' ' Cinema Romantico: A Brief Overview of Movie Gum-Chewing

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

A Brief Overview of Movie Gum-Chewing

With a history as deep and rich as cinema’s, it is nigh impossible to pinpoint any one instant of anything on the silver screen as being The Best In Movie History. Still, most film scholars agree that in movie moments involving gum, among the finest is Rowdy Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s Reaganomics smackdown “They Live” declaring in the midst of a delicate situation: “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass – and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Of course, what’s ironic about this Bartlett Quotation is that Rowdy Roddy Piper does not, as the line implies, actually possess the sweetened sticky substance he so memorably cites, meaning that this classical cinematic example of chewing gum exists merely in the abstract. That’s just as true of “Hoosiers”, where Coach Norman Dale tells defensive specialist Buddy Walker in a critical contest to think of the opposing’s team top offensive player “as chewing gum. By the end of the game,” Dale implores, “I want to know what flavor he is.” Later Dale wordlessly looks at Buddy as if to say “Well?” Buddy replies: “Dentyne. He was Dentyne.”

Yet even when gum is palpably present onscreen, it is often less about chewing or even breath freshening than helping characters out of metaphorically sticky situations. The immortal Bill and Ted, as you no doubt recall, utilized reams of gum with the aid of historical figures to jerry-rig a new time-traveling antenna, and The Rocketeer himself was carefully established as an incessant gum-chewer merely so his gum could be utilized at a dramatic moment to plug a fuel leak. Gum, in other words, is a plot panacea rather than a wad of synthetic rubber. No, you have to look elsewhere for gum as gum, like the famed scene in 1925’s silent film “The Big Parade” where Jim demonstrates to Melisande exactly what gum is and how it is chewed, or “Top Gun’s” Iceman putting the exclamation point on a highly charged conversation with Maverick by smacking his gum with extreme, immortal prejudice.

Those moments, however, betray the inane repetition of everyday gum-chewing. Heck, even the bubbles blown by Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day” and the nameless student in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as Ben Stein’s economics teacher drones on are mining for laughs rather than honoring the act’s inherent insignificance. And that, the most basic act of gum chewing, has been foremost in my mind this summer movie season. And it has been foremost in my mind because whereas at this point once upon a time we would be a week, maybe two, into the summer movie season, we are now two months, maybe three, into the summer movie season. And every summer movie I have seen has come tagged with a trailer for “Ocean’s 8.” And every instance in that “Ocean’s 8” trailer of Cate Blanchett chewing gum has superseded every damn thing I’ve seen in every single one of these ostensible summertime Entertaining Thrill Rides.

Imperceptible gum-chewing
Mind you, Blanchett chewing gum is the not the point, which only makes that much better. She is not really even chewing, just sort of nibbling, lightly, as if she is too elegant for such uncouth chomping. We will have to see the finished product, of course, but these glimpses would suggest she might enter the pantheon of great movie gum-chewers, like Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night”, whose gum-smacking exists on the exact opposite plain of Blanchett’s, or Al Pacino in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, whose precision chewing mirrors his character’s vocal inflections. But then, as good as Pacino and Steiger are, and as good as Blanchett appears to be, none of them and no one else can ever compete with Christopher Guest in “This is Spinal Tap.”

You remember his Nigel Tufnel, of course, who spends the majority of Rob Reiner’s heavy metal mockumentary shredding guitar and chewing gum. Seriously, the gum is always there and getting chewed, mostly to no point and purpose which is perfectly representative of chewing gum’s reality. But then, in the film’s most famous scene, Nigel explains to documentarian Marty DiBergi how his band’s specially crafted amps go to 11. “Why don’t you just make ten louder,” wonders DiBergi, “and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?” And well, how about I let the late great Roger Ebert explain what comes next: “Nigel is so baffled by this notion that he almost stops chewing his gum.” You know your gum-chewing is spot-on when it goes unnoticed until you stop.

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