Why “Nothing But Trouble” is Nothing But Brilliant
A few days ago, I did a birthday post about Dan Aykroyd and how his film career has been but a shadow compared to the brilliance of his performances on Saturday Night Live in the mid to late 70s. When writing the post I came across a couple of references (uniformly negative) to his one directing effort Nothing But Trouble. Believe it or not, I had never even heard of the film. In 1991, when it came out, I was enrolled at NYU film school and working a 30 an hour a week day job; I wasn’t paying much attention to first-run movies. Also, from what I understand, Nothing But Trouble sank like a stone at the box office. It came and went very quickly. As the expression goes, ‘If you blinked, you missed it.”
Nothing But Trouble (written by Aykroyd from a story by his brother Peter) stars Chevy Chase and Demi Moore as a couple of rich yuppies who (along with a couple of obnoxious Brazilian neighbors) get pulled over for a traffic infraction by police officers John Candy and Valri Bromfield in a mysterious Pennsylvania coal country “shire”. In short order they find themselves imprisoned in a nightmarish compound presided over by a 104 year old “reeve” (or justice of the peace, in medieval-speak) played by Dan Aykroyd in heavy prosthetics. A no man’s land littered by the bones of the dead motorists who came before them, the heroes must also deal with the reeve’s mute grand-daughter (played by John Candy in drag), and a couple of enormous, slimy, naked baby men named Bobo and Li’l Debbul. The haunted house they live in is a labyrinth of trap doors, death chutes, dungeons, and elaborate torture devices, such as a roller coaster called the Bonestripper, which would probably be lethal if our heroes didn’t keep escaping from it. As the movie goes on, other carloads of people get stopped and pulled over too, one of which is the hiphop group Digital Underground who obliges the judge with a number, which he joins in on with a few licks on his pipe organ.
It is, without a doubt, a weird movie. It is undoubtedly among the weirdest and most unpleasant movies you will ever watch. (The words “unsettling” and “upsetting” keep coming up in people’s reactions) I’ll gainsay none of that. I do want to amend my earlier post on the subject of Aykroyd, however, because it does appear that with this movie Aykroyd was indeed given the power to realize his pure, unalloyed artistic vision (no doubt empowered to do so by his box office success with the Ghostbusters franchise). And that vision was apparently far from the tastes of most movie goers.
Yet I happened to like this movie a great deal. In fact, it’s not too much to say that I am in awe of the mind that created it. Why? It seems laughable to me that I would need to spell it out, but judging by most of the critical appraisals I find online this morning, apparently I do. The film is unique, highly imaginative, and brave. Those are all virtues I rate highly. I also found it frequently (although not always) funny, and often shocking, thus it kept me awake to watch for each new extravagant outrage. As an example of anti-authoritarian satire, which I think of as the highest and noblest form of comic art, Nothing But Trouble presents a view I find both true and uncompromising.
In this case I find myself at odds with both critics and audiences whom, as all geniuses know, are the twin horns of Beelzebub — or Beelzebub’s Lesser Brother. Heads befogged with sulfur clouds, they recoil at the image in the mirror before them and deny their own reflections. They do not recognize themselves, you see, because the truth has been magnified. They have not read the words on the rear view mirror: “Objects are Closer Than They Appear”. And so is let loose the croaking chorus of “BAD!” “This a BAD movie!””WORST movie ever.” “How could Dan Aykroyd have been permitted to have made such a BAD movie”? “Bad, bad, BAD!!!”
The commentators are of course confusing their personal, emotional, subjective reaction (“I do not like this, this is not to my taste”) with a qualitative, objective characterization (“This is bad.”) Is the film, for example, incompetently executed? Only if you believe that he was trying to make a film that was NOT grotesque. If you think that he was, against all evidence, setting out to make a work of realism, or an inoffensive, thoughtless trifle, by all means, go ahead and think that, but then get your head examined. Of course many people among the general public think or expect that realism and pleasant diversions are all that film and theatre artists can or should ever produce, and when they don’t hit that default objective, they fail by definition. I forgive the public, who were born and will die in ignorance, but those who wear the mantle of critic require at the absolute minimum a broad and deep familiarity with the history all of that has come before in art. Less is a disqualification and I feel no compulsion or obligation to listen to a thing you say unless you demonstrate that you possess such backgrounding. The Internet has nowadays made it possible for barbarians to ascend a rostrum meant for Cicero. I don’t care what it says on your byline. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, you’re not a critic.
The grotesque vision in art is beyond valid, it has a long and noble history. Chaucer, Swift, Rabelais, Alfred Jarry. Shall I go on? Apparently I need to. Most of the reviewers I’ve read on the subject of this film give no evidence of ever having read a book or looked at a painting for all the frame of reference they seem to possess, when they attack it on the basis of how gross and unpleasant it is (as most do). The film is gross and disgusting intentionally, therefore it is NOT bad (at least not on those grounds) because the author fulfilled the vision he meant to realize, which in critical terms is, or ought to be, the very definition of GOOD. Is the vision unique, unpleasant? Yep! Not for everybody? Definitely. For almost nobody? Even that! Still good. It fulfills its purpose by being a sterling example of extreme grotesque satire, a genre that is appreciated or liked by very few people (I’m clearly one of them). Lloyd Kaufman and Troma turn out such films routinely, by the way, year in, year out, for their small coterie of devoted fans, and on their worst day, their films are far more disgusting than Aykroyd’s. People (those people) love them.
Onto another sad issue that keeps coming up. The equation by the public, and now also critics (because the Internet has allowed “the public” to call themselves “critics”)…that bad box office (or “flop” in industry parlance) = “bad movie”. This has resulted in undeservedly poor reputations for some excellent or pretty good films, movies that are objectively not as bad as anyone thinks they are. Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar are two good examples of this phenomenon and now I add Nothing But Trouble to the list. It cost $40 million but it only made $8 million. This is a criterion that should only matter to accountants, but nowadays, our gossipy excuse for an entertainment press have nothing to report but “bad buzz”, which feeds bad word of mouth, and before you know it, the public decides something is “bad” without ever having seen it, or they watch it in a prejudiced frame of mind fully prepared to find it bad, and then proceed to realize their preconception. I heard, “Bad bad bad”, and to my surprise, found that it was brilliant. I imagine that 98% of you will have a different reaction. All I ask is that you think for yourself.
And now, the notorious frankfurter scene:
You may address your responses to me in care of the Leper Colony.