The Study of Film through Seinfeld

We thought we were watching TV, but the TV was watching Film.

“I hope you’re watching the clothes, Elaine – because I can’t take my eyes off the passion.” – J. Peterman on The English Patient

And no show in the history of the television medium has been more passionate about film than Seinfeld – yet another reason the sitcom has weathered the test of time and is still funny to this day.  Tied to its central conceit of being a show based on observational humor surrounding the minutia of ordinary lives, Seinfeld‘s keen observations on how film defines a culture, has the ability to rescue us from our own suffocating mediocrity, and how one’s taste in film can shape their character is one of the big reasons I still watch in endless re-loop episode after episode after episode.  And I dare you to name another defunct show that is still quoted and discussed on a near daily basis in offices across the country.  It’s because like the greatest of films (or the worst deserving of ridicule), through Seinfeld, we learn about ourselves – and more importantly – how to laugh at ourselves.

Seinfeld‘s greatest running gag was its references to fake movies – the most famous of which was probably Rochelle, Rochelle – an art-film about “a young woman’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.”  It was first featured in one of my favorite episodes of all-time, the charming almost now period-piece-like, “The Movie” where the gang haplessly tries to meet up at the cinema for a showing of CheckMate (a high-class thriller of political intrigue we are to assume).  Like many of Seinfeld‘s greatest episodes, it couldn’t happen in today’s world of instant connection and smartphones (check out Caffeinated & Random’s recent keen observations on this very topic) – there’d be no excuse for missing the show or not knowing where your friends are.  But in this time capsule of an episode, some wander into the screening of Rochelle, Rochelle – thus setting up a story-arc that would define Seinfeld‘s spin on film for the remainder of its life-span.  When the little film buzzed about for its ample nudity becomes a Broadway play starring Bette Midler, it shows how over time and through adaptation original works can become watered down or completely stripped of their initial allure.

Hollywood is nothing if not a master at recycling, and while some of Seinfeld‘s situational humor might date itself, its observations on film are timeless.  Its series of fake films sound like they could be real films today just as they did in the early and mid 1990’s.  Hollywood never changes, it seems, and Seinfeld knew this.  For a complete list of Seinfeld‘s fake movies including the most obscure ones like Blimp: The Hindenburg Story that even this die-hard fan forgot about, click here.  Meanwhile, here are some of my favorite Seinfeldian films:

  • Death Blow – this takes the cake for the most hilarious tag line, spoken with appropriate comical menace by Kramer – “When someone tries to blow you up, not because of who you are, but because of different reasons altogether!”
  • Cry, Cry Again – this blistering art film solidified Jerry’s status as a reluctant but brilliant bootlegger (ah – something still done today albeit on smaller cameras and through illegal downloads).
  • Firestorm – this over-the-top stunt-driven action thriller starring Harrison Ford was mega-buzzed about by all the characters who had seen it (except poor George who begged people not to spoil it for him).  Heck, even the pompous Mr. Ross declared it, “A helluva picture!”
  • Ponce de Leon – A grand historical drama infused with mysticism that in “The Movie” George loved while Elaine hated.  One’s taste in films is defined here (especially Elaine’s) thus setting the early groundwork for the greatest episode of all-time…more on that later.
  • Chunnel – Its tag-line, “32 Miles of Hell” – it’s all you need to know about it, right?
  • Prognosis Negative – A medical thriller of sorts…I think…all I know is…the reciting of its title over and over was classic…”Prog-NO-sis N-E-G-A-T-I-V-E” but  alas, apparently, it sucked.
  • Sack Lunch – Dabney Coleman and his family pictured on the poster inside a lunch sack – “How did they get in there?” – Elaine is dying to know…

And of course, who can forget the context for Sack Lunch – for it was one of the many brilliantly intertwined plotlines in the sublime and all-time greatest episode of Seinfeld – “The English Patient”.  Yes – Seinfeld commented on real movies too (who can forget Jerry getting caught making-out with his girlfriend during a screening of Schindler’s List?) – but no movie real or fake in the Seinfeld universe is more memorable than The English Patient.  Despite being nominated for “all of those awards” Elaine begs her boyfriend to see Sack Lunch (a comedic masterpiece no doubt) instead – but alas, the Coleman flick is sold-out and thus begins Elaine’s descent into a personal hell where she is raging against the tide of overwhelming gushing sentiment for “that stupid movie” where she wished the patient “would just die already and stop telling his stupid story!”

