Who’s the moosiest moose we know? Marty Moose! Who’s the star of our favorite show? Marty Moose!”
If you came of age in the ’80s, you might recognize that song as the battle cry of the Griswolds, the family whose dogged pursuit of amusement was chronicled in National Lampoon’s Vacation and a series of uneven sequels. Like most basic-cable junkies, I prefer the original Griswold lineup: Chevy Chase in his prime, the nonchalant hotness of Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall at his gawkiest, and Dana Barron, whose teeter-totter scene opposite Jane Krakowski provides one of the film’s most quotable moments. But incest jokes notwithstanding, my favorite part of Vacation is the family’s climactic visit to ”Walley World,” a fictional California theme park. The park is unexpectedly closed, so Clark has a Falling Down-style meltdown, buys a gun (okay, it’s a BB gun), and proceeds to storm the park with his brood in tow. The family spends much of the film’s conclusion joyfully riding roller coasters, complete with great POV and reaction shots from the cast. It’s a silly, self-indulgent sequence that I can watch over and over again.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always been a sucker for roller coasters in movies. It’s a tradition that goes all the way back to This Is Cinerama, a sort of proto-IMAX film from the ’50s that showcased, among other things, a wooden coaster called the Atom Smasher. In the ’70s, there was the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, which features a fire-breathing Gene Simmons wreaking havoc at Six Flags Magic Mountain. The Warriors‘ turf was a vividly gritty Coney Island. In the ’80s, everyone loved The Lost Boys, in which Kiefer Sutherland and his Twilight-pretty vampire posse hung out (literally) on the Santa Carla boardwalk.
There’s something about a roller coaster that triggers strong feelings, maybe because most of us associate them with childhood. They’re inherently cinematic; the very shape of a coaster, all hills and valleys and sickening helices, evokes a human emotional response. Remember that melancholy scene in Requiem for a Dream where Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto) walks past an abandoned, skeletal roller coaster? That’s the Thunderbolt, the same Coney Island coaster used for comic effect in Annie Hall. Who knew Alvy Singer’s charming ”boyhood home” would later be used as a symbol of self-destruction? The Thunderbolt was more than a setting; it was a character actor.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Final Destination 3, a satisfying bloodbath in which teenagers are flung hither and yon by a killer coaster. Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for puberty? Interestingly, the one girl who foresees danger and hops off the coaster in advance winds up meeting a grisly fate anyway. Memo to kids: You can’t avoid the ride.
Which brings me to a more recent memory: I finally saw Adventureland last week. I was intrigued by its setting (an ’80s amusement park), and figured I couldn’t lose. I dragged my ass to the dim, grim cinema at the Beverly Center on a school night, bought a ”theater-size” box of Junior Mints, and reveled in the specific, subversive pleasure of catching a midweek movie. And what a lovely movie it was. In the canon of summer-job flicks, it’s not often that the Virginal Dork, the Hot Babe, and the Tortured Smart Girl are real people: authentic, three-dimensional, subtly shaded characters. I could imagine their lives beyond the diegesis; I actually worried what would happen to them after the lights came up and the Coke Movie Trivia reappeared on the screen. Besides, when was the last time you heard Hüsker Dü in a film? When was the last time you heard Hüsker Dü at all? If every soundtrack included Hüsker Dü, I think movies as a whole would be 35 — 40 percent better.
Just like a mall served as the perfect backdrop for the apathetic, consumerist teens in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the titular park in Adventureland is the ideal backdrop for a gentle coming-of-age story. The ups and downs. The fear and elation. And, lest we forget, the puking.