I was gifted California Dreaming without preface – a blank disc in a white sleeve whose only words were “FREE-BONUS-FREE / YOUR VHS MOVIE / ON THIS DVD-R” – and I believe that is the best way to watch the film. So if you can risk it, just hit play; don’t rob yourself of the mystery.
A friend who knew I liked bad movies gave it to me, and this blog is lined with a thick brown ring from such crap, so you could argue there was/is some expectation; but there are two things muting the point. First, it’s only rational to be ready for any movie to be truly wretched; it’s as instinctive as flinching, and if it’s not it should certainly be a learned skill after how much of the Saw series? Two? Three minutes into the first one? There are seven Saws! Secondly, and much more importantly, there is the likelihood that no matter who is speaking, or what they are saying, they are full of it. Doubt is the most important human operation in the modern era. Go a day without doubting and you die. That’s capitalism, plain and simple. In real life Jim Carrey’s Yes Man has an untenable adjustable rate mortgage, twenty grand in herbal supplements lining his garage, a pack a day habit, and he’s married to an unstable woman with all her makeup tattooed to her face; the movie lasts 34 painful years and the credits are brief: here lies Carl, no doubt about it.
I believe I proved my point. I also believe I proved it so well you’ve never been more hesitant to give up 90 minutes of your life to something plucked from the rectum of the internet. Ok then, if the first lesson of the modern world is doubt, then the second is selling something you don’t believe in.
California Dreaming is a coming of age mosaic, interweaving a half dozen stories in the whimsical world of west coast beaches. Not limiting itself to teenagers or twenty somethings, the film follows characters regardless of age, only requiring they be immature and have zero personal responsibility. It’s handling is at once blind with a throbbing erection and arthritic with nostalgia. Half way between an after school special and Porky’s, it’s the kind of schlock you’d imagine a member of the sexual revolution would turn out after s/he lost track of what’s “cool” and voted Reagan with conviction: as a whole it offends everyone. If you have fond memories of California, piss off – your state is a weigh station on the way to Hawaii. If you believe consent is something that can be mutual between sexual partners, go die in a fire – if you’re down then it’s at worst fifty-fifty and somebody’s gotta break the tie. Do you think hot dogs are food? Or maybe that no one should put one in their mouth? Well both camps can 69 into the sun for all this movie cares. Hot dogs are a one dollar concession stand reminder of oral sex; so yes, Roxanne, you do have to turn on the red hots.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I’m judging it with the benefit of hindsight, and if I’d suspend my disbelief, actually give it a chance, I’d start to see similarities.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Our protagonist TT, fresh off the bus from Chicago, spouting lingo with all the gusto of a Furby and the accuracy of a parochial school teacher – which is to say comically erratic – steps into an auto body asking directions to the heart of the local jazz scene, and even more surprisingly gets them, and walks on into the unknown with nothing to his name but a cheesy smile and his dead brother’s trumpet…
Alright, if I’m being honest I have to stop right there. We’re less than five minutes into the movie and it’s already served up a slice of life called humble pie, as I can absolutely relate. In my twenties I moved to live with my sister and felt the same puppy dog excitement of being in a new city. Like TT, it didn’t matter that I came from a highly populous and modern city, I was green to the gills when it came to all the life rushing around me. And how much I wanted to be carried away! Or take hold! Take a big bite and feel the juice running down my chin! To fit in! So obviously I stopped at the nearest Jiffy Lube to chew the cud with a local muffler jockey and get the inside skinny on the music scene cats’ meow. I was quickly cussed out and alternately take for (what I was later able to translate) a drifter, a Mexican and a homosexual. What excitement! His middle finger politely, and most likely accidentally, pointed me to a local bar where I carried on one side of a conversation about music and death, while the proprietor regaled a disparate half on his ex-wife, cuckolding, and indiscriminate cousin, pregnant with twins he swore were from different men. Science was on my side, but he made the more convincing argument: I hadn’t seen it done.
