Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 5

It’s the fifth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from September to November 1990 with a special focus on the roles that corporate America and pop music played in the end of the Cold War. Then, the discussion turns to sports; specifically, the Olympics with a spotlight on the controversial 1972 men’s basketball final, The Miracle on Ice, and the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

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And here are a couple of extras for you …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 114: Unsolved Mysteries of the Unknown

It’s Halloween and that means it’s time for me to actually get seasonal … for once.  I’m here and talking about some oddities of entertainment from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  First up is Time-Life Books’ best-selling series Mysteries of the Unknown, whose commercials were some of the creepies of the time.  Then, I move into the area of true crime (among other subjects) by looking at a classic Robert Stack-era episode of Unsolved Mysteries.  Plus: listener feedback!

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After the break, here’s some extras for you, including four of the classic Mysteries of the Unknown commercial …

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Geek Out Online: The 2020 Baltimore Comic-Con

When the COVID quarantine began to drag on through the summer, I made what was a real bummer of a choice–to not attend this year’s Baltimore Comic-Con. I’d already canceled two trips for the year and was holding out hope that I could at least go somewhere other than Costco, but it wasn’t looking great. But my thinking proved fortuitous when the organizers of the convention announced they were going online and were offering up a full slate of programming along with virtual experiences that were much like what you’d expect on a convention floor.

Aside from catching some panels from shows like San Diego, New York, or DragonCon on YouTube or various podcasts, I’d never experienced a comic convention–or any convention for that matter–online, but as the lineup was posted in the time leading up to this weekend, I had to check it out and I couldn’t resist also blogging about it. It’s such a great comics-centered show, but would they be able to re-create the experience of being there through streaming feeds?

Spoilers: They did.

Now, much like the live convention, it was nearly impossible for anyone to attend every single minute of every single event; much like my experience with the live convention, I wound having to pick and choose what I wanted to attend. I guess the difference this time was that I didn’t run around trying to talk to different creators and get books signed, although signature packages were offered, and there was plenty to shop for at the Artist’s Alley Page. More on that later, as I’m going to start by looking at the specific programming that I watched.

Panels

I’ve done a few panels here and there over my years at going to the con, although they tend to be the first thing I skip in favor of getting those last signatures, roaming the floor, or going to lunch. This time, I viewed panels almost exclusively, hitting three of the creator panels, one full and one partial Kids Love Comics panel, and the retailers showcase preview on Thursday night. Two of them were on Friday night, which was a huge treat for me, especially since I never have the chance to go to Friday because I’m always headed up to my in-laws’ after work. Plus, the convenience of AirPods allowed me to put my iPod down and just listen to the panel while I did the dishes.

Okay, this review is getting boring. Let’s get to the panels.

Justice League: BWAH-HA-HA!!! with J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire

I admit that this was my whole reason for watching on Friday night. I came into comics when this era of the Justice League was starting its third act and while I have yet to read all of it (trust me, it’s on my list), what I have read over the years has been absolutely fantastic. Plus, I’ve had the chance to meet all three of these creators over the years and have them sign my copy of the Justice League: A New Beginning trade. Keith Giffen wasn’t on the panel when I was watching it (I had to hop off to eat dinner during the second half), but what DeMatteis and Maguire had to say could have filled two panels.

And you could tell they were old hat at this, having done a number of these panels before and therefore came off as old friends reminiscing (which it essentially was). Even though I’d read and listened to quite a bit about this era of the Justice League over the years, I learned a few things, namely that they were given the characters as a result of the Legends crossover and that DeMatteis was not one of the original writers, having been given the book to help Giffen when he was in the middle of the Justice League job he’d been hired for–killing off JL Detroit.