But perhaps you forgot all of the subplots from that brilliant episode which was more than just a commentary on metropolitan elitists’ propensity to sidle with gushing critics and the Academy over art-films whereas the public just wants to laugh or be entertained.  This was the episode where George had to “out-Neal” Neal (aka Mr. Peanut) for the affections of a beautiful woman – where Jerry caused a two-state panic over who was the real “#1 Dad” leading to the Mandlebaum/Magic Pan crepes incident – and where Kramer smuggled in real Cubans (as in people – not cigars).  All of the plots were beautifully intertwined and shaded with complexity in a clever nod to Michael Ondaatje’s narrative style that drove The English Patient, thus finding a way to satirize rather than eschew its topic of debate.  Hell, it is Neal, after all, who much like the titular patient, sits recovering from burns suffered by an exploding crepe rolled too tightly by Cubans and in the end, wins.  Ultimately this episode can be summed up by Peterman’s pretentious copy-writer when he says of the film in question, “Oh, it ravished me!”

Oh, but If only Seinfeld had been so bold to as tell the story in an elliptical, non-linear way like Ondaatje had.  But then – they did do “the backwards episode” entitled “The Betrayal” about a wedding in India in the final season – and let’s face it – that was probably the biggest inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Memento, right?

And there you have it – Art imitating Life, Art commenting on Art, and Life imitating Art imitating Art.  Ah, Seinfeld, I shall never not laugh at yee – for through you, I laugh at myself, and isn’t that life’s greatest tonic?

Written by David H. Schleicher

And so I ask you, dear reader, to name the following:

  1. What is your favorite fake movie from the Seinfeld universe?
  2. What is your all-time favorite episode of Seinfeld?
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14 comments on “The Study of Film through Seinfeld

  1. Jack Lehman says:

    A great article about the best series of all time (the original “Office” is second though it doesn’t have the reach–as you note with the movie connection here. Thanks, John

    Jack – you got that right when you call it the best series of all time. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about something from Seinfeld; it has permeated our lives THAT much. –DHS

  2. Arti says:

    You know, I haven’t watched a lot of Seinfeld. Actually, not much of a TV fan. But the episodes you mention here are interesting indeed… and their take on one of my favorite movies The English Patient? I must see if I can find it on YouTube (?) Also, about The English Patient, reactions to it seem to be dichotomized… people either love it or hate it. I feel it is one of those cases where the film is more enjoyable than the book. In this case, of course, Minghella has changed the story and structure a lot to make it cinematic, with Ondaatje’s permission of course. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Special Features on this DVD where there are extensive coverage and interviews of both talents.

    Arti – hmmmm…I wonder what you would make of the episode. As you probably know, I love The English Patient movie, too – it was the first “art-film” I saw in a theater (I guess I was 16) – and I just remember thinking about it and talking about it for days and weeks after – essentially it was the first movie to make me think critically about movies as an art form and to really study the underlying themes and the filmmaker’s intentions. I’m a fan of Ondaatje’s other works – but I just haven’t gotten around to reading this book – but I just know I’ll love it when I finally do. –DHS

    • Arti says:

      You won’t believe it, David. I just watched “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld on TV… pure synchronicity. I’ve never tuned in to watch Seinfeld on purpose except this time as I was scrolling with the remote and saw this and it just started. It’s hilarious… all of the story lines. And your post is spot on. Art~Life~Art…Life… what’s the difference. We simply cannot compartmentalize our experiences and creativity. (BTW, there used to be a pretty good crepe restaurant called The Magic Pan here in our city.)

      Ah – what splendid synchronicity! Glad you enjoyed it. –DHS

  3. catalystpoet says:

    Love your blog, great piece. My favorite fake Seinfeld movie is Cry, Cry Again because it’s from “The Little Kicks,” and I love that episode. I think the quote goes something like, “You cry, and when you see the dancing, you cry again.”

    My favorite Seinfeld episode of all time, which is very difficult to decide, is “The Outing.” Everything just works together so well in that episode and the social commentary is brilliant. Some of the best, if not the best television/comedic writing I’ve ever seen. One of my favorite episodes of television along with “Bowling” from Malcolm in the Middle, “Inferno” from Coupling, and “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” from I Love Lucy. Love it.

