Mutant Popcorn #22

Nick Lowe

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Encounter at Raven’s Gate – appeared first in Interzone #37 (July 1990).

There’s an insidious trend towards what I can only think of as a kind of metaphysical tourism. It’s always been part of the magic of cinema that we can visit, in a strictly minimal-impact deal, those few remaining existential planes that are still largely off-limits to development: places like death, childhood, the past, the inside heads of animals or the opposite sex. And part of the package has traditionally been that the local sights get cleaned up and repainted to make them more picturesque, less threateningly different – more familiar. But something seems lately to be getting out of hand. You get to all these faraway trackless places, and you discover (a) gosh, they’re just like the old home town all along and (b) shucks, it’s really more fun staying just plain put and enjoying a doublethick milkshake. The ghost movies (it’s okay, come out, this is a momentarily spook-free month) are only the iceberg’s topknot. It’s not just that you turn up on the other side and find oh NO, John Goodman is still upstaging me off the screen. It’s the rampant idea that here, now, this theatre is the centre of the moral and spiritual universe, and anywhere else is the same except that even the natives would all move here given half the chance.

Take history, and pluck an instance from the air. If Mountains of the Moon, say, had even been a British film, as opposed to a Hollywood film conveniently packaged in a superficially British coating, it would probably have found at least some interest in the idea that two moody macho blokes stuck in the armpit of nowhere for months of total misery would naturally get on one another’s tit-end a trifle. Not so! it can now be revealed that Dickie and Jack were actually the best of lifelong chums, and history’s vehement testimony to the reverse is all the legacy of a tragic misunderstanding. The buddy movie is the only permissible plot. If it can’t be made positive and reassuringly mellow, nobody’s going to sign up for the tour in the first place.

And seeing as there’s enough of it about the place in certain overseas markets for history to be fun again, there’s quite a lot of mischief to be had from this. We can’t be far off now from Hungarofilm’s sleeper hit Sandor and Imre’s Exemplary Adventure, in which a pair of freewheeling, fun-loving Depeche Mode fans from Keszthely find themselves whisked off on a rollercoaster romp through history to help them pass their graduation assessment and fulfil their world-shaping destiny as legendary ost-pop band New Synthesis. Pinballing from era to era, our lovable teen heroes kidnap a wild assortment of famous dialectical forces to parade back home in a showstopping tableau of history brought to life. But fun starts to fly as the crazy crew run riot in the local civic complex! The Rise of the Urban Bourgeoisie gets hooked on skateboarding concrete, while Industrial Centralisation of the Means of Production discovers the delights of twentieth-century pastry shops, and The Structural Collapse of Western Colonial Imperialism learns that topless sunbathing by Lake Balaton can be a whole lot more fun than participating in the crisis of international market capitalism. For Sandor and Imre, in whose hilarious hip patois everything is either ‘democratic’ or ‘Muscovite’, this is a ‘most un-liberalised’ development. Luckily our heroes’ resourcefulness is matched only by their knowledge of old Joy Division riffs, and pop pogoes on after all to save the world.

In the meantime, of course, and for the western market, all this has to be subtly repackaged. There has been no history west of the Rhineland since 1945, and it’s frankly unlikely there’s ever been any at all in San Dimas, California. So Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a strictly daytrip tour (‘You have eighteen hours from…now’), through history as comprehended by highly-bonded white male teens hooked on unbelievably awful junk metal pop. It’s a theme-park, celebrity-centred view of history, built entirely from high-profile personalities (aka ‘excellent dudes’) – Socrates, Beethoven, Billy the Kid – all of whom share the inner sense that the modern mallrat lifestyle is the human spirit’s most natural habitat. And, for that same reason, it’s a history that stops right here, because once you’ve invented rock and roll the future is basically safe.

Mercifully, it’s a joke. Bill and Ted is another of these post-exploitation ironic teen fantasies, closer in spirit to Heathers and Young Einstein than the Time Bandits and Back to the Futures it sounds more like a hash of. Like Heathers, especially, it’s lushly scripted (by Richard Matheson’s boy Chris, and an equally tiro pal) in a fanciful pastiche of high school argot, and full of dark little throwaways suggestive of a Blue Velvet underbelly to smalltown family life. (Bill’s dad, for no reason connected with the plot, has married this nineteen-year-old babe Bill has sweatingly to call Mom while she gives the old man a good sorting-out in Bill’s own bedroom.) And the quality of the gags and, especially, performing is disorientingly better that the material seems to deserve.

