movies

9/11 and Popular Culture Part Four

It’s the fourth episode of a six-part miniseries that examines the books, movies, music, comics, and other popular culture that directly addresses or is about the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this episode, I look at film and television, including the big budget films United 93 and World Trade Center, the worldwide short film compilation September 11, as well as the West Wing episode “Isaac and Ishmael”.

A quick content warning: Though these events are now 20 years in the past, they are still traumatizing to many, and I also discuss some of my personal feelings and views, so listener discretion is advised.

Finally, I will be including a feedback section in the sixth episode of the series, and would love to hear what you think, so leave comments on the Pop Culture Affidavit Facebook pagefollow me on Twitter, or email me at popcultureaffidavit@gmail.com.

The deadline for feedback will be Tuesday, September 7, 2021 if you want it read on the sixth episode.

Here’s where to listen:

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Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 8

It’s the eighth chapter in a podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War. To start us off, I look at what happened in Eastern Europe from June 1991 to August 1991 with a special focus on the attempted coup on Moscow by Soviet hard liners, an event that led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin to the world stage.  Then, I take a look at two of the most important movies of the mid-1980s, the movies that “won the Cold War”–1984’s Red Dawn and 1985’s Rocky IV.

You can listen here:

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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.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 119: Talk Hard

Talk Hard! Steal the air! In 1990, the cult film Pump Up the Volume was released and it proved to be a formative movie experience for many teenagers of the time. So, 31 years after it came out, I sat down with Michael Bailey to take apart the film and see if Hard Harry’s words of rebellion still hold up.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are some extras for you ..

The Ringer article “Talk Hard: The Making of the Teen-Angst Classic ‘Pump Up the Volume'”

The theatrical trailer:

A Spotify Pump Up the Volume Soundtrack Playlist:

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 6

It’s the sixth 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 December 1990 to February 1991 with a special focus on the role that the Soviet Union played in Operation Desert Storm. Then, Andrew Leyland joins me to take a look at Britain’s most famous super spy, James Bond.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

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Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

And here are a couple of extras for you …

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Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 118: Generation X

Thirty years ago, Douglas Coupland published Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that would name the generation that came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. It told of disaffected, misanthropic, self-absorbed twentysomethings who didn’t seem to care about anything that was going on in the world. But was that really the case?

In this episode, I take a look at Coupland’s novel as well as Richard Linklater’s film Slacker; plus, I examine articles and books that attempted to define and explain Generation X and make some attempt to come to a conclusion about this group of people who are now middle aged.

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

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And here are some links for you ..

Time’s “Twentysomething” Article

Newsweek’s “Generalizations X” Article

Goodreads page for 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail?

IANXTC, the blog of Ian Williams, aka “Crasher” from 13th Gen

My 1994 high school student newspaper essay, “Generation X Is …”

Time’s “Me Me Me Generation” Article about Millennials

Joyce Maynard’s Essay “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”

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.