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.

An Open Letter To Generation X

Twenty nine years ago this day some friends and I packed into my battered, four-cylinder 1983 Toyota Camry and drove three hours to attend the first Lollapalooza Festival.

The lineup was eclectic. The Rollins Band. Butthole Surfers. Ice-T and Body Count. Nine Inch Nails. Living Color. Siouxie and the Banshees, and headliners Jane’s Addiction. It was the beginning of a new decade, and our generation, Generation X, was at the forefront.

We didn’t realize at the time but the world – our world – was about to change. Because later that month an unknown band named Pearl Jam released their first album, “Ten”. A little over a month later another band from the same rain-soaked corner of the Pacifi Northwest, Nirvana, released their major label debut. Neither album was expected to do much business.

Of course, they did and then some.

You couldn’t give tickets to Lollapalooza 1991 away back then. But come 1992 you couldn’t find them anywhere because Alternative Rock had become mainstream. The weirdos became the force to be reckoned with. That carried over into film; 1992 saw Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi and Gas, Food, Lodging. The lunatics had taken over the asylum.

I’ve been writing about music and the 90s and the alternative era pretty much since this website began back in 2009. I created a comic book series about those years; one currently on hiatus that I really hope to jump back on soon. I had planned on kick-starting the next phase of Mixtape this year but COVID-19 had other plans.

When researching what was to become Mixtape, I spent a lot of time watching old concerts and old music videos on YouTube, rereading old books. Some were videos of concerts I myself attended. I saw lots of kids my age back then; the kids with day-glow pink and orange and white hair. The kids with dreadlocks. The guys with long hair, sideburns, and goatees. The girls with shaved heads and nose rings. I would watch these videos and wonder what became of those kids? What became of them as they moved from their teens and twenties into their thirties and now forties.

What are they doing now?

Well GEN X? What the fuck are you doing these days, and why?

I’m looking at you, Karen, you old riot grrl, calling the police on a black or Latino man just trying to get into his apartment. I’m looking at you, Ken, who attended every Ministry show they could, throwing a Trumper-tantrum because the Starbucks barista making minimum wage asked you to please wear a mask when entering the shop to pick up your triple vente with extra whipped cream.

Come ON guys and girls! You used to slam-dance and skateboard, you lined up for Pixies and Depeche Mode tickets. You made mixtapes to profess your love, you plastered a Reservoir Dogs poster to your dorm wall and blasted NWA while doing it. You moshed in the pit, you head-bopped to Hip-Hop. You were the end result of a childhood of roaming around and exploring your neighborhood un-tethered. You made your own fun. You hung out at the arcade, you worked at McDonalds. You bought Batman on VHS, you saw all the Indiana Jones moves in the theater. You had MTV, Much Music, Friday Night Videos, and Top of the Pops. You had Star Wars and G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony.

Now look at you. Yelling at kids to get off your lawn. Asking to see the manager, yelling and cursing people out on Twitter and sharing racist memes and fake news on Facebook.

You are disappointing the shit out of me.

What happened to you between then and now, between Nevermind and “never mind that, I’d like to speak to your manager” ? What changed? You used to Rock The Vote and boast you were Born to Choose. Now, you’re aligning yourself with the people and ideologies you would have turned your nose up at. The asshole establishment types. These guys:

Don’t tell me you’ve “matured”, that you’re not some “snot-nosed teenager who doesn’t know how the world works.” You’re complaining that U2, a band that has never shied away from politics is now “too political”. Newsflash: they didn’t change – you did.

You call it “growing up”, but still you act like a bunch of spoiled toddlers throwing tantrums.

You’re suffering from Paul Ryan Syndrome; where you claim Rage Against The Machine is your favorite band, while voting to defund social security. You’ve become The Machine, Paul, and your favorite band thinks you suck because of it.

Look, I get it; people change. I mean, look at Morrissey. I can barely listen to The Queen is Dead or Strangeways Here We Come and not reflect on what a bitter, racist prick he’s become (as opposed to the earnest vegan prick he was back in the 80s). Change is the natural way of things. Change is good. But the change you claim to embrace stops when it comes to creating a more equitable society. Your freedom ends when you would deny that same freedom to someone else.

Face it; you’re not the heroic nerds anymore. You aren’t the cool misfits either. You’ve become the villains in those teen movies you used to watch and adore. You’ve become the slime-ball preppy golf and country club assholes you used to rail against and cheer when they got their comeuppance.

Pathetic.

