1980s

Politics, Protest, and “Running on Empty”

There is a point in Running on Empty where Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), a fugitive who has been on the run for more than a decade, risks getting caught by having lunch wit her father. Obviously upset that he has not seen her nor her family since 1971, he also still carries anger about her crime–she and her husband Artie (Judd Hirsch) were part of a Weathermen-type antiwar group that bombed a napalm-making facility, a bombing that seriously injured a person. Frustrated at him for bringing up the crime, she says, “I didn’t come to talk politics.”

This line stuck with me after I watched the film, not because Annie is trying to shut down an argument so that she can ask her son to take her son Danny (River Phoenix), but because it’s also as if Sidney Lumet was making his thesis statement for the film. The politics of the Pope family are obviously on display for Running on Empty‘s two hours, but the point is not to show how the correctness of a certain point of view; instead, it’s to show how children an bear the burden of their parents’ actions. Make the Popes a right-wing extremist family who bombed an abortion clinic and the circumstances surrounding their lives might be similar. People on the run are interesting; a family on the run is intriguing, and this is a moment where Lahti has to portray desperation because her son is caught between the life that her and Artie have brought him into and the one he can have as a virtuoso pianist. So when you have this conversation in this film, questions come up: How do we address the violence in protest against violence? Is violence only okay when “your side” is doing it? And how do you deal with being the child of one of those people?

There was a point after I watched the film where I regretted not covering it when I was doing the “In Country” podcast, although in all fairness, I didn’t know what Running on Empty was about when I was hosting that show. All I knew is what I remembered from back in the day–it was a River Phoenix movie and one of three (the others being Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho) that showcased his raw acting talent. That it had anything to do with the antiwar movement or that movement’s violent side escaped me.

Despite her insistence that we don’t think about the politics, at least in that moment, I can’t help but wonder about the Reagan Eighties and how that is being portrayed here. This was the era of a more conservative approach to American ideals, and while there was a bit of nostalgia for the flower power hippie part of the 1960s, the more violent aspects of the antiwar movement were still viewed with disdain.

Which is how we see all violent protest movements, epecially those that look to upend the status quo. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I can recognize that our culture has become purposely embused witha rigid mindset of the “right” way to protest. It’s nonvient, and perhaps features the holding of hands and singing of songs. And there is nothing wrong with that picture, as they are some of the most iconic protest images we have of the twentieth century. But there’s a gentility that’s pushed when those are the primary images we see, and is certainly the narrative that right-wing pundits insist upon, as they are quick to decry the violence committed in the name of any liberal or progressive movement, labeling it terrorism without any note of the irony that their own followers have committed actual acts of terrorism and treason.

You pick that sentiment up in Running on Empty, but in the conversation that Annie has with her father–a wealthy industrialist–and the bits of media coverage that are present while the family is on the run, some of which cause them to pack up and flee once again. For instance, at one point in the film, an old friend/compatriot comes to visit and is later caught robbing a bank. When the story breaks, the media employs a subtle tone of reminding the public that these people may have said they were antiwar, but they are actually bad.

And yet, Sydney Lumet (who directed the film) doesn’t want us to think that. If anything, that sentiment is there to show us the toll that being on the run can take. I’d say, in fact, that he wants us to sympathize with the Popes and is even setting up a subtle indictment of the Eighties’ inherent conservatism, or at least our culture’s want for a closed narrative. The Reagan Eighties mirrored the Eisenhower Fifties in many ways, and while those Fifties ended with Kennedy, they were ultimately upended by the Vietnam War. When Reagan declared “Morning in America”, the message was one of a return to a sense of pride; conservatism of the day sought to begin the rewriting of the Sixties as a problem and a mistake. The antiwar movement was the reason we lost the war, they spit on the troops when they got home, and were by all of their definitions “anti-American.” That idea trickled down in some ways into history curricula, and was used to an exceptional degree in drumming up support for our wars in the Middle East.

And that’s just an overtly white antiwar group. What I described was used to try and discredit the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties and is still being done today with right-wing pundits and politicians falsely equating Black Lives Matter and white supremacist terrorsists.