    I have the boxset and still watch Seinfeld regularly. So brilliant. I even have a signed copy of the script of “The Contest.” Favorite sitcom, no doubt.

    Thanks! I forgot “The Little Kicks” was the same episode with Jerry bootlegging and Cry, Cry Again – it’s so funny how they packed so much into each episode. The pompous Peterman copy-writer was in that, too, commenting on Elaine’s dancing describing “her arms akimbo!” – LMAO. –DHS

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Ah David, I wish I were more qualified to partake in this request, but be rest assured I can appreciate so much of what you say here in sizing up this television institution. My WitD colleague will no doubt will be in ecstasy when he sees this comprehensive and passionate post!

    Sam – I’ve been jonesing to do a Seinfeld post forever now – I don’t know what took me so long. Seriously. Like I live and breathe Seinfeld, and the people at work are my enablers – we constantly quote it. Oh the humanity! –DHS

  5. dennis says:

    Well, having just watched EVERY episode of the show (I bought each season on DVD for a steal on AMAZON.COM), it took me three weeks, I think I’m up for this challenge.

    The “fake” movie would have to be “SACK LUNCH” as the moment I saw the advertising poster in the back-ground I almost shot cold spaghetti through my nostrils and yelled out “who the hell thinks up this stuff?!?!?!? (most of the time it was the brilliant Larry David)

    As for my favorite episode, I really think that the mid-section episodes were veering off the social commentary high-way and being infilitrated by off-the-wall disbelief. Like the show that inspired the frame-work for Seinfeld (that would be the classic ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW), SEINFELD was slowly but surely turning from the smartest comedy series on TV (well, along with the titanic THE SIMPSONS) to the most daring of shows on TV. Hard to explain myself in this context but here goes. I have seen in recent viewings a seismic arc shift in the tone of SEINFELD as it progressed season by season and what started as a commentary of the stupid things that plaque us on a daily basis slowly turned into a show with plots that really just made people ask “it’s amazing that viewers are falling for all of this”. By the fourth season the show was tackling plots involving the JFK assasination as reworked by the YANKEES, horses becoming flatulant from the big family sized cans of Beefaroni and Kramer finding himself floating in the east river by way of mafia hitmen whose sister confused his passing out during sex as a fatal heart attack. Susan dies from licking toxic adhesive from too many cheap wedding invitation envelopes, George’s father is fitted with a male bra called the “manzierre” and “Crazy” Joe Davola is out to kill anyone that looks at Elaine the wrong way while he’s dressed as Pagliacci (my all time favorite line comes from the episode THE OPERA when Joe asks Elaine to join him in his darkroom to watch him develope pictures and she replies, nervously: “I’m a DAYYYYYYY person”-could have been the great Julia Louis Dreyfus’s moment to win me over on her completely). I don’t know. It just seems that from the forth season on the show tilted into absudist humor of the most gargantuan size and sent the series into the stratosphere…

    That said…

    I think my favorite episode would have to be the hour long THE BOTTLE DEPOSIT.

    C’mon, think about?

    Could there have been any more off-the-wall episode than this one?

    Kramer and Newman figure a way to get bottles and cans they have collected to pay off big if they can get them to Michigan. To keep there travel and gas expenses low (and ultimately add to the deposit pay off) they hijack a postal truck they say is really carrying Mothers Day over flow. As this is going on, Elaine is sent to Sotheby’s by Mr. Peterman (who just has to walk into frame to make me laugh out loud) to bid on JFK’s personal set of golf clubs which, after she wins them, are accidentally kidnapped by Jerry’s auto-mechanic (a screamingly funny Brad Garrett from EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND fame) who won’t return the comics car because he thinks Jerry is slacking off on caring for it. What starts off as bizarre just kicks into high gear nutz when Kramer and Newman locate the stolen car and clubs as the mechanic passes them on the Michingan thru-way and, upon chasing him, have the 20,ooo dollar clubs lobbed out the car window at them, finds Newman stranded on the road because he weighs to much to keep the speed of the truck up and both he and Kramer running from a crazed farmer ala THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in the end.

