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.

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.

1991

Thirty years. How can it have been thirty years?

There are milestone years in your life. The years that stand out above all the others. I’ve lived many years, and could pick a good half-dozen or so that stand out. But near the top of that list, 1991 remains that year for me. Musically. Culturally. Personally. It was a time when it felt like I and my generation – Generation X – were coming into our own. Where the movie and music creators we discovered and came to admire were borne of the same age as we were. The same experiences. It wasn’t 1960s or 1970s pop culture redux. It was our culture, our identity. It was U2, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode, The Stone Roses, The Pixies, and a bunch of new bands from Seattle called Pearl Jam and Nirvana (we already knew Soundgarden, but bands like Mudhoney, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and more were discovered at the same time). I’d been dipping my toe in the college and alternative rock pool since 1987 but 1991 was the year I plunged in.

Ask anyone at all connected with the music and culture of Generation X but 1991 remains THE year for all of that. It truly felt like the flood gates had opened. Don’t believe me? The Pixies’ Trompe le Monde, Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Cult’s Sanctuary, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic were all released on the same day. Seven days earlier, Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion I and II, and Hole released Pretty on the Inside. Both Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were already in stores, and the autumn would see the releases of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and U2’s Achtung Baby.

Oh, and Michael Jackson released an album that, while it outsold pretty much all of the above, felt like a relic from a different era. The 80s effectively ended the summer of 1991. Generation X was moving to the forefront, the culture was moving on, and if you were in your teens and early 20s, you were riding that wave.

Very few of my teenage years were memorable, or happy for that matter. Frankly the 90s weren’t all that great either – 1990-1994 were pretty good overall. 1995 through 1998 were shit, and 1999 was great professionally, lousy personally. While my career did eventually take flight, it was amidst a great deal of personal turmoil of the type that really prevented me from enjoying my life even when “great things” were happening. But I feel if I could hop into the Wayback Machine, or hit 88 mph in my DeLorean and travel back in time to relive just one year of my younger life, it would probably be 1991. It was the year that felt different even then. It felt like things were changing, and that the future looked a lot brighter than the past (remember that feeling? Pepperidge Farm remembers). That feeling was 30 years ago.

What both fascinates and troubles me is that 1991’s memories remain fresh, a lot more so than ones from 2011 or 2001 for that matter (outside of 9/11 what does any of us really remember from 2001 anyway?). I remember the Carribean Cruise I went on in March of 1991. I remember my summer job at our small-town local newspaper, of volunteering at the local cable access station to burnish my reel, I remember the first Lollapalooza tour, and seeing so many great bands in their prime. I remember helping my still best buddy move into his college apartment an hour’s drive from my town. I remember beginning my final year of high school. I remember My Own Private Idaho, The Commitments, The Fisher King, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, JFK and Cape Fear.

This wasn’t one of them. Seriously. The Commitments is awesome.

The thing they don’t tell you about aging is that generally you feel like the same person inside that you were when you were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Older and wiser, hopefully, but not so different. So much of my teenage years remains on immediate recall, largely thanks to the music I still listen to. While I do keep up with some contemporary artists – Coldplay, Haim, The Kills, The Weeknd – my heart belongs to the past, and to the music I grew up with. It’s not just music though; it’s a salve that helps me weather the present. If I close my eyes and listen to “In Bloom” and “Alive” and even “Blaze of Glory” , for a brief moment I’m back in the 80s and 90s. Even music from artists I never much cared for – I’m looking at you Richard Marx, Pseudo Echo and Icehouse – I still have fond memories accompanying.

1991 has been on my mind a lot, lately, thanks to the rebirth of Mixtape as a TV series I’m developing with Little Engine TV. We’re still in the early stages but there have been some encouraging developments as of late. Nothing I can reveal right now obviously. The general concensus we’ve been getting overall has been that we’re in the right time to start looking back at the 90s, those celebrated but largely forgotten early years of the decade when it seemed the world was changing for the better, an upward climb out of the morass of the 80s. That time in your life when everything good and just seems within reach.

