‘Wanna Hang Out?’, or, Airheads is Better Than Dog Day Afternoon

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There’s an odd video on YouTube where Quentin Tarantino lists his 20 favorite movies that have come out since he became a director in 1992.  The video was made in 2009—making it a 17th year anniversary celebration of him being a director.  The arbitrariness of this echoes The Simpsons’ 138th episode spectacular (although that was a joke).

His list is surprising—in good ways and bad.  I love that he lists The Matrix and also makes a point to disregard the sequels “that serve only to tarnish the mythology of a badass movie”.  And with Jan de Bont’s Speed, he adds a clever caveat that we “forget everything that happens after the bus stops.”  But then, for some reason, he names Woody Allen’s Anything Else—one of his least significant movies.  (It’s also kind of a bummer since Allen’s best movie, Deconstructing Harry, came out in ’97—well within Tarantino’s arbitrary 17-year timespan.)

But the pick I’m most interested in of his is Dazed and Confused.  Not because I like that movie (I don’t) but because he describes it as ”possibly the best ‘hang-out’ movie since Rio Bravo”—Rio Bravo being one of Tarantino’s three favorite movies (the other two being Blow Out and Taxi Driver.)  And he goes on in great detail about the movie’s ‘hang-out’-ness.

I’ve been aware of the concept of a hang-out movie for a long time, but have never heard anyone call it out by name until Tarantino.  It’s a weird label that’s hard to pin down, because it transcends genre, and story structure, and is basically dictated solely by feel and circumstance.

I love hang-out movies because I love the idea of hanging out with a piece of art.  Every time The Big Lebowski ends, I want to keep hanging out with those characters, and it affects me so deeply that I get choked up as the shot of the bowling lanes comes up and the Townes Van Zandt version of ‘Dead Flowers’ starts playing.  But I don’t feel that way because it’s a hang-out movie, per se—I feel it because the characters are so well crafted and the narrative is so freewheeling.  Everything just feels real.

Making a movie feel real is probably the hardest thing to do because you have to make impossible things seem possible.  The success of Ghostbusters lies is its believability.  The crazier the story gets, the more real it seems, because the well-acted, earnest dialogue grounds it.  I believe everything Egon says because he says it with a fluid, nonchalant confidence that Venkman (our weirdness barometer) resents.  Ghostbusters is a perfect synthesis of writing, performance, and visual craftsmanship.  It is seriously one of the most underappreciated artistic achievements of all time, and I’m not being hyperbolic here—I’m dead fucking serious.

So basically, Ghostbusters and The Big Lebowski give you a warm hang-out feeling because the characters feel real, and you feel like you’re really hanging out with them—but neither are technically hang-out movies.  (Basically, because the characters never literally just sit and hang out.)

It’s all about containment.  In Living in Oblivion, the characters are all confined to a space (a movie set) and they all have a shared goal (to make a movie).  That containment/goal combo creates a hustle and bustle that makes you feel like an active member of an event.  You are there.  You feel the frustration when takes keep getting ruined, and almost feel partially responsible for all the calamity.

Living in Oblivion was a huge inspiration for me in becoming a filmmaker.  My mom has a huge crush on Steve Buscemi, and when I was about twelve, she was on a mission to track down all of his movies (this was the late 90‘s—pre-Netflix).  As you might imagine, this unearthed several very obscure indie movies (many of which only featuring Buscemi for about 2 minutes) such as Ed and His Dead Mother, 20 Bucks, The Search For One Eye Jimmy (which at the time, was quite rare, and I found, weirdly enough, at Blockbuster, on VHS—can you imagine a world where that was possible!?) Trees Lounge (directed by Buscemi) and, of course, Living in Oblivion.  The mania captured in Oblivion seemed more fun to me than frustrating.  Hanging out on set with a cast and crew seemed so wonderful.  I had been wanting to make movies for years already, but that was the first time I had really seen the inner workings of life on-set.  And the movie does such a good job of making you feel like you’re part of the crew that it’s intoxicating.  It’s a very good hang-out movie.

But, my favorite hang-out movie of all time, and perhaps the purest of all hang out movies, is Michael Lehmann’s Airheads.  And it has the best cast ever assembled on screen.  (Please check the IMDb if you don’t believe me.)

