Not a Fan

The hidden history of the biggest scene-stealers in Nope.

sky dancer
Getty Images

It’s common now, but more than a few years ago, when social media was in its infancy, I was still unused to constant bombardment by useless entities doing nothing but mindlessly proclaiming their very existence everywhere I looked all day long—and I’m from Hollywood.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
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So when those things—those “tube dancers,” “sky dancers,” “air men,” or whatever you want to call them—started bursting up, gesticulating wildly outside tire shops and mattress stores all over town, I was quick to include them in the August 2003 Worst of L.A. Issue of L.A. Innuendo, a short-lived but long-loved free magazine I cocreated and edited with my friend, The Ankler founder Richard Rushfield. I crowned “These Things” (which was all I deigned to call them at the time) “Worst Advertising Gimmick.” I hated those things and cautioned readers to be wary of the infectious enthusiasm the “wild-limbed monsters” seemed to have for the car dealerships over which they billowed because they were “really beckoning onlookers, one by one, through the gates of Hell.”

I can admit now that I never had any proof of that. And judging by their much-talked-about turn in Nope, Jordan Peele’s much-talked-about new movie, it seems it was easier for those things to score in Hollywood than it was for them to score with me.

Of course, theirs was no overnight success. Before becoming the darlings of a Hollywood darling, those things popped up in all kinds of acclaimed TV shows, like Better Call Saul and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, proving that what you need most to make it in show business is persistence. Talent, originality, and hard work are useless against those with steadfast determination to just stand there, day after day, thrashing around maniacally with a smile frozen on their face.

Seeing them make it to the big screen—and become a central part of Nope’s marketing campaign—I couldn’t help but wonder just where these blowhards came from and what drives them to be the best at whatever the hell it is they do. At the risk of puffing them up even more, I poked around and found some things that surprised me.

In Nope, we learn about a Black man who never got the recognition he deserved for being the star, stuntman, and animal trainer of Eadweard Muybridge’s first moving picture, and unfortunately, the story of the tube dancer, or “tall boy,” as its creator called it, is all too similar. When he was helping design the opening ceremonies for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall got the idea to re-create the movement of the calypso-dancing puppets he was famous for using in his carnival parades by shooting air through tubes of nylon shaped like people—two-legged, faceless people with wild hair, but people nonetheless. So he teamed up with an inflatables expert (there are such people), who later surreptitiously patented the technology and has since licensed it to manufacturers who make “fly guys” (what he calls them but still not their official name) for things like car dealerships, Hollywood, and especially car dealerships in Hollywood, which is where I first recoiled from them.

But not everyone along the way has embraced these windbags as warmly as Tinseltown has. Houston even went so far as to ban them, calling them “urban visual clutter and blight,” which is pretty harsh. (I only called them a “roadside nuisance.”)

Is their inclusion in Nope a nod to the Black artist who didn’t get the credit—and the patent—he deserved? Or did Peele just think, and rightly so, that they would look cool billowing in the desert amid motorcycle stunts? Or will we learn from some YouTube analysis video or multitweet thread that there’s some deep meaning about humanity, performance, and consciousness being expressed in those equally joyful and dreadful tube humanoids?

We may never know, but what is certain is that the cycle ends right now with me. That’s right, me.

I was the first to identify, ruminate on, and publicly warn against Those Things (which, by the way, is what I insist we call them now and forever), and I want credit. I thought they might be here to guide us through the nine circles of hell. It turns out, they mostly wanted to get into a hell of their own, namely show business. Nearly two decades ago, I correctly identified Those Things as harbingers of doom, and I’d like the record to reflect that.

I can’t say what comes next—I don’t know what Those Things are capable of or what kind of agents they’ve got negotiating full-series pickups with back-end participation—but with the way things are going, they might just get their own spinoff movies or get elected president of the United States. It’s really hard to say which would be worse, but if anyone needs me, I’ve sequestered myself in the High Desert among the Joshua trees. These soulful, ancient, living things seem poised to do battle against Those Things if need be. I suggest you do the same.•

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