Forgotten Films: Americathon (1979)

americathonOne of the many raunchy counterculture comedies of the later 1970’s, AMERICATHON shared a slapdash, tasteless, revue style with films like THE GROOVE TUBE (1974); TUNNELVISION (1976); KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1976); and especially NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and Buck Henry’s FIRST FAMILY (1980), featuring Bob Newhart as the President with Gilda Radner as his horny daughter. The satiric residue from 1970 groundbreakers like MASH, CATCH-22 and WHERE’S POPPA? was about to be subsumed into the Just Do It decade, which doesn’t explain AMERICATHON’s lukewarm box-office, as the film is less than it’s prophetic central conceit — in an age where the USSR has fallen, China has risen, everybody wears jogging suits, and Nike has become a giant corporation, a national telethon is held to save America from economic collapse and foreclosure by the Native Americans. Harvey Korman plays a popular TV comic who wears women’s dresses (the comedy plays on that level) and hosts the telethon at the bequest of the clueless Commander-In-Chief, John Ritter, in an amusing part as an EST/Scientology flake (obviously based on California governor Jerry Brown) — “I’m President Rosevelt, this is my cabinet, and this is my old lady.”

1653927385_8025111dcbThrow in narration by George Carlin; ANIMAL HOUSE co-star Peter Reigert; Fred Willard; Howard Hesseman; Jay Leno; Chief Dan George (John Carradine’s cameo as a drunken Uncle Sam was unwisely cut) along with the obligatory eclectic music cameos by Meatloaf (who fights a car), The Beach Boys and Elvis Costello (!) and you have an odd exploitation movie that played on late night HBO a dozen times (where I first saw it). Written and directed by Neal Israel (who also did TUNNELVISION), based on a play by Firesign Theater genius Phil Proctor, AMERICATHON has just enough humorous ideas to be watchable, even when it’s not all that funny. The opening scene of 1998 Los Angeles with Reigert waking up in his car home along with hundreds of others has stuck with me since my first and only viewing way back when. The rest of the film, not so much. But it is fascinating as a slice of surreal comedy cinema. And obviously has some resonance today.

I always liked these Future Shock satires, which tapped into such 70’s zeitgeist issues such as  depersonalization, oil shortages and sexual politics. Of course, like some others, AMERICATHON is not available on DVD, probably due to music rights (the soundtrack is eclectic enough to be cool) but one can find a decent copy if one knows where to google. Watch the apropos trailer here. And if you do find the film, program a fun, weird double feature night with the equally “unavailable” FIRST FAMILY and be sucked back into the outlandish 70’s, where an idiot president has led the nation into total bankruptcy thanks to our dependency on foreign oil and technology…

UPDATE: The Cine-Saints at Warner Archive have AMERICATHON available in a widescreen MOD. God Bless America!

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7 Responses to “Forgotten Films: Americathon (1979)”

  1. Hmm, I’ll have to seek this out. Thanks for shining the spotlight on another (ooh, I hate using this next word) obscure gem, Christian. I need to learn where to Google…

  2. christian Says:

    I could tell you more but then the Feds would come get me!

  3. Johnny Lagoon Says:

    This was the film, along with “Serial” and “How to Beat The High Cost Of Living”, that most captures that strangely forgotten moment in time (1979-80) when the nation was increasingly vulnerable towards the “propaganda of disillusionment” that resulted in the defeat of Jimmy Carter and helped usher in the era of Reagan conservatism whose influences are still powerfully felt today…

    These films now exude a sad and melancholy reminder of what a vital and rebellious decade the Seventies really were, and how their
    content helped to erase it.

  4. Jeez, I must’ve been starved for entertainment in the summer of ’79: I sat through this film twice when it played at Brooklyn’s King Plaza back in the day. The Beach Boys’ song is great, very catchy. And it used Harryhausen dinosaurs as stock footage to represent the oil disappearing. It’ll be nice to see this again, if for nostalgia value.

  5. Johnny Lagoon Says:

    Hey Christian!

    Can you dig the news images of gas lines and hundreds of people holding gas cans and huge crowds walking around carless from Hurricane Sandy?

    And then the anouncement of a telethon to “heal America”?

    Unreal! Time for a big time revival screening, stat!

  6. Johnny Lagoon Says:

    NEW YORK — A gasoline shortage caused by Superstorm Sandy forced 1970s-era rationing on New Yorkers Friday, adding a fuel-gauge obsession to their frayed nerves and dwindling patience.

    “I take passenger, I look at gas. I take another passenger, I look at gas,” said New York City taxi driver Shi Shir K. Roy. “Tension all the time.”

    Though rationing that allowed private motorists to fill up only every other day seemed to help with gas lines, it didn’t answer motorists’ questions about why they had been waiting for days in hourslong lines to fuel up. The confusion led some, like Angel Ventura, to panic.

