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Everything You Loved Was Always Horrible, featuring: Short Circuit

You know: I find that, when you are hanging out at home, delighting in the invention of Netflix, sometimes there is nothing better than to watch a movie you really enjoyed as a kid. Like Short Circuit! Which I watched tonight!

They are remaking Short Circuit, did you know that? Some people are angry about it! Because the Paul Blart: Mall Cop director is attached to the project. And, of course, everyone is all, “nooooo! Paul Blart: Mall Cop! That was the worst movie! How can a philistine such as Paul Blart: Mall Cop director Steve Carr possibly translate the  high-brow quality entertainment film Short Circuit with all the depth, nuance, and artistry it requires???” Somewhere, somehow, some dude is really over-enthusiastically using the term “raping” to describe this. Possibly it’s his “childhood” Steve Carr is “raping.” I don’t know, I don’t have the energy to look it up. I just know it’s happening, because people do those things.

But here is the thing: sooner or later, you are going to have to realize that these treasured memories of your childhood were of things that did, objectively, blow. You did not realize this, of course! You were but a child! But it is time to stop defending them. Let it go. Beginning with, let’s say, Short Circuit.

First of all, I’d like you to meet Fisher Stevens, a White Person.

fisherstevens

And who’s this? Why, it’s beloved Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2 character Ben [Last Name Undetermined]! Ben [Last Name Undetermined], on whom I can vaguely recall having an elementary-school crush! (He seemed like a smart man, what with his job building advanced robot soldiers and all; furthermore, he was shy, and projected a certain vulnerability; also, he had glasses. My tastes, regarding these matters, were set at an early age.) Ben [Last Name Undetermined], whom I have to thank for many deeply felt chuckles and guffaws, and who was perhaps my favorite character in the movies! Yes, Ben! Ben, who was pretty definitively Not a White Person!

stevens2

But what’s this? Ben – who is Not a White Person – bears a remarkable resemblance to noted White Person Fisher Stevens! How can this be? You recall Ben as being definitively not-white, and here is this actor who is white, and… oh. Oh, SERIOUSLY? In 1986, they were doing this? But, I mean, you remember Ben as having some kind of accent, and at the time it was pretty convincing, so…

OH. OH, WOW.

Now, there are many problems with Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2, not least of which is that they were movies undertaken with basically no understanding of their intended audience; you would think that they were children’s movies, given the way everyone in them is overacting wildly (Children’s Movie Acting 101: assume children cannot interpret human facial expressions, and exaggerate yours to an appalling degree that will haunt their nightmares), and how hokey the jokes are, and how all the characters are written with the level of emotional intelligence and complexity that one would expect from a third-grader, and also the fact that they center on an ADORABLE TALKING ROBOT who struggles with child-type problems like learning about words or how the culture works or the difference between “good” and “bad” and also how to accomplish basic tasks without going buck-wild and breaking everything in the house. This is clearly a protagonist meant for children to identify with, yes? It was a children’s movie. Oh, except for not really, because people say “shit” a lot, and there are numerous sex jokes, and also your adorable talking robot protagonist with whom you intend children to identify is BRUTALLY BEATEN TO DEATH WITH AN AX WHILST SCREAMING, BLEEDING, AND BEGGING FOR HIS LIFE in the sequel. (Seriously: the memory of Johnny 5 screaming “dooo not kill meeeeeeeee”  whilst his blood spatters all over his assailants was engraved upon my consciousness from the moment I saw it until I hit puberty. It is only alleviated now by the fact that I have seen Short Circuit as an adult, recognize how fucking annoying Johnny 5 was, and suspect that I would have been the one most enthusiastically swinging the ax down upon his adorable frame.) So, anyway, Short Circuit was both confusing and confused. And also, not very good. At all. Look, this happens in it:

There. Proof.

