Begging Bowl Blues

Back in 2010 I was a still freshly-minted New Yorker, still adjusting to my new life in the Big Apple. While I’d visited the city extensively in the eight or so years previous, this was now my home. Because of that I enjoyed something of a personal renaissance.

I have to admit here friends, before settling in NYC I was on a sad trajectory. I was entering my mid-thirties. My adventurous wanderings through popular culture had stagnated into keeping up with some favorite bands from the 80s and 90s like U2, Green Day, R.E.M., P.J. Harvey, Garbage, and Green Day. When I wasn’t listening to classic rock and alternative radio I was I was mostly listening to news stations and – shudder – talk radio.

The latter was a thankfully brief flirtation with the dark side of angry white middle-aged men who blamed “teh liberals” and “the immigrants” for every ill, not the least of which being a loser spending his day listening to talk radio. Though to be fair this was Canadian Talk Radio; a much friendlier, less-angry version of the stateside brethren. But I was a long way from the college-rock Lollapalooza-alternative music era of my youth.

It was, ironically, creating Mixtape that snapped me out of my reverie. I’ve written elsewhere but the basic gist was the discovery of my old comic book collection, old music magazines, and old boom-box in my mother’s basement that led me back down the memory path, listening to old mixtapes and thumbing through old magazines. I rediscovered the simple joys of music, and once settled into NYC, began digging into more contemporary artists who stoked those same feelings: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, MGMT, Sleigh Bells, Mumford & Sons, Florence and the Machine, and a little-known, little-remembered Fratellis side-project called Codeine Velvet Club.

Spearheaded by John Lawler with Scottish singer Lou Hickey, their first and only album was short, sweet, jazzy, poppy, melodic, and to the point (and featured a great cover of The Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection”). I’d love for you to listen to it but that’s going to be difficult outside of YouTube, and is sadly the point to this whole exercise in memory.

You can listen to the album here … but for how long is the real question

To listen to Codeine Velvet Club takes some effort. The album is long out of print and while you can stream it on YouTube you won’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music. You can’t even buy it on iTunes and while used copies are available through Amazon a “new” unopened copy will run you close to 60 bucks. That’s just one example; one album released fourteen years ago this very year. There are many more. More movies, more TV series, more albums and books unavailable and in many cases largely forgotten, all thanks to this Streaming Apocalypse. Thankfully I own a physical copy of Codeine Velvet Club. I can listen to it whenever I want to because I own a physical copy of it.

Back in November came the news that for the first time since streaming movies and TV became popular you couldn’t find a single James Bond movie on any streaming service. Fifty years of 007 just vanished with nobody along to pick up the slack (Apple TV currently has the streaming rights so it was just temporary as long as you’re an Apple subscriber that is). I myself was unconcerned as I already owned the complete 25-film Blu-Ray box set so could actually watch any of the Bond films anytime I wanted. But their temporary disappearance was troubling on multiple levels because this wasn’t some obscure arthouse film; this was Bond. James Bond.

Pictured: Bond, James Bond.

And yet after years of loyalty to the various streaming services I believe consumers have begun to wise up to the fact that ownership of physical media – books, music, movies – means to curate, not just to consume and they have begun to answer this with a drive back to physical media. 4K and Blu-Ray copies of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer sold out everywhere on its release in December. People are anticipating the 4K Blu-Ray release of Dune Part Two to accompany their copy of Part One. It was almost as if we suddenly re-discovered the pleasures of unwrapping a DVD or Blu-Ray box set of a favorite television or film series.

I’m not the buyer of physical media or indeed any media that I once was but I am shifting more to curation. Over Christmas I acquired Blu-Ray sets of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street film series, the complete 1978 Battlestar Galactica, the complete 1979-1980 Buck Rogers, the Criterion Collection’s remastered edition of Mean Streets, and the two Guillermo Del Toro films – Nightmare Alley and Pinocchio – I didn’t yet own but now do. They sit alongside my Blu-Rays of Star Trek (The Original TV and film Series), The Twilight Zone, and Planet of the Apes film series. I own the Despecialized Star Wars Trilogy, all the Bond and Mission Impossible films, and roughly five to six hundred other assorted DVDs and Blu-Rays spanning the early silent era to recent releases. Thanks to physical media I can watch both the theatrical and TV versions of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, numerous behind the scenes documentaries, commentaries, and special features, any time I feel like it and even without an internet connection.

Of course there’s my still growing collection of Movie Novelizations as well which while tapering off in recent years still stands as a curation of yesterday’s trash paperbacks with a projected short shelf-live now containing books over fifty years ole.

With comic books my reading has mostly shifted to digital as time and money demands more of both from me in other areas. Yet over the last three months I decided to seek out and acquire a complete run of Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones comic book series which ran from 1982-1985 and continued the narrative begun in theaters with Raiders of the Lost Ark, running 34. Back issues remained easy and inexpensive to acquire, but furthermore outside of some astronomically priced trade paperback collections released by Dark Horse Comics in 2008, the only way to read this series was by acquiring the actual individual issues.

Which I did …

Between physical media resurgent and people stepping back from streaming it’s almost enough to give one hope for the the media we love. Even the studios seem to be coming around to admitting that for all their investments in services HBO Max and Paramount Plus, that Netflix is still top dog and that it’s a lot easier (not to mention profitable) to license their films back out rather than keep them under lock and key on their own services which cost a lot to maintain. Just a quick perusal of Netflix and Amazon offerings in January displayed a bounty of DC Warner Superhero titles and giant shark movies that while I had absolutely no interest in actually watching were at least an option whereas before I should have had to subscribe to Max to watch.

