The Keg’s Back There

4 Apr

With American Reunion hitting theaters this week, the various faces of East Great Falls Class of ’99 have been popping up on TV and billboards all over the place.  There are probably many out there who hit American Pie fatigue shortly after the credits rolled on the second one, and the sight of Jim, Finch, Oz and Co. with a few years’ of mileage on them is not really a welcome one.  But personally, while it is a bit disconcerting to see what a decade has done to Ms. Suvari and Ms. Reid, the familiar images  of these characters strikes up a fondness normally reserved for old friends.

I’m sure most everyone has a few pieces of pop culture that happened to come about at a particularly important or memorable point in their lives – be it a movie, book, song, etc.  And for whatever reason, that slice of entertainment paired with a fond memory and never really escaped you after that.  The artistic merits of your personal cultural talisman can be questionable, and that’s not the point.  There are plenty of other deeply felt and profound films or songs that can be cherished and pointed to as truly your ‘favorites’.

You can put as many high-minded books and foreign films on your shelves as you want – the more prominent the better when that intriguing new neighbor stops by looking for some eggs.  But when it comes down to it, there is often a faded DVD sitting around somewhere on your shelf that has been carried along to every apartment you’ve ever lived in – waiting to be played in the case of a truly shitty day or just because you hadn’t seen it in far too long.  Here at Dan Swanky’s, one of those discs happen to be American Pie.

The original Pie found its way into my cinematic heart due in large part to its release coinciding with my stumbling transition from bright-eyed elementary school kid to hormone-fueled teenager.  I remember distinctly the first day I saw the movie, which is not something I can say for a lot of other films.  It was some weekend when I was 12, and while over at a friend’s house, he surreptitiously mentioned that he had a VHS copy of American Pie.  For a kid still grappling with the parental units over access to anything past a PG-13 rating, this was akin to someone sliding a Playboy and a pack of Camel Lights across the table.  I had heard of the movie’s raunchiness through various schoolyard networks, and being able to watch it was a thrilling rush in that manner unique to forbidden childhood activities.  On the drive back home in the family car afterwards, I felt as though I had just done something wrong – and I wasn’t in the least bit sorry.

The movie definitely did not disappoint when it came to offering up a theretofore unseen world of high school parties and sexual misadventures.  The casual depictions of hooking up were both entrancing and confusing – I knew I wanted to take part in all of this consensual fun, but I also had no idea what was going on at many points.  Of course, in the prideful chest-puffing way of adolescence, my friends and I loudly laughed at every part to show that we ‘got it.’  But I was definitely not entirely clear on the whole chain of events leading to scenes  like Tara Reid shouting out her arrival plans while Courtney Love growled along on the soundtrack.  All we knew that it looked fun, edgy, and grown-up.

As someone poised on the doorstep of high school and its teenage experiences, I was in a bit of impressionistic state, to say the least.  And American Pie arrived with a bundle of impressions, offering up an idealized image of high school full of debaucherous keg parties and sexually adventurous foreign exchange students.  I didn’t entirely buy into this image, but I bought in enough that I was mildly disappointed when high school did not, in fact, turn out to be like East Great Falls High.    That disappointment didn’t taint the movie, however, and as high school realities carried on, Pie became a familiar and welcoming reminder of the idealism and exciting newness of that 12-14 year-old range.  We were all looking forward to the nonstop fun awaiting with high school parties and their attendant high school girls.  The movie has come to represent a simpler, stylized vision of high school that never, and could never have, existed; it is still enjoyable to live the dream vicariously through Jim and the crew.

Set apart from my own personal experience and looked at on its own merits, there are several other reasons American Pie has remained an enjoyable movie for this long.  By using Jim’s viewpoint to tell the story, the creators presented a character that was easy to sympathize with as he endured some pretty universal high-school experiences.  In the original movie, Jim just wants to get laid, and he’ll do what it takes to get there.

The “Nadia” sequence, in which Jim falls all over himself to hook up with the beautiful foreign exchange student, is a great visual example of his endearing, misguided quest.  (The scene is also a visual time capsule of the late-90s teen experience: chat rooms, Blink-182 song AND cameo, bleached tips, puka shells, Shannon Elizabeth, Perfect 10, etc.)  He’s awkward, sincere, and ultimately doesn’t really go through any groundbreaking transformation at the end, like a lot of other fictional protagonists.  His story feels natural, and by extension, the movie resonates deeper than most of the other teen sex comedies that have come along since Pie.

As with many other movies you can have an unabashed soft spot for, there are of course some unfortunate aspects of American Pie that there’s no getting around.  The acting in the original is all over the place, ranging from high points like Seann William Scott’s career-launching Stifler performance to the Mena Suvari/Chris Klein blank stare contest.  That’s the price you can pay for having a bunch of relatively unknown teens headline your movie.  And the franchise has not had the greatest aging process – the raunchy edge of the first movie seems a lot tamer by now, and there have been some significant cases of diminishing returns with the sequels.  The spate of Band Camp spin-offs also don’t help with the franchise’s reputation for just being another major studio cash cow.

But all of that goes by the wayside when the first funky strains of generic porn music open up the first scene of American Pie.  At that point the smile goes on and doesn’t come off for the next two hours.  Sometimes, that’s all you’re looking for in a movie.

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