Begging Bowl Blues

At my best guess I own roughly 800 DVDs and Blu-Rays. 60 vinyl record albums, 500+ CDs, and 250 paperback movie novelizations. I own several thousand comic books. I own hardcovers and softcovers. I own Lego sets, action figures, and more. I own things. Things from my childhood. From my teenage years. From my grownup ones. Tangible physical things I can hold in my hand, pull off the shelf, and read, listen to, or watch.

Physical things are good. They force you to engage with the left hemisphere of your brain; the mechanical, structured, analytical one. I would argue that owning physical media is a good that streaming simply cannot preproduce effectively.

Why? In the era of digital downloads, streaming services, the internet why do I hold on to his archaic thing called “physical media” in an era when stores like Target and Best Buy are doing away with their DVD and Blu-ray sections?

There is an answer. Frankly if there was not I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. And it’s the story of this album:

Codeine Velvet Club were a band that was an offshoot of another band, The Fratellis. Fronted by Johnny Fratelli and Scottish singer Lou Hickey, they released one album in late 2009, and split the following year.

Their self-titled debut (and only) album is one of my favorites of that and indeed of any era. They had a poppy, punky lounge-act era of snappy tones, melodic, all-around fantastic in my opinion anyway.

Here’s the song and video that first grabbed me. I encourage you to watch and listen all the way through.

VIDEO 1

They followed ‘Hollywood’ with ‘Vanity Kills’:

Video 2

And that was pretty much it. Johnny went back to The Fratellis; Lou became a solo artist and remains one today, mostly playing in and around her native Glasgow.

I discovered them through Spin Magazine who in the late 2000s would release free downloadable playlists of songs by up and coming bands into compilations and “Hollywood” was on one such compilation. I liked what I heard and after perusing my record shop – in this case the itself now long-gone Virgin megastore in Times Square, walked out with this very copy of the album.

PIC

Front to back and top to bottom Codeine Velvet Club is gold. From “Hollywood” which kicks off the first side, to their cover of The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection” that closes out the second. It’s an album and band I have returned to a great deal in the (gasp) fourteen years since I first heard it and them.

What does this have to do with my various collections of physical media?

Because you can no longer hear this album through conventional means. You won’t find it on Spotify. You won’t find it on iTunes or Apple Music. You can find used copies on eBay and Amazon, and can listen to the entire thing if you go to YouTube. But otherwise owning a copy of this tremendous collection of music is difficult verging on impossible.

We’ve entered an era where we are pushed to give up owning things in exchange for paying for access to someone else’s library. We’ve traded convenience for access that can be changed at any time at any moment with no warning. The tech and media companies are like the overlords of the great 60s sci-fi anthology series “The Outer Limits”. They control the horizontal and the vertical. And for a monthly subscription fee it can be yours. But always for a fee.

The irony here is that over the last several years my physical media collecting has diminished. I’m no longer compelled to grab the hot new release when it’s right out of the oven. I can wait for it to come down in price, or can pass on it altogether. Unless a special edition is coming from Criterion or it’s a film I really enjoyed, the itch to watch a movie again is scratched by a single viewing, not ownership. While there is something reassuring about being able to pull a film like Gladiator, Mad Max, Moonraker, The Great Escape, or Friday the 13th (Parts 1 through 8) off my shelf and throw it on some rainy afternoon, most often I can just “rent” it essentially from the library I frequent.

But owning that physical media has proven to be a boon in one way as it spurred me to finally decide on what my next book is going to be.

Many of you have written to say how much you’ve enjoyed the CELLULOID HEROES series I’ve been running on-and-off on this website since 2022. After much soul-searching and much shelf-examination I realized there’s a much grander story to be told about the movies I love, and the movie-going experiences that solidified those specific films as some of my all-time favorites. From Star Wars and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial to Back to the Future and Batman, to Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights, to The Bourne Supremacy and Pan’s Labyrinth, to Inside Llewyn Davis and The Irishman, every film has a personal story attached to it and I am preparing to tell those stories and a lot more.

The tentatively titled CELLULOID HEROES: A GEN-X JOURNEY THROUGH FIFTY YEARS OF CINEMA has no publisher as of yet. It doesn’t even have a completed first draft. But it is my current long-term project; one that dominated 2023 on a research level (because I actually had to watch the forty-five films I decided to write about) and will dominate 2024 on a writing one.

My criteria was simple: each film had to be a movie I first experienced in a theater; it had to be a movie I’d seen multiple times in the years since; and it needed to be a movie I owned a physical copy of. That third part was the easiest to decide on, thanks to the substantial physical film library I own at home. What wasn’t as easy was picking those forty-five films. But I got there in the end and revisiting some favorite films of mine was one of the highlights of the year that was.

SHELFIE PIC

So on that note posts to this website will slow down a bit over the coming while. I may tease out some Celluloid Heroes work here and there and anything else that sparks my creativity but for not it’s going to be nose-to-the-grindstone-write-this-damn-thing on the book, and another project I’m developing with a production company that I cannot discuss as of yet.

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.