Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Don't Come Around Here No More

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers may have been the first album I ever bought with its shrink-wrap still intact. Money was tight when I was a kid, so I usually rummaged in the cut-out bins for used LPs (the first record I ever bought was a scratchy old copy of The Ventures' Guitar Freakout that had lost its cardboard sleeve). But I was flush with birthday money and eager to shop in the front of the store for once, and while I don't recall exactly why I singled out Tom Petty for this honor, it was probably a combination of "American Girl" and his skinny frame and straw-colored shag, which reminded me fondly of every beach town bum I knew with a garage band. Or at least, Funky Winkerbean.

R.I.P., Tom. I'll always remember you from that triumphant shopping trip to Licorice Pizza, and for your eccentric performance in The Postman.

The Postman (1997)
Directed by Kevin Costner
Written by Eric Roth, based on the novel by David Brin.

Tagline: “The year is 2013. One man walked in off the horizon and hope came with him.”

Yes, the movie takes place in 2013, and if you start watching it now you just might be done by then. It may not be the best movie ever made about a nameless drifter who restores hope to a post-apocalyptic world by pretending to be a mail- man, but it’s certainly the longest.

We soon learn that there was a big catastrophe about 15 years previously (which would have been right about when this movie came out—not that we’re implying anything). This disaster brought plagues and pretentiousness in its wake, and led to the collapse of the United States Postal Service.

In this desperate and desolate future, our mythic hero, Kevin Costner, and his mule Bill go from town to town, performing one-man-and-a-mule versions of Macbeth in order to get free soup. The three branches of the federal government are gone, but somehow the NEA is still managing to fund highly offensive art.

Following one such performance, the town is invaded by the Hardasses, a White Supremacist militia led by General Bethlehem (Will Patton), a former Xerox® salesman who went over to the dark side (Cannon). The Hardasses, a group apparently based on the Amway plan, terrorize the Pacific Northwest with their post-apocalyptic protection racket. The wimpy people of the future don’t dare fight back, for they lack regular mail delivery.

Kevin and Bill are forcibly enlisted and taken to Hardass Headquarters, where Kevin is made to play “musical chairs” and exchange shower gifts with the other recruits, and Bill is pureed and served for lunch. As part of freshman orientation, Bethlehem explains “The Law of Eight,” which has something to do with Dick Van Patten, then he forces Kevin to recite some Shakespeare for the group, which is so moved by his performance they immediately send him on a suicide mission.

Kevin escapes, and eventually takes shelter in an old mail van. Mindful of how badly he was upstaged by the mule, Kevin spends the next five minutes acting with a human skeleton, and barely manages to steal the scene. He also steals the skeleton’s uniform, hat, and sack of mail, and heads out to live the dream of every boy since time immemorial—impersonating a postal carrier.

Kevin approaches the nearby town of Pineview, and tells the citizens that the U.S. Government has been restored, and as its first act, Congress has reestablished the postal service. The people are rightfully suspicious, since everyone knows that Congress’s first priority would be giving themselves pay raises. But Kevin demands entrance, citing U.S. Legal Code requiring that everybody give mailmen sanctuary, food, and women.

That night at the You’ve Got Mail dance, Kevin meets Abby, a comely young woman who asks about his height, IQ, and semen. It turns out she wants a baby, but her husband had “the bad mumps” and so they want Kevin to be the child’s “body father.” Of course, the one-time bedding is successful and she becomes pregnant—proving that while FedEx may have a better on-time record for package delivery, the U.S. postal service is still your best bet for delivering sperm. (A better title for this movie might have been “The Postman Cometh.”)

Kevin visits the town’s abandoned post office, where he meets Ford Lincoln Mercury, a teen with one burning desire: to be a mailman! Kevin reveals that only another postman can make you a postman (just like vampirism), and he reluctantly swears Ford into the club. Kevin knows the whole postal service thing is a scam, much like a chain letter, but Ford is intrigued by the new overnight semen delivery service, and his guileless idealism inspires Kevin to press on with his route. 

