Vanilla Ice's 1991 film "Cool As Ice" isn't even close to quality cinema. Yet there's a lesson in there for all of us.
Once upon a time, a man began his Hollywood career with a little-remembered film that he would just as soon the world continue to forget.
I'm speaking, of course, of Janusz Kaminski, director of photography on Cool As Ice, who would later become cinematographer for Schindler's List and pretty much every other Spielberg film since.
Less could be said of the title character of said film - a film that premiered as an entirely forgettable cross between The Wild One, a music video, and Pee Wee's Big Rap Adventure.
Cool As Ice demonstrates that Vanilla Ice can dance at a moment's notice, listen to music with his friends, ride a motorcycle, and cock his head at odd angles for at least two hours. He can also stare thoughtfully into space and concoct witty catchphrases like "yup yup" with as much awkwardness as your mom at a strip club.
The Iceman has a fascinating career, starting as the only white member of the house breakdancing troupe for a club in Texas, where he opened for big acts like MC Hammer and 2 Live Crew well before someone decided he was ready for the big time. In his spare time, he was also a champion motocross and jet ski racer.
Yet as soon as he started rapping and Ice Ice Baby hit pay dirt, he fell almost as fast as he rose in what has to be one of the shortest musical careers ever. Maybe it was his otherwise mediocre and uneven albums, or maybe it was just poor timing - the white rapper novelty immediately crushed under the onslaught of the grunge movement.
But at the apex, he starred in his own movie AND had a memorable bit part in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. To hear him tell it, the latter was the more positive experience. Vanilla swaggers through Cool As Ice with such comic boldness that you get the distinct impression that he's actually playing the role of Robert Van Winkle playing the role of Vanilla Ice.
You can read all you want on the webosphere about how bad Cool As Ice is. I'd rather talk about Vanilla for a while.
Many people don't realize that Vanilla Ice was a dancer first, rapper second. In every sense the Justin Bieber of his day, he now freely admits that he was unhappy with the fake image that his handlers crafted for him to rake in the cash.
You can clearly see the cracks in that facade early on. I present to you four incidents that might cause you to view Robert Van Winkle in a new light.
Incident #1: The Arsenio Hall Interview
My college roommate, the immeasurable Jonnie Brown, brought with him an impressive stack of VHS tapes of bits and pieces of things he'd recorded straight off TV over the years. He loved his odd movies, music videos taped off the Jukebox Network, and bits of television ephemera.
One boring Saturday afternoon, Jonnie called me into the living room.
"Todd, you are about to witness the precise moment Vanilla Ice's career dove off a cliff."
At the time, we laughed at how deftly Arsenio knocked that cocky rapper kid off Hubris Hill. But through the lens of time, I now clearly see the strings controlling poor Rob-O. It's a sad moment to watch someone in so far over his head, forced to explain trash talk, and clearly uncomfortable with his bizarre life under the limelight. He's backed into an awkward position and much of that is not his fault.
(Incidentally, to Arsenio's credit, this interview is the perfect example of why The Arsenio Hall Show stands as one of the best of its kind in American television history)
Am I cutting him too much of a break? Perhaps. But let's move along to the next example and see if this starts to add up:
Incident #2: Cool As Ice
What strikes me most is how over-the-top this whole enterprise is. It tries too hard at hipness and falls oh-so-short, even for the early 90's. This is crass commercialism at its worst.
All the while, Robert Van Winkle is stripped naked and left bare. He seems genuinely uncomfortable and incredibly fake, doing the best he can in silly circumstances. Although it took me three tries to get through the whole 90 minutes, I've since watched it another two times. It becomes pretty fascinating once you find the proper lens to view it through.
Incident #3: 25 Lame
In 1999, back when MTV still did an occasional show about music, they threw a handful of comedians together to retire their 25 most overplayed videos of all time - going so far as to ceremonially destroy the master tapes. Check out the jaw-dropping results when Vanilla Ice makes a personal appearance.
The Iceman Cometh, and he Bringeth with him a giant sack of repressed anger. See the priceless looks on all your favorite faces. BUT Nobody is as excited about destroying all the evidence of his rap career - as well as the studio of the very network responsible for boosting him to stardom - as Mr. Van Winkle himself.
Now, fast forward to the 21st century:
Incident #4: Public Apology
A couple suicide attempts and an industrial metal album later and before you know it we're in 2013. After Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder long chased you out of the recording studio, what do you do?
You be true to yourself. You muster up the courage to follow your passions, judgement be damned. Even if your passion turns out to be, say, real estate.
In its third season, still going strong. And you know what? It's actually a great show.
But you don't stop there. You top it off by designing your own line of home lighting fixtures. You pay your dues on the requisite reality show, and perhaps dabble a bit in the more obvious spinoffs…
…until it all leads up to this:
Vanilla Ice Goes Amish
Or to put it in Rob's own words: "Get in where you fit in, and I'm sitting in with Amish. LOL."
I see a lot of folks shaking their heads, mumbling about falls from grace and pathetic grabs at the fading limelight.
But those people don't know Vanilla like I do. This man is no walking punchline. This is a man finally getting comfortable in his own skin. See how he's even got his real voice back? In my eyes, Robert Van Winkle has come back swinging, waxing chumps like candles.
I think we're in one of those magical moments on the cusp of something truly interesting. It's a short journey from flipping houses to ice skating to barn raising to mega-stardom once again. In this "anything goes" cultural mashup atmosphere era, where audiences think nothing of seeing their favorite dramatic actors bouncing from cooking shows to ballroom dancing to parodying themselves in low-rent YouTube vids, we have the perfect breeding ground for a fierce comeback. So if the 2014 Ninja Turtles movie becomes a hit and Vanilla Ice has a fresh jam in there, you'll know it's high time to stop, collaborate and listen.