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Forgotten Video: Elephant Parts and Other Delights, Part One

by David Cornelius

Mention the name Michael Nesmith to most, and you’ll get fond memories of the Monkees, or maybe a question or two about the invention of Liquid Paper, or perhaps, from some youngsters, a “who’s he?” Mention the name Michael Nesmith to a lucky few, however, and you’ll get a knowing smile. Here, you see, are the folks who know the secret about Nesmith - that for a good while, he was busy producing some of the most interesting film work in town.

His name appears in the credits for such varied indie cult hits as “Repo Man,” “Timerider,” and “Tapeheads.” In addition, his work as star and executive producer on a long-forgotten something called “Elephant Parts” actually helped usher in the video era, winning the first Grammy for Best Video and played a major role in defining the music video as we still know it today. But even such massive influence fails to pay off with recognition, and so Nesmith remains on the fringes of cinema. Which, of course, makes him perfect for a spotlight here.

Let’s begin with “Elephant Parts” (1981), which ranks among both Nesmith’s most important work and his most obscure. The 61-minute “Parts” is best described with Nesmith’s own terminology: it’s a “video record,” as opposed to a “phonograph record.” That’s as good a name as any; it’s too short to be a movie, too long to be a TV special, too disjointed to be anything else. What we have is a series of comedy skits, commercial parodies, and music videos, edited together into one unruly blob of fun. A video record.

(OK, to be honest, a video record would be all videos and nothing else, wouldn’t it? Although I suppose if you’re inventing a new entertainment genre, you can do whatever you want. So yeah, sure, videos plus skits plus whatever else you wanna do, well, that’s a video record for you.)

The video record is something that will go over better the more open you are to Nesmith’s music as a solo artist, especially considering how dated some of it sounds, and how experimental. (One song borders on Zappa-esque, another is swimming in early 80s lite rock sensibilities.) Me, I love the songs, especially “Rio,” as catchy a tune as any to get stuck in your brain for a week. Which is good, considering the videos that accompany them are shaky stuff. Low budget, overloaded with hey-look-what-cool-visual-effect-I-just-found-out-the-editing-board-can-do gimmicks, brimming with the kind of cheese you could only find in music videos of the pre- and early-MTV years.

On the commentary track, Nesmith admits to mostly winging it on the videos, although there was one important invention: don’t bother worrying about the images. Just fit the visuals to the music. Compliment the soundtrack, especially in the timing of the editing, and whatever nonsense you’re showing on screen will somehow come to fit. Wise words that soon went on to define what music videos are.

In this regard, “Elephant Parts” plays as a curiosity piece, a fine, highly watchable nugget of history for those interested in the early days of the video format. While Nesmith didn’t invent the music video, he did manage to define it here; consider him the D.W. Griffith of MTV.

And yet it is more than merely a video archive. The comedy bits are what you’ll walk away remembering - imagine a PG-rated “Kentucky Fried Movie,” and you’ll get “Elephant Parts.” Sure, not every sketch is a winner (many involve too-dated references to drug culture, while others work better in concept than in execution), but the ones that work border on pure comic genius. The song that opens the film always gets me howling, just by its sheer silliness; the even sillier silliness of the Pirate Alphabet is a keeper; and a faux commercial for the “Large Detroit Car Company” is everything you ever wanted in truth in advertising.

It’s all a lot of fun, but I keep coming back to the videos, and here’s the question: did Nesmith intend for videos to be watched attentively, as part of a movie-like experience, or should they be treated as something to take in passively, background noise filtered in as they’re most watched today? I’m guessing Nesmith was aiming for the former, but twenty years of video watching has trained me for the latter; unless it’s an amazing work of video art, I frankly don’t pay much mind to videos. This means that to members of the MTV Generation, the video portions of “Parts” are kind of an awkward watch. Heck, I know I treat many an album as something for the background, not aggressive listening material. Would I be more attentive with video records, had video records actually taken off as a popular genre of entertainment?

Of course, there’s no clear cut answer here, seeing as video records didn’t take off as Nesmith intended (possibly because nobody could more clearly define the format, and how does one sell or buy something indefinable?). But it’s a good sign that “Elephant Parts” gets us asking the questions. It means it’s something that sticks, something interesting, worth discussing. Plus, it’s just so damn funny. There may be nothing around on the video market quite like “Parts,” but that only makes it all the more satisfying.

Nesmith followed the “Parts” format with a sketch-variety television series, aptly titled “Michael Nesmith In Television Parts” (1985). Finally definable, if only under the variety TV/sketch comedy banner, the show was a collection of skits and music, with the occasional guest appearances by such names as Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, Martin Mull, and Whoopi Goldberg. Designed as a summer replacement for NBC, the series lasted a mere eight episodes before getting canned.

Nesmith salvaged clips from the show and edited them into two video releases: “Doctor Duck’s Super Secret All-Purpose Sauce” (1985) and “Television Parts Home Companion” (1991). Due to their slapdash manner, neither of these videos reach the highs of “Elephant Parts,” although there are some memorable moments - key among them “Sorority Girls From Hell,” in which Lois Bromfield reenacts a 1950s B horror flick about teen delinquents and vengeful nerds; “They Never Met,” a fun tune sung by none other than Martin Mull; and the “Five Second Theatre” epic miniseries version of “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” (“Time travel smells like broccoli!” Don’t ask.)

More notable about “Television Parts” is its use of what would later become familiar material elsewhere. Jack Handey shows up for a series of his “Deep Thoughts” (“Tadpoles! Tadpoles is a winner!”), although here it’s Nesmith walking on the beach and doing the narration. A pre-“Squares” Whoopi Goldberg does a bit of her old one-woman show, in which she plays a handicapped woman discussing her impending wedding; it‘s a rare dip into more serious fare. And A. Whitney Brown, later of “Saturday Night Live,” pops up for three seconds to announce, “Hi, I’m A. Whitney Brown. Someday I hope to be The Whitney Brown.” Hee hee.

What leaves “Doctor Duck’s” and “Television Parts” being not as successful as “Elephant Parts” is its reliance on “outside” material. Many of the skits this time out are adapted from stand-up material - Leno rambles on about a giant car; Shandling laments his dating history. Even “Sorority Girls” is taken from Bromfield’s own act. This leaves things running on a little longer than they should.

As for the music, there’s no Nesmith stuff here, only videos for the likes of Rosanne Cash and Jimmy Buffet, of all people. Where’s the magic of the Nez tunes? Pass.

And with “Doctor Duck’s,” which runs for ninety minutes, making it a full half-hour longer than “Elephant Parts” and double the length of “Home Companion,” there’s a sense that the thing runs out of steam too early. The best material here comes in the first half, leaving the second half a bit of a drag. Plus, some musical numbers are interrupted with tiny, nonsensical clips from the show; Julie Brown appears to ask “That’s your dad?!” for no clear reason. It lacks the rhythm of “Elephant Parts,” which seemed more deliberate in its editing.

So if you’re just going to try one of Nesmith’s skit-videos (only the first officially goes under the “video record” moniker), go with “Elephant Parts.” It’s the most assured work, and the most consistently entertaining. “Doctor Duck’s” and “Home Companion” have their moments, but I’d only recommend them to hardcore Nesmith fans. (You know who you are.)

Next time: A look at Michael Nesmith, movie producer!

Elephant Parts” and “Television Parts Home Companion” are both available on DVD. As of this writing, “Doctor Duck’s Super Secret All-Purpose Sauce” is available only on VHS. All three are available through Nesmith’s own website, Videoranch.


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originally posted: 03/10/05 11:59:21
last updated: 03/12/05 11:26:53
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