Love, truth and videotape

Everything I know I learned from Video Rodeo.


Sarah Vowell
June 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Bill Murray was on stage at Chicago's Goodman Theater last week. It was a hometown thing, one of those armchair conversations. He was promoting his new book "Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf." As for why on earth his publishers would ask for such a tome, he said, "You could write a really bad book about golf and it would sell a lot of copies. And they thought I had that talent." One of the most curious moments of the evening -- aside from playful jabs at the late Gene Siskel ("He got his") -- was when Murray's interlocutor, the host of a local TV morning show, asked him about the enduring appeal of the 1980 golf movie "Caddyshack."

Murray, who famously played the demented, gopher-hunting groundskeeper Carl in that film, attributed its continued cultural presence to two things: first, its clever social commentary, the way it pits the blue collar caddies against the wealthy yahoos of the Bushwood Country Club. "Take away the candy bar in the swimming pool," asserts Murray, "and it's a class story." Second, he credits cable television. "You can see 'Caddyshack' six times this month somewhere," he said. "These things have a life."

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It was a beautiful thing to say, really, the idea that a work of art could keep on working. Not to mention that Murray's words would have been unimaginable as recently as 20 years ago. Before cable and then satellite television became household norms, before video, seeing a movie again was a random event. Aside from revival houses or, on television, the late show and -- remember this? -- things like the "ABC Sunday Night Movie," the average citizen had no say whatsoever in picking and choosing which movies to get (re)acquainted with.

Murray's words might have struck a chord in me because "Caddyshack" just so happens to be the first movie I ever saw on video. That was the featured entertainment at Laura Seitz's 13th birthday party circa 1982. I had never seen a VCR before, and now I hope for their sake that the Seitz family went with VHS instead of Beta. I remember being extremely distracted from the movie -- even though it was my first R rating, too -- because I couldn't get over the sheer fact that Laura had decided she wanted to usher in her adolescence with an ensemble cast including Chevy Chase and Ted Knight, and she and her mother went to a store and brought it home. I was there to celebrate Laura's rite of passage, but I couldn't help but get the feeling I was moving on to something better myself. Just as our parents were the last generation to remember a time before the family TV, we would be the last generation to remember the first time we saw a VCR.

It would have enormous consequences -- personally and educationally. Television in general and video in particular have mostly deserved bad reps. But before the VCR, an informal film education, especially away from the cities, was impossible. And because my hometown had a wildly intelligent, revered video store called "Video Rodeo," which featured sections broken down by director or country of origin, my twin sister and I worked our way through Hitchcock and Scorsese and, for our 16th birthday, the scant four films of one James Dean.

For obvious and tragic reasons, electronic media are under fire for their undue influence over children. I understand concerns over the depiction of sex and violence, but I feel obliged to say that in my youth, cable TV and video were a good thing, a saving force. Even a moral one. I didn't realize how much until the other day. I was flipping channels and got sucked into "Reds" on Showtime. I had seen the film only once, on HBO when I was maybe 13, around the time of my friend Laura Seitz's birthday. It all came rushing back. I had forgotten, maybe never known, how much influence this movie had over me. And not the political plot, when Warren Beatty's John Reed quits journalism to join the Russian Revolution. I was enormously swayed by the small stuff, how Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant made her way in the world.

There is a series of vignettes in which Louise, a libertine in her native Oregon but John Reed's blushing shadow in New York, is asked her opinion but doesn't have one, and says she's a writer but doesn't really write. Her constant embarrassment and frustration galvanized me. At 13, I resolved to never be like that, to always have an opinion, to stick up for myself when a bully like Emma Goldman isn't taking me seriously. I didn't want to go through that, and I didn't want to be in some man's shadow, even a man as appealing as Warren Beatty. That was Feminism 101.

But the deeper lesson I learned from "Reds" was more traditional, and more profound. I have never forgotten Keaton's scenes with Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill. Louise and Gene, as he's called, have an affair while John Reed gallivants around promoting his political career. Louise is a nincompoop spouting a bunch of secondhand free love nonsense, and in one devastating glare, Gene looks her straight in the eye and delivers a manifesto: "If you were mine I wouldn't share you with anybody." That isn't movie romance. That is real and wise and true -- that love is not about freedom, it's about desire, which means it's jealous, a force. This is an incredibly handy thing to know when you're 13 and on the verge of woo, though it does make teenage boys seem a little less impressive. Of course, Gene doesn't get the girl, another useful if unsettling fact. But in my own future romances, I always had that line in the back of my head, and it's always been a spark of strength -- not to cave in to the pressure to be casual, not to settle for low-key.

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When Bill Murray said that films have a life, he implied that films could keep insinuating themselves into our own lives. Watching "Reds" again on Showtime, nearly two decades later, I wondered if I've lived up to the expectations of the teenager who saw it the first time, if I've disappointed her or not. I won't answer that publicly. But I did just rent "Caddyshack" again, and Laura Seitz, wherever you are, rest assured that the candy bar in the swimming pool still cracked me up.


Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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