Sharp suit, gray hair, crooked smile: one of the first character-types I became aware was this lying authority figure. I didn’t know it when I was a child, but each of these minor villains are stand-ins for Richard Nixon. See here:
Mayor Larry Vaughn from JAWS(1975)
The Mayor makes his position clear: I’m not closing the beaches. We never learn Vaughn’s political affiliations, but he’s a classic portrait of an empty suit (scripted by counter-culture comedian Carl Gottlieb), spouting platitudes like “Amity, as you know, means friendship.” His greed and denial are a deadly combination. He’s an archetypical Nixon figure, knowingly lying to the public about a real danger.
Mr. Lewis Teague from POLTERGEIST (1982)
There’s a lot of scary stuff in POLTERGEIST: creepy clowns, carnivorous trees, a flying Hulk action figure. But none of these would be possible without Teague. He’s the one who built the the Cuesta Verde houses on top of a cemetery — and he only moved the headstones (not the bodies.) Teague is to the ghosts what Mayor Vaughn is to the shark; the enabler of evil. Again, I didn’t realize it at the time, but he embodies the public’s distrust of leaders after Watergate and Vietnam.
Dr. James Kelloway in CAPRICORN ONE (1978)
Years of playing Mark Twain prepared Hal Holbrook for one of my favorite film monologues: his deliberately slowly paced speech perfectly sets up the story of CAPRICORN ONE. Holbrook actually allows us to sympathize with the devious NASA scientist. True to the post-Vietnam era: He’s not a bad man, but he does questionable things.
D.A. Thomas Pain in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)
Revisiting this cult favorite I figured the District Attorney fit the bill: He’s threatens the freedom of the press and works with the police force to withhold information and cover up the murders of a Las Vegas vampire. And he’s a silver-haired suit. The first Kolchak movie aired 5 months before the Watergate break-in, but he still counts!
Dean Vernon Wormer in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
In his 2006 memoir The Real Animal House author Chris Miller identifies the real-life inspirations for his stories of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. At the end of the book he defends Dartmoth College Dean Seymore, noting that the real-life Dean was not the source material for Wormer: “Nixon was Dean Wormer. Dean Seymore was always a great guy. And his wife is not Marion Wormer!” Thanks for clearing that up, Chris. [This seems like as good a place as any to mention that John Landis’ first choice for the evil college dean was DRAGNET’s Jack Webb. Mr. Webb turned it down because he thought the script poked fun at authority. Yeesh!]
Occasionally someone I’ve never met asks me to contribute writing work as a “pop culture expert.” That’s because I wrote a (mostly) satirical essay about being a “pop culture expert” and my name comes up when you google the damn phrase. (Read it here)
One of the most recent requests came from a flask website looking for short entries about flasks in pop culture. Here’s what I wrote.
FLASK CAMEO: NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE
National Lampoon’s Animal House features all kinds of drinking, but one of the more pointed portrayals comes from Verna Bloom’s Mrs. Wormer.
As the wife of the evil college Dean, Marian Wormer is part of “the establishment”, but she doesn’t pass up an invitation to a frat house toga party. Mrs. Wormer arrives late (having just come from the “God-damn senior honors dinner”) and crashes her Buick station wagon in front of the Delta House. Before entering the party, she takes a long pull from the silver flask stashed in her purse.
In a booze-heavy movie, Mrs. Wormer is the only character to use a flask. The snobs from the Omega House drink (imported?) beer from ceramic German mugs, while the Delta slobs guzzle Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. But Mrs. Wormer’s thirst is something that’s kept concealed. The flask reflects a bored housewife’s double-life. Unlike the joyless villains in the movies, Mrs. Wormer has a vice (and not just screwing a college kid who’s almost old enough to be her son) – her drinking humanizes her and makes the Dean’s wife much more relatable.
The Animal Housenovelization includes Mrs. Wormer in the extended “Where Are They Now?” post-script, noting that she went on to five unsuccessful stints in A.A. Wherever she is now, her flask is probably with her.
* * *
The editor was so happy with my writing, he sent me a free flask. I don’t drink, so I’m including it as a trivia prize at Saturday’s ZOMBIE show. Go here for details and tickets.
(That is, are you a screenwriter working on a zombie movie?)
Then here are some basic questions for you:
1. RUNNING OR STAGGERING? Do your zombies run? Or do they stagger? Choose a side, mofo.
2. CGI OR PRACTICAL? Your answer might be over-ruled by the director. If that’s the case it means someone is making your movie, a good problem to have.
