Ask The A.V. Club: August 17, 2007
I Can't Hear You, I've Got A Banana In My Ear
Any idea where the cliché of someone slipping on a banana peel came from? Banana peels don't seem all that slippery to me. Why not something like soap? Was there some show with a primate of some sort (or someone who just really likes eating bananas) that kicked it off?
Donna Bowman is slip-slidin' away:
You don't think banana peels are slippery? Grumble, grumble, kids today with their regular garbage pickup and whatnot. Try leaving a banana peel on the ground for a couple of hours. See that slime covering the inside that was once relatively solid banana matter? If it could somehow be distilled into pourable form, I have no doubt you could lube your engine with it. Or launch a ship, as the Pennsylvania Shipyards did in 1942. Dennis N. Fox, author of Totally Bananas: The Funny Fruit In American History And Culture (Xlibris, 2002) reports that due to wartime shortages of oil, the freighter Cape Romano was lowered into the water on skids greased with banana.
If you're talking about banana-peel-slippage played for laughs, then the answer to the cliché's origin lies, unsurprisingly, in vaudeville. By the turn of the century, comedians were doing outsized pratfalls after treading on a bright yellow peel. But does the gag refer to a real-life problem? Were there banana peels littering the highways and byways, waiting to trip up unwary pedestrians? (Certainly there weren't bars of soap lying around outside, Alex, which answers one of your questions.) Some have opined that the banana is a euphemism (and not for the first time). The real menace in the city streets, they say, was unscooped pet poop. Dogshit being not only socially unacceptable but also hard to see onstage, it was replaced with the recognizable, brightly colored banana peel.
But history puts the lie to this attempt to link the innocent slapstick gag with disease-ridden canine excretions. There are many accounts of the proliferation of garbage, especially fruit peels, on city streets as industrial and urban migrations came to a head. Bananas bought from sidewalk fruit stands were easy to peel, cheap, and liable to become litter before the advent of public wastebaskets. According to Bananas: An American History by Virginia Scott Jenkins (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), as early as 1861, children were being warned in a Sunday School paper against throwing their banana and orange peels on the sidewalk. The anonymous author tells a dire story about a man who slipped on such rubbish, broke his leg, had to have it amputated, lost his job, and wound up in the poorhouse with his wife and children. The story concludes: "Now do you wonder why I say don't throw orange or banana peel on the sidewalk?" By the late 1890s, major cities were organizing sanitation brigades and enlisting children in Scout-like paramilitary organizations to combat the fruit-peel menace. One junior street cleaner made the following report: "I saw a man eating a banana. He took the skin and threw it on the sidewalk. I said to him please Sir will you be so kind & pick it up and he said all right."
Jenkins suggests that eating bananas in the street was associated with the poor and uncultured; eating in public was considered low-class. In fact, xenophobic sentiment seized on the banana peel as yet another way that immigrants endangered upstanding Americans. In 1880, Harper's Weekly published a cartoon in which the first panel, labeled "Cause," showed an Irishman munching a banana and discarding the peel on the sidewalk in front of a top-hatted, cane-twirling gentleman. In the second panel, labeled "Effect," the gentleman is being carried off on a stretcher.
At least one vaudevillian claimed to have invented the banana-peel gag, around 1900, after observing a real-life version on a sidewalk. "Sliding" Billy Watson said that the antics of a man trying to maintain his balance while his feet were trying to shoot out from under him inspired Watson's slapstick rendition, which made him famous in the early 1900s. "Believe me," he grandly concluded, "I never go past a banana peel on the sidewalk now without feeling inclined to take off my hat and bow to it in a spirit of reverence." Whether he was the first to fall on his keester to the accompaniment of a rimshot onstage, we may never know. But the next time you pass a banana peel on the sidewalk—and we know it happens to you, Alex, as it does to all potassium-enriched Americans, so we're not even sure why you asked this question—don't bow, for heaven's sake. Pick up that nasty garbage and throw it in the nearest trashcan.
Loading The Canon
What is your opinion about the works that normally top all the "best-of-all-time" lists—you know, Citizen Kane, Ulysses, and uh, I guess Sgt. Pepper, but really more the first two?
List-fiend Noel Murray responds:
If you're asking what I think of those specific list-toppers, I'd say that Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, I've never made it past the first 100 pages of Ulysses, and while Sgt. Pepper is a fine album, I prefer Revolver and Let It Be. But if you're asking—as I think you are—what I think about the fact that the same items always top the same lists, I'd say that I don't really have a problem with it, for a couple of reasons.
First off, if you're looking for consensus, some predictability is inevitable. Let 100 informed people vote on the best 100 films of all time, and chances are, the majority of them will have Citizen Kane on there somewhere. So Citizen Kane rises to the top. If you want quirkier lists, you have to toss out the whole notion of mass agreement and just read lists by individuals, or small, select groups.
And I can see how some people, after decades of reading the same names again and again, might crave a little variety. But not everybody is a worn-out pop-culture junkie, craving a new kick. A lot of my early education in movies and music came from reading those dusty best-of lists and trying to catch up with everything I was "supposed" to see and hear. I still think it's important for young people to engage with those all-time greats, because it can help them understand how popular culture developed—and also because most of those all-time greats are, in fact, hugely entertaining. (Citizen Kane, for example, delights me every time I watch it, and I don't think there was ever a time where I thought it was dull or corny or overrated, or any of those other charges that upstart young film fans level against it.)
