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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Twenty Nine Palms and I hear your voice on the radio...

The Robert Plant song "29 Palms" was an unexpected surprise when I first heard it, and that was before I even knew 29 palms was a place. 29 Palms was a good surprise. Today has been full of surprises, good and bad. I was hoping to get this written earlier in the day, but now I realize I am thrilled I did not have the chance as, unlike yesterday when I was wandering hoping writing would find me, today a theme took its time to appear, and that theme was the element of surprise. The out of the blue. And the resulting emotions. That theme, perhaps in an ode to itself, came out of the blue. Hit me about 20 minutes ago. And here I am now.

I should have listened to the Star Wars website yesterday. If anything is predictable in Han Solo's life, it's the unexpected. So today, when I thought I was happily frozen-in-motion, someone cracked open my Han
Solo carbonite case - the most unexpected of sources - and all the Hans inside came pouring out.

No wonder I was afraid of what was in there! What a mess!
But in action, progress. I suppose. It does not feel like progress right now.

And how fitting indeed that the sight of one portion of my surprise, and the surprise into which I will delve most today, occurred in a building funded by the fortunes George Lucas amassed from Star Wars.

Tonight I went to a screening of the new movie Adventureland which I was expecting to be not much more than the latest Apatostle following an Apatow mold and savior. Not that there's anything wrong with doing that, by the way, as there as some fine buddy buddy buddy comedies in the bunch. But this one had a bit less straight up p*ssy jokes, and a bit more heart, in my opinion. Maybe I thought this was going to be the movie I thought it was because it is absolutely being marketed as such, with Bill Hader (excellent in all things!) and Kristen Wiig (ditto!) doing wacky 80s-ish bits as out of touch carnival employees, apparently tormenting the young (like say, may have happened in Superbad) for example. Oh and then there was a ball punch too I think in the commercial.

Why I loved this movie? The ball punch was carried through 3 acts! Call backs were called back! Nerdy characters were more nerdy than charming. The unbelievable did not happen that often. Shit happened. There was somehow nerd-realism here that I felt gave this movie a lot more substance than some of its recent modern counterparts.
(SUPERBAD SPOILER ALERT!!!: how long did we make it through that movie believing cops fell for a McLovin' fake i.d.? A long time, and while funny, a different tone).

The main character is a role that in every other movie would be played by Michael Cera (also excellent!), but instead it went to the less charming, less cute, less affable, and therefore far more superbly realistic Jesse Eisenberg. My only experience with him was in The Squid and the Whale (ALSO EXCELLENT), where he played a character who absolutely took himself (and his father) too seriously to the point of overwhelming emotional pain. So borrowing that impression, rather than experiencing Michael Cera, who is lovably painfully aware of his lack of coolness in the characters he plays, was a plus for me. (Again, not saying Michael Cera would not have been excellent, just think it would have changed the movie).

Somehow the nerds said nerdier things to me, in a way I found more believable. Like yes, a Russian Literature major predicting a life as a drug dealer or hot dog vendor, and an emotional sap being unable to NOT express that truth earnestly and constantly to love interest BOTH seem feasible to me. This may be generational, however, as I overheard another audience member (who was, eh, let's, if I'm generous to myself, estimate 13 years younger than me) say "No one really talks like that."

My response to that was "Oh yeah? Because I pretty much wanted to stab myself in the neck with a 7-11 slurpee straw for the first 20 minutes of Juno because I never mention the fact I'm talking on a hamburger phone while talking on one, because it seems ridiculous to do so. And who do you know, aside from those who purchased them at Urban Outfitters after the movie came out, that has a hamburger phone?" But I kept that comment to my old, crotchety self. It may be that for younger audience members who were aged 0-2 years during the 80s, a movie about the 80s where people are wearing clothing much like what many of them are wearing to class now (really, ask me how often I see black sunglasses with neon-green/pink/yellow side pieces on the heads of 18-21 year olds I see daily, because the answer is OFTEN) simply does not resonate. Or I may be overly generous to this movie, and here is why:


But it's called Kennywood, not Adventureland, and it's located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as Adventureland is in the movie. And the trash people drop on the ground in the movie would be picked up by the "Litter Gitter," a cart for litter pick up. Also, there is not one maintenance man in all of Allegheny County, not just the City of Pittsburgh, who looks like Ryan Reynolds. There's not even one who weighs the same amount, unless the actual guy is about 5'0".

