25 Years Later, ‘Cabin Boy’ Remains a True Cult Film
There are two types of people in this world: Healthy, well-adjusted people and acolytes of Chris Elliott. It takes a certain, self-selecting sort to find something to love in his specifically and intentionally abrasive schtick, instead of just cause for a broken nose. Elliott had spent a decade and change honing a persona designed to annoy the characters in his immediate vicinity to the brink of apoplectic madness, and audiences sided with the marks as frequently as they were in on the joke. As a recurring face on Late Night with David Letterman, Elliott very much subscribed to the “dance like nobody’s watching” school of humor, mounting surreal scenes built not around jokes, but the absence thereof. The bit where he plays “Marlon Brando” as a clueless yet arrogant weirdo who does a little jig around a bushel of bananas works because Elliott is first and foremost entertaining himself.
Elliott and regular Letterman collaborator Adam Resnick went on to create the TV series Get a Life (Elliott played Chris Peterson, a thirty-year-old paperboy basking in arrested development under his put-upon parents’ roof), worshipped by some as a fearless work of sitcom subversion and reviled by a larger faction of others as a grating waste of everyone’s damn time. The network pulled the plug after two brain-breaking seasons, but time would smile kindly on its reputation, as Elliott’s sweetly acrid combination of pomposity and dumbassery found those amenable to it. A similar fate also befell Cabin Boy, the 1994 feature that Elliott and Resnick wrote as a vehicle for their spiritual descendant of Chris Peterson, the self-proclaimed “fancy lad” Nathaniel Mayweather. Like the Elliott creations that came before him, he moves through the world with supreme confidence despite possessing so little of the knowledge required to be a functional adult. And miraculously, the world has risen to meet him.
On the 25th anniversary of its ill-fated theatrical run, Cabin Boy’s receved a gorgeous new restoration and Blu-ray re-release courtesy of Kino Lorber, a reputed distributor of capital-C Cinema whose legitimacy serves as a testament to the growing profile of the film that the jacket art semi-ironically brands “The Contentious Classic That Angered A Nation.” In it, powdered-wigged Nathaniel graduates from a hoity-toity finishing school and mistakenly boards a salty vessel dubbed “The Filthy Whore” under the impression that he’s headed to Hawaii, where his family’s hotel concern awaits. As he insults everyone to cross his path, his ensuing adventures involve a kindly shark-man played by Russ Tamblyn, a hallucinatory flying cupcake out of Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and a bored, horny housewife who also happens to be a goddess with blue skin and six arms. In short, it was far from a surefire smash; Elliott and Resnick only got the film off the ground when Tim Burton agreed to direct it (he later pulled out and stayed on as a producer, though the playfully surreal stop-motion action sequences have the unmistakable Burton touch), and its capsizing at the box office went hand-in-hand with a Razzie nomination for Elliott.
But this orphaned, demented masterwork has been since taken in by advocates sympathetic to its peculiar aesthetic choices (Resnick’s shooting on a soundstage and he wants you to know it), unhip reference points (the film might as well be a Mad Magazine parody of Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous), and Elliott’s pungent comedy stylings. One such proselytizer would be critic Nick Pinkerton, who recalls seeing the film as a youth with his father on opening day in the booklet essay packaged with Kino’s disc. He goes on to declare that “the tides of history have turned,” and that “the brilliance of Elliott and Resnick’s perverse picaresque is plain for anyone to see.” But while I would love to live in this beautiful world full of people who gibe with Elliott’s verbose dim-wittedness, I maintain that Cabin Boy still possesses the true cult object’s power to divide.
I recently appeared on a podcast to discuss Cabin Boy and filled out the full spectrum of opinion with the two hosts, one of whom found Elliott fully irritating. The other confessed that his patience had started to wear thin by the end of the film, and I was taken off guard by his characterization of the movie as an endurance test. Art and taste don’t usually work in binaries, but this particular case falls neatly along lines of those who “get it” and those who don’t.
Much of the Elliott/Resnick method has roots in deliberate repulsion, and perhaps this qualifies as a paradox, but those alienating qualities only bring the true faithful in closer. Some psychological wrinkle predisposes a viewer to connect to Nathaniel’s pettiness and self-aggrandizement and immaturity — I can speak only for myself, but I see more than a bit of this in me. This is how a person can love something that most people hate: By taking pleasure in its defects because they don’t appear as defects at all, but merely peccadilloes that sync up with our own.
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