Joe revisits a childhood classic as two of his unlikely heroes, Bill S. Preson Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan bumble through history, being super problematic in a way that just plain doesn’t bother Joe, for reasons that will be explained. Enjoy! Or don’t.
<Looks confused> Just be nice.
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, hats, cats, and other folk, I’m Joe, and for reasons that will become clear, tonight’s movie literally had more impact on my life than nine years of Catholic school. Seriously.
Today’s episode of Sofa Justice Warriors is entitled: “Earning the Benefit of the Doubt: Be excellent.”
I’m not only a guy who went and got himself a film degree, I’m also a third-generation projectionist.
My grandfather ran movies. My father ran movies. I ran movies. Then, as these things happen, I was automated out of a job. Film went digital. And digital doesn’t require a trained technician in the projection booth. So now I shout my opinions to about 67 people in the hopes of feeling like I’m at least sharpening the tools I was given.
In 1987, as I had before, and would do so again, I sat in a projection booth as my father installed the equipment that would allow so many to enjoy a fine moviegoing experience.
The theater was the Metro Cinema in the University District of Seattle. I even remember the brand of projector. Simplexes. Years later, he would teach me how to thread them as I wandered that hallowed space during my summer vacations. Still years later, I would be paid to do the same.
It all felt very Great American Novel.
And in 1989, and for many years after, I regularly wandered the halls of that ten-plex, watching whatever happened to be playing. I saw countless films in my youth that people my age would never have been exposed to.
So it was surprising, given how much art-house exposure I had, to have one screwball Hollywood buddy comedy encapsulate what movies should be, to me, in a way that really grabbed me. Really made an impression. And its message stuck with me through thick and thin, for the rest of my life.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a movie I should hate. It’s the story of two ignorant white guys bumbling through history, literally stealing things they think might help them without thought or feeling as to the consequences. There’s a lot to unpack there.
But Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure is a film I love, to this day, that hasn’t, as Revenge of the Nerds did, aged poorly to the point of failing a re-evaluation.
Bill S. Presoton Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan are two teenagers in a band.
They’re dangerously close to flunking History.
A man from the future arrives tells them that their music will become the basis of all civilization. It will bring about world peace. But to become that band, it is imperative that they pass their History class.
Already, this is genius.
You can do stupid comedy stupid and succeed, and you can do smart comedy smart and succeed, but it takes real genius to do stupid comedy smart.
Bill and Ted bumble their way through history, meeting and collecting historical figures they should’ve learned about in a textbook, but where’s the fun in that when we can use a time-traveling phone booth to conscript historical figures to help you give probably the most famous fictitious oral report in all of cinema.
The beats of Bill and Ted, unlike many films on which I’ve done essays, Fury Road aside, are easy to summarise.
Bill and Ted have a problem. Bill and Ted meet Rufus. Rufus gives them a time machine. They use said time machine to visit Napoleonic France to pick up, well, you know, the Old West for Billy the Kid, Ancient Athens for Socrates… They travel to Medieval England, where they meet Joana and Elizabeth. “The Babes.” Yeah, I know. I’ll get to it.
And then, for expediency’s sake, we montage through the abduction or conscription of our other personages of historical significance before getting briefly stranded for some drama, and then returning home for some Fun and Games at a local mall.
If I hadn’t seen this movie, I’d think this premise sounded as stupid as a football bat, but it really manages not to be.
The gang give San Dimas High School a history lesson it won’t soon forget, and our heroes pass history, living on to become the band that would save the world through their message of love and peace.
So what else is there to talk about? Why would I dive into this? Well, for one, a stated mission statement of this show is breaking apart things we love and going into what they could’ve done better. Let’s start negative and end positive. First, the problematic:
It is nearly impossible to watch a movie from the 80s and walk away feeling like it had a good heart. I mean, yes, they’re out there, but we all seemed to be operating in a world where certain, Ahem, “TRUTHS” were accepted which we now rightfully reject.
And it is with this in mind that I aim my criticism of those pining for a simpler time when “jokes” could just exist without criticism.
That time didn’t exist. There existed, only, a time where you, person pining for this simpler time, never had to hear about how these jokes hurt people who weren’t the hegemonic You. Welcome to the era where we downtrodden get to yell back. Sorry not sorry that makes you feel the mild discomfort of knowing what an asshole you can be. And actually sorry that this same era brings with it a time when racism gets the same weight in a conversation as antiracism.
Truly did not see that one coming.
I’m queer, if you’ve made it six episodes and haven’t figured that out yet. So having one of my favorite movies do this?
It didn’t feel great.
And how did Little Joe react to this kind of thing? Little Joe called people fags. Little Joe attacked queerness in all its forms and understood, with great certainty, that it was something he ought not be.
That it was something to be derided and protected against. Imagine growing up black, but having the ability to pretend to be white to avoid all the unpleasantness that comes from being an oppressed people.
You bet your ass my younger, more ignorant self opted in to that shit.
So a film whose ultimate message resonates deeply and personally with me, to this day, attacked me as a person. It said my personhood was invalid.
