Gremlins on the Wing

Have you ever seen that Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet? Or at least The Simpsons parody? William Shatner plays a passenger on a flight who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane, sabotaging the engine. Whenever he tries to draw other passengers’ or the crew’s attention to it, the gremlin jumps out of view. No one believes that it exists. People think he’s insane. But he knows he’s not insane. He knows what he saw.


I am like William Shatner (wish I could say I’ve never said that before), but my gremlins are pop cultural. There have been too many occasions when I’ve mentioned the details of a particular piece of pop culture that has incited a sceptical eyebrow raise or the blatant accusation that I am making it up.

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I explain things in a way that makes them seem artificial. Look, I do sometimes bullshit for fun, so maybe it’s a “boy who cried wolf” situation? But pop culture is something I am very serious about. I’d never bullshit about it. Here are a few choice items from the long list of pop cultural arcana that people think I have fabricated. I have taken the liberty of providing documentation so you do not doubt their veracity.


Gremlin No. 1

I’ll start with the oldest thing first: Cher. Yuk yuk, I kid the Goddess of Pop! No, I’m not talking about Cher herself, but a particular song of hers. I recall this incident like it was yesterday, though it was a few Cher-faces back now. I was having coffee with my buddies Rowena and Ali and on the walk back to our office I started singing a Cher song for no apparent reason. Actually, there is a very apparent reason: I am a homosexual and I break into pop songs all the time. Anyway, this particular song was the 1989 Western-inspired “Just Like Jesse James.” I guess the lyrics made my companions doubt me. Consider the first line: “You’re strutting into town like you’re slinging a gun/just a small town dude with a big city attitude/honey are you looking for some trouble tonight? Alright.” Sung in Cher’s low-throated vocal fry and accompanied by twanging guitars, this intro firmly situates us in a desolate Leone-esque milieu. But by the time we get to the chorus, Cher is less scolding school marm and more frontier Cassandra, prophesying the unnamed man’s fate:

“You know you’re gonna go down in flames/ just like Jesse James.” What makes this song even more unbelievable is that the film clip is basically recut segments from various other Cher videos, with old Western movie scenes spliced into it. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s essentially the apotheosis of MTV-style montage, perhaps meta-commenting on the genre’s own visual “bitsiness.”



Gremlin No. 2

The next gremlin is a cheesy horror film called Basket Case. It’s good, schlocky fun. But how to summarise it? In the simplest terms: a disembodied head kills people. Duane (Kevin van Hentenryk) and Belial are conjoined twins who are surgically removed from each other. Belial is less developed and named after a demon, so obviously he’s evil. Belial is only a head and two misshapen arms. Duane carries Belial around in a basket everywhere he goes. They both go to New York and exact revenge on the doctors who separated them. The most hilarious thing is the film’s idea of physics: somehow this disembodied head flies around attacking people when the basket is opened. But I guess being named after a demon gives you magical levitating powers or something?

Back in the mid-2000s, I was trying to convince my uni friend Sean that this film existed. His response was something wonderfully of its time, and I still remember it to this day: “that’s about as plausible as Lance Bass’ heterosexuality.” Trouble was, the Internet wasn’t quite as all-pervasive as it is now, so my evidential resources were severely limited. About three years ago, when Sean added me on Facebook, one of my first posts on his wall was a clip from the film I had found on Youtube:


Gremlin No. 3

This gremlin incident is the most recent. My housemate Byron and I were up late one night and we decided to watch some episodes of Roseanne. I was suddenly reminded of the TV film she made when she was still Roseanne Barr, Backfield in Motion. It was about a “mothers versus sons” gridiron competition. Roseanne was the quarterback for the mothers team, Johnny Galecki (who played her son) was the quarterback for the sons team. In addition to the sheer joy of watching Roseanne play football and bowl over Johnny Galecki (perhaps in retrospective punishment for involvement with the Big Bang Theory), the movie is a solid thematic synthesis of “family values” and unapologetic feminism. I extolled its virtues, but again, my interlocutor could not believe this existed. And to make matters worse, there is not much evidence of this movie available on Youtube. But it’s real I tell you! I taped it onto VHS, because I liked Roseanne as a kid.


I watched it numerous times. Look it up on IMDB though, and try and track down a copy. It’s fun.

These aren’t the only incidents. I honestly have no idea why this happens to me so often. And these aren’t avant-garde art films or anything. “Just Like Jesse James” was in the Top 20 on the ARIA charts, Basket Case is bad, but I’ve seen it on television at least twice, and Backfield in Motion was created at the peak of Roseanne’s sitcom success.

The silver lining to this predicament of mine is that it nicely illustrates just how bizarre and unbelievable most cultural product is. We certainly don’t have enough time in our lives to explore every campy nook and schlocky cranny, but the idea that almost any ridiculous or unlikely text you can imagine probably exists or will eventually exist is somehow comforting.

Thankfully, the Internet is immeasurably helpful when you’ve got a gremlin that needs exposing. And now that we can all see some of these gremlins, I feel less like stressed out Twilight Zone Shatner and more like self-satisfied Boston Legal Shatner. Right, off to smoke cigars with James Spader then.


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