Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This is Spinal Tap

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

A few months ago I was giving a presentation, to an audience made up mainly of people I knew. I said I would talk for about ten minutes, and then something struck me and I said very deliberately, “Actually for about eleven minutes. This – one –goes – to – eleven – minutes.” And thereby, for a handful of listeners at least, I was king for a day, because I had achieved the much-discussed but seldom-achieved gold standard, to incorporate a verbatim reference to This Is Spinal Tap into an official proceeding.

This One Goes To Eleven

Actually my memory of the film was vague at best, and on viewing it again recently I see that I was slightly misinformed, for the line is actually “These go to eleven.” No matter, I was close enough. And certainly the scene in question, in which a dopey rock guitarist rhapsodizes about amplifiers on which the dial reaches one higher than the normal ten, deserves some commemoration once in a while. Although maybe I would have been even better advised to reference the scene in which the rockers’ intended epic staging of their number “Stonehenge” is undermined by a monument that’s only 18 inches high, considerably shorter than the dwarves that are meant to jig around in its shadow. Or else any number of deadpan non-sequiturs.

Some readers will already be lost, so I should rewind. This Is Spinal Tap, made in 1982, is a fake documentary about a British heavy metal band on a tour of America. Once modestly successful, they’ve now fallen on harder times – concerts are being canceled due to poor sales, other venues are patently unsuitable (one of several nadirs being the gig where they take second billing to a puppet show). Meanwhile their new album Smell The Glove is caught up in fights about the provocative cover art. Despite all this, the band retains an almost serene faith in their own artistry and the glory of the rock life. This is helped of course by the fact that they’re all pretty dumb.

Rob Reiner

The three main members of the group are David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, played respectively by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. Those three actors wrote the script for the film, along with Rob Reiner, who also appears as the director of the film within the film. This was Reiner’s directing debut, and it’s interesting to consider how much of the film’s success is his – after all, Guest has honed this style over several subsequent movies (up to last year’s For Your Consideration) without catching quite such a wave again. Spinal Tap was honed down (like all of Guest’s subsequent movies) from many hours of footage, and my guess is that Reiner’s more traditional comic instincts steered this culling process in a somewhat more conventional direction than the increasingly esoteric Guest has generally followed.

Analyzing career trajectories is a hopeless endeavour, but it’s interesting to see a symbiosis here, for Reiner’s next few movies, although never exactly challenging, put him on top of the mainstream pile for a while: The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men. I doubt I’ll ever have any desire to watch any of those films again, but you have to admit that’s a mighty safe pair of hands, and someone other than just a button-pusher. I think being immersed in Spinal Tap for a year or two may have juiced Reiner up pretty well. But it wore off, or maybe all the talk about his political prospects got to him, for his most recent three films were Rumor Has It…, Alex & Emma, and The Story Of Us. I haven’t seen two of those, and neither have you I imagine, or at least if you have, you probably don’t remember. But it’s the kind of inoffensive, incremental, irrelevant slate of work a US senator would produce!

Evoking The Life

I enjoyed watching This Is Spinal Tap again, but I do have difficulty understanding quite why it occupies such cult status. According to Wikipedia it’s number 64 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies” and was selected for preservation in the US Library of Congress. In common with many test-of-time films, it didn’t do particularly well when it first appeared – suffering from, says Wikipedia, “the failure of many viewers to understand that it was not a real documentary.” Well, who knows – makes for a good story anyway. But I think the key here is the choice of milieu. Guest subsequently got some good laughs out of amateur theatrics and dog shows (and somewhat less from parodying Hollywood itself) but even people who actually do amateur theatrics and dog shows know you can only take it so seriously (unless they really need their balloon pricked) so I don’t know how resonant that can ever really be. Whereas heavy metal, whatever you and I might think of it, is an indelible institution. It is, to more than enough people to create a cult, perhaps the prototypical cool existence.

The appeal of Spinal Tap I think is as much in evoking the life as in parodying it. The band may be going through a rougher patch, but you think they’re still not following a better deal than ninety five per cent of the audience? They have the thing we might all wish for and which consciousness denies us, obliviousness. And daily validation. Last Christmas I was at my brother’s house, where the main attraction was the “Guitar Hero” Playstation game – you assume the stance, strut along on the guitar in sync with cues on the screen and if you don’t screw up too much the virtual crowd goes wild. My brother and his friend “practice” Guitar Hero all the time, although I suspect this is less about the game’s technicality than about mastering the stance and flourish (he’s got it down pretty well). Metal may be overdone, sexist, boorish, pretentious, and a multitude of other sins, and its performers may be increasingly aging and rather tawdry, but the genre remains closer to epic religiosity than any other branch of rock – its codes and patented moves now embodying delirious fulfillment. Spinal Tap couldn’t possibly be as enduring if they didn’t capture this so successfully, and then humanize it.

Or maybe it’s Guest’s inane monologue about how, if he weren’t a guitarist, he’d work at a haberdasher’s. Or Paul Shaffer as a lousy publicity agent, begging them to kick his ass. Or the sheer ludicrous perfection of the lyrics. I tell you, on the comedy scale, this one goes to eleven. Sure, the scale I’m using reaches to fifteen. But hey, eleven’s pretty darn good.

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