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.

32 thoughts on “Celluloid Heroes Part IV: Hooked On A Feeling

  1. 90s Toronto was definitely a golden era for Toronto. Rent was cheap, culture was exploding. I k ow I sound like an old man complaining (because I am, both counts) but kids today don’t know what they missed!

  2. Great writing, Brad. I too am GenX and I too remember that era well. We must be close to the same age because for me I think what appeals about the early 90s is in part because I began university then – in Ottawa, not Toronto. Making that leap from high school to college is a big one. But I can’t deny what a unique time in history and culture that time was. Alternative rock, independent movies, before the j term et came along. I miss them but I still enjoy where I am now. I have to otherwise I’ll just be depressed …

  3. You know I hate to be that guy who says things used to be better back when … but things were better. More affordable, less stressful compared to today. I feel like the internet has mainlined all of the worlds horrors straight to our computers and tablets and phones. Yes, some benefits too, but I miss those 90s-2000s years a lot.

  4. Better or different, Paul? I’m sure back in the 1990s someone was saying life was so much better in the 60s and 70s. I know my parents felt that way.

  5. Paul – to be honest I can’t really disagree with you. I know we’re supposed to feel like things are getting progressively better but the best I can say about the last decade or so is things seem to have flatlined culturally, societally. I see some backsliding in some key areas that should make this decade “interesting” to say the least.

  6. Jennifer – I spent a lot of time in Ottawa in the early 90s too, visiting friends going to Carleton. Lots of good memories.

  7. My college experience was similar to yours though a different city (Boston) and year (late 90s). The one thing I miss is affordable concert tickets. I don’t know how people can afford the prices these days. used to be twenty bucks would get you in to see Aerosmith or Stone Temple Pilots – now it’s multiple times that. I definitely have less disposable income now than I used to and I was the prototypical starving college student!

  8. It’s funny, but my experience (Seattle 1997) was a lot like this. I moved out about eight years ago. I feel that with the internet, streaming, and now work from home cities are a lot less essential than they used to be, as far as creativity goes. Costs of housing in particular aren’t so much killing the artistic class but scattering it wider. If I can get a house in Tacoma or Spokane for a fraction of what Seattle costs, plus lower crime, all the media I want to consume it’s not bad for me, but it does erode what used to be a creative community.

    Also Reservoir Dogs is my favorite film, period.

  9. As a proud Canadian, I use the “Tim Hortons Test” – namely “was Tim Hortons better 20-30 years ago”. The answer is always “yes.”

  10. That is true, Dave – last proper concert I paid to see was Metric in NYC back in 2010. I won tickets to the All Points West festival a year or two later that got me in to see Coldplay, MGMT, and Echo & the Bunnymen – still a long way from that first year of college. Proximity/affordability always helps.

  11. Very good point, Anthony. Just having a community around you meant almost unlimited options. Online life has certainly “spread the wealth” a bit but I miss having so many options so close to home.

  12. I agree it’s natural to be more reflective as you get older but I wonder if the internet isn’t partially to blame. I mean, I can watch old TV shows – with commercials – on YouTube, which just heightens the overall experience. With Spotify I can call up any album recorded in whatever year and usually find it. back then you had to dig deeper to find those things – maybe that was the appeal of what we did find.

  13. I’ve only been to Toronto a few times but I find this too with my city – Cincinnati – it is still very much the city I grew up in, but a lot of it has changed too. Not as friendly I find, but that may just be an overall America thing these days. It’s why I like visiting the places that are still the same.

  14. You want to experience different, visit the Ontario Science Centre. That place has really changed, and not for the better if you ask me. of course my kids love going there but I miss the old exhibits (though some of them are still there).

  15. Chris – I agree with you there. We visited it last summer and while my son enjoyed it I just felt sad about how less fun it was. Weird layout and it felt strangely empty.

  16. Leeanne – I think things change incrementally and seeming slowly until one day you realize half the places you used to go to are no longer around.

  17. Matt — it is very easy to go down that rabbit hole and not come up. I’ve been watching old episodes of Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica on Tubi and yes its very easy to live in that past. It’s easier now to see shows like that than it was when they were cancelled. Unless you were one of the lucky ones with a VCR in the late 70s or early 80s and taped them they really disappeared.