But what is it about 1991 that holds on to me? I had better years. 1992 was right around the corner; an even more pivitol year for me. If there’s one 1991 memory I carry with me, it may be this. November 29, 1991; that was when me and a bunch of HS friends trekked to the local-ish university to see a little band from Boston play on what would be their then final tour.

The Pixies were, and remain my favorite band. Long-time readers of this blog will know that. 1990’s Bossanova remains my favorite album of all time, not because it’s the best Pixies album but because it was the right album at the right time for me. Seeing them in concert was a life goa, and in late 1991 I got my chance.

Anyway, the show. It was tight, hot, raucous. And loud. Boy was it loud. There’s something about live music that reaches deeper than recorded or video. A concert is a gathering of members of the same tribe. Everybody who travels to a concert from whatever location is joining a temporary movement. All united by a love of a band and their music. our case was no different. This concert was about an hour’s drive from our small-town yet we all made that trek. We mingled with people who had driven further, and some who lived nearby (said concert was at one of the local universities). The show was, of course, amazing. But at one point near the end we were all gathered in a group watching the band and I tore my gaze away from the stage to just look at the people I was at the concertwith. Janet, Ana, Charles, Matt, Anthony, Andy, Nathalie, Elliott, Moira, Esme, Katja. All of them. And I reflected even then that in a little less than a year those faces would be memories and nothing more. They had their lives, I had mine, and our paths would likely never cross again. For the most part that held true, even in this connected world of ours. I’m one of a seemingly few people not on Facebook so I have no idea what became of most of them. There’s a couple I keep up with now but the rest are just more memories; faces in a dusty yearbook, if that.

And it makes me think of a similar concert that fell nearly 13 years later to the day – November 24, 2004 to be exact – on the Pixies’ first of many reunion tours. A decade older, playing the “hits” despite never really having a “hit” when they were together in the first place (which should give us all pause to consider what makes a “hit” anyway). I went with a friend, just the two of us, and we had a great time. The band was on point, the crowd raucous. But standing there in that cavernous hall I wondered if any of the people I saw them with in 1991 were there too. I wondered how their lives were going, how they’d turned out. Were they happy? Were they in a good place. Did they remember me?

I never got an answer; if any were there our paths did not cross. After the show we all cleared out back to our cars and began the journey back to the present, back to our 2004 lives. Back to home. But that question, unanswered as it was in 2004, did find one in 2008, when I first got the idea for a comic book series called Mixtape. Mixtape changed my life; I stopped telling stories for others and started telling them for myself. Mixtape opened doors I didn’t realize were even there. It led to Magicians Impossible and all the other successes to follow. And those successes, right to the present with the Mixtape series, all can trace their lineage back to that special year.

The fact 1991 was 30 years ago reminds me that the once far-away year of 2050 is closer than 1991. Where will I be 29 years from now? Will I even be here? Will I even be here next year? I don’t know. None of us does. The last 30 years has taken away friends and family, teachers, classmates and colleagues. Nothing is guaranteed to us; not even tomorrow. I think that’s what makes the past the past, and why our thoughts return to days of yore; because it’s safe, because it’s known. Yet, through the things we loved – the movies, the music, the memories – those days still there. We know how the past ends. The future is frightening because none of us knows what the next day will bring. Looking at the state of the world today, the prognosis is not terribly positive. Sometimes in my darker moments I ponder whether or not I want to see another day, given the road ahead looks pretty dire.

But I keep at it. I keep plugging awy at work and at life, though as written about elsewhere the hard truth remains that while I still enjoy writing I don’t really enjoy being a “writer” and all that being a writer entails; promotion, appearances, the public side of it. So henceforth I am giving up on being a writer and focusing instead on writing. On showing up and doing the work. On being there for my family and for myself. That’s the big takeaway from 1991. That those years pass you by so fast and suddenly you’ve lived a lifetime without realizing it. It makes you want to cherish the days yet to come, because some day they’ll all be done.

Reading Pictures

Boooooks!