They also talked about how the creative freedom offered to them in the 1980s allowed them to create characterizations and relationships between characters in a way that developed organically as opposed to some of the forced dynamics that comics can sometimes have, and it made me wonder if that’s something that we’ll ever get nowadays considering how many superheroes are considered more like intellectual property owned by a parent company as opposed to characters in a story. But hey, maybe me as an old-man comics reader is too narrow minded to think that this sort of lightning in a bottle is unlikely to be caught again. Then again, these guys didn’t think it would be as legendary as it has become, especially Maguire, who commented, “It’s odd what sticks” during a conversation about his artwork, especially the oft-homaged and repeated cover to Justice League #1.

Brian Michael Bendis and Gerry Conway

Whereas three old friends were getting together with a moderator (and I should mention that John Siuntres from Word Balloon did an excellent job hosting the BWAH-HA-HA!!! panel), this was a conversation between two comics legends across generations. Bendis was essentially putting a spotlight on Gerry Conway, who wrote Justice League of America #200, an issue that Bendis admits to chasing for pretty much his entire career, especially in recent Legion of Super-Heroes issues (a series that is amazing, by the way, and you should add it to your pull list yesterday). But they not only spent a lot of time talking about the various characters that Conway has worked on over the years, they talked about the creative process as well as what happens to the characters after they leave the page.

The latter is where I came in and Conway was addressing the appropriation of The Punisher by the police and those carrying out acts of aggression in way that is contrary to the actual mission of the character. Bendis shed some light on the more positive side of that particular phenomenon by talking about the success that Miles Morales has had. But for all of his frustration about the use of the Punisher, Conway seemed grateful to have a stake in the character, and feels that he has a voice in the matter.

The conversation about the creative process is something I’d see echoed in other panels later on, and I found it fascinating to hear how one can get pigeonholed as a television writer (Conway has written a lot of mystery story-based television) and appreciated how they talked about doing the work to read, research, and get a character right.

Inside the Comics Studio: 1985 with Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson, Denys Cowan, and Bill Sienkiewicz

Now if the Bendis/Conway panel was two generations of comics men talking shop and the Justice League panel was three friends reminiscing, this panel was the equivalent of a corner table at a bar as the night wears on. And it was so much fun. The four of them, who were work mates at both Marvel and DC and in their own studio, spent an hour talking about where they were in 1985 and Dean Haspiel, did a pretty good job of keeping the conversation from going completely off the rails and even keeping it interesting despite some streaming lag and freezing on Sienkiewicz’ part. Like I said, this was like listening in on a conversation and I confess that I stopped taking notes early on just so that I could listen and laugh along.

Creator Spotlight: Terry Moore

My main draw (no pun intended) was Terry Moore, whose table I regularly visit when he’s at the Baltimore Comic-Con (I’m very close to getting all of my Strangers in Paradise trades signed) and I know that he’s got a new graphic novel coming out named Ever, which is a dark fantasy book (that I’ve already preordered, so I’m pumped). Plus, as he announced at the panel, he will be publishing Serial in 2021 starring Zoe, the fan-favorite 10-year-old serial killer from Rachel Rising.

Amy Dallen hosted and was outstanding, bringing the enthusaism of a fan of Moore’s work as well as the knowledge and professionalism of a good host, interjecting where she can but spending most of the time sitting back and listening to him talk about his career. And one thing I really appreciated was how he talked about where he gets some of the motivation for his writing and some of his themes; furthermore, he made this great point about how after the 9/11 attacks, he set out to make sure that all of his stories had some semblance of hope. That’s not something we often get in our stories these days, as our culture seems to equate intelligence with cynicism. There’s something incredibly genuine about him and it really came across in the interview.

Kids Love Comics: Jeff Kinney

My son–who is now 13 and has been reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books since he was in elementary school–and I came into this one at the end because I had been doing some lesson planning all morning and he’s turned into the type of teenager who rolls out of bed close to noon on a Saturday. Despite that, it was pretty cool to hear him talk about how amazed he is at the impact that his books have had, and I have to hand it to the convention organizers because this is the type of person I could imagine having a Todd McFarlane-sized line of kids at his table.

