One Crazy Summer
There’s some kind of storyline, but we’ll skip it. John Cusack, Demi Moore, Bobcat Goldthwait – say no more. Savage Steve Holland’s One Crazy Summer bursts onto the cinema screen (where it performs for too few people, marking time until it can find its target audience on VHS) with all the energy of a form of cinema, and culture, long lost: those crazy summers of Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons on TV, early Mad magazine, Friz Freleng’s 1957 Three Little Bops (“the Dew Drop Inn did drop down”), Frank Tashlin’s movies of the ‘50s including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), and supremely, Tex Avery’s animated visions of frenzied libido and bodily mutilation (Red Hot Riding Hood, 1948).
It’s not just the general level of excess, vulgarity and madness – we get salutary doses of such coarseness from lesser films in the teen/trash genre like Animal House (1978) or the Police Academy (1984-1994) series. Although it must be said that One Crazy Summer achieves a sort of joyous paroxysm, a demented celebration of everyday, daggy lunacy with its parade of fine characters – stuttering, mentally retarded “twins” (who don’t look at all alike), nerds, murderous little girls, innocent looking mothers who charge their family members for meals, hippies, losers, even a proudly screwy dog among all these creatures letting their bodily parts/functions hang out – who triumph over the hated “cute fuzzy bunnies”, the beautiful, land-owning, yuppie class.
And it’s more than the all-in, anything-goes filmic style that freewheels, again and again, from animation to live action, parody to sentimentality, naturalism to blatant artificiality, randomness to musicality; that embraces all manner and intensities of acting style and physiognomy regardless of how (conventionally) unblended into an ensemble they may appear as they collide in the frame; and that dances wildly for the viewer, every twist and turn of its mad logic choreographed to set the mind well and truly boggling.
After all, we were already given in the year of 1986 (and what a glorious gift it was!) that masterpiece of teen funkiness, John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller's Day Off – a film whose level of moment-to-moment inventiveness and formal complexity puts most certified art movies (Ran  or whatever) to shame.
What is it? Some grim, inspired determination on Savage Steve’s part to go all the way, right past that point of Good Taste or measured rationality where life or mind or flesh beg to be preserved intact on screen. All the apparently solid and respectful properties of our world must be torn, bent, exploded, desecrated – for if laughter is not convulsive, if it does not wield a convulsing action upon people and things, it may never be beautiful.
One Crazy Summer’s philosophy is summed up in the marvellous scene of revenge – revenge against the teasers and bullies of the world, revenge against the very folklore of childhood itself – where two kids are told that, if they make horrible faces and happen to be, at that very moment, slapped on the back, their visages will stay that way forever. It’s only a few moments later that the girl who is the victim of their cruel jibes sets these guys in position and whacks them from behind … fixing their faces eternally in grotesquely stupid, monster-movie make-up. (Remember that Savage made his debut comedy, Better Off Dead , entirely on the running premise of a boy [Cusack again] devising ever more elaborate and messy ways to commit suicide.)
Why this rapture? Steve is doubtless under the sway of that ancient, superhuman principle which has previously taken possession of an impish genius like Tex Avery: he has surrendered to the imperious logic of the gag. A gag, once embarked upon, cannot be abandoned (although funny, it’s a deadly serious business); it demands the total reorganisation of the spaces and times of normality. A gag is a line leading away from reality and toward something stranger, more obscure; it is a way of connecting things (objects, people, ideas) previously unconnected.
One Crazy Summer is nothing but a succession of gags. Pure, abstract gags. It teaches us what we are too often reluctant to face: that craziness is the supreme form of logic (not its opposite), that the gag is the most sublime (not the most trivial) way of reorganising the world, that laughter is necessarily cruel, strange, destructive, transgressive.
In short: gag comedy (with Jerry Lewis at its historic helm, alongside Buster Keaton and Blake Edwards) is some kind of Utopia, a way to think and to dream. Wouldn’t you agree that Utopias are rather too rare and precious these days to be overlooked?
Once upon a time, I dreamt with the Utopia that is Savage Steve Holland’s One Crazy Summer. I live to tell.
2020 Postscript: Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, the charming (but already a little less anarchic) How I Got Into College (1989) scripted by Terrel Seltzer … For my cinephile generation, Savage Steve was among the most promising gods of the ‘80s. Then what? A move mainly into entertainment for kids, for Disney, throughout the ‘90s. The Legally Blondes spin-off in 2009. The Fairly Odd series of telefilms in the 2010s. Santa Hunters (2014) for Nickelodeon. A Netflix series in 2019, Malibu Rescue. I can’t bring myself to check out any of it. Should I? The thrill has gone, gone away …
© Adrian Martin December 1986