Author: Tom Panarese

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 89

IC 89 Website Cover11 episodes and a wake-up are left!

This time around, I take a break from comic book coverage to look at another book and film about the Vietnam War, Born on the Fourth of July.  I start by looking at Ron Kovic’s autobiography about his time in Vietnam as well as his recovery from the injuries that paralyzed him and journey toward being an antiwar activist.  Then, I take a quick look at the first movie that was inspired by Kovic’s story, 1978’s Coming Home, which stars Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, and Bruce Dern.  Finally, I look at Oliver Stone’s 1989 adaptation of Born on the Fourth of July, which stars Tom Cruise.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 89 direct link

Here are some extras for you …

The trailer for Coming Home:

The trailer for Born on the Fourth of July:

John Williams’ theme to Born on the Fourth of July:

The Bruce Springsteen song, “Shut Out the Light”:

Born on the Fourth of July Poster

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I Spent My Adolescence Wandering the Teen Movie Desert

Heather Duke

Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke in the film that killed ’80s teen movies.  She’d later play the iconic Brenda Walsh on the ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills 90210.

I’m in the middle of prepping for my next episode, which is going to be about the 1995 film Clueless. It’s a movie that is culturally significant because it was one of a number of movies that started a teen movie boom in the mid- to late-1990s and early 200s after a period that didn’t see many successful films in the genre, at least on the level that we saw in the previous decade with the Brat Pack films. If we take what Jonathan Bernstein says in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies and say that 1989 is a benchmark for the end of the movie genre’s initial success because, as he puts it, Heathers killed it “stone dead” and that 1995 was the beginning of what was looking like a revival, we have a period where teen movies of many genres–comedy, drama, and horror–saw very little success.

 

This period also happens to coincide with most of my adolescence. I began junior high in the fall of 1989 and graduated high school in June of 1995, which meant that I was the target audience for what wound up being a dearth of flicks. Now, I can tell you that I spent a lot of time going to the comic store and my adolescence also coincides with the boom and subsequent bust of that particular collector’s market, but not everyone I knew was into superheroes and comics on the level that I was, so this long intro and cultural context does beg the question: what were we doing if we weren’t going to the movies in the early 1990s? I’m going to try and plumb the depths of my fuzzy memories of this period to give you … some sort of explanation, and it starts with the very place we were supposedly avoiding.

Because we were going to the movies; we just weren’t seeing those movies. I remember seeing most of those classic teen flicks like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink when I was in junior high and high school because they were rerun on television quite a bit and if what I saw seemed interesting enough, I’d hit up Video Empire so I could see the whole thing instead of the 45 minutes or so I caught on WPIX (or in the case of movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the whole, uncensored thing). But trips to the theater were, at least for me, reserved for Batman movies, Terminator sequels, Van Damme and Seagal action flicks, and blockbusters like Jurassic Park. The closest that I think I ever got to seeing a movie aimed directly at me and people my age in the theater were the two Wayne’s World movies and even then, those were SNL-based.

Pump up the Volume

Starring Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume was one of the few movies of the early Nineties with an impact.

Not that we didn’t have stuff like Pump Up the Volume (an episode that I swear is coming at some point) and Reality Bites (which I covered back in 1994), but when looking at what came out during that time period, most of the movies had characters who were slightly older or younger than me. Pump Up the Volume and two Brendan Fraser movies–Encino Man and School Ties–were probably exceptions to this rule, as they did take place in a high school. But when I watched Singles or Reality Bites, I was watching movies aimed at the heart of Generation X, which was the core audience for most of the original wave of teen movies and whom by then had more or less grown tired or grown out of the genre. These two movies, while they did moderately well, did underperform and are more on the edge of the “cult classic” than bona fide cultural touchstones. And there was always a “looking at the older kids” aspect to them. Concurrently, there were a number of movies that were made for the early Millennial set–Now and Then, The Mighty Ducks, Man in the Moon, My Girl–and were a nice set-up for movies like Clueless, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Even the few that did match right up appropriate with my age, such as PCU (again, I covered this in 1994) and Dazed & Confused (another episode I will eventually do) were box office bombs that got new life on video and cable.