Kids Love Comics: Kazu Kibuishi

So if you remember the first time I had my son with me at the convention, we met Kibuishi because Brett is a huge fan of the Amulet graphic novels and I bought a couple of GNs that Kibuishi then signed. We also went to a panel where he talked about what was coming up for the books as well as his creative process. Now that it’s several years later, Brett is really interested in drawing and was excited to see him talk again.

What was also cool about the panel was that it was hosted by Jamar Nicholas, whom we met a couple of years ago when he was selling Leon: Protector of the Playground at a table in the Kids Love Comics area and we interviewed him for the show. And he’s just signed with Scholastic, which is huge, and that’s great, because you love to see that type of success for someone writing great books for kids (and who is especially nice to boot).

As for the interview, it was also very well run with each question projected onto the screen, and I could clearly see that both creators as well as the KLC coordinators knew their primary audience was because the conversation was geared toward the kids in attendance. At the same time, neither of them talked down to the audience, which I appreciated. Kibuishi talked about how he got interested in drawing, how he had support from his parents and gave some really good advice, saying that he likes to stay independent as an artist and not connect himself too much to the business side of things, even though that’s necessary. Oh, and they both joked about how they can’t–and so many others can’t seem to–draw horses.

Brett told me that he really liked the advice of not being super money hungry and that Kibuishi has things he likes to do in order to disconnect from work, take a break, and reflect–mainly mountain biking (my son likes to read and hike). Plus, he felt pretty inspired hearing that he didn’t have to have the most expensive equipment when he’s just starting out.

Retailers and Artist’s Alley

Spending a huge wad of cash at the convention is a big part of it for me, and while I was able to sate my desire for back issues by going to my LCS on Friday, I did miss the rush of flipping through bins and looking for a hidden gem. But the Artist’s Alley setup on the site that featured links to most of the exhibitors’ websites was great and I bookmarked four or five artists from whom I’ll be buying something once I get paid this week.

Also really useful was the Retailers Showcase, which was hosted by The Great Legend and Anthony Snyder and featured a number of the more high-profile retailers that exhibit at the convention. It was shown Thursday night and even though it was some retailers talking about what they sell, it was so comics-centered and so pure to the tone and purpose of the convention that it set everything up nicely. I mean, I can’t afford anything that the Heritage Auctions guy was showing us, but my jaw still dropped at the sight of a high-grade Golden Age comic. But I am looking forward to buying a comics portfolio from Fine Comics Collectibles–who would have thought of that for those of us who bring a ton of books to have signed at a convention?

Next year’s show is scheduled for the same time in October and it’s my hope that it will be live and in person because even before I saw the guest list, I was ready. Still, the convention organizers did a great job with the virtual con and I hope that this possibly means that they’ll expand the experience to include some online offerings or maybe some recorded or livestreamed panels next year. Yunno, for those of us who will be just so happy to be back on the floor flipping through those bins.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 113: Taped Off the Radio

This time around, I’m back to looking at my history with music by going deep into the early 1990s and my early teens, recollecting those nights I spent in my room listening to the radio and rushing to hit record so that I wouldn’t have to wait for the station to play that Brian May song.  I talk about the stations I grew up listening to, the tapes I made, my unfortunate music choices, and how I learned about what was popular (and what wasn’t) before I finally got my own CD player.

You can listen here:

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So here’s some extras for you …

So the picture above isn’t of my exact radio, but it is the radio I owned and used to tape all of those songs. It’s the Sony CFS-230 cassette-corder boombox. I got this for either my birthday or Christmas sometime in the late 1980s and it was eventually replaced with a cassette/CD player that I received for my fifteenth birthday.

And here is the Spotify playlist that includes the songs I featured in the episode. Enjoy!

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 4

It’s the fourth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from June to August 1990 with a special focus on the Singing Revolution in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Then, Luke Jaconetti joins me once again to talk about the science fiction classics The Day the Earth Stood Still and Godzilla.

