So Where Were Things In 1996?
1996 started with Philadelphia and its greater metropolitan area (including my hometown) seeing one of the worst blizzards in the history of the East Coast. It closed down New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. for several days – to say nothing about the canceled week of school I got as a result (this came to be called ‘Martin Luther King Week’). That May, my high school career ended, and I transitioned into the working world before going to college. I spent two-and-a-half months working as a busboy at a country club, then later as an employee at Blockbuster Video until late spring of 1997. I attended my first quarter of college in my adoptive city of Philadelphia starting in late-August. Everything was new. I found out who I was when I was truly allowed to be on my own. I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. I spent too much money from my summer job at Tower Records and Showcase Comics on South Street. I found the food carts that wouldn’t give me food poisoning in the shadows of Liberty Place. My friends and I also frequently exploited an establishment that delivered pizza and beer without even the pretense of checking an ID. I had my first nights with booze aplenty, both home and away, and experienced my first all-night parties (with subsequent sobering at the local Denny’s). I learned to like Chinese food because it was amazingly cheap and delivery was free. I met lifelong friends whose input I value, not only pertaining the courses we took, but the decisions I made (and continue to make). Things got real in my art training, fast. I had a few good instructors growing up, but I really met some great talent in college both among my classmates and among my instructors. I also had what I consider to be my first real (though unhealthy) relationship starting that Summer. It would completely fall apart the next year after about eight and a half months – though truth be told it was probably falling apart way before then. I learned much of what I did and did not want out of a relationship after that one – enough that I didn’t seriously date again for another six years (though I’d occasionally fumble through a first date that went nowhere or get shot down about every year or so).
As far as general culture went that year, Alanis Morrisette won Album of the year at only twenty-one years old. The album, Jagged Little Pill, was regularly played in my parents’ home; not just by me, but also by my sister. It is the first album that both of us owned, and one of the few things in those years that we could both appreciate musically (or at all). The Ramones (who I’d only discovered two summers before) played their last show that year. An iconic punk band was scattered – not that it stopped several of the individual members from doing their own things and riding the ailing cash cow until it was dead. By year’s end, people finally turned their attention from the OJ trial to the JonBenet Ramsey murder. America’s appetite for tragedy has always been infinite.
On the larger horizon, Whitewater put Hillary Clinton in the hot seat as she gave defense testimony. The Fox News channel was launched to compete with CNN, lowering the bar of journalism so low that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes might deign to crawl out their swamps to step over it comfortably. Yugoslavia was formally recognized by the EU after years of conflict and prolonged violence in the region (that would not stop then). Northern and Southern Ireland came to the table for peace talks, though both decided to cut out Sinn Fein and put them at the kids’ table while they did it. The Troubles would continue through the next few years. Iraq continued to be a total clusterfuck as UNSCOM was routinely denied access to assess their military capabilities and a suspected stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. And, after a decades long hunt, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was finally captured in a Montana cabin. He did not look nearly as pimp as his wanted posters made him out to be.
Technology continued its march as well. Deep Blue – an early AI created by IBM – defeated Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a game of chess. He requested a rematch about a month later in Philadelphia in which he defeated the machine, presumably pushing back Skynet’s plan to exterminate the human race from August 1997 to sometime further back. The Nintendo 64 (or N64) arrived in Japan, paving the way for its eventual release in the US. America lost its shit and the console took off to rave reviews. Nintendo took a bullish stance on its game format as well, opting to continue with cartridge based games as opposed to embracing optical media. Somehow, it managed to hold its own against Sony’s booming PlayStation platform.
The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent
If 1996 seemed thin in terms of movies that affected me, perhaps it’s because there were a lot that didn’t. Let’s visit those films now.
Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice In the Hood (Indifferent) – The Wayans Brothers produce yet another of their endless parade of spoof movies, this time taking a shot at Menace II Society (1993), Friday (1995), and a handful of other African-American films. I laughed, I think.
