Infinite Content (or: Boredom: A Defense)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celluloid Heroes Part IV: Hooked On A Feeling

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

I was born in the 70s.

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

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

Until 1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m in this picture somewhere …

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

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

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

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

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

GREAT record stores too …

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

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

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

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

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

We were so naïve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celluloid Heroes Part III: Different Seasons

Welcome to the third and final* installment of Celluloid Heroes; my look back at the movies and moviemakers that inspired me to become a storyteller. Parts 1 and 2 can be read by clicking the links. In this case I actually do recommend reading in order. Got it? Good. 

As a writer I get asked a lot of writer questions. About my work, about my process. But sometimes I get asked more personal things. Who’s my favorite author, for example.

Living would be Joe R. Lansdale.

Deceased? Harlan Ellison.

Favorite short story is Miss Gentilbelle by Charles Beaumont, with Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program by Joe Lansdale a close second.

Favorite novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit a runner up.

Favorite comic book series? That would be Larry Hama’s original run of GI Joe: A Real American Hero. Favorite comics miniseries is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.

Looking at the above you’ll see I skew towards the genre side of things. Genre fiction over literary. That’s just my preference.*

*and before someone chimes in with “that’s very fine and well, Brad, but were there really no women authors who inspired you” I owe an unpayable debt to the works of Judy Blume and Beverley Cleary; two genuine titans of literature who wrote the first books I truly, truly loved at a time I began to love reading. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.

Which brings us to Stephen King.

King is a genre to himself and I always make sure to read whatever he puts out. His latest, Fairy Tale, will, I’m sure, be no exception. I’ve read most if not all he’s written, though I confess I’ve always struggled to get through his Dark Tower series. The first King novel I ever read was The Dead Zone. That was followed by It, Needful Things, Misery, and the four short novels contained within The Bachman Books (“Rage” and “The Long Walk” being my favorites from that collection). I actually didn’t get to his “best” books until much later, when during a summer spent working in Niagara Falls in the 1990s I made regular trips to a local used bookstore to grab The Stand, Pet Semetery, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining

Yet there’s one King story I keep revisiting, the one I’ve probably re-read more than any of the others:

Which became the basis for this movie:

The reasons for both is something of an origin story.

My origin story.

As close to an autobiography as I’m ever to pen.

It’s 1986. I’ve just turned 13 years old. We’ve been living in North Carolina and it hasn’t been a great experience. Probably the worst year and a bit of my life. To this day I dislike the Southern USA precisely because of that year in the Tarheel State, despite some of the warmest, friendliest, all around nicest people I’ve ever known being from the south. I just wasn’t a good fit. In my previous home and neighborhood, I did fit. I had friends, I was happy. Content. I could have remained there forever, or at least until I graduated high school. And, to be honest, when we were told by my dad we were moving to North Carolina I was looking forward to it. We’d been told this was to be a two-year “loan” assignment from my dad’s company to another company that was a subsidiary of it. We didn’t even sell our house; the plan was to live in North Carolina for two years then move back to the same house, the same street, the same neighborhood on the suburbs of Toronto to resume life (spoiler alert: never happened).  

So North Carolina was not a good fit. If you want that background before we continue I’d rather you click here and read that than make me reiterate the reasons why here.
The one rare bright spot of being friendless in Greensboro was that in Greensboro I really became a movie fan. More like an obsessive. I must have seen a new movie every week. New release, second-run repeats, and weekly trips to the video store. I did a lot of movie watching at home, thanks to the whole “not having friends” thing. I also re-watched these movies, and began to notice things like motifs and symbolism and themes. That movies could be about more than just “plot” and “story” was a divine secret learned at the foot of our VCR which was actually, yes, a Betamax. 

So the short version of North Carolina; I survived. And I got a boost when my dad announced we were returning to Canada a year early, though unfortunately not to our old neighborhood, for him to take a big promotion. I almost didn’t care; I just wanted to get the hell out of Greensboro. We moved back to Canada in August of 1986, a couple of weeks before I was due to start school. In those two weeks we got our feet wet in our new town, and that included a trip to the local cinema (we only had two in 1986, soon to become only one 2-screen theater).