You can listen here:

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And here are a couple of extras for you …

The song that opens and closes the show, Sheb Wooley’s “Flying Purple People Eater”:

The theme to The Day the Earth Stood Still:

The theme to Godzilla:

ABC News’ story on the Baltic Way or Baltic Chain from August 1989:

A video for an Estonian patriotic song whose title translates to “No Land is Alone.” While this is more recent than the 1980s, this was one of the “Five Patriotic Songs” that I mentioned in my look at the Singing Revolution:

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 112: To Boldly Go

Episode 112 Website CoverSpace.  The final frontier.  This episode is a conversation between me and special guest star Gene Hendricks.  Our mission?  To talk about the original crew Star Trek films and explore our own origins as fans of the classic science fiction franchise.  But it’s not just movie talk.  We have also read all six of the film novelizations and discuss how much they add to the experience.  It’s a classic fan conversation with two guys who are boldly going where many have gone before!

And a quick note on the audio quality of the episode.  At one point, early on in recording, my USB microphone died and I had to switch to my in-computer mic.  I have done my best to remedy the poor quality through rerecording a few pieces of what I had, and using various noise cancellation and volume balancing tricks.  So my apologies for the bad quality of sound on my end.  I just didn’t want to let such a great conversation go unheard.

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 111: Time Traveling Teens from 1988

Episode 111 Website CoverGet on your bike and grab your sack of morning editions! This time around, we’re back to looking at comics as Stella and I take a look at the Eisner-winning series “Paper Girls” by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang. We give a summary of the book–with and without spoilers–and then talk about why we both think it’s required reading (even if that’s usually on our other podcast).

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One of Life’s Great Kicks

Cookies and creme twixCookies & Creme Twix are back.  Well, they’ve been back for a few months now, but I recently had a chance to try them, which is something I was never able to do when they were available in the early 1990s.  This shouldn’t be cause for celebration–after all, the last thing I need is more candy–but being able to just buy some when I see it at 7-Eleven is one of those aspects of adulthood that never gets old.

It’s not like I was completely deprived of dessert or candy when I was a kid–we had it from time to time but my parents didn’t keep it around the house–but while I sometimes did go down to the local drugstore to buy atomic fire balls, I usually chose to spend what little allowance I got on comic books and baseball cards.  So I guess that’s why when I kept seeing commercials for Cookies and Creme Twix I was intrigued but didn’t make much of an effort to pursue them, which is ironic considering that it’s one of my favorite ice cream flavors.  Or perhaps I actually did look for them on the candy racks but never found them and eventually gave up and forgot about them even if I never did forget about the commercials.

The candy made its debut in 1990 along with Chocolate Fudge Twix (at the time, peanut butter and caramel were the available flavors) and along with them came an ad campaign with the slogan “one of life’s great kicks.”

Now, there were a few commercials that were part of this overall ad campaign and while they different here and there, they share the same tone and have the same message:  Twix knows what you, New Teen of the Nineties, are about.  And I’m going to look at three of them because they so very well encapsulate that very early part of the Nineties where culture seemed to be half about looking for something new while also suffering from a major Eighties hangover.

So this is a very short commercial, but it gets its point across in its 16 seconds:  Twix understands that it sucks to get friendzoned and it’s the cure for those relationship woes.  Here, we see Rick, who is on the phone with his girlfriend.  And Rick’s obviously a fun-lovin’ guy.  He’s got that “I woke up like this” sufer/skater hair, the type that took considerably less effort than the Aqua Net-laden hair of your average Long Island mall rat but looked a lot cleaner than that of the Nirvana and Pearl Jam disciples that would populate his high school a couple of years later.

