Film

Jerks Are My Heroes, Thanks to 'Jerks' Like Steve Martin

Steve Martin as Navin Johnson in The Jerk (1979)

My folks are probably still kicking themselves for taking a seven-year-old to see Steve Martin’s profane and ridiculous first film, The Jerk, because that was the day I gave up on strong, upstanding heroes and decided that I wanted to be like Navin Johnson.


The Jerk

Rated: PG-13
Director: Carl Reiner
Cast: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams
Studio: New Line Cinema
Year: 1979
Distributor: Universal
Release date: 2012-03-06

Eddie and the Cruisers

Distributor: MGM
Cast: Michael Pare, Tom Berenger
Release date: 2008-06-10

I grew up in the age of the action hero. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting cross-legged on a dirty patch of carpet, a bowl of cereal on my lap, bathing in the blue light of one of those monolithic, old Trinitrons. On the screen, a bionic stud from the future known as the Six Million Dollar Man rescued hot dames and chased down bad guys with the help of some special sound effect that went “Jun jun jun jun… Jun jun jun jun.”

I wanted to be Steve Austin so bad I fantasized about stepping in front of a moving bus, just to give science the option of repairing my body with shiny, powerful robot parts. It might seem unrealistic now, but back then they had a bionic woman too, and she even had a bionic dog! If they’re doing it to German Shepherds, I figured, why not a kid?

I never got around to hurling myself into traffic though, because my young eyes soon discovered a new role model, one without special sound effects, who was neither intelligent nor strong, neither worldly nor tough, who couldn’t catch a bad guy or rescue a blonde if you replaced his whole body with titanium. That character was a jerk, or more accurately, The Jerk. My folks are probably still kicking themselves for taking a seven-year-old to see Steve Martin’s profane and ridiculous first film, because that was the day I gave up on strong, upstanding heroes and decided that instead, I wanted to be like Navin Johnson.

Navin didn’t have the smarts or the parts of a serious dude like Steve Austin, and neither did I. But why should anyone let that get in their way? When Navin heard the schmaltzy siren song that propelled him on his journey to “go out there and be somebody”, he didn’t stop to get fitted for cybernetics—he wrapped up his Twinkies, stuck out his thumb and caught a ride all the way to the end of the fence. Soon enough, he would taste success, landing a sweet job and a swinging bachelor pad not just in the same day, but at the same gas station! If a jerk like Navin could get his name in the phone book, why not me? Maybe with a little luck, I too could find my special purpose.

So while the other kids played Rocky and Rambo, I ran around in mock panic shouting, “He hates these cans! Oh no—more cans!” When it came time to play sports, I was predictably sucky at them, but even on the flag football field -- that great proving ground of the American pre-teen -- I managed to come up with jerk tactics that confounded and confused the other team. So what if my elaborate trick plays resulted in our team losing and me crying on the ground with cleat marks on my face? At least the game was actually fun for a couple seconds.

It wouldn’t be until much later that I actually became aware of my jerkwater tendencies, but on a lazy day in my lazy 20s, I pilfered a book from a roommate that helped lay the groundwork of my self-discovery. It was a paperback copy of Carl Jung’s Man and his Symbols, and it introduced me to the concept of archetypes. Jung was a pioneering psychologist who believed that humans carry within our minds certain images which guide and inform our actions and beliefs. These archetypes allow us to model our behavior on social strategies that have proven effective over millions of years of evolution.

Archetypes are most easily viewed through expressions of mass culture, from the Greek myth of Hercules (the Hero archetype) to the Hyde-like Shadow archetype that makes Walter White such a riveting character in Breaking Bad. Though Jung somehow failed to identify the “Jerk archetype”, he got pretty close when he described a character commonly known as the Trickster. Expressions of Trickster archetypes are common to just about every culture, from the Native American Coyote myth, to the batshit Viking god Loki, to Warner Bros.,’ ass-kicking, cross-dressing Bugs Bunny. Tricksters are neither heroes nor anti-heroes per se, although they can be both, representing the wild card in life—the capricious, the random, the surreal. When one chooses to follow the Trickster over the Hero, one must always expect the unexpected.