  18. Great commentary on Generation X! It’s weird to think of those punky grunge kids being “responsible” adults now (and not always responsible for good things either by the way). It was a different time, an exciting time. It blows my mind to think we’re further away from the grunge years now than the grunge years were from Woodstock! Time certainly flattens out the older you get eh?

  19. Hey Brad where would you fit in the movies Tarantino wrote but didn’t direct – True Romance and Natural Born Killers. To me, despite being directed by two much older Boomer filmmakers – Tony Scott and Oliver Stone – they feel the most “90s Gen X” to me, maybe more so than Tarantino’s efforts which feel more timeless.

  20. Charles – to me NBK is the most 90s 90s movie, and the most GenX one too. Both the style but also in that it seems to acknowledge the feeling we all had about the media, about consumerism and marketing. And True Romance is this weird GenX fantasy with guns, cocaine, big cars, road trips and great character actors in small roles. Both have not aged well but that’s part of their charm. They’re both very much movies about the era they were produced in.

  21. I think GenX benefited from having vcrs. We taped our tv shows, compiling libraries of them, we rented and watched and rewatched the same movies over and over again. Really, a guy like Tarantino was probably forged in a very unique period, when movies became much more accessible.

  22. William – I agree completely. If there was one factor that united all of my film school pals it’s that we were amateur film scholars because of VCRs, because of watching Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Robocop and Alien over and over again, each time we noticed something new. We could watch from a writer’s perspective, a director’s, an art director’s one … music, sound, all of it.

  23. Brad I’ve really been enjoying this Celluloid Heroes series. Have you ever considered writing more and maybe compiling them into a book?

  24. Sheila – I was actually thinking about this the other day. I’ve probably got twenty or so of these Celluloid Heroes entries in mind, with each of them clocking in at around 2-3 thousand words so it would be a short book. That said, with blog posts I try and keep them around 2000 words as that’s about the limit most people will want to read on a web page (I did cut a lot from my first drafts)/ Food for thought at any rate. If there’s interest/demand I may look harder at the idea.

  25. Do you think movies were better then compared to now or is that just X-er nostalgia talking? I go back and forth; today movies are certainly much more polished even with a lower budget but I think they lack that uniqueness, that charm, of the older films. put it this way; I enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War but I’d still take a Die hard or Predator or even Independence Day over any superhero movie.

  26. Darryl – while I wouldn’t necessarily say GenX era movies were better (because while we latch onto the classics like Die Hard and Back to the Future while conveniently blotting stinkers like American Ninja and Timeriders from memory), I do think they were more interesting. Modern movies all seem to have this polished sheen to them that misses the grit of the previous era’s – to with look at any of the Disney Star Wars content and compare their look to 1977’s Star Wars. I do think in part it’s because the filmmakers back then grew up in a much different era that us; they grew up on TV westerns, drive-ins, re-releases while we grew up with Betamax and VHS and a constantly growing library of old and new movies. Film for my generation was a common language of the video rental era; didn’t matter where we grew up – we all spoke the language. We’d all hung out at the arcade, we’d all watched MTV or Much Music. if anything I think the factor we need to consider when discussing modern day film is that they’re a product of a more decentralized world; a world of streaming video and audio, the decline of the movie theater, the short window between theatrical and home video release.

  27. Do you think the reason you see a lot of hardcore right-wing QAnon Anti-Vax GenXers is because what you remember as Generation X – Lollapalooza, grunge, Alternative music – was the alternative and they were the mainstream? I’m thinking those frat-bro young republican church-going kids born in the late 60s and early 70s. The ones who didn’t wear ripped jeans and grow their guy hair long?

  28. Aron – I believe that very thing. My own biases existed even then; everyone listened to Nirvana, watched Tarantino Movies, lived in a big exciting progressive urban area. But I realized then and even now that we were not the majority. The mainstream culture back then was very much entrenched and you see it in the chart-toppers, top TV shows and biggest moneymakers (to wit: Forrest Gump was the biggest movie of 1994, not Pulp Fiction).

  29. I second Sheila’s comment. If you were to compile these Celluloid Heroes entries into a book and write some more I certainly would buy a copy!

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