Monday, February 18, 2013

In Defense Of: It's Pat - The Movie

I'm always looking for lost classics, those diamonds in the rough that I skipped over in the past either because I didn't like them at an age where my tastes weren't so refined, or because I ignored them completely based on some erroneous preconceived notion about a movie's apparent quality. Every once in a while I'll be reminded of an old movie I've dismissed as crap, or hear some new fact about it that reignites my interest, and it compels me to go back and see if maybe my long held assumptions might have been incorrect. Such is the case with the film I'd like to talk about today, one that has long been held up not only by myself but by many people as the worst movie ever to be based on a Saturday Night Live sketch. I just re-watched It's Pat, a movie that for the years since its debut has been my go to reference whenever I needed a bad movie for comparison. But is it so terrible?

The reason I went back to this film in particular was because one day several months ago I happened to be exploring, where I discovered a nugget of information that perplexed me. Apparently, now legendary writer director Quentin Tarantino, who has had a hand in many of my favorite films since I first came of the age to appreciate cinema, also had a hand in at least one draft of It's Pat, being close personal friends with its creator and star Julia Sweeney. As much as I have criticized Tarantino's recent work, mostly due to a feeling that he might be too keen nowadays to rest on his laurels with gratuitous genre pastiche, you can't fault the guy just on a writing level. His skill with dialogue and the unique cadence he brings to every script he's had influence on is undeniable. Clearly, just the fact that he was involved, even if it was only tangentially, means there must be something to this movie, right?

Its easy to dismiss It's Pat as one joke taken way too far, to the point where it seems absurd to even commit to such a project in the first place. While many would no doubt consign the film to the late 90's post-Wayne's World hubris of Lorne Michaels in thinking that any SNL sketch sufficiently popular enough could be stretched into a full film, I think this criticism is missing the point, which is to say, the absurdity of the undertaking is exactly the point of the movie. The ultimate joke of It's Pat, beyond the fact that this character is androgynous, is that everybody, including the writers themselves, know that this shouldn't be a movie. The lengths the film goes to make a movie out of such a thin set up is I think a very deliberate commentary on the short sighted and shallow assumptions that led to it being greenlit in the first place. Nowhere is this evidenced more than in the film's main antagonist, a character who is literally driven to the point of madness by the conundrum of Pat's gender.

And just on that one note alone, I can't recommend this movie enough. I never gave much thought to Charles Rocket when he was alive, though come to think of it I never disliked a performance of his, but after watching this film again after so many years, I've become convinced that the late actor was without any hyperbole, a comic genius. Watching him slowly come unhinged, his momentary curiosity at a new neighbor escalating into a psycho-sexual obsession, turns what might have been a painfully lackluster film into a brilliant deconstruction of its concept. It is the most insane comic depiction of insanity in recent memory, and if you can't laugh at his interactions with his homemade Pat puppet, or his final gambit in the house of mirrors, then you just don't know funny.

Thinking back on the 90's, I can't help but view It's Pat The Movie as an unintentionally cogent examination of the often confused sexual politics of the time. Among the many jokes teasing and then concealing Pat's gender identity is in the revelation of his/her equally androgynous significant other Kris. And yet, as we essentially learned in the 90's, if this plot element had been definitive, if for example Kris were confirmed to be a woman, then despite the construction of the joke, it wouldn't be any clue to what Pat is biologically. At a time when homosexuality and a generally expanding idea of sexuality were so culturally exposed, this fact couldn't have been lost on these writers, and in many ways, the entire conceit of this one joke of this one joke movie can be viewed as an extremely subtle satirical observation on the growing complexity of sex and identity characteristic of the decade.

And that doesn't even begin to touch upon the truly tragicomic nature of the main character, who is in fact much more interesting than many critics would allow, or the basic structure of any given Pat sketch would suggest. Pat's most predominant character trait, even more pronounced than his/her androgyny, is that he/she is incredibly, impossibly obnoxious. Though not necessarily malicious, Pat is almost completely self-centered and seemingly pathologically lacking in empathy, and outside of Kris effectively has no friends. And yet he/she thinks he/she has many friends, who secretly, or in some cases obviously disdain him/her, though he/she is oblivious to this. Pat is able to maintain the illusion of friendships with people who hate him/her because even though they hate Pat, they are intensely curious, maintaining falsely cordial relationships in the hopes of learning his/her gender.

They throw an engagement party just to create a series of opportunities to answer their question, and engage with Pat just to get a hint, no matter how awful Pat is to them. In effect, his/her androgyny is not simply a quirk, but a social barrier to him/her developing the kind of personality that might actually garner true friendships, validating his/her ignorance and egotism by making him/her a figure of morbid curiosity that outweighs the scorn his/her behavior should otherwise elicit. When Pat finally is challenged by a stranger directly on the subject of gender, the question fills him/her with utter fear, which is implied to be the first time Pat ever considered the possibility that there was any confusion. And yet, the sheer amount of coincidences and the obvious eggshells everyone had to walk around him/her suggest that Pat is at least somewhat complicit in concealing the truth, content to live in a bubble and use the mystery as an excuse not to do the real work of caring about others as true friends must do, even as it keeps him/her unhappy without his/her even realizing it.

And it has Ween in it!

When I first started watching It's Pat The Movie again and found myself surprisingly enjoying it, I was at first planning to simply discuss the film's strengths in such a way as to argue that it wasn't nearly as bad as its reputation would claim. However, the more I think about it, the more my estimation of the film rises when compared to the other SNL movies. Its certainly not the best, though it is by far not the worst, and much like the surprisingly heartfelt and criminally underrated Stuart Saves His Family, there's more to it than most people remember, and as far as I'm concerned, its worth another look if you've dismissed it in the past, as I once did.

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