Hey, maybe I’m wrong; maybe deep down you always were an asshole. A latch key generation sandwiched between BAD BABY BOOMERS and FECKLESS GEN Y. Maybe you did what you had to to survive a harsh world. Maybe the world broke you down. Maybe we did it to ourselves. We were always told we’d never earn as much, live as long, have as much success as our parents generation, and maybe we embraced that too much. Maybe we believed it so much it became self-fulfilling. We set our sights low because we knew we’d at least hit that mark. We got mortgages and credit card debt, we watched our dreams slowly die and, as punk-rock sage Henry Rollins (who I first saw at that Lollapalooza and to this date 29 years later remains THE artist I’ve seen in concert and in his spoken-word shows more than anyone else) sang/bellowed in “Low Self Opinion”;

You sleep alone at night
You never wonder why
All this bitterness wells up inside you
You always victimize
So you can criticize yourself
And all those around you

Thing is, GenX, I see a lot of the latter; not so much of the former. No self-reflection, no introspection, no “wait a second, I’m in a Starbucks raging about wearing a fucking mask; maybe I’m the asshole” thoughts. No, you’re blundering through life so convinced you’re right and the world is wrong, that you’re becoming what Raylan Givens from Justified also wisely said;

“You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Raylan Givens was never wrong about anything. Not even Boyd Crowder.

Let’s circle back to something Henry also said/sang/yelled in the same song;

If you could see the you that I see
When I see you seeing me
You’d see yourself so differently
Believe me

Well GenX – I see you. I see men and woman looking at their shitty world, their miserable failed lives, and see disappointment. Not that life dealt you a hard hand, but because it did and you accepted it rather than smack it away. You became the person who complains to the manager, who calls the cops on a neighbor’s barbecue, who literally yells at people to get off your lawn because you work in a bank or sell cars or perform office drone work when you once dreamt of being a musician, a filmmaker, a sports star.

Your dreams crumbled and died, and rather than find the grace that comes with a life of kindness, and fairness, and neighborly cares for the people around you, you sit at home, watching TV, not talking to your wife or husband, not paying any meaningful attention to your children.

I’m disappointed. That a generation raised on Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood could grow to become adults possessing no kindness, no want for making the world a better place just by being an active part of it. The generation raised on John Hughes and Steven Spielberg movies. Every generation wants to change the world, and every one does, but not always for the better.

People ask me; “Brad, as a writer, what is the most important tool in your toolbox? The one thing you feel every writer, every artist needs?” And I reply; “Empathy. Empathy is the most important thing an artist can have. You can be outraged by the behavior of a character, but if you can’t see that sad, scared child that awful teenager or adult once was, you’re losing a little piece of yourself. You’re not being honest. You’re not looking inward.”

But GenX, I’m telling you it’s not too late. You can still change your bitter, disappointing life.

How to start?

Well, you could always try listening to music again. Trust me; all the “classic rock” stations out there are playing the music you listened to in high school and college. The music you grew up with. The music of today that’s influenced by that era where music meant everything. So I implore you, stop listening to talk radio, stop watching Fucks News; in fact, stop tuning in to AM radio entirely. You can also ditch that Facebook account of yours – a technology meant to “bring the world together” but has only driven people apart. A place that thrives on your anger, and your outrage. Remember there’s a reason you lost touch with those high school and college assholes, and that because that relative of yours posts racist shit on their feed, their Thanksgiving invitation must be rescinded until they see the error of their ways and smarten the fuck up, and be that person you used to look up to again.

Seriously. You’ll be glad you did.

If you frequent news websites, get a good comment blocker for your web browser (I recommend “Shut Up”) and use it. Don’t waste your time going down the rabbit hole of uneducated shitheads with too much time on their hands and too many opinions to spew. You miss absolutely nothing by refusing to engage with these 21st century baubles designed to waste time that is becoming more and more precious with each minute, each day, each year we have left, just so some tech billionaire can make even more money. Remember; every problem we face in the world today can be directly attributed to rich assholes who decided they need to make even more money than they already have.

Want a good substitute for all the doom scrolling? Here’s one: it’s called picking up a book. Preferably one on paper, but digital will do ya just fine. Did you know roughly a quarter of Americans claim to have not opened let alone read a book within the past year? Of course you do! Look who’s president if you don’t believe me. Do you want to be associated with those people? If you’re still that cool, hip Gen X-er you think you are then you know the answer. Read. More. Books.

I recommend this one.

My main recommendation in moving forward is to try and channel that person you were, ripped jeans and nose rings and all. The person who’d look at the adult you’ve become and ask “what the hell happened”? Become the person that 20 year-old version of you aspired to become. Be your best self.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll change the world for the better.

Play us off, Henry …