David Edelstein

David Edelstein

A weeklong electronic journal.
May 15 1997 3:30 AM

David Edelstein

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       My wife and I go to Austin Powers primed to laugh, but after a lively opening the picture tanks. It's rife with overextended gags, but the strange thing is that the gag is not the gag, the gag is the overextension of the gag. The terrible, flaccid timing is what's supposed to be funny. What does it say when a gifted performer like Mike Myers sets out to make a "bad" movie, the kind of cheese-ball, '60s Bond imitation that untalented people made by accident? Bad movies, even Ed Wood's consummately bad movies, give me claustrophobia--they shrink your sense of what's possible. Art is supposed to expand that sense, to teach you to make imaginative leaps under even the most hopeless conditions. These movies--the ones that spring from the minds of people who watch too much television, that hold to the Mystery Science Theater3000 aesthetic, in which viewers cultivate a sense of superiority--they make me despair of seeing anything on-screen that hasn't been done a zillion times.
       As if to reinforce this, we see, as we leave the theater, Fifth Avenue eerily lit up around the Flatiron Building, with a kind of luminescent geodesic dome on the north side of 23rd Street. Godzilla is being filmed--another American original! The avenues are closed, so we stand and gawk and scan the skyline for the giant, fire-breathing lizard. Then my wife says, "Godzilla's probably on a computer in Los Angeles." I remember going as a kid to the old downtown Strand in Hartford to see King Kong vs. Godzilla, the one where King Kong wins in the American release and Godzilla wins in the Japanese release. How weird that nationalistic pride extends to the monsters who destroy our cities. "Gojira," of course, was originally a thinly veiled metaphor for the A-bomb, but after many cheap sequels (which came to look more and more like pro-wrestling matches), he evolved into Japan's protector. They really did learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.
       Rachel goes to bed but I have a Tab and stay up to roll out a giant layer of fondant for her best friend's wedding cake. Tab, by the way, is a big joke in Austin Powers--Austin being from the '60s, he still thinks it's groovy--but I think it's the only diet cola with the courage of its convictions. Diet Coke is syrupy-sweet; it tries to disguise what it is. The flavor of Tab is sterner, with inky depths; it carries with it the tragic awareness that to keep from being overweight, we must sometimes imbibe carcinogenic chemicals. We Tab drinkers are a breed apart, nodding to each other in the street the way homosexuals did in the '50s. Our eyes are trained to spot the steely pink can. At a deli the other day, buying a Tab, I stood next to a woman with a can of her own. We smiled at each other in silent understanding. Then someone else said, "Tab. Do they still make that stuff?" I said, "If I had a can of Tab for every person who asked me if they still make that stuff ..."
       "You'd be in heaven," said the woman.