Sunday, September 8, 2013

Response: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure via the Introduction to Theory and Criticism

Looking at the 4 pillars of film history (Film History: Theory and Practice) it is tempting to extol the aesthetics and technology of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) for a light hearted approach to the text, but I'm probably going to stick with "film as society" or social film history, especially regarding gender representation, to which I am sensitive.  This film seemed to deconstruct male stereotypes with gusto, but was markedly timid in its willingness to deconstruct female stereotypes.  The women in this film were all typical stereotypical objects obliging neatly to the angel or sexual object dichotomy.

But let's allow for the expectation that an 1980's-1990's era audience may have been resistant to realistic representations of women and that any attempt to do such could have put a damper on the heightened raucous tone of humor used to facilitate the deconstruction of male stereotypes.  They tackled the one and not the other, and if only one pony could be roped, they chose the one and did it thoroughly.

In the entirety of the film, there are only two male characters that do not seem conflated with hyperbole.  The one is George Carlin's Rufus character, who serves as a passive narrator.  He is absent for almost all of the kinetic action of the film, and his presence serves as an omniscient bookend to the beginning and end of the "adventure" within the narrative.   He seems the character most likely to be identified with by the audience, due in large part to the blank slate created by his absence during the majority of the film.

Bernie Casey's Mr. Ryan, the history teacher, was the only other male character in the film that was identifiable as a representation of human reality rather than stereotype.  His performance seemed distinctly Sidney Poitier-esque and I wondered whether the choice to keep his character relatable was related to race.  It is possible that in the deconstruction of male stereotypes it seemed prudent to circumvent the deconstruction of racial stereotypes, while still giving a nod in that direction.  I find this interesting in contrast to the Ben Stein character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Clearly a stereotypical, or comedic character would have worked here, but not perhaps with the added weight of racial context.  So they chose race over humor in the balance of the roll, and I find it an interesting foil for the remainder of the male characters. (Interestingly, the futuristic group leader, the only other black character, was also placid.)

Both father figures in this story are deeply dysfunctional, and both seem to fit obvious male and father figure stereotypes.  Bill's Father is entirely oblivious, emotionally unavailable, and preoccupied with sex.  Ted's Father is the picture of uptight, militant, unforgiving and unrelatable.  Both are clearly shown to be a detriment to the well being of their sons, and their parenting is proved utterly ineffective.  Compare this with other roles where these stereotypes are viewed more favorably; many protagonists in westerns and most male anti-heroes created since the 1960's share some of these traits.

Each of the historical male figures visited or collected by Bill and Ted play against their expectation or type in at least minor ways.  Napoleon is the first and most blatant of these, proving to be a ninny, an ineffective bully, and generally childish in the worst senses of the word.  While this view of him as a historical person is possibly consistent with a number of narratives emerging from his life, it stands in humorous contrast to the picture of an effective military leader, strategist, and willing soldier that Napoleon branded himself with as he attempted to design his own place in history.

Billy The Kid, probably playing the least against type of any male character, proved helpful, cooperative, and a providential schemer.  This is in slight contrast to the generally accepted description of William McCarty as being unlucky in his associations, and cantankerous and quick to make enemies.

The general interpretation of Socrates is that he was a great thinker and a teacher of impressive profundity.  But when he encounters Bill and Ted, Socrates is made to look consistently silly, first impressed by Kansas lyrics (even if they were, in turn, inspired by Emerson), and then buffooning in his toga in San Dimas.

Ghengis Khan is the easiest target for male stereotype deconstruction.  His wanton childishness exceeds even Napoleon's and his self-serving gluttony is capitalized as he is led into the time-traveling phone booth by a base-level Twinkie bribe.  His toddler-level tantrum in the sporting goods store in San Dimas also helps to show him as an infantile excuse for a man, relying on fear mongering and brute force to satisfy his most base desires.  This seems to be based on Ghengis Khan's reputation for slaughtering civilians in times of war, but ignores that part of his legacy that included unifying language in his kingdoms, promoting written literacy, and establishing religious tolerance.  Still, the stereotype of the male warrior is made to look utterly infantile with this representation.

Freud is largely left alone, allowing for jokes primarily.  Freudian jokes are hard to resist, and they worked well in this context.  His interaction with the two young women in the mall made his freudian analysis of their behavior appear utterly uninformed and oblivious.

Beethoven is primarily played against type musically, as his character is largely non-verbal.  But his proclivity for rock music plays humorously against his place as a revered figure in the pantheon of classical music, his stone bust adorning the top of many a militant piano teacher's sound board.

Abraham Lincoln is almost an afterthought here, but his whole hearted embracing of Bill's not-actually-so-profound mantra of "party on, dudes," serves to make his character far less solemn than is generally expected.  And fighting over whether his signature silk stove-top hat is actually his shows a sliver of pettiness in a generally idolized figure.

There is a suspicious lack of any real villain among the cast of characters in the entire film.  This serves an interesting function narratively as the male figures contrast with each other.  It sort of levels the playing field and allows all characters to be considered, ridiculed, and dissected equally.

Bill and Ted themselves are pretty clearly not representations of any real or likely persons, but rather appear to be a construction of the polar opposite of stereotypical "manly" traits.  They are not smart, not eloquent, not tough, not "too cool" to show emotion or fear, not quick or quick witted, not hard working or dedicated, not cruel or terse, not judgemental.  They are entirely inactive characters.  Throughout the film they seem more prone to be acted upon than to act.  Their primary virtues are their passivity and lack of malevolence, which is pretty thoroughly summed up in their axiomatic, "Be excellent to each other."  Despite their vapidity, Bill and Ted are likeable because of what they are not.  And what they are not is any measure of a typical male stereotype.   This thorough deconstruction of what it means to be a male protagonist very nearly makes up for the fact they they are given female objects as a prize, almost in the same breath as being given a guitar, a possession, an object, as a reward for completing their adventure and passing their history class.   Baby steps, Bill and Ted.

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