I should probably pause to clarify that, unlike the movie, my sister didn’t live in LA, or anything close to LA. It was a polluted suburban delta between the interstate and a lake in nowhere rural Wisconsin known as Beaver Dam, but that’s beside the point. I already see what a mistake I made – how poignant and universal are California dreams! So if as we move on I lose track of where the movie ends and my life begins, they’re so similar it’s not even worth correcting.
Out of politeness I told my sister to shove it and moved into the bar-keep’s utility closet. He clothed me for hobby and fed me with purpose: the goat didn’t get anything that I couldn’t first prove digestible. Duke loved his goat milk, splashing it straight from the utter each morning onto his Fruity Pebbles in healthy, violent squirts. If you ever saw him before noon he’d likely still have a creamy pink oval around his mouth from the morning meal. Such dawn sightings were beyond rare for most as he militantly practiced table tennis until As the World Turns came on. He never watched the soap but his internal clock was calibrated by the TV, the World Turns being a sort of noon whistle. One was General Hospital, two syndicated M.A.S.H., three o’clock Family Feud. He was still caught up on his ex and I believe this was his way of coping, Fay having spent most of her days in front of the TV. “I’ll meet you at the Scuzz Pit (his bar) at quarter to Beverly,” he’d say, meaning the Beverly Hillbillies. It all worked out pretty well until the 6 Million Dollar Man moved in August of that year and the shorthand “Six” now meant seven…
Let me pull us out of the rabbit hole a little bit here. The acting in California Dreaming isn’t as awful as you’d expect. Dennis Christopher is laughable as the doe eyed TT, and a couple of the bit characters are over the top, but other than that it’s way better than the movie deserves, so you might not even notice. If you do, perhaps you’re half recognizing Tanya Roberts as Steph, who went on to become a Bond girl, pilot the Beastmaster spinoff Sheena, and more famously play Midge Pinciotti on That ‘70s Show. Or maybe it’s our man Duke that’s on the sweets of your tongue. Seymour Cassel is known for a number of Wes Anderson films. Ever see Rushmore? Yeah, he’s the lovable hair cutting dad. Speaking of Duke…
It was the third week in July and he was tickling himself by dressing me in the shortest shorts he could find and matching them with a pair of black crew socks. I had a one track mind that summer, and who wouldn’t with all the female flesh spilling out at me. Ripe, ever jiggling haunches appearing through sweat pants, the JUICY arcing the ass having been worn away from sliding into and out of restaurant booths a hundred thousand times; the fabric, fraying and bald, exposing zebra print, or heavily stained panties. White too-small Wal-Mart shirts, no bra, gravity and fatty foods. Good god! I went to see Avatar that summer and a rotund woman was in such dire need of a harness that when she swung away from grabbing napkins in front of me a centrifugal titty smashed my 48 ounce collectible cup of high fructose wapatoolie. Have you ever seen a can of Coke used as a frame of reference, to show how large are Mutombo’s hands or petite a figurine? Well when four cans worth of such reference gets vaporized in the blink of an eye, consider it framed. There was more proof than pudding and it took every ounce of awkward cowardice not to jump my own bones right then and there.
Duke saw that I wasn’t getting very far – these bloated gazelles were easy enough to catch up with but I didn’t have the jaw to take one down – so he took me by the wrist one morning and led me into the basement for some ping pong practice. “The key to getting tang,” he said, “is table tennis. The better you get with a paddle, the more poon you get. The more poon you get, the better you are a paddling it. That’s a block I been around, son. She comes full square! I was in the 1980 Olympics!” This last line being his go to reason for any behavior or argument. Sir, only one sauce per patron – I WAS IN THE 1980 OLYMPICS! And he’d stuff as much Chik-Fil-A sauce as would fit in his corduroys, just daring them to try and stop him. As no one ever did, I considered the claim verified.
It was hard as hell to concentrate during those morning sessions – Duke had the mouth of a blow up doll from breakfast, mind you – but eventually I caught on and gave up. I mean, no one from Chicago can learn ping-pong! Besides I had better things to do. I had befriended a couple over-the-hill heroin addicts and every now and again they’d let me lick the needle. It was good for a half hour high or so, and if I was just convincing myself of that, at least it felt good to finally fit in a little.
