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A Map Of Growing Up: Stephen Lee Naish On The Bachelor Party
Stephen Lee Naish , November 21st, 2014 08:31

Stephen Lee Naish looks back to the fond memories contained in a warped VHS copy of Tom Hank's 'The Bachelor Party' and wonders if something has been lost in our rush to embrace digital formats

In the late eighties/early nineties my parents would often record films that were shown on television to VHS cassettes. During these years, before the advent of DVD and online streaming, we amassed quite a collection that we would watch repeatedly together as a family or alone. Three films in particular stick out as staples of my youth. The Naked Gun (1988), Short Circuit (1986) and The Bachelor Party (1984). The Bachelor Party in particular was a film that garnered many a repeated viewing. For the most part it was an attempt to jump on the bandwagon of popular teen films like Animal House (1978) and Porky’s (1982), films that used sex, drugs and boyish misbehaviour as the primary points of their comedy. However, instead of following the sexual adventures of a group of teenage boys who didn’t know any better, The Bachelor Party wallowed in the exploits of seven white, sex-obsessed men desperately hanging onto the threads of their youth.

Although marketed as a sex comedy starring the loveable and youthful Tom Hanks (yet to become a superstar) there is in fact very little sex. There are however copious amounts of leering, groping and sexist remarks. The females of the film are all portrayed as clichés - sassy prostitutes, nagging housewives or frumpy hags - and are included as the butt of many off-colour jokes and degrading acts of perversion (one woman attempts sex with a donkey!). During the first few minutes of the film the tone is set. As the friends sit in a diner and discuss the upcoming nuptials of Rick (Tom Hanks) and his fiancé Debbie (Tawny Kitaen), they suddenly come to the realization that the best way to send Rick out in style is to have a debauched bachelor party "...with chicks and guns and fire trucks and hookers and drugs and booze!". They stand and smugly raise a toast to “girls with big tits” and the film continues with its set pieces of casual female humiliation and racial stereotyping.

Thankfully I did grow out of the gross out comedy of The Bachelor Party, but it took a long time for it to work its way out of my system. So long in fact, that the video cassette that the film was recorded onto had multiple defects by the time I replaced it with a DVD copy. I suspect the film was recorded from the television in 1992. It must have been before any major hormonal awakening as I remember not being at all perturbed by the nudity that was plentiful throughout the film. At this point the main attraction for me would have been Tom Hanks. Hanks had become the universal boyhood hero in comedy films Splash (1984), The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), The Money Pit (1985) and Big (1988). He endeared himself to a youthful audience throughout the eighties with a physicality and goofiness that was childlike enough for kids to copy and genuine enough for parents to endorse. This must have been why my parents allowed me to watch the film in the first place, Hanks' roles were so childlike that even The Bachelor Party was considered PG13. Hanks would progress to tackle more dramatic roles in the nineties and become the well regarded actor, spokesman and producer we know today. But at this point in his career he was playing it for laughs.

    The original television  screening of The Bachelor Party was spliced with advertisements that cut into the film every 30 minutes or so. These advertisements also made it on to the VHS copy that was recording as we watched the film in real time. I can still recall some of the advertisements. There was an M&M's and Dime Bar advert both featuring catchy jingles. Also an advert for a VW Golf GTi in which the driver can't locate the source of an annoying squeak in his car (turns out it's his wife's earring). But there was also more. Over the years of watching The Bachelor Party on an old toploader VCR, the tape had become pulled and skewed, thus dragging some of the dialogue out in a momentary time lapse. The images also became distorted. At points Tom Hanks’ forehead seemed to stretch and leave the frame altogether, other times the image was bleached so high in contrast it looked like the cast had been on holiday to a nuclear plant. There was also the matter of my continuous and childish misdeeds with the VCR remote control (one which was attached to the machine by a wire). Throughout watching the film repeatedly I had numerous times hit the mysterious 'Dub' button on the remote control either in error or on purpose, thus inflicting on the film seconds of random pieces of television (a tennis match momentarily interrupts the film's one and only tender scene). All this damage to the cassette became an excepted part of the viewing experience. Though it was not intended, it was part of the film. When I finally found a copy of The Bachelor Party on DVD and sat to watch it, the film felt wholly different. The scenes where the commercials were meant to interrupt, instead switched flawlessly to the next scene. The short blips of random television were gone, replaced by seamless audio and vision. Tom Hanks' head stayed firmly in frame. What should have been a perfect viewing experience instead felt hollow. My own history with the film had vanished. These fragments had been placed within the film by me. It didn't matter that they were imperfections, not meant to be included.

Although the DVD viewing raised a few last laughs, I was aware that my time of holding the film in high esteem was over. This is why I believe it took such a long time to get over The Bachelor Party. A personal history was embedded within it. The moments spent watching films with my family had dissipated over time and The Bachelor Party was a reminder of that shared experience. Also, the fragments of random television reminded me of points throughout my youth, lazing on a bed, eating a banana sandwich (not gross!), drinking an apple juice, in bliss. In a way the VHS copy of The Bachelor Party was an artifact of my adolescence, through wear and tear it created a map of my growing up.

Although I've been happy to dispense with the imperfections and rewind, fast-forward awkwardness of VHS over that of skip-back-and-forth DVD and Blu-Ray, I think there is something missing with these formats. We are all now watching the same film over and over again. The digital framework of a DVD or Blu-Ray means our own history cannot be embedded within the film. The scratches and thumbprints that are common on the back of a disc eventually just stop it from being playable. A VHS cassette would warp and stretch, chew up in the machine, but could be fixed by a little technical know-how and some clear tape. As it played it took on a life of its own, constantly moving away from its original imprint.

Thankfully I also moved away from The Bachelor Party. I did not become some gross misogynist due to its influence. The breaks in the narrative deliberately inflicted throughout the years were perhaps glitches in my own growing conscience as I reacted to its tone. The video cassette that once contained The Bachelor Party no longer exists. It has been erased.