Recently I was doing some research for a film and found myself watching Cocoon. It’s a time capsule of the eighties, though given the wardrobe which looks disturbingly American Apparel, it could have been shot last week. Ironically, of course.
But it was the performance of Steve Guttenberg that really took me back to the days of fluro socks and new wave synth. Watching him was a time machine moment. I remember wanting to talk the way he did, act the way he did, get the girl the way he did (these were early days for me remember).
However, after living here in LA for a while, I now recognize that everything about the way he performed and was directed, was him being an archetype young Jewish kid; the manic stream of thought, the self-deprecation, the screwed up face and flailing arms, the cadence and timbre of his speech.
Of course when I was watching this, I was a middle class Australian kid who basically translated these movies as, “American”. And if it was American, it was better than anything that we were doing in Australia. America’s greatest export has always been its culture which is captured best in its movies and music.
It made me think about all the other American films that I was taking my social cues from in my early teens; Police Academy, Three Men and a Baby, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Gremlins, The Goonies, Big, Ruthless People, Ferris Bueller and so on. All of them great films and all of them with a few things in common.
All of these and others of their ilk were either cast with, written by, directed by, produced, or some combination of those four, by Jewish guys. They of course were creating films from a place of what was the norm for their lives or the ideal of the lives they wanted to lead.
And with me and all my friends worshipping at the altar of everything American, their norms and their dreams became ours too.
We would adopt this behavior in the playgrounds, try it on for size at the dinner table, use those lines when we were trying to pick up girls. We basically learned how to navigate the world by being Jewish. And since I was the dark-haired, slightly darker skinned boy in a sea of blonde guys, no one could claim the role of LA Jewish boy better than I could, at least I sort of looked the part.
When I didn’t get my way, the default was to do the whine that I heard employed by so many young guys in American movies. Even though this rarely worked on my parents, it gave me a feeling of cultural superiority; I didn’t get what I wanted, but I did get to Americanize my dismay. My parents may have been raised Protestant, but little did they know, they were raising two Jewish sons.
When I look back on it now, if a Jewish mother had strolled onto the playground of North Sydney Boys High School, all she would have seen was what she was getting at home from all of her children. We would have seemed like the most normal kids in the world.
And so life goes on, but even to this day there are moments when I feel the tickle of those old patterns and behaviors that come out in response to things that happen to me.
You can chuck out those American Apparel clothes when you come to your senses, but there’s something about being a young Jewish kid that’s always going to feel and fit just fine. Now there’s some 80s irony.