-- Terry Jacks,
"Seasons in the Sun" (1974)
By Jim Emerson
OK, I'm sorry.
God, that is the worst song, isn't it? And now
its annoying refrain is probably stuck in your head, replaying again and again, as it is
in mine. More than 20 years after it came out (and went to number one on the Billboard
charts -- for three weeks!), the residue of this insufferable tune that once poisoned our
airwaves has infiltrated our consciousness and is still with us.
Why do we still retain the words to this musical atrocity
that we have always despised? Albert Einstein was reportedly concerned about clogging his
brain cells with trivial and unnecessary thoughts. Is "Seasons in the Sun"
taking up some tiny but valuable portion of your precious gray matter? Would your SAT
scores, perhaps, have been higher if crucial memory units hadn't been gummed up with this
recording's syrupy melody and lyrics?
The tragic thing about the many forms that popular culture
takes -- television, pop music, movies, trash novels, magazines, tabloids -- is that, no
matter how diligently we may guard against them, pretending to be above them, they
inevitably make their insidious impressions on us whether we like it or not. And it has
been estimated that 90 percent of this stuff is just pure crapola.
It's not really surprising, then, that a song you loathe can
lodge in your memory like a hairy clog in a drainpipe. Movies
-- even ones you try to forget before you reach the exit -- can stick with you just like
that wad of gum you stepped in on your way out.
I see hundreds of pictures a year. I'm a movie critic. It's
Some things you get used to. After a while, you're no longer
fazed by the cheap manipulation tricks that most hack moviemakers routinely use in
desperate attempts to grab your attention. Knife-wielding psychopaths can run around after
screaming teenagers and you don't flinch. Heads can explode and all you can think about is
how much latex, pasta and Karo syrup went into the effect. Beautiful young lovers can die
tragically of slow, painful wasting diseases and your jaw doesn't even quiver once because
you're too busy thinking about how good they look despite the illness makeup.
Callous? Jaded? Cynical? Desensitized? Alienated? Maybe. It
takes a movie of uncommon integrity and freshness to get through to someone who's seen all
the old shameless stunts a million times. Such a movie busts through the gummy residue of
dull, uninspired pictures that have accumulated on the veteran viewer's memory like the
layers of hardened secretions that form a crustacean's exoskeleton. Or something like
It would be nice to think we are only affected by great
works of art -- that, for example, the good and lasting movies stay with you and the lousy
ones just vanish, leaving you unscathed. But that's just not true. If only a critic's --
or any moviegoer's -- lot were that easy. Sometimes -- When Bad Movies Happen to Good
People -- awful, stupid, shallow, predictable and downright laughable pictures can sneak
up on you, getting through to you in ways you hadn't anticipated.
For example, I pretty much panned Dead Poets Society for being a hypocritical,
pseudo-highbrow fraud, an utterly conventional commercial formula picture that pretends to
celebrate nonconformism. (You can even read my original
review on this site, which is part of a section I call The
Big Lie.) I wasn't alone in resisting the manipulative "charm" of this hit
picture, either. This movie prompted David Denby of New York magazine to observe
that, "Self-importance in a movie can be a greater blight than the cynicism of
ordinary movie trash."
Yeah. I know this. But when Robin Williams' clean-faced
students rose in tribute to him at the end of the film, a tiny blob of salt water dribbled
out of my left eyeball. I couldn't help it. But that didn't mean I thought the movie was
good (or honest, or even genuinely moving).
You see, I did not generate that droplet of my own free
will. I didn't even feel it while it was squirting slowly out of my duct. Even as my
eyeball oozed, I was thinking about what a hollow, dishonest picture this was before me.
The movie did not give me the option, the freedom, of actually feeling anything. It
squeezed that liquid out of me as if it were a juicer and I were some form of citrus.
My tear, you see, was a purely mechanical, autonomic,
preconditioned, reflex response to a familiar set of motion picture stimuli: Images of
teary young faces awash in a swell of triumphant orchestral music. Works every time. If
I'd been one of Pavlov's dogs, I would have just salivated at the sound of the bell. But
when a movie reduces perfectly decent emotions to stupid pet tricks like this, I also find
myself feeling something deeper. Something like anger, resentment.
