The Annotated Gipper

Tags: Metadata, show your work, sausages being made.

The Annotated Gipper

One of the most common comments I get when people discover this weblog–after “How do you have the time to do this?” which is a tough question to answer, since patently, I don’t–is some variation on, “I don’t get it.” Not that you should necessarily expect to: one difference between my blog writing and the rest of my life is that when blogging, I allow myself the vice of not footnoting every movie reference, every literary allusion, every line from The Simpsons. It can be fun to toss out a one-percenter and see who gets it. Would Brett Holman have been so delighted by my reference to “Alpha Complex jumpsuits” if I’d carefully explained it to the other 99% of you? But I try to make these easter eggs optional: you don’t need to know what Alpha Complex is to understand that post. And I make a real effort to control this kind of glossolalia in real life. In certain geeky circles, it seems almost a faux pas to explain a reference–thus imputing that there might be things (like, say, the definition of glossolalia) your listener doesn’t know. This leads to a lot of disjointed conversations. I try very hard not to make obscure references in face-to-face communication, often erring on the side of overexplaining. My wife still gives me grief for explaining to her who the Yellow Kid was; it was early in our relationship, and I hadn’t dared hope that I’d find true love in the arms of a girl who knew her Gilded Age newspaper comics.

So generally, I don’t worry about it. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, no inexplicable non sequitur need stay un-sequitured for long. No doubt there is some slick metadata Web 2.0 plugin I could use to hyperlink every stupid thing I type to the original script of whatever WKRP episode it happens to refer to. But I can’t say I don’t wonder what hits home, what goes sailing off into left field, and what makes you just want to punch me in the kidney. StatCounter offers fascinating data on how many visitors to this webpage have their monitors set to 1024×768 pixels or to 1280×1024. The sort of thing I really want to know is, how many of you understood, or cared, that Hal Holbrook was famous for playing both Mark Twain and Deep Throat?

As a one-time experiment, here is every reference in my last post, explained. I’m under no illusions that doing this will make the piece funnier or more clever. Think of it as an exercise in transparency, or an example of sausages being made. Or click away and don’t think of it at all.

Murder Out of Space: Ronald Reagan did star in a series of B-movies–four in just over a year–as undercover agent Brass Bancroft. (A retrospective of the Bancroft Bs asks: what self-respecting crook, counterfeiter or saboteur would ever accept the clean cut Ronald Reagan as one of their own?) The fourth Brass Bancroft picture was 1940’s Murder in the Air. My altered title references H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story, The Colour Out Of Space, signifying to the illuminati that there is Lovecrafty horror from beyond space and time afoot.

Eddie Foy, Lya Lys, Max Castle: Eddie Foy Jr. and Lya Lys were Reagan’s actual co-stars in Murder In the Air. Foy was a child vaudeville star (one of “Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys”) with a long career in film in television. Lys (what a great name) was a Russian-French-American actress who starred in Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or. Max Castle is the fictional film director who haunts Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, itself an alternate history of horror and film noir.

T-Men: Until the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Secret Service was part of the Treasury Department. Hence, secret service agents are “T-Men.”

Innsmouth, Green Deltas: More Lovecraft. Innsmouth was Lovecraft’s twisted vision of Newburyport. His Shadow over Innsmouth featured a government raid on the degenerate fish-men infesting the town. Delta Green is a secret government agency that protects Earth from alien horrors–not an original HPL creation but part of a modern setting for the Lovecraft-inspired roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu. “Green Deltas” sounded more old-timey to me.

Koschei the Deathless: An evil wizard from Russian folklore.

Inertia Projector, notoriety in the 1980s: Murder In the Air did gain notoriety in the 1980s after Reagan proposed the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. Garry Wills and others suggested that the idea for SDI may have been planted in Reagan’s head by the movie’s MacGuffin, a ray-gun called the “inertia projector” that would shoot down planes in midair before they could bomb the U.S. (For detailed discussion of this idea, see Michael Rogin’s Ronald Reagan: The Movie.) I never quite bought this idea–yes, the glittering promise of SDI was definitely of a piece with Reagan’s Hollywood-addled worldview, but super-weapons of this sort are such a sci-fi staple, how can you trace the origins of SDI to one specific B-movie Reagan probably barely even remembered? But that didn’t stop me from using it in this post.

“…has been labeled Star Wars … if you will pardon my stealing a film line”: This is a real quote from Reagan, acknowledging the fact that he borrowed lines from movies all the time. The actual line he followed with was, of course, “The Force is with us.” Aggrieved nerds pointed out that in the Star Wars saga, it is the evil Empire, not the good guys, that builds space weapons and planet-spanning shields.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh…: A recurring line in Lovecraft’s stories. (No, seriously.)

Terrortastic, Frightatious, 3-D House of Meese: Well, of course I’m goofing on the breathless titles of Ed Wood-era horror Bs. But specifically, this is a shout out to SCTV’s “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre” and all their “3-D House of” parodies. References within references, baby. That’s how we roll.

