Best Songs of 2020

Best Songs of 2020

A little late to the Best Songs of 2020 party is fashionable. You’re tired of all the rest, now it’s time to read, well, just another list.

This is my yearly countdown of the best songs (as dictated by me, of course) from the past year. It’s already January 13th, which means that most of you sonic go-getters have already moved on to anticipating the fruits of 2021. I’ve been operating at a different pace for damn well near a year now (because 2020) so 13 days late just feels… right.

First, I’ll present my standard disclaimers. I’m just one listener. I read blogs and share picks and discuss new finds with my partner in listing, B-Sides Narrative aka Michael Smith (@BSidesNarrative on the Twatter); but I’m still just one pair of ears and one set of limiting and finicky preferences. A year ago I would have been paid for making observations such as these (believe it or not people paid me to hear my thoughts on music) so you’re getting unfiltered, unadulterated 30Hz for the cost of free. As David Byrne said on Remain In Light, “same as it ever was.” I’ve been giving these notes away for free for more than a decade. (Speaking of David Byrne, you should absolutely watch American Utopia now streaming on HBO Max because it’s a document of one of the greatest live concerts I’ve ever seen. Plus, it’s a Spike Lee joint, which makes it even more mind-blowing as an intersection of two brilliant but face-value mismatched creative minds. Like the positive side of crossing the streams.)

If nothing else, 2020 gave us reason to crave escape — be it through movies or music. I found many many many hours of solace in Bill Evans (this will come as no surprise to anyone in my family) — namely the albums Undercurrents and Moonbeams. I even found my 11yo daughter reading in her room listening to Bill Evans because “it was the only chill music that I could think of.” That’s called top of mind awareness. It’s also called molding young minds. As a result of this new listening trajectory, the kinds of music I consumed shifted. The frequency with which I sought out new and obscure music changed as well. Once the music magazine for which I was writing folded in April of 2020, my priorities shifted from “discovery mode” to “maintenance mode.” What’s next became what’s great and familiar. Oddly, I’m not sure that I heard more new music, but I heard and found many more different kinds of music. I dabbled in more contemporary jazz artists, world music and experimental. I can’t claim that too much of it is represented in my Best of 2020 Songs list, but it informed and broadened my palette for adventure. Instead you’ll find a similar assortment of electro-dream-pop and pulsing disco beats alongside the side dishes of alt-country and distressed bedroom singer-songwriters.

Keep digging through those crates. Keep searching for more music. Those unique voices and heartfelt pleas for change and hope and the sorrow of loss and life. Music, more than ever, needs to help guide us through the quagmire… and maybe some of these songs will help.

Spotify Playlist (Top 124):

30Hz Top 25 Best Songs of 2020:

“Say the Name” – clipping.

A call to words and/or arms. A protest song. Experimental, alt-rap from Daveed Diggs, aka Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. This is the flowiest absence of flow you’ve ever heard. The cadence and language rattles in your brain, a train of the future forever arriving from the distance, just beyond sight.

“Blue Comanche” – Westerman

Smooth, buttery sonic landscapes fronted by hushed, high-pitched and hopeful vocals. My year-long tally of “hits” that struck a chord featured five songs from Westerman — the most of any other artist in 2020. This is the music that soothed savage souls.

“god’s chariots” – Oklou

I first heard Oklou on a long, late-night drive. Everyone else in the car had fallen asleep and the highway stretched out infinitely into the future. No cars, no sights other than the concrete under my headlights. Ethereal vocals and hookish electronic beats soundtracked the moment better than anything I could have chosen. The electronic artist of my year.

“Lilacs” – Waxahatchee

This could have been four other Waxahatchee songs from their latest LP, Saint Cloud. It doesn’t matter. Put them all here. I spread a few out over my 100+ countdown but Waxahatchee is a mood. Not quite country, not quite folk, not exactly alt. Katie Crutchfield’s voice speaks to everyone through its familiarity, relatability, sturdy during swells and fragile when it all falls apart.

“Lovers (Home Made)” – Anna of the North

A singer can manufacture emotion through nothing more than precise control of their vocal accentuations. The tenuous connections between syllables bears great responsibility. This one tears tears me the fuck up because the Oslo-based Anna Lotterud allows breath between perfectly chosen syllables, the breakdown of the artist, the deconstruction of the artistic creation. You’ll melt before she finally utters that “k” in “dark” during the very first verse.