Thankfully I have a library; my home library and the public one in our town. That library has an extensive movie collection I can borrow from on a whim, and a library borrow is usually more than enough to scratch a particular itch rather than buy a movie, watch it once, and let it gather dust on my shelf ever after. We’ve come a long way from the days of Blockbuster Video and Tower Records, Borders, Virgin, and Barnes & Noble (the last of which being the only game less standing and even their DVD/Blu-Ray section is a shade of what it once was). I doubt those lost behemoths are coming back, and physical media’s position in our fat-paced world remains precarious, but as long as they’re still producing I’m still buying.

As was the case with the video rental and sales era, there was a golden age of streaming but that age ended with Disney Plus, followed by Peacock, Max, Apple, and all the services cropping up. What once was limited to Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix is now spread out over a dozen rival services. To have access to everything streaming would cost you hundreds a month and you’d never have time to watch all of it (I have films in my Netflix queue I added years ago I still haven’t gotten around to – probably time to admit as much and delete them). We’ve come full circle back around to the 500 channel universe cable TV once promised less than ten years after abandoning it for streaming.

Now, there are some great free ad supported services like Tubi and Plex. I binged in old episodes of CHiPs, Miami Vice, Knight Rider, The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero, and fun lesser-known movies like Raise the Titanic, Southern Comfort, Rolling Thunder, Hell Night, Dreamscape, Strange Invaders, and a lot more. Thanks to PBS and my wife and I being supporters of our local affiliate we have access to a near complete library of documentary series on a variety of subjects. Frontline, Nova, Secrets of the Dead, the American Experience, and scads more.

Books? Obviously I still buy them, having devoted a fair amount of shelf-space to the Movie Paperback collection that carried me through the COVID era, but that too is winding down partially because the easiest “gets” have already been “got” and because I’m legitimately out of room to store them. That said there is nothing, nothing quite like a big bulky expensive book, like this massive Omnibus Edition of The Art of G.I. Joe, all 20 lbs, $150.00 of it:

Collecting things is my hobby, and a good hobby to have. Hobbies are good to have in general and you can tell the difference between those with and those without. The busybody condo association president or HOA member butting into everyone else’s business? No hobbies. The person glued to the daily outrage of their phones? No hobbies. Collecting books, movies, comics, toys, games and the like are a two-fold experience in both the acquisition but also the enjoyment of. I don’t think I’m ever as relaxed, as chill, as I am when stretched out on the sofa reading an actual book printed on actual paper.

That’s the other great factor in favor of physical media: it’s yours, and nobody can take it from you. With the plethora of special-interest groups out in the world agitating for and launching book bans targeting school libraries and public ones, it’s no paranoia to suspect at some point these “goose-stepping morons” (as derisively and accurately named by Henry Jones Sr.) might start gunning for what we watch as well. Not only external forces but internal ones as well. Disney made headlines last year when they began removing low-rated, low-performing original content (like their Willow series spinoff I was never able to find time to watch) from the service, leaving the people who hadn’t yet caught up with them adrift with no other means to watch other than sailing the high seas of Pirate Bay.

All of the above is very much on my mind for another reason as I work my way through the first draft of a narrative non-fiction book based on my popular Celluloid Heroes webseries. Over the course of its 140,000 or so words I take a deep dive into those bellwether GenX films that inspired me to become a storyteller myself. Some of these films are well known like Star Wars, The Goonies, E.T., Back to the Future, L.A. Confidential, The Matrix, and Avatar. Lesser known are films like Dragonslayer, Blue Thunder, La Bamba, Singles, Lone Star, The Limey, Bubba Ho-Tep, and Inside Llewyn Davis. To adequately research this book I couldn’t rely on the here today/gone tomorrow world of streaming; I had to draw from my collection of movies and, where lacking, purchase the physical copy of the movies I had yet to own (fortunately I’d say a good three-quarters of the films covered I already owned and the remainder were easy to pick up).

Frankly, the studios would love it if everyone ditched their physical media for streaming. They’d love for you to pay them ten to twenty dollars a month in perpetuity to have access to their respective libraries of films and exclusive streaming services as well. All the more reason to deny them that pound of flesh. Especially as we may be entering a golden age of physical media too, with the resurgence in remastered vinyl, 4K Hi-Def, an upswing in excellent behind the scenes features and more bells and whistles, like the near hour plus of deleted scenes that come with a very affordable version of Cameron Crowe’s grunge-era romantic comedy Singles. You won’t find that on streaming.

With a physical copy there are no ads. There are no disclaimers about content, no un-skippable notices informing you that Gone With The Wind, The Searchers, or even Blazing Saddles were the product of different times, and different mores. A physical movie will not be pulled from your library, and occasionally re-inserted minus offending scenes or minus politically “offensive” episodes, like Community’s infamous “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”.

Which was supposed to be offensive to point out why Dark Elf-face is wrong and … (sighs in irritation)

When art is owned by corporations that corporation decides how accessible it will be. Sometimes maliciously, often times pure indifference. There are many, MANY Canadian bands of my teenage-twenty something years whose music is nowhere to be found online outside of shoddy YouTube clips taped off Much Music thirty years before; National Velvet, Grasshopper, hHead, Glueleg, and many more I’ve forgotten about because they’re otherwise unavailable outside of used record and CD stores, themselves a dying breed.

For years I began to see my shelves laden with books and DVDs, my long-boxes of old comics stowed away in closets and storage spaces as something of a burden; the detritus of a life that’s seen many years, many cities, and many homes. There are e-books, e-comics, and streaming video; who needs physical media anyway? Well, as one who owns examples from all of the above that are out of print, out of circulation, not available to stream, and just plain rare, well, I like to think curating a collection of physical objects still has a place in this digital age. And because of that digital age where things can disappear at the click of a button, holding those objects closer feels more essential than ever.