Nancy Davis: By 1954, Nancy Davis had given up her acting career to become Nancy Reagan. But Ed Wood wasn’t making movies until around then so I had to fudge the dates a little.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: The White House, of course. I worried about whether this one was too convoluted: young Ron and Nancy are the stars of the movie, see, in which they are menaced by the inhabitants of the Reagan White House, i.e. their future selves and close advisors. But these future selves aren’t played by young Ron and Nancy, they’re played by obscure B-movie actors of the 1950s. Did that make any sense?

Lugosi, drug-addled and close to death during filming: Reference to the filming of Ed Wood’s famous real-life stinker, Plan 9 From Outer Space.

…munches on jelly beans and makes a couple of good speeches…: You see what I did there? That’s what we call po-li-tic-al satire.

Michael Deaver, Ed Meese: Two of the scarier members of Reagan’s White House. With James Baker, they formed the “Troika” often suspected of setting policy.

Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Dudley Manlove, Tor Johnson: All appeared in the infamous Plan 9. Lugosi was Dracula, of course; his sad cameo in Plan 9 amounts to a few minutes of test footage shot mere days before his death. Vampira was a Morticia Addams-esque TV horror host. Tor Johnson was a pro wrestler (aka the Super Swedish Angel) known for his blank stare and lumbering gait. Ed Meese always kind of reminded me of him. And Dudley Manlove was an orotund-voiced disc jockey who played the alien mastermind in Plan 9. I admit I only cast him as Deaver because I like the name “Dudley Manlove.”

Criswell: Plan 9 does begin with an unintentionally hilarious introduction by the Amazing Criswell, a semi-famous “psychic about town” in 1950s Los Angeles, but this is also a reference to Nancy Reagan’s reliance on astrologer Joan Quigley.

…claptrap about shooting down missiles: See? More of that political satire. I’m like a hurricane, you just can’t stop me.

Assisted-Living Dracula: A lame (fictional) horror movie that appears in the background of an episode of Aqua-Teen Hunger Force (of recent Mooninite fame). Almost certainly a Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 reference too.

Manos, Hands of Fate: A 1966 horror movie, made famous (sorta) by an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, that is far worse than Plan 9, and thus one of the most inept films ever made.

Bedtime for Gonzo: Riffing, of course, on Reagan’s “second banana to a chimp” movie Bedtime for Bonzo, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Dr. Gonzo/gonzo journalism.

Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson: Made Easy Rider, of course, but also made the LSDsploitation quickie The Trip. It amused me to cast Nicholson as the chimp. Is he the voice of the chimp? Did he dress up in a chimp suit? It’s a mystery.

Philip K. Dick, I Ching, alternate reality: I didn’t quite nail this one down–is it a Hunter Thompson pastiche, a Philip K. Dick story, a riff on Easy Rider, maybe Planet of the Apes?–but these elements were shoutouts to Dick and his classic Man in the High Castle.

ketchup is a vegetable, trees cause acid rain: Both dubious assertions made by Reagan during his presidency.

Nancy blocked the film’s release: I honestly can’t remember if this was a reference to anything. It seems like it must be, but it hasn’t stayed with me.

“You maniac! You blew it up!”: The famous last scene of Planet of the Apes, bien sur. In an alternate history in which Reagan stuck with acting, might Charlton Heston have gone into politics?

Sandanisto Y El Demonio Azul Contra Los Contras: This one is a tribute to the gloriously insane genre of Mexican wrestling films, and pits the genre’s two biggest stars, Santo and the Blue Demon, against Ollie North and the Nicaraguan Contras. As you have probably guessed, I don’t speak Spanish–I relied on Babelfish for the translation above. Putting that back into Babelfish, and translating back into English, we arrive at:

The Yankees Cursed are coming! The Yankees Cursed are coming! Ay-ay-ay! It is an invasion of fight commandos of the robots of the United States! Led by the evil advisors of “NSC,” John “El Piledriver” Poindexter, and Oliver “El Norte” North, the Contras wishes our women! They work without the sanction! They sell the arms to Iran! The means of “Boland Amendment” nothing! They will stop in anything! The call leaves! Who can save to us? Only the heroes of fight, Sandanisto (Santo) and the Blue Demon (Alexander Cross), the masters of “circle square”! The acclamation as Sandanisto and the Blue Demon fights legions of goons of company and the barons vampires of the drug of Medellin! The shout of astonishment like “el Norte” it holds to Blue Demon “Shredder” feared! The emotion as Sandanisto approaches to crazy gringos with a Frankensteiner cover-prudent! The Blue Demon lives! Alive Sandanisto! Fight for the children! Fight for the freedom! It fights for Nicaragua!

Which is pretty close to what I was trying to say, although “stop in anything” should read “stop at nothing,” and I meant to say “top rope Frankensteiner” (a rasslin’ move, or so I’m told) rather than “cover prudent.”

You Talking To Me? Famous line from Taxi Driver, with which Reagan’s would-be assassin was obsessed. One of those quotes that entirely escapes the gravity of the movie that spawned it to become a catch phrase with a life of its own. I like how, out of context, it sounds goofy and light, like a sequel to Look Who’s Talking. I could totally see that in a cornball movie trailer.

Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald: Stars of John Hughes’ 80s “brat pack” stable. I don’t remember why I cast Jack Lemmon as Reagan, though I think he’d have been up to it, but I always felt John Hughes owed Molly Ringwald one juicy dramatic role before tossing her aside at the end of the 80s with his Members Only jacket and skinny ties. And it couldn’t have hurt Hughes’ karma to let Anthony Michael Hall get the girl for once. (I know what you’re going to say: what about Jon Cryer? But I went back and watched that movie recently, and I’m here to tell you, folks: Duckie was gay.)

Reagan, Hinckley, Foster: In a lifetime of slippages between the movies and reality, Reagan’s attempted assassination in 1981 was perhaps the most surreal. On the day of the 1981 Academy Awards, Reagan the old movie actor was shot by Hinckley the deranged movie buff in order to impress Jodie Foster, who had appeared in Taxi Driver, in which Robert DeNiro plots to assassinate a politician. The one thing Reagan, Hinckley, and Foster have in common, it occurred to me, was that they all love the movies.

AIDS-laced crack, ghetto children, Latin American death squads: Some of the anti-government conspiracy theories I remember hearing bandied about during the Reagan years. Ah, the 80s.

The Sound of Music: One of Reagan’s favorite movies. According to Lou Cannon’s Reagan biography, the night before a world economic summit in 1983, White House Chief of Staff James Baker gave Reagan a thick briefing book of everything he needed to know before meeting with the world’s leaders the next day. When Baker returned the next morning, he found the briefing book exactly where he had left it and immediately knew the president hadn’t even cracked it open. “Well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on last night,” Reagan explained.

Ghostbusters: Another of Reagan’s favorites: fringe science and plucky entrepreneurship triumph over weedy EPA inspectors and government red tape. He and his staff were allegedly entranced with Ghostbusters during the 1984 election and devoted much thought towards its relevance for their campaign. After a screening at Camp David, Reagan remarked, “That was great! It was better than movies back when I was making them. You know why? If they had made Ghostbusters back then, the guy would have woken up at the end and the whole thing would have been a dream.”

One last thing about the Hinckley shooting: Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr. On the day Reagan was shot, Parr was the agent who tackled the president into his limousine and ordered the driver to go directly to hospital, arguably saving Reagan’s life. Parr originally decided to join the Secret Service as a young boy in the 1930s, after seeing a B-movie called The Code of the Secret Service, starring, you guessed it, Ronald Reagan as Brass Bancroft.

And with that ouroboros-like ending, we end… and begin again. (Ok, one more: what’s an ouroboros?) Now: aren’t you glad I don’t do this with every post?


  1. Pingback: Old is the New New :: Five For The Gipper

  2. All right, in the spirit of your post, I got less than 40% of your allusions (I could spot about 90% of ’em and you know what? I still found most of them funny). I guess being relatively conscious for most of the ’80s and having a really really bad memory (thank god) allowed your humor to appeal directly to my subconscious mind! Nice.

  3. The 80s seemed strange enough from the perspective of elementary school (granted, I spent those days with GI Joes and a subscription to “Time” magazine), and this has only made it stranger. I can’t claim that I had much more than a third of the references.
    As for the unexplicable “Nancy blocked the film’s release,” might you have been inverting the role that Jackie Kennedy played in getting “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” into cinemas without the condemnation of key Catholic cardinals? (That’s what I thought the reference was when I first read the post two days ago.) If memory serves, Jackie turned to a Cardinal as the credits rolled and said, “Oh, how Jack would have loved it,” and the movie was safe.

  4. I remember hoping there would be an armada of Star Destroyers circling America, complete with music – but the 80’s came and went and not an Imperial class to be seen. I’m still holding out for the “Ronald Reagan Death Star Spectacular” to enhance our night sky.
    “Hey, Buford, that’s no moon!”

  5. I got (and giggled at) most of the Lovecraft, B-grade sci-fi movie and (oddly enough) even some of the Reagan refs, I think. But where’s the Paranoia? Oh wait, the whole post was about Reagan, wasn’t it …

    I’ll have to try and track down Murder in the Air; death rays are one of my research interests (er … historical ideas of such, not real ones). The nearest British equivalent might be Q-Planes (1939), starring Ralph Richardson in a wonderfully eccentric performance and a very young Laurence Olivier. Oh, and a shipful of evil Teutonic types shooting down experimental British aircraft with their death ray.

  6. Where is the Paranoia, indeed?

    Rollen: you give me too much credit; I’ve never heard that Jackie Kennedy story.

  7. Another one last thing about the Hinckley shooting [something I remember from CHCH Channel 11 News]: When he was recovering [you know, giving press conferences from the hospital in his jammies], it was revealed that at first Reagan didn’t know he was shot, and while the limo sped off he was initially cross with Parr w.r.t. “the tackle” as he thought he was merely suffering a few broken ribs.

    p.s. You still haven’t updated your copyright dates for 2008 [let alone 2009], it’s almost like you have more important things on your mind than this here blog.

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