In 1996 MTV released a musical comedy called Joe's Apartment about a naive farm boy who moves to New York City, becomes friends with a few thousand sex-obsessed singing cockroaches, then uses his massive collection of used urinal cakes to win the heart of a kind hearted Senator's daughter. You know, your standard rom-com stuff.
Now, Joe's Apartment is the sort of cult oddity that most people don't think about everyday, but its actually been on my mind quite a bit lately. This is for a few different reasons. One is that Robert Vaughn (who plays the Senator) just died, and unfortunately I associate him with this movie over any of his more reputable roles. (Joe's Apartment isn't as well made as the Magnificent Seven, but alas it is the movie that 15 year old me watched over and over again.)
Two, I just had to clean up my apartment for an inspection and it took forever and it sucked so of course I started thinking about Joe's titular hellhole. My room is messy, but I can take some comfort in the fact that at least it's not 40,000+ roaches messy.
And three, I was talking with a friend over the weekend and the subject of intermissions came up, so of course I had to sing a few bars of Rodney Roach's classic song "Let's Go Out to the Lobby and Lay Ourselves Some Eggs." (That jingle is so burned into my brain that I will probably be singing it on my deathbed.)
Anyway, I rewatched my favorite roach-centric movie last night with the expectation that it would just be mindless comfort food, but much to my surprise it ended up being a bit of a thought-provoking experience.
You see, Joe's Apartment opens up on a shot of New York's skyline...Including a glimpse of the World Trade Center. Seeing the twin towers is always bracing, but seeing them in a movie that I mostly remembered as a silly musical was even more of a shock.
I hadn't watched Joe's Apartment in at least ten years and the last time I saw it, well, it didn't seem like a period piece. However, the movie is over twenty years old now and it undeniably depicts a New York that no longer exists. Joe's version of the Big Apple is not a playground for trust fund hipsters - it is the sort of place where kids build doll houses out of used needles. It has a darkly over-the-top view of post-crack epidemic / pre-Guiliani NYC, where you can't leave the Greyhound station without getting mugged three times and where a bloody body can lie on the sidewalk for two full days before a new-to-town rube will stop and offer to help.
And once I picked up on the fact that Joe's Apartment is one of the last snapshots of old school grimy New York I realized that it is a spiritual cousin to the Brad Pitt / Morgan Freeman serial killer movie Se7en.
Look: I know that sounds crazy. It is impossible to imagine detective Mills singing "Funky Towel" or world weary detective Somerset singing "Sewer Surfing" like Rodney Roach does here. But even though Joe's apartment is funny/weird while Se7en is grim/perverse I really do think that they both come from the same place.
Andrew Kevin Walker has long been upfront about what inspired him to write Se7en: he had moved to New York in the eighties to pursue his dreams and ended up getting crushed under the boot of reality. He slowly became frustrated with the city's filthiness, it's rude citizens, it's unending parade of small-time humiliations. So he decided to channel all that bitterness into the story of a serial killer who decides to teach the world some harsh moral lessons through a series of Bible-themed murders.
It is easy to imagine writer/director John Payson having a similar experience. But instead of wanting to get back at the city through simulated violence he wanted to get back at it with humor. Instead of crafting a story where even the good guys can be turned into monsters and there is no hope for the world, Payson crafted a story where the city's roaches would team up to help turn it's filth into a community garden.
The timeline of this all works out: the initial Joe's Apartment shorts ran on MTV in 1992, Se7en was released in 1995, then Joe's Apartment the movie came out in 1996. In retrospect, they all seem like the tail end of the "Fuck!!! New!!! YORK!!" trend of the 70s that brought us movies like Death Wish and Escape From New York.
At this point you might be saying: "so a movie I've never seen is sort of like a movie I actually like. So what?"
Well: here's what. I've always found Se7en to be a frustrating movie in many ways, and one of my biggest complaints is that I don't like how heavy handed the script is. And finally connecting it to Joe's Apartment really underscores why: if you put two guys in a stressful situation and one of them comes out with a bellyful of anger while the other comes out humming an insect-gospel song called "Lord Take My Feeler"... Well, I'm going to want to hang out with the second guy and not the first.
Which is to say that everyone will face hard times in their life, and it matters how we respond. Some of us are going to get mad at all the indignities and the hardships and the roach-filled apartments and end up turning that into full blown pessimism. And that makes a certain sort of sense. But that isn't the only path, because you could all of those lemons and turn them into "Garbage in the Moonlight" lemonade.
And I've always been a "Garbage in the Moonlight" sort of guy. I won't let myself live in denial about all the terrible things that happen in this world, but I also refuse to give up my sense of humor about them. I don't want to channel my grievances into a miserable story about a homicidal maniac, I want to channel them into a gross-but-sweet story about the pure love that can occur between an Iowa farm-boy and a hive of big-city bugs.
Or (more accurately) into a semi-insane blog post about two twenty year old movies.