“Live 4eva” – Magdalena Bay

I wrote about the promising home-brewed electro-pop upstarts Magdalena Bay for the now defunct music magazine Music Meet Fans. I’d link the article, but it’s been obliterated by the cruel mistress called failure. Mag Bay (Mica and Matthew) creates whip-smart little confections that take your face, kiss you full on the lips and leave you wanting more, more, more. Beats, relentless pluck and a deft musicality.

“Forever” – Nicole Atkins

Don’t you dare try to pin down Nicole Atkins with one of those reductionist music-industry labels. She’s Joni Mitchell Roy Orbison Steve Nicks Otis Redding Jefferson Starship. She’s a psychedelic soul singer songwriter. She’s a goddess. “Forever” lifted me up whenever it shuffled to the top. It’s not a song I would have necessarily chosen from an objective perspective, but it refused to not make me happy and that there’s a return on investment.

“4ÆM” – Grimes

Grimes channels Tibetan monks, block rockin’ beats, flight of the bumblebee and Martian dream logic. Just another Tuesday.

“JU$T” – Run the Jewels, featuring Zack de la Rocha, Pharrell Williams

I listened to a lot of garbage rap music in 2020 in search of the this spark that people claim is happening. It’s not for me. If you’re still telling me that Drake can rap, I’m turning down your volume. What’s that? I can’t hear that kind of stupid. I came of age when beats and rhymes (and samples) reigned supreme. What we hear today might be called progress, but apparently I’m a purist and that kind of progress sucks. El-P and Killer Mike have taken up the torch and this time they’ve got a bone to pick. No rap artist has produced more consistent greatness in the 21st century.

“Dionne” – The Japanese House, featuring Justin Vernon

The Japanese House channels Frou Frou. Remember Frou Frou? Hell yes you do. (Just say you do. Humor me.) Justin Vernon adds lo-fi soul like frosted tips. It might be possible to craft a song more perfectly aimed at unlocking my heart locker, but it would require an appearance from CHVRCHES.

“Paper Cup” – Real Estate, featuring Sylvan Esso

Lounging in a tepid pool, the morning after… pondering the limits of your own potential and holding a fruity cocktail in a Soho cup. You’re depressed that you’re right here at this moment, but you wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“Murder Most Foul” – Bob Dylan

I’m no Dylan acolyte, but this meditation on what we lost after the Kennedy assassination is Bob Dylan’s Iliad and his Odyssey.

“Spotlight” – Jessie Ware

Remember that troubling disco thread I mentioned in my list this year? This is just the blissful tip of the iceberg. Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? LP will make you question why the sounds of the 70’s ever disappeared. I’m even hearing some traces of Bill Conti’s score for For Your Eyes Only. I’m clearly deranged.

“Dying to Believe” – The Beths

New Zealand rrriot girls blister and burn through hooks and sass. Great guitar-driving rock was a rare sound in 2020, but this would have been a damn fine record in any year. This cut stayed with me from the start, meaning it was just as good with COVID as it was without. There’s something to be said for that kind of versatility.

“The Steps” – Haim

Haim’s new record found the band emerging from the long shadow of their ancestors and finding their own voice and creative vibe. Este’s new confidence in her vocal range, the merging of genres, the shifting tempo, a memorable hook. I’m a Haim junkie and I don’t care who knows it.

“Guilty Conscience” – 070 Shake

Danielle Balbuena calls herself an alternative hip-hop artist. This song doesn’t speak to that, but it does suggest that we have no clue how big this Jersey-born talent could get. No genre can hold her. Big voice, musicality, experimentalism. No reservations. If you find yourself swaying for no earthly reason you might be hearing the background synths to “Guilty Conscience” in the back of your brain.

“Cool for a Second” – Yumi Zouma and Japanese Wallpaper

Two of my favorite electro-pop/dream-pop artists unite and it’s like this song always existed, somewhere out in the cosmos, an ethereal tone above our comprehension. These two artists just turned the right frequency. If you’re just learning about Yumi Zouma or Japanese Wallpaper you’ve got listening to do. Prepare to be content beyond belief.