I like owning things. I like my books, comics, vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, Lego sets, toys, and games. I enjoy having them around me, just like I enjoy being able to decide to pull Excalibur, Tombstone, No Time To Die, Ravenous, The Breakfast Club, The Irishman (thank-you Criterion), the “Space Vampire” episode of Buck Rogers, or binge watch Season One of The Twilight Zone by taking it down off the shelf. These things we own hold their own magic, their own alchemy. There’s still a little thrill I get when the DVD or Blu-Ray menu pops up on the screen and I select “Play” on the remote. In that moment I, not the studio, not the streamer am controlling the horizontal and the vertical. I am deciding what to watch, when to watch, and how to watch.

When was the last time any of us were able to say the same?

Infinite Content (or: Boredom: A Defense)

In January of 2000 I was sitting pretty high. RoboCop Prime Directives was nearing the end of its production cycle and I was living my life as a screenwriter with a bright future. I had money in the bank, I had just upgraded to a very nice apartment in a nice area of Toronto, and my Monday-to-Friday was occupied by writing. My weekends were movies and activities and hanging out with friends, at bars, at pool halls, or coffee shops. I’d even managed to pay back my student loans.

It was a much different life than the one I have today. Today I’m a husband and father; I live on a nice, tree-lined street in a prosperous suburb of one of New England’s larger cities. I still spend my days writing but those days are broken up by school drop-offs and pickups, chores and errands, and general day-to-day life stuff.

The world has changed. My world has changed. But one area where it has not changed, thankfully, is that I still allow myself the simple pleasures of being bored.

It’s why I gave up having a cell phone which makes me a rare beast in today’s connected world. I don’t like carrying any device on me, frankly, be it tablet or smartphone. I find them cumbersome, not for their size, shape, or weight, but for the burdens they carry; the expectation to be “Ponce de Leon, constantly on” (to paraphrase the Beastie Boys); that ever-present need to be online.

The Boys have never steered me wrong for I am a student of their teachings …

When was the last time you were bored? Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to keep you occupied other than your own thoughts? When was the last time any of you just sat there with nothing to fill the empty space?

If you have a smartphone on your person, I’m guessing the answer is “never”. Thanks to the smartphone you have the internet and all its distractions. You browse websites, you scroll social media, you shop, you watch videos, you listen to music. You constantly allow something in to alleviate that boredom, am I right?

I have a little thought experiment for you. Picture a drinking glass. This is a metaphoric glass we carry with ourselves at all times that is neither half empty nor half-full. It just is. And there’s always something handy to pour into it; mostly basic day-to-day stuff like waking up, eating breakfast, starting work, all through the day until your head hits the pillow later that evening.

All of the above occupies roughly two-thirds of that glass. The rest is filled by whatever you want; a TV program, a movie, a video game, some reading or listening to music, a walk, dinner with friends, some hobby or regular activity, or just relaxing.

But more frequently, thanks to the ever-present smart-phone and its infinite content, a lot of us – too many if I must be honest – never get around to the other more fulfilling stuff -because the algorithm is constantly encouraging us to hit “refresh” and keep scrolling. We’ll sit there, phone in hand, and tell ourselves “just lemme look this one thing up” and the next thing we know hours have passed. Even when we put the phone down and go back to the movie or TV we were watching we feel it calling to us; not literally, but the chemistry of our brains is telling us it wants another hit of that sweet, sweet dopamine that we’ve become addicted to.

I see this on afternoon pickup, when I trek to my son’s school, passing the middle-schoolers on their way home, nearly all of them walking with heads stooped as they stare at their phones. Same as the high school students who once gathered outside and huddled in groups as they smoked cigarettes; now they congregate and huddle over their phones, trading one addiction for another, and both of them equally damaging for different reasons. But it’s not just “the youts” as Joe Pesci called them in My Cousin Vinny; I see it in the parents waiting outside for their kids, noses buried in their phones. I see it in people much older gathered for dinner at a restaurant, all of them staring at their phones in lieu of conversation. I see it in traffic when the light has changed to green and the driver of the car ahead of me doesn’t move because I can see his or her head in that downward tilt that communicates they’re texting or fiddling with a handheld device.

And while I get that Pandora’s Technology Box is never being closed, I think we as a people and a society are ruining much of what makes life special and unique and interesting; being bored. Allowing our minds to empty of thoughts and just be. That constant access to bright lights and information that never stops filling the void has killed our attention spans in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

We truly have no idea how bad this still new technology is for our brain; it is simply not evolved enough to ingest everything it provides us, but that tech has permeated our society so much that it’s virtually impossible to divorce ourselves for it. I don’t think we should necessarily divorce it completely, but boy oh boy we are living in some wild times; and I’m just talking about the internet, I won’t dilute the point by mentioning all sorts of other major issues we are facing these days.

It’s just as alarming to see how wholeheartedly everyone seems to have embraced this new normal. We’re encouraged to “download the app” to make our experience dining and shopping and living so much “easier”. Restaurants have started to do away with paper menus in favor of a QR code to provide the menu (and allow them to raise the prices on appetizers and entrees during peak dining times without having to print new menus), doctors’ offices want you to download the app that allows you constant access to your medical file (while allowing the same app to harvest your data, from the exercise trackers you use to the number of times you order fast food through another app).

