catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 17 :: 2007.09.21 — 2007.10.05


Man with no name

The Man

In the 1960s, the emergence of Spaghetti Westerns, due to their Italian production, unveiled a new and rising star who still lingers in bold print across the pulpy headlines of our newspapers: Clint Eastwood. His starring roles in films like A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) exhibited a stoic man known ultimately by his poncho and his eyes. The character became known as the man with no name. Several names are actually uttered but debates linger as to whether these were nicknames or otherwise, those names being Blondie, Joe, and Monco. Regardless, his character never declares his name and we are therefore left with a sense of a man with no name.

As I thought about this character and sentiment, another thought emerged. I began to think about the movie The Cable Guy, an oddity perhaps I’ll soon explain. What I’d like to open for discourse is a simple and rational observation regarding the inherent community that exists within our popular culture consumption and therein with us. In a world of mass media entertainment we develop relationships, however dysfunctional with those whom we know so well, yet not really at all. These Friends that we have like the Sopranos, the Simpsons, and the Cleavers provide a vicarious life alternative to ours.

In this case, our tale The Cable Guy gives us a troubled character with many names yet none. We actually never discover the real name of our cable guy, though we don’t really know that to begin with. The only way to really know this is to know television, popular culture. We know him as Ernie “Chip” Douglas, Larry Tate, Murray Slaughter, George Jetson, Jean-Luc Picard, The Big Ragu, and Ricky Ricardo. We don’t realize until much later that these names are all apart of the vast community of which Chip is a member, as are many of us, myself included. Be that as it may, we encounter another man with no name.


The History

After the second World War, various anti-hero sentiments began to emerge in Westerns. The epitome of such demythologizing sentiments is found in John Ford’s 1956 gem, The Searchers. Growing in popularity during this period were Spaghetti Westerns. These films featured brilliant filmmakers and actors like Mario Bava, Mario Brega, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, renowned Italian ‘script-doctor’ Luciano Vincenzoni, brilliant Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and the incendiary Italian director Sergio Leone. Other movies from this era include Death Rides A Horse (1968), Once Upon A Time In the West (1969), and A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). However upon closer inspection it was a Japanese filmmaker named Akira Kurosawa and his film Yojimbo which inspired Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Digging a bit further we uncover the hard-boiled influences of Dashiell Hammett and his works the Red Harvest and The Glass Key as inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It’s also known that Akira Kurosawa was a fan of John Ford and his counterpart The Duke, John Wayne. So in a way the whole picture has a tautological characteristic to it as it recycles itself. This is what our p0pular culture does; it recycles and spins out new forms with residual elements of others.

It’s often difficult to pinpoint where the real influence begins and ends. It’s very much a manifestation of the ‘rabbit-hole’ of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The point to be heard is that there’s always a precedent, an antecedent in our art, whether overtly obvious or subtle. Herein is an inter-textual connection, a relationship between us and the culture which we both create and consume, a community of sorts.


The Story   

The Cable Guy emerged in 1996 from film director and comedic actor Ben Stiller. It was written by Lou Holtz, Jr. and starred Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, and Jack Black among others. It featured great cameos by many of the then Ben Stiller Show cast Andy Dick, Bob Odenkirk, and Janeane Garofalo. It should also be noted that Judd Apatow had a fair hand in the production as well, Apatow being the driving force behind such successful projects as Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The T.V. Set, Talladega Nights, Knocked Up, and Superbad.

Our story begins with the static haze of standard sub-par television, not cable. We channel surf over shows like Jerry Springer, Press Your Luck, Ricki Lake, My Three Sons, The Bionic Woman, and All in the Family. What emerges from underneath our surf is the sweet little Dinah Washington morsel TV Is the Thing This Year:

If you wanna have fun come home with me
You can stay all night and play with my TV…
Radio was great, now it's out of date
TV is the thing this year

We realize that we’re in the apartment of our protagonist Steven Kovacs (Broderick). Steven has just moved out of his girlfriend Robin’s (Mann) apartment due to their breakup. We arrive via the television screen and emerge with Steven as he waits for the cable guy, Chip Douglas (Carrey). While waiting, he chats with friend Rick (Black) who unbeknownst helps inaugurate our cinematic journey by encouraging him to bribe the cable guy to get some free movie channels. What ensues is our journey with The Cable Guy


The Crux

The movie can easily be misunderstood. It did not receive success at the box-office and was considered a failure by many. Some critics despised it for their misanthrope tendencies, others the hyper-accentuated acting of Carrey, and still others because they couldn’t relate to such a seemingly deranged character. Regardless, I consider it to be a poignant cultural and social satire, a brilliant exposé of our intellectual famine and our glut of mere escape. I don’t know the exact intentions of Ben Stiller but given the various sub-genre flicks of the mid-90s and the onslaught of media frenzy television coverage of things like O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers trials, some simple correlations can be drawn.

