Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reefer Busby Berkeley Madness

Listening to Carmen Miranda songs at the Cornelia Street Cafe recently reminded me of a night long ago which is etched in my memory.

Time: New Year's Eve, many many years ago. Place: an upstairs apartment where me, my roommates and a guest or three were celebrating the holidays. One of the guests pulled out a nice little cigarette case of hand-rolled cigarettes that were as thick as Balkan Sobranies, except not filled with tobacco. "A present from my sister," he announced, lighting up, and took a puff. Five minutes later, when he had stopped coughing and we had stopped laughing, he passed the cigarette down to each of us in turn, and every one of took a single smug puff and immediately coughed up a lung, to louder and louder laughter.

I think we only smoked the one. I think we went out in our street clothes and had a snowball fight at midnight. I think we ordered pizza and ate whatever was in the refrigerator. I know we were watching television, because The Great Escape was on, and one by one, as we came under the total influence of what we had smoked, we glommed onto it, each of us thinking in our heads: "This is the best movie ever! Oh look--they're machine gunning all the escapees! Cool!"

And when the movie was over, we kept it on the same channel, because none of us could move and we were totally hypnotized by what we were watching. And what we were watching now was a Busby Berkeley musical called The Gang's All Here.

I have no memory of the first three musical numbers, outside of the opening, where an obviously outdoor dockside scene segues into an indoor stage with people singing. That's the kind of mind-bending transition which is totally logical when you're smoking funny cigarettes -- of course there's an ocean on the stage, it's a musical. But the fourth musical number completely redefined mind-bending: Carmen Miranda singing "The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat."

Imagine, if you can, watching this number under the influence of a funny cigarette so strong that a single puff gives you a two-minute coughing fit. Imagine what your mind makes of all those giant bananas. And imagine in particular the final moments, when the camera pulls back to reveal the size of Carmen Miranda's hat, and you find yourself trying to keep your jaw from hitting the floor while your body is involuntarily leaning back, back, back against the couch, and you're thinking holy crap, is this actually in the movie or am I imagining this? Her fucking hat is twenty stories tall!!!

And then the number ends, and you look at everyone else in the room. And one of you says what the rest of you are thinking: "What the hell was THAT?" And somebody else says what the resat of you are also thinking: "I have to go to bed now." And the TV is turned off and you go to bed; and on New Year's Day, and for many days after, during any lengthy silence in the group conversation, one of you will stare off into the distance and say: "What the hell was THAT?" And everyone will know exactly what you're talking about.


Anonymous said...

Oooooh, Matthew is having Mary Jane flashbacks!!!!!!!!

Cracking up!

And really, what the hell WAS that?


The_Dove said...

"When I feel gay I dress that way..."
When I feel gay I also dress as an outsize banana.

Pass that over here, Wells.

Anonymous said...

Now you've got me flashing back many years ago, with hallucinogenics running through my veins, coming home to find Dad watching The Pink Panther and laughing, yes laughing, which got me laughing HYSTERICALLY, cos' Dad never laughed back then.

Madeline said...

I did not have a funny cigarette and still I'm wondering, what the hell was that?

Anonymous said...

That's a great story and a great clip. Keep up the good work!

Tommy Tunes