Questions I Have About the 1985 Film Gymkata

I never blog anymore because I’ve got book writing deadlines to meet, but last night I watched a film so puzzling, so thought-provoking, so totally bonkers that I am dedicating today’s writing time to exploring it. So to my editor at Macmillan who expects a first draft of my next book in a few weeks, head’s up that I may be a little late.

Because I have to talk about Gymkata.

My husband and I sat down to watch this 1985 cinema classic last night because he’d heard it was “so bad it’s good” and I must say at least the first half of that phrase is absolutely correct.

Gymkata stars American gymnast and Olympic star Kurt Thomas as Jonathan Cabot, and it’s quite clear to me now why Kurt Thomas earned medals in gymnastics as opposed to any Oscar noms.

The film hinges on an idea so bizarre I forced my husband to pause the film so that I could review with him the exposition and initial incident that sends our protagonist up Freytag’s Pyramid.

Essentially, the character of Jonathan Cabot is recruited by United States secret intelligence to participate in a game of endurance on the fictional island of Parmistan in which all the losers die and the winner is given one request that must be fulfilled by the King of Parmistan, a la the Godfather on his daughter’s wedding day.

Got that?

So…the U.S. government convinces Cabot to play the game and, if he wins, he will use his one wish not for a new cherry red Corvette or sacks of gold bullions but (wait for it) for permission for the United States government to be able to use the island of Parmistan as a site for a U.S. satellite monitoring station, further cementing America’s dominance in the geopolitical crisis known as The Cold War.

Wait, hold up. First plotting issue.

Are we really to believe that a young man at the peak of his virility and athletic prowess would be willing to sacrifice his own life for a satellite monitoring station? I know it was the 80s and we were all jamming on Red Dawn and Ronald Reagan, but I found this to be a bit of a stretch.

Still, Cabot says yes, and we have the ubiquitous training montage that involves a lot of 80s tropes, including a second rate Mr. Miyagi-type, who forces Cabot to train for “the game” by climbing up stairs on his hands. The trainer also has a pet falcon, so you know he’s wise.

Now plotting issue number two. There is a very attractive woman known as “the princess” who is part of Cabot’s training sessions because she’s an expert at “the game.” (At one point the U.S. intelligence officer who recruits Cabot tells him, “She’s got a pretty interesting back story………….her mother’s Indonesian.” That’s it. That’s her interesting back story. That her mom happened to be born in Indonesia just like roughly 4 million other babies per annum and yes I did just look up the birth rate of Indonesia.)

ANYWAY, turns out this princess is actually the princess of PARMISTAN. So here’s my question. Why and how was the U.S. competitor to “the game” given the advantage of having a native of Parmistan flown out to our country to give him tips as to how to win? Seems really unfair to me and beneath the sportsmanship of an Olympic athlete such as Thomas/Cabot.

It’s also unrealistic that Cabot and the princess get together all hot and heavy after she has delivered approximately no lines of dialogue, but okay, the language of love is universal and whatnot plus, ya know, sexism in Hollywood.

Let’s get to Parmistan. There’s a long set up to “the game,” where the princess gets kidnapped and there’s a lot of shooting and running around, but all of this is just boring build up to what we’ve all been (sort of) waiting for…“the game.”

As my husband and I watched the climactic portion of the film, I became utterly consumed by numerous questions.

First of all, why does the King of Parmistan look like a poor man’s Mel Brooks?

Second, how does this country of Parmistan have the ability to allegedly fulfill any request for the winner of “the game,” yet the bulk of its citizenry seems to live as if it were medieval times with no electricity, indoor plumbing, or access to dental care?

Third, why do so many of the “ninjas” who help operate “the game” do little more than stand there, evoking a pose not unlike the one I struck while a member of my school’s 6th grade safety patrol?

Fourth, why do the competitors from other countries wear track suits, but Cabot is wearing khaki slacks and a black turtleneck and looks like he’s about to take Ashley from 5th period on a date to the Cineplex to watch Fletch starring Chevy Chase?

Fifth, why is the movie called Gymkata, yet this word is never once uttered or referenced in this movie?

Sixth, at the end of “the game,” Cabot is forced to run through an abandoned hamlet filled with “crazy people,” that is referred to as “the cuckoo’s nest.” It was the mid 80s, so the stigmatizing of mental illness was to be expected, but my question is…why is it “crazy” for a man to have two faces? Yes, in this part of the film a man with TWO FACES tries to kill Cabot. Biological IMPOSSIBILITY and not really a sign that someone is “crazy,” per se.