Novelizations. We’ve all seen them. We may have even read some of them. I myself have a bookshelf-full of them (pictured above); a combination of ones I’ve had since childhood and ones I picked up at visits to used bookstores over the last several years. These are part of my “comfort reads” – the books, magazines, and comics that I’ve read and re-read multiple times, whose familiarity is the entire point. Those stories where, unlike the current global crisis, we know how it all ends. That’s what a Novelization is; a story you likely already know, told in a different way.

More boooooks!

First we need to clarify the difference between a “novelization” and a movie based on a novel. In the latter case, someone wrote a book; call it Jaws or the Silence of the Lambs or The Hunger Games. That novel, that source material, existed before the movie version did. Novelizations, by comparison, are the books based off a film or more specifically that film’s screenplay. The books that exist only because some screenwriter wrote a screenplay that was turned into a major motion picture, and the studio sold the rights to a publisher to assign an author to turn out a book based on the film to sell in stores as a nice little bit of promotion.  

Novelizations are frequently rudimentary in prose; “workmanlike” is the best descriptor, as though there’s something wrong with that. Frankly, I’ll take “workmanlike” over “MFA trying to impress me with their three-page treatise on the texture of a raindrop” any day. They’re serviceable; the perfect beach or pool-side reading. The types of books you can read with one eye while keeping the other on your child, to ensure they don’t drown or get munched by a roving Great White Shark.


Novel, not Novelization (though the prose is about the same)

Novelizations aren’t concerned with great turns of phrase. The exist to tell a story; or re-tell it, if you will. And to be fair, some novelizations are actually well-written, but you aren’t going to impress the teacher with your book report on the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II or Starman. Novelizations are the bastard stepchild of the literary world. They are books, and they are readable, but wouldn’t you be better off reading something more substantial?

Yes. To all of the above. Every criticism thrown the way of the novelization is valid. However the first “adult” books I read were novelizations. They were my gateway, from books geared to my age group; “Middle Grade” or “Young Adult” before those terms even existed. While I rack my brain trying to remember which novelization was my first, I have to assume it was one of these:

The Holy Trilogy

I was a child of the 1970s, and if you are an adult of a certain age it’s likely the years 1977-1983 were dominated by a trilogy set in galaxy long ago and far, far away. I can’t exactly remember what year I read Star Wars by “George Lucas” (actually sci-fi author and novelization mainstay Alan Dean Foster), but I want to say it was the early 80s, probably 1982. We would have been visiting family and I think a cousin had the paperback novelization and gave it to me. I read it over a weekend, and was, of course, hooked. Even knowing the story, there were surprises to be found within its pages. What made reading Star Wars interesting was the context it provided. Here was the first inkling of a galactic history, opening with an excerpt of “The Journal of the Whills” laying down the backstory for the Republic, the Jedi, and the rise of a bureaucrat named Palpatine.

The Prequels, only with less Jar-Jar.

It also gave you a taste of scenes left on the cutting room floor. Casual Star Wars fans might not know that originally we were meant to spend a lot of time on Tatooine with Luke Skywalker before encountering R2-D2 and C-3PO. We met his friends Fixer and Cammie, and his good friend Biggs Darklighter.

If you wanted to see what an “earlier version” of a beloved movie may have been like, you picked up the novelization. Given these books were written to coincide with the release of the film, they were most often based on a version of the screenplay that became a much different movie. An example of this would be Orson Scott Card’s novelization of James Cameron’s 1989 sci-fi adventure The Abyss, which prominently featured a Tidal Wave sequence and various subplots that wouldn’t see light of day until three years later with the release of The Abyss Special Edition.

Life’s Abyss … and then you dive

Novelizations told a story you already knew the outcome of. But they did it in a way that put you in the head-space of the characters you only previously witnessed onscreen. Here you were in the cockpit of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing as it raced down the Death Star trench. You were with the Goonies as they hunted for One-Eyed Willie’s treasure. You were Short Round as he occupied himself throughout Shanghai in the day leading up to the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Novelizations gave you backstory and character histories, it filled in the blanks on little mysteries lurking in the corners. It gave you more, at a time when you wanted more. You didn’t read novelizations for something new; you read them to re-experience the story you’d already fallen in love with. This was especially crucial in an era where home video was still in its infancy. Where you had to wait years to see a movie again. This was the age of the re-release. Star Wars, released in theaters in 1977 didn’t arrive on video until 1982. Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, didn’t show up until 1986.