It’s not all bad. Some of my favorite apps come through my local library; Hoopla (the e-book, audio-book, comic book reader app), the Kanopy streaming service, and Libby for e-borrows. I still prefer to do my reading on paper though; with a physical book in hand I’m less prone to pause my reading to see who just emailed. The tablet is powered down and shoved into the desk drawer, not to be unearthed until the following morning. From five in the evening to seven in the morning it stays there; my free time must truly be free for me to actually enjoy it. And if that means being bored, all the better.

I was lucky enough to grow up being bored. When I was bored I hopped on my bike and rode through the neighborhood looking for friends. Better yet was when I’d hear that knock at my door or ring of the doorbell and open the door to see some pals standing there asking if we just wanted to go hang out. When I was older with nothing to do I hopped in my car, threw twenty bucks into the tank, and cruised the streets of my town looking for someone or something to cross my path. Now it’s all done online; the invites, the evites, the rest of it. We are connected 24/7, but that constant connection is what’s driving us further apart.

Getting back to 2000 and the entire point of this essay. It was late in January and I was on a GO bus heading south from Barrie to Toronto after a birthday celebration. As the bus rumbled down Highway 400 we hit a pretty swift blizzard as is common in that part of the province; the “snow belt” they call it, though snow doesn’t fall as heavy or frequent as it did back then. So picture it; me in my seat in the darkened vehicle staring out the window into the night, seeing the snow, feeling the shudder and sway of the bus as it powered through. I had nothing to read, I had no smartphone to distract me because in those days the internet was a place you had to visit through a home computer or internet café. You didn’t carry it with you. It was like TV; another distraction, but one with an “off” switch.

So there I was, staring out the window, and my mind was wandering. The trek reminded me of the trips I used to take on the VIA train between Toronto and Brockville. I started thinking about trains, and suddenly an image popped into my head; two figures atop a train hurtling through a blizzard, fighting for their dear lives. The wind is howling; the snow is blinding. I continued to free-associate and ask questions. Who were they? Why were they fighting?

And my brain provided the answers; one was a big-game hunter in the Alan Quartermain mode. The other … was a vampire. A bloodsucking member of the un-dead. And they were not just fighting atop any old train; they’re fighting atop The Orient Express as it hurtled along ice-covered tracks through the Austrian Alps. The year was 1901, and this Great White Hunter was member of a team of Vampire Killers, dispatched to the wilds of Transylvania to locate a member of their organization who has gone missing ; a man named Abraham Van Helsing, foil of the legendary Count Dracula.

By the time I made it home I had the entire story in my head. I raced to my room, grabbed one of the big yellow legal-size notepads I always used (and still do) when sketching out a new idea, and drafted a three-page outline for a story I would first come to title The Fearless Vampire Slayers, then World War V, before settling on The Gentleman’s Guide to Hunting the Undead. I would spend the remainder of 2000 drafting that outline into a screenplay that while has never been produced was probably responsible for me landing more paying jobs than anything I’ve written before or since. It was one of those great, in some circles legendary, spec screenplays that opened doors and set me before many producers, all of whom requested to meet with me because they read that screenplay and said “this guy has talent”. It was as much a showcase for what I could do as a piece of evidence I still return to now as proof that I’m a good writer. I’m talking tens of thousands of dollars worth of work just because of that screenplay, brainstormed as I sat on a darkened bus, stating out a window into the snow, with nothing other than my thoughts to distract me.

Now picture the same set of circumstances. Bus. Snow. Night. And a smartphone. Had smartphones been around back in those days and were I in possession of one, would I have still cooked up that idea? It’s possible, but I am doubtful. I think The Gentleman’s Guide came about solely because of those circumstances of the bus ride; the time of year, the weather, and the fact my brain was seeking something to fill it and finding nothing but my own imagination to fill it.

Here’s my controversial take; social media, smart phones, and the age of infinite content are bad for us and particularly for creative types; I would go further and say that you can’t truly be a great writer, painter, musician, sculptor, dancer, or actor if you allow these outside influences to dominate your day-to-day. So much of art and creation relies on you being in that physical or metaphoric room with the door closed. It relies on you making your creative decisions in a vacuum of your own understanding, your singular perspectives. When you’re doom-scrolling Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever it’s called these days you’re letting other voices in to spoil the soup, so to speak. To create something certifiably you, you need to do it without influence or outside noise.

Let me be clear; I’m not talking about promotion and advertising your wares; that’s all a necessary part of the job assuming you want being an artist to be your job. But on the creative side, infinite content can become the death of that creativity. It’s art by algorithm; those invisible yet present forces that guide you by showing you want you want while also inflaming you by putting the things you dislike front and center to keep you captive to those algorithms. It connects in part to the current controversy over Chat-GPT and AI art; the end-result of a sort of Vampire Capitalism where everything must be monetized as cheaply and quickly as managed; a fatted calf for its exploiters to sink in its fangs and drain it dry.

Artists are needy people. We crave attention, preferably positive, but sometimes negative will do. We want to be acknowledged, we want to perceive ourselves and our voices to be important and respected. We crave that audience. But when the audience begins to guide our decisions as a creator pretty soon we’re creating for them, not for ourselves.  

There is a very current analog to this belief of mine that sprung up over the release of Martin Scorsese’s quite masterful three and a half hour epic Killers of the Flower Moon. “Too long, too boring, needed an intermission” people complained. Speaking as someone who was able to sit through Schindler’s List, The Return of the King, Oppenheimer, Magnolia, Avatar: The Way of Water, Seven Samurai, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly without need of a bathroom break or to get up and stretch my legs, these criticisms of Flower Moon smack more of shortened attention spans than anything else. The people who can’t go more than thirty minutes without hitting pause at home to scroll through their phones (or who scroll absentmindedly through the movie) and act offended when you suggest they may have a mild tech addiction.

