Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Porky's - A critical re-evaluation?

During a feverish period of attempted sleep yesterday, I turned on the Fox Movie Channel and watched Bob Clark's PORKY'S for the first time in about twenty years. Now it is probably a big mistake to make your third post on a blog a defense of PORKY'S, but either the sleep deprivation I was suffering or the Jack Daniel's coursing through my veins made me sit up and take this movie far more seriously than its reputation seems to deserve. Yes, it's - at times - crude, silly, and dare I say it? Ham handed. (Sorry.) But PORKY'S has more on its mind than just crotch jokes and revenge fantasies. 

PORKY'S is Bob Clark's bawdy nostalgia film about growing up in the 50s. And while it certainly set a standard for crude humor that many films have since tried to emulate, it also deals with topics as wide ranging as racism, anti-semitism, and child abuse. It packs a lot of serious subplots into its mostly comedic 95 minutes. It's these extra layers of characterization that set the movie apart from the dozens if not hundreds of movies that tried to ride the PORKY'S bandwagon after its massive financial success. It also deals with friendship on a level that is sometimes subtle and other times practically homoerotic (or more precisely, to use a 50s term,  just plain "homo." I wouldn't class the joint up by trying to call it erotic.) Recently the Judd Apatow team have been working this turf and I think they must have all sat through PORKY'S more than once in their lives.

The thing that may have impressed me most about PORKY'S was Bob's casual way with the camera and his ability to fill frames with lots of young actors doing difficult bits without it all seeming stagy (most of the time, at least). It looks effortless. But anyone who has ever tried anything like this will tell you it's not. The movie bounces all over the place, but that is part of its charm.

Yes. Movies are far more technically sophisticated now. (And far more expensive - PORKY'S cost only 4 mill and grossed over 100 million in the U.S. alone. This was back when a hundred million dollars was considered a lot of money.) But PORKY'S retains a strange, almost one of a kind, power to engage the viewer in the lives of people who seem real while at the same time seem to exist as classic caricatures as well.

Full disclosure - I knew Bob Clark - mainly through his long time association with my very good friend Alan Ormsby. We all even worked together on a film called POPCORN back in 1990, a situation that didn't really work out for any of us and put a strain on relationships for a while. But Bob and I were casual acquaintances and I usually got invited to the premieres of his films and I watched him ride the huge wave of success that PORKY'S brought him. I think the movie also cursed him a bit as well. His next film was the classic A CHRISTMAS STORY, but after that he had a very up and down career and I think PORKY'S has a lot to do with it. While he got the initial career boost that a giant hit will bring a director, the crude reputation of the film also stigmatized him in some of the loftier penthouses of Hollywood. (I have a feeling that most of the Hollywood snobs who turned their noses up at PORKY'S never even saw the movie.) 

But the financial success of PORKY'S also gave Bob a sense of self-confidence that was not always warranted. I always felt Bob was a far better director than writer - his early collaborations with Alan Ormsby prove what he could do with a low budget if he had a good script - and once he felt he could write or rewrite everything himself, I think his work suffered. If you watch his films in the order they were made you see a distinct growth in discipline leading up to PORKY'S. But PORKY'S is loose and funky and it worked for that movie (mainly because I think it was a very personal film for Bob), so I think Bob might have thought that looseness would work for every movie. And that did not prove to be the case. Success in Hollywood, like in most fantasy towns, is usually a double edged sword. 

(It should also be noted that when Bob stuck to the script in later years, as he did with an adaptation of Arthur Miller's THE AMERICAN CLOCK, he once again showed great discipline and form.)

Bob and his son were killed by a drunk driver a few years ago while driving late at night on the Pacific Coast Highway. While he was alive he made a lot of movies, some of them good, some of them bad, some successful, and some far from it. A couple were classics of their genres. PORKY'S was a big hit and it is funny as hell. I think it's also a pretty darn good movie as well.


  1. I remember liking PORKY'S, but like you, I haven't seen it in more than twenty years. I think it may be time to watch this one again.

  2. I'm a big admirer of Murder By Decree. Dow Mossman and I used to argue about it for years after we'd both seen it several times. He likes it but thinks the violence is "pornographic." For me it worked almost completely, even his version of Holmes, which so many purists objected to. I also remember Jeffrey Wells' arrogant Bob Clark obituary. It sounded like every wanna be sore loser I've ever run into. I haven't read Wells since and don't plan to.

  3. Ed, I have a feeling the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. will have more in common with MURDER BY DECREE than with any of the other Holmes films. I think Bob was firing on all pistons with this one. It's a very well crafted movie. And what a cast!

  4. Ah, PORKY's. I believe it was, for close to 25 years, the highest-grossing Canadian film ever made. It was only recently surpassed by BON COP, BAD COP, another cheesy genre film (and another popcorn favourite of mine).

    Clark wasn't Canadian, but he gets valuable CanCon points for me: he moved there in the seventies as some sort of tax dodge and became a relatively big fish in the then burgeoning English-Canadian film industry. He did the slasher cult fave BLACK CHRISTMAS and the afore-mentioned MURDER BY DECREE which also featured several canadians in the cast (most notably Plummer, Bujold and Sutherland).

    But PORKY'S. Wasn't whats-er-name for SEX IN THE CITY in that as well?