The Cable Guy

(Ben Stiller, USA, 1996)


In the mid ’70s, Robin Wood made the startling suggestion that the sunny Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944) and the disreputable, contemporary horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) were intimately linked with each other – and were indeed quite alike in a number of important ways.

After all, both films are about families, and both are about the seething tensions that haunt these families: in both stories we see a family under stress, cracking up, struggling with the question of how to keep the family community together. Then these tensions and problems escalate, and can no longer be contained.

Of course, tensions get worked through or ironed out differently in each film. In Meet Me in St Louis, as in so many musicals, problems can be diffused, siphoned off, sweetened in the release provided by song and dance. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, we get the usual inventory of horror film excesses and transgressions: murder, cannibalism, incest. Tobe Hooper viewed his family unit as a grotesque parody of the ideal happy family – a happy, smiley television family of the ’60s, in-bred and gone to seed but still (in a deliberately absurd way) a model family, the family that slays together and stays together.

But even back in the bright, Hollywood studio fantasy-world of Meet Me in St Louis, so magically conjured by Vincente Minnelli, there were disconcerting moments of seemingly excessive violence, disturbance and sadness. How many of us have been haunted by the sight of little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) in this film – hysterically screaming and crying as she destroys the snowmen in her backyard?

One of the main points that Wood was making when he suggested this comparison was an idea about how popular film genres work. He argued that genres work in a secret symbiosis, forming a certain unspoken contract: one genre agrees to express what another agrees to repress. If a lightweight musical is seething with hidden tensions and doubts, these can explode somewhere else, for example in a horror movie, where that brand of tasteless exhibitionism and anti-social destruction is more acceptable and familiar – safe, in a sense. All genres exist to keep certain ideas, stories, emotions, moods, possibilities fenced off into discrete little boxes. Consciously or not, they keep a pretty tight lid on many things that trouble us in daily life. And that’s the contract that we as viewers have with genres, more or less: we want to be surprised, but not too surprised – we want the particular form of artifice, the specific kind of containment and entertainment which that genre usually gives us.

The important thing is that all of us always need more than one genre – and that’s why there is this secret correspondence, this complicit whispering between and among the various genres: on the screen, in our heads and hearts. Genres keep things in boxes, but they can build bridges too, stage thrilling encounters, ignite sudden connections. This has become a more prevalent – also messier and less predictable – process in contemporary postmodern cinema, where bits of different genres are routinely mixed-and-matched in search of a new variation, frisson or box-office aggregate. I will never forget the explosion in me when I first saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990). Simply by having a woman (Jamie Lee Curtis) in the lead cop role, the movie is able to aggressively and tantalisingly butt together the heightened, hallucinatory violence of an action-mystery-thriller with problems of domesticity, romantic longing and father-daughter breakdown: all echoes, once more displaced, of terms in the female gothic model.

The Jim Carrey vehicle The Cable Guy is an odd hybrid or forcing together of comedy with elements of the horror and thriller genres. The film’s director, Ben Stiller, knows this: in the press kit, he confidently states: “Let’s call it Hitchcock meets Jerry Lewis. Or, as I prefer it, Rosemary’s Baby meets The Odd Couple“. And this comedy/horror is already a Carrey speciality, if one remembers The Mask (1994) and his role in Batman Forever (1995). In itself, the mixture isn’t always fascinating – it has swiftly become superficial and formulaic over a string of blockbusters.

The Cable Guy, however, can be reconfigured within a somewhat different family tree of movie references. What it most immediately resembles is one of the many paranoid thrillers about intimacy that filled theatres and video shops in the ’90s. Like in Cape Fear (1991) or Single White Female (1992), Pacific Heights (1990) or The Comfort of Strangers (1991), the hinge is always friendship: a new friendship that propels someone into an often thrilling and exciting, eventually dangerous and threatening, new life. Someone walks into your daily routine – a cop, a babysitter, a newspaper delivery person, a teacher or a student, a blind date – or, as in this case, the guy who visits your place to install cable television. This stranger wins your trust, insinuates himself or herself into your life, gains every intimate knowledge of you – and then proceeds to psychotically turn your life upside down. That’s certainly what the cable guy does to straight man Steven (Matthew Broderick). In one of the more compelling scenes, Carrey pays an uninvited visit to Steven’s girlfriend. Carrey’s seductive spiel – backed up, as always, by the promise of free installation of cable – reaches a turning point when he purrs: “I’m probably crossing a border here, but … “

Carrey’s character is very closely modelled on the sinister, loopy villains of the intimacy thrillers that preceded it. In some ways, this character goes even further than those nuts, because of all the different social attributes and sentiments that Carrey can combine in the one amazing, performing body. Carrey is one of those performers who can hold together enormously contradictory elements within a frankly fantastic, excessive character. In this role, he’s all at once manipulative and childish, magnetic and creepy, stupid and brilliant. Carrey is among the most remarkable phenomena of popular culture in the ’90s because he’s one of the most dazzling signs of our times.