Broken Arrow (Bad) – John Travolta steals a nuke, Christian Slater has to get it back while engaging in a forced romance. Fresh off his ascension back into the Hollywood scene, Travolta makes as bad a movie as Pulp Fiction was good. It at least has one memorable line.
Muppet Treasure Island (Indifferent) – The Muppets latch on to another classic story and people it with scruffy puppets. To be fair to the Muppet franchise, I can’t honestly tell you if this was good or bad. I was in a darkened theater while the film played. That I can claim with certainty. The problem was that I was also watching the imminent implosion of one of my best friend’s relationships in progress just two seats down from me. I hope to some day see this film without a fight in progress to gauge if this or Muppets From Space (1999) marks the decline of my devotion to this franchise.
The Truth About Cats and Dogs (Indifferent) – Another rom-com love triangle in which people lie about who they are in the belief that people will magically fall in love with them. My wife and I watched this about two years ago. It’s okay.
The Craft (Bad) – Four girls do magic to become powerful and popular. This is another film so many of my friends love that just didn’t grasp me. Neve Campbell should have been enough to sell it for me, but her appearance in Scream was much better.
Twister (Indifferent) – Bill Paxton chases tornados in a special effects showcase film. It’s a standard disaster movie, though it was impressive on the technical side of things. It got a few awards to that effect as well (Best Sound, Best Special Effects). It also took home a fair chunk of box office money for the year, coming in at the number two slot for money earned behind Independence Day (1996).
Mission Impossible (Good) – A reboot of the classic television show of espionage and spycraft. The MI movies are generally fun – at least for a few films. They pulled off a lot in this one in terms of great effects and action sequences. Mostly, I love the updated theme song, a derivation of the original theme with an electronic edge. It was good fun, but nothing groundbreaking or impactful for me.
The Phantom (Indifferent) – A D-list (super?) hero film. Billy Zane rides a horse in a costume can best be described as the prototype design for the purple Teletubby. Superhero movies wouldn’t get good until we got X-Men (2000).
The Rock (Indifferent) – Ed Harris threatens to gas San Francisco after taking over Alcatraz. Only Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery can stop him. I watched this the first time and hated it. I then watched it a second time and felt I was too hard on it. It’s not terrible, but… it’s still just another action film by Michael Bay. As far as Bay films go, there are many, many more that are terrible in comparison. Like every single one of the Transformers films.
The Cable Guy (Good) – Still not a big Carrey fan, but he does a great job in this incredibly dark comedy about a lonely (and deranged) cable repairman who increasingly stalks Matthew Broderick. It’s worth a viewing for the Medieval Times scene all by itself.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Indifferent) – See also, Pocohontas. Only this time, they milk a public domain story lots of people know already, and, again, take incredible liberties with it to make it friendly for the kids. I did have a hilarious moment though watching this film with one of my close friends. He noted, with my mother in the room, that Esmerelda was pole dancing in one of her musical numbers. My mother immediately fired back with “And what would you know about pole dancing, young man?” He immediately blushed and said, “Uh… nothing, Mrs. Hop.”
The Nutty Professor (Indifferent) – This wasn’t exactly the start of Eddie Murphy’s slide into irrelevance. But, after this, the tenor and tone of his films started to get less edgier than he was known for. Haunted Mansion (2003), in my opinion, is when the slide truly cemented itself.
Phenomenon (Good) – A sad but interesting tale of a man whose tumor makes him super smart, and eventually psychic. I consider this Travolta’s counterweight to Broken Arrow (1996) for the year.
Courage Under Fire (Good) – A military drama starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. I almost forgot that I watched this. I remember it as being pretty good, though admittedly my memories of it are hazy. I watched it with mom and dad on one of the weekends I’d returned from my apartment in Philadelphia. Probably another Blockbuster rental.
Bordello of Blood (Indifferent) – Vampires versus Dennis Miller. Meh. This was kind of a let down. This is what happens when your leading role is played by a conservative gasbag who left his best work behind in Saturday Night Live. I don’t remember much of Demon Knight (1995), but I do remember it was better than this.
