School started this week at Milwaukee School of Engineering, and I'm teaching a rockin' humanities class in which we study art, music, literature, and film, and I have lots of freedom with the readings, films, and themes we cover. And you know what? No matter which track I choose, the only film I'd need to cover the relevant topics is UHF*. It has it all: Great music, deep and tough themes, like freedom, love, morality, death and life-affirmation. And it's brilliant and really frakin' funny.
George Newman: Beautiful Dreamer
The summer of '89 should be known today as "The Summer of UHF," but due to awful timing, (and what was up with that PG-13 rating?) the film was crushed at the box office. Like Al Gore's 2000 campaign, we know in retrospect that both Als were clearly the winners, but outside circumstances prevented them from earning their due titles. Many big movies came out the summer of '89, such as BATMAN and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, which was a bummer for Al and Orion, not to mention loyal fans like me who had to wait until 2002 to get UHF on DVD. But OMG, was it worth the wait!
In UHF, Yankovic plays George Newman, a kind-hearted dreamer who has a hard time functioning in normal society (i.e., he can't hold down a job). When George's uncle wins in a poker game a little UHF
station, the potential that George always had finally finds its voice, and hilarity ensues. But uh-oh, the manager of the network affiliate in town is upset by the channel's success, and plots to acquire the station and bulldoze it to the ground! Wait till you see what they do!
He shaved and got lasik. He was always cute; now it's obvious.
Victoria Jackson is so adorable as Teri, George's long-suffering girlfriend whose patience comes to an end, that I can almost forgive her for becoming a right-wing weirdo. Plus, the film gave exposure to Michael Richards and Fran Drescher before they were household names. Richards is so hilarious that I can almost forgive him for becoming a drunken bigot.
UHF is a glorious mix of pastiche, allusions, and homage. Many "scary" and "date" movies have bastardized Al's approach by employing sickening mixes of slime, lemon rinds, chicken bones, and coffee grounds. But try as they might, no one can mimic the poetry of UHF. It's not just the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK opening sequence, or the Spatula City commercial, or George's Beverly Hillbillies-inspired dream that make the movie so enchanting. It's not even the epic battle with a telethon, resulting in good triumphing over evil, but that doesn't hurt, either. Al's smart wit and his heart shine in UHF. He's got balls, that Weird Al Yankovic. His
fans know he's brilliant, and we're all atwitter with the art he produces. Just see him in concert and you'll see that. His fans get him; he doesn't feel compelled to convince the general public that he's more than a parodist. But I have no qualms doing it for him.
He guested on The Simpsons not once, but twice!
Al has a degree in architecture. He knew before he graduated that he wanted to try to make music a career, but he finished his degree anyway. While he is known as a parody artist, much of his music is original. He is a brilliant satirist, in the same tradition as such talents as Jonathan Swift and the writers of The Simpsons. His career has outlasted the careers of most of the musicians he's parodied because of his keen ability to read and mock our culture. In his writing, he subverts our thinking of such everyday parts of life like food, just by eating a hotdog in a Twinkie-bun in UHF. He asks us to examine our consumer culture and Hollywood obsessions. With his self-deprecating humor in songs like "I Can't Watch This" and "Couch Potato," he's delicately chastising us for wasting our time watching television, acknowledging that he does it, too. But at least he has a reason: he's brainstorming for future albums. What's our excuse?
UHF is a delightful romp, perfect for a
rainy fall day like today. So, in the next two weeks while I concentrate on my new humanities class, watch UHF. And then, after you've watched it, watch it again with the commentary. Al makes the movie even funnier as he shares his memories of filming and even calls up Victoria Jackson, who can't talk long because she's making scalloped potatoes.
What's the Dewey Decimal System, you ask? It's like UHF, but different.
On September 28, I'll share with you some highlights from my conversations with actor Mark Metcalf. We talk about his new movies, and I ask the tough questions, including "Are you recognized more often as 'The Maestro' or 'Neidermeyer'?"
See you then!
*My younger readers might be wondering what UHF means. Allow me: after school in the 1980s, if nothing good was on NBC or CBS, we would keep turning the dial on the TV set into the big numbers where the UHF channels were. We hoped to find maybe some Little House or perhaps The Brady Bunch, but usually we struck out, finding only snow or worse, the 700 Club. Some kids may have played Pong at that point, but I usually read, went for a bike ride, or made cinnamon toast until something good, like Good Times, was on a regular channel.
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