Forgotten Films: O.C. & Stiggs (1987)

“And so, because Lenora was so artistic and withdrawn and delicate, and totally unable to function anyplace where there were any people or any windows or anything else that might suck her into a connection with the world, me and Stiggs got her an Uzi submachine gun for a wedding present, with a twenty-round clip and a detachable stock.”

Every time I think I’ve sussed out Robert Altman’s strangest film, I find I’ve sussed wrong. Is it his sole science fiction film QUINTET (1976) starring Paul Newman in a dystopic tundra? Or the cosmic twining of the dream logical, THREE WOMEN (1977)? I’ve claimed that POPEYE (1980) is perhaps the oddest man out by nature of its comic strip musical base, but I could also make a case for the bird-brained BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970). But could Altman’s strangest film be O.C. AND STIGGS? At the height of Reagan’s pastel era amid the dominance of John Hughes and National Lampoon comedies, I can only imagine the 1984 test screening audience as they sat in angry or stupified silence at Robert Altman’s attempt to crash the pop teen flick party. There’s not even a single new wave synthesizer note to at least gild the youth lily — and worse, no tits and ass. After the disastrous preview, MGM shelved the film and barely released it in 1987 when it escaped to VHS and cable, leaving a confused generation of viewers in its ramshackle wake.

Actually, the film should be titled NATIONAL LAMPOON’S O.C. AND STIGGS as it stems from the only issue-length story that appeared in the amoral, hilarious and influential humor magazine. “The Utterly Monstrous Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs” as written by Ted Mann and Donald Cantrell was a mosaic of clips, images and first-person narrative deal about the sociopathic adventures of two teen monsters, O.C. and Stiggs, who terrorize the wealthy Schwab family for no particular reason as they lay waste — and waste lays — among the slut populace. Written in the dry, cruel style so indigenous to the magazine, one can read the sordid tale as a piercing satire of suburban anomie, or as another variation of ANIMAL HOUSE. One can also only imagine why Altman decided to take on this incongruous project during the wilderness phase of his career, but he must have hoped to parody the genre and puncture other sacred cows of the ’80’s. In the story, the abuse of the Schwabs was apolitical; in the film, they represent the fundamentalist right.

The cast alone is enough to warrant a viewing: Tina Louise, Martin Mull, Jane Curtain, Dennis Hopper, AND Louis Nye! In an Altman film! Ironically, Jon Cryer is also here as a totally credible nerd deluxe – three years before PRETTY IN PINK (1987). Paul Dooley plays the object of O.C. and Stiggs contempt, an Arizona insurance magnate who acts as the stand-in for the Reagan generation. Martin Mull is terrific as a clothes maven and Ray Walston gives the funniest performance as the doddering grandfather whose money woes the boys try to amend. As for our young stars, Daniel H. Jenkins and Neill Barry do exactly what the director demands, almost like teen versions of Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland, minus their star charisma or more important to the studio, the totally awesome lingo indigenous to the decade.

As for the plot, well, that’s not important but it involves lobsters, Vietnam vets and a Studebaker christened, The Gila Monster. The dialogue is archetypal Altman, weaving in the background and foreground, forcing the viewer to listen or to follow the voices. One can see how alienating this would be to the potential audience of Valley Girls and Boys to whom the film was ostensibly marketed. But isn’t that exactly what the director wanted? O.C. AND STIGGS is like buying the new O.M.D. record in 1987 and finding out it’s King Sunny Ade, the juju musician who provides the jaunty songs and appear in a penultimate scene. Reportedly the movie was shot in a rush so MGM wouldn’t interfere and it shows — there’s a disjointedness that can be perceived as intentional if not completely successful. You can zone in and out of the film while you’re watching; I don’t even know what the hell to make of O.C. AND STIGGS.

Along with REPO MAN (1985), this was one of the few artifacts of the 1980’s that savaged the culture of Just Do It, but was less precise in its satire. The repeated slurs on Louis Nye’s gay drama teacher simply come off as witless homophobia. The biggest mistake was probably changing the story’s crude, destructive heroes into anarchistic Robin Hoods; the amoral National Lampoon characters would have better typified the era. Altman never spoke much of O.C. AND STIGGS except to say it didn’t work and nobody in the cast should be blamed, yet it’s clear a unique movie like this would develop a minor cult. Here’s a long, perceptive essay that sums up the film’s cultural value, and one of the minor pleasures of this cinematic oddity is to peruse the eclectic online analysis all stemming from “The Utterly Monstrous Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs” as seen through the sly, jaded and stoned eyes of Robert Altman. Totally awesome!

14 Responses to “Forgotten Films: O.C. & Stiggs (1987)”

  1. Yeah, this is a fascinating mess of a film and I really need to watch this again. You’re right about being able to zone in and out of the film, which is what happened to me when I last watched it and next thing I knew Dennis Hopper was terrorizing OC and Stiggs! Weird stuff, man. But I kinda like this oddball film. I dunno if it’s stranger than BREWSTER MCCLOUD but it’s certainly the anti-John Hughes film of the 1980’s.

    • christian Says:

      There’s even a bird gag straight outta BREWSTER MCCLOUD…

      The scenes with Hopper are Dennis at the nadir of his parody period, coming as it did in 1984. But the jokes are as cheap as quoting the Valkryie music from APOCALYPSE NOW for the chopper scenes. Still nice to see such an eclectic cast for an Altman film. Paul Dooley is a hoot to boot.

      • Love Dooley and the film definitely is workin’ when he’s on-screen. I had forgotten about the BREWSTER ref! Hah. Good call.

  2. Frank B Says:

    I’ve been curious (but not THAT curious, or I would have seen it) about this one for years. I see it’s on instant play on Netflix. I’ll keep it in mind for the next time I’m in one of those “what should I watch?” moods.

  3. count me in the ‘i’ve never seen this’ column, in fact embarrassingly i’ve never even HEARD of this movie, yikes

  4. ack, i just lost everything i typed for some reason. in short, we have no netflix streaming, strictly stone age here; we have a netflix-style postal service called ‘fatso’ (you’ve probably heard me lament that on the other blog) that blows, and VOD on cable, but it’s only just slightly faster than the local rental establishment in getting new releases, so it sorta blows too. i’m hugely envious of you netflix streaming capability.

  5. Frank B Says:

    What the fuck did I just watch????

  6. likesemstr8469 Says:

    A great, unrecognized minor comedy classic of human behavior. It CERTAINLY MUST qualify as likely the very best of Altman’s ensemble films! Highly recommended… BUT, for all the wrong reasons, to be sure~

  7. What a refreshingly positive, non-hateful critique of this unique and humorous Altman film which has always deserved a more constructive criticism than it’s ever gotten! Hats off!

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