So as this movie unwound its premise of "stuck for the summer in Pittsburgh," my brain quickly thought "Adventureland is Kennywood!!!" And then it was. What an amazing and pleasant surprise.

My biggest problems were actually that Jesse Eisenberg sounded like he was from New York, not Pittsburgh. No one who grew up in Pittsburgh makes "A" sounds like that. Or says "orange" like he does. And yes there's a difference. But we'll let this pass. A Pittsburgh accent does not charm all audiences (though the guy who sells OxyClean and other infomercial items to everyone makes a different case).

I also could not help naming all the park rides as they appeared in the background. "That's the thunderbolt! That's the turnpike ride! He's running past the historic landmark that is the merry-go-round. That's cars from the whip! That's the Monongahela Monster! This Music Express ride is anachronistic - it was added to the park when I was a teenager. That's the Enterprise - best ride!!! Those french fries are curly fries. Potato Patch fries look like actual potatoes (very famous Kennywood foodstuff)." When characters sit in the shadow of a roller coaster (the Thunderbolt) and a hillside is shown in the background, I know what river is visible from the top hill of that roller coaster before it plunges down toward the hill (it was named above, geography buffs), and I know that Rankin is the neighborhood in the distance. And somehow having this movie serve as a one-way ticket back to happy times of childhood in this once-a-year fun destination of Kennywood Park (even though it was being depicted as fairly pathetic in the movie), was like an unexpected care package for emotional home sickness. People in bars were drinking Iron City beer. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I loved it.

And, another factoid for those of you who are totally unfamiliar with Kennywood, it's about 1-2 miles away from the neighborhoods used for the movie The Deerhunter. Pretty darned Pittsburgh.

I had to look up the writer to see if he was from Pittsburgh. He's from New York, but he studied at Carnegie Mellon. Which may be how Kennywood made it to the big screen.

Again, I liked this movie quite a bit. But if you want the definitive Kennywood movie, find "Kennywood Memories" by Rick Sebak (the Pittsburgh equivalent of Huell Howser). He made a fantastic piece documenting the history of the park. And there is a lot of history in there.

Kennywood is something that every Pittsburgher identifies with, because they probably went once a year each summer. They remember standing in lines to try to get the first seat, the seat where you looked like you would plunge to your death, on the Thunderbolt. They remember the year they were tall enough to get on the Jackrabbit, even though their mom still held them down in the seat since the flimsy, worn leather strap seemed more decorative than protective. They remember the Zambelli Brothers Internationale fireworks over the city. And they remember the tune the merry-go-round organ played while it stopped for new riders to climb aboard.

Even as a backdrop for others to come-of-age, seeing Kennywood on screen, bigger-than-life, happily reminds me of all the times I did not.

Pittsburgh is full of surprises. And the rest of the world is full of people who will fiercely defend each and every one, good and bad, simply for the sake of ownership on the emotional territory between three rivers, and us and the rest of the world.

Go see Adventureland!
Also shout out to Matt Bush, the kid from the AT&T commercial with the roll-over minute hoarding mom who turns into a young, horny version of Scott Baio in this movie. Like it.

Another shout out to my Magnificent Seven to the left. Google could not find you today, and for a moment I was adrift! You're head outlines make me happy daily. Thanks for hanging in.


  1. That was great! I like hearing (or reading) about all things Pennsylvania. Some of my good friends are from Pennsylvania and I'm convinced it's the Oregon of the east coast. The way you describe Kennywood reminds me of this place called Silverwood in Idaho where my parents took me and my sister when we were kids and we had great times there.

  2. oh, if you like Pennsylvania stuff you'll love my Amish fetish blog! Buttons and other naughty stuff all over the place.

    (really, i am religiously tolerant...just a joke).

    thanks for reading!