Author: Tom Panarese

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!

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Some bonus stuff after the cut …

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Getting Rid of Cream of Wheat

Cream of Wheat

A box of Cream of Wheat in June 2020 as displayed on Target’s website.

Last year, I went to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. and found myself really affected by an exhibit on advertising.  The point of the exhibit was to show how Native Americans have been used to sell products by simply surrounding you with those products.  Floor to ceiling and wall to wall in this exhibit were packages of everything from chewing tobacco to baking powder oil with a huge television screen playing a loop of Native Americans in scenes from movies, television shows, and commercials.  It was a lot to take in, but that was the brilliance of the presentation because going in, I didn’t realize how common Native American imagery is in our popular culture and advertising.

I bring this up in light of an announcement yesterday that Quaker Oats and PepsiCo will be doing way with both the mascot for and brand name of Aunt Jemima.  This brand has been an everyday representation of a racist stereotype since its inception in 1889, and while there was online backlash from racists, I also saw a number of people reacting the same way I did, which was “Good, it’s about time.”  Granted, I stopped buying Aunt Jemima products years ago  because I make my pancakes from scratch and prefer actual maple syrup.  It wasn’t hard for me to say “good riddance” because I didn’t have a relationship with the brand.

That’s not the story when it comes to Cream of Wheat, though.

Most people reading this are probably familiar with Cream of Wheat cereal, and if you’re not, it’s a porridge-type farina cereal that’s prepared similar to oatmeal.  You boil some water, put the dry cereal in the pot, stir it until it thickens, and add whatever you’d like.  My wife jokingly calls it “bland white crap” and yes, it pretty much is the cereal equivalent of a loaf of Wonder Bread.  It is also been something I have been eating since I was a toddler, is the first thing I ever learned to cook on a stove by myself, and is something I ate the other morning the same way I have been eating it for nearly 43 years.  I have a very personal attachment to this particular brand, and that’s a problem because it has a very racist mascot.

Above the logo on the front of the box is a Black chef holding a bowl of Cream of Wheat.  It seems innocuous–after all, a chef is simply presenting you with food–until you understand exactly who the character is.  Debuting on the brand’s original packaging in 1893, his name is Rastus, which was a derogatory term for African Americans at the time and would go on to be a name of a character used in minstrel shows.  In older Cream of Wheat advertisements, he is depicted as illiterate and knowing nothing about vitamins, just that Cream of Wheat was tasty and affordable.  It’s very much the male version of the “Mammy” stereotype that we have seen on Aunt Jemima bottles for years and yesterday, B&G, the company that owns the brand, announced that it is “initiating an immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging.”

Now, if you read that last paragraph and were surprised by that information or just now realized there was a Black chef on the front of the Cream of Wheat box, I would say you are not alone and that is one of the biggest problems here.  In fact, I’d been ignoring the image since I was a little kid, and as I have been thinking about it, I have come to realize the damage that even the most harmless-seeming imagery can do.

There are people with way more academic credentials who have studied and written about the psychology of advertising, and I imagine they can elucidate this idea better than I can in a 1000-word blog post, but as I watched racists come with their “SJW PC Cancel Culture” whining, I saw how images like Aunt Jemima and Rastus are just as dangerous as statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  They are symbols that normalize cultures of oppression and second-class citizenry for African Americans by subconsciously reinforcing the idea of white superiority.

White people would react to that statement by saying, “I’m not racist and don’t believe I am superior” and I believe they consciously think that, but that’s how normalization works when it comes to cultural and systemic racism.  Normalization is a frame that allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences*.  Since an image like Aunt Jemima has been tweaked over the years to be not as overtly racist, we can ignore its racist aspects and accept it as something that is just part of everyday life.  As a result, the racism is an ingrained quality, and it’s why we are seeing more and more calls to be anti-racist and think more deliberately about the oppression BIPOC face in our society and then take action to change or dismantle those systems of oppression.  When it comes to Cream of Wheat, this means refusing to buy more of the cereal until the mascot is done away with, and writing them to let them know (and while I was at it, telling them to re-brand Brer Rabbit Molasses).

Right about here is where a quote or a platitude would often be placed, but I think that would undermine the last several paragraphs.  What I would like to see is for this reckoning with our culture’s symbols to continue.  More White people need to educate ourselves about our history of racist branding and then and put pressure on those companies still using those images to change them.

*Borsheim-Black, Carlin and Sophia Tatiana Sargiganides, Letting Go of Literary Whiteness. Teachers College Press. 2019.