We waited THREE YEARS for this.

The heyday of the novelization, for me, spanned roughly 1977 to 1989. Star Wars to Batman; famously one of the first films released on home video for purchase within six months of its theatrical debut. Once that six months threshold was broken, it became more common. By 1995 I was clerking at a video store, and it was pretty much a given that that summer’s theatrical releases would be available to rent by Christmas. As a result, novelizations became a lot less essential than they used to be. I look at my collection of novelizations and they really do begin in 1977 and end around 1989. Some are okay, none are truly terrible, and if you want ones that are a cut above the norm, look for names like Wayland Drew (Dragonslayer, Willow), George Gipe (Back to the Future, Gremlins, Explorers), and the Big Kahuna, Alan Dean Foster (Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Krull, The Thing, The Black Hole, The Force Awakens, and a host of others).

The late George Gipe wrote three of the best …

Novelizations still exist, though in some notable cases, they’re released after the theatrical release, to keep spoilers at a minimum. All of the Disney Star Wars movies had novelizations released several months after the theatrical release; quite a contrast to Terry Brooks’ novelization of Star Wars: Episode One back in 1999, which arrived in stores nearly a month before the movie hit the silver screen. Overall these newer books are quite well-written, employing acclaimed, well-known sci-fi-fantasy authors to draft prose based on screenplay format. Yet with the theatrical-to-video window now averaging three months if that, you don’t really need the novelization to keep you engaged in that world and its characters; all you have to do is watch clips on YouTube, and wait for the digital version or Blu-Ray to become available.   

Yet I believe what has in some way made movies a little less essential than they used to be has been in part because of the shrinking of that theatrical-to-video window and death of the novelization. They used to be part of the package, alongside the comic book adaptation and the Making Of book and TV specials. They made those movies feel a piece of a much bigger whole. They made them events, rather than mere entertainment.

The novelization was also very important to me as a developing reader. They were the bridge from books geared to people my age, to ones that skewed older. I might have been immersed in novelizations in 1984-1985, but by 1986 I was moving deeper into the adult world. In fact it would have been this book (no a novelization) and this movie that had the biggest impact:

Not a Novelization, but even more important.

Stand By Me, the movie, led me to Different Seasons, the collection of four Novellas by Stephen King (the other three being the little known The Breathing Method, as well as Apt Pupil, released in 1998 and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, released as The Shawshank Redemption in 1994). Different Seasons led me to The Stand, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, It … the list goes on. By 1987 I was reading Stephen King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, and a host of other horror and suspense authors and I never really looked back. And while I was aware of Stephen King, it wasn’t until seeing Stand By Me that I wanted to know more, and more importantly read more.

Admittedly, my novelization shelf is more of a show-piece than a practicality. They’re a conversation starter for house guests. Yet occasionally, usually when between projects, I’ll pull out one of my old novelizations and take a trek down memory lane.

Speaking of Treks …

When talking about novelizations it helps to remind one’s self that yesterday’s trash is tomorrow’s treasure. It wasn’t so long ago that comic books were considered Low Art; now they’re winning Pulitzers and Hugos. There have been many scholarly looks at the Pulp Magazines of the 1930s, cheap, simple, and exploitative, which are now regarded as the cornerstone of modern genre fiction. The internet has changed the world, and even those ephemeral things that didn’t even exist ten years ago like Podcasts and YouTube are regarded as essential, even ground-breaking media.

I love movie novelizations. They were a gateway to more adult fiction; they were what spurred my interest in movies and the making of them. They’re what made me want to tell stories of my own. But mostly, they’re a simple, analog comfort to help us get through an uncertain world.

On that note: remember to wash your hands.