“Ferris Wheel” – Sylvan Esso

This duo just has an indefinable swagger. It’s a good song… and then there’s that call and response “hey” thing and that’s the earworm of the year. That one second. To which I can only surrender.

“So We Won’t Forget” – Khruangbin

Other than a certain buzzy lady named Phoebe, Khruangbin released the record of my year. This Houston trio could be spouting gibberish poems over these slick grooves and I wouldn’t care. Kitchen cleaner ads. Whatever you want, guys. These mellow vibes cut through the imprecise nature of language. I have no idea what any of these songs are about. Who cares? A fast ride on a plodding mule into the sunset — that’s the Khruangbin tempo.

“My God” – The Killers, featuring Weyes Blood

Brandon Flowers brought the Killers back from the dead with a new lineup, new guest vocalists (kd lang?!) and a new lease on life. I included “Caution” on last year’s list and Weyes Blood is also no stranger to my countdowns, having won the top album spot in two different years. This one wound up at #6 because this here’s a pair of artists I never knew I wanted together. If you’re still resisting the grotesque and garish beauty of this new album from the Killers, I don’t think I want your kind of juju tarnishing these vibes.

“Stay” – Valerie June

Tennessee soul artist teases further greatness with a one-off song release. See this girl live if you can, if concerts ever reconvene because she’s a force of nature, the anomalous intersection of New York soul and Tennessee folk music. She’s inimitable — a perfect distillation of the self through a singular sound.

“Blinding Lights” – The Weeknd

Not much to say about The Weeknd that hasn’t already been said. I slept on this record and this song for months, but I’m glad I came back and gave it another chance. While I might not vibe with the album as much as his past efforts, it’s not for a lack of imagination. This guy’s a supernova and we’re just trying not to get burnt by the flames. It’s the synth that gets me, if I’m being honest.

“Breathe Deeper” – Tame Impala

Oh yeah. Tame Impala — how interesting. You would put Tame Impala on your list. Yeah. I would. Damn straight. Because while I’ve been a longtime fan, this album bangs by proxy. And “bangs by proxy” isn’t even the dumbest, most meaningless thing I wrote today. This is why I can’t write about music for more than an hour per day because things like that start making sense.

tie. “Too Late” – Washed Out
tie. “4 American Dollars” – U.S. Girls

Okay, so confession. #2 is a tie because I miscounted and started my list at #26 instead of #25, but why waste mindless prose when you can just call #2 a tie and make everybody but Travis happy because they got left out at #27 and goddammit those Scots deserve to be happy, too. But I can justify this pairing as well. I flip-flopped these two songs back and forth until finally calling it a day and sealing the envelope. I sing both of these in the shower. I own both on vinyl and they’re both not my #1. So much in common. In any other non-Phoebe Bridgers, non CHVRCHES year they could have been #1. Both also exist on the same mid-tempo wavelength that channels A.M. radio and platinum artists of the 70’s. I’ve said nothing about either artist, but you’ve learned dark secrets about my listing convictions and that’s more than enough truth for one day.

“ICU” – Phoebe Bridgers

It was always ever going to be Phoebe Bridgers. Los Angeles’ favorite daughter dictated the moods of everyone she touched this year. It should come as no surprise that Punisher dominated my personal airwaves. When I first heard a Phoebe Bridgers song years ago, I championed this artist because she had something that others didn’t — her own thing, her personal pizzaz, in a sea of imitators. We’ve witnessed her potential grow in a few short years, but I’m convinced there’s still room for more. When Phoebe breaks down “ICU” just beyond the 2-minute mark, it’s easy to consider the song finished… a good, but then — HOLY MOSES! — it rises to a new crescendo, a transcendence above the other great songs on Punisher. The surge of bass and the layering of her vocals channels what I believe to be the purest form of spiritual enlightenment we mortals can achieve.

PREVIOUS “BEST OF” SONG LISTS:

2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011

Footnote 2020 Playlists:

The full “Hits” List, basically the sandbox for every song that tickled my fancy during 2020.

2020 Covers, just a compilation of all the fetching covers I enjoyed.

The Last Greatest Hollywood Summer: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

The Last Greatest Hollywood Summer: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I’m home-schooling kids and maintaining stress levels and writing and research has become the most impossible thing in my world. I can barely type a sentence without fielding a homework question. (Technology and seven year olds do not mix.) I try at night. I try in the morning. Distraction is required, but distraction is a terrible writing bedfellow. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please share your thoughts. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.

