Volume 2, Number 2 -- February, 1997
by Dr. Jonas Wasley
The question before us is whether or not popularity is linked in any way to artistic merit. The answer I'm afraid is a resounding no. As I write this, the most popular movie in the country is a film called Twister. Without having seen the movie myself, I can only guess as to it's artistic merit. Suffice it to say this is a movie about a killer tornado. That's right, two hours and millions of dollars to tell the story of a tornado. I'm sorry, it may sound snobbish, but I fail to see how the story of a tornado can be basis of the most popular film in the country.
That being the case, it may indeed be somewhat odd for me to write my paper on the movie Cabinboy starring Chris Elliot. This is a movie that lasted about thirty seconds in theatrical release and was savaged by the critics. This is a film that I would be hard pressed to find three people to pay to go see, let alone the thirty million or so that will eventually see Twister. Yet, Cabinboy, for all it's bad jokes (and it has some baaad jokes) has something that many films do not. It has a coherent, artistic vision and every now and then, when you catch a glimpse of what it was shooting for, you can find art in it.
Chris Elliot has built his career on the surreal. He got his start on the old "Late Night with David Letterman" program in the eighties. On this show he played the quintessential vain, Hollywood star, wanting only to show his clips and talk about himself. The joke being that his clips were just that, clips. He had no movie, no career, he was simply a guest, and a very annoying one at that. Many people never have gotten that gag, they still see Elliot as the self absorbed jerk that appeared on Letterman so many times for no apparent reason.
It should come as no surprise then, that Elliot's first starring role should come in the twisted fairy tale that is Cabinboy. In it, Elliot plays Nathaniel Mayweather, a rich, spoiled, insufferable young man. When we meet Nathaniel, he finishing his studies in preparation to becoming a "fancy lad", a sort quasi-nobility in this film. It is apparent from the start that Nathaniel has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is rude, vain, egotistical and an absolute moron. If Chris Elliot has any genius, it is the genius of taking loathsome characters and giving a modicum of likability. You know that Nathaniel is an insufferable jerk, and you enjoy seeing him humiliated, but only a small scale. In the end you do want him to succeed.
Nathaniel's father has booked him first class accommodations on the "Queen Katherine", the world's most luxurious cruise ship. He is to go to Hawaii (the only bit of reality in the film) and take over his father's luxury hotel. A series of missteps, including a run in with David Letterman as a grizzled old fisherman, land Nathaniel in the "Filthy Whore". Nathaniel is convinced that this seedy old fishing smack is actually the "QK" turned into a theme boat. When he is discovered, he is forced to assume the duties of the ship's cabin boy. The film from here on is a tale of the Nathaniel's and the ship's misadventures on their way to Hawaii.
The reason that this film works and perhaps the reason it is either loved or hated, is that it doesn't compromise. You know from the very start that this is going to be a movie ground firmly in the bizarre. Whereas many pictures of this type would opt for an ending that tried to convince us that these characters are just like us at the base of it, Cabinboy leaves you with the sense that you've just finished watching some truly twisted people move through their lives. It is this feeling of being true to itself that I love about the movie.
We have seen that a recurring bit of symbolism is important in film. In Cabinboy this taken care of by Nathaniel's "christening wig". The christening wig is the mark of the fancy lad. As Nathaniel says when his wig is thrown overboard, "There, by the grace of God, floats away my manhood". When he fishes Trina, who will become his lover, out of the sea, the wig is attached to her. She has returned his manhood to him. As we find out later though, the christening wig represents the old Nathaniel's concept of manhood. His belief that he is above the rest and entitled to special treatment merely because of who he is, are all represented by the wig. When, at the end of the movie, he rejects his life of wealth and idleness to sail the sea with Trina and the crew of the "Filthy Whore". He does so by flinging the now battered christening wig (and his similarly battered old concept of manhood) at his father.
Is Cabinboy art? In the sense that it has an overriding, single theme and vision, yes it is. As far as it's visual merits are concerned, probably not. Overall, Cabinboy is the sort of movie that could have been much more successful commercially by pandering to mass market tastes. To it's credit, the film forces you to accept or reject it on it's terms, not yours.
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