Escape From L.A. (Bad) – Snake Plisken is back. He’s more or less doing the same thing he did in Escape From New York (1984)… only worse. Don’t do this to yourself. Save yourself from the ninety minutes of crap-fest you’d otherwise have to wade through.
The Crow: City of Angels (Bad) – Another guy who isn’t Eric Draven comes back from the dead with the same deal from The Crow (1994), but doesn’t make it nearly as interesting. It’s not great, and Iggy Pop and the rest of its forgettable cast fails to save it.
Bulletproof (Bad) – Adam Sandler and Damon Wayans form an unlikely pair in this action comedy about witness protection and personal betrayal. Thus began the crap movies of Adam Sandler’s career. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Adam Sandler comedy – from the CDs. But, after Happy Gilmore, it just wasn’t hitting the right buttons.
Bound (Indifferent) – Two women steal a lot of money from the mob and try to pin it on one of their shady boyfirends. Every Y-Chromosome (and a not inconsiderable amount of XX Chromosomes, too) in the world rented this one to watch Jennifer Tilly get it on with Gina Gershon in this crime thriller. Despite that concept, this movie failed to deliver much that was memorable for me.
The Ghost and the Darkness (Good) – Lions eat people in Africa. Which sounds unsurprising, despite that they don’t usually develop a taste for long pork. But, when they do… Jesus. Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas pull of good performances in this film. Scarily enough, it’s based on true events.
Michael Collins (Good) – Again, I wouldn’t go about buying my history from Hollywood, but this was still a pretty good film covering the life of Irish Patriot, Michael Collins. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, and Julia Roberts all star.
Sleepers (Good) – Molested and tormented kids get back at the the people who abused them while in juvie. I didn’t catch this one in the year it was released. When I finally got around to it, I thought it was a pretty solid drama.
Ransom (Indifferent) – Mel Gibson wants his son back and acts like Mel Gibson to do it. This was another date movie where I didn’t so much care about what was going on as I did being in a darkened place with a girl.
Space Jam (Bad) – A ‘basketball’ movie where there’s only one human player (Michael Jordan). The rest of the players are animated aliens and Looney Tunes characters. It was a technical experiment, as well as an attempt to sell a lot of Nike products. It was also trying to keep Looney Tunes relevant. Not really sure it did any of those things too well. Just remember: Larry Bird isn’t white, per Bill Murray.
Jingle All the Way (Indifferent) – Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to great lengths to make sure his kid gets the big toy of the season for Christmas. This holiday film has a cult following and… I guess I’m just not a member of that particular cult. It’s okay to watch, but I don’t really seek it out.
Star Trek: First Contact (Indifferent) – The Enterprise crew from Star Trek the Next Generation follow the Borg back in time to prevent them from assimilating the human race. Another longer episode of Star Trek, again. It’s okay. I like the Borg enough I guess. But it wasn’t particularly memorable for me.
Sling Blade (Indifferent) – Billy Bob Thornton plays a mentally disabled man who does stuff he shouldn’t, both in his past and in the main narrative. Then he calls for a hearse.
Jerry Maguire (Indifferent) – Tom Cruise romances Renee Zellweger and also yells into a phone at Cuba Gooding Jr. This movie haunted me for months. Not because of any stirring drama, but because I had to ask every customer at Blockbuster if they wanted to pre-order it when they reached my counter. I got the most pre-orders for the film though, and as a prize got fifty dollars. This pissed of a shitty manager who earlier in the year accused me of stealing from the till (an error on my part let a customer off the hook for a twenty dollar late fee, not dipping my hand in the cookie jar). The fact that he had to put up this money from his own pocket – more than double the amount he accused me of stealing – made it that much sweeter.
Mars Attacks! (Bad) – Aliens from Mars attack with weapons that have no connection to conventional Physics. It’s… pretty bad. Another case of a little Tim Burton going a long way, but slathering it on anyhow.