Seventh, also present in crazy town is a man in a white robe who beckons to Cabot. When White Robe turns around, his bare ass is exposed. Explain to me what the hell is going on here.

Eighth, as the villagers of the cuckoo’s nest surround Cabot, how is it that there happens to be a pommel horse located in the middle of the town square? Did the residents work out on it? Did it serve some other unknown purpose? And why do they keep approaching the pommel horse as Cabot spins and spins, knocking them out with his furious feet? I guess cuz they’re “crazy.”

Ninth, just as we think Cabot is gonna die, a seemingly sympathetic ninja saves him. Turns out – it’s Cabot’s DAD, who played “the game” over 20 years ago but allegedly DIED but was actually “used as diplomatic bait,” and has been hiding out on Parmistan for lo these past two decades while his son is becoming a medal-earning Olympic gymnast back in America. Now how on Earth did U.S. intelligence allow this man to languish here?!? HUGE plot hole!

Tenth, how was this movie made?

In case you’re wondering, Cabot wins “the game,” wins the girl, and the United States gets its satellite monitoring station. And I spent two hours of my life I’ll never get back watching a little film called Gymkata.


Being Ugly Was Awesome

Despite the hot-to-trot prepubescent legs you see in the photo, when I was young, I was ugly.

I stood head and shoulders above everyone in my class, including the boys, and at 6th grade summer camp no one asked me to dance, so I stood on the sidelines with the other tall girls and watched the camp counselors discuss their favorite Motley Crue records.

I had a huge, enormous beak of a nose that stuck out at the center of my face.  It announced I was arriving three seconds before the rest of me entered the room.  I dreamed desperately for a “nose like a ski jump” as I described it, and I went so far as to take a pen and draw lines on the sides of my snout, carving out what I felt was a perky enough schnoz.

All the girls I knew permed their hair and curled their bangs, but I didn’t because I honestly thought perms looked ridiculous.  I did try to curl my bangs, but it never worked because I didn’t like hair spray very much, so my hair just sort of flopped everywhere.

I had no sense of makeup technique.  Despite going to Catholic school, I did have one good friend who was a public school kid (gasp!) named Julie, and I was in awe of her beauty supplies.  Once, at a slumber party at her house, I tried to put cover up stick on my lips because I thought it was some sort of cool, nude-colored lipstick.

After observing my actions, one of Julie’s friends said to me in a withering voice, “Um, that’s like, cover stick?  Like for your face?”

In girl-speak, this roughly translates to: “You are such a nerd I cannot believe your mother even allowed you to be born.”

I had no fashion technique either, and one day Julie had to teach me how to pinch roll my jean cuffs so they would be super tight around my ankles.  Up until that point, I just rolled them up loosely around my feet, like some sort of spastic farm child.  I have to say, to this day I remain really appreciative of Julie’s efforts to help me out.  (I still remember going with her to buy Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth album.  We thought we were soooo cool!)

Anyway, despite Julie’s help, I realized standard beauty was not to be mine, so I decided I would try really hard to be quirky.  In a calculated move, I selected a pair of bright red wire-frame glasses.  I know you can’t really tell from the picture, but I’m wearing them in the shot in this post.  But instead of calling me quirky, everyone wanted to know why I was trying to look like Sally Jessy Raphael.

Still, even though I was not pretty, I remember being very, very happy at this time in my life – even if I was weird-looking and hated my nose.  I had a lot of friends I genuinely liked, and I was a total spaz and happy with it.  I loved school and being smart.  I was super into books, and I forced Julie to act out scenes from Little House in the Prairie in the backyard.  (I was Laura, natch.)  I made shoebox dioramas for fun, colored elaborate pictures, wrote stories, took walks by myself, and in general loved getting up every day.  I knew boys didn’t like me, but I didn’t really like them all that much yet, so it didn’t matter.  It was a great time in my life.

Around 12 or 13, I started to get boobs, and my face finally caught up to my nose.  I got contacts, too, and grew my hair out super, super long.  Big bangs fell out of fashion, and I found a lipstick color I liked.  By the time I was 16, I was pretty cute, I guess.  But boys still didn’t like me much, and this time, I cared.  I had a friend tell me not to answer so many questions in class because it turned guys off.  I seethed with a rage I couldn’t identify.  I was a cheerleader, but I spent most of my time worrying if everybody liked me or not.  I felt completely uncomfortable in my own skin.

Being ugly was awesome.