Because Deep Down, We All Want Football Glory and a Slow Clap

mv5byjc3mjq5zjqtowe4nc00mjdhlwfhnjctowjmndg5nzayodzixkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynti4mjkwnja40._v1_So I’m watching Lucas last night …

I guess I have to justify why I’m watching a Corey Haim movie from 1986?  It had been in my Netflix DVD queue and therefore part of my “uncollecting” list.  Oh, and I guess I should also say that I’m going to talk about the ending of the film here, so here’s a spoiler alert for a Corey Haim movie from 1986.

So I’m watching Lucas last night and I get to the end, which I had completely misremembered from when it first came out.  I was pretty sure that the title character (played by Corey Haim) went out for the football team, got put in the game, and was killed as a result.  I am also now pretty sure that I never actually watched the entire movie when it was released on video or aired on TV back in the late 1980s and was simply relying on a friend giving me the wrong information,  but I kind of wonder if that would have been an improvement on what I actually watched.

You know, that sounds so much crueler when I read it than it did in my head. No, I don’t want a pipsqueaky kid to get crushed to death by a bunch of twentysomethings who are playing high schoolers.  But the ending did bother the hell out of me because of the way it adds another item to the pile of conformity glorification and popularity validation that is rampant in Eighties teen movies.

The plot of Lucas is this:  Lucas is a scrawny fourteen-year-old boy who is at least one year ahead academically because he’s incredibly smart.  He’s also a nerdy kid who loves insects (a running thread is his fascination with the 17-year cicadas) and because of that is mercilessly teased by the jocks at school.  To an epic degree.  There’s only one, Cappie (Charlie Sheen)*, who is not only not a complete asshole to him but actually seems to genuinely like him.  At the beginning of the film, Lucas meets Maggie (Kerri Green) and they become very close friends, but things get complicated when it’s obvious that he’s fallen in love with her and she doesn’t think of him that way.  Moreover, she and Cappie fall for one another**.  To show Maggie how tough he is, Lucas goes out for the football team and despite being told he can’t play by both the coach and the school principal, forces his way onto the field for a few plays.

It’s these few plays and their aftermath that make up the climax of the film.  After being knocked around by defensive linemen for a few downs, Lucas finds himself downfield and completely wide open.  When the pass comes his way, he traps it, bobbles it, drops it, and when the other team recovers it and goes downfield, he attempts a tackle and winds up at the bottom of a pile-on.  This knocks him completely unconscious and puts him in the hospital.***

The scene then shifts to the hospital where you see the majority of the football players and cheerleaders in the waiting room, but as the night goes on, just his friends are around.  He finally wakes up when Maggie goes to see him, they reconcile, and when he returns to school, the jocks who beat him up have placed a varsity jacket in his locker and we get the slow clap to end all slow claps.

I mean, I don’t think there is a better slow clap in cinematic history.  You have the one guy starting everything, everyone joining in, it getting faster, Lucas realizing that this is all for him and then a glorious freeze frame before the synth score of the end credits kicks in.  It’s gloriously Eighties feel-good and even the Ronald Miller Redemption in Can’t Buy Me Love doesn’t top it.

The blond guy in the scene is named Bruno (of course his name is Bruno) and he’s played by Tom Hodges (whom I recognized as Rich, Jason Bateman’s friend on The Hogan Family, who is the subject of a very special episode about AIDS).  Bruno’s been the main antagonist the entire movie (along with Jeremy Piven, who plays a similar bully sidekick in One Crazy Summer).  And the fact that Bruno’s behind the varsity jacket in the locker? Well, it Means! SO! MUCH!

For years, two of the biggest mistakes in the John Hughes movie cycle**** were Allison’s being prettied up at the end of The Breakfast Club and Andie’s choosing Blaine over Duckie in Pretty in Pink.*****  Both of these films seem to be about understanding the differences between us all and being proud of your own individuality.  However, those particular scenes also send a message that what girls really want is for the popular boy to like them and give them the fairytale ending.  Lucas is the “boy” equivalent because the nerdy boy fairytale ending is glory on the field, or in the case of The Breakfast Club, Emilio Estevez’s Andrew walking through the hallway with Anthony Michael Hall’s Brian and then mentoring him on the wrestling team******.  Lucas may not get the girl,m but he certainly gets the glory.

Now, I realize that it’s unfair to measure a 34-year-old film by the more progressive cultural standards and views I hold today.  I’ve complained about people doing this too much in cultural and literary criticism, because often works do need to be judged in their own context as well as the context of the current culture.  But I taught for nine years years at a high school where one’s athletic prowess was the most valuable character trait and success on the field made him an untouchable deity in the eyes of the adults.  Those same adults, by the way, would have fit in very well in the setting of this film, because they held so many of the views and values put forth by this film.  And if I look at it within its own context, Lucas upholds the cultural values of the Reagan Eighties, which were very much a loving nostalgia for the Eisenhower Fifties but with a lot more T&A on our screens.