The House of Hooded Eyes (and Near Infinite Loopholes)
I’ve talked a little bit about my parents and their guidance of my film intake as a child in the previous posts, but I wanted to really break it down how they affected me in terms of of my cinematic upbringing. If it seems like my parents dropped the ball of were highly inconsistent in what got by them… that’s because your suspicions are correct. Balls were dropped, subversive content got through, and, sometimes, we all got surprised.
We’ll start with my mom.
She meant well.
Mom’s overall opinion was that everything should be strictly monitored. While nudity didn’t really bother her so long as it wasn’t explicit, she was not a fan of violence. In particular, she was averse to military violence. The cause was two-fold.
First, she objected to military violence after years of watching footage come back from Vietnam. She, and most of the country I think, had a belly full of war. Year after year of dead kids coming home in flag covered boxes and the most explicit war footage seen by civilians on TV will do that. A lot of folks in her generation were exhausted by it. She didn’t want to see anymore (let alone show it to her young kids), thank you very much.
Secondly, she wanted to keep either of her kids away from any glorification of the military. I assure you my mother appreciates the military because she was raised right next to it. It was about what life in the military had done to her and her family. She was a Navy brat. While she loved my Grandfather and she appreciated everything that his naval career brought, she also knew a life of moving from base to base every couple of months, never getting opportunity to be a kid. She wasn’t averse to the career itself (though she feared for my safety until I was too old to be drafted). She just hated being rootless as a kid. With all of the constant moves from base to base, my mother didn’t have any childhood friends save for my aunt. Almost her entire circle of friends come from her college and professional life. She didn’t want that for my sis, myself, or our kids.
As for dad, he was… generally lax. He took stands on things at odd angles. Violence was nothing he particularly worried about. When he would shield me from violence, it was usually from the most explicit kind involving gore or frightening images. I’ll admit that as a kid I was easily frightened, so this made perfect sense. Dad was sensitive to that more than the idea of violence or brutality. He’s a fan of Ancient Rome, so war and up-close violence is something he’s well acquainted with from reading the histories. And hey, if it’s cultural (or if dad just liked a thing) he’d let my sis and I settle down and watch what we wanted (lots of Clash of the Titans (1981) on TV, where they cut out all of the nudity). Sex he was likely to censor because he probably didn’t want to have that talk with his kid any sooner than he had to. After I was wise to what sex was, I’d gather that he continued to censor explicit images so that I wouldn’t try to go out and try anything that I saw on screen (as a dateless wonder for many years, he had zero reason to worry).
Both parents took their stances on things they felt were negative, either usually as a team or individually. Generally, stuff that got deep into racism, gang violence, exploitation, fell by the wayside unless there was something in there to instruct or had a historical bent. Mom had particular prohibitions on things she felt were blasphemous, where dad was perfectly fine with letting me watch The Life of Brian (1979). Once I’d completed my Confirmation classes, of course.
Their prohibitions left much room for either relaxed interpretations or total blindspots, though.
One of the blindspots was when I was let out to any friends’ homes. I had a lot of friends whose parents were much more liberal with their childrens’ watching habits. A lifelong friend of mine had a television in his basement with full cable hook-up right next to his bedroom (I wouldn’t get a cable ready room until 1997). We’d have weekend nights where I’d crash there for a sleepover and we’d watch all of the late night HBO we could get our hands on. A particularly memorable yet wholly glazed over memory was getting to watch Robot Jox (1989) there, as well as Demon Knight (1995), The Class of 1999 (1990), and Dream On (1990) and Tales From the Crypt (1989-96) episodes. Other friends had similar arrangements, and this got me on board with either racy content, over-the-top graphic violence, or military action films.
In other cases, there were deceptions. Kids are the best negotiators. They are relentless, they know what they want, and they know all of their parents’ buttons and weakneses. My sister and I were both skilled at this. Sometimes it was a game of wearing them down. Other times it was simply downplaying the violence, swearing, or sexy bits. There were a million ploys. Any parent can tell you these tactics work. Not all the time, mind you. Just enough times to get certain things past the gate. Especially with cable television available.