That movie was Stand by Me.

Now at the time I didn’t know it was based on a Stephen King story. At that time I hadn’t read Stephen King. I only knew him as the guy who’s name was mentioned in the TV commercials for Christine, Cat’s Eye, Firestarter, Cujo, and, yes, the 1986 stinker Maximum Overdrive (filmed in, you guessed it, North Carolina). So, when “based on the novella by Stephen King” appeared at the end I, like most in the audience, was surprised. Stephen King was a horror writer. He wrote scary books about possessed cars, possessed dogs, girls who set things on fire with her mind (a mind possibly possessed). And here he’d written a story about four twelve-going-on-thirteen years-old boys that felt real and genuine. They felt like real kids. It felt like me and my old friends in Toronto, having an adventure, wandering the woods and fields, smoking cigarettes and bragging about non-existent sexual conquests. Stand By Me almost made me wish I could go searching for a dead body with my friends.

As soon as I was able I trekked to the local used bookstore in town, searched for, and grabbed their worn copy of Different Seasons, the collection that contains “The Body” along with other notable King shorts Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I read The Body first, and must say to really get to the dark heart of the story you really need to read the novella. As grim as Stand by Me can be at times, it’s a bright and sunny fairy tale compared to the novel, which carries a much darker, much more mournful tone. The Gordie (Wil Wheaton) of the movie is a troubled, sad kid whose friends become his lifeline and his family. There’s tragedy in the future death of best pal Chris (played by the equally tragic River Phoenix), and a gradual drifting apart with Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), but the movie ends sweetly, with the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss, who also narrates) fulfilling a promise to his twelve-year old son to take him and a friend swimming. The child of 1959 now an adult in 1986, striving to be a better parent to his son than his parents were to him.

The Body is not the same story. The skeleton is the same, but the flesh and muscle is bruised, battered and scarred. I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t read it, but the tragedies in The Body; about growing up, growing older, of death, area lot more cutting. Friends die; old bullies and tormenters live on. It was as if King had channeled the early teenage experience, identified why “he never had the friends like he did when he was twelve”, but also acknowledged that those friendships inevitably faded with time. People grow up. They move on. They move away. And they die too young.

I think of Stand By Me a lot these days as I get closer to my fifties. As a father to a young child, a son with the same wanderlust I had and still do. As an adult who’s faced the untimely passing of several high school era friends and acquaintances in recent years. But I also think of my father, who really loved Stand By Me and recommended it others constantly. He may have loved it more than any movie I’d ever seen him love. I think in part because of the era but also the timing. He was born in 1947 so he would have been the same age as Gordon, Chris, Ted, and Vern in that year 1959. Stand By Me he saw at age 39, then father to a child the same age – 12 going on 13 – as the kids in screen, the same age he was that summer. I think he came to be more introspective about his youth back then. The friends he had. The ones he’d lost touch with. The ones he’d lost along the way. 

Both the book and movie really lean into that line about the friends you had when you were twelve, and when I did begin school that fall and found I made friends – a lot of them, actually – quite easily, a part of me knew that those friendships wouldn’t last the test of time, but in that case I was wrong. While in NC I was friendless (and really doubt if anyone I attended that one year of school with even remember my name), but the Brockville years would introduce me to new faces, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day. Heading into the back third of my life I find myself thinking about those years more and more. Especially with Mixtape, which is firmly set in and about those years where a teenager becomes an adult and learns that growing up frequently means saying goodbye. 

TV series is coming along, thanks for asking …

I think Stand By Me and The Body were really what sparked my interest in becoming a storyteller. More so than Star Wars and Indiana Jones, more than Back to the Future and Terminator 2 and the big genre movies of my youth that I still unabashedly love. Both that novella and that adaptation of it showed me that my seemingly normal, mundane, everyday life possessed moments of grace, of beauty, of joy. That being “normal” and “average” was not a death sentence. That my life mattered.