On the previous episode of THE LAST GREATEST HOLLYWOOD SUMMER: The Preamble

die hard on a vhs

Chapter 1: Die Hard on a VHS Tape

Early 1989 slept off its holiday bender as, per tradition, prior-year releases dominated due to Oscar buzz and awards promotion. In the pin-up magazine dedicated to this phenomenon of the totally and completely forgettable January, 1989 graced the centerfold.

With a box office populated by seven forgettable mid-budget offerings like Deepstar Six, Physical Evidence, and The January Man, the Oscar-favorite Rain Man (1988) dominated ticket sales on its way to four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor. The film entered January at #1 in its third week of release and carried the title through the end of the month.

It would only be dethroned in February by the mostly forgotten Martin Short/Nick Nolte bank robbery comedy Three Fugitives. The film rode an overcompensatory advertising campaign to a $6.4 million opening week and $40 million over the course of a 16-week theatrical run. 16 weeks! That tells all you need to know about the early 1989 box office wasteland.

This apparent crowd pleaser offered broad humor and a wildly uneven tone that waffled between saccharine kid drama and screwball comedy. Despite strong (mismatched) lead performances, Three Fugitives barely registers as a film in 2020 unless you remember dragging your parents to see the thing due to a Martin Short obsession in the wake of Three Amigos! (1986). I do not doubt that they were pleased when I stopped spotting airplanes in the sky and asking them if they thought it was a “male plane.” (At least now my kids have seen Three Amigos! and are old enough to humor me.)

In a stagnant theatrical landscape, the real drama took place on the rental shelves. Until 1988, retail sell-through VHS comprised only about 20% of the home video market. The general public had yet to embrace the ownership of movies, which shouldn’t be surprising since most studios priced these VHS offerings according to their weight in precious minerals. With a going rate of $50-$100 for the average VHS tape[1], it’s not hard to see why rentals dominated the market. Only a few notable mega-hits had even launched retail advertising campaigns. The Top Gun / Pepsi reign of terror remains one of the most aggressively scarring marketing onslaughts in home video history.

In order to offset the loss of selling Top Gun at the then impossibly price of $26.95, Paramount struck a deal with Pepsi. Paramount Pictures allowed the soft drink maker to include a 2-minute commercial before the beginning of the film on retail VHS copies. In return, Pepsi agreed to push the Top Gun release during its own TV commercials. An entire generation survives to this day with the Pepsi commercial branded into their grey matter.

Unlike pay cable, which the studios had readily embraced because networks would prepay producers for exclusive rights, home video was met with skepticism. The original intended purpose of the VCR had been to record live television. So how did we reach a price-point of $80-$100 for individual home video releases? To answer this question, let’s enjoy a rapid-fire history of the sell-through VHS tape.

Founded by Andrew Blay (producer of They Live and Brain Damage), Magnetic Video approached 20st Century Fox in 1977 about obtaining a licensing agreement to release 50 films from their catalog on VHS and Betamax. At the time of Blay’s offer, the cash-strapped Fox had no qualms with making a few extra pennies on films that were just lying around gathering dust. Classics such as The Sound of Music, Patton, M*A*S*H, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became some of the first films sold via catalog mail order through the Video Club of America. Each of the boxes came with a list of the available films on the back cover rather than a description of the film itself. Each tape cost somewhere between $50 and $70.

The early success of the deal convinced Fox to purchase Magnetic Video outright in 1979. Soon after, Warner Brothers launched WCI Home Video and released 20 of their own catalog titles including the bulky clamshell VHS box everyone remembers, Superman. Since the movie ran longer than two hours, however, it had to be shortened from its theatrical runtime of 143 minutes to the VHS-friendly 127 minutes. Super speed, indeed. Nobody complained too much about the edits, however, because for the first time consumers could own their favorite movies and watch them as much and whenever they wanted[2] rather than relying on the rare prime-time television event.

Disney had also been an early adopter of sell-through pricing. The company began releasing live action classics such as The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks all the way back in 1980. Dumbo launched a series of animated classics in the fall of 1981 with a price of $29.95.