Yes it’s long but go to the bathroom before and you’ll be fine. Leave the phone in the car though.

Increasingly though I am not the only one who seems to be feeling this wariness. Many people I know in real life and online have begun to step away from this constant connectivity. They’re deactivating accounts, they’re deleting apps, they’re downgrading to more simple flip-phones that offer basic connectivity, texting, and no social media whatsoever. Some people have disappeared from online spaces entirely; people I had pleasant interactions with for many years who are now gone from my life. I don’t know where they are or how they’re doing, but I do wish them well anyway.

“There is a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen sings in his song “Anthem”. And so my challenge to anyone reading this as we head into 2024 is the next time you need to go somewhere, either on a walk, a bike ride, or a trip to the grocery store or to go pick your kid up at school, leave the phone at home.

Going to a movie? A museum? A bar? Leave the device off. Engage directly with the world around you and you may be surprised to see people just out and about living their lives, and being much happier than the internet algorithm will try to tell you they actually are. See a remarkable sunset or cherry blossoms falling from a tree, or some remarkable cloud formation? Don’t fumble for your phone to snap a photo of it to share; see it, catalogue it, and file it away in your memories to crop up now and then without aid of a grainy photo that will never, ever be able to capture that moment. Be in that moment because those moments do not last, believe me.

If you’re a creative like me; resolve to create with the door closed, be it physical, metaphorical, or technological. You will find magic where you thought none existed, and you may just create something remarkable that you didn’t realize you were capable of.

Do all of this. Because it would be a tragedy to be at the end of your life looking back and seeing your memories of youth, of health, of love and being loved, all filtered through a smart-phone’s screen. This life only comes around once and to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.

Celluloid Heroes Part IV: Hooked On A Feeling

(This is Part 4 of a 3-part series. Part I, Part 2, and Part 3 can be read at the links)

I was born in the 70s.

Being a child of the 70s puts me squarely in Generation X territory. Those kids born between 1965 and 1980. The ones who grew up with TV, a single landline telephone, and playgrounds of steel and concrete and concussions. But the Generation X experience is not uniform. Not indeed is any generational experience for that matter. A Baby Boomer born in 1947 likely had a much different experience growing up versus one born in 1962. And so an Xer born in 1967 had a different experience than one born in 76 or 77. The early Xer grew up watching Banana Splits and The Incredible Hulk and CHiPs. They grew up with Led Zeppelin and Foghat, with the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, with The Jam and The Clash. A child born in the mid 70s would have grown up with Duran Duran, U2, Culture Club, MTV, Spielberg movies, Freddy Kruger, and the earliest days of the internet.

Point is, that early X-er era had a much more 70s upbringing than the ones born in the 70s. Their brains were developed enough to come home, grab some fresh-mixed Freshie from the fridge, click the TV dial over reruns of Gilligan’s Island and Batman on the local affiliate, or go to their bedrooms and and tune their radios to the local rock or disco stations while they half-assed their way through the day’s cursive homework and consulting textbooks printed and in circulation since 1946. For those of us born in the 70s, the 70s were and would remain terminally uncool through the 80s and into the 90s. The 70s were tacky and tasteless and kitschy, with bad hair, bad fashions, and bad music. A punchline, along with hippies, greasers (outside of Arthur Fonzarelli- he did jump a shark after all), The Village People, and 8-Track cassette.

Until 1992.

And to talk about why, we need to talk about Quentin. 

Fun fact: Michael “Mr. Blonde” Madsen played me in a movie once. It’s true – look it up!

Compared to the 1980s, the 1990s are regarded as a golden era for American cinema. gone was the schlock excess of the worst of 80s cinema. this was the era of the indie film, of Miramax and New Line, Artisan, of bold new voices in film like Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused), Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey), P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and many more. Some made a big splash, others faded into the wood-work. But I would correct that belief, and say that in the 90s movies didn’t necessarily get better compared to the 80s but they did sound better. This was when old theaters were retrofitting with THX and Dolby Digital sound, new theaters were being build with stadium seating and state of the art sound systems. And the movies responded with aggressive sound mixes that really took advantage of having a 24 track playback system to blow the roof off of. 

I saw this when I worked at a video store in the Toronto suburbs, full time in the summers, part-time during school to help pay for my college education, this towards the tail end of that time when you could pay for a semester plus of schooling, rent, and food, on a part time job (I still graduated with student loans to pay off but nowhere near to the amount classmates did). This was one of the only stores in the city that rented and sold Laserdiscs, a creaky format now but at the time state of the art.

Analog signal, probably pan-and-scan, but at least Han shoots first in this one

And so you’d have these guys coming in to buy or rent movies that … weren’t particularly great. Stuff like Anaconda and Species and that Charlie Sheen skydiving movie. Not good movies, but the sound mix was spectacular. And these were guys, always guys, who’d invested in the big screen plasma TV set, the surround sound Dolby Prologic AC3 THX sound system, and they wanted to show it off. They invited friends and family, made popcorn, and had a movie night in the comfort of their own home.

So nom 90s movies weren’t necessarily better than 80s ones. And I would argue that today, the movies of the 80s hold more of the imagination than 90s cinema does. They were more varied, more diverse. There were more companies making movies that actually got into theaters. Orion, Carolco, New World, New Line, Canon, Vestron; those companies that went under or were bought out. They were scrappier, the movies were quirkier. Starting in the 90s that all changed, the smaller companies disappeared and we were left with the big studios. Fox, Universal, Paramount, Warner’s. Columbia Tri-Star. United Artists in name only.

