[This is Part 2 in a series called “Celluloid Heroes”] in which I take a look at the movies that inspired me to become a storyteller. Part 1, about Back to the Future can be found here.
Working on the Mixtape pilot has more or less been my full-time gig this year. We’ve penned I don’t know how many drafts of the pilot, we’ve had weekly story conferences, we’ve discussed everything from music rights to marketing. We’ve even brought in some fresh young voices into the mix because we – the 40-spomething creators of a TV series largely about teenagers – felt it would be wise to incorporate the voices of writers and artists who graduated high school in this century.
And one of the questions we, the makers, have been pondering through the year plus we’ve bene working on Mixtape: The TV Series is this;
When did the 1990s begin?
Not chronologically, but culturally. What was That Moment where the 80s, and all that had come before, ended? What was the demarcation point?
There are theories. Music historian and radio personality Alan Cross pinpoints November 9th, 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall as the demarcation point that changed the world enough to mark the end of the 80s and the Cold War, with this “pocket decade” between wars, ending with 9-11-01 and the War on Terror. There are some say that the decade really began with the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the LAPD on March 3, 1991. The first ever viral video that changed the discussion about the police forever being on the side of law and order. You can pretty much draw a straight line from Rodney King to the endless stream of viral videos we watch on our phones or computers to this day.
I myself have a different theory.
My theory is that the 90s officially began on May 25, 1991. That was the date that record stores began utilizing a new technology called SoundScan. For the first time in history, record stores could report accurate, real-time sales figures for every piece of music purchased. Up until that point reports were self-submitted, meaning record stores and record companies could gin up numbers and push the artists they wanted to see hit big, at the expense of smaller acts. SoundScan eliminated that guesswork and told the record companies, the record stores, MTV and Much Music, and the artists themselves, how many units were being sold.
The results of these were surprising to say the least.
The first album to benefit, by debuting at number 1?
Another beneficiary was this album, released by N.W.A.
Remember that up until this point, Hip-Hop was regarded as a niche and a fad. SoundScan burst that bubble and made record companies go “hmmm, maybe there’s more to Hip-Hop than we thought”. Because the brilliance of SoundScan was that not only did it tell you how many units of an album were being sold, but more importantly where they were being sold. And NWA wasn’t just selling in South Central Los Angeles or The Bronx; they were selling in the suburbs, to largely white middle-class suburban kids.
Another beneficiary? Alternative Rock. Those weird indie bands and niche artists like Depeche Mode, the Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain were selling better than previously thought. And it got record companies to likewise go “hmmm, maybe we should send some A&R people to the markets where this music is selling and source out some local bands. Places like Boston, and Austin, and, oh, I guess Seattle? There’s some music coming out of there, right?”
SoundScan was the first shot across the bow of the old order, soon to be aided and abetted by the rise of the internet. SoundScan technology soon made its way to the video store, the bookstore, and today we see it in viral videos, and the numbers of followers a writer or artist has on social media. Don’t believe me? When publishing Magicians Impossible I had to fill out a questionnaire and list my social media profiles, and numbers of followers, along with the number of “unique” monthly visits to this website.
Even now, within the first week of publishing a bookseller will know how many copies of a book has sold and can project with reasonable certainty how many it will sell in a month, six months, a year out. That’s why those first week sales and pre-orders of any piece of media are so important. It’s why a studio and the theater chain will know by first weekend ticket sales if a movie is going to be a hit or a flop.
Our lives today are guided by algorithms and sales dates. And we have SoundScan to thank for it. The true “Judgement Day” – the day the machines took over..
That is why I would likewise argue that culturally speaking, the 1990s began with this film:
But to talk about Terminator 2, we first need to talk about James Cameron.
So Avatar 2 hits theaters this December; the sequel to the biggest box office moneymaker of all time. A movie that, if you believe the popular discourse, left no lasting cultural impact despite the fact everybody and their uncle knows what Avatar is (hint: it is not The Last Airbender, sorry Anime nerds).
I’ll admit I was wary of an Avatar sequel; I feel the first film did an adequate job of telling a single contained narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. There’s no Avatar Cinematic Universe, there are no TV and video game tie-in that expand the scope of the story and the world. Avatar has been gone from the public consciousness enough that relaunching the franchise (another sequel has been filmed, and there’s two more on the boards). It’s as huge a gamble as the 2009 film was; something scoffed at and derided by the press and film fans in general until it actually hit theaters. Then they all learned the lesson us older genre fans had known since roughly 1984.