That last statement – my life and the moments within mattering – forms the crux of this Celluloid Heroes series. I realize a lot of this is Generation X philosophizing, casting fond golden hued looks back at a period in life that seems a lot more sunny than it probably was. I recognize my nostalgic gaze isn’t so dissimilar to my parents’ generation looking back on their youth, the same way millennials now likely look back on the early 2000s with the same wistfulness. Everybody does it, and the ones currently complaining about it likely do the same when the doors are closed. I would argue that looking at where you came from is important to find the best way forward, for who are we but the sum of our experiences and memories?

The music of my parents’ generation is beginning to fade. Take a spin around terrestrial radio and you’re unlikely to hear Buddy Holly (unless it’s the Weezer song from 1994). Give it another ten years and fifties culture will largely be forgotten, glimpsed only in the movies of the 80s that people still remember. And even then I know that the cultural touchstones of my youth will not outlive me by very much either. Everything passes in the end. Everything, as Kink himself wrote, is eventual.

They say that among a lot of artistic types it’s a fundamental unhappiness that drives a lot of creation; like we’re all trying to rewrite the unhappier parts of our childhoods, where we can be the cool kids, the quick wits, the people everybody likes. While I certainly have grappled with my own moments of dreary darkness, I feel that my life and the experiences I’ve had – the good and the terrible – all shaped me into the writer I’ve become. One whose work still grapples with the overall theme of my life; looking for a place to call home. 

Fortunately for me I found a place where I belong. And it was these movies – these three Celluloid Heroes in particular – that helped me find that way home.

*I’ve enjoyed writing this series and a whole lot of you have enjoyed reading it too so I think this is one I will revisit in the future.

NEXT MONTH:

This Time Tomorrow

As long-time readers of this blog will testify, I’m a guy who likes music. I write about it, I wrote a comic book about it, and I’m currently writing a TV series based on that comic book that will naturally feature much of the music of my youth.

Coming to TV screens everywhere in 2023. Hopefully

The challenge with all of this is listening to that music. The music I grew up with. There are so many memories tied to those songs and bands and albums that forging new memories to accompany those soundtracks proves to be more difficult the older I get. I’ll always think of a lengthy bus ride to Stratford, Ontario anytime I spin The Pixies’ Bossanova album. I’ll always think of a particularly messy breakup anytime I hear U2’s “So Cruel” off their Achtung Baby album (actually, my entire senior year of high school could be soundtracked by AB). Even later albums and experiences have a soundtrack. I can’t listen to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album without flashing back to my first years residing in New York City. Point is, there’s only so much room in the memory bank before you have to start deleting and dumping old files. That’s why it’s important to allow new music into your life, or at least music that’s new to you.

Currently I’m a fan of contemporary artists like Jack White, The Kills, The Weeknd, Metric and – possibly my favorite new artist – the three-piece sister act Haim out of Los Angeles.

My favorite album of 2020. And 2021 for that matter.

But if there’s one “new” band that towers over all the above, it would be this one, formed in 1963, and splitting in 1996. Four scruffy lads from the Muswell Hill area of North London.

The klassic line-up (L-R) Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife

I of course am talking about The Kinks.

Buckle up.

PART I: Picture Book

The first Kinks song I ever heard, or became aware of, would have been “Come Dancing”, which was a staple of rock radio and MTV back in the 80s. I think I heard it on the car radio and when the DJ mentioned them my dad, who was driving said “The Kinks. They were big when I was a teenager. They’re still around?” A lot of “Boomer Rock” was making a comeback in the 1980s but The Kinks never really went away. Theirs was a prolific output of practically an album a year from 1964 well into the 80s. With popular and current bands routinely taking 3-4 years between releases, that’s an impressive feat.