And the movies followed, more corporate, less independent. For all their considerable crimes against decency it makes you miss Miramax and Dimension Films, whose track record was more miss than hit, but they were still chipping away at the studios. The 90s saw growing consolidation, the smaller scrappier production companies and studios fall by the wayside. It was the movie version of the Telecommunications Act doing the conglomerates’ dirty work. Like the great indie radio stations that broke Hip Hop and Alternative Rock and Grunge were subsumed by Clear Channel and I Heart Radio, the sharp edges filed away, those quirky unique voices stifled and buried beneath mounds of corporate newspeak.

[Not just in the US mind you – Canada has always followed the path trod by its older sibling. Canada and Toronto of the 80s and 90s had Much Music, YTV, and a host of independent TV stations. Now? Well, They all exist in some form but they are not the same.]

This is why Reservoir Dogs was such a lightning bolt for me and my film school friends. Toronto in 1992 felt like what San Francisco and Berkley must have felt like in 1966 going into 1967, or what Greenwich Village must have felt like to a NYU Freshman in 1961 – the epicenter of the universe. Reservoir Dogs premiered at TIFF the year I began film school. The musical revolution we were all seeing as Generation X asserted itself sonically was making its way over to the film world, and indie film, not studio films, were where things were exciting. Heck, the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series prompting thousands to pack Yonge Street, then two whole blocks from where I was living.

I’m in this picture somewhere …

While technically a late stage boomer, Quentin Tarantino’s story is the prototypical GenX story. The latchkey single child of divorce, raised on TV in the wilds of LA while mom worked. A troubled youth, struggling in school, whose education came in watching movies over and over again. Working as a video store clerk in the now infamous Manhattan Beach Video alongside up and coming filmmakers Roger Avery and Craig Hamann. 

Much of this is detailed, by the way, in Tarantino’s non-fiction book CINEMA SPECULATION, which I recently read. If you ever wanted to hear Tarantino opine on the legacy of his favorite era of film (the 70s) and some of those films – The Getaway, Bullitt, Taxi Driver, The Funhouse, Daisy Miller, Rolling Thunder, and more, I’m told there’s also an audiobook.

My tangential connection to QT came through my manager, his former manager Cathryn Jaymes. She helped usher him into the Hollywood system, beating the street and pounding on doors and putting his screenplays in front of producers and execs. Of course, once he was a certified star he dropped Cathryn because he didn’t need her to open doors. Yet despite all that bad blood to her dying day Cathryn still spoke highly of his work, once offering me a copy of his Inglorious Basterds screenplay a few years before the film came out. He had talent, she said, but he was an asshole. I can’t disagree. I do like his films despite the crappy way he treated people I liked. But that’s hardly the only case in my checkered career.

But to paint a picture of those early 90s years means painting a picture of my life circa 1992. Being in Toronto at RU meant being within close proximity to what must have been forty movie screens. Eaton Center, Uptown and Backstage, Plaza, Carleton, Varsity, that one on Queen. Those were walking distance. Beyond you had rep theaters The Bloor, The Paradise, The Royal, The Roncesvalles, The Revue. You had the Chinatown theaters, you had screenings at U of T and Ryerson. Toronto was a movie town and still the best movie town I ever lived in (and I’ve lived in NYC).

[It was also a music town. Don’t believe me? In my first four months of college alone I saw The Beat Happening, Grasshopper, Henry Rollins, Ministry, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Lowest of the Low, hHead, Mudhoney, Malhavok and probably a whole lot more musicians than I can easily recall now. Subsequent years would have me see Nirvana, Soul Asylum, The Breeders, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, The Beastie Boys, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, Alice In Chains (again) and several consecutive years of Lollapalooza]

GREAT record stores too …

Now you have barely half that number of movie screens. Of the aforementioned The Varsity and the Carleton are all that remains. The rest were bulldozed and turned into condominiums. Downtown excitement was once just footsteps away but they paved paradise and put up a high-rise. Even the Yonge-Dundas epicenter died out. The big record stores like HMV, Sam the Record Man, A&A Records, the video arcades and head shops are all gone now too, replaced with bubble tea and vape shops. Everything has this grey paint wash on it, the color has been drained from everything. The busiest intersection in Canada now resembles any number of box stores. yes there’s street life, but it’s more a case of you getting from one building to another.

We were a different breed – Generation X. No way would we buy into the mainstream acceptance the way Gens Y and Z seem to want to. We hated being marketed too. Now it’s taken as an insult and a micro aggression when you’re not. We got old, we got sadly conservative. I recently read a poll saying more than 53% of currently registered Republican voters* identify demographically as Generation X. That is what really blows my mind and simultaneously bums me out. That people my age, who grew up on Star Wars and Steven Spielberg, who rocked out to The Cars and U2 and Nirvana and Lollapalooza, who were the first to go online, who snarked their way through South Park and Beavis and Butthead could becomes so mainstream and middle-class. Watching concert footage of those punky kids with the nose rings and hot pink hair-dye and trying to mentally age them up to forty and fifty-somethings with a suburban house, two SUVs and three kids, watching FOX News or whatever the Canadian equivalent is and letting the hatred algorithm drive them further away from the person they wanted to be.

As far as why Gen X made its mark when it did I would argue that it all boils down to demographics. While technically a late-stage Baby Boomer, Tarantino came of age in the 70s and early 80s so by the time the 90s rolled around he and filmmakers, storytellers, and musicians of his ilk with the similar shared cultural experience of Saturday morning Cartoons, Drive-In theaters, MTV, quirky syndicated TV stations and independent rock radio had “matured enough” to the point where the money-holders realized there was an untapped audience of young adults out there who grew up with the same touchstones. In other words, there’s a reason the 18-34 year old demographic is so favored by Madison Avenue ad companies.