Ultimately, I root for the Popes because they make the right decision and find a way to get Danny out of their cycle, knowing that he is a victim of circumstance. This is aided by the deeply written characters and the layered performances. Judd Hirsch–who always looked at least 45 and perpetually bothered–struggles with the conflict between his son’s independence and the need for their “mission”. Lahti plays a caring mother (and as an aside, is damn sexy in this film) who has more agency than most mothers in Eighties films. But the film belongs to River Phoenix–in fact, it garnered him an Oscar nomination. He spends the two hours of the film smoldering with angst while avoiding the scenery chewing that in lesser hands would have been terribly melodramatic, a two-hour version of Judd Nelson’s yelling through The Breakfast Club or the hammier points of Christian Slater’s monologues in Pump Up the Volume (both of which are favorites of mine). He loves his parents and believes in them, but also wants to be his own person and strike out on his own. Balancing coming of age with politics in a decade known for its flash is very tough and Running on Empty is a gem of a film that should have literary status.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 124: Futuristic Van Damme-age

Jean-Claude Van Damme, made his name as “The Muscle from Brussels” off of B-level action flicks that were light on story but chock full of martial arts action.  In 1989, coming off the success of Bloodsport, he starred in Cyborg, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/action thriller about a man bent on revenge and helping to find a cure for a worldwide plague.  Join me as I take a look at the movie’s production, its story, and even the comic book that Cannon produced as a promotion.

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And here’s a gallery of stuff from the Cannon Home Video promo comic for Cyborg. It includes the comic’s cover, a page of story/art, one of the behind the scenes pieces, an ad from the comic, and the comic’s back cover.

“Kid 90” and the discoveries from Personal Archaeology

Toward the end of her documentary Kid 90, Soleil Moon Frye talks about how she watches video tapes that she made of her and her friends in the early and mid-1990s and considers how she never saw the warning signs regarding those friends who died by suicide or because of drug abuse. She also mentions that she is living a lot of those memories for the second time and (of course) with the perspective of a now middle-aged adult. It’s a moment that is predictable because of the way we naturally consider such things after a tragedy, but is sad nonetheless and tempers a very nostalgic documentary with a sadness, making it more than superficial fluff.

If you haven’t heard of Kid 90, it was born out of the fact that Frye spent much of her childhood and adolescence recording both audio and video of herself and her friends in their everyday live, intending it as a private keepsake*. A few years ago, she dug up the material and began going through it with the intention of making a documentary about being a child star and a teenager in Hollywood during the 1980s and early 1990s. She originally didn’t intend to put herself into the film (except for the aforementioned archival footage) but as she told Variety, she was editing one particular segment and realized that in order to give it full context, she needed to be interviewed. And that’s how we get the moment I just described.

I came to this film via Hulu’s recommendations and upon seeing the description, put it on my watch list. Plus, I’m a mark for any sort of late 1980s/early 19990s nostalgia, and am like every other person my age in that I immediately associate Fry with her iconic role as Punky Brewster. I also remember her showing up on a couple of random sitcom episodes–The Wonder Years and Friends, especially. What I didn’t know was that her circle of friends consisted of actors and actresses I was watching regularly during my early teen years and whom were also about my age (Frye is a year older than I am). So when people like Brian Austin Green, Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Jenny Lewis started showing up in both the footage and interviews, and also oddly connected to it beyond just recognizing those faces.

Over the past couple of years, I have spent time going trough my own personal teenage archive. Most of the stuff I have been looking at has been my teenage journal, along with various ephemera I’d thrown in a box or storage bin and held onto over the years. None of it is nearly as star-powered as Frye’s video and audio footage of hanging out with Danny Boy from House of Pain, but I could at least relate to it on the level of digging into what you had in the past. But as I watched Kid 90, I also had the passing thought:

This is what it must like like for the cool kids to reminisce.

Oh yeah, that is flat-out one of the most idiotic thoughts a middle-aged man could have about people from high school, but I couldn’t help it. As the movie rolled, my mind flashed to Facebook group threads filled with pictures of them at house parties, seventeen with 1990s haircuts, flannels over Gap jeans, with Budweiser cans everywhere. And really, that’s what Frye’s home movies look like–suburban keggers but with famous people. There’s a point she makes in the film that her mom tried her best to her and her brother (Meeno Replace, the star of the NBC show Voyagers!) as normal a life away from their jobs in Hollywood as possible and this is the proof. The rooms they’re in, the general silliness that they’re up to (especially when they’re 13 or 14) all looks s if it could be taking place in any number of my classmates’ houses, and a world that I never entered. I spent many Saturday nights playing video games with friends or renting whatever movie I could get my hands on and then watching Saturday Night Live.