There were also accidents. My parents were often times exhausted from their jobs. Both of them worked as public school teachers. Despite what right-wing pundits may tell you, teaching is not a luxurious gig. When teachers leave their classrooms, they usually have papers to grade and papers to read – sometimes until very late. In the summer, they have to come up with the next year’s plans to justify their existence to administrators that probably don’t have the same goals in mind. Given their workaholic natures, mom and dad sometimes had errors in judgment, like the hilarious twelfth birthday party where they decided Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) might be a great film to keep my friends and I entertained for ninety minutes. It did, but not in the fashion they had hoped for. The film probably lasted more like fifteen minutes after boobs showed up on screen.
The greatest loophole though was the one right under their nose – my Aunt’s house. Which boggles my mind. Tove and my mother speak constantly. Practically inseparable, they should have been able to wholly monitor or course correct everything my cousin Michael and I watched. It never happened though, and here’s a few reasons why:
The first reason was that Aunt Tove was a lot more lenient with Mike’s viewing habits. He got to watch a lot of stuff I didn’t, so by proximity I caught a lot of stuff mom wouldn’t have approved of. I was there having sleepovers with their family every week during the summers (and a lot of school year weekends, too). This got me a lot of military themed cartoons like G.I. Joe (1985), Robotech (1985), or Starblazers (1979). It also got me my first horror movie, George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) when I was maybe thirteen years old. I was horrified for weeks.
Second, Michael was a certifiable evil genius. If he couldn’t get his parents on board with certain films, he had a seemingly inexhaustible network to obtain that which he was looking for in terms of films. He was not shy about discretely sharing these finds with his friends and family.
And then there was my uncle.
Uncle Jim is awesome, and he didn’t actively contribute to this loophole. He was just great at late night channel surfing, then falling asleep in his recliner with Mike and I still in the room. This led to Mike and I getting unhealthy doses of Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear on the USA network. Up All Night would show some of the absolute crappiest films ever made, many of which were cult or sexploitation joints. It’s this show, some ill-advised cable selections, and my gently snoring uncle that led to Mike and/or I watching stuff like CHUD (1984), Night of the Lepus (1972) or Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988).
The floodgates really opened though in 1997. But, we’ll talk about that in it’s appropriate year’s entry. Promise.
The list of missed opportunities is short for 1996. But, unwatched films from this year not non-existent. Let’s add the following onto my ‘to watch’ list:
Beautiful Girls – I had this film recommended to me by a few friends as they observed that at one point in my life it seemed like something that would resonate with me. My life always feels like it’s at a crossroad, but this looks to have a good cast. I’m adding it to my to do list.
Mulholland Falls – A noir, period piece? Jennifer Connelly? Yes, please.
Eraser – After a few tentative steps into other types of roles, Arnie goes back to starring in what he’s great at: films where he gets to shoot as many extras as humanly possible. Plus, he does it with cool guns by the look of it. I know this probably won’t be great, but I’ll probably watch it anyway.
A Time To Kill – Samuel L. Jackson yells some more in a courtroom thriller. I’m game, I guess. This film got a lot of play that year, and as a result, I know a lot of the stuff that happens. But, it’s another film like Silence of the Lambs (1991) that I feel I should watch.
The Island of Dr. Moreau – Again, I know this probably won’t be good. But, it’s a H.G. Wells adaptation. It feels wrong not to have watched it.
Last Man Standing – Bruce willis shoots people in a period piece about gang war. That’s enough for me. I’m a simple creature.
Get On the Bus – A film about the Million Man March by Spike Lee. As noted from the history segment in a previous post, the March was a relevant part of the African American experience of the nineties. Even though I remember seeing news coverage for the March, I was a white kid looking in on an experience I don’t think I was equipped to understand at the time.
The People Versus Larry Flint – Porno magnate and professional pot stirrer, Larry Flint, stands up for the First Amendment using pornography. I’m a fan of the First Amendment. This seems like a shoe in.