Guy is laced with pop-culture references each of which gives us some depth in understanding the crux of our story, of our central characters. The essence here, if you distill it is the desire for community, for relationship, friendship. It’s an innate human need. Our powerhouse sitcoms hinge on relationships and community and the tumultuous trials and triumphs therein. In other words, we all have this insatiable itch which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Regardless of how we may feel about such a community, it exists with overwhelming gusto and we should consider its influence and implications for both good and not so.

Again, there’s an innate inter-textual component to grasp. It shouldn’t be ignored that this is in reality a verisimilitude of community. We can never truly have actual discourse with this community though it does promote discourse. The countless characters and circumstances which resonate with us or inspire us can be partially experienced vicariously through the media of our popular culture. Family Guy is a superb example of pop culture barrage inter-textual references. One can surely enjoy it without an insight into such references but getting the joke ensures a much more enriched appreciation. This is the same with Cable Guy. So, to illuminate at least some of these layers, let us excavate some of these influences.


The Layers

The journey of the layers supposes that we are able to correlate what we know of one thing and infuse it with another in order that we might find a more genuine laugh or a visceral objection. From the get-go we find an undercurrent of cues to our characters and story as Steven begins by relating himself to Felix Unger from Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. The layers are constant, poignant, and key to relating to our story.

After their first meeting, with a bit of reluctance Steven agrees to hang out with Chip. Together they lie underneath the stars buried in the metal hand of a massive satellite, the “information super-highway”. Laced in their conversation is the realization of how important this community is to our characters and our story. As an example, in an attempt to win favor with his girlfriend Steven entertains some advice from Chip courtesy of the Nora Ephron romantic comedy classic Sleepless in Seattle. Subtly outlined in the actual clip of the referenced film (in a later scene) is the influence of cable on our understanding of everything from love to sex. In fact we discover that much of Chip’s “insightful” advice is nothing more than Jerry Springer’s final thoughts from “Friday’s show”.

The power of this seemingly omnipresent community is its perpetual “possibilities”. Look no further than the Family Guy sketch intro at the recent Emmy’s which notes that anything you’d want to find can be found on T.V. Stiller lays it out for us in a great sequence that takes us back to the childhood of Chip. The scene actually gives us a close-up glimpse through the eyes of the adult Chip, illuminated by the hypnotizing glares of the tube, and transports us back to the young eyes of our disturbed loner. We see his life seated in front of the “babysitter” with a Pepsi and Frito dinner watching Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut Play Misty For Me (1971). Latent here is a reference to a film about a radio DJ who is stalked by a crazed fan who habitually requests that Erroll Garner’s ballad “Misty” be played, a foreshadowing of sorts. Disappointed at his mother’s departure she assures him the “babysitter”, aka television, will take care of him. Her parting comfort and advice is to sit back away from the T.V. because it’ll “rot your brain”. Chip’s adult realization: “The ole TV was always here for me.”

There a number of great scenes in the movie, loaded with these layers. One scene features a staged brawl at Medieval Times which in reality is a re-creation of the “Amok Time” episode from Star Trek: The Original Series in which Captain Kirk and Spock fight to the death, complete with the exact musical cues and weapons. Another scene features Chip in a bathroom fight with a sleaze (Owen Wilson) attempting to move in on Steven’s girlfriend Robin. The scene begins with Chip incognito to the tune of Curtis Mayfield’s "Pusherman." Our tiff is rhythmically laid out to the Dizzie Gillespie tune “Salt-Peanuts” and topped off with a WCW wrestling commentary courtesy of “Mean” Gene Okerlund, via Chip.

Chip, lisp and all, is desperate for friendship and he’ll use any means necessary from bribery to blackmail to get it. Or as Chip notes in a hilarious county jail visitation scene, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy.” The scene is framed with great humor ending with the bare chest of Chip up against the Plexiglas crying, an obvious reference to Brian DePalma and Oliver Stone’s Midnight Express (1978) based on the novel of same name by Billy Hayes. The references are vast, from Tony Robbins and Spider-Man to television shows like Cops, White Shadow, The Ren and Stimpy Show, and Emergency to film references like Field of Dreams and Waterworld to the climactic ending of the movie which both references and mimics the James Bond flick Goldeneye. Chip’s community has been proven vast but impotent.