And while I’d like to be nonchalant and say “Ah, who gives as shit about school popularity when you’re 44?”, I have to also admit that this lack of coolness dogged me for quite a long time. I wound up with more tan a few toxic “friendships” and a laundry list of embarrassing and awkward moments, which my anxiety loves to weaponize on occasion, just to remind me who I am … or at least who I was. The world of the cool kids in my immediate vicinity was as much a mystery to me as the world of these ultra-cool Hollywood kids in the film. Frye goes from hanging with the ‘tween and teen jet set of the early ’90s to heading across the country to attend college in New York and befriending cast members from Larry Clark’s Kids, showing that she always had a “crew” wherever she decided to live.

But in the midst of all of that, there’s a real darkness. At one point, we hear an audio recording of her talking to a friend and trying to figure out what happened the previous night because she woke up at home not knowing how she got there. At another point, she is discussing how a guy at a party clearly raped her when he kept going even though she told him she didn’t want to. You can’t dismiss those stories by saying that it’s some symptom of Hollywood excess or that it’s another sign of how former child stars often become cautionary tales. No, ask around and you are bound to meet a woman who has had one of both of those happen, maybe even more. And, to bring in Hollywood, add the way the film industry treated her because of her body (she had breast reduction surgery at 16, which was a People Magazine cover story) and you have a look at how monumentally screwed up our culture is.

Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the beginning of this piece–Frye’s perspective as a woman and parent in her forties. One of the reasons she began the project that would become Kid 90 is to see if how she remembered her teenage years was accurate, and I found myself relating to the honesty with which she approached everything as well as the bravery required to do it. You can always flip through an old yearbook and laugh at the silly or even heartfelt things people wrote to you, but there is a point where you have to decide if you want to cross the threshold into the uncomfortable and really meet the kid you were. As a parent, you want to see what you can learn from your younger self so that your kid doesn’t suffer the same fate. Sure, there are adolescent rites of passage that involve mistakes and regrettable moments and I know I can’t protect my kid from everything bad they might encounter, but I also know that part of my job as a father is to use the gift of hindsight to discern between true rites of passage and truly awful things that we are too scared to admit were wrong or even toxic.

Reopening old wounds, taking the blindfold off in the cave, digging into the past–whatever you want to call it–can suck, even when you know it’s going to be therapeutic and said therapy can last longer than intended. But it’s a testament to the fact that making it through any of it is a small miracle.

* A similar documentary from Val Kilmer is set to debut on Amazon Prime in August.

Wordiness

The back cover says it’s “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s” and offers up a sample of how it can improve word skills through the way it illustrates its entries as well as employs phrases and sentences to demonstrate proper usage. The front is a mish-mash of different images from inside, complete with the bubbly sans serif font that was considered modern for the day, as textbooks and reference materials were trying to show that they were not the stodgy, inaccessible tomes that lined the bookshelves and walls of classrooms and libraries. No, The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary was something else.

That’s a lot to lay on a dictionary, which is quite possibly the most utilitarian reference source you can own. But sometime around the second or third grade, I received my copy. I can’t remember who gave it to me–maybe my parents, maybe an aunt or uncle–I just know that it became a permanent fixture on the bookshelves and for a while, it was one of the coolest books I own. Granted, I have always been a dork when it comes to any textbook or reference book, especially those published from my childhood. I realize that it’s total nostalgia, but seeing one of my old reading books or the social studies textbook from second grade brings back memories of making book covers from a Waldbaum’s shopping bag and flipping ahead to units I hoped we would get to at some point in the year.*

With the dictionary, though, I didn’t have to wait for a teacher to cover anything, and during the next few years, if I wasn’t using the dictionary for actual schoolwork, you could find me flipping through it for fun**. Yes, I realize how that sounds. Like, who flips through the dictionary for fun? Furthermore, how the hell does someone flip through the dictionary for fun and not have that be the moment in the first act of the movie when his parents “knew” that he would grow up to be the inspirational genius that moviegoers have been suckered into watching in the dead of winter because there’s nothing else in the theater?

Come on, people, we’re talking about “The Children’s Dictionary for the 1980s!”

So what’s so special about this? Why am I giving this so much attention even though it’s just a dictionary? Well, let’s take a tour.

A sample page from the dictionary that shows both the illustrations as well as the use of font.

The Illustrations. Upon first glance, you can tell this is going to be a different dictionary than, say, your average Webster’s edition. The cover is bright with illustrations, which are also featured throughout the book. The illustrations were by George Ulrich, who has had a career as an illustrator for children’s books for more than thirty years. It’s a cartoony style of drawing that is also grounded in realism, a calmer, toned-down School House Rock! that accurately represents whatever needs to be shown but doesn’t shy away from being fun on occasion.