Compounding my frustration here is that Lucas is a character who is ascloseasthis to being precocious and unlikable and it’s only Corey Haim’s performance that makes us care about him.  He presents this kid as someone who is still very innocent and immature and has been stomped on because of it.  I wanted him to triumph in the end, but not like this.  Instead, I was hoping that he would realize that: a) Maggie was genuinely his friend; b) Cappie thought of him like a little brother; c) he had a crew of friends; and d) one of those friends, Rina (played by Winona Ryder in her film debut), liked him the same way he liked Maggie.  Yes, we get a) and b), but imagine how much better this would have been if after the football game, Bruno would have simply apologized for being an asshole, and Lucas could have walked off into the hallway with his friends, feeling way more confident about who he was instead of basking in symbolic gestures.

Yeah, I know that wouldn’t have happened in an Eighties movie, or at least one that was as mainstream as Lucas.  We sort of get it in the 1995 movie Angus, but it’s not until the Freaks and Geeks episode “Carded and Discarded” that we see it happen in the Eighties.  The plot of that episode is similar to Lucas up to a point:  a pretty new transfer student named Maureen arrives at school, befriends the geeks, but as the episode goes on she begins spending more time with the popular crowd.  The difference here is that whereas Lucas decides to try to be a sports hero, the guys realize the inevitability of Maureen’s popularity and decide to let her go.  And yes, it’s not their decision to make, but it’s a wonderfully bittersweet moment of growth for those guys that I wish we would have gotten more of in the Eighties instead of movies proving to us that the jocks are essentially always right.

*I hear “Cappie” and I think of Louis Gossett Jr.’s character in Iron Eagle.

**Nowhere to put this bit of commentary/plot detail, but Cappie is dating Alise, who is played by Courtney Thorne-Smith.  Maggie is never presented as nerdy, but Green’s being a redhead makes me wonder if the writer watched Sixteen Candles where Jake dumps Carolyn for Samantha and said, “Yeah, like that.”

***The IMDb trivia page for Lucas points out that this play is completely illegal and never should have happened.  Prior to the Hail Mary pass, the quarterback passes Lucas the ball and Lucas pitches it back.  That’s legal, but the subsequent pass downfield is not, plus Lucas was not checked in as an eligible receiver.  Furthermore, when Lucas drops the ball, he never had control of it and therefore, it’s an incomplete pass and not a fumble.  All this could have been solved by having the team run a flea flicker and letting the kid bobble the pass, control it, make a football move, and then fumble.  Plus, he took his helmet off, which would have also blown the play dead. I mean, I never played football and even I know this.

****And I’m specifically referring to the time before we all turned around and realized the terrible message the Claire/Bender hookup sends and what an absolute dumpster fire Sixteen Candles is.

*****Compounding this is that ending was a reshoot.  She originally ended up with Duckie and test audiences hated it.

******Yeah, the fact that Emilio Estevez is Charlie Sheen’s brother and they’re playing similar characters isn’t lost on me either.

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 3

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 3 WebsiteIt’s the third 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 March to May 1990 with a special focus on the revolution in Poland. Then, I dive into educational/propaganda films of the 1950s and early 1960s by looking at “Duck and Cover” and “Red Nightmare.”

You can listen here:

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After the cut, here are some extras from this episode …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 109: JLMay 2020 — The Return of Donna Troy

Episode 109 Website CoverIn 2004, DC Comics released ‘Countdown to Infinite Crisis,” and set in motion a six-month buildup to what would be the most monumental crossover in recent DC history, Infinite Crisis.  This May, that ‘countdown” and buildup to Infinite Crisis is the topic for the annual JLMay crossover.  It is “The Event Before The Event.”

In this episode, I step in to take on the only miniseries from that time that you’d expect, which is The Return of Donna Troy. But in order for you to actually understand how and why Donna Troy is returning (and where she went in the first place, you need to know the answer to the age-old question … “Who is Donna Troy?”

And trust me, the answer is complicated.

Join me as I look at Donna’s origin and history through its most important phases–the swingin’ ’60s original Teen Titans, the Wolfman-Perez classics “Who is Donna Troy?” and “Who is Wonder Girl?”, and even the Nineties where she was the victim of crossover shenanigans and John Byrne.  And that’s just a warm-up for my coverage of the four-issue miniseries that’s written by Phil Jimenez, penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez (praised be his name) and inked by George Perez.