Above all, it sneaks all these evil jokes about the metalhead’s view of the cosmos. In Bill and Ted, the Californian high school male’s perception of reality and value is treated stone-faced as the literal truth of existence. For one, rock and roll really is here to stay. Bill and Ted’s band (they haven’t learned to play yet, but they already know they’re going to be ‘unprecedented’) is still celebrated six hundred years in the future as the most significant event in human evolution. They call themselves Wyld Stallyns, which really says the lot. Meanwhile, historical dudes like Sigmund Freud and stuff are instinctively at home in the world of ‘the present day’: Joan of Arc discovers her true metier as an aerobics instructor, as effortlessly as Napoleon finds what he really wants from life is ice cream and watersliding. Language is no problem: Socrates is the most triumphant dude of all, despite speaking nothing but classical Attic (with modern Greek stress and an English accent, but you’ve got to give them score for trying). Incredibly ludicrous plot gags and deadpans abound: ‘Want a Twinkie, Genghis Khan?’ (Genghis follows hand offscreen; thud from soundtrack.) ‘Got him! Let’s go!’

And so on, really. It would have been easy to let Bill and Ted discover from their jaunt that, gosh, history is more fun even than rock and roll. It would have been easier still to go with the Back to the Future line on teenage aspiration, according to which the height of credibility and success really is making a go of it as a teen axe hero. Not so Bill and Ted, at the conclusion of which our lovable knobheads are told deadpan that Wyld Stallyns’ music will bring about world peace and enable communication with ordinary household pets. It’s only half of the tang of this film that it does for history what Young Einstein did for science. The other half is what it does to the walking-dead mythologies of rock, teen culture, and everything in the world being fine so long as you’re white, male, and Californian. My only reservation is, I’m not sure we should be making jokes about this stuff.

Down on the flipside, they do the boy’s-life thing a different way. Encounter at Raven’s Gate is one of those brooding, humourless Antipodean suspensers about dourly-played lager-ad characters menaced in remote and dusty parts by the obligatory violent unknown event. In this case it’s a loose assortment of rather elderly UFO movie symptoms (whence, presumably, ‘Encounter’): weird lights in the sky, inexplicable power cuts and surges, scorched circles in the bush, mysterious government agents on purposeful but ambivalent errands. Apart from a load of dead sheep thrown in for local colour, it all seems rather familiar stuff – a nostalgic throwback to the age before more contemporary stuff like crop circles and abduction scares updated the visitor mythos.

But the trick is, this is South Australia, and Raven’s Gate is square in the mainstream of the great Australian chiller. It’s important, for example, that you never find out what was really going on. (Apparently you did in the first draft, but it’s wisely gone the way of the deleted final chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, where the schoolgirls turned out to have fallen obscurely up a kind of ringhole in spacetime.) By the end of Raven’s Gate it becomes sensibly immaterial whether the nasty events are manmade or extry-trestry, the authorities having long since turned out to be no more human or intelligible than the unseen forces. No doubt this has a lot to do with the writers’ obviously having bollock-all idea how to make even fractional sense of all the weakly-connected mystery effects. But I don’t think it’s going too far to say this is also a distinctively downunder kind of ending, a passion for the unresolved that you seem to meet in a string of ANZ fantasies from The Last Wave to The Navigator, and which would be simply inconceivable in any Hollywood equivalent.

Better yet, it’s full of these absolute total Australians. The steamy human triangle centres around Celine Griffiths’ bored outback ranchwife, much given to shower scenes and mooching around in clingy tropical dresses. Will she stick with her tyrannical scientist husband, more interested in his hydroponics and artesian drills than in giving her a decent seeing-to on the bathhouse tiles? Or will she succumb to the lure of his black sheep kid brother, with his interesting sunglasses, rakish blond looks, and dashingly spotty parole record? Can young Eddie keep his nose clean down the village bar, in the face of testosterone-sodden ragging from the local rough trade, when the deranged local officer of the law sees our hero as his only rival for stolen kisses down the Sydney opera with the blowsy barmaid? Which of these characters will be first to get brainfried and go on a stalk-slash rampage, and which will get spirited away into a bafflingly disjunct murder subplot? Compared to all this, the question of what exactly has taken over sinister Raven’s Gate farm, and done such a horrid thing to Mr and Mrs amiable old codger, can quite afford to kip out in the back seat for the duration. There’s loads more exciting things going on at home.

All the same, it’s nicely done on the thrill level too. Despite the uncertainties of plot, a certain amount of recognisably Australian acting, and a title that smacks more of Ian Livingstone than Mad Max, Encounter at Raven’s Gate grips very well. Fussily shot, and directed by Rolf de Heer with febrile invention, it makes grand use of the arid screenscape’s sensuality and threat, and the claustrophobia of small communities on the frontier of emptiness – to say nothing of what must have been Adelaide’s entire warehouse stock of dry ice. From a cough start, through some bumpy changes down in the low gears, it revs by degrees to a seriously pulse-threatening peak. Unlike the immortal Razorback, which it recalls quite a lot, it hasn’t much of an effective sense of humour. But this is so taut at the surface and daft in the middle that a smack of irony would probably have blown it apart. As it stands, it’s a rich and eccentric gift to the grand tradition of Australian no-one-can-hear-you-screamers, from The Cars that Ate Paris all the way to Dead Calm (or Dead Clam, as my local freesheet innocently redubbed it)… What a fabulous country. I’ll take the two weeks, with shower.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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