Airheads is basically a metalhead Dog Day Afternoon (which, in its own day, was an early touchstone in hang-out movie history.)  In it, a down and out rock band known as The Lone Rangers hold a radio station hostage so that they’ll play their demo tape over the air.  The result is a group of misfit characters being contained in a space (a radio station) and having unexpected fun.  The hostage situation is so fun, in fact, that one of the hostages, played by David Arquette, wants to be let back in to keep hanging out after he escapes.  When Chaz doesn’t let him back in, my heart always sinks.  I feel so bad for the guy.

However, the real hanging out comes as a result of the audience that develops outside the station.  See, as the stakes get raised in the movie, something starts percolating in the air.  We see this through a series of short, atmospheric scenes around town where you see a few burnouts listening to a news report about the holdup on a boom box.  There’s something in the air that day—fun.  We begin to live vicariously through the party crowd that accumulates around the radio station.  And, as the plot thickens, the crowd begins to directly effect the plot.

By the way, if I’m talking about Airheads, I have to mention its quotability.  Airheads is quite possibly the most quotable movie of all time.  My friend George (you don’t know him) once said that the climax of the movie is when Michael Mckean’s character says “Alright, I know you guys think I’m a real dick… cheese… burger… or whatever.”  In fairness, George was actually insulting the movie by saying it’s only worth watching for the quotable lines.  While I don’t share his cynicism, I do share his enthusiasm for lines like “You look like half a butt puppet!” and “He wipes his ass with his record contract, I love this guy!”

The plot of Airheads glides along with a delightful subversiveness, as the Gen X-ers gather around the station to help ‘stick it to the man’.  But the movie takes an interesting stance in that it points out the pitfalls of all sides involved.  We root for the Lone Rangers because they’re just good guys trying to catch a break.  However, a news beat accurately comments on the absurdity of the situation, and writes off their plight as an entitled, suburbanite plea for attention.  To continue with the generational commentary, Joe Mantegna’s character is candid with Fraser when he says “Rock and Roll has been all downhill since Lennon died”.  However, Fraser confidently rebuts with “All my life people have been shoving this classic rock down my throat—are you gonna tell me that Purple Haze says something?”  Fraser’s response is pointed and accurate and is a clever ‘fuck you’ to the curmudgeon-y spirit of proud baby boomers who think their artistic export is the be-all and end-all.  I like to think that this moment of bonding is what telegraphs a scene later on where Mantegna gets ahold of a real gun, but then shrugs and passes it to Fraser so he can continue on his mission (a moment that is perhaps one of the most underappreciated in the movie, and also, movie history).

Basically, what Mantegna is doing in that scene is letting the hang-out continue.  His passing of the gun is an admittance that hanging out is fun, and that fun trumps all.  We are the crowd of metalheads that form in the parking lot.  We are them because we also want to stick it to the man and party with the Lone Rangers.  In that sense, Airheads is an vicarious experience that happens alongside a clever narrative.  It’s basically Dog Day Afternoon (but fun!)

Which leads me to the best and most fun movie ever made—The ‘Burbs.  (Well, one of the best.  The only reason it isn’t the absolute best is because there are about four other movies that are approximately 3%-13% better.)  But basically, The ‘Burbs is perfect, and one of the most advanced pieces of movie art that has ever existed.

The ‘Burbs is contained on an idyllic suburban block in the middle of  America.  If we follow the wonderful zoom in from outer space that opens the movie, it looks like we’re somewhere in Wisconsin.  The ‘metalhead crowd’ in The ‘Burbs is played by Corey Feldman, who effortlessly shepherds us through his universe of bumbling neighbors.  At one point, he even acts as a Greek chorus by giving us a blow-by-blow commentary on what’s happening—a scene that is more character-coloring than expository, as it’s more important for us to know that Feldman watches his neighbors for pleasure rather than to garner specific information from what he’s describing.

For the last line of the movie, Feldman looks into the camera, says “God, I love this street”, and then takes a bite of pizza and excitedly runs back to the goings on a few yards away.  And it seriously makes me cry.  I’m even misty writing this now.  That moment is such a pure summation of everything that is great about movies.  The experience we the audience just had was so fun, and Feldman’s youthful exuberance perfectly captures that fun, and also, directly acknowledges it.  It’s absolutely beautiful.