By the time I realized this was the path I had set myself on, it was too late to turn back. I’d already set my aesthetic standards based not on how technically proficient or handsome a work of art was, but on how much it surprised me, how much of a loop it threw me for. While this made me filter out a lot of really great culture that I assumed was boring based on its popularity, it also opened my eyes to the idea that art doesn’t have to be pretty, or even comprehensible, to be great.

For example, I love terrible movies. The worser, the better. Have you seen The Garbage Pail Kids Movie? It’s so awful it’s almost genius! The plot is ridiculous, the acting sucks, and the characters are a bunch of gross, unlikeable creeps—yet the first time I saw it, I felt like I’d had a religious experience. (By the way, Hollywood, I heard you’re remaking this film and I wish you’d stop ruining all my favorite things!)

I used to think I liked bad movies because they gave me hope, and I still think that’s partly true. After all, if a bipolar transvestite from the ‘50s can make something as immortal as Plan 9 from Outer Space, maybe someday I could be so lucky with a story or song of my own that, by some happy accident, turns out just as crappily irresistible to future jerks like myself. (And wouldn’t the little Navin in me be proud!) But there is much more to the love of bad art than sniffing the flowers of schadenfreude. It took a little movie called Eddie & the Cruisers 2: Eddie Lives! to sort out my aesthetic contradictions once and for all.

If you’ve seen Eddie 1, you already know the story—Eddie Wilson is a pensive greaser from Jersey who everyone thinks is a musical genius because he yells a lot and manages to rip off Bruce Springsteen before Springsteen was even around. There’s also some craziness about how Eddie is the second coming of Arthur Rimbaud, and how the evil Satin Records squashes Eddie’s innovative ideas, and in the end he dies in a car wreck… Or does he?

(Spoiler alert) No! Eddie doesn’t die—as the second movie illustrates, Eddie just grows a mustache and moves to Canada, where he works in construction, attends hockey games and acts like a dick every time he hears his own music on the radio. Now I hear you saying, “But Josh, I get that this movie is terrible and you like terrible things, but doesn’t Eddie Wilson represent the absolute worst kind of hero that movies can produce? The kind that bullies everyone who tries to help him and pretends to be wise with stories about the desert that don’t go anywhere? If you’re so all about Tricksters, why sit through a movie in which none of characters even remotely fills that role?”

I’m glad you asked, Strawman. In Eddie 2, the very qualities that make it accidentally and awesomely awful cause the movie itself to take on the role of the Trickster, thereby subverting the Hero archetype in the most unexpected way possible. It’s like when a novel has an unreliable narrator—in Nabokov’s Lolita, we see a horrible man acting in horrible ways, yet his uncritical presentation of himself as a normal human being causes the reader to question even more deeply the motivations and rationalizations that make people act the way they do.

Likewise, in Eddie 2, we are presented with a story about a heroic yet tortured artist who struggles to give the world a pure vision of his genius. Yet what we actually see on the screen is not a tortured genius, but a blathering chode whose mediocre music brings him fame and fortune despite his best efforts to screw the whole thing up. So while Eddy 2 aims only for a banal fantasy, it somehow stumbles on a portrayal of something much closer to real life—something that is more fascinating, more true, and of course, more hilarious than anything it could have achieved in earnest.

That’s why I’ve named this column “Out of Pocket”, in honor of one of Eddie Wilson’s most irate and memorable rants about how no one can play music as well as he can. Sure, I could have gone with “On the Darkside” or “Louder Ain’t Intense,” or even a choice line from The Jerk, but then, you’d be expecting that, wouldn’t you? Well, up yours, Hero—the Trickster wins again!

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