Brad’s Top Ten Novelizations

The Abyss – Orson Scott Card’s adaptation of James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller was granted unprecedented access to the film and unsurprisingly the novelization reads as top-level sci-fi. The book begins with three POV chapters each about its three leads – Bud, Lindsay, Coffey – in their younger days, and impressed James Cameron so much he gave the chapters to his actors and told them “this is canon”. One of the few novelizations that works as a stand-alone book.

Back to the Future – George Gipe’s adaptation of the beloved blockbuster puts particular emphasis on Marty’s friendship with Doc, and him getting to know the his own father before life crushed those same dreams now threatening to crush Marty’s. Gipe sadly passed away in 1986, but if you see his name on the cover it’s well worth your read.

Dragonslayer – acclaimed Canadian fantasy author Weyland Drew takes a middling Disney fantasy movie into a fine little piece of almost Tolkien-esque prose, focusing more on the threat the rise Christianity represents to an untamed world than the dragon hunting its people. The first of Drew’s two novelizations on this list.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. There was no way the novelization was ever going to recapture the wonder, the emotion, the soaring spectacle of Spielberg’s masterpiece. But what the E.T. novelization does do is expand the roles of Elliot’s mom Mary, and government investigator Keys, and gives Elliott and his siblings a foil in a nosy neighborhood kid who suspects something is up at their house. This kid never appears in the movie, which makes me wonder if he was an invention of author William Kotzwinkle, or a character and subplot excised from the screenplay before the filming commenced.

Explorers – George Gipe corrects the biggest problems with this Spielberg-Dante misfire by relegating the stuff that doesn’t work (i.e. the moment the aliens show up) to the last 30 pages, choosing to focus his retelling of the story on exploring the bonds of friendship between the titular Explorers.

The Goonies – I’m not a particular fan of 1985’s the Goonies, but the novelization is an interesting read, as it’s told almost exclusively through Mikey’s eyes, relating what happened to the Goonies gang after the events of the movie have passed. It also gives us a post-script to the story, telling readers and Goonies fans what happened to their gang of misfits after the end credits rolled.

The Last Starfighter – This mostly forgotten cult film about a young man stuck in his trailer park community only to be enlisted in an interplanetary war (don’t ask) is almost meta-textual in its portrayal of life as an 80s teen; a world of video games, dead-end jobs, and, yes, novelizations. It’s another Alan Dean Foster joint. He pops up a lot when you talk about novelizations.

Poltergeist – On paper, the story of Poltergeist is a little thin. But here author James Kahn expands on the trials of the Freeling clan, by giving almost equal footing to the paranormal investigators stories, particularly psychic Tangina Barron, whose detailed visits to the spectral plane actually precede the kidnapping of Carol-Anne, and sends her and her team on the hunt for the Freelings before the Freelings even know their daughter is in danger.

Star Wars – the George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster adaptation that kicked off the Golden Age of Movie Novelizations. Released in December 1976 (the original release date for Star Wars), it sat on shelves nearly six months before the film eventually was released to stun the world. A pretty engrossing read, but for a couple of anachronistic references to dogs and ducks (which I suppose now makes them canon in the Star Wars universe).

Willow – Wayland Drew returns with his adaptation of George Lucas’s and Ron Howard’s mushy fantasy would-be epic, applying his own high fantasy skills to the boilerplate plot, spinning off tales within tales, backstories, and histories into something that comes very close to being a classic High Fantasy.

ADDENDUM: there’s an excellent podcast called “I Read Movies” from Paxton Holley, in which he reads and compares movie novelizations to the filmed versions. Paxton really knows his stuff, is an engaging host, and an always entertaining listen. Here’s a link to his show page:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/i-read-movies-podcast/id1276623435

And, for more information on Novelizations, including a massive, comprehensive index of pretty much every one ever written, https://www.movienovelizations.com/ has your back covered.

Far, Far Away …

Here’s a confession that will shock everyone who knows me (and probably more than a few that do not): I don’t like STAR WARS.

The Saga, I mean; I’m talking Episodes I through IX, its spin-offs, its TV series. I’ve certainly enjoyed them, but once you’ve consumed 99% of Star Wars-related content you’re kind of left with an “ehh” feeling. A couple of hours of escapism, some robots, some aliens, some mystical mumbo-jumbo made up on the fly, the end.

