Hip and Flip:
The Uncertainties of Postmodern Comedy

   Meet the Applegates

Introduction: The following is a previously unpublished fragment from an unfinished 1991 essay, which was part of the writing process for my first book, Phantasms (1994). From the many case studies I envisaged for this piece, I managed to complete only two. The thoughts here develop those I first advanced in a 1988 essay on postmodernism and pop culture, “PM, Phone Home”, which can be accessed as the Tier 7 bonus PDF, Golden Eighties Vol. II, of my Patreon campaign at www.patreon.com/adrianmartin.

In Australia during 1989, an obscure little teen movie called Wipeout (aka Under the Boardwalk) appeared on home video, unheralded by its distributor, unnoticed by reviewers. Directed by the talented Fritz Kiersch (Children of the Corn [1984], Tuff Turf [1985]), it is a familiar entry in the modern cycle of beach-party teen movies – sun, surf, first love, bikini contests, etc. (among many other titles, see Hardbodies [1984], The Malibu Bikini Shop [1986], TV’s Baywatch [1989-2001]). But it has elements that are novel and surprising – particularly an unusual framing device.

The film (scripted by Robert King, who travelled from the rom-com Speechless [1994] to TV’s The Good Wife [2009-2016]) is narrated from a point in the near future – by two bearded, ageing surfers (played by Keith Coogan and Steve Monarque) who laze despondently in the water on their inert boards, surrounded by vast quantities of trash floating all around them in the sickly green water.

Repeatedly, Kiersch takes us away from the (fast) times of the typical teen story narrated by these surfers to the idle trail of garbage that laps sadly around them in the present tense – the constant reminder that what awaits us, at the end of all our crazy summers on the beach, is a polluted, melancholic future.

One might imagine this counterpoint to be rather cruelly ironic, downbeat, pessimistic, even critical or subversive in relation to the teenpic clichés drawn on for most of the running time. But, in fact, it is the film’s ace joke, the key to its bizarre sense of humour.

In a manner peculiar to the Pop Cinema comedies of the last decade, Wipeout assumes, and trades on, a certain sardonic knowingness on the part of its (presumably mostly teenage and young adult) audience. Without any seeming compromise to its aspiration to resolutely light-hearted/light-headed entertainment, included in its box-office calculation is a casual, complicit, cynical laugh shared with its target crowd about the apparently obvious and inevitable fate of Western civilisation.

It's a mighty curious phenomenon of cultural sensibility, one which Andrew Britton has tackled in his magisterial essay “Blissing Out” (1) – and that Cheech Marin & co. give a memorable spin in the ‘stoned 1960s fish out of water in the materialistic 1980s’ comedy, Rude Awakening (David Greenwalt & Aaron Russo, 1989). There’s a combination, in this formula, of politically right-on, hip, smart-arse cynicism that can be traced back to Robert Altman’s cinema – see his utterly deranged teen movie O.C. and Stiggs (1987), with its hip African music and scattershot, subversive humour, alongside Robin Wood’s disapproving analysis of the Altman œuvre. (2)

And at the very end of Wipeout, after all this has been played out – the strange dialectic between innocent good times and a sardonically presented apocalypse – the film scrambles the whole structure in a typically bizarre twist in search of a feverish, feel-good ending. The surfer who has told the story hears the call of his girlfriend – and suddenly he bounds onto the sand, frozen in an ecstatic pose for the final frame, rock music consolidating the suddenly up mood.

Wipeout has, to this point, worked hard at creating an odd, comic incongruity between past and present – but, ultimately, we are safely back in beach-party land, as if all that pollution, melancholia and cynicism had never been raised as issues.

What can be made critically of a film like Wipeout? – which, I propose, is typical, in all its weird shifts, contradictions and uncertainties, of a great many contemporary entertainments. I don’t believe it is a bad film in any respect, that it necessarily would have been better for another, more respected director or screenwriter to have focused its viewpoint, or clarified its oddities and excesses. Wipeout is an expert entertainment whose makers undoubtedly knew, in their own calculated and/or intuitive terms, exactly what they were doing. It’s not a hysterical or incoherent text (the latter being Robin Wood’s catchy term) (3) – nor is it a stupid one. But a very precise and productive label we could attach to Wipeout, at the start of the 1990s, is that of postmodern comedy.

Postmodern has undoubtedly become, in record time, an oversaturated term in film studies, as elsewhere – one of those buzzwords that has come to designate so much that one doubts whether it designates anything very specific or useful at all. In relation to cinema, it has come to encompass – to pick up only a few tendencies – MTV stylisation (a striking example is Joel Schumacher’s zany Flatliners [1990, remade 2017]), SF post-apocalyptic visions (Blade Runner [1982] and the Mad Max [1979– ] films), pop surrealism (Blue Velvet [1986]), and downbeat dramatisations of a nihilistic zeitgeist (River’s Edge [1986]).

However, in contemplating a type of comedy that has evolved over the last decade, I believe we can usefully ground the concept – at least provisionally. Quite simply, I propose (taking a cue from Lawrence Grossberg) that the term postmodern can be used to investigate, and attempt to describe, a particular mood that has steadily infiltrated much popular culture. (4)

In a nutshell, popular art these days has an enormous problem trying to find things about which it can be affirmative. And – although there are certainly, in popular film, completely nihilistic expressions of a total loss of faith, a ruthless denial of anything conceivably worth affirming – this registers as a problem (an irritating, at times even harrowing one) for many films and their makers. This is so because a majority of the available stories, drives and impulses available to contemporary mainstream artists have built into them the requisite of an affirmative resolution – something, somewhere, to believe in, and worth persuading others to believe in.