But back to Ben. The brownface, yes; the accent, yes; these things would lead you to believe the character of Ben is offensive. Oh, but no. Ben is SO MUCH MORE THAN MERELY OFFENSIVE. Ben – along with noted White Person Fisher Stevens, and the makers of Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2 – is working some truly Mickey Rooney, Breakfast at Tiffany’s-level racism magic. I would pit “ohhhhhh, Meesa Gorightry” up against Ben any day in terms of sheer Let’s See How Racist This Shit Can Get quality. The entire joke is that this dude is Indian. And, therefore, talks funny; as in, “the last time I am seeing him,” as in “this is being quite the predicament,” or as in his many hilarious malapropisms such as “I am standing here beside myself,” or “oh for the sake of Pete” or  “oh, bulldyke.” (Yes. Sure. “Oh, bulldyke.” Why not? For the kids!) In the first movie, he says he’s from Bakersfield, and his “ancestors” are from Pittsburgh, and unless Bakersfield and Pittsburgh are both known for their marvelous Severe Aphasia Colonies, I am thinking that this is not to be making the sense at all; in the second movie, he’s studying to become a citizen, which – again, unless Bakersfield has seceded from the union – is to be making even the less sense than the before sense which to be making it was not even remotely. Also? English is one of the most widely spoken languages in India. (And Bakersfield!) Also? I find it kind of unlikely that dude could become a top-secret US government robot scientist without picking up any remotely idiomatic English. That is, assuming that he’s from a place where they don’t speak English! Which, according to the movie, is not where he’s from! Ugh, I AM TYPING HERE BESIDE MYSELF, you guys. Also, his last name changes. It is either “Jabutiya,” or “Jahrvi,” or “Jahveri,” or WHATEVER, depending on who is speaking and which movie you are watching and some of this is a joke? About how people can’t get his name right? But mostly it is a case of Slap A Wacky Indian Name on the Indian Guy, Because WHOA, They Have Wacky Names. And they can’t even keep the same wacky name from movie to movie. And even though he is the hero of the second movie, because Steve Guttenberg dropped out of the project (BEN AND/OR WHITE PERSON FISHER STEVENS: When Steve Guttenberg Is Too Good For Your Project, They’re There) and is correspondingly to be getting the tiniest fraction more of the human dignity and also the romantic love interest, the many “Ben [Last Name Unspecified] wants sex, which is nutty, because he’s not a white man and only those dudes can be sexual without it being inherently ridiculous or scary” jokes from the first movie will live in infamy.

I’m sorry, do we need to see this again?

Yes. Yes, I think we did need to see it.

Now: you might not have gotten how racist this was, when you were a child. I know I didn’t get it! And you ask yourself, now: was Newsweek right about you? Were you a terrible BABY RACIST? No; you were just a baby in a fairly racist culture. Because practically no-one else got it, either. I can’t find any 1986 reviews of “Short Circuit” that even mention Ben in more than a line or two, let alone point out how awful the brownface was. One review of the sequel called him a “cross between Gandhi and Gracie Allen,” whilst also decrying “stereotypical movie Latino hoodlums.” (OH, THE HOODLUMS WERE STEREOTYPICAL, WERE THEY?) In this Siskel and Ebert clip, they deliver a right-on assessment of the movie as a whole – it is entertaining, it is not great, it’s sad when the robot gets curb-stomped, kids will like it, etcetera – and then Gene Siskel enthusiastically mentions all the jokes, especially the funny bits involving Johnny 5′s “Indian friend.” And this is when you realize: at one point, a point in your lifetime, this stuff was downright acceptable. It wasn’t just bad people who put up with it; it was good people, too, who just didn’t get the problem because the thinking behind it was so ubiquitous as to be unquestionable. It was totally OK to hire a white dude to play an Indian man in a role that revolved mostly around making fun of him for being Indian and/or positing the existence of Indian people as fundamentally hilarious.

Because, you know, shit was fucked up. It continues to be fucked-up now, in fact! With any luck, our descendants will look back on our movies and be like, “Jesus, people WATCHED that? And didn’t get how TERRIBLE it was?” Because things will be better for them than they are for us, and they will get to take more for granted, which means we will all seem stupid and somewhat loathsome, which is as it should be. The point is: there was a point in time – a recent point – at which it was radical and outlandish to suggest that “Ben,” as played by Noted White Person Fisher Stevens, was probably not the best idea ever. (ALSO: Hiring A White, Non-Indian Dude To Play Gandhi. Seriously. Why is THAT not a great idea? I defy you to find me one good reason!*) Which says a lot. But one of the main things it says is:

Seriously. Stop complaining about the Blart thing. You’re expressing nostalgia for something that never existed. A version of Short Circuit that was actually good.

*Oh, except that his Dad is Indian, actually? GOD, KNOWLEDGE IS AMAZING. Much like the eternal mystery that is Ben Kingsley. Who was not born “Ben Kingsley,” apparently? “He changed his name from Krishna Bhanji to Ben Kingsley, fearing that a foreign name would hamper his career,” as per Wikipedia, so what we have here is the story of a guy who changed his name to something non-Indian sounding because having an Indian-sounding name would have hurt his career which took off when he played an extremely famous Indian person.  ANYWAY! Also, here is a quote from a Fisher Stevens interview for you:

I originally was hired, and then they fired me because they decided to make the role Indian. Originally he wasn’t Indian. And then they hired Bronson Pinchot. Then they fired Bronson and hired me back.