    Ventura, who drives a delivery van for a camera rental company, has taken to hunting for gasoline every time his gauge drops below a quarter of a tank. “It makes me crazy, thinking I might hit empty and not be able to find it,” he said.

    As drivers waited on police-monitored lines, thousands more in the region got their power back for the first time since Sandy came ashore 12 days ago. More than 420,000 customers were still without power in New Jersey and the New York City area. President Barack Obama, who visited the battered Jersey coast two days after the storm, said he would survey the damage in New York next week from the storm, which the American Red Cross said will create its largest U.S. relief effort since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

    The gasoline rationing – first in the nation’s largest city since the 1970s Arab oil embargo – forced motorists to line up depending on whether their license plate ends with odd or even numbers.

    Mayor Michael Bloomberg said one-third of the city’s gas stations were open Friday, compared to 25 percent the day before, and cautioned, “there’s no guarantee that odd-even is going to make a big difference.” His estimate was countered by the Energy Department, which said that more than 70 percent of the city’s stations have gas available for sales.

    Industry officials first blamed the shortage on gas stations that lost power, but now say the problem has shifted to supply terminals, which are either shut or operating at reduced capacity. Drivers are also quicker to top off tanks because they’re afraid gasoline won’t be available, AAA spokesman Michael Green said.

    Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, said the densely populated New York-New Jersey area has fewer stations per capita than any other major metropolitan area, making the shortage an even bigger problem. He said rationing earlier might have helped in New York City.

    “It does curb some of the manic or panic behavior,” Kloza said.

    Gasoline moves millions of New Yorkers, just as the subway does. Hundreds of thousands of people drive to work, especially from the outer boroughs, and taxis and delivery vans are part of every gridlocked intersection.

    Friday was an “odd” day in the rationing plan, although not everyone had gotten with the program.

    “Even? Odd? Whatever it is, I didn’t have the right one,” said Joe Standart, a 62-year-old artist whose even-numbered car was ordered off a West Side gas station line by a police officer.

    Teniele Newbury, a mother of three, defended her need to use a car to go about her daily routine.

    “People probably think we can take the subway,” she said, “but I’ve got three kids I’ve got to drop off at three different schools. You try that on the subway with three little kids.”

    On Long Island, where odd-even rationing also began Friday, a spot check found shorter lines – 30 to 40 cars at most – and more stations with gas. In Brooklyn, car service owner Gary Lindenbaum said waits last week had been five or six hours.

    “The rationing really helps us a lot,” said Lindenbaum, owner of Court Express. “We need to work. We need the gas.”

    Lindenbaum drew the line at one hoarding technique: He posted a sign that said, “Drivers, do not carry full gas containers in your car.”

    Some cab drivers have been doing just that. One taxi reeked of gasoline from the extra cans sloshing around in the back seat with a passenger.

    Desperate drivers weren’t paying much attention to prices, but in New Jersey, seven gas stations were among the eight businesses sued by the state Friday on price-gouging claims.

    Meanwhile, many officials were pointing to power companies as the culprit in the region’s slow recovery. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for investigation of the region’s utilities, criticizing them as unprepared and badly managed. On Friday, two congressmen from Long Island urged the federal government – even the military – to come in and help the Long Island Power Authority restore electricity.

    “When the lights went off in Baghdad and the lights went off in Kabul, it was the Army Corps of Engineers that went into Baghdad and Kabul to turn the lights back on,” said Rep. Steve Israel. “We don’t need to turn the lights back on in Kabul and Baghdad. We need to turn the lights back on in Plainview and Great Neck and the south shore.”

    Long Island’s main utility, the Long Island Power Authority, has declined to respond to criticism, while New York utility Consolidated Edison Corp. has called the storm the worst in its history.

    Obama said Friday that he will meet with affected residents and first responders in a tour of the hardest-hit areas of the city.

    Some residents of Toms River, N.J., were given a precious hour Friday to see their storm-wrecked houses for the first time and grab warm-weather clothing, important pictures – whatever belongings they could. When Steve Dabern saw his flooded house, the floor was torn in pieces, the refrigerator was on its side and the kitchen furniture was in the living room.

    “Sickness. I felt sick,” he said.

    Bloomberg said the gas shortages could last for a couple of weeks, worrying many New Yorkers who say gas is vital to their lives.

    At St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital in Queens, workers who visit 4,000 sick children have been getting up as early as 2 a.m. to get on gas lines, said chief administrative officer Hope Mavaro Iliceto. Some have run out of fuel while waiting in line, she said.

    At the Brooklyn gas station, Ruben Quinonez and Edgar Luna were in the delivery truck they drive for a bakery in Mahopac, north of the city. They normally work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., making deliveries in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but every day since the storm they have added a long wait in a gas line.

    “You can’t take the risk,” Quinonez said. “Bread has got to be fresh.”

    Time for Monty Rushmore and The ‘Americathon’ Car Destruction Extravaganza!

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