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This episode is just one part of a huge podcast crossover for JLMay 2020.  Be sure to check out the following shows over the course of May to continue the epic coverage of the event before the event.

Also, if you are listening to these shows and digging this podcast crossover, be sure to use #JLMay2020 if you’re sharing these episodes on social media.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 108: Crazy Unreal — Fox Reality Shows

Episode 108 Website CoverWhat happens when you take two people who have repeatedly watched what happens when you take a group of hot singles and put them in a mid-level resort in Cabo San Lucas? You get a conversation about reality shows on the Fox Network! Amanda joins me to talk about everything from the early days of Totally Hidden Video, COPS, and America’s Most Wanted, to the high point of trashy Fox reality of Temptation Island and Paradise Hotel. Along the way, there’s American Idols and Gordon Ramsey calling someone an idiot sandwich.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

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And as a bonus, here’s a YouTube playlist of random Fox reality stuff:

Paste Goes Yard

Bases Loaded Opening ScreenSo right now, we’re in a massive societal lockdown, which means that all of us are sitting at home and trying to find things to do. It also means that our usual spring distractions and entertainment have been canceled or altered. There’s no NCAA Championship, and no professional sports. Now, I’m bummed that I wasn’t able to fill out a March Madness bracket and watch tournament games during the day, but I didn’t realize how much I would be missing baseball.

I’ve written about my long-standing and oft-frustrating Mets fandom over the years, and that hasn’t changed. I remain loyal to the team even though there have been large chunks of time in the last two decades were I have checked out and stopped paying attention. And I can say with some confidence that there are enough highlight compilations on YouTube to keep me entertained and remind me of what I’m missing, but the thing that has reminded me of the joy of baseball the most has been Bases Loaded.

Released by Jaleco in 1988, Bases Loaded is a Nintendo game that was one of a few games that stepped up that year to take advantage of the dearth of quality NES sports games. Yes, the system had an entire sports category when it premiered a few years earlier, and those games were playable, but the overall quality left something to be desired. Golf and Ice Hockey were probably the better of the selection with the football game 10 Yard Fight at the bottom and Baseball somewhere between. I mean, we played the hell out of that game, but it was a glitchy mess–outs would not be recorded and players would walk off the field at random, so we called it “Gitchball”–but it was the only thing going.

But then I got the first issue of Nintendo Power and that proved to be a–no pun intended–game changer. Really, the whole magazine was, and I’m not alone in saying that it was a landmark moment in the 1980s. For baseball, it was important because that issue featured a preview of three new games: RBI Baseball, Major League Baseball, and Bases Loaded.

BL Poster

The baseball games poster from the very first issue of Nintendo Power.  Notice the Bat Signal in the corner.  This is my copy and it’s seen better days.

This article–which had an accompanying poster (it’s on the back of the overworld map for the second quest of The Legend of Zelda)–was easily the most important thing I read in 1988 because not only did it advertise three different baseball games, it analyzed and compared them. My friend Tom and I spent the entire summer watching the Mets cruise through the NL East and collecting a ton of Topps baseball cards, so finding out that there was not just one new baseball game but three out there was mind blowing and we knew that choosing which one to ask for was going to be incredibly important.

I can’t say much about either RBI Baseball or Major League Baseball except that I played the latter a few times and remember it being a better version of Glitchball and the lineups used actual player names. But Bases Loaded looked completely different, closer to the game Hardball that we had seen on the Commodore 64 (and if you’ve seen The Princess Bride, you have seen it as well), which meant slightly more realistic-looking players. When Tom got the cartridge, we saw that each team had been programmed with strengths and weaknesses, and instead of having to write down our team record if we were trying to play a season (something we’d done the previous year with Glitchball), there was a password after every game. Even at the start, this was awesome, and when we got to the actual game, we were completely blown away, so much so that we immediately sat down and chose teams to play for an entire season.

Now, if you actually know the game, you know that’s quite a task. Bases Loaded has a 132-game “pennant race” one-player function (and a one-off “vs mode” two-player function), although you can clinch the pennant early by winning 80 games. But the trials of life ha not taken over for us as fifth graders and neither had most of the trappings of adolescence, so in 1988 we were ready to go the distance. Tom chose Jersey, the team closest to use geographically; I chose D.C. because their uniform’s colors were blue and gray and therefore as close to the Mets as I would get. The D.C. team had solid pitching and one superstar hitter by the name of Fendy, whose stats on the game were a .356 average with 50 home runs. But Jersey was something else because they had Paste.

Paste Homer

Paste hit a walk-off three-run shot at the end of a recent game.  Here he is high-fiving teammates on the Jaleco Diamond Vision.

