathon is dueling “The Last Living Car” with an array of hand weapons. It’s outrageous sketch comedy like that the central concept cries out for – and sadly, never gets.

The real standout for me – at least in the realm of high weirdness – is Vietnamese Puke Rock star Houling Jackson (Vietnam, incidentally, has reinvented itself as the gambling mecca of the world). Zane Buzby plays Houling, and she is terrifying. Roosevelt, of course, falls immediately in lust with her, as she is the extreme polar opposite of his First Old Lady (the extremely lovely girl next door type, Nancy Morgan). Buzby literally chews up and spits out any scene she’s in; she went on to a fitful acting career, and a much more successful – and, I hope, satisfying – career directing sitcoms. I mean, really: I started out thinking what the hell and ended up wanting more of her.

But past that, past isolated bits, Americathon plays out like a TV comedy sketch that goes on too long (so another thing it accurately predicts is SNL movies). The subplot with the Hebrabs never quite reaches its full potential, which would have helped leaven the comedy with some dramatic tension.

For some reason, in my head, Americathon is always connected to the previous Summer’s movie, FM. You never really hear about FM anymore, either; it was up against a re-released Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and sank without a trace. But it did have a very successful soundtrack album – hell, that Steely Dan “No Static At All” song will still crop up occasionally on Classic Rock stations. Americathon tried to till that soil itself, with a theme song by the Beach Boys and a puzzling appearance by Elvis Costello. I had quit my job at the record store about the time the Americathon album came out, but I recall a pretty high-profile release.

So really, it would have been a better tribute for Bergman had I dug out my VHS of the aforementioned Nick Danger or the re-dub jobs of J-Man Forever or Hot Shorts. Those were hilarious, and a lot more indicative of the man’s talents and strengths.

The Boys circa 1971. Peter's the handsome chrome dome on the left. RIP, fella; you done good.

1 Comment

  1. Holy moley, I had not heard that about Peter Bergman. That is the greatest loss of this century.


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