Michael Lehmann’s Meet the Applegates (1990), like his cult success Heathers (1989), points up the uncertainties of postmodern comedy with particular clarity. Lehmann’s hip sensibility journeys through four distinct phases or stages.

To begin with, there is a pervasive bad-vibe about the civilised, Western status quo as we know it. The greater part of the plot is devoted to proving that the Applegates’ mission – to destroy this disgusting human civilisation with its own nuclear power in order to leave the world free for a higher (more intelligent and humane) race of insects – is 100% valid, and worthy of our complicit assent as spectators.

So, we have the familiar barrage of sardonic jokes about the horribleness of suburbia, the small-minded hypocrisy of people – traits which reach almost Nazi extremes in the shots of supposedly ugly citizens (bespectacled children, old people) chanting for the Applegates to be publicly hung at the narrative climax (what this interrupts in a TV broadcast is some horrible self-congratulatory, antiseptic show called “People Are Neat” or “Life Is Neat”).

Here, the film crosses over with the neighbouring vision of the Hell of Suburbia in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1991) – with its exaggerated extreme of hip-cinema style (Pop Art set design, op-shop period bric-a-brac, a comic acting mode associated with Stockard Channing and Ed Begley Jr.). Numerous examples of the hideousness and ugliness of the world are underlined by Lehmann, milked for knowing, self-hating laughter. It’s the stage of the film at which the Applegates are the (quote unquote) normal, average American family.

This is the nihilistic edge of Meet the Applegates – affirming nothing, tearing down everything.

Then (second stage), in the course of things, there is a counter-tendency. As the Applegates progress deeper into their masquerade, they come to take on all the extreme traits of civilised behaviour – its hitherto hidden perversions. This is ultimately a strategy for rescuing the notion of a civilised norm from its unfortunate aberrations and excesses. Here, Lehmann’s vision is depressingly conventional. The sins from which the world can be rescued are: lesbianism (double perversion: an insect-human baby with a woman for a “Daddy”!), drug use, crime, overconsumption, extramarital sex. Equally conventional is the way that men are made to lust, and women to spend: a very typical, comedy-of-manners, stereotypical understanding of male and female natures. The film buys into this sort of brittle wisdom.

Third stage: a weird move, tied back to the preceding phase. The film contrives a way to excuse the Applegates from their mission. A nifty semantic recoding is necessary! Suddenly, that destructive urge (stage one) is another of the excessive abominations (stage two), and the sexually ambiguous, thoroughly evil character of Aunt Bea (a typical Dabney Coleman role) is accused of “bug socialism” – that is, of being despotic, fascistic, careerist, egomaniacal.

Meanwhile, on their holiday as a happy bug family, the Applegates see the possibility and the desirability of co-operation with the human race – a democratic, liberal negotiation and understanding, which is what they argue for at the plot climax.

So now the film seems to want to affirm some kind of cause or resolution: an understanding between peoples and ideologies (note that, by the early ‘90s, this is already dated, insofar as it’s a residual Cold War film, shot in 1988 and 1989 before the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in November ‘89). Affirmed is an ecological solution of inter-species harmony and co-operation. As well as – with no small amount of equivocation, uncertainty, contradiction and confusion – supposedly authentic, eternal, universal values, particularly those of the family as social institution.

It is unquestionably part of Lehmann’s sense of contemporary hip that some kind of political cause must be found and affirmed in the mire of contemporary life, with its attendant loss of faith and cynicism … Some cause that can be groovy and cool, deemed not too daggy, old-fashioned or moralistic. Thus the film seizes, indeed veritably begins from, the environmental-ecological issue (destruction of the rainforests). Just as in Heathers there must be a pro-life affirmation reached, particularly through the powerful affect of upfronting a strong, independent woman.

Fourth and final stage. We end up with insect and human in co-operation, and a completely conventional status quo re-affirmed – the teenage daughter now has a male drone, the boy has come out of detox, Mom and Dad are faithfully reunited once again, the former is not overspending anymore. Yet, as always, flip prevails – how can we take this kind of overdetermined happy ending seriously? It’s camp, jokey ending – a familiar flip gesture. Can anything be taken seriously? For its ultimate gag, the film even resurrects a now-impotent, ineffectual Bea, muttering about the next opportunity to blow up the world. So: affirmation is scattered again at the last moment, via flip humour.

Meet the Applegates is intriguing in its equivocations and contradictions of tone (compare, again, to Edward Scissorhands). Undoubtedly the most gruesome, awful and uncomfortable scenes are those that involve an animus against the supposedly ambiguous activities of the Applegates – particularly the daughter. Lehmann shoves the boy’s quasi-rape of her in our faces – as if she should be accepting it. When she turns to lesbianism (treated, predictably, in a typically evasive, non-explicit way), the baby that suddenly emerges from her (a species-impure baby!) is abjectly stepped on and squashed.

Against this, the Applegates actually kill none of their victims. In a particularly glaring point of inequality, they rear up with righteous anger at the baby’s killers, who later, when revived, complain of receiving a “nick”! The family patriarch says to the crowd at the climax: “I’ll admit we got confused and we took hostages, but you think about it! Is there any one person here who hasn’t stepped on a bug?!”. But these narrative actions (hostage-taking and bug-squishing) are absolutely not equivalent in the film’s semantic-spectacular system.

MORE Lehmann: The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Airheads


1. Andrew Britton, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), pp. 97-154. back

2. Robin Wood, chapter 3 of Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986 edition). back

3. Ibid., chapter 4. back

4. Lawrence Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture (London: Routledge, 1992). back


© Adrian Martin 21 March 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search