Like Airheads, the plot of The ‘Burbs becomes a spectator sport for characters in the movie.  And again, said audience slowly builds as the plot thickens and the stakes grow higher.  This device of creating a built-in audience for your plot is pure genius because it creates a ‘fun loop’ that feeds off itself.  If the movie is good, it will become more fun as it goes along because the plot gets more layered and detailed, and in turn, the audience in the movie slowly begins to build at a rate congruent to the intensity of the fun.  By the time The ‘Burbs ends, the block is crowded with people.  And anyone who has grown up in suburbia can attest to how much fucking fun that sight would be on a hot summer’s night.

Ultimately, there is no actual genre called ‘hang-out movie’ because it’s not a plot in an of itself, but really something that’s happening along with (or as a result of) the plot.  In the case of Airheads and The ‘Burbs, the feeling is intentional, but as I said, I get the same feeling from The Big Lebowski and Ghostbusters.  While those are not hang-out movies, they benefit from the feeling that we are hanging out with the characters.  It’s a difficult tonality to identify though, because that’s all it really is—a feeling.

Often times the best movies ever made transcend genre.  This is because,  although useful, the rules of genre are often restricting rather than liberating.  Signs, The ‘Burbs, Airheads, Ghostbusters—these movies are all a mix of comedy, sci-fi, drama, comedy, western, monster movie, and more.  But, above all that, floating in the ether somewhere, is the sense that hanging out with the characters would be a fun thing to do.  I get the feeling that Kevin Smith wanted to capture that when he wrote Clerks (which makes sense since it was based on Slacker and Do the Right Thing, two hang-out movies.)

But the pitfall of Do The Right Thing and much of Linklater’s work is that the emphasis is too heavy on the hanging-out.  Hanging out is only fun if it’s achieved on top of, and because of, the narrative.  The ‘hang-out’ feeling of Clerks spoke to Gen X-ers so profoundly that it informed much of the culture to follow, and spawned a Smith-helmed media empire based solely on the notion of hanging out (spoken word engagements, live podcasts, etcetera.) But the real triumph of Clerks, and what truly makes it successful, is the narrative that the hanging-out hangs on.  Without a narrative it is impossible to care about the characters, because their ‘likability’ is hinged on how they overcome obstacles.  So while Slacker and Dazed and Confused and Do the Right Thing are interesting, they lack depth, and as such, can only ever be looked at as atmospheric, experimental pieces.  Clerks sneaks a very logical and taught narrative underneath long-winded conversations about Star Wars, and, as a result, has become more popular than the movies that influenced it, and one of the most popular American movies of the last few decades.

The feeling of ‘hanging out’ is a feeling so hard to pull off that few even try.  (Recent disastrous failures include Pirate Radio and Be Kind Rewind—two of the worst movies ever made.)  Other notable hang-out movies include Apollo 13 and Can’t Hardly Wait.  What movies do you like to hang out with?  Leave ’em in the comments.

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8 Responses to ‘Wanna Hang Out?’, or, Airheads is Better Than Dog Day Afternoon

  1. Mary Pickering says:

    The ‘ground’ covered in this delightful essay is immense, Greg, and again the writing is a thing to behold. All the many references to other films to view is curiosity-inspiring. Yes, Steve Buscemi is a complete and total marvel! I am of a ‘classic’ age group – Rio Bravo is one of my favorites, saw it with my late Dad – so undoubtedly I am going to induce cardiac arrest when I reveal to Smug Film my favorite ‘hang-out’ movie of all time. Are you sitting down? It’s Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny. No s**t! I adore those two dudes and would LUV to hang out with them. Sure, the film was panned, but it is so sincere and full of hard work. Ben Stiller and Tim Robbins are priceless, don’t forget. So there, I’ve admitted my guilty pleasure. Hope you are on the mend, Greg.

  2. Push says:

    I always feel like one of the gang when I watch The Sandlot or March of the Penguins.

  3. Chloe Pelletier says:

    That was really well said, Greg. Do shows count? I’d say X-Files and Lupin the Third are my favorite hang out shows. I always feel like I’m chillin’ with those characters.

  4. Blake says:

    By Warren Zevon, I think you mean Townes Van Zandt. Way to go, superfan.

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  7. Tim says:

    Friday with Ice Cube and Chris Tucker is another hang-out classic for me. It’s part of my 90’s LA Trilogy (Lebowski, Airheads, Friday).

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