Ok, so, are we following the logic here? Ben was (1) made Indian (probably for the many laughs such a characterization would provide). Ben was (2) determined to be, as an Indian, unplayable by noted White Person Fisher Stevens. Ben was (3) determined to be, as an Indian dude, best playable by notable Sensitive Accent Portrayer BRONSON PINCHOT. Or possibly Fisher Stevens, again. But not an actual Indian guy! Never! Not in a million years!

How does Fisher Stevens feel about this role?

I loved it. I went to India and I studied Hindi. I got into yoga. And this is in 1985. I lived with Indian people. I really immersed myself. I used to be a total Method actor, so I was really deep in the deep end. And I had a great time. And the malapropisms, they worked. I thought they were great. So I really loved it.

Oh, I see.

21 Comments

  1. lilacsigil wrote:

    I’m glad I hated these movies from the start, because my name is Stephanie, and I never heard the end of it. Now I have a real reason not to like it! Thanks!

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  2. Shil wrote:

    Excellent review as usual, Sady. Your use of capitalization is exemplary AS EVAH!

    This comment:

    “And this is when you realize: at one point, a point in your lifetime, this stuff was downright acceptable. It wasn’t just bad people who put up with it; it was good people, too, who just didn’t get the problem because the thinking behind it was so ubiquitous as to be unquestionable. It was totally OK to hire a white dude to play an Indian man in a role that revolved mostly around making fun of him for being Indian and/or positing the existence of Indian people as fundamentally hilarious.”

    totally resonates for me, since I (being Indian) got to see Short Circuit as a kid in India and everyone found it damn entertaining and never commented on the fact that it was a really strange depiction of an Indian (esp. for people who hadn’t seen US stereotypes of Indians). I can’t recall ever hearing an Indian comment critically on Ben Kingsley as Gandhi either. And the funny (though not in an amusing way) thing is that I know lots of Indians who would completely fail to see the issue here, even if I pointed it out to them.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 6:06 am | Permalink
  3. It’s amazing to look back at contemporary reactions to movies, like the Siskel and Ebert review you mention here, and realize what was overlooked and considered okay–stuff that seems obviously not so from our perspective.

    One question: are you referring to Ben Kingsley when you talk about a “white non-Indian dude”? He’s not from India, and I don’t know how he identifies racially/ethnically, but I wouldn’t necessarily call someone of mixed Indian descent “white”. This is just my personal perspective, but I am mixed, and my mother’s family is European, and I certainly wouldn’t call myself white.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  4. K wrote:

    I think I saw Fisher Stevens appear on one of those VH1 1980′s retro programs a few years ago & even he expressed how strange & racist the brownface stuff was. Something about how the director would never get away with that now.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  5. smadin wrote:

    That Queer Chick got there before me — I was going to point out that Kingsley is mixed. (Something I hadn’t realized myself until I was discussing the otherwise-pretty-white casting of the Prince of Persia movie.)

    Also, Ben’s last name in the first movie, “Jabituya,” is yet another dumb sex joke. It occurs to me that his entire character is basically Ali G, fifteen years ahead of time.

    I still say “Hey laser-lips! Yer momma was a snowblower!” is a classic line, though.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  6. I can’t remember at what age I saw Short Circuit, but the sex jokes (unless they were cut, ‘cos it would’ve been on TV) and the racism went straight over my head.

    I’m glad I never saw the second one, tho. I think I’d heard about the Ben character being a caricature, by then. Johnny 5 “brutally beaten to death with an ax …” seriously? Wow.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  7. masagoroll wrote:

    I am LOLing so hard at you admitting an elementary school crush on Fisher-Stevens-as-a-nerd-in-brownface. Ha!

    I haven’t seen these movies (I think I am too young), but I recall having a similar moment when a coffee shop in my college town was showing Disney’s Peter Pan. It was the whole “What makes the red man red?” scene, and I was basically sitting there like :-0, thinking “This movie is racist! Why did I not notice before?”

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Esme wrote:

    First, I love you.