Generation X was the first generation to grow up in a world with TV and music videos. Gens Y and Z had those same things, yes, but they had the internet as well, and it was the internet more than anything else that took what was once a shared cultural experience and splintered it into a thousand little subcultural pieces. In other words once MTV and Much Music stopped playing music videos, once YouTube and Spotify and streaming services became the norm, the idea of mass-media as a unifier died and was buried.

Reservoir Dogs felt like a signpost telling the world that things were going to be different. The Hollywood mainstream pap wasn’t going to cut it with GenX anymore. We were Smells Like Teen Spirit, not Teen Spirit the deodorant. 

We were so naïve.

Because a few years later Cobain was dead and Tarantino next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palm D’Ore at Cannes and became a genuine box office hit. A mainstream hit. He wouldn’t make a film like Reservoir Dogs again (though The Hateful Eight came close). But there was still that brief moment where it felt like we were taking over. That things would change.

The intervening thirty years have been good for QT. The rest of us not so much.

Every generation wants to change the world, especially when it is young. But the world is what changes us. It gives us experiences, it imparts its hard, sometimes harsh lessons upon us and one way we wake up and realize just how much time has passed. We seem to live in this state much of our lives where things like death and decline, aging and disease, occupy this almost abstract place in our minds. We’re aware of them but they seem nebulous, difficult to nail down or contextualize, until friends and family begin to pass away.

That’s the place I’m at right now. Depressing? Yes, but it is what it is and I can’t change that.

I feel increasingly distant from the world I once grew up in. Visiting Toronto last summer was a humbling experience. The city looked the same, the streets looked the same, but everything had changed. Towers stood where corner stores once sat. My muscle memory of being a Torontonian remained, but it was like I was walking and driving streets that were erected upon the ghostly remnants of my life. Close but not close enough. 

You realize as you get older how temporary everything is. Your life, those milestones. The people whose lives you intersected with for only a brief while. old friends and family now gone. The old neighborhood restaurant hangout you once frequented is now condominiums. This can be depressing but in a way I feel liberated by it at the same time. That those things you fret and stress about turn out to be nothing. The part time job that made your life hell goes under, goes bankrupt, whatever. 

In my mind the most important film of Tarantino’s career after Reservoir Dogs would be his last, most recent film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Here’s a film set during Tarantino’s childhood of 1969 (he was born in 1963) that must still hold the same romance, the same nostalgia, as those early Toronto years of the 1990s now hold for me. A film told from the older, wiser perspective compared to the young angry man of 1992. A eulogy and an elegy to an era that was here for a moment, consigned to history the next.

For me those years and Reservoir Dogs‘ place in my memory were were a very brief moment when the world seemed a much more unknowable place. Where it felt like the big adult journey of my life was beginning which, in a way, it was. There’s a very long thread connecting the here and now to the way back when. But each year it gets a little more frayed, those years a little more distant before eventually fading altogether.

And so, as Nick Caraway said in The Great Gatsby, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Celluloid Heroes Part II: Judgement Day

[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?

For contrast, “Nevermind” debuted at #170 when it was released a few months later

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:

Buckle up

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.

He’s the guy on the left

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.

UPDATE 2023

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.

Wonderboy

“Writing is an occupation in which you must continuously prove your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard

I admit it’s strange to say you miss a person you never met, that you never knew, but if like me you were a fan of his work I think we all felt like we knew Harlan Ellison. Some people I know actually did know him so I suppose in the grand scheme of things I could say Harlan and I were two degrees removed (top THAT, Kevin Bacon, who I’m only four degrees from).

Here was a writer who put himself front and center, to the point that in some circles he was better known for his personality than his writing.

A writer who never hesitated to make noise for himself in an industry where writers are expected to shut up and type and let someone else get the glory.

While I loved his fiction – “A Boy And His Dog”, “The Deathbird”, “Shatterday”, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, “Mephisto In Onyx” rank among my favorites – I was a greater fan of his non-fiction; his essays on film, on television, on the art of writing, of his own life experience. Harlan laid it all out there and became the first writer as rock star, a figure known in some circles more for being Harlan Ellison, period. Louder and larger than life. He wrote about his father (“My Father”), his mother (“My Mother”), he wrote about the loss of a beloved pet, (“Abhu”). He wrote one of the best unproduced screenplays I ever read (his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot”). His book “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” collecting years of essays and reviews on film has been a constant companion for more than 25 years.

So if it wasn’t clear, I was and remain an Ellison fan.

He was haunted by the murder of Kitty Genovese (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”), he marched through the segregationist south with MLK (“From Alabamy, with Hate”), he was a fierce, fierce advocate for the rights of the working writer, and was unafraid to call out assholes where he saw them. In the movie business and the book biz, they’re plentiful, believe me.

He had a lot of experience in Hollywood, mostly in Television with episodes of shows like Burke’s Law, The Flying Nun (!) and Route 66. His most in famous work though would be the two episodes he wrote for The Outer Limits – “Demon With A Glass Hand” and “Soldier” (both of which became the un-sanctioned inspiration for James Cameron’s The Terminator. Ellison sued, and won both credit on the film and a cash payout).

And his most famous? That would be this one:

Widely regarded as the best episode of the original Star Trek, and source of an infamous rift between Ellison and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, detailed in Ellison’s book:

Harlan kept all the receipts.

When Harlan passed in 2018, I didn’t mourn, but I did reacquaint myself, pulling my 1012-page softcover of The Essential Ellison off my shelf and spending the next six or so weeks re-reading it cover-to-cover. That was my eulogy, my memorial to a writer who definitely had an influence on me. occasionally his name would pop up on the radar post-mortem, but I figured that was it. He’d specified in his will that all unpublished work be destroyed, leaving his wife Susan to manage his copyright and his estate (sadly Susan followed Harlan two years later). More on that further down.