Rick 1

I’d say the shirt is probably a Quicksilver shirt because they were all over the place around this time, although the ones I owned weren’t striped but had random patterns.  And speaking of random patterns, can we talk about the sheets here?  These were pretty much the type of sheets that teenage boys were issued back in the Nineties–neutral, earth tone colors with some sort of innocuous geometric pattern that was chosen off a shelf at Linens n’ Things because it was the only non-pastel or flowered comforter and sheet set available.

tom-with-comics

I’m serious about this.  Here’s a picture of me when I was sixteen, showing off my comics collection (I don’t know why I took it, either, but it is one of only a few pictures of me as a teenager that survived).  Behind me is a striped bed spread that I’m pretty sure I got when I was in junior high but really looks like I might have been sleeping in it when I was eight or nine.  So the issue was not really finding bed linens that conformed to gender norms; it was more like it was hard to find bed linens that were mature because everything that was “mature” at Linens n’ Things was some floral Laura Ashley print.

20200710_092444I mean, at least Rick had earth tones in 1991.  I wouldn’t get earth tones until college, which you can see here in this shot of my dorm room circa September or October 1995.  And I’m being completely honest when I say that this was the only comforter and sheet set that I could find at the store.  I also can’t let this picture get posted without pointing out how it is, in itself, the epitome of the college experience in 1995.  From the Sega Genesis on my roommate’s dresser to the ROLM phone under my Reservoir Dogs poster, there is so much I could talk about that it’s pretty much its own post*.  But right now, I have to get back to Rick.

So, Rick’s friendzoned and breaks the fourth wall with a WTF that I swear I not only had but that I will admit to practicing.

Rick 2

Yes, I said it.  Then again, I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, and Saved By the Bell all the time in the early 1990s and every guy was giving us an aside.  How could I not raise an eyebrow or give a strange look to a camera that wasn’t there?  No, I’m not insane.

ANYWAY, two Bill and Ted type guys voice over the words “Bad News”, clearly showing the public that marketers either saw the Bill and Ted movies or had spun the “wheel of teenage cliches” and landed on … well, let’s just say this is very Poochie.

Bad News

And let’s discuss this font and color scheme for a moment.  We’ve clearly moved beyond the bright blues and pinks with scripted writing that we tend to associate with the Eighties (or at least that’s what shown to us in Eighties retro stuff) and have settled for a darker color palate, which is on trend for the Nineties.  After all, you can look at just about any music video from around this time and will see that while they still maintained some sort of gloss, the tones were darker and deeper.  So we’ve got a black background with kind of an orange-yellow “Bad News” that is written in a serif font with alternating uppercase and lowercase letters in a shaky setting.  It’s very “cool”, right?  Or at least what someone in marketing thinks the kids think is cool.

Which, by the way, is the inherent problem with most advertising directed at teenagers and twentysomethings in the early 1990s.  Those of us who went to high school during 1990-1996 or so** were the very tail end of Generation X (a term that really only came to prominence at that time as it is) and whereas ads aimed at twentysomethings failed so spectacularly, people wrote all the think pieces, those aimed at high schoolers were a shit show, albeit a different kind of shit show where people slapped Nineties onto Eighties coolness complete with kids plucked from the same “cool kid” template that spawned Zack Morris.

Take this one, for example:

Now, this screams Eighties hangover, right down to the use of Yello’s “Oh Yeah”***.  I didn’t screencap any images from this one because the resolution was pretty poor, but there are three dominant images: a girl partying at a huge house, a guy in sunglasses floating on an inner tube in a pool, and a guy with slinky-eyed glasses at a graduation ceremony.  They all contrast with voice overs that are straight from the “Things Parents Say” block on the $100,000 Pyramid.  And now, don’t get me wrong, I like some good teenage rebellion, but this really smacked of Poochie.  Did whomever wrote this ad just rent a bunch of ’80s flicks from the video store to get the images they needed to tell teenagers “Hey, Twix knows life has to be fun.”

I guess I also need to bring up the Twix narrator’s voice, which is a guy with a generic “island” accent.  It’s cringe-y in the same way Disney has the Castaway Key guy say “Cookies and Cookies Too”.  However, I remember Bob Marley/Jamaica/the Bahamas being this thing in the early Nineties, especially after Cool Runnings came out and white people started thinking that saying “Jamaica, mon” wasn’t offensive at all.  Between that; saying “Thank you, come again” in an Apu accent; and the Asian, Black, and Latinx “accents” us white people used back then (and in many cases still do), we’ve got a lot to think about and answer for.