Ultimately, young people who want to learn about cinema can study just about any movie, so there's nothing wrong with "alternative" greatest-of-all-time lists, or lists that lean heavy on recent titles more likely to appeal to the kiddos. But Citizen Kane, The Searchers, The Godfather, Rashomon, Breathless, and so on are classics for a reason, and at a certain point, anyone serious about movies is going to have to confront them. And if they don't find them immediately appealing, I hope they'll have the humility to admit that they should work a little harder to understand why so many people think these movies are great, instead of just assuming everyone else is nuts. (This doesn't mean they have to learn to like these movies. Personally, a few titles aside, I'm indifferent to John Ford and Akira Kurosawa. But I keep watching.)
The same holds for music and books—though it's interesting that in the latter case, people have gotten used to assuming that if they don't get Joyce, then the problem is on their end. Not so for music and movies, which even the devoted sometimes expect to like instantly, or else the item in question "sucks." This is why canons are so important. Maybe if fledgling music buffs hear over and over about the greatness of The Clash, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, or Pavement, then they'll keep trying every few years to hear what's been so naggingly elusive. They'll be better off for it.
I Hate You, Do Me A Favor
I don't like these "I remember a show…" questions, but alas, I have a show that I recall. Growing up in Edmonton, I had a friend who could get a very scratchy image of Superchannel on his TV. Superchannel was Canada's shitty version of HBO, and if we were lucky, we might catch a glimpse of female breasts if we watched that fuzzy image long enough. One evening we saw a scene from a movie that totally freaked us out. It was two guys in the woods near a lake. Somehow a tree had fallen on one of the guys and he was trapped just under the surface of the water. His friend, for quite some time, kept putting his head under water to give the other guy oxygen. Sadly, help was not on the way, and eventually, this guy had no choice but to stop and give up. Keep in mind that his friend is fully aware of what is going on. Anyways, fellas, just typing it out gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Tasha Robinson doesn't like you, either, Jazzy, but she does like the movie you recall:
When you first sent in this question, Jazzy, I hadn't seen the movie in question, but I'd heard about it from my boyfriend—who, like you, had caught this one scene on cable long ago, and found it mesmerizing. Though he denies he ran across it while seeking boobs. I'd been meaning to track down the film and watch it for some time, and your question gave me the impetus to follow through, though I felt a little guilty about running your question in the column and blowing the movie's climax for those who hadn't already seen it.
Well, as it turned out, this scene happens closer to the middle than the end, so my conscience remains relatively clear. You're remembering a segment from Sometimes A Great Notion, a 1971 film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, who also penned One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Like Cuckoo's Nest, Notion owes its name to a song lyric, which Kesey quotes on the title page:
Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in the town,
Sometimes I get a great notion,
To jump into the river… an' drown.
Those lines from "Good Night, Irene" speak directly to the scene you remember, when Joe-Ben Stamper (Richard Jaeckel, probably best remembered today either as Lt. Ben Edwards on Baywatch or Lt. Martin Quirk on Spenser: For Hire) winds up pinned under a gigantic log in a river after a logging accident, and his cousin Hank Stamper (Paul Newman, who took over directorial duties from Richard A. Colla after a series of disagreements) tries to keep him alive with mouth-to-mouth. "This guy" didn't actually give up on his cousin—Joe-Ben, or Joby, as he's mostly called in the film, is struck by the ridiculousness of the two of them locking lips—before going under, he'd laughed about someone coming along and thinking the two of them were "making out"—and he can't contain his giggles, even though laughing means losing all his air and being unable to take in more before his lungs fill with water. Basically, he chortles himself to death. It's such a memorable scene—rendered with all the flat, uncompromising starkness of '70s Hollywood cinema—that it's no surprise it's stuck with you all these years. And it's a pretty accurate rendition of Kesey's version, too, with much of the dialogue coming directly from the novel.
According to the IMDB, incidentally, Sometimes A Great Notion was the first film shown on HBO, which might explain how you came to catch it. Alas, it hasn't been released on DVD, and the VHS edition is out of print. I found an old copy through the Chicago library system; with luck, maybe you can track down a copy in similar fashion. Just one piece of tactful advice: Don't walk into your local video store and ask for it by starting off "I don't like these places that rent movies to people, but I'm looking for a film…"
The Madness Of Crowds
I remember once when I was a kid reading in an anthology of horror(ish) short stories, a story about a man who witnesses an accident. He rushes to the scene to find a group of people there discussing whether or not to move the victim. They decide against it, and the man lives. Our hero becomes aware that these same people are at the scene of every such accident, but right before he's able to prove it/tell someone, he's hit by a car. They surround him and decide to move him—thereby killing him. Ring a bell? I'd love to find it again. Thanks,
Tasha Robinson takes up the short-story beat again:
Ah, Ray Bradbury. Will you ever stop being the answer to Ask The A.V. Club questions? Ashley, you're thinking of Bradbury's 1943 story "The Crowd," a fairly chilling tale inspired by an accident he witnessed personally in his youth. It's a little more expansive than what you describe, but you've got the basic gist accurate. You can find it in the Bradbury anthology The October Country.
As a point of interest, it was adapted into an episode of Ray Bradbury Theater in 1985, starring Nick Mancuso—at the time, just about to become the titular star of Stingray. I couldn't find the episode online (though there's a detailed summary, a review, and a ton of screencaps at this site), but I did find the intro to Ray Bradbury Theater online, and it's such a hilariously awkward, overextended, clunky piece of tripe that I just had to share. Yes, that's Bradbury himself, trying hard to sound semi-natural and semi-casual as he brags about where he gets his ideas. Enjoy.
Next week: Every single holiday, a rat in a box. Plus: people whose taste sucks, and more. Send your questions to email@example.com.