3. WHAT CAUSED THE DEAD TO RISE? (AND DOES THAT EVEN MATTER?) Virus? Voodoo? Diseased lunar probe returning to Earth? My wife and I were discussing John Steinbeck’s novels and wondered whether the people he wrote about actually read and respected his work. And then we wondered: does that even matter? The same might be true of your zombie origin backstory.
4. HOW DO YOU KILL THESE ZOMBIES? Shot to the head? Fire? Decapitation? Or maybe they can’t be killed traditionally (as is often the case with those damn Nazi zombies.)
5. DO THE ZOMBIES’ VICTIMS BECOME ZOMBIES? Remember: You are under no obligation to make the zombies’ victims turn into the living dead.
Edwin Porter’s 1903 western THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is best known for a gimmicky closing shot: a bandit aims his pistol at the camera and fires. This trope gets used in dozens of movies, here Martin Scorcese explains why he used the outlaw shot as the coda in GOODFELLAS.
The outlaw shot is also seen in television — especially in shows by Vince Gilligan. Here are all the times someone points a gun at the camera in BREAKING BAD and BETTER CALL SAUL.
Walter White prepares for a showdown with the police. (Breaking Bad: Pilot. Season 1, episode 1)
Jesse shows Jane his drawing of Kanga-Man (half-man, half-kangaroo.) (Breaking Bad: Grilled. Season 2, episode 10)
“You don’t have to do this,” Gale tells Jesse. (Breaking Bad: Full Measure. Season 3, episode 13)
Walt buys a handgun and practices his draw. (Breaking Bad: Thirty-Eight Snub. Season 4, episode 2)
Jesse visits Walt to ask about a cigarette. (Breaking Bad: End Times. Season 4, episode 12)
Walt’s gun practice pays off in the lab. (Breaking Bad: Face Off. Season 4, episode 13)
Walt and Walter Jr. watch SCARFACE on TV. (Breaking Bad: Hazard Pay. Season 5, episode 3)
Bob Odenkirk says that Aaron Paul once needed 5 minutes to “work his mind into a state of fear and anxiety for a scene.” Could this be that scene? (Breaking Bad: Confessions. Season 5, episode 11)
ASAC Schrader will not stand down. (Breaking Bad: To’hajilee. Season 5, episode 13)
“Opie-eye motherfucker” Todd shoots to kill. (Breaking Bad: Ozymandias. Season 5, episode 14)
Tuco Salamanca aims at Jimmy McGill while Abuelita talks about seltzer. (Better Call Saul: Mijo, Season 1, episode 2)
Mike Ehrmantraut pulls the trigger. (Better Call Saul: Five-O. Season 1, episode 6)
Noah Tarnow (The Big Quiz Thing), Kevin Maher (Kevin Geeks Out) and Matt Wasowski (Nerd Nite) introduce the show and get the audience to say the Brain Jam Pledge.
M. Sweeney Lawless’ Star Trek supercut: PAPERWORK IN SPACE.
The first buzzertastic round of THE BIG QUIZ THING.
Nick and Joe from The Found Footage Festival share a variety of videos about KNOWLEDGE.
Special appearance by Bob Odernkirk in a Found Footage Festival segment.
Book table from Brooklyn’s only Sci-Fi/Fantasy bookstore, SINGULARITY & CO.
Cici James (from SINGULARITY & CO.) sporting her Buckaroo Banzai shirt for the dry T-shirt contest.
Calvin & Hobbes Star Wars tee wins the Dry T-shirt contest.
My Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure shirt did not win the dry t-shirt contest. Not dry enough.
Lunch at the DUB PIES truck.
Comic Saad Sarwani explains the rules of the (first-ever) Sci-Fi Spelling Bee.
Spelling Bee Contestant Matt Carman.
Cici James provides alternate pronunciations during the Sci-Fi Spelling Bee.
Jonathan Hertzberg shared a “best of” collection of his video series DIRTY OLD NEW YORK (aka FUN CITY), you can see the videos here.
Finalists in the Sci-Fi Spelling Bee.
The final two.
Can you answer this BIG QUIZ THING question? (hint: it’s not pizzareffic!)
Usman Hameedi reads poems about science and wrestling. In your face, Leaping Lanny Poffo!
Kevin Maher geeks out about cartoon visions of the future (not pictured.)
Noah tallies scores during the team round of the Big Quiz Thing.
Susie Felber tells an unbelievable-but-true story about summer camp.
Mural painting of the Gowanus Canal monster. (on the Union Street Bridge)