 

Besides, we were watching ourselves more on television. While the WB, which began in 1994, would unlock the secret to the teen audience in the latter part of the decade with Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, credit where credit is due needs to go to Fox and MTV for what they did in the early 1990s. MTV had already been around for a decade by the time I was finishing junior high and was the default station for teenagers; Fox was just starting out and had realized that they could use what was then a more “edgy” tone to some of its programming to attract audiences that the big three networks were more or less ignoring. So, you have stuff like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, 21 Jump Street, and Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox and MTV’s seminal reality show, The Real World. And while ABC would throw its hat in the ring with My So-Called Life in 1994, Fox and MTV had more of an impact–in fact, MSCL got a second life in reruns on MTV way into the later part of the decade.

 

Real World Cast

The cast of season 3 (San Francisco) of The Real World, which premiered in 1994.

90210 and The Real World really are the shows to consider because to people my age they were aspirational in a sense–90210 was full of the glamorous life and The Real World showed teenagers how cool it was going to be when you finally left home. Yes, there was drama on The Real World and in those first few seasons, people were dealing with serious issues and problems, but we all wanted to live in that house at one point or another (at least until we hit our twenties and realized that the real world was a lot more boring). There also wasn’t much beyond that as far as programming was concerned. Outside of what I’ve listed, we were kind of stuck between Full House and Seinfeld and usually chose the latter, even if we didn’t get all of the jokes. That is, until Beavis and Butthead came along.

 

Now, I realize that I’m simplifying for the sake of argument here and probably could do an entire series of posts or a book on this teen entertainment desert (which isn’t that half bad of an idea, tbh), so there were other shows and movies out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Beavis and Butthead was a seminal show. Like I said, there was an “older kid” aspiration to a lot of the leftovers from the Eighties or what was on screen in the early Nineties. Watching the Hughes flicks or any other movies from that era sometimes felt like you were rifling through the room of your older brother or sister who had gone away to college and left everything unguarded, or that you were Judy in American Graffiti or Mitch Kramer in Dazed & Confused hanging out with the older kids. But watching an episode of Beavis and Butthead was like looking around your own high school. No, I didn’t do nearly any of the crazy crap those two did, but I know plenty of people who were just as idiotic; furthermore, there was a lot of sitting around and watching random crap on TV at my house and my friends’ houses while making snarky comments at what was on television. Plus, they were often watching music videos and while MTV would taper off playing videos throughout the decade, this was around the time–at least in my life–that music seemed important.

Based on the content of my last episode, it’s not revelatory to say that music is important to teenagers–it has been since my parents’ generation–but after the latter part of the Eighties and its vapid pop-rock and hair metal, the pendulum swung back to music that took itself more seriously. Oh, there was plenty of vapid crap in the early 1990s (nobody is comparing “Baby Got Back” to The Beatles), but the messages (if there were any) in “Girls Girls Girls” and “Nothin’ But a Good Time” see seemed pretty empty considering how deep we were into a recession. The gloom of alternative and the anger of punk fit what many of us were going through or at least thought we were going through (in a Holden Caulfield sort of way) as opposed to songs about strippers and blow on the Sunset Strip. Plus, this was a time when you couldn’t access a song unless it was released as a single, so you had to make the conscious choice to buy an entire album on cassette or CD and that meant being smart about where exactly you put your disposable income and that also meant that the purchase held more weight and you sought out things that really did mean something.

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Mortal Kombat fatalities such as this one caused quite a bit of hand-wringing.

That is, if you weren’t bathing in the blood of Mortal Kombat opponents. If there’s one thing I have learned from being a late-period Gen-Xer (especially one with a tween of my own), it’s that video games are huge and can be all-consuming. The older part of my generation did play video games and they certainly had gaming systems in the house, but those of us who were tweens and teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s were really the first to take it to a level beyond novelty or something we would outgrow. Video games and systems were just as expensive in the early Nineties as they are now, and that meant an investment of money and time, and they began to reflect those costs. Games were become more complex and more adult–by 1994, they even had ratings on the packages to reflect that not all of them were for little kids–so fewer people were abandoning them as the novelty wore off or they got older. While I didn’t own my own system after playing on my NES, I spent countless hours at friends’ houses playing Street Fighter, F-Zero, Mortal Kombat, Madden, NHL, and a number of other games.