Oh, and there’s usually a big explosion too.

Now with that out of the way, I will admit I love STAR WARS the movie. The first one. The one I saw in 1977. I’ve seen it the most of all of them, and 43 years on I still don’t get tired of it. I speak of the one called Star Wars. Not “A New Hope” not “Episode IV”. STAR. WARS. I love its low-tech (pre-special editions, of course) feel. I love its fast pace, its leap from planet to planet, location to location. I love its iconic set-pieces which remain memorable decades later, to a degree few of the other films in the lengthy series recapture.

Star Wars is one of those movies I’ve seen so many times that I can close my eyes and roll film from beginning to end and know every shot, every musical cue, every FX shot. On my list of desert island movies, it’s near the top. If fleeing my burning home I can only save one movie in my collection, it’s Star Wars. If I’m tasked by the government to save the world, bring world peace, end climate change, by keeping just one Star Wars movie in existence and obliterating everything else, well, the choice would be easy and obvious.

STAR. WARS. Period.

Why does Star Wars still hold my imagination? I think because it was my first major gateway to storytelling and being a storyteller. I was four. I’d seen TV, I’d had bedtime stories read to me. I’d possibly seen other movies. But nothing had that impact as Star Wars did. It got me interested in stories, in sci if and fantasy and that flood of SFF films and TV that followed well into the 80s. It certainly was the most instrumental and influential piece, for me, that led me down the road to a career as a storyteller. It’s what got me into film school and that 20 year career that followed it. It’s what got me to want to tell my own stories. Magicians Impossible is hugely influenced by Star Wars in its initial incarnation, that “we join our heroes midstream” pulp vibe. Not part of a series, no prequels, no sequels, just this rich mythology world. There’s a backstory, there’s a hint of the story continuing, but really it’s just a story set in a much larger universe.

To clarify; I don’t hate the other material – I just don’t need them to enjoy Star Wars. I don’t need sequels, I don’t need prequels. I don’t need the spinoffs, the TV, the CANON. I don’t even need The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the better film) or Return of the Jedi (arguably the weakest). I don’t need Darth Vader to be Luke’s father. I don’t need to know what the Clone Wars were; they’re a throwaway line in Star Wars and that’s all you did need. I think it’s a testament to that film that we wanted to know more. It had worked its magic on us all.

Pictured: all the backstory you need.

With the sequels, things changed. When Star Wars ended, Luke and Han got their medals (Chewie didn’t, but to be fair Leia was quite short), the Rebels had won, the Empire had their white-armored butts kicked. The galaxy beyond was wide open. You got an all-too brief taste of what was to come in the ancillary materials – the Marvel comics, the serialized newspaper strips (my personal favorites), the execrable Holiday Special, and – most importantly – the action figures. The adventures they went on, in suburban sandboxes and basement rec rooms were sequel enough for me. Even when pretenders to the throne – the “Killer Bs” of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole just gave the Star Wars figures more enemies and allies in their 3 ¾ inch adventures.

Heaven

Did we have questions? Sure we did. But answering them was our job, or it should have been. For a time it was ours. Luke could have found his mother. He could have tracked down the Emperor, or could have turned bad, brought back by his friends. Before we even heard of a sequel, we were going on new adventures with our favorite heroes and villains.

But what would have been really daring was to not have those questions answers. I often like to ponder a world where Star Wars was neither a flop nor a massive hit; it was something that made its money back so George Lucas could keep making movies, maybe focus on running ILM. A world where Star Wars was enough of a success for those toys and comics, but something that didn’t make enough money to justify a sequel

*Really, what would have been interesting is to have a Star Wars universe where they did make more movies but they were stand-alone ones cataloging further adventures. Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was famously initiated as an idea for a lower-budgeted sequel to Star Wars should it just do “okay”. You may have seen further adventures of Han and Chewie minus Luke and Leia and the Rebellion (maybe mishaps along the way to paying off Jabba the Hutt – who we did not see in Star Wars). Darth Vader would have remained the Bad Guy with no familial connection to Luke other than being the guy who offed his Jedi Knight father, exactly as Obi-Wan said. Vader could have been Ming the Merciless from Flash or Baltar from Battlestar, or Princess Ardala from Buck ; a foil, and a threat, and a constant reminder that these adventures were always meant to unfold in situ. That, while there was a history, it remained a history. Something as backdrop.