I used this newfound confidence to drowned myself for attention at the lake house of one of the cool kids. Duke even lent me a millstone he used in a similar desperation to get the attention of the Finnish women’s rowing team at the 1980 Olympics. Worked like a curse. Took the dedicated effort of the entire clique to keep me on this side of Hawaii. Spittle, bile and lake water were everywhere. I had never felt so close to cool as when Rick suctioned on for CPR. He was the most bitch’n guy, everyone agreed; they said he could sleep with anyone. I could feel the scraggle and crawl of cold sores lining his mouth as he breathed for me. They say he could sleep with anything he wanted. “I’m about to deposit! I’m about to deposit!” he’d moan into the intercom of unsuspecting bank tellers. “Well go ahead sir,” and they’d receive his pneumatic pregnation as he drove away, diabolical with laughter. He later screwed a McDonald’s apple pie right out of my hand! So many urban legends came from that one. Man, he was the definition of cool.
The herpes I got from Rick became my calling card. I’d wake up each morning and polish that sexually transmitted cherry (of course this was HSV-1, but no one had to know that), making damn sure nothing popped it. By this time I had completely forgotten about my brother and the quest to make his dying wish come true. Or maybe I had already accomplished that… doesn’t matter. What’s dead is dead; this is California Dam!
I had my sights set on Duke’s daughter, Corky, the mythical virgin. I was a virgin too, but men aren’t mythical, they’re pathetic; and no virgin can be virtuous, modest, or even simply patient, that goes without saying. I fondly remember riding on the roof of a car with a drunk Mexican who was coaching me on how to score a virgin. The guy from Jiffy Lube had welded himself in his car to win a bet, and there we were, streaking along the beach on top his Buick, the sun extinguishing itself directly into the water, the world aglow with the temporal euphoria of heat and light, and the waves licking haplessly at the tracks we left ever onward. It was probably the most California moment of them all. The trick, he said, was raping them.
As luck would have it, Corky was unwittingly walking the beach and our car fast approaching. I jumped my first love from the hood of a Buick against her will! I was too scrawny to pull it off – she pinned me face first in the sand – but it turned out to be more of an ice breaker than a felony. She was being such a bitch anyway. Ever since I moved into their utility closet… so what if her dad spent more time with a stranger than her own daughter? I let her have it one day and eventually guilted her into the most awkward sex, probably ever. It’s hard not to miss those days of innocence!
I touched boob. I’m not sure if I made that clear but I 100% touched boob! All boob. All touch. All touch boob. But I don’t want to make it seem like it was only fun and games. No there were tough lessons too.
One day I went surfing with Rick and the crew on one of Beaver Dam’s serene lakes and my entire world came crumbling down with the Jenga of a single factoid. There’s no way Duke could have been in 1980 Olympics, the United States boycotted the Moscow games over the invasion of Afghanistan! How much of my relationship with a random, horny, goat milk chugging barkeep was a lie? All that sexual ping-pong, was that a lie too? Was his daughter even virgin? I went raping after her like she was a virgin, that son of a bitch!
Well it all turned out to be a big misunderstanding. We had an argument. I said words I regret, I’m sure he said words he regrets; I know we both said things that weren’t words but from a grammatical standpoint were regrettable; the point is it’s all surf under the pier now. Turns out Duke actually was in the 1980 Olympics. He won a contest through the community college he was attending to be an equipment manager; all he had to do was pay the airfare. It was more of an internship than a contest, but one never sets their heart to something based on technicalities. Duke’s father, Kent Slusarski, worked three months overtime at Richelieu foods to get that plane ticket, so when Jimmy Carter threw a wrench in the works, boycott or no boycott he wasn’t going to see it go to waste; and off went the Duke, pie eyed and in for a surprise. He never learned to be surprised.
The Soviet Union greeted him like a lost child hoping to piece together a scab delegate and sell America’s political stance at odds with its people. The embarrassment was entirely Soviet. Duke Slusarski was paraded through opening ceremonies as the lone US representative and billed in the Kruglolitsyy Natatorium as America’s table tennis superstar, but nobody bought it (the sole exception being, possibly, that of the Finnish women’s rowing team. Duke said he banged himself into a boomerang, exposing himself for proof, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it measured at a striking 39 degrees). In their haste the Soviet’s failed to realize what everyone else could see at first glance, Slusarski was no athlete.