 

And in a few paragraphs, I just listed everything we were doing in lieu of watching the latest iteration of The Breakfast Club. And at the heart of it is that when I was a teenager, my friends and I were doing what we wanted and really didn’t care. We kind of shrugged at what was offered to us, which caused hand-wringing among a number of companies because teenagers and twentysomethings weren’t taking everything offered to them. The “Generation X” label tended to be a negative reaction to those groups’ unwillingness to part with all of their money after a decade of teenagers buying all of the shiny things corporations had to offer. It’s almost as if people forgot how adolescents tended to act.

As I look at my students and what they are into, I don’t know if things with teen movies have cycled back to the desert of the early Nineties or if things have diversified so much–after all, there are multiple platforms now on which to view or listen to things. I believe it’s somewhere in between, although my hitting middle age definitely doesn’t help.

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 88

IC 88 Website Cover12 episodes and a wake-up are left!

My coverage of Don Lomax’s run on The ‘Nam continues with issue #78, a story about combat in Quang Tri through the eyes of Ed Marks.  Plus, we get the next chapter in the “Stateside” backup as Rob Little and Sarge try to track down Top, who may have been involved in the death of Rob’s brother Eugene.  Then, I look at an article about the comic in Marvel Age #122 followed by a Punisher/Ice team-up in Punisher War Journal #52.  It’s all this and the historical context for the fall and winter of 1972.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 88 direct link

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 94: The Day the Music Died

Episode 94 Website CoverSixty years ago today, rock and roll lost three of its earliest stars when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper died in a plane crash.  In this episode, I take a look back at that event by focusing on how I learned about it as a kid in the 1980s and teenager in the 1990s. I begin by talking about my history with each of the artists and that era of music and then spend time going through the event via the 1999 episode of VH-1’s Behind the Music.  Finally, I look at the song that gave “The Day the Music Died” its name: Don McLean’s “American Pie”.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Also, here is a playlist I created that consists of the entire Behind the Music episode:

In Country: Marvel Comics’ “The ‘Nam” — Episode 87

ic 87 website coverEd Marks finds himself on an aircraft carrrier and we hear the story of a fellow soldier’s bombing run, plus we go “Stateside” to see Rob Little reunite with Sarge.  It’s all in issue #77 of The ‘Nam, which is written by Don Lomax with art by Wayne Vansant, Mike Harris, and Frank Percy.

Plus, I take a look at the events of the war in the summer of 1972.

You can download the episode via iTunes or listen directly at the Two True Freaks website

In Country iTunes feed

In Country Episode 87 direct link

Everybody Wants Something

EWS21

Caitlin dumps Joey for Claude (pronounced “Clowde”).  Don’t worry, they’ll get back together … eventually. Image courtesy of Degrassi fandom Wiki.

First of all, hold up. Has it really been three and a half years since I did a review of a Degrassi High episode? Well, so much for keeping a commitment. Or maybe I’m keeping it because I am here and I am finally picking this up again.

 

At any rate, when I first realized this a few months ago, I did a rewatch of Degrassi High and decided to pick my ten favorite episodes that I watched when PBS first ran the show back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I intend for this to lead up to a podcast episode covering the show’s TV-movie finale, School’s Out! And before I get to the episode I’m going to cover in this entry, I should say that most of the Degrassi High episodes I am covering will be from the first of the show’s two seasons–at some point, WNET moved its Degrassi airings to Sunday morning and since my mom was dragging my ass to church, I caught bits and pieces of episodes from the show’s final season.

Here, I’m starting a strong one, and with one that is one of the most memorable for me based on the number of times I saw it on television back in the day and how honestly I connected with those characters. “Everybody Wants Something” is the fifth episode of season 1 and has three landmark moments: the Zits’ first (and only) music video, Erica and Liz in an epic fight, and Caitlin dumping Joey for Claude.

