Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Sound of One Tommy Chonging

Before seeing AKA Tommy Chong, I would have asked Mr. Chong if he believed a single movie could serve a political purpose, with the wash of media drowning us in messagery. After the film, Tommy talked to everybody in the theatre, the lobby and probably everyone he passed on the street except me. He likes to talk.
Thankfully the film answered the question, allowing me to rest my vocal chords around the Chongster while everyone else was exercising theirs. He said it was the director's film and I was with people who knew the director so I didnt mind him hustling me for my vote in the best picture ballot. Tommy was relentlessly funny, in the film and in the flesh. Perhaps he has chosen to be, and perfected the art through dedades on the road. His wife Shelby sets him off perfectly, in the film, their act and standing next to him in a scrum of fans stoned on being in his presence.
I think of editing too much, after the 2nd week of my editing class. I noticed shots that would have been better colour corrected with those before and after them, but considering how much of this was shot in the Los Angeles desert, it looked pretty good. The camera in Tommy's face as he drives around with the city flashing by through the window was a delight to see, annoying as it must have been as he prepared to go to jail. As he says, he was never political before his "bust" but he has woken up, and is determined to wake the multitudes- it was him now, it could be YOU next. Ashcroft's menacing drug villain freely admits that as a comedian, he followed his audience and tried to be popular. Chong is either naturally funny or endlessly on because of all the years he's had people looking at him- he wants to entertain us. So do lots of people. Few have been as successfull as Tommy Chong. His attempt at an anti-drug video for the Drug Courts touting the psychedelic properties of dancing as a way to combat drugs is as funny as any Cheech and Chong routine, almost Richard Pryoresque.
The film bounced along like a well edited TV show (unlike Takeshis, which lurched along like a TV show whose editor had committed hara-kiri in between cuts). It should find an audience on the small screen or your DVD player. And like Fahrenheit 911, which it riffs on with Ashcroft vs the Boobs of Justice, among other places, like Tommy's been trying to do since his skin colour determined he couldn't get invited to a white playmate's birthday party as a child in Calgary, he'll make you pay attention to him. To his message. To the legions who'd like to speak for themselves but speak through his voice.
I first saw Cheech and Chong as the comedy act between Cannonball Adderly sets in LA in 1971, recorded as the Black Messiah album You can listen to Cannonball et al in all their glory- to which comedians were a distraction, a bit of background noise that faded in and out as you went to the bathroom. They reminded me too much of the Committee at the time. I never thought they'd make it big. My money was on the more cerebral comedy of the Firesign Theatre. I was wrong on both cases. It's hard to meet someone named Dave and not think of Cheech and Chong's most famous bit. The Firesign Theatre cited CheechChong in their "Dope Humour of the 70s bit", but dope humour was merely one bullet in their arsenal. This month they performed in London for the BBC, still trying to increase their audience, one laugh at a time, but their chances of achieving Cheech and Chong (or even Monty Python) levels of popularity are lotteryesque at best. Chong soldiers on.
Late in 1972, I shared a flight from Vancouver to LA with Chong & Cheech whose stars were in rapid ascendency, despite my prediction. They carried a large number of wrapped up Christmas presents on their way to customs. I suggested that they untie the gifts to prepare to display their innocence, their hair-length might otherwise jeopardize. "We're famous, we'll get though" they told me, a man of similar hair length but without the blinding shield of fame. But their fame deflected not the scrutiny of customs, and I waved to them busily unwrapping their parcels, to the delay of multitudes of annoyed passengers unlikely to ever be their fans thereafter.
It was pleasent to see that arrogance, however comically timed, long gone.
Tommy went through no gulag but he remains luckier than most the Powers That Beat seek to punish. He remains protected by his success, by the armies of fans who put down their bongs long enough to write to him in prison. They depend on him to keep the spotlight on their mutual victimhood in the vast American (etc) war on some drugs.
Technology today makes the entertaining broadcast quality tale of whatever value ubiquitous. You don't have to Make Hollywood Movies or even Be On Commercial TV anymore to reach a large audience with your productions, and inspire actual change. But having more than change in your pocket still helps.
Is the sound of one hand clapping like the sound of one breast being uncovered on the statue of justice behind Ashcroft's successor, a symbol of a mental shift- an end to cultural deafness, or just a dream? Tommy promotes good dreams. What we all need is to wake into a life not so perilous to good dreamers.


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