Anyway, getting back to the accent, I believe the thought process here was that this was cool at the time.  Plus, it was just foreshadowing that we were all going to one day own one of the millions of copies of the Legend Bob Marley greatest hits CD that were issued to college freshmen in the Nineties.  All of this–and other Twix commercials–were there to show us how fun and cool we could be with chocolate-coated cookie crunch goodness.

To be fair, these worked.  If you were a kid in 1990 or 1991, these were your beer commercials.  Not that we didn’t see beer commercials, but I wasn’t walking into Grand Union in search of a sixer of Bud Dry when I was 13.  But I could totally see Twix being good for what ails me, especially since after Rick’s bad news, we got a good five or six seconds of Twix porn.

Candy Shot

I bought the candy and ate it, by the way, mainly because I didn’t get the chance to do so thirty years ago.  And it was … well, disappointing.  I was expecting a creamier cream with just enough sweetness, which is what you get when you bite into a Hershey’s cookies and creme bar (and I freaking love those).  Instead, this was way too sugary and did not at all complement the cookie, which in itself was too dry.  I think the mistake was layering the two ingredients instead of mixing them together.  That’s cookies and creme; this is creme with cookie topping.

Twix Logo

Not that I wouldn’t eat it again, though, because despite my disappointment, it still tasted like nostalgic promise.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, there is the hope that the candy in the blue package in 2020 is going to not only be the candy in the gold and brown package in 1990 (and btw, I want chocolate fudge Twix because that’s my favorite color scheme of the four packages and while it probably would also taste too sweet, I can imagine it would be good), but will take me into the cool kid candy commercial life I dreamed about when I was younger.

 

 

*Oh, it’ll get its own post.

**It’s probably 1998, but that would mean my sister winds up being a Gen X-er, but we clearly sit on opposite sides of the Nirvana-Britney Spears generational divide, so … no.

***I owned this on cassette at one point, purchasing their album Stella at a Best Buy in Baltimore in 1998.  Years later, this Best Buy would be featured on the first season of the podcast Serial.  For the record, I don’t know if there was a payphone.

 

Raiders!, Teen Movie Dreams and The Legend of Kung Fool

Raiders posterI can’t get the image of Eric Zala begging his boss for another day off out of my head.  It happens about two-thirds of the way through 2015’s Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which chronicles his efforts to reunite his childhood friends–Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb–so they can recreate the aistrip scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones fights a Nazi brute and wins when said brute is chopped up by a plane’s propeller.  It’s the only scene that he and his friends never filmed when they were teenagers and put together a shot-for-shot adaptation of the movie.  At this point in the film, Eric is woefully behind schedule due to constant rain storms, and we hear his boss, Alex, berating him for wanting just one more day off and he sits in his trailer looking like a kid who is being chastized.

For a split second, my thoughts line up with the frustration that’s boiling over to anger coming from Alex–this guy is middle-aged, has a wife and kids, and his responsibilities to them should take priority over this project.  Yeah, it’s cool that he got enough Kickstarter funding to put all of this together, but shouldn’t he just grow up already?  But then Alex gives Eric the day off, and Eric’s wife comforts him by telling him that what is important is that he is doing something that makes him happy.  It’s the moment in the film that puts me not only back on board with him but makes me actively root for him to finish because I’m thinking of myself, my friends, and my own abandoned cinematic efforts.

I was bitten by the “filmmaking bug” at an early age, evidenced by how I put down “movie director” as the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question on my first grade class survey.  I’d been watching Star Wars on a loop for at least the past year, and while I played on the playground as Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be George Lucas.  And while my interests when it came to play would travel through various iconic 1980s toy lines, the creative streak never left–I wrote short stories, thought of ideas for movies, and my friend Tom and I even conceived a Miami Vice-esque comic book series called Drugbust that got as far as a plot outline, a few cover sketches and a finished splash page.  It was enough to keep my young imagination active and sated, at least until Christmas of 1987 when my dad bought the family a video camera.

panasonic omnimovie ad

A print ad for the Panisconic Omnimovie camcorder circa late 1987/early 1988.