The Kinks were never big. They were considered “second tier” British Invasion artists. Through the years the occasional Kinks song made it through the radio barrier. You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Lola. But again, they were never BIG in the way The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who were and remain. And I think that fact was key to my (re)discovery of them in 2019.

It was on a visit to my local library. My son was at a “toddler time” story and sing-along event, and I took a stroll through the building, finding myself on the media floor, browsing their enormous CD collection. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but when I got to the “K” section and found The Essential Kinks just staring at me I went “why not” and grabbed it to take home for a listen.

I popped it into my computer’s CD tray, opened iTunes and listened while I worked. And the amazing thing was that I found I knew a lot more Kinks songs than I realized. Songs I never even knew were Kinks songs but had heard on the radio, in movies, on TV. Dedicated Follower of Fashion, A Well-Respected Man, Sunny Afternoon, Death of a Clown, and, of course their epic Waterloo Sunset. But I also found myself falling immediately in love with “new to me” songs like Shangri-La, Victoria, Celluloid Heroes, Life Goes On, Sleepwalker, Better Things, Living on a Thin Line, and Do It Again.

By the end of my listen, I was a Kinks fan. I wanted more. And more is what I got.

PART II: 20th CENTURY MAN

As stated, what was most surprising about my listen was how many Kinks songs I actually knew; I just never knew they were Kinks songs. Of course there were many movie-centered tracks like This Time Tomorrow, Strangers, and Powerman (from Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited), and The Village Green Preservation Society and Village Green (featured in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and continuing into Starstruck‘s appearance in his 2021 thriller Last Night in Soho). Even a tune like Lola – the drunken sing-along song in any bar, party, concert – took on new meaning on repeated lessons when I finally realized the titular “Lola” isn’t a, well, give it a listen and really pay attention to the lyrics;

Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola

Lyrically The Kinks run circles around their better known contemporaries like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (I would rank The Kinks’ 1967 album Something Else well above The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons). Credit Ray Davies’ brilliance for that – this is the man who managed to make “vernacular” and “Dracula” rhyme after all – but also his younger brother Dave Davies (The Kinks’ secret weapon and inventor of the power chord that inspired every punk, grunge, and heavy metal band that followed). The legendary animosity between the Davies siblings aside, that personal and creative friction spawned so many of The Kinks’ greatest songs, albums, and performances.

So after returning The Essential Kinks to the library, I did some digging and found their copy of The Kink Kronikles, another “Best of” which filled in some gaps not covered by The Essential Kinks. For my money (and I say this because I now own it on Vinyl) it’s the better collection of songs and a better snapshot of The Kinks in that late 60s/early 70s era than any other collection before or since.

So that was going to be it. I had all the major Kinks hits covered, I was content to just leave it there. Then I visited my local comic book shop and I got hooked again.

Let me tell you about The Outer Limits in Waltham MA. It’s one of those great old-school comic book stores that has pretty much anything anyone could want. Old paperbacks and pulp novels, old toys and games, model kits, magazines, comic books – you name it. Seriously, walking there with twenty bucks you’re guaranteed to walk out with something.

But what really grabbed me on this particular day was the store’s collection of affordable and varied vintage vinyl records. If none of the written material appealed to me I’d flip through the selection and grab a couple for the home turntable. So naturally, when I again got to the “K” section I was rewarded with a selection of Kinks albums I didn’t own. Sleepwalker, One for the Road, Low Budget, Give The People What They Want, Muswell Hillbillies.

I pretty much cleaned them out.

Preservation Act 1 & 2 soon followed, along with Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace; all from the band’s much reviled theatrical period (though I love Soap Opera and, while Preservation Act 1 & 2 I’m so-so-on, the live versions are amazing – check out the Live at the Hippodrome 1974 recording at Archive.org if you don’t believe me).

But they returned to straightforward rock and roll with Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget; a renaissance that carried them well through the 1980s, and landed them the popular MTV staple Come Dancing in the midst.  