As Kevin heads out of town with his sack of Visa bills and Valu-Paks, there are numerous shots of the hopeful faces of the crowd. A little blonde girl (played, in an utterly bizarre coincidence, by Kevin Costner’s real-life daughter) sings “America the Beautiful.” The whole ceremony makes you proud to get junk mail.

However, shortly after Kevin’s departure, General Bethlehem shows up, and spies Abby. “First class piece of ass,” he declares, which is crude, but much nicer than calling her a “bulk mail piece of ass.” He claims Abby as his concubine, invoking droit de seigneur, then hand-delivers the point of his sword to her husband’s liver. The little Costner girl is present at the murder; the camera cuts to her face, and we can plainly see she is horrified by the brevity of her close-up.

Meanwhile, Kevin is distributing mail in some town somewhere else. Everyone applauds. Crowds are much easier to please after the apocalypse. One woman wants to know if New York City survived the plague. Kevin tells her Broadway is up and running, and Andrew Lloyd Webber is playing! So, no, the plague is still with them.

About then, Bethlehem and his troops arrive. The town refuses to pay tribute, now that they have mail. But Kevin realizes that while mail is nice and all, the Hardasses have guns, so he sweeps Abby away on his horse, and they gallop off into a blizzard, even though it was July five minutes ago.

They set up housekeeping in a deserted barn and wait for the pass to clear. Like many couples, Abby feels that Kevin doesn’t do his share around the place. She’s pregnant with his body child, but still has to chop the wood. She has to gather the snow. She has to shoot the horse and make it into soup. Kevin responds that he would help out more, but he got shot in the stomach during that last battle, and the horse isn’t agreeing with him. Now, at last, the disparate threads of this movie are finally pulling together: We’ve got an axe-wielding woman in the throes of pre-partum depression sharing a snow-bound, isolated cabin with a gut-shot whiner, and we’re all set for a highly satisfying homage to Stephen King’s Misery. Unfortunately, Abby just burns the barn down, and then it’s spring.

On their way back to Pineview, Kevin discovers that Ford has declared himself Postmaster General, and recruited all the teens to deliver mail in a post-apocalyptic pony express. Kevin is touched by their plucky endeavor, and joins in, taking all the really dangerous routes, for he is...The Postman.

In the scene that encapsulates the whole movie, another of Costner’s small, blond spawn writes a letter, but doesn’t get it out to the mailbox before The Postman canters past. The kid is crestfallen. This is clearly a turning point in his young life, for he has learned that sometimes, even though you try your hardest, your letter just doesn’t make the 5:00 pickup. However, the Postman senses a disturbance in the Force, and turns around to gaze at the lad. For a really long time. The kid holds up the letter. For a really long time. You’re thinking Kevin might just decide to trot back the ten yards and get the letter, but instead he thinks awful long and awful hard. Finally, he turns his horse around and gallops towards the boy. He snatches the letter from the boy’s hand, then thunders off, a hero who was not too big to ride a horse full speed past a six-year-old kid for no reason whatsoever.

Meanwhile, General Bethlehem hates the Postal Service, because they represent the spirit of resistance to his tyrannical rule, and because they’re always late with his monthly copy of Sassy. So, Bethlehem starts killing the people of Pineview, and Kevin and Abby flee to a town ruled by Tom Petty. 

"I know you," Kevin marvels at Petty. "You're famous." Petty bashfully demurs, but later points at Kevin, grins goofily, and says: 
"I heard of you, man. You're famous," illustrating how the apocalypse reversed humanity's traditional definition of fame, with rock stars on the bottom and the guy who stuffs Kroger circulars into your mailbox now reigning supreme.

Kevin is ready to give up, but Abby pleads with him to re-don the Postman outfit, for he is Oregon’s last, best hope for getting their Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes notifications. She tells him passionately that he “gives out hope like it was candy in your pocket,” meaning that it’s hope softened by body heat and flecked with lint. So Kevin challenges Bethlehem for leadership of the Hardasses, under “The Law of Eight,” which allows for the replacement of Diana Hyland’s character with Betty Buckley. Kevin wins, of course, for he is...The Postman. He then institutes a new law: Peace. Everyone nods in appreciation. What a good idea—why didn’t anybody think of this sooner? We probably could have avoided that whole apocalypse thing.