Retailing for somewhere close to $1000 (based on crack research–I found an ad for a similar model that had a price of $898), the Panasonic Omimovie camcorder was not a small purchase by any means.  It signaled that you had the money to blow on such an expensive toy, and was a literally hefty purchase, as this was a shoulder-mounted camcorder that took full-sized VHS tapes.  I’d learned how to use one the previous summer as part of an enrichment class called “video volunteers” and I’d like to think that’s maybe why my dad let my friends and I use it almost right away–although he did tell us that it “had a drop ratio of zero” as a way to remind us to be careful.  To this day, I have no idea if he was using any of that terminology correctly, but the message did get across.

At first, we made music videos, the best of which was a two-hour concert video by our fake band, The Terminators. Tom, my sister, and I would use G.I. Joe airplanes (specifically, the Sky Striker and the Cobra Night Raven) as guitars and a croquet mallet as a microphone with a stand while lip syncing to Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and other hits of the mid-Eighties, getting the song onto the tape by placing the camera on the washing machine and putting my boom box next to it.  That tape featured a lot of Tom playing guitar and looking cool in a denim jacket and spiked hair, me melodramatically singing while wearing military camo pants and a Naval Academy sweatshirt, my sister looking happy that she wasn’t chased out of the room, and several shots of someone running toward the camera to turn it off so that we could cue up the next song.  We made a few more and then gave up fun with the video camera because the novelty wore off, until the eighth grade, which is when I attempted something more ambitious:  a feature film called Kung Fool & Company.

I can’t recall where the title or the character name came from, although I’m pretty sure it is because we watched Big Trouble in Little China so many times, but between that and the number of hyper-violent action flicks we were renting on a regular basis, I had enough to write a full-length screenplay about our hero going on a full-fledged revenge spree after his best friend is killed by the mafia.  It had roles for a number of my friends, and when I finished it, I roped them into helping me out, even though none of us had any idea of how we were going to shoot a gritty action flick in our quiet suburb.  I guess we thought we’d figure that out later.

We shot an opening credits sequence and two scenes.  The opening credits were handwritten on paper and filmed by placing them on a small easel, then zooming in to try and avoid getting my hand in the shot while I removed each page (and even then, you probably could have seen my fingers) while music I’d taped off of the Ninja Gaiden II video game played behind me on the same boom box used for our basement concert.  That, by the way, put the budget at the $1.99 it cost for me to rent the video game, a cost that would not get any higher.

The two scenes were the first two scenes of the screenplay, because it wouldn’t be until a few years later that I learned that movies were shot out of sequence, and even if I did know that I didn’t have access to editing equipment.  In scene one, my friend Rich played a mob boss who killed the best friend character, who was played by my friend John.  We shot the scene at the desk in my bedroom during the day and created atmosphere by turning all of the lights off and letting the sunlight shine through the red curtains, something I think was Rich’s idea and that we were all proud of because it seemed really cinematic when we were watching it back.  The second scene was not as cool–it was me as the future Kung Fool standing at my friend’s grave, which was really a cutting board placed in my parents’ backyard flower bed, and vowing vengeance.  I remember that the music we were playing drowned me out so much you couldn’t hear my lines.

I think we were supposed to shoot a training scene that would have taken place in a foreign country like Japan or China, but how we figured that we would duplicate that at a place where we could go to on our bikes is lost on me because we never shot the scene and abandoned the project in favor of whatever was going on in the world of professional wrestling at the time.  We would eventually get our first taste of shows like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color and shoot comedy sketches and return to actual attempts at music videos, and in between ninth and tenth grades, my friend Chris and I did complete a short film about cops busting drug dealers when I visited him in Florida for a week, this time with songs off of the Classic Queen compilation album providing the soundtrack.