With an unreal .467 average and 60 home runs, Paste was the power-hitting first baseman whose shadow loomed like Babe Ruth any time you had to face Jersey in a game. The team’s pitching was marginal at best, but that didn’t matter because you could always count on Paste being able to smash the ball. Many a time, I watched Tom get a runner or two on the bases and then settle in for some sort of monster at bat from his team’s star player, a pixelated baseball god whose home runs were the type that you knew were out of the park the moment you heard the clink of the 8-bit bat. I mean, I could get Fendy to hit a homer or two, but nothing compared to a Paste home run.

That’s not to say that he carried the team. Jersey had a deep order, including Bay, who batted cleanup after Paste and sported 30 of his own home runs, and a bench that had more than just your average schmos. It wound up being a boon to Tom, as he won every game we played in the season, although I don’t think we got past the twenty game mark before our interest faded. I do remember one time he had found some passwords–where he got them from, I don’t know–for both Jersey and D.C. that put us at game 36 or 37 and while Jersey remained undefeated, D.C. had a losing record. I was pretty pissed off about that and vowed to continue playing on my own, eking out a few wins and a couple of losses before finally giving up and throwing in the Ice Hockey cartridge so my fat guy could score 30 goals against Sweden.

The reviews of Bases Loaded that I found online are not particularly kind to it. They mention the superiority of Hardball, how slow the game play is, and how the fielding is quite terrible. All of those are valid points, but I don’t think that matters to a generation who gets instantly nostalgic when they see the word “Jaleco” on the spine of a Nintendo cartridge. For many of us, Bases Loaded was the first time we felt that we were playing a real baseball video game.

20200325_155556

Even though the game’s title wasn’t on the cartridge, when you saw the word “Jaleco” told you knew exactly what it was.

Glitchball was a good afternoon distraction; Bases Loaded was a commitment. To win at that game, you had to manage your team and those of us who didn’t have the luxury of a Commodore 64 were excited and impress by the different stances and body types of the hitters (plus the different skin tones) and the throwing styles of the pitchers (I never really got the hang of those Dan Quisenberry-type underhand-style throwers). Plus, your pitchers got tired as the game went on, you could pinch hit, and the game would cut to the Diamond Vision when a home run was hit, showing the pitcher holding his head while the batter pumped his fist behind him. And there was also a bullpen car and when you hit a batter with a pitch, he might charge the mound and we’d see a fight play out on the scoreboard. I am sure that better games came along after or were available for other systems, but to us it was the crown jewel of NES baseball games.

It still has the magic, too. I sat down last week and began a season, this time as Jersey because Tom’s not here and I have my own cartridge, so I can pick whatever team I choose. I swept three games from Boston, the third of which climaxed with a three-run walk-off homer by Paste. Sure, Boston put up a bunch of hits on my pitchers and even 32 years later, I can’t field anything cleanly. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve got endless time at home and a TV in the basement that I can use for 40 minutes a day until I see what’s at the end of the season, and know that Paste’s moon shots are going to be one thing getting me there.

Going to Sunday School on TV

king_of_kings_jesus_3830

Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in “King of Kings”, giving us all blue steel.

This past Saturday ABC aired the Cecil B. DeMille classic The Ten Commandments. They’ve been running this movie for hte better part of half a century, and it is as much of a tradition as when CBS used to show The Wizard of Oz every October, or NBC’s annual spring airing of The Sound of Music. The latter two have fallen by the wayside over the years, with police procedurals and reruns of America’s Got Talent drawing more viewers. I didn’t watch it and haven’t in a while, mainly because four-hour Biblical epics are not always my thing.

At one point, though, they were.

Now, I didn’t grow up in some sort of extremely evangelical household, but I was subjected to a fair amount of religious programming in my childhood. This ranged from kids’ shows to movies like the aforementioned DeMille classic. Sure, I watched Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which were decidedly secular in nature, but the counter-programming to that was stuff like Davey and Goliath, the stop-motion animated show where this kid and his talking dog would get into some sort of trouble or moral quandary and often would learn a lesson, whether it was from their parents or some other authority figure. I know I watched a fair amount of that show when I was very little, probably either before or after church on Sundays because nothing else was on television except for other religious programming and I wasn’t the target demo for the Hour of Power.

Meanwhile, my parents owned a VCR and began acquiring movies pretty early in the 1980s, one of the few times in my entire life where they were on the forefront of new technology. I usually used the VCR to watch my copy of Star Wars, but also on occasion, I would watch one of three two-tape movies: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and King of Kings. When it came to The Ten Commandments, I can tell you that I only ever remembered the film’s opening and closing–large swaths of the middle of the film are blocked from my memory. Ben-Hur was a film I may have watched through once but can only remember him knocking a roof tile into a passing parade on tape one and the chariot race on tape two. Of course, who doesn’t remember the chariot race?