To further amplify international attention a series of dives was in place to get Duke to the Gold medal game, but he proved uncoordinated beyond propaganda. Already in pool play things unraveled. Romania’s Andrei Gigurtu was, if he wanted to keep his family from a Siberian internment camp, to lose to the Duke in a close match. Mathematically if they traded service errors the Duke would win, but he wasn’t making it easy on Gigurtu, eagerly giving chase to every errant shot, charging through the repeated reminders and even the outstretched arms of Olympic officials, celebrating every touch of the ball and the attention it brought him as if he were doing the exact opposite of coming this close to fucking everything up.
The hatred that must have been constricting Gigurtu, mind and body, as the Duke’s sweaty ebullience hopped at ready before each serve. Imagine a tactless Tom Arnold interjecting into the most emotionally formative conversation of your life and you’d be halfway there. A fatigue of worry was hollowing Gigurtu, his bones like a steel silo in the arctic, packed with cold bunks, muscle gone lean and wiry, a howling, swirling wind, just enough padding and heat to keep bed bugs, to remind blistered hands through a hopeless night of the real beds at home, somewhere over the arctic waste, endlessly forgotten in the lifeless white, sheer harsh of time…
Sweat ran Gigurtu’s gaunt cheeks. Under the precarious girth of human life, and ragged with hatred, he lapsed to muscle memory and dribbled out the most routine serve of his life. The egg of nausea was cracked open, it’s contents running down, lining his stomach as he watched his family bounce away hapless and light as air – *Pok* *Pok* – the twin sounds scoring the point with the stern tsk-tsk of some faceless man in uniform. Duke waved at it like the clumsy animal that he was, but Gigurtu was right to immediately regret it as he missed terribly and raised to Andrei the most insufferable face possible, a congratulatory ‘aw shucks!’
Obviously there’s death. I told you this movie was half Porky’s, half after school special, and you can’t learn anything in an after school special without death, but let’s get back to what’s important…
The Soviet gambit with Slusarski didn’t work out. They were starting to think Duke was sent over by the States as a sort of walking talking middle finger, which of course he was, but not in the way they suspected; and the States were desperate to do anything to distract the world from a citizen and hired representative parading the opening ceremony of the boycotted games; so the whole thing was relegated to that dusty bin of wherever things go when the world’s two foremost nuclear powers want something forgotten. But boy did I have to eat crow when I found out the truth! The Duke really was the man. The same week as this revelation his cousin gave birth to a Caucasian girl and a Mongoloid without genitalia. Slow motion high five, roll credits.
At this point you’re probably wondering how much of this was in the movie, how much was Beaver Dam, and how much I made up; whether an entire family was lost to penal servitude. Hey, I told you to just hit play. Tell you what, there’s this fun game a guy I know named Lot played with his friend God. He was like, hey, if only 10% of this bullshit is true are you not gonna watch the movie? 20%? 30%? God decided to just erase that movie off the face of the earth, which would be extra omniscient in this case, but you don’t have that option, so let’s change the game up a bit. I bet you can’t guess with greater than 50% accuracy which of the following are literally in the movie, which are exaggerated, and which are completely invented. (Hint – two are exaggerated, four are literal, and five are totally fake.)
1. Breast smashes a coke out of TT’s hand.
2. Duke is addicted to goat milk.
3. TT stops into an auto body for info on the LA jazz scene.
4. Duke tells time via TV shows.
5. TT gets herpes from a surfer.
6. Duke’s cousin is pregnant with twins from different men.
7. Drunk Mexican coaches virgin rape while riding on the roof of a moving vehicle.
8. Duke was in the Olympics.
9. Man is welded into his Buick to win a bet.
10. Andrei Gigurtu loses his family to penal servitude.
11. TT drowns himself for attention.
Of course there’s only one way to find out…