Clark Griswold’s America

30 Oct

Now that the DirecTV commerical featuring a clip from National Lampoon’s Vacation has reached oversaturation,1 it’s as good a time as any to meditate on the movie as reflection of the times. Certainly, its influence in its field is undeniable. In addition to sequels of steadily diminishing quality, the movie has also served as an inspiration for unforgivable dross like RV and Are We There Yet?. Even “indie” movies like Little Miss Sunshine wind up feeling less like attempts to subvert the mold created by Vacation, and more like loving homages.

Even the most extreme slapstick involves situations that are relatable to most of its intended audience. Jokes about the pain of getting ones member caught in the zipper are funny because most men can relate to the pain, not because it’s a completely unthinkable situation. For a movie with fairly broad humor and a wide intended audience such as Vacation this demands that no matter how looooooooony a predicament those Griswolds find themselves in, it still largely squares with the experience of the audience. It’s National Lampoon, not Buñuel.

Looks like you got some splainin to do.

Looks like you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

While college newspaper opinion columns are an easy target, it’s still somewhat disheartening to come across one on the internet where the author describes how a Griswoldian family vacation as a child makes up for the fact that she has never steered from the safe course since, and never plans to do so in the future. The Griswolds, over their fifteen year run of movies, made a pretty perfect time capsule of middle-class American values, mores, and fashions. The boom times of the Eighties saw them take a European vacation; the subsequent bust at the end of the decade found Clark anxious about his ability to provide a Christmas for his family after his greedy boss stiffed him on a bonus check. Cousin Eddie, the ultimate symbol of class anxiety, stopped by to remind the Griswolds that they are one layoff away from losing all of status symbols Clark had worked so hard to achieve.

However, in no way has the movie shown its age more than in its attitude towards drug use. Vacation was made a few short years before the the PG-13 rating was instituted, which became the default rating most comedies have aimed for in order to maximize the potential audience. Previously, movies had to make a hard and fast choice as to whether they were Family Material (PG) or were going to Go For It (R). As the Vacation franchise always seemed to be PG-13 in spirit anyway, all of the sequels took the choice that was available to each other. Since the flagship film of the franchise had no such option, it went into more risque territory than it sequels–or at least it was less subtle about it. And one area that would never make it into a cut today would be the movie’s attitude towards drug use. Cousin Catherine, eager to impress her big-city (okay, Chicagoland suburbanite) cousin Audrey, offers a shoebox full of pot to prove that the country also has its virtues. In a subsequent scene, Audrey smokes a joint with her brother Rusty while their parents attempt to put the spark back into their marriage.

And that’s it.

There is not a montage set to Jefferson Airplane. She does not have a “bad trip,” “Vietnam flashbacks,” or see God. She doesn’t smuggle a two-foot-tall bong into the station wagon, start freebasing, or sell her body for drug money. She doesn’t get caught. In fact, the joint never gets mentioned again. Part of this could merely be directorial restraint (or a general desire not to insult the intelligence of the audience) on the part of director Harold Ramis, but given that the movie’s biggest laugh is the scene where a milquetoast father punches out an animatroinic moose, perhaps we’re giving Ramis too much credit here. Far more likely is that in 1983, parents and their teenage children both saw the scene, snickered a little because it reflected their experience, and then immediately moved on to the pool scene now making the rounds in the DirecTV commercials. Anyone looking for proof that society was much different then, at least in its attitude towards drugs, needs look no further than the Griswold family.

Compare and contrast with the attitude of Little Miss Sunshine. There is no middle ground of drug use. Alan Arkin’s heroin-snorting Grandpa Hoover represents the face of drug use, and for his sin, he pays the ultimate price (and his corpse is then further defiled). And Little Miss Sunshine, as alluded to above, is the “dangerous” homage to Vacation. If that represents the wild end of the spectrum, then how could Are We There Yet possibly top it? Have Ice Cube stop the movie in the middle to lecture the audience on the dangers her having the brew while you have the chronic?

1 To the point where ESPN included it as a choice in its poll of “most annoying part of the World Series,” along with choices like poor umpiring and Commissioner Bud Selig’s predictable bumbling of the rain delay.

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