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Thursday
Jul022009

« In Which We Are Wise Beyond Our Years »

Those Radio Days

by BEN ARFMANN

Does anyone else get annoyed when the 45-and-older crowd talks about their prepubescent days? I do. Sometimes you get lucky and meet a crazy old guy with stories about the time he set fire to the Elks’ Lodge, but mostly you get generic Our Gang re-runs: "I threw firecrackers at the neighbor’s dog, Fluffy." "I stole biscuits from Mrs. Joseph’s window." "I blah blah blah cutesy story blah blah." Come on. Really? Whenever I hear one of these, I want to grab the middle-aged storyteller by the shoulders and yell: “No! I do not accept these anecdotes! Your childhood does not accept them!”

No one’s childhood was actually Leave It To Beaver. I’m already twenty-five, but somehow I can still remember, un-prompted, that years 5 through 10 of my life were spent variously in extreme states of fear, confusion and stupidity.

A lot of the time, it was intolerable to be around me. I was a jerk-ish, weird little kid with jerk-ish, weird little concerns. I did stupid things, and a lot of them weren’t very nice. Once I filled up a water gun with my own urine and sprayed the neighbor girls while they sunbathed. Another time I called my best friend Jesse a “stupid Jew” until he cried and hid in my closet. I was kind of a shit as a kid, and from what I remember, most other kids were shits too.

That’s what childhood was like: we were all jerks. And pretty damn cruel, too. That’s what made childhood interesting. And funny. But the movies, produced out in la-la-land like they are, don’t seem to get that. Most movies about kids are either neon-colored schlock or god awful i-wanna-die-I’m-so-depressed awards festival groupies. Examples of the first — Hotel for Dogs and The Sandlot — conform to your un-married uncle’s ideas about childhood: "Oh those little ragamuffins, just out for trouble, aren’t they?" They impose logic and rational motivations on top of generic, sugarplum characterizations. On the other end you’ve got all the true-life, scared-straight artfilm pictures — George Washington, Ratcatcher — which are, at best, poignant and “true;” which means they’re nostalgia trips for people "too smart" for nostalgia. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone made a picture about kids that was honest? A film that enjoyed watching kids not in a creepy way, or in a stupid, corporate way, but in a simple "little kids are strange and bizarre and fucking awesome" way?

Make a list of the directors you might hire for that job. Maybe Jean Renoir directing a Tom Green script? Alex Cox filming Roald Dahl? Good choices, all. I would submit also (maybe, just maybe): Woody Allen circa 1973. If the guy who directed Bananas and Sleeper were to pull a Tiger Lily on Stand By Me, that might actually be something. Woody used to be Hollywood’s vulgar, vital court jester.

I came at the film hoping for a manic, ruthless comedy about the real stuff — the cruel, terrible, clinically insane stuff - of childhood. A “classic.” That hope was irresponsible. This movie was released in 1987 — well into Woody’s “no really, I’m a WASP” phase. It received a four star review from both Roger Ebert and from my Gram. I love Roger (I love my Gram more) but the man has got a pudding-pop heart and a badly misguided memory. Playground trauma must have struck Roger early and struck him hard; looking like he does today, I can only imagine what sort of Goof Troop reject seven-year-old Ebert was back then. Maybe he blocked out all those painful memories of childhood torment, and now honestly thinks grade school was all about rosy cheeks and prime-time mischief. Well, fine.

Radio Days is not morally offensive, but it is safe and cute and lacking in nutsack. Bananas-era Woody would have cried. Radio Days is a limping collection of childhood anecdotes (set during the Second World War), loosely structured around the idea that "radio, man, that was a real mass medium." These are the venture-nothing-gain-nothing stories that your parents might break out at a co-worker’s anniversary celebration, or while carpooling with a tennis buddy.

Example: Woody’s parents, when introduced in the movie, enter the narrative while bickering fiercely. "I had never met a couple that argued as much as they did,” claims disembodied Woody. What did they argue about? Which ocean is better: the Atlantic or the Pacific. There’s some other stuff in the movie — some limp-wristed jokes about how “radio voices never match the face!” and Mia Farrow doing a dialect bit — but most of it is lamed and embarrassing. This was the movie that Allen shot between two more serious attempts at the plate — Hannah and September — and everything about it screams “bunt.” His voice over, which blankets the film, is flat minded; the sets get more attention than the dialog; and when Larry David shows up for two lines in the second act, Allen doesn’t even have sense enough to play his mug for the close-up comedy it’s capable of. For shame, Alvy, For Shame.

Behind my reaction to Radio Days is pouty little-boy disappointment. I wanted it to be a vulgar trip through America’s shared small times. But it’s not. It’s inert and grinning, the product of an artist who found out too soon that “people really like me!” and decided that was all he really wanted, anyways.

Ben Arfmann is a contributor to This Recording. He tumbls here.

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Reader Comments (2)

That's why Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life was so good. He out-and-out admits to being a jerk in various childhood situations. Then you, as the reader, can say, "Oh, you're kind of a dick, but I'm kind of rooting for you anyway." (Can't vouch for the movie, just for the book.)

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

"Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt."

-Uppy

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteven augustine

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