It’s only natural …

So they were hot, then not, then hot again. Today they’re regarded as the unsung heroes of the British Invasion, the godfathers of punk, Britpop, and Alternative Rock. And that I think that career arc gets to the core of what the Kinks mean to me.

Because, like them, my career began with a lot of interest, a lot of promise. Then some bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances sidelined me. I went through lengthy stretches of nobody caring about my work. Hell, I went through some periods of not caring about my work either. How could something I knew I was actually good at fill me with nothing but irritation? For a time I came to hate writing and everything about it. 

Because The Kinks couldn’t tour the US at the height of their popularity (thanks to a touring ban instigated by their on-stage antics and the oft-claimed rumor that Dave Davies slugged a stage-hand who insulted him and the band), they had to look inward, which prompted Ray and Dave to pen some of their most British albums. Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, Lola, Muswell Hillbillies. They also avoided, in my humble opinion, the burnout that would have likely fallen in the wake of US touring success, consigning them to the dustbin of also-ran 60s one-hit-wonders. Had the ban not happened we might not even have been gifted the “veddy British” songs that put them in the rock pantheon.

For my part, frequent rejections, general indifference from agents, from development executives, from producers younger and less experienced than I was led me to turn inward, and start writing for myself, not for the marketplace, not for them. The result? Mixtape, for one. Magicians Impossible for another. Those two projects probably brought me more renown, more of a genuine audience than any of the stuff I did for SyFy Channel. It wasn’t until I started creating and writing projects I cared about that I actually became a good writer.

My favorite Kinks era is that “middle” period (1966’s Face to Face through 1970’s Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part 1) where they produced some of their lowest-selling yet most beloved works – albums, I might add, regarded as stone-cold classics by an establishment press that once dismissed them outright. That run contains my two favorite Kinks albums; The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire. My copy of Arthur on Vinyl is an original pressing and still sounds great. I bought those five album on CD solely so I could listen to them in my car (and yes, my six year-old is being raised on a steady audio diet of The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones).    

Arthur is his fave …

PART III: Days

“Discovering” The Kinks at this later stage in my life has been revelatory. With so many of my favorite bands, songs, and music being heavily guitar influenced discovering The Kinks has been like discovering the source of the Nile River; the source from which those waters flow to the sea. The Ramones. U2. the Pixies. Nirvana. The Clash. The Jam. Blur. Oasis. The White Stripes. Van Halen. Metallica. Motley Crue. Guns ‘N Roses. How different might the last fifty years of popular music have been without the brothers Davies, Pete Quaife, Mick Avory, John Gosling, John Dalton, Andy Pyle and so many more who contributed to that Kinks? there’s a joke question that goes around; “Are you a Beatles fan or a Stones fan? Wrong; The Kinks.” Or, “Who was the greatest British Invasion act and why was it The Kinks?” I think in the end Ray Davies is probably delighted that his band, the fourth or fifth tier of British acts back in the day are now regarded as one of the best acts of all time.

Moreover I increasingly find The Kinks providing the soundtrack to my life. I feel like that isolation (it’s lonely here in New England and that was even before the pandemic), that inward looking and looking back at a career that’s seen some ups and downs speaks to me in a way modern music does not. Music definitely changes as you get older, and changes you in ways it didn’t before. I do miss how it used to be; music is never as good, as exciting, as it is when you’re seventeen or eighteen. A time when you’re looking forward not backward. I’m doing much more of the latter than the former. I see fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me. 

I recently connected with an old friend from high school; someone I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years and seen in nearly thirty. We talked about the old days, we talked about where we are now. We both have our own lives, our own histories. Neither of us, I think, ended up where we thought or hoped we would back when we were teenagers. But in my case I feel like I ended up winning the jackpot anyway. My life isn’t what I thought it would be but when I look at all I do have I wouldn’t give any of it up. Turning back the clock, making different decisions might have propelled me to the heights of success, but I’d have to lose all I have now – my wife, my son, my life – and I could never do that. 