As detailed in the last episode I wrote about, “A New Start,” Degrassi High started with Erica finding out she was pregnant and then choosing to terminate the pregnancy, despite her and her sister’s religious beliefs. And unlike a teen-centered show like Saved By the Bell, this serious matter was not left completely unresolved (yes, SBTB had its ongoing plots, but they were usually the romances between characters and the only time anything serious got mentioned again, it was during a clip show). The after effects of Erica’s abortion were C-plot sutff for a couple of episodes, as someone was writing nasty things about her on bathroom mirrors and leaving things on her locker.

Toward the end of this episode, Erica finds a picture of a fetus with “Abortion Kills Children” on it and after getting upset, turns around to see Liz (best friend of Spike, who is famous as having been pregnant on Degrassi Junior High) was the person who planted it. We knew from an earlier conversation between Liz and Spike that Liz is decidedly antiabortion because her father tried to beat her mother into getting one while she was pregnant. Liz doesn’t tel Erica this, but instead calls her a murderer and Erica goes right at her.

It’s a fight that is pretty quick and ends with the two of them on the floor pulling at one another’s hair, and while it was obviously staged, I saw enough girl fights in the halls of my junior high and high school to know that it looks like these two were actually fighting. The way Erica goes after her, a crowd gathers, and they dig in and won’t let go of one another, even on the ground, suggests that someone had been paying attention to an actual high school.

And while it is not the end of Erica’s abortion arc or even the main event of the episode, it fits nicely with everything else, which is what this show always did well. There were something on the order of 10-20 characters on Degrassi High, so having this happen while something totally unrelated was going on and having those not directly affect one another is exactly what happens in a high school.

The main story is actually a two-in-one that centers around Joey Jeremiah, who I guess we could say is one of the core characters of the series (especially considering how things play out toward the series’ end). Joey’s taking yet another shot at fame with his band, The Zits (formerly The Zit Remedy) and has badgered Lucy into finally letting her shoot his video, even if he blows most of the guys’ money on getting two girls to wear bikinis (and then has that fall through). All the while, his girlfriend, Caitlin, has started hooking up with Claude (pronounced “Clowde”) and right before the video shoot, she dumps Joey.

Pat Mastroianni won awards for playing Joey Jeremiah and you can see why in episodes like this where he has to switch between having been dumped and being a goofball on camera, putting on an act for his friends. The final still of him looking consternated, while not dramatic, encapsulates the performance and was actually the kickoff to a PBS pledge break that I sat through when I saw the episode one time on a random weekend afternoon. The emcee said that if we wanted to see more of Joey, we should give money, and also showed some behind the scenes stuff about the show. I don’t know if this is an honor or not, but perhaps somewhere Mr. Mastroianni is proud that he was used to advertise public television.

My connection to this episode has little to do with Joey and Caitlin’s relationship or Erica’s abortion; instead, it’s the video the band shoots that resonates with me. When this episode aired, YouTube didn’t exist and while people did have video cameras, the ability to edit a video and give it a soundtrack required equipment or time in a studio that was cost prohibitive. oh, I’m sure you could do that with two VCRs, but even then, things were crude. My friends and I used to make stupid, silly videos–skits, lip-syncing, and other things that will never see the light of day–and in our minds, what we were putting together was more epic than the low-rent camcorder footage shot in my basement.  In other words, my friends and I could have been The Zits.  I definitely think that we could have milked that one song, too.

Next Up: “Just Friends”

Jesus Jones Wept

[This post addresses current-day politics and expresses some of my political views.  If you care not to read that, please skip this.]

I saw the decade end

when it seemed the world could change

in the blink of an eye.

mv5bmdg3nzg2otatogu2zs00zwe0lthhodytnja3mjbinwvkm2nkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymjuyndk2odc-_v1_sy1000_sx1000_al_Those are the first lines of the second verse of “Right Here, Right Now”, a song by Jesus Jones that hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (and topped the alternative chart) in late July 1991.  Written about a year earlier, it is an optimistic song that celebrates what lead singer Mike Edwards describes as “watching the world wake up from history.”  Even though the song is approaching its thirtieth anniversary, it still gets some airplay, especially on alternative radio stations that cater to the aging teenagers of the Nineties.