So that was my opinion. Until I saw the trailer for AVATAR: The Way of Water
And then I remembered:
Never. Underestimate. James Cameron.
I discovered James Cameron in 1984 (technically 1985 when I first saw The Terminator on home video). It blew me away. The Terminator, along with later action-centered films like Predator, Die Hard, and Robocop, shifted the sci-fi fantasy landscape away from Jedi and ET’s to killer robots, alien hunters, and cyborg police officers. These movies were loud, violent, and profane; catnip to a teenager. This was next level shit for an 80s kid; from Luke Skywalker to Indiana Jones to Sarah Connor. A maturing of SFF cinema, pushing the envelope of blood and gore and mature storytelling. After The Terminator everything changed.
What’s remarkable about that first Terminator movie is that it, unlike its many sequels, is more of a horror movie than a sci-fi or action. Seriously, this is one frightening movie, with its visions of a post-nuclear holocaust, its unstoppable merciless killer prowling the streets of Los Angeles (filmed at and released during The Night Stalker’s reign of terror). While your mileage on the Terminator sequels will vary, I think all will agree that none of them captured that feeling of nightmarish dread the first did so well.
[As an add to that, I don’t think anyone born post-1990 will ever know the existential dread of nuclear war that us 80s kids grew up against. Most of us were convinced we’d never see adulthood; that our lives, the lives of our families, the world as we knew it, gone in a flash of radioactive hellfire. The Terminator tapped into that fear hard and boy did it work.]
The Terminator put James Cameron on the map. Then in 1986 he unleashed Aliens on an unsuspecting world. I’ve written elsewhere about the first Alien being a seminal movie-going experience in my life, so Aliens was one of the first movies I remember really looking forward to. First was an article in Starlog Magazine. Then came this trailer that I believe ran before Top Gun:
So even before I finally got to see Aliens in the theater sometime in August of that year I knew the story. I knew what happened. I knew who lived and who didn’t. That prior knowledge did not in any way detract from the experience of Aliens on the big screen. That is how you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller; like in Cameron’s own Titanic you knew how the story ended but were still along from the ride. I was a Cameron fan; even more so when, in response to a flurry of fan letters to Starlog magazine critiquing Aliens, Cameron himself penned a lengthy response that Starlog published where he addressed every writer’s questions and concerns. It was the first real glimpse into the mind of a film director I believe I ever received; an audio commentary before audio commentaries existed.
So I was on the Cameron train. Waiting eagerly for the next film. And in 1989 we got:
Let me state this upfront: I LOVE The Abyss. It’s in many ways the “forgotten” Jim Cameron film (along with True Lies; we won’t talk about Piranha 2: The Spawning); one of those movies that when you say the name Jim Cameron you tend not to think of. Of all of Jim Cameron’s films I think it’s easily the Jim Cameron-iest. The one with the themes of love under pressure, of nuclear Armageddon, of the fantastic intruding on the everyday all coalesce in a film whose reach may have exceeded its grasp but remains a film well worth your time (the Extended Edition I mean, NOT the theatrical).
But the Abyss is regarded as Cameron’s first misstep; unfairly so. Released during the legendary summer of 1989 its competition included Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and a little movie you may have heard about called Batman. A lone original summer movie in a sea of franchise-starters and sequels stood little chance. The Abyss performed respectably but not well-enough to recoup its costs. Jim Cameron’s star had faded, his reputation tarnished. Following The Abyss’ performance at the box office, Jim was in trouble. The career trajectory he’d enjoyed with The Terminator and Aliens had hit a wall. He needed to prove himself again.
And boy did he.
This movie needs no introduction. I think everybody has seen it. If The Terminator announced Jim to the world, T2 became a cultural phenomenon and a still-relevant cultural touchstone. “Hasta la vista baby”, liquid metal’, ‘Judgement Day’. But to me, then as in now, T2 is as potent a metaphor as anything for the massive cultural shift about to take place.