So years from now when I’m as old as Ray and Dave Davies are now, I’ll probably look back on these years and find the memories – the good, the bad – accompanied by The Kinks. 

What can I say? They really got me. 

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Albums:

10. The Kinks BBC Sessions 1964-1977 (you haven’t heard them ’til you’ve heard them live)
9. Low Budget (The Kinks do hard rock and spark their comeback)
8. Muswell Hillbillies (a country-inspired album that’s much better than you’d think)
7. Face To Face (the first “true” Kinks album)
6. Sleepwalker (severely underrated pre-comeback album)
5. The Kink Kronikles (the best compilation album)
4. Something Else by The Kinks (Waterloo Sunset. That is all.)
3. Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part I (Lola. Lo-lo-lo-lo-Lola)
2. The Kinks Are The Village Green Society (tied for #1 with …)
1. Arthur Or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire (their masterpiece)

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Songs:

I don’t think I could narrow it down to ten, so here’s seventy Kinks Klassics for your listening pleasure.

ADDENDUM:

So this update/post/whatever kind of blew up when I shared it to my various social media platforms. And I had one person message me directly to ask why I was still using Spotify as a music streaming platform. Apparently – and this is all news to me because while I’m forced to use social media I refuse to involve myself in online discourse – people have been boycotting Spotify because of their association with podcaster Joe Rogan. Apparently Neil Young and Joni Mitchell led the charge over Rogan’s platforming of anti-vax, right-wing luminaries and had their music removed, sparking others to cancel their subscriptions. Rather than respond to this reader directly I’m posting my response here;

I believe everyone must make their own principled stand whenever they feel they must. If that includes boycotting or dropping Spotify as a service, Godspeed to you. BUT if the reason is for them giving Joe Rogan a platform then I believe you have to delete Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Discord and TikTok and every social media platform as well because they to give a platform and a voice to Rogan and his ilk. Deleting Spotify and none of these other “bad apples” is just performative.

I’ve never listened to Joe Rogan. I never will listen to him. In a world where the collected works of Sam Cooke, The Guess Who, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, The Jam, Johnny Cash (god, there’s an upcoming music/blog entry for you), and, yes, The Kinks are available to listen to at the click of a button, why people would waste their valuable ear-time listening to some opinionated meatball is one of those mysteries of human existence I will never ever understand.

Just Can’t Get Enough

2022 is looking like 2012 again, though you still need to wear a mask and get vaccinated if you haven’t already. I have, and I have to say this 5G reception is great!

So what’s up with the above image? What’s up with Mixtape?

Well thereby hangs a tale. But, I’ll let Maria Kennedy of Little Engine TV spill the beans, as she did on Little Engine’s Instagram page;

“Two weeks into 2022, and Little Engine is dreaming big, aging up and going back in time to the 1990s with MIXTAPE, our first teen drama TV series in pre-development with the Canadian Media Fund and CBC Gem! Mixtape is based on writer Brad Abraham and artist Jok’s acclaimed indie rock comic book series.

The year is 1990. Every life has a soundtrack. This is yours.”

So there you have it. Mixtape is being developed for TV, with yours truly co-creating (with Ben Mazzotta of Little Engine) and writing, with an eye to shooting a trailer/sizzle reel later this spring/early summer. That means it won’t be long before we get to put flesh-and-blood actors into the roles of Jim, Lorelei, Terry, Siobhan, Noel, Adrienne … and Jenny, Beth, Steve, Marco, Benny, Professor Bowie, Trash-Can Matt, Dan “Stillborn” Silborne and …

Oh, right. This isn’t the same story as the comic. It’s not going to be the comic.

It’s going to be a different beast and, I hope, a much better suited to TV one.

But don’t worry about the comic, or a Mixtape TV series invalidating that story. For you see, those stories and that comic are going to be part of the show in some surprising ways you probably won’t expect.

Stay tuned for more. Mixtape is going to be my main 2022 project so expect more frequent updates on it, including a hopeful ETA on when you can expect to see more issues of the series.