The Fonts. As fun as this book is in its illustration, the font choice takes its job seriously. We have a serif font (such as TNR) in place for most of the body text, but Helvetica is in play quite a bit. You might not really notice it, but I freakin’ love the font and I’m pretty sure that this is where my love for Helvetica began. Yes, it’s the very definition of generic, but the cleanness of that sans serif font made everything in the 1980s look and feel newer and slicker. Even today, Helvetica is comfort food to me***.

The History of the English Language. Before you even get to the words and their definitions, there is a section of the dictionary that is the story of English as a language, written and illustrated in that calmer School House Rock! manner. I’d read this section all the way through at one point, although the pictures stuck with me more than any of the text. And the picture that stayed with me the most was probably the most random one of all of them, which is the one of a person in the present reading a book. Like Helvetica, this was comfort food to me, the suburban kid, back in the early 1980s. The casualness of the pose and the common nature of the picture made me feel like that could be me in the picture but also a bit aspirational, like that’s what “ordinary” life should look like. It’s the same feeling I would get (and still do to a certain extent) watching an old episode of Family Ties.

Letter History. Whereas the pictures in the “History of the English Language” section were something I focused on more than the words, this part of the dictionary was something I obsessed over. Leading off each letter section of the dictionary, it’s a rainbow-striped guide to the evolution of the modern-day letter. We start with ancient Phoenician writing moving through Ancient Greek letters, Ancient Roman lettering, Medieval script, and finally showing the contemporary lettering via our friend Helvetica. Years later, I would take an introduction to Linguistics course in graduate school and I credit my love of these letter histories for my love of that particular course. The way that our language evolves (along with other aspects of culture) is fascinating, and if I have any academic regrets in life, it’s that I didn’t take more courses in topics like linguistics, anthropology, or sociology****.

The first page of “A”, which shows the evolution of the letter’s form.
The entirety of “X” in the dictionary.

The Definitions of “Run.” Okay, so now we’re actually into the definitions, and the one word that I would look up in this dictionary and then any other dictionary that I came across (even the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary in the reference section of my public library*****). I was amazed that this word could have 21 definitions (and even more listed in those other dictionaries). English, as a language, is complex to an almost horrifying degree, and I remember that when I see any of my students–especially English language learners–struggle with comprehending the rules of usage. The myriad definitions of “run” is a great snapshot of that.

X has one page. I guess this is more of a fault than a feature? Anyway, I always found it funny that the publishers decided to look at “X” and say, “Ah, screw it” leaving us with five definitions: X (the letter), Xerox, Xmas, X-Ray, and Xylophone. I mean, even “Q” has four pages (although all the words are “q-u” words) and they give “Z” a page and a half.

Zucchini. Speaking of Z, this is the last word in the dictionary. It also has a rather … phallic illustration to accompany it.

I touched upon how the book was important for fostering my curiosity as well as building a foundation for learning. What’s also important is that this book was mine. Not that I was ever discouraged from being curious about the world or writing, but I loved being able to do that on my own. Yes, it’s kind of like giving yourself homework, and it probably contributed to my being such a teacher’s pet for so many years, but I can’t help but feel grateful because of how I’ve never stopped being curious or interested.

* Yes, I was that nerd. Even in graduate school, I found myself skimming chapters that hadn’t been assigned just because I was interested.

** My parents had a dictionary on the shelves that was more “adult” and had an awesome reference section in the back. That and their copy of The People’s Almanac from 1974 probably deserve their own entries.

*** Not surprisingly, I was a high school yearbook adviser for 10 years.

**** There’s a part of me that wonders if I should have gone into sociology and/or media studies instead of toiling in marketing and then becoming a high school English teacher.

***** Holy shit, was I a nerd for that reference section. Books that were so special you could only use them in the library and not check them out? Oh hell yes. And THEN, I could look at the New York Times on microfilm.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 123: Cardboard Heroes

The Eighties and Nineties were a boom for the baseball card and trading card industry, and since I was a kid, I was right there in the thick of it.  Join me as I recount my days collecting baseball cards as well as cards featuring characters from Marvel, DC, Star Trek, and Star Wars before looking at books and documentaries about the hobby.  Plus, I open four packs of vintage baseball and trading cards live on the show!

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And here’s a gallery of the cards I opened (plus the gum) …

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73 Seconds

The Challenger at liftoff. Image from americainspace.com.