So it was, back in February, that I attended my first in-person Boskone since early 2020 because, well, reasons. A guest on several panels, I made my customary sweep through the dealer’s room, where to my surprise, I saw my old pal Harlan. He was at the NESFA table; sci-fi and fantasy hardcovers and softcovers on sale to raise money for the New England Science Fiction Association, the fine organization that helps run the Boskone event. Naturally, I couldn’t leave without grabbing the last of two remaining copies of A Lit Fuse. It took a few weeks to get to it – I was immersed in a biography of Buster Keaton at the time- but after cracking A Lit Fuse open I dove back into a world I’d largely forgotten. 

On my first big trip to LA as a full-time working writer I made sure one of my stops was the late, sorely missed Dangerous Visons bookstore on Ventura Boulevard. I went because it was a bookstore, but also because it was Harlan’s bookstore. He lived a short drive away, and the name itself was taken from the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology he edited in the 1960s, that sparked a revolution in sci-fi-fantasy writing, breaking it free from the shadows of the pulp and the obscure and made it vital for a new generation of reader. 

Naturally I bought a couple of Ellison books; the first two volumes of The Essential Ellison (as well as a now extremely rare signed, slipcase copy of the late Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts). Given the ridiculous Canada-US exchange rate at the time I estimate I dropped two hundred dollars on books that day, and spent the next month eating Ramen noodles and mac & cheese (ah, the life of a screenwriter just starting out).

Pictured: A screenwriter just starting out

Harlan making himself, warts and all, very public was a bold move, a brave one, and an oddly prescient one. Because today writers are expected to be public. We’re expected to be online, Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming our daily lives. We’re supposed to attend workshops and conferences and readings, we’re supposed to campaign for awards, to play the role our industry expects of us.

It’s almost enough to make you want to chuck in the towel.

Because if there is one thing I’ve come to discover about myself it’s that while I still enjoy the act of writing I don’t much enjoy being “a writer”. Certainly not as much as I used to. I enjoy the work, the rewards less so. A blank page does not terrify me the way it does others. I’ve heard writers say again and again that the writing is the least pleasant part of the process, preferring the adulation, the applause of the audience, the commendations that follow publication or production.

Dorothy Parker herself famously said “I don’t enjoy writing; I enjoy having written”. Well, that’s where Dorothy and I part ways. I enjoy writing, and when I’m done writing I write something else.

Clearly I’m the exception. And I’m not in any way blaming other writers for embracing what’s supposed to be fun. The victory lap is important especially for those very talented writers, the men and women for whom writing is therapy and exercising the demons that drive them. Writers and creators who come from traumatic backgrounds, hard upbringings, alcoholic and abusive families, ones who genuinely struggle from PTSD.

Reading Segaloff’s biography of Ellison I found myself remembering the writer I wanted to be. There’s very little of the mid to late-nineties I recall with much nostalgia. It was a depressing time in my life I wouldn’t ever want to repeat. And yet Harlan Ellison, the man, the writer, his stories and non-fiction I do recall in much fonder terms.

I’m definitely closer to the end of my life than I am to the beginning. Harlan once said life should end around age 70 (he lived to see 84). A debilitating stroke incapacitated Harlan some years before his passing; the worst torture for a writer now physically unable to write. Keeling over at my desk seems the best possible retirement for me. I’d hate to spend my remaining years sitting and doing nothing useful with them.

What is most surprising (and a little tragic) to me is that Harlan and his works are slowly being forgotten four years later. Without Susan to manage his estate his books are starting to go out of print. I don’t believe his writings will disappear entirely, but the day will come when some publisher that does retain rights will look at sales figures and decide it’s not worth the cost to a multi-million dollar corporation to keep a deceased author with a dwindling fan-base in print. Food for thought for all the writers out there concerned with their “legacy” and “creating works that outlast me”. I hate to break it to them/us but the likelihood anyone remembers us or our work after we’re gone is slim to none.

There’s a lyric from Canadian band Metric’s gorgeous song “Breathing Underwater” that sort of encapsulates where my head is at the present. It goes; “I can see the end but it hasn’t happened yet”. That’s where I am in my life. I can see the end. It’s (hopefully) a long way off, but it’s undeniably closer now than it used to be. I still have time and plan to make the most of it, but I know I’m nearer to the end of the road than the beginning. There’s still some great scenery, great moments to come, but that end is coming. 

To be clear, I don’t see that as a bad thing. We all make the mistake of believing our lives are infinite. If there’s any regret I have it’s the years I wasted, and the time others wasted for me. Knowing what I do now I would have walked away from people and situations a lot sooner than I did. I won’t make that mistake with the time left to me. 

Harlan was once asked what he wanted his epitaph to be, and he replied; “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time I mattered.” I think that sums up the human experience as succinctly as anything he wrote. Our lives are brief, and over far too soon, but to our loved ones and to the people we touched through what we created, they matter. Writers like Harlan, like myself, try and snatch a little bit of immortality by producing work we hope will outlive us.

But as the years go on, everything fades.

Even words on a page.  

ADDENDUM: I will be back next month with part one of a 3-part series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes”, in which I take a deep dive look at three movies that changed the course of my life, inspired me, or otherwise made their mark. Following that summer series will be a little treat marking the 5th anniversary of my book MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE, so make sure you’re here for that. October will feature a piece on another writer with a great influence on my life, the legendary Ray Bradbury, and I may have a few more surprises in store. Stay tuned. Same Brad-time, same Brad-channel.