Episode II. Seriously.

I think it all gets to the heart of what I don’t need in my stories these days, which is a deep and detailed exploration of backstories. The dramatization of backstories has, to me, become the worst thing about popular genre entertainments today. We’ve become accustomed to expecting to have all those questions answered in some official capacity. We can’t just imagine what was and what might be. It has to be part of a canon. You rarely can sell a fantasy or sci-fi book without having some plan in place for a second, a third, a series of books to follow should the first hit. And I have to confess that my fandom brain is the same as my writer’s brain; I only need one very good bordering-on-great story. I don’t need the same wine in a different bottle. I need that pure experience, that, when the book is closed and the house-lights come back on, I feel like I was on a journey.

If a film hits me so hard that I can walk out of the theater on a total high, I don’t need to see more of the same. I didn’t need more adventures of Robocop or Neo or John McLane on-screen, because I already have those in my mind. It’s what was in my mind after seeing Star Wars. I had my toys, I had adventures with them. They’re a part of who I am.

I recognize that creative work is a hustle. It’s about the paycheck, about spinning gold when you have the materials and the interest. It’s about paying those bills and socking some away for your golden years. But writing to me has always been an intensely personal experience, driven by a lot more than just dollars and cents.  

Every Star Wars fan has their “era”, the era where they discover it (and when and how they do). If you discovered them on video, where you could pop your VHS or DVD into the machine and watch one after the other, it’s different than if you had to wait three years between chapters. When the Prequel trilogy came out, by and large the older fans weren’t too crazy about them (and I say that very, very diplomatically).

Exhibit A

But if you were five or six when Star Wars came out, you were pushing 30 when The Phantom Menace arrived. The Prequel movies weren’t going to be your favorite ones. You’d grown up and come of age in a decade of Dragonslayers and Terminators, Robocops and Predators, Goonies and Gremlins, Alien and Aliens.

But now, the kids who were five or six when The Phantom Menace arrived, are now in their mid-late 20s, and have the same nonplussed reaction to the Disney films we older fans had to the Prequels, because they LOVE the prequels.

And now, everything’s different. It’s bigger, and smaller at the same time. With Star Wars you have this huge volume of movie and TV and video games and comic books and toys and novels. It’s everywhere. There are Original Trilogy fans, there are Prequel Trilogy ones, and there are Sequel Trilogy ones. That fandom has become a lot more fractured as a result. There’s fans that up and hate everything Disney has done with the property. There are fans that worship the Prequels. There are fans that ceased being fans after Return of the Jedi left theaters. For me, Star Wars: The Saga is essentially a big carnival midway. There’s rides, there’s games of chance, there’s food. You can’t take in it all, so really you should just find what booth appeals to you and focus on that. For my part, I’m a fan of a lot of the ephemera from the Original Trilogy; the Making of books, the Art of books, the Illustrated Screenplays. I love the collected editions of the Newspaper strips and the Marvel comics. I’m less enamored with the Prequels and while I’ve enjoyed the Sequels, I feel exhausted by the overkill. By the end of 2019 we’d had five Star Wars movies in as many years. Star Wars used to be more of an event. Now it’s just another film series.

You can only pick one.

And yet, while I’ve become largely indifferent to “Star Wars: The Saga”, I remain ride-or-die with Star Wars the movie; that singular experience. That type of movie experience that comes along with less frequency now than before. And at the risk of sounding like one of those old guys, I have to say that unless you were there in 1977, seeing it on the big screen with no knowledge of what was to come, and no idea what it would all lead to 42 years later, you didn’t really see Star Wars at all. At least not the way I saw it.

And that’s okay.