Occasionally I’ll be reading a book and I’ll come across something that just knocks my socks off, because it’s profound or I can’t get it out of my head, or I’m angry about it or I haven’t come to a conclusion about it yet and need to think about it some more. Sometimes it’s just that it strikes me particularly funny. This is from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, which purports to be a novel¹ made up entirely of questions:

If you were part of a couple living in a three-story Victorian house with a bad paint job outside and a shabby interior, to the extent that some of your rooms were lit by bare lightbulbs on swinging cords effecting heavy glare on the beadboard walls, wouldn’t you consider it an appropriate diversion for the two of you to play Norman Bates and his mother at least sometimes?

I may not be able to quote this ten years from now but I bet I will on occasion remember the general sentiment, the specificity that makes you think that the author is driving towards a conclusion you really can’t imagine, and then you get there and it absolutely is that and it’s even more off-the-wall than could have been predicted.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with insomnia lately, often manifesting as waking up at 1am and being unable to fall back asleep for hours (or even, on  one memorable night, at all). So maybe it was the 1:30-in-the-morning-and-reading-punchy effect, but dang, that question just zinged me.

¹I don’t know how much I’m inclined to agree with this classification, yet, but I suppose I’m only half-way through this admittedly fairly short work. Not even sure I can recommend it. There have been other good moments, but I haven’t been able to pick out anything that feels quite like narrative yet.

I have a weird confession to make

There are any number of movies I’ve seen multiple times. I’ve seen Alien and its sequels many times. I’ve seen the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones¹ trilogies lots of times. There are lots of Pixar and Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen many times… unavoidable, when you have kids. I’ve rewatched a bunch of Tarantino, and Fincher, and Gilliam. There are probably hundreds of films I’ve seen a couple of times, once when I saw them in the theater and a second time when I shared them with my sons.

But the film I’ve seen more times than any other — probably over 100 times — is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It turns 30 today.

I don’t know why I love this movie so much. I had a VHS copy in grad school and it was just the thing I would turn on at night after programming or studying all day. It was my wind-down film, one I’d have a friend over and throw on to watch over beers. There was a period of time when I’d just put it on randomly once or even twice a week, when my then-girlfriend was asleep, on low.

I don’t think it’s a perfect film. But I do think there’s something simply wonderful about its tone and I do think the structure is pretty great, too. It has an almost earnest sweetness to it, on top of an admittedly silly conceit. But that silliness leads to pleasures that just connect with me for reasons I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain, even to myself.

If you somehow have never seen this movie, let me try to get you a quick plot description². The film opens with two teens — Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan, played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves respectively — being informed by their history teacher that if they don’t absolutely ace their history presentation the following day, they will flunk the class and have to retake it over the summer. The stakes are high; if this happens, Ted’s father will send him to military school in Alaska, and that will kill Bill and Ted’s dreams of being in a band together. It turns out that the stakes are even higher — we are given a glimpse of the far future with Rufus (the late, great George Carlin) describing the utopia that the world has become… as a result of the music and philosophy of Bill and Ted. Rufus is tasked with getting Bill and Ted across the finish line of their history report through the use of a time machine… and we’re off to the races. They’ll visit various time periods, kidnap historical figures, and trash the local mall, all on the way to acing that report.

The absurdity of this premise leads to some wonderful places. It’s so peculiar and specific; the very idea that all the students of San Dimas³ high school will all give history reports to an auditorium filled with students is insane. The selection of historical figures is great; Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Beethoven. What would these historical figures think of San Dimas 1989? Well, we get to see. There are several wonderful montages: Napoleon enjoying a water park4, the teens kidnapping the historical figures, the figures enjoying the local mall, and the final presentation. The jokes are very frequent, though sometimes understated, and mostly motivated by character. There are a ton of tiny delights that never fail to make me smile, like Clarence Clemons being the apparent leader of that future utopia or the way Keanu Reeves will refer to Joan of Arc as “Miss of Arc” or Bill’s confession of a minor Oedipal complex (it’s a long story) or funny little time travel bits.

I was 18 when this movie came out, and I actually missed it in the theater, because it seemed too silly to me; to this day I don’t watch a lot of comedy. I caught it as a rental a year or two later and it just completely connected and I eventually got a copy of my own that I wore out. I don’t know how it has changed my brain to have seen this movie so many times, other than to say that it informs some of my sense of humor. Bizarre as it is to say this, it’s one of a few films that reflect something about my psyche, and the only one of those films that is lighthearted.

I haven’t watched it in a few years. I’m going to watch it again today. Happy thirty years, Bill and Ted. Thanks for being excellent to me.

¹There are only three Indiana Jones films, released in 1981, 1984, and 1989 and I will fight you on this. (back)

²Better yet, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can go and watch it there for free. It’s a lean 90 minutes. (back)

³Ever since I got a phone with a weather app, I’ve made one of my stored locations San Dimas. I’ve never been there, but sometimes on a rainy day I’ll just look and see that it remains beautiful weather in sunny San Dimas. True story. (back)

4A few years back Cameron Kunzelman made a trivial little web game that he shared with me on Twitter that recreates this scene in a minimalist style with the music playing… I laughed for a solid five minutes with joy. Cam, if you’re reading this, you have to send me that game again, it’s not on your site. (back)