King of Kings, though, was my Biblical epic of choice. Released in 1961, it stars Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and is known for the good looks of its star (in fact, the phrase “I was a teenage Jesus” showed up in at least one review) and the fact that it was the first time Jesus had a discernible face in a movie and wasn’t “written around.” At seven or eight, when I was watching it, I didn’t know much about the film’s background and it would be a couple of years before I discovered that Jeffrey Hunter played Captain Pike in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage”, I just wanted to see the guy play Jesus in a two-tape movie. More than once, too, to the point where i had particular parts of the movies as memorized as Star Wars.

The tapes themselves were kind of a curiosity to me because they were legitimately purchased tapes–unlike the Star Wars films I owned, which were dubbed from laser disc, these had MGM’s labels on them. But for some reason, they were not in the official cardboard box or whatever other packaging you expected from a VHS tape. No, it was in a brown plastic case that you would get at the video store, so that meant my dad or mom willingly bought this film from a store’s inventory. I can imagine that they got it at a discount because this was back when buying a movie on VHS could run you upwards of $79.95.

The tapes themselves had this idiosyncrasy of musical inserts at the beginning and end of each tape. I don’t know if they were part of the original theatrical release, although the film was done as a “roadshow” when it came out in 1961, a type of release where the studio would put it on tour and that presentation often included overtures and intermissions. I remember that these segments were stills of some sort of Biblical image with orchestral music over them, although the title card that said “Overture” was block lettering similar to what you would see on a baseball game in the early 1980s, so my guess is that it was reformatted for television.

The tapes were as well, but not in the best way. Whereas later in the 1980s and into the 1990s, movies like this would be given a widescreen treatment, the King of Kings VHS of the early 1980s was classic pan and scan with some parts of it having that Gumby Vision effect where shots were stretched vertically to get as much on the screen as possible. I remember this being especially noticeable in the scene where Jesus meets John the Baptist because there are a couple of very tight close-ups and you can see how stretched out things are. Otherwise, the film looked like just about every other Biblical epic of the era. I’m not sure if they simply used the Roman Centurion costumes that MGM had stashed in a storage closet from every other sword-and-sandals epic filmed in the California desert, but it I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Anyway, the film pads out what is not exactly an action-packed story. Instead pho simply starting with Jesus’ birth or the Immaculate Conception, we open with Pompey’s sack of Jerusalem and that allows for both a subplot centering around Herod’s reign in Judea and another one of Barabbas leading a band of rebels against the Roman occupiers. This was what I found most interesting, probably because it was significantly more violent than the Sermon on the Mount. I also remember that John the Baptist gets more characterization and we practically get a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome halfway through the film. Even Pontius Pilate is more than just the Roman bureaucrat that oversees Jesus’ execution.

The film probably didn’t need its enormous running time, especially when it didn’t seem to do more with Jesus’ actual story than my Sunday School primer. And honestly, I wonder if it’s depictions like that which people get so used to that make movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ so controversial. But 1961 was still an era of big historical event epics, so you went big with Jesus or you didn’t go at all.

I currently have a significant aversion to religion, which began when I was a teenager and became much more pronounced as I watched it poison large swaths of our politics and society. But I still have fond memories of being seven or eight when I used to watch King of Kings all the way through.  I’m not sure if it’s because the memories are of my rather comfortable childhood or because because along with the science fiction flicks I was re-watching, it helped me develop a love of stories.  But I think I’m good on remembering how much I liked them then instead of setting aside a weekend to watch Charlton Heston part something or Jeffrey Hunter smolder.

I was O.G. TNBC

TNBC LOgoI’ve said before that Saved By the Bell is one of the most influential shows in the history of television, as Millennials and Gen Z were able to spend much of their formative years watching sitcoms that were targeted directly at them instead of having to settle for simply graduating from the world of Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoons like Generation X had. This was obviously helped along by Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel, as the former increased its tween programming int he early ’90s with Clarissa Explains it All and similar shows while the latter became part of basic cable packages between 1991 and 1996.

That is, if you had cable.

But unlike all the times networks were chasing cable trends two seasons too late, NBC wound up being right on or slightly ahead of the curve for the 1992-1993 television season. This was the year that they completely replaced their Saturday morning cartoons with live action programming, giving birth to TNBC.

