“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:
- What is your favorite fake movie from the Seinfeld universe?
- What is your all-time favorite episode of Seinfeld?