His identity is many but none. His names derive from his community, his so-called community. Chip Douglas from My Three Sons, Larry Tate from Bewitched, Murray Slaughter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, George Jetson from The Jetson’s, Jean-Luc Picard from the modern Star Trek series, The Big Ragu from Laverne and Shirley, and Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy. He is everybody and yet nobody. Like getting paired with Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Steven gets paired with Murray Slaughter (Chip).


Community or Bust

I’ve recently been reading Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha and was struck by a sentiment that I believe is residual to our current culture and this film in particular. It was Don Galaor who

became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits. His fancy grew full of what he used to read about in his books, enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, agonies, and all sorts of impossible nonsense; and it so possessed his mind that the whole fabric of invention and fancy he read of was true, that to him no history in the world had more reality in it.

He thus became Don Quixote. This rings clearly as true for our character Chip and for many of us. This was my childhood to a similar degree. I can truly relate, thus my affinity for the movie. I realize others will not resonate. Regardless, I urge you to consider those who inhabit the community of Chip as a substitute for the real thing.

Stiller captures a great cross-section of our love-to-hate character Chip in the karaoke scene during which he sings Jefferson Airplane’s classic “Somebody to Love”:

When the truth is found to be lies
and all the joy within you dies
don't you want somebody to love
don't you need somebody to love
wouldn't you love somebody to love
you better find somebody to love

It’s too difficult for Chip to differentiate real life from illusion. He needs help. He needs a community, a real one. Not just to scapegoat pop-culture or separate from it but to see it as it is. This is clear in the exchange between Chip and Steven in our climax. The irony in this exchange is rich. We sometimes have to convey such messages the only way others will receive it—through a language or medium, like film.

Chip: The trouble with real life is there’s no danger music.

Steven: This isn’t a movie, this is reality.  There’s a difference.

Chip: I just wanted to be your friend.

Steven: We all get lonely.

Chip: Yea, but I get really lonely. There’s a lot of little cable boys and girls out there that still have a chance. Somebody has to kill the babysitter.

Our climax is juxtaposed with the overarching media trial of character Sam Sweet (Ben Stiller) which has poked its head out throughout the movie. As Chip positions himself to “kill the babysitter”, we arrive at the verdict of the Sweet trial. We see the entire community tuned in with anticipation. The verdict begins to be read, “Sam Sweet has been found…” and Chip fulfills his call as the screens go black to static. In a very simple but moving sequence some people yell “help, help” while others lambaste the “information highway my ass” with banging of the set. The last image of the sequence is a lone couch potato (Kyle Gass) who puzzled turns off the television, turns on the lamp, and picks up a book and begins to read. As our troubled anti-hero of sorts brings our story to a close he can’t help but resort back to his community in a mimic of the old television show Emergency. A classic ending that’s both tragic and mind opening. 

Clearly you won’t understand or appreciate The Cable Guy if you don’t have some awareness of pop culture television, movies, or music from the 1960s to the present. A significant amount of character cues and the like are conveyed in the subtleties. They enrich the story. It’s almost tailor made for a specific community of individuals who are privy to such esoteric but nonetheless essential information. Musical cues, clips running through static on the tube in the background, etc. What’s the point? If you think about it, all knowledge has some sort of esoteric quality to it. It beckons us to the realization that there is always something we don’t know, more than meets the eye. Or as Don Henley uttered it in his 1990 hit “The Heart of the Matter”, “The more I know, the less I understand.” You could walk through each channel of Dinah Washington’s “TV Is the Thing This Year” from one to eleven and still not capture everything but you’d at least get a sense of the community which grips many of us for good, bad, and ugly. 

The simple essence of all of this is a call to intentional and meaningful community. It doesn’t mean we supplant enjoyable cultural consumption, but that we properly supplement it. In a moment of painful clarity, Chip calls out: “You were never there for me were you mother? You expected Mike and Carol Brady to raise me! I'm the bastard son of Claire Huxtable! I am a Lost Cunningham! I learned the facts of life from watching The Facts of Life!” If we would but take up the rigor of Don Quixote to “lie awake striving to understand…worm the meaning out” then perhaps we could better understand ourselves, our communities. I hope The Cable Guy can be apart of that both literally and figuratively. It’s the “cat’s pajamas.”

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