If you look at the Saturday morning lineup from the previous season, you see shows like Space Cats, Captain N and the New Super Mario World, and Wish Kid, and while I know a few people who watched Captain N, I can’t imagine that this lineup was doing much against the other networks, which were airing cartoons starring more well-known characters such as Bugs Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, Garfield, Darkwing Duck, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Plus, Saved By the Bell was popular at the time and so NBC saw the opportunity to double down on that success, not only giving us an extra half hour of the show (which led to the Tori episodes) and padded out the day with the TNBC lineup.

I started my sophomore year of high school in the fall of 1992 and by the time I shrugged off any Saturday morning programming whatsoever sometime during the 1993-94 television season (in favor of sleeping until 11:00 every Saturday), I was a junior and definitely a year or so older than the target demographic. NBC was clearly going for the kids who were in middle and the early part of high school, because the sitcom fantasy world of Zack Morris and company was not exactly anything cool when you were neck deep in your own high school drama. Still, I was “grandfathered in” to the original TNBC lineup because I had already been watching Saved By the Bell.

If you’ve followed me over the years, you have heard me talk about my relationship with Saved By the Bell more than once. I’m not so much a super fan of it as I am one of the many people who got sucked into the show during its run because it was just on television and there was nothing better to watch on a weekday afternoon between The Disney Afternoon and Full House, or on a Saturday morning when I’d gotten home from my job at a stationary store. That meant that I would be on the ground floor for the new lineup, especially since the Bayside gang was set to graduate that first season; I would keep going for some of the following season because I had a crush on one of the actresses on California Dreams.

The original two years of TNBC would be a mix of sitcoms, game shows, and early teen reality programming. While Saved By the Bell would shift to its “The New Class” series in the fall of 1993 (and I can tell you that that first “New Class” season is the Coy and Vance of SBTB) in hopes of keeping the original audience coming back and California Dreams would go on to be another mainstay of the lineup, the network would take a “throw it against the all and see if it will stick” and that meant that some of the shows that premiered in 1992, like Name Your Adventure and Double Up, would only be around for a little while.

Name Your Adventure LogoName Your Adventure was a reality show wherein a teenager would get the opportunity to do something they’d always dreamed of doing, a formula that would get reused in the early 2000s with the MTV series Made. Hosted by Mario Lopez, Jordan Brady, and Tatyana Ali, the show was a slightly slicker version of classic PBS shows like 3-2-1 Contact because it was less about the spectacle of nerd rehabilitation (which was 99% of Made) and more like someone being given an internship. I found one story on YouTube that featured teenager Jon Steinberg who was interested in becoming a sports broadcaster, so he was paired up with Bob Miller who at the time was the play-by-play guy for the Los Angeles Kings. The segment was definitely more educational than flashy, as Miller fed Steinberg a lot of information as well as gave him real-time feedback as he tried his hand at calling part of an Angels/Yankees game.

Name Your Adventure b-ball game

Broadcaster Bob Miller gives Jon Steinberg some tips on how to call a basketball game on an episode of Name Your Adventure.

I would have found this interesting in 1992 and found it interesting even now because of how Miller pointed out all of the intricacies of describing a game’s action while it happened. Of course, this doesn’t have the appeal of a teenager crying on camera because they just can’t seem to get anything to work correctly, so I understand why this show would have not had staying power. And it didn’t have a ton of staying power for Steinberg because this isn’t the career he chose–he is the former head of Buzzfeed. But the show did last for a few seasons (and I suspect it’s because it helped fulfill an educational mandate for NBC), so there’s a decent amount of footage available on YouTube.

YouTube, by the way, wound up being my avenue of choice to see if I could find any footage from this early TNBC era and ran into one of the common problems with tracking down the early 1990s on the Internet, which is that if it was never rereleased on a digital platform, it’s very hard to find. Steinberg happened to upload his segments from Name Your Adventure to YouTube (so I guess he had fond memories of the experience), but unless you have someone who still has a pile of VHS tapes and the means to rip them to a streaming format, then you’re pretty out of luck. And who would have taped and then uploaded an episode of Double Up was probably hoarding VHS tapes.

Double Up was an attempt at a teen dating show, one that was obviously trying to capitalize on the popularity of Studs, which in itself was a slightly raunchier version of Love Connection. Hosted by J.D. Roth (the host of the afternoon Double Dare rip-off Fun House), the premise is that brothers and sisters set one another up on dates and we see how things went. Complete with a M.C. Skat Cat-type rap theme and in in-studio deejay, this is very much a show that was developed by an adult who was working off a “1991 Teen” checklist and it’s no wonder it only lasted seven episodes.*

 

Brains and Brawn Auto Tracking

Mark-Paul Gosselaar hosted Brains and Brawn around the same time he was shooting SBTB:TCY.  I captured this image because of the way the “auto tracking” from someone’s VCR was preserved for all of YouTube to see.