When my son was little, he liked to watch videos of the space shuttle taking off. They were exciting and short, perfect for the attention span of a three-year-old. But whenever we watched them, I would get anxious about a minute and a half after the launch when the camera angle switched to the underside of the shuttle as it flew diagonally away from the viewer. The anxiety would melt when the solid rocket boosters separated, because I knew that the launch had been completely normal.

It doesn’t take any real analysis to understand why that happened. Everyone in my generation has not only seen the Challenger explode, we each have our own very specific answer to the “Where were you?” question. Mine? I was in Miss Hubbard’s third grade classroom at Lincoln Avenue Elementary School. We didn’t get to watch it live, and found out when Mrs. Nolan, our principal, came over the PA to tell us that the space shuttle carrying the teacher in space had blown up after takeoff. I’d never heard an adult sound so upset before and I can’t imagine how she managed to even stay that composed. Nobody said a word for at least a while and I can’t remember what our teacher said, just going home, turning on the television, and watching Peter Jennings narrate the shuttle taking off and exploding 73 seconds into its flight, leaving a huge ball of smoke in the clear Florida sky. The lack of sound after Mission Control’s “Go at throttle-up” made it more real than anything I’d seen in a movie, and while it scared me, I couldn’t stop watching.

Christa McAuliffe. Official NASA press photo.

The news played the footage more times than I can remember and 35 years later, I am struck by how we were all totally unprepared. Everyone who saw the Challenger explode live on television had been watching because something good was supposed to happen. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was being launched into space, nearly every child in the country — every member of a generation — was tuned into that event in some way. Unlike the way my parents’ generation watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald, which had a pallor of tragedy prior to its happening, this broke a generation’s trust in the world. The time after was surreal and confusing. President Reagan offered words of solace that we half understood and adults chastised us for not staying quiet enough while he did. And nobody wanted to be an astronaut anymore.

One of the best sources of solace came a little more than a month later when the Punky Brewster episode “Accidents Will Happen” aired on NBC. Filmed as a direct response to the Challenger disaster, it was a rare moment of responsibility on the part of a show, as the writers understood their influence on a young audience. We all understood how Punky felt when she comes home in tears after watching the Challenger explode on live television, and how she is completely inconsolable. It takes a heartwarming talk from an adult—in this case, it’s Buzz Aldrin—to help her realize this is something she’s allowed to be upset about but it shouldn’t stop her from pursuing dreams of going up into space or loving space travel. While not a cure for our sadness, it was a much-needed balm; Punky was our friend and if the adults in her world took the time to show they cared, then they cared and were thinking about us.

Later that year, we received Young Astronauts commemorative packets. These had 8×10 pictures of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, and the shuttle lifting off; two stickers with the Teacher in Space Program and the official mission logos; a letter from President Reagan; and a poster with a picture of the shuttle and the poem “A Salute to Our Heroes”. That poster hung on my bedroom wall for a few years and I even bought a Revell space shuttle model kit because I really wanted a space shuttle toy but couldn’t find one. It sat in its box for a few years before I made a poor attempt at putting it together. We had a moment of silence on the one-year anniversary, but then the Challenger faded from consciousness and conversations—that is, when we weren’t making tasteless jokes like “What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”. We turned our attention to movies where humans were fighting aliens in space, and the shuttle program went into in limbo.

In the aftermath, NASA took a serious image hit, especially after hearings revealed that the explosion could have not only been prevented, but some engineers’ pleas about an impending disaster were ignored or dismissed. While at eight, I knew about the cause of the explosion—a failure of both O-ring seals on the right solid rocket booster—it wouldn’t be until college that I would attend a lecture given by Roger Boisjoly, one of the Morton Thiokol engineers who gave the warning. He went into detail about the engineering behind the rocket boosters, what was an ultimately fatal design flaw, and those efforts to warn management and NASA about the probability that the shuttle would explode. Having just watched the Clinton impeachment play out, I was fully aware at the capabilities of our government to cover things up, but I still wound up feeling almost exactly how I felt like the day of the disaster when I stood in the den watching television. The gravity of the situation was still abundantly clear.

The Space Shuttle Discovery at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

The shuttle program would be retired in 2011 and in 2013, my son and I went to see Discovery—the shuttle that in 1988 made the first successful launch after Challenger—at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Upon reaching its exhibit hall, I was floored by its enormity. Knowing that we could build something that huge and send it into orbit reminded me of what we are capable of, and as I walked around it, holding my son’s hand, I felt the same awe that he did, and was humbled knowing what our achievements cost.

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.

You can listen here:

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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!

You can listen here:

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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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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.

You can listen here:

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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.