Sunday, August 23, 2015

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996)

Great stupid fun.. B & B super style!

This movie didn’t suck. It ruled! When I went to see Beavis and Butt-head Do America, it didn’t immediately occur to me how long it had been since I’d seen a film I could call truly remarkable. The dream sequence which opens the movie has the world’s most famous dilholes as modern-day King Kongs, stomping through a city and wreaking king-size havoc. They swat planes, crush cars, and reach at girls through broken skyscrapers, and it was hard not to read this gleeful gigantism as a metaphor for their own success. 

Who would have thought, five years ago, that one of the surprise Christmas-season movie hits would be an almost incompetently animated feature about two chronic masturbators who are unwittingly guarding a secret weapon? Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge stays true to the tone of his MTV series by piling on one ridiculous episode after another and adding a leitmotif of enthusiastic anal-cavity searches, and the movie is a ride worth taking. 

Beavis and Butt-head fall asleep on the sofa and awake to find that their television has been stolen. Searching for the cathode rays they need to sustain them, they stumble into a room in a cheap motel, where they meet a very drunk and dangerous redneck who offers them money to go to Las Vegas and "do" his wife. Beavis and Butt-head can’t believe their luck: They’re gonna score! And they’re even going to get paid for it! Thus ensues a round-trip cross-country odyssey that includes peyote, guns, nuns, the duo's long-lost fathers (fathers and sons remain oblivious to their relationship), and a cameo appearance by a cartoon Bill Clinton. Even Easy Rider didn’t offer such a smorgasbord of delights. It is very easy to like this movie.

The thing that's always fascinated me about the legions of Beavis and Butt-head fans is how they seem to feel like they have to justify it. "Hey, I went to school with people like that," they will say, defensively with an undercurrent of apology, as if acknowledging a visible birthmark. I've often tried to figure out what's implied by that statement and its remarkably few variations. 

We don't necessarily watch programs which recall for us the caste system of our youth, or else, for instance, My So-Called Life would never have lacked for viewers. We don't necessarily watch what assures us of our superiority to the life forms onscreen. You went to school with people like what? People without ambition, shame, or the communication skills necessary for successful negotiation outside a small homogeneous circle. (Huh huh huh – I said "homo.") People who make a career out of sitting in the back row of the classroom, willfully not learning anything. People left to their own insufficient devices, so much the objects of derision that this defines their social existence. 

If you didn't know I was talking about Beavis and Butt-head, would you still be settling back in anticipation of a punchline here? And, at the risk of being accused of various hypersensitivities and/or sympathies, would the moronic duo be as funny if they weren't middle-America white boys? My own theory is that B & B creator Mike Judge has tapped into the zeitgeist (and don't tell me that the trend is played out; I was in the line that snaked around the corner of the theater, and I've seen the grosses) by discovering a strain of humor just short of real horror. Because at face value, Beavis and Butt-head are castaways, doomed to a life at the helm of the deep fryer. I don't want to lose sight of the discontinuity between sociology and entertainment.

And I'll be the first to admit it, Beavis and Butt-head are really, really funny. This, I think, was Judge's intention, back in the days of animation-festival shorts featuring the boys – the I-can't-believe-my-reaction reaction. "Frog Baseball" hits the same chord as does the scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci shoots the kid in the foot during a card game for not bringing his drinks fast enough. It can be exhilarating to watch something so gross, or so violent, because it confirms our collective address not in the same neighborhood as such acts as these. I bet you didn't go to school with guys like Beavis and Butt-head. The ones you're thinking of as cartoonish hammerheads nevertheless had some level of self-awareness, and they either knew exactly what their place was in the pecking order (and I bet they started working out) or bamboozled themselves into thinking that the idea of a pecking order was society’s malicious joke (and I bet they got knives, or had restraining orders slapped on them). Or, more recently, they made the decision to embrace Beavisness and become louts on purpose, because Fools have a slight handicap in the social game and can at least rise above the bottom. Have some self-awareness yourself, and think about it for just a moment: Beavis and Butt-head have crossed the line, and they are cartoons of cartoons.

It was MTV that brought Judge's rude conception to its apotheosis. On one early episode of B & B, one of the boys says, "Man, the last eleven videos have sucked. Maybe the next one will be better." After the initial novelty of MTV wore off – and what with the game shows and gimmicks and all, this probably took a lot longer than it should have – that attitude is what we were left with. When Beavis and Butt-head assumed their places on their sofa in front of their crappy TV set, it was like the royal wedding of ennui and anomie. I can attest that the appeal is hard to resist. 

I used to live in a house full of marginally employed men in their early twenties, and B & B with Olde E was the highlight of the day. Someone would go from bedroom to bedroom knocking on the doors and saying, "Time for church!" Bad day on the job? Bad day not having a job? Feeling like a loser? Don't worry, Beavis and Butt-head will never make you feel worse. Because Mike Judge knows that his program is a spectacle but the spectacles themselves are blissfully unaware, you can laugh at and laugh with at the same time – in this sense the program is one smart product. 

James Wolcott wrote in The New Yorker that after watching many hours of Beavis and Butt-head in order to write an article on the series, it was weird to see videos without the yellow B & B logo in the corner, as if it were the series that identified the network instead of the other way around. The increasing tendencies toward the hormonal and the ironic (Remember J.J. Jackson? Martha Quinn?) in MTV's staff and programming would suggest that the network has embraced the laugh-at/laugh-with aesthetic. In this sense the patients are running the asylum. Beavis and Butt-head engender a sense of anarchy and liberation which is missing from most of what we can see on television – what's not to like?

I know: the movie, the movie. We are here today not to explicate Beavis and Butt-head but to praise them. You have to accustom your eyes and your brain to the low production values onscreen without the respite of videos, but Judge keeps the action moving briskly, and there are pseudo-video segments such as Beavis and Butt-head's dance-floor antics in Las Vegas, Mr. Van Driesen's hilariously, unconscionably P.C. "Ode to a Lesbian Seagull" (sung by Tom Jones), and, best of all, the Starsky-and-Hutch-style opening credits. Everything is over the top except for our two stars, who manage to stay reassuringly in the gutter. It's great stupid fun, and we are all invited to be in on its central joke. Which is, of course, that the two biggest screw-ups on the planet save all the rest of us and are acclaimed as quick-thinking, selfless heroes. Beavis and Butt-head snicker, we chuckle, and Mike Judge laughs all the way to the bank. What a country! A.G


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