Wednesday 3 May 2017

I Blame Society #2: Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988)

(This is part of I Blame Society, a short series where I cast a critical eye over things I never stopped loving.)

Easily the most mainstream of the films I've looked at in the last six months or so, this. All the others have been in some way odd, or off kilter, which I suppose makes this an outlier, a feel-good comedy about two dumb guys who just need to get their high school diplomas.

Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.
Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan, as the titular heroes style themselves, are two happy teenagers who live in San Dimas, Southern California, and have dreams of rock superstardom. But these dreams will be dashed if they fail History, the one obstacle between them and their failing high school altogether. A final presentation needs to be given, tomorrow. If they don't score an A+, they flunk. And if they flunk, Ted's dad, the police chief, will send Ted to military school, and the band will never happen.

It's ridiculous to think they'll ever manage the superstardom they dream of, anyway. Their band, Wyld Stallyns, is just the two of them in the garage making an unholy racket, and it hasn't even occurred to them that they need to learn guitar – their first conversation in the movie is about how they're convinced that their problems will be solved if Eddie Van Halen can only be convinced to join.
Gentlemen, we're history.
Enter Rufus (George Carlin), a man from the future who, without really explaining why, gives the two of them a time machine, which is shaped like a phone box, so they can travel back in time and see history first-hand. Having, on their first trip, accidently kidnapped Napoleon (the "short, dead dude"), Bill and Ted decide that what they need to do is kidnap more historical figures, bring them to the present and show them their Californian town, so they can ask them what they think, and write a most bodacious history report. Leaving Napoleon in the care of Ted's little brother, Bill and Ted go on a mad romp through history, dragging off historical figures and eventually bringing them home, where they clean a house, run amok through an 80s SoCal mall, get arrested and sprung, and star in the Best History Presentation Ever.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is an example of a stupid film made by clever people (see also Dodgeball). Ostensibly, it seems like a big, dumb, funny movie about dumb people, for dumb people. It runs on a parade of absurdities: Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are somehow the founders of a new future utopia; historical figures happily go with it and take over a California mall; Napoleon gets lost and of course they find him at a waterslide park called Waterloo. The trademark gag of the film is that when Bill and Ted think something is really cool they yell "excellent!" and play air guitar and a little riff plays over the soundtrack, and sometimes it changes, so there's a part where a medieval overlord orders them to be put in the iron maiden, and they yell "excellent!" and do their little air guitar thing, and the riff sounds like Iron Maiden.
Bromance across time.
The pop culture references, mostly related to the hair metal that every boy of my age except me loved in 1988 (I was an appalling indie snob), haven't aged well at all. I watched the film with my kids before writing this and there were dozens of jokes that whizzed by my two sons because there's no reason, for example, for them to know who Eddie Van Halen was, of what Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet sounds like (which is a mercy, frankly). Its casual sexism is also of its day, but that doesn't make it OK.

Bill's stepmum, Missy, spends the film being ogled by various male characters, and one running joke is that Bill can't bring himself to talk about how attractive she is, because she insists on being called mom, and thats weird. And the two princesses, who don't even have names, exist to be either married off to "old ugly dudes" or Bill and Ted; in fact, they're pretty much delivered to Bill and Ted at the end as a reward along with a pair of sweet guitars, and I kind of cringed when I saw that; it's a few years since I saw the movie and I'd forgotten that part, or maybe I'd blocked it out, or maybe I just turned into someone who has a daughter I'd hate to be treated like that, I don't know. 
This is Dave Beethoven, Maxine of Arc, Herman the Kid, Dennis Freud, Bob Genghis Khan, Socrates Johnson and, uh... uh... Abraham Lincoln.
But – and I think this is why I still like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure when so many other teenage loves have fallen by the wayside – it's still a remarkably subtle film. Many of the best jokes are good because they're not laboured or even mentioned. The phone booth gets really cramped, because it's the same size on the inside and the outside, but of course it's the obvious form a time machine should take. No one makes anything of the fact that an entire civilisation is founded on the music of a band that got its name because "Wild Stallions" was misspelt in a way that a couple of silly kids thought was cool – and never fixed, even when they got their act together. It just is. Socrates and Billy the Kid become best friends in the background of the main action. Socrates only talks in Classical Greek. Sigmund Freud engages in polymorphous perversity with a vacuum cleaner.

More than that, it lets you make your own mind up about Bill and Ted themselves. Bill is the more outgoing and proactive of the two youths. He's the one who comes up with the plans and leads the way. Ted is a gentle soul, who displays more empathy and kindness. And it's Bill who has the hippie dad who married a woman who is only a couple of years older than Bill (which Bill can't come to terms with); It's Ted whose dad is the police chief whose disappointment in his son flips over into anger.
Be excellent to each other.
As the film progresses, a strange, bodacious thing happens to Bill and Ted: they begin to get a clue. When they're figuring out how to spring Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Lincoln and the rest from the jail, they come up with a solution that never occurs to anyone else in fiction: if we have a time machine, they reason, surely we can go back in time after all this is over and fix things so that we can save the day easily?

By the time they come to deliver their most triumphant history presentation, Bill and Ted have learned some actual history: they've met these historical figures and had an excellent adventure with them and they just absorbed historical facts. And at the end, when they're back in the garage again, and sitting their feeling like nothing has changed, it has, because they agree that actually, maybe they might achieve their dreams if they actually, you know, how to play. That is, when they're being told that they'll never achieve their dreams, they make their dreams unachievable (because they're never going to meet Eddie Van Halen as they are); now that they've been shown that they might be able to make something of themselves, they're prepared to put the work in and make that happen for themselves. Of course, it's absurd that two dim bulb teenagers in a garage should bring about world peace with their rock music, but isn't that the stuff of teenage dreams?

It's not remotely as good as I remember it being when I was 14, it can't be, and the sexism leaves a slightly bitter taste. I don't think that I would be so kind to it if I hadn't seen it when I was a kid. So why do Bill and Ted get a pass when other things I liked as a teenager don't? I'm not sure. But watching it with my kids, I found that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure has a light touch and a degree of heart. Maybe that's it.