Next, I’m gonna’ talk a little about a concept called deification.
This is something we do to our historical figures. We boil them down, not just in media portrayals like this, but in our history books, into figures palatable to modern sensibilities who had no flaws, and who were uniformly good, or uniformly bad.
The Old West was not, on film, or in many of our historical texts, a time where we brutalized and genocided, yes I’m using that as a verb, fuck off, entire peoples. It was a romantic time where high adventure was the order of the day, and tough men made their way towards manifest destiny.
It doesn’t get to exist, in our minds, as it should, as a time of great societal achievement at the cost of a piece of our collective soul as we did great and terrible things simultaneously.
It has to be One Thing. Good or bad.
The Old West was not entirely romantic. Genghis Khan was not a lovable oaf. Billy the Kid was not a goofy sidekick. Abraham Lincoln literally advocated slavery and was not, as we have been taught, a man who was staunchly against it to the point of unilaterally ending it. There’s a lot more to history than that.
But we seem incapable as a people to speak of things except in the binary. So it is with history, and so it is with movies.
It seems ridiculous that I have to say this out loud, because much of the humor of this movie, and other, similar brandings of history, are predicated on a shared knowledge many of us thought we had.
These things are only funny in a context where America understands them not to be so.
And unfortunately, the Nazis are back.
Not people with whom I disagree I’m choosing to call Nazis. Self-identified Nazis. Who think the jews and the blacks, their term not mine, and the gays, again, their term, not mine, should be exterminated. And that White Genocide is a thing. A thing they have to protect against.
So understanding history isn’t exactly our strong suit as a country right now, which brings me to the question so often asked of me:
What do we do about problematic elements in the art we love?
And my answer is, I made a whole show about it, and nobody’s watching it yet.
But to answer the question of how we ingest art of this type in a world where we literally cannot remember who the bad guys were in history, we have to examine this entirely-common hypothetical worst-case scenario.
In this hypothetical, you’re a mature, educated adult. You may be self-educated, or educated by a higher institution. It really doesn’t matter for this metaphor. You understand historical context. Your niece or nephew is visiting. You show them this movie. They go home laughing about how french people are pushy jerks, or thinking Lincoln was a cut-and-dry hero, or thinking Ghengis Khan was a lovable doofus who dug twinkies.
What do you do?
And let’s cage this in multiple choice:
Do you A.) Do what everybody thinks I do, and humorlessly rob that niece or nephew of their laughs by turning the movie off, telling them the portrayals were wrong and bad, and that they shouldn’t enjoy the thing they’re enjoying?
B.) Do what a sizable chunk of America is currently doing and insist that no problematic portrayal of other people or cultures or historical figures is up for criticism and tell that kid about all the nasty politically-correct people who will try to rob them of their history by giving them more entirely accurate facts about said history?
C.) Censor all art you deem problematic.
Or D.) Do you use the movie as a jumping off point to explain the nuances of comedy and have an in-depth (and probably very interesting and enlightening) conversation about history and satire and how we use comedy to deconstruct complex concepts, while maybe giving said niece or nephew the space to ask a lot of questions.
I’m not being subtle here, in which I think is the right answer.
And as a country, we need to choose D.
In my idyllic world, we don’t ever censor art. But we do talk about it, and learn from it. Both in mistakes and successes. And we don’t silence people exercising their free speech about art while claiming that said free speech is in violation of our own.
It’s okay that Bill and Ted gets some things wrong. In a world where we understand context and history, we can all clumsily march toward this film’s ultimate goal, and thus: the positive.
Bill and Ted are friends. They don’t tear each other down. They support one-another. They love one-another. They’re good friends. Not just to each other, but in their own naive way, to the world. Where one set of ostensibly lovable dipshits gave me this: <Beavis and Butthead clip.> Bill and Ted gave me this:
And that’s what it’s really about.
This movie, unlike a Revenge of the Nerds, gets to have its shittier elements ignored. Because its heart was, ultimately, in the right place.
Bill and Ted become something of a religion, in their future. And their message is simple. And it’s strong. And in the future of the movie, it lands. And it lands hard. This isn’t a movie about how somebody telling everybody to be nice got nailed to a tree for all his troubles. It’s a movie where this. Actually, in the future, becomes this:
The Bible is a hell of a thing. It encourages, above all, people to love one-another and treat them well. To take care of the poor and the sick. The downtrodden. Yet too often, I’ve seen that book used to deride the poor and the sick and the downtrodden by the same people who point to the quran and claim it does the same, so those other religious folk have it all wrong. It’s exhausting, to say the least, from those of us watching from the sidelines.
Am I comparing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to hegemonic cultural religious texts? Yes. Yes, I am. Because this message:
Is always relevant. And if you can keep that in your heart without asking yourself “yeah, but who doesn’t deserves that excellence” as you start a list of people you should hate, and you can reject that attitude in favor of being kind, I don’t care if you got it from a holy book, a hallmark card, or an 80s screwball time-travel comedy.
Be excellent to eachother.
For Sofa Justice Warriors, I’m Joe. Thank you, everybody. Goodnight.