Brains and Brawn, on the other hand, was a slightly better attempt at a game show and this lasted a little longer. Having obviously struck out with “Studs for Teens”, NBC decided to go with a more “Take the Physical Challenge” route and created a show that combined trivia, sporting events, and teen celebrities. Hosted by Mark-Paul Gosselaar with assists from Tatyana Ali and Danielle Harris, it was shot on the Universal Studios backlot in front of the clock tower from Back to the Future and had a live audience, probably comprised of tourists. Honestly, though, if I were a teenager visiting Hollywood in 1992, I would have totally gone to a taping of this.

 

Wait, I did go to Hollywood in 1992 and visited Universal Studios. Why didn’t I get a chance to see this tape? Shit.

Brains and Brawn Hockey

Jay Anthony Franke of “California Dreams” fame competes in the hockey physical challenge part of “Brains and Brawn.”

Anyway, on Brains and Brawn, teenagers were put in teams and worked with a celebrity “captain”–usually someone from another teen television show–and they would answer trivia questions before competing in a sporting event like shooting baskets or trying to get their slap shot past a goalie. The final challenge was an obstacle course, and while I was watching an eight-minute clip that featured the cast of California Dreams, I have to say that it really comes off as if your gym teacher had tried to do Double Dare in middle or high school. I probably would have found it fun and there are moments where the celebrities do look like they’re having fun, but there’s also this air of contractual obligation, hoping the check clears, and hoping that the kids watching this show would watch whatever the celebrities were promoting.

 

I can’t imagine that the budget on this was particularly huge–the winning team received a Bushnell telescope instead of a vacation or cash***, and for all we know, the money that NBC had earmarked for its teen shows mostly went to its sitcoms–Saved By the Bell, California Dreams, and the one-season wonder Running the Halls.

 

Running the Halls

Three characters from “Running the Halls” react to a guy wearing a gorilla suit.  From l-r: Trevor Lissauer, Senta Moses-Mikan, and Richard Hillman Jr.

Running the Halls was an attempt at a single-camera sitcom, which was something you would have seen if you were watching Fox at the time, which had the short-lived Tobey Maguire show Great Scott! and the underrated classic Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. However, unlike those two shows, NBC decided to throw a laugh track over the action and did very little except repeat the Saved By the Bell formula. Our main character here was a Zack Morris clone named Andy McBain (played by Richard Hillman Jr.) who is trying to be the big man on campus at a private school, getting into the same sort of trouble Zack would get into on both the original and College Years seasons of Saved By the Bell. There are even romantic interests and a Screech-like character. I watched a clip where Andy choked at a basketball game and saw characters that looked like they were dressed from the pages of the most recent issue of Seventeen. I can see why this was forgotten, although I remember enjoying it at the time. Maybe that’s because there wasn’t anything else on that filled the void left by Degrassi and the other two sitcoms were just way too technicolor for me, or maybe I thought that the girls on the show were hot at the time****. At any rate, when Senta Moses showed up on My So-Called Life the following year as Delia Fisher, I immediately recognized her from Running the Halls.

 

While California Dreams would go off the air in 1997 and Saved By the Bell: The New Class would last all the way until 2000, the other shows would all be off the air by the time I headed to college in 1995. TNBC itself would last until the early 2000s and feature shows like City Guys and Hang Time, but would then get replaced by the Discovery Kids on NBC programming block. NBC’s current Saturday morning lineup currently consists of the weekend edition of the Today Show and then travel and information shows that seem more like cheaply purchased time-fillers than anything else. In fact, they could probably run infomercials here but I think the networks have to run some sort of educational programming at some point in the week and this is probably their way to shove all of that in.

My age prevents me from saying what the Saturday morning viewing habits of the average American teenager was like after I left my time with these shows behind. For all I know, those last few years of TNBC were less of a network on the pulse of its audience and more of an attempt to hold on to the audience that once watched cartoons but were now pulled away by Disney, Nick, and MTV. And though I did watch a number of these shows, even I knew that they were time fillers. Then again, that’s what most Saturday morning television was to my generation–something to keep us occupied before your parents finally stepped in and made you go outside.

* I’m not doing this show’s bizzareness justice and I think that I’ll write a longer entry about it next week.
** Danielle Harris, who has been in a number of horror movies throughout her career, was at that point playing the teenage neighbor of the Connors on Roseanne. I had a major crush on her.
*** Although if I’m being honest, a Bushnell telescope isn’t exactly cheap. After all, Ronald Miller paid a grand to go out with Cindy Mancini and that money was originally going to go toward the purchase of a telescope.
**** Probably.