This weekend, we caught a Halloween evening screening of MY NAME IS BRUCE. For those not following the saga, this Dark Horse-produced film tells the Galaxy Quest-like story of a town — beset by an ancient Chinese demon — that decides to kidnap B-movie icon Bruce Campbell to fight said demon.
Now, as many of you know, I am one of the biggest Bruce Campbell groupies on the planet and the prospect of spending Halloween with Bruce filled me with the rapture. The One True Bruce was at the screening and answered questions before and after the movie in his inimitable quick and sarcastic manner, to delightful effect. It was, to be honest, a hoot.
As for the the movie? Written by Mark (Battlestar Galactica) Verheiden and directed by Bruce himself, it was…well. It was a vanity project to give you more Bruce than you could ever possibly want. And that kind of made me sad. To be sure, there were moments of genuine drollery, and Bruce gave the expected physical, scenery-stomping performance and looked handsome and bad-ass in a quite satisfying manner.
But it was self-indulgent as hell. Bruce portrays himself as a nose-picking brute who swills whiskey from a dog bowl because he knows that He’s Bruce, and can get away with it. Bruce reduces the story and the rest of the cast to a setting for the Gem of Bruce because he knows He’s Bruce and he can get away with it. In an interview with New York Magazine Campbell reveals his “Moving on” esthetic:
Where would you say you learned most of your directorial tricks?
Over the years you look at how you like how this guy got performances out of actors, or how this approach didn’t work. It’s a way to present good communication with the cast and crew, and hopefully a reasonable working environment. When I direct, we only work twelve hours a day, because I won’t work longer than that. You hear all this crap about all these hot-shit independent filmmakers who are shooting eighteen hours a day? They’re morons. If you’re shooting eighteen hours a day, you either don’t know what you’re doing or you’re being abusive to your crew and cast, and you will not get the best work out of them.
A few more minutes in the editing room, if nothing else, would have vastly improved MNIB’s timing. But who cares? Bruce doesn’t. Despite the narrow scope of MY NAME IS BRUCE, the brutal truth is that I love Bruce Campbell so much — I once wrote that he was the one man who could make wearing sandals with socks cool — that he did get away with it, and he is still a beloved figure at Stately Beat Manor.
But after having followed The One True Bruce’s career for over 15 years, and reading his books and meeting him half a dozen times, I have to say that it is my studied opinion that his career trajectory is more towards William Shatner than Paul Newman. Campbell seems to be so caught up in his cult stardom that he’s perfectly content to mine it forever, which is a shame, because he is a riveting screen presence, and properly used, he could be a greater character actor than Walter Brennan. But he’s content to cater to his fan base. And it was clearly the Internet that made this not only possible, but a smart career move.
By chance, this weekend, I came across this interview with John Hodgman. Hodgman — who stars as a PC on those Apple commercials and makes frequent guest appearances on The Daily Show — is a funny guy, a comics-loving guy, and a smart guy. So smart (I had no idea), he was the agent who had started Bruce Campbell on his literary career. (Campbell’s two books are extremely funny and well-written.) But Hodgman describes the history of the Internet perfectly, via the fame of Bruce Campbell.
And as soon as the internet invaded our office in 1997, I, like pretty much everyone else in the world, started discovering and rediscovering our generational memory. You know, after we all got done — you can’t even say “Google” — Alta Vista-ing ourselves, the next thing you plugged in were the weird, esoteric subjects and people that you half remembered or felt a personal passion for. And suddenly everyone started discovering each other. I discovered that there were lots of people that liked Bruce Campbell. And within that particular niche we would all start talking together and a little community would grow and geekdom found its voice and its power in that way.
One thing I discovered as I was searching around for Bruce Campbell was Bruce Campbell. Had his own little website where he would write amusing little stories about shooting the movie McHale’s Navy in Mexico. Or anecdotes about, you know, taking a bike ride and seeing a fox after shooting an episode of a TV show called American Gothic. And he could write pretty well. And like many of those early celebrity sites on the web, they were actually started by the people who claimed to have started them. I wrote him a little e-mail saying, “Have you ever thought about writing a book?”
This timeline jibes with with my own re-appreciation of the One True Bruce. My office got T3 lines for the first time in 1997-8 and it was a time of wandering along every ephemeral interest and desire. Bruce was an early star of the Internet, with an unusually comprehensive personal website that he wrote himself (and where you could email him and he would usually email back) and there were numerous fansites set up due to his popular turn as Autolycus on Xena and on Hercules.
Back then, the internet was a rusty series of tubes and bailing wire run by housewives and college students. It wasn’t Google and Yahoo and Fox and Facebook. Ephemeral interests — Star Wars, Buffy, Batman, Vida Guerra’s ass — got bigger and bigger as nerd knowledge became more and more dominant. Just as the Christian Church controlled early Western literacy because only monasteries had the time and resources to illuminate manuscripts, the nerds, with their superior computer programming skills, were able to quickly, bloodlessly, take out the culture.
The result? Not only a world where making a movie that satisfies his fans just because it stars him is enough for a Bruce Campbell, but a world where on Empire Magazine Top 500 films ranks THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at #3, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at #2 and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE at #195. In one way, I’m happy to live in a world where action and adventure and fighting zombies are ranked on the same esthetic scale as heartwarming drama. Certainly the same level of craft goes into both and the results can be as lasting. However, when you see (to pick a random example) 300 — an entertainingly noisy movie with flashy, inventive camera work and impressive personal trainers — ranked higher than CABARET, a multi-faceted film about the theater, sexual identity and the rise of Nazism, you wonder what ever happened to deeper meaning.
As I sometimes allude to during my late night digressions here, I think I liked it better when being a fan involved some kind of revelatory, transgressive or rebellious element and not Wikipedia and the IMDb. But then everything is more fun when you’re a rebel.