The song’s melody has aged well, especially compared to the pop that accompanied it at the time–an era in which pre-“grunge” alternative was seeing some mainstream success (EMF’s “Unbelievable” was also in the top ten) and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released “Summertime,” but that was dominated by Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush,” Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”, and the constant chart presence of Color Me Badd and Amy Grant–but its lyrics are very much of its time.  The line about the world waking up from history is a reference to the end of the Cold War, which had begun in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and would continue until the Soviet Union finally disbanded in December 1991.  And while I’m sure that anyone who actually takes music seriously would look at it and scoff at the sentiment, I thought then and still think that it encapsulates the feeling of the time (with apologies, of course, to “Winds of Change” by The Scorpions).

Granted, when I was seeing the world change in the blink of an eye, I was in junior high school and to me, it did seem that everything was happening at once.  When you’re a ‘tween (I guess that’s the official term now–it really didn’t exist in the early 1990s), you don’t have a deep understanding of how the news that you catch glimpses of between your favorite shows is the result of years of policy decisions and other tactics taken by leaders, some of whom long ago left the world stage.  Sure, maybe I’d get the Weekly Reader condensed version in class every once in a while, but for the most part, my context for the Cold War was mostly the action movies I was renting from the video store. The Soviet Union (or “Russia”, which is what we tended to say) was a big bad that our action heroes and action figures fought against.  When we were on the playground, we weren’t having long discussions on the ramifications of Glasnost; we were pretending that the swings were F-14 Tomcats or we were hunting Gaddafi through the deserts of Libya.  At the same time, though, we were being taught that not everyone over there was like what we saw on TV.

I am from the last Cold War generation and occupy a unique part of it because while my early childhood came during the first part of the Reagan era–that of the “Evil Empire” speech, The Day After, and the “Star Wars” plans to blow nuclear missiles out of the sky–my formative years truly began as it was all ending.  I saw the threat of nuclear war but started to come of age when the teens in the U.S.S.R. were not zombified commie youth, but blue jeans-wearing, Coca-Cola drinking, heavy metal-loving kids.  So, this song, with its catchy hook and bright lyrics, matched my perspective that everything was going to be great because we had gotten through a tough time in our history, but the Wall came down, all those countries were free, and we didn’t have to worry about a Third World War.

Flash forward to when I recently heard “Right Here, Right Now” on my local alternative station and thought about how much of a contrast the world politics of 1991 are to the situation in which we currently find ourselves.  I know that not everyone thinks we have been living a waking nightmare since 2016, but I find it hard to think otherwise as I have tried to navigate the news, social media, work, and everyday life without having a complete breakdown.  And I realize that compared to many other people out there, I am saying this from a place of extreme privilege, but I still feel that people who cheered with me when the Berlin Wall fell slammed me with a folding chair because heel turning on their tag team partner was more lucrative.

Yes, I realize that I just made a pretty clunky professional wrestling comparison and also realize that I’m the Marty Jannetty of said metaphor, but watching people go after one another online because “owning” them and declaring themselves some sort of “winner” is more important than actual conversation or a relationship makes said comparison apt.  When I finally studied how the Cold War ended, I saw way more nuance and complexity than I was seeing in junior high and became more appreciative of it.  At 41, I struggle with being someone who wants to see the same nuance and complexity in our world, knowing that’s a losing battle.  I’ve watched people throw away their core values (though they don’t see it or won’t admit it) and let the doublethink take over and this makes me just want to toss my hands up and walk away because we’re completely fucked and quite frankly, I’m exhausted.

For decades, we’ve let pop music be the soundtrack to the times, but right here, right now, it’s tough to figure out what that soundtrack should be.  At our most positive, maybe we could find comfort in the bittersweetness of “Let It Be”; at our most negative, we’re a teenager slamming the door to our room and blasting The Downward Spiral.  Jesus Jones’ sentiment is quaint and maybe even trite, especially considering the cynical, toxic world in which we live.  Maybe, though, listening to it now can provide us with some hope that there can be another time when we can say “I was alive and I waited for this.”