Apr 9, 2018

Eating Peanut Butter and Onion Sandwiches and the 1989 American Hollywood Film Little Monsters

In 1989, Richard Greenberg, a Hollywood film director, made a movie for Vestron Pictures called Little Monsters. The movie had a limited run in theaters and did not gross over a million dollars in ticket sales even though the picture cost about seven million dollars to make.
I read Little Monsters as a tween same-sex love story

Fred Savage (Kevin Arnold!)

In the 1990s, the movie gained wider distribution on American cable television which is how I most likely saw it for the first time. The movie stars the boyish actor Fred Savage. He plays Brian, a sixth grader who discovers that there are really monsters under his bed. As a kid, I liked the juxtaposition between monster world and the real world - and I was transfixed by the way in which the film jumped back and forth between a staid Middle America suburban landscape and the carnivalesque world of the monsters.

About twenty years has elapsed since the movie was released; and I'm interested about what Little Monsters was telegraphing about what it means to be male, to be interested in "adult things," but to also remain a kid. It's obvious now - but movies like Little Monsters were remarkably heterosexual. In the film's preamble, Brian sneaks into the kitchen when everyone is asleep to watch (what looks like the Playboy channel) and eat a peanut butter and onion sandwich.
Brian has a thing for peanut butter and onion sandwiches
I suppose the scene sets up Brian's loneliness as a kid (i.e., eating a snack in the middle of the night all by himself) and to highlight his burgeoning curiosity in women (i.e., ogling a female actress wearing a bra). As writers like Jeffery P. Dennis have pointed out, boys going girl crazy at twelve-years-old is a relatively new feature of Hollywood films. It almost feels necessary in a film today - the boy protagonist has to have some younger (or older) female foil - he has to be interested in girls - or so we are led to believe. Just look at any film targeted to younger audiences, even the most family-oriented films like Goonies (which was made in 1985) and you can see this narrative element play itself out - Sean Astin's character Mikey is mistaken in the dark by his older brother's girlfriend and makes out with her off-screen. It's a gag - and it is meant to make viewers laugh - but it also presents Mikey, who is about the same age as Brian - as primed and ready for girl-craziness.

White Middle-Class America

I'm fixated on race in American movies older than twenty years. If I am not mistaken, the only character of color in Little Monsters is a short cameo by Magbee, a black actor, who plays Brian's school bus driver. Brian's classmates are typically middle class, his school is fairly caucasian, and the film's adult characters seem to inhabit the mostly yuppie world the late 80s and early 90s seemed to project - material wealth and strategic brand placement. For example, don't you want to eat a bag of Doritos after watching this movie?

As an adult, it is unsettling for me to watch a movie like Little Monsters, because when I watched it as a kid I was not looking at the film with a critical view. However, looking at it now, I must have been influenced in the way the film shapes a narrative about masculinity. I think it matters to think critically about movies we watched as children because as adults or nostalgia for the films of our youth can cloud our judgement. I'm amazed by how many of my peers who have children love having their kids watch the same movies we grew up with as kids. It's funny how the passage of time makes a Hollywood sacred. What's so great, for example, about Brian?  I certainly was not the same as Brian. But I knew kids like Brian and privately I wanted to be like the Brians of the world. They were not especially academically minded but the Brians of my youth had a masculine charm that Fred Savage was certainly able to market - which is why he has become a teen star icon. 

My Crush on Fred Savage

The plot of Little Monsters could be read as a pre-teen buddy flick - or, through the eyes of a young gay viewer, it's a pre-teen love story. If you shave away the film's incidentals the story is about same-sex friendship. When I was watching Little Monsters as a kid, I was the same age as Fred Savage's Brian, give or take a year. So while I did not identify with the character, I certainly had a crush on him (a fact - by the way - which I am embarrassed to admit) because I was also becoming more aware of my same-sex attraction. 

In the movie, Brian meets the monster under his bed and the two become best friends. Howie Mandel plays Maurice, the monster. Brian is instantly drawn to Maurice and a kinetic relationship forms between the two of them. In Brian's real-world, his mother and father are divorcing, and he has had to recently adapt to the stress of moving to a new town and attending a new school. Maurice is Brian's emotional support. The friendship between the two is so intense that Brian is slowly becoming transformed by his relationship with the monster. The more time he spends in the monster's world the more he slowly starts to become like them.

We Live in Two Different Worlds, Brian and Me

Not to spoil the plot, but Brian eventually has to make a choice. When one of the monsters steals Brian little brother Eric (played by Ben Savage - who really is Fred Savage's brother!), Brian has to choose between the real world above and the monster world below. Of course, he saves his brother and is spared having to ultimately pay the sacrifice; furthermore the film attenuates the difference between the two worlds as a metaphor for Brian's own coming into his own sense of self.

Maurice represents the unbridled nature of young male masculinity. While he is ostensibly a two-hundred-year-old creature, he is very much portrayed as a wild boy. Brian, on the other hand, feels bogged down by rules and obligations - which is why in the film's opening scenes Brian is depicted as finding refuge at night with his slice of peanut butter and onion sandwich and the television set. Fearing the negative repercussions of his parents' divorce, Brian seeks solace in a fantasy world that gives him what he desires the most - someone to love.

Queering Little Monsters means seeing it more as a romantic comedy than a family horror flick. At the end of the movie, Brian has to say goodbye to Maurice and the scene is really heartbreaking. Fred Savage plays vulnerability really well - and he depicts Brian as emotionally torn up when he realizes that he is losing a friend. In fact, the entire film is based on this idea of loss. At the beginning of the movie, Brian tells us in a voice-over that Maurice was one of his most special friends and that he is afraid that he will never have a friend like him.

Maurice and Brian Together At Last - Or Not?!

So while the film introduces a girl the same age as Brian as a potential love interest, it is really Brian's love for Maurice that fuels the emotional energy that drives the movie's plot points. As a kid watching this movie, I did not want Maurice to go. I wanted Brian to follow him and they could be together forever.
So I imagine if I were to follow Brian into his adult life, if that were possible, he would always have a jar of peanut butter in his cupboard and sliced onions ready-to-go in the refrigerator. Also, he is a man who will probably never just blindly drink a bottle of apple juice before checking that it is not urine. And he will always love a blue man - even when he is married with children. *Sigh*

N.B.: Watch the movie, if you don't know what I am referring.

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