A saccharine pop song like "Seasons in the Sun,"
as we have demonstrated, can stay with us for decades. (Still humming?) What is the
half-life of this tune? When will it dissipate? Nobody knows for sure.
But although you may suffer dozens of exposures to a bad pop
song that help it seep into your skull, you usually see a bad movie only once -- unless
you are a masochist or on a date with someone who has bad taste. (You should think about that,
too.) Consequently, the superficial emotional effects of a phony film like Dead Poets Society usually evaporate by the time
the end credits are over and you make your way back into the light where people can see
Other, even worse films, however, may make a more lingering
impression, lasting up to several hours. Take the justly almost-forgotten Road House
(1989), a pumped-up, hyper-charged barroom brawl of a major motion picture in which
bouncer-hero Patrick "Dirty Dancing" Swayze punches his way to a knockout
victory over a ruthless gang of ultra-evil adversaries.
The movie is full of fight scenes, choreographed to
rolicking Dolby Stereo rock 'n' roll, that escalate in intensity until Swayze finally just
rips a homicidal villain's throat out with his bare hands. The picture climaxes with an
orgasmic explosion of gunfire, resulting in geyser-like eruptions of blood from the torsos
of the bad guys.
Road House is a violent movie. The fistfights (during
which you'd swear you could hear the over-amplified sound of human tissue ripping and
bruising) are actually more brutal than the gunfights, since each blow of flesh-upon-flesh
sounds like a multi-megaton detonation on the soundtrack. (Foley artists can overact,
too.) The gunfire at the end is just a little louder and, with its generous splashes of
red, a little more colorful.
The characters, however, are nothing but cardboard cutouts,
as if the movie were populated with those life-sized promotional standees you see in
theater lobbies. Emotional involvement with such a picture is not only impossible, it's
beside the point. So, even though audiences laugh derisively at the characters' macho
western-movie posturing, they can't resist being goaded into cheering the propulsive
All the way through, I thought I was immune to the
ridiculous Road House. But I was surprised to discover that it got under my skin
anyway. I couldn't wait to get out of that theater, and on the way home I found myself
suddenly behaving somewhat strangely -- like the way I was impatiently screaming at and
swerving to pass the many incompetent drivers clogging my roadways. An obnoxious DJ
on the radio so infuriated me that I vowed to call him and cuss him out the moment I got
home. I rehearsed my tirade at the top of my lungs in the car, testing it out on the
idiotic motorists around me.
By the time I got home, I was buzzed to distraction. In a
frenzy of unfocused activity, I frantically and repeatedly attempted to call the DJ but
couldn't get through, pulled too hard on a lamp cord and tore it right out of the socket
and accidentally smashed a dish in the sink while trying to wash it. All this within an
hour of seeing the movie.
This time it wasn't my tear ducts that had been manhandled
but my adrenal glands. You might expect to be a little charged up coming out of a truly
exhilarating movie experience like, say, The Road Warrior or Aliens. But a
piece of two-dimensional dreck like Road House? Such a thing is beneath one's
dignity. But it happens.
Again, however, the effects are purely electro-chemical. Friday
the 13th movies, for instance, are so tedious and predictable that they're anything
but scary. And yet, you still might twitch when Jason's face abruptly pops into camera
range and the music goes "WAAAAH!" But there's a big difference between being
startled and being frightened. Jason may as well have tapped you on the knee with a rubber
There are those who argue that exposure to violence in
movies causes viewers go right out and murder innocent people. I don't think the equation
is quite that simple. "Monkey-see, monkey-do" has never seemed to me an
adequately complex model for human psychological behavior. And yet, the more subtle
effects of movies -- even poorly made ones -- on unsuspecting filmgoers are inescapable.
A bad movie can still make you cry. Or root for the hero. Or
want to exterminate the villain. It can also make you irritable. Or wired. Or tired.
What can we do about these rotten pictures invading our
brains and tweaking our autonomic nervous systems? Probably not a lot. Except to be aware
of them and then take a moment to question the depth and validity of our responses.
You may be nearly bored to tears by a movie, only
to be surprised when you feel it actually milking your tear ducts during the obligatory
stimulus-response climax ("The Big Game" or "The Big Race" or
Well, don't be ashamed -- just go ahead and let yourself
leak. It doesn't mean a thing.