In The Cable Guy Carrey hails from the lower classes – he’s some kind of nerd, a tech-head from darkest suburbia. He’s an unsocialised brute like a lot of thriller villains, low on culture, politeness, educated manners and interpersonal etiquette. In fact, he just barges in and crashes through every boundary marking that precious modern commodity known as personal space. On the other hand – a fascinating addition – this cable guy can actually talk (sort of) about these very issues of personal space and intimate commitment – because he’s a mass media junkie, always quoting and spewing forth the wisdom of Oprah Winfrey or Star Trek like some demented pop culture jukebox.

That’s another element which fast became classic – or, at any rate, standard – in ’90s cinema: the crazy anti-hero who lives in a media-saturated hyperreality, mimicking television, internalising it, and eventually living out its fantasies, like Nicole Kidman’s character in Gus Van Sant’s remarkable To Die For (1996). Like a lot of recent movies, Pulp Fiction (1994) included, The Cable Guy plays on the fun and familiarity of all these knowing pop references. But it also generates a palpable unease from them – as if a collective psychosis cannot be too far down that Information Superhighway which Carrey keeps eulogising. In the spectacular karaoke set-piece of the film, Carrey sings a ’60s hippie classic – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” – blithely, throwing in one-liners about death and murder as if everything is on the same level plane of merry, kitsch unreality.

Carrey as the Cable Guy is also a man without a name. His identity is makeshift, and shifty. He’s an extraordinarily indefinite, ambiguous, proto-queer construct. His sexuality is certainly one of the most mysterious things about him. The film oozes sexual references of all sorts, from the very first moment when Carrey enters Steven’s apartment and caresses the wall, looking (as he explains) for the "nipple" or "hot spot" where his drill is to be inserted. But these sexual references keep ricocheting wildly between hetero and homo orientations, until one really starts to wonder what this movie is actually about – or if it even has a clear idea what it’s about. The presence of a far less talented but vaunted American comedian is not too far away from these games: Pauly Shore, who in Jury Duty (1995) manages to dress in drag and let himself be seduced by a male serial killer, but bounces onto a stage in the final scene in his underpants at a strip club before an all-female audience, belting out a disco tune titled “I’m a Heterosexual Man”. Go figure.

When it comes to the history of film comedy, The Cable Guy deserves to be discussed alongside not Jerry Lewis or The Odd Couple, but a few performers even lower down the scale of cultural respectability, like Shore or Cheech & Chong. Once more, Carrey is able to make the link – in this case, the link between doped-out, tasteless, bad-manners comedy and brilliant burlesque mimicry. Carrey is obviously drawn to the style of comedy where certain real, dramatic problems – such as the problem of intimacy in the modern world – are given a black, cruel twist by maximising the degree of humiliation and embarrassment inherent in them.

The Cable Guy is an often painful film to watch, like Scorsese’s absolutely seminal masterpiece The King of Comedy (1983). In one scene, Carrey works his way into the affections of every member of Steven’s family; he goads or seduces them all into letting go of their inhibitions by playing a parlour game called Porno Password. Carrey keeps whispering lasciviously into Steven’s ear the sex-related word he must then somehow get his own mother to utter. Mum, for her part, seems thrilled; but Steven freaks out – and the audience squirms with him, every terrifying inch of the way.

This high-grotesque scene of family interaction brings us back to Wood’s twinning of Meet in St Louis and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Throughout the ’90s, there was a strange pack of comedy films – some of them aimed at kids – which featured overt, intense, almost drooling references to horror cinema, and one film in particular: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That film is, explicitly, about the breakdown of the family unit – a breakdown of monstrous, murderous proportions. There are many references to Kubrick’s film, for instance, in the Dennis the Menace derivative Problem Child (1990). This kids’ movie is really a black comedy nightmare: the problem-child’s harassed father threatens to kill him and axe apart the corpse; his bad, sluttish mother lets herself be laid by another of those ubiquitous serial killers on the loose – in this instance played by the goofy Michael Richards from Seinfeld, who shares a certain deranged, unsocialised intensity with Carrey.

What was notable about Problem Child? Mainly that – although it ran for a long while in theatres, spawned a sequel, and now has a prominent place in video shops – few people seemed to notice how weird it was, how willfully and delightedly sick, and especially how much strange, unresolved stuff there was in it about sex, violence and unhappy families. The Cable Guy, for all its flaws, is a significant and fascinating film because it takes the hysteria of a Problem Child and places it dead centre in the mainstream of popular movie consumption, where it cannot so easily be ignored.

MORE Stiller: Reality Bites, Zoolander

MORE Carrey: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Truman Show, Batman Forever, Man on the Moon, Fun with Dick and Jane, Liar Liar

© Adrian Martin June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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