At the heart of Raiders! is a story between three childhood friends, and shooting the airstrip scene is as much a reunion and patching up of a broken friendship as it is about getting the shot.  Eric, Chris, Jayson have a lot of baggage between them, with Jayson feeling like he was pushed out of the project before it was finished, and the friendship between Eric and Chris deteriorating by the end of high school and beyond.  As we see how they were able to not only finish the film but rent out a movie theater to show it (with local news coverage to boot), we see the tension between them grow and Eric’s social ineptitude along with Chris’s inner demons more or less destroy it.

I personally didn’t have any epic fallout with the friends involved in any of our movies–some of us stayed friends all the way through the end of high school while others just drifted to other groups.  I’m sure I was a dick to a few of them or them to me at one point or another, but it was obviously not enough for me to recall how.  It was just the drift that comes with getting older.  Plus, as we went through high school, my interest in films shifted to Eighties movies and I pretty much spent the back half of my teen years setting George Lucas aside for Cameron Crowe, with Say Anything … as my Raiders.  And I got my chance at that in the form of a humanities class project during the spring of my senior year.

I’d taken creative writing during the fall semester and that’s where I wrote a story about having the chance to kiss a girl but never actually taking it.  While structured as fiction, it was based on a moment where, after hanging out with my next door neighbor Elizabeth (on whom I had a massive crush–and no, that’s not her real name), we were saying goodnight and there was one of those moments with a tension-filled pause.  You know, the ones that have some sort of music swell or pop song in the background of the movie because the audience is being told to wait for a great kiss.  Sadly, this was reality, no music was playing, and I simply said goodnight and walked home.

Now, reality says and would later confirm that I actually had no shot–she’d friendzoned me pretty much from the moment we met–and while I still pined, I managed to muster up what maturity I had to not pursue her, because it was cool to have a friend.  But the moment became a great idea for a story and that got turned into a short film that I was not only able to shoot, but shoot out of sequence and edit using our high school’s video editing booth.

The premise of the story is that we see a couple on a date and it’s being narrated via the guy’s inner monologue, a monologue that starts off with the voice of a coach and then devolves into frustrated and angry yelling at our main character.  In the film, I played both guy and narrator, with the date scenes being shot at a nearby park and the narration in my basement using the same washing machine-as-tripod setup that I employed for lip syncing several years prior.  Originally, the girl in the story was going to be played by my then-girlfriend, but she didn’t want to be on camera (in retrospect, I don’t blame her) and my sister was supposed to be the cinematographer.  They switched places and when I showed the completed film in class, this made one of the girls in my class incredibly uncomfortable–even though, you know, no on-screen kiss happened.

That was the last time I used the camera to shoot, unless you count my senior prom, when my friends and I managed to commandeer it and take it with us to the dance after my parents were done shooting the pre-prom stuff.  I’d go on to make a college choice that was regrettable in some ways, as while I do think I learned how to be a better writer, I often found myself overreaching in my efforts to seem “literary” in class while the stuff I really wanted to write was relegated to my student newspaper column or short story and novel drafts that got tucked away on my hard drive and taken out only when I didn’t have schoolwork.  I don’t have the tapes anymore, either–they were taped over or thrown away years ago (well, except for the prom video).

So I watched Raiders!  and found myself surprised that I wasn’t filled with any sort of midlife crisis anger or regret about not standing my ground and pursuing the creative endeavors that anyone around me would have called distractions.  If anything, I rooted for Eric and his friends, sharing in the hopeful glee that they managed to still have the sense of wonder that so many of us often lose to cynicism.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 110: Smile

Episode 110 Website CoverWith 1.5 million copies in print, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile is one of the most successful graphic novels of all time. So, in this episode, I take a look at it and not only give it a good review, but also talk about how a graphic novel that’s meant for middle school girls could possibly relate to me, a 43-year-old guy.

Plus … listener feedback!

You can listen here:

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Some bonus stuff after the cut …

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