    Second, without you and this post, I would never have realized that the villain from Hackers was the horribly offensive character from Short Circuit (a movie I didn’t see until sometime in the 90s, that made me twitch)

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  9. Robin wrote:

    I hope in the remake they use a real Indian actor and make Ben a real and awesome character.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  10. I suppose this is a valuable thing to keep in mind when I’m despairing of people ever being decent with respect to race, orientation, gender, etc.: things do change. Insensitivities that nobody even noticed in 1986 are culturally taboo by 2009. It’s slow, but it’s progress.

    Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  11. Nia wrote:

    My brother and I saw Short Circuit 2 when he was 10 and I was 12 and even then we thought it was embarrassing!

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  12. Lynn wrote:

    Mr Subjunctive: tell that to Viacom.

    They are currently in the process of making the live action Avatar: the Last Airbender, and chose to cast the Tibetan hero as a white boy, the Inuit best friends as white girl & boy.

    The Chinese villain was originally supposed to be white as well, but they decided in the interest of diversity to recast someone Indian.

    …this’d also be the same company that refused to make female action figures ‘because boys don’t buy them’

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  13. Lynn:

    Okay, so it’s not absolutely taboo across the board. It’s still progress. I mean, all the movies were cast that way sixty years ago or whatever. Can’t you just let me have this one dirty, tattered little shred of hope?

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  14. This is a great post! Thank you.

    I live in a place where unfortunately this stuff isn’t a relic of the bad old eighties… brownface/blackface is still hilarious in my country. Nothing has changed. :-(

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  15. Devonian wrote:

    “…this’d also be the same company that refused to make female action figures ‘because boys don’t buy them’”
    Unless Viacom owns Mattel, they’re different companies.

    Mattel’s got a long history of it, for that matter. The Teela and Evil-Lyn figures from the He-Man remake were rare even when the line was new, and nearly impossible to find now…

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  16. Sady wrote:

    @Lynn: I’m a long way from wanting to defend “Avatar,” because I’ve heard about the whole saga, and it’s depressing as hell. But I would argue that the whitewashed characters (a) probably will not be made up to “look” Tibetan or Inuit, and (b) probably will not be shown as fundamentally hilarious because they are (white people pretending to be) Asian or Inuit. They’ll just be white people who miraculously manage to come from cultures that are remarkably similar to Tibetan and Inuit cultures. (Will all the background players and extras be white, too? That’s something I’m kind of wondering about, actually; there are a lot of ways to go with that, none of which would mitigate the fuckedupness at hand). Whitewashing is still really, really, really offensive, but it doesn’t register for contemporary audiences as offensive in the same way that a brownface clown like Ben does.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  17. snobographer wrote:

    Poor Ally Sheedy. Has there ever been an actress more underrated?

    In the 1990s, perhaps even the late 1990s, a guy I was hanging with was a big advocate that everyone should watch The Party starring Peter Sellers as an Indian guy. And he would quote from it and do the accent (bang howdy par-TEN-er).

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink
  18. snobographer wrote:

    Also, check the liberal use of the word “faggot” in almost every 80s teen movie.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  19. Lynn wrote:

    Casting for the principals specified caucasian. The kid playing the Inuit boy intially talked about ‘getting a tan’ for the part. Actual cast shots i’ve seen have shown them not made up at least.

    Casting calls for the extras have been looking exclusively for ‘ethnic’ looking people…the woman in charge of them indicated you get bonus points for coming to the audition also wearing something she considers ethnic looking.

    (http://vejiicakes.livejournal.com/255699.html is a good post on the subj)

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  20. belledame222 wrote:

    @_@ at all of the Short Circuitry. um. damn. I missed those the first time around, thankfully.

    Monday, November 9, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  21. Alexander wrote:

    Great review. I remember watching this late childhood, thought it was pretty amusing and emotionally compelling at the time. I was called back to this fairly recently, the Nostalgia Critic brought up the blackface issue, as well as how horrible all the comedy shtick with him was. Yeah, that whole issue is pretty stunning. And I was born in 1986, when I watched the movie (and sequel, and yes Johnny getting smashed up was disturbing) it has to have been mid nineties at the latest. I think I need to have a word with the relative that thought this was good viewing recommended viewing…

    Oh, and this comment: “Because, you know, shit was fucked up. It continues to be fucked-up now, in fact! With any luck, our descendants will look back on our movies and be like, “Jesus, people WATCHED that? And didn’t get how TERRIBLE it was?” Because things will be better for them than they are for us, and they will get to take more for granted, which means we will all seem stupid and somewhat loathsome, which is as it should be.”

    Yes. Great sentiment, very well expressed.

    Friday, November 13, 2009 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

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