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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fish Out of Water, Part 2 (originally published 5/01)

Last week we were looking at culture clash movies. These "fish out of water" tales, like "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles," the new Paul Hogan vehicle, take characters who are exceptionally well adapted to their native environs and plop them down in a completely different setting. The resulting disorientation can be played equally well for drama or for laughs. Here are some examples of each.

"The Frisco Kid" (1979). It sounds like a Western, and it is, sort of. But it's one of the screwiest Westerns you're likely to see. Gene Wilder plays Avram Belinsky, a Polish rabbi who is crossing the American frontier to join his new congregation in San Francisco. The only thing that keeps him alive long enough to make the journey is the protection of an outlaw played by Harrison Ford. Together this unlikely pair make their way to California, encountering one comic misadventure after another.

"Coogan's Bluff" (1968). Here's another variation on the culture clash between the wild and woolly West and the civilized East. This time the setting is contemporary, and it's the Westerner who's out of place. Clint Eastwood plays an Arizona lawman who is sent to New York City to bring back an extradited criminal. He has little patience with big city red tape, preferring to shoot from the hip and ask questions later, if ever. That brings him into direct conflict with a by-the-book New York cop played by Lee J. Cobb. Needless to say, this film served as the inspiration for the "McCloud" television series with Dennis Weaver.

"Coming to America" (1988). Eddie Murphy stars as Prince Akeem, a wealthy but lonely member of an African royal family. Wishing to marry a woman who loves him for himself and not for his money and position, he visits America incognito to search for true love. He selects New York is his destination, reasoning that a place called Queens is the ideal spot to search for a royal mate. Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall (as Akeem's manservant) make the most of the premise. In fact, they each play a number of supporting roles in addition to their primary roles.

"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949). Mark Twain's classic story has been adapted for the screen numerous times, but this musical version is still my favorite. Bing Crosby stars as Hank Martin, a Connecticut blacksmith who wakes up from a bump on the head to find himself in Camelot. It's an intimidating situation to be in, but Hank soon learns that he can do some intimidating of his own. Just by striking a few of the matches in his pocket, he is able to acquire a reputation as a fearsome sorcerer.

"The Man Who Fell To Earth" (1976). You might think that Hank Martin's predicament in "A Connecticut Yankee" is about as far out of water as a fish can get. Consider, however, the case of Thomas Jerome Newton, played by David Bowie in this fascinating adaptation of a novel by Walter Tevis. Newton is farther from home than any character we've considered so far, because the Earth is not his native planet. Sent from a world dying of thirst to the water-rich Earth on a desperate rescue mission, he is soon turned from his purpose by the corrupting influence of terrestrial society. Bowie was a logical choice to portray an extraterrestrial on the screen, since he had been performing as his other-worldly stage persona, Ziggy Stardust, with great success for years.

"The Brother From Another Planet" (1984). A similar premise is played for comedy in this satire, written and directed by John Sayles, starring Joe Morton as an alien slave running from intergalactic bounty hunters. Because he is humanoid and dark-skinned, his choice of the Harlem section of New York City on Planet Earth as a hideout is both fortunate and unfortunate. In other words, it is ironic, a quality in which this wry look at alienation abounds.

In fact, all of these movies are about alienation, one way or another. That's why there are so many of them. Alienation has always been a universal theme, but perhaps never before has it touched so pervasive a common chord. Here at the dawning of the 21st Century, there's simply no one left with whom it does not resonate.

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