See, the summer of 1991 was notable for one other cannonball into the pop-culture swimming pool:
It’s hard to believe now, but Lollapalooza 1991 wasn’t terribly popular. It did well, but in some cities they actually had trouble giving tickets away. The lineup was certainly more eclectic than the norm. To know even half these bands put you on the fringes of the mainstream. The “alternative” to the popular artists of the day, if you will.
But for an idea of how swiftly things did change, here was 1992’s lineup:
That’s where SoundScan ties in. Because a year later Alternative Rock was no longer Alternative, but the mainstream.
How this ties into T2 is forever fascinating to me. Back then as now (but not so much) movies liked to try and piggyback onto what songs and artists of the day were popular, to release hopefully a tie-in video to promote the film on MTV and Much Music. Si in T2’s case the big promo song was by none other than Guns N’ Roses; then the biggest band in the world. The video featured clips from T2, Arnie made a cameo with the band. Heck, you can check it out right here;
The two Use Your Illusion albums were expected to be THE big rock event of fall 1991. And they were both big sellers. Anticipation was even higher for Michael Jackson’s new album, and U2 was making their comeback with a strangely titled album called Achtung Baby, and an even stranger first single called The Fly.
But the album release that fall nobody saw coming? That’s the one that forever changed the metric;
T2 blew the box-office to smithereens, becoming one of the biggest moneymakers of all-time, becoming one of the all-time great action epics. It showed that the best Jim Cameron was the Jim Cameron with his back against the wall and something to prove; a success he repeated in 1997 with Titanic and 2009 with Avatar. Say what you will about those films now in our jaded, pre-packaged/focus-grouped to death corporate movie world, to deny the financial and cultural impact of both is to prove yourself a liar.
Nevermind happened. The alternative rock revolution had begun. Soon artists like Guns N Roses and Michael Jackson were considered old-hat. Passé. Bands with names like Hole, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Teenage Fanclub, and Soundgarden captured the imaginations of suburban and urban kids everywhere.
The culture had changed. By 1992 nobody outside the metal heads cared about GNR. Their moment in the sun had come and gone; the kids were following the grunge movement, not the metal movement (though I would argue that there’s a good 12-15 songs on the combined Use Your Illusion albums to comprise one really great GNR record).
The 90s had begun, and Terminator 2 was the cannon blast across the water. Not Nevermind, not Lollapalooza. It wasn’t quite as underground a hit as Nevermind became but it was the film that, like Nevermind, launched a thousand imitators. There’s a clear line from the T-1000 of T2 to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, to Jar-Jar Binks, Gollum, Iron Man, Groot, and the host of all-digital creations we take for granted in 2022. the fact that realistic CGI dragons can be created for television is because of T2 and Jim Cameron. And when I take my kid to the playground and glimpse some jade pre-teens in Nirvana and Pixies T-shirts, I see the reach that pivotal year of 1991 still touches.
I began my final year of HS that fall. A year later I was firmly ensconced in FS; a journey that began in 1986 with Aliens. Because if a guy from Chippewa Ontario could go onto Hollywood success, it meant every Canadian kid with celluloid dreams could too, or at least try. As I met and befriended the people in film school who would become lifelong friends and collaborators the one bit of common ground we all seemed to share was that while we were definitely the children of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, it was James Cameron who made us want to be filmmakers.
As for me, I’m really looking forward to The Way of Water, simply because I have no idea what to expect. With the plethora of comic-book movies approaching, I know what I’m going to get because with those movies expectations must always be met. Same with the never-ending churn of Marvel and DC and Star Wars content we’re getting; all seemingly designed to be more about I.P. management than creating anything memorable or lasting. That’s why in the year 2022, a sequel to Avatar, still the biggest grosser of all time, feels like a revolutionary act. Something James Cameron has done over and over again.
Never. Underestimate. James. Cameron.
Next up, is a trip back in time to 1986, and the third (and final, for now) part of this series.
And no, I’m not going to be talking about Aliens.
As of this writing (January 5th) James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water has grossed 1.4 billion dollars worldwide, putting it on course to becoming one of the all-time top grossing films of all time, alongside Titanic and Avatar. I saw it December 31st and loved every one of its 190 minutes. It will probably be the first movie I see more than once in theaters since 2015’s Mad Max Fury Road. So much for “no lasting cultural impact” eh film-bros?
Never. Underestimate. James. Cameron.