It’s now 2043 A.D. A new civilization based on Martha’s Vineyard has arisen, and, thanks to regular mail delivery, Mankind has rediscovered the ability to order pink Polo shirts from J. Crew. Kevin and Abby’s daughter is present for the dedication of a statue to The Postman. It is an exact replica in bronze of the scene where Kevin snatched the letter out of the hand of little Anakin Skywanker. A man in the crowd says, “That was me!” And how nice that a sculptor was there to capture the moment. But hey, let’s just replay that “letter grabbing” scene one more time, shall we, and let it tug on your hearts some more. The End.

But wait, who is that singing a duet of “I Didn’t Have to Be So Nice (I Would Have Loved Me Anyway)” with Amy Grant over the closing credits? Why, it’s The Postman himself! Don’t leave your seat or you’ll miss that great, heart-swelling moment when The Postman mounts his horse one last time, gallops through the recording studio and snatches the sheet music out of Amy Grant’s hand for no reason whatsoever.

To sum up: In The Postman’s vision of the future, the survivors live in isolated fortifications, ignorant of the outside world, and regressing to a pre-industrial state of technology. Fortunately, it is still possible for one man to inspire hope by gadding about in clothes filched from a decayed corpse and foisting 15-year old Lillian Vernon catalogues on the apathetic masses.

So what lesson can the average viewer draw from this film? Well, if you’re planning to rise from the ashes of Armageddon and become a beacon of light to a world swathed in darkness, you should probably start thinking now about what sort of federal, state, or municipal employee you plan to impersonate. 

Forget being a letter carrier—Kevin’s got that sewed up—but perhaps you could be...The Sanitation Worker, bringing new life to a devastated world by restoring regular trash collection. You could impregnate the women on your route, battle evil bands of nomads who indiscriminately kill and litter, and “hand out hope like it’s garbage from a can.” Or perhaps you could be...The County Department of Weights and Measures Compliance Auditor, shattering the gloom like a bolt of lightning by ensuring the accuracy of commercial weighing and measuring devices, and verifying the quantity of both bulk and packaged commodities. Think how many women would want your sperm then! 

Of course, these are just suggestions; in fact, there are countless job possibilities for post-apocalyptic saviors. You could be...The Mosquito Abatement Program Coordinator, or...The Fictitious Business Names Registration Clerk, or...that guy at the County Department of Agriculture who issues permits to have disabled livestock euthanized.

The thought of a world-ending cataclysm is certainly terrifying. But as we have seen, virtually any clown can yank Mankind back from the brink of utter extinction, so long as he’s willing to wear an ugly polyester uniform, donate sperm, and subsist on a diet of mule soup. 

[The above is excerpted from Better Living Through Bad Movies. Now available as a audiobook.]


Murfyn said...

I am now, and have always been, proud to get junk mail . . .

Bitter Scribe said...

Gadzooks, I liked Tom Petty just fine, but two minutes of that four-minute clip was all I could endure. WTF happened to Kevin Costner? He made some great movies ("No Way Out," "Bull Durham"), then belly-flopped.

Debbi said...

"You're famous."

The End

Anonymous said...

ANNTI sez...

Watched the clip the other day, and then Firefox crashed. Coincidence? I think not. Bless the Gainesville boy and fuck the idiots near the interstate who had never heard of him when I drove through that way in '03, looking for a keychain or somesuch commemorative en route to Miami the first or second time... Pissed 'em off @ the Dungeon, back in my day, when I'd request Petty up in the Venus Bar, but fuck, they had it on the playlist!

But Costner? Ugh. Petty deserved better.

Used to work with an old Los Angeles radio geek who said that he'd been Petty's road manager at one point, still don't know if I believe it, but wonder if he even noticed, that fucker... Not worthy of Petty, I know that. I'll miss that rangy old boy.