    Again, who the hell comes up with this stuff? It’s commentary taken to the Nth degree and all done with such aplomb and nary a care in the word that someone might say “this is really getting stupid.”

    I think the point of SEINFELD is that’s exactly the point. Life is stupid.

    I cannot remember a DVD purchase that has given me so much joy than these mini-mastepieces of the absurd. One of the ten greratest American Tv shows in history and one that will never get tired from age and dating.

    What a great post…

    Dennis
    -from WONDERS IN THE DARK

    Dennis – thanks so much for this most stupendous post – man oh man, “The Bottle Deposit” – great great stuff – and I agree with you the series really soared when it added the absurdism to the observational humor. –DHS

    • dennis says:

      Yeah, Dave, I mean if you really pay close attention to the run of the seasons, it’s almost as if Larry and the rest of the writers on the show just threw their hands in the air and said “fuck it”. The show, from that point on just careens absurdly off the deep end and presents itself as an “anything goes” series (which I, for one, am totally grateful for). I cannot remember a comedy, NETWORK sitcom that entertained and pulled in the masses with so much ridiculousness.

      This is why the show is still pertinent today and has lost none of its freshness.

      Larry and Jerry are not only geniuses, but now two of my major new-found heros.

      Thank God Larry has CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM as I don’t know what I’d do without this kind of humor on TV…

      Dennis – I think you really tapped into why the show is still relevant today. Curb Your Enthusiasm is so great, too – more acerbic – more minimalist – but just as absurd about LA/life as Seinfeld was about NYC/life.

  6. Mary says:

    Excellent post! Pretty original topic too 🙂
    I answered in your Imdb post, but I’ll write here too –
    My favourite movie is ‘Sack Lunch’ and favourite episode would have to be ‘Festivus.’ It’s hilarious.

    Well done!

    Mary – thanks – yes, “Festivus” is one of my favorites of all-time, too – “I gotta lotta problems with you people!” It’s my favorite holiday to this day 🙂 — DHS

  7. Jenny says:

    Love it! I think my favorite episode is definitely “The Contest”, and my favorite fake movie is Prognosis Negative. I almost love that they don’t tell you what it’s about at all, haha

    Jenny – yeah, I love how they were so hyped about Prognosis Negative – but apparently it was one of the worst movies ever made – ha ha. –DHS

  8. TheBruce says:

    I honestly wanted to see DEATH BLOW when I first saw that episode, however long ago that was now. I think it was the hilarious tagline and the fact that Kramer’s “reasonable, but insane” bootlegger friend described Jerry’s work on it (albeit only as a bootlegger) as “enchanting”.

    Oh, and FIRESTORM. I honestly get this feeling that FIRESTORM was partly inspired by writers in 1996 who heard Harrison Ford was making an action film on a plane (AIR FORCE ONE). Why else would they have Jerry say, “What about the part where Harrison Ford jumped out of the plane and was shooting back up at them while he was falling?”

    I think what’s also interesting is that Seinfeld clearly references not only actual films but films and film trends of the day. CHUNNEL seems to be inspired by real-life Hollywood affinities towards disaster films in the 1990s.

    I also want to see AGENT ZERO (from the episode where Kramer pretends to be the Moviefone guy) and COLD FUSION (I believe from “The Bizarro Jerry”), because they have cool titles.

    The one I would probably least want to see: BLAME IT ON THE RAIN or THE MUTED HEART or THE PAIN AND THE YEARNING, 192 minutes where “an old woman experiences pain and yearning”.

    Bruce – who wouldn’t want to sit through The Pain and the Yearning? LMAO. Firestorm sounded way better than Air Force One! –DHS

  9. Anonymous says:

    The person in the movie poster is my wife.

  10. Keith Yambert says:

    I know I’m late to the party…but I’m in the middle of “The Parking Garage”. It’s TOTALLY Texas Chainsaw Massacre at one point one point! (JERRY!….JERRRRRRYYYY!!!!), and then they discuss who is going off to die next….like the movie they go off and die “One by one”. I’m not sure how I missed this before!!

    • “The Parking Garage” was one of the great early ones truly about “nothing” – like “The Chinese Restaurant” episode. “The Movie” was part of this trend, too, though it bridged itself into the quasi-absurdism that would dominate the series’ later life with the fake movies.

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