In 1982, Paramount’s home video production group tested the temperature with the release of an individual episode of the Star Trek television series. “Space Seed” hit retail shelves in the wake of the theatrical success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Space Seed” remained on the Billboard chart for bestselling VHS tapes from the summer of 1982 until early 1983. It received another boost when The Wrath of Khan hit home video shelves for the bargain price of $39.95 — $40 less than Star Trek The Motion Picture just a couple years prior. The success of Star Trek on VHS gave Paramount the confidence to eventually offer every Star Trek original series episode for purchase on VHS, a brand new concept in home video, but one that seems positively quaint in the wake of the availability of TV on DVD and streaming services like Netflix that allow you access to the entire 236-episode run of Friends with the wave of a remote.

Despite their hesitancy, studios could not hold back the tide of home video. They had to adapt or get swept away. 20th Century Fox rubbed the lamp, and nobody could put the genie back in the bottle. VHS and Betamax brought movies into the home, and the closely guarded studio gates were about to be forced open with a crowbar known as Blockbuster Video.

Founded in 1985, Blockbuster Video quickly became the largest rental chain in the country and a swift jab into the jaw of Hollywood. The rise of the video rental store caused a chain reaction all across the industry. But first let’s be kind rewind and talk legalese.

Concerns about piracy and copyright had begun as early as 1976 when various studios (obviously not including 20th Century Fox, who’d jumped on direct-sale VHS early) sued Sony to prevent the proliferation of their Betamax machine. Focus at the time had been on the legality of copying television programming, not the retail viability of home video ownership. Sony won the initial case, but Universal Studios appealed. In the 1981 appellate case, Sony was found liable for the copyright infringement of the Betamax users. That’s like sending Lee Iacocca a bill for all speeding fines levied against drivers of Mustangs. Consider the ramifications of making Sony liable for all supposed financial losses resulting from the use of the already widely adopted Betamax platform. At the very least, immediate insolvency. Naturally, Sony appealed to a higher power, the Supreme Court. In what has become known as the “Betamax Case,” the Berger Court ruled 5-4 to ban Betamax and the VCR before deciding to make both sides re-argue their case (a court feature that was only granted in 2.6% of all Berger Court cases. Statistics included for the Court junkies in my readership).

After new arguments and testimonies, one judge switched sides, ruling in favor of Sony. In its final argument, the court cited Mr. Fred Rogers’ testimony as a major tipping point. In his speech supporting the use of home video recording devices, the beloved children’s TV personality said, “I have always felt that with the advent of new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air, they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others.” And after single-handedly saving home video, DVD and everything beyond, Mr. Rogers dropped his microphone and exited stage left, a curious footnote in the story of the VCR’s ascendancy.

In the 1983 Consumer Video Sales Rental Act, Congress also ruled, independent of the suit against Sony, that video rentals did not infringe upon copyright despite the testimony of Jack Valenti, then head of the MPAA, who claimed that the “VCR is to the American film producer as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” Stay classy, Jack. In this parallel decision, Congress upheld the Supreme Court’s decision that VCRs and VHS rental constituted “fair use.”

Having lost their days in court, the studios fought back with consistently higher prices for VHS tapes ($79.99 being a consistent price point). When higher prices not-so-shockingly resulted in more piracy, studios implemented a little trick they had up their sleeve called Macrovision. Macrovision resulted in fluctuating screen brightness and fuzzy pictures on tape duplication. Professionals found workarounds, savvy consumers found the latest loopholes, and the vicious cycle continued.

By 1983, VCRs had invaded more than 10% of American homes and despite the hefty price tag for machines, still hovering at around $528[3], the home video market found itself perched atop an active volcano. Paramount took the first step in this brave new world by releasing Raiders of the Lost Ark and Footloose at the reduced price of $29.95. Warner followed by dropping Purple Rain to a similar price point. When these successful A-list films sold well and further stoked the desires for home ownership, Studios initiated a two-pronged attack. They’d sell their biggest hits, the massive moneymakers at $29.95 (“sell-through pricing”), and all other films at $79.95 (“rental pricing”).

The gap would widen even further by the end of the decade with some titles such as Top Gun finding introductory sell-through sale pricing in the neighborhood of $20 (and accompanied by that $8 million-dollar marketing campaign with Diet Pepsi) while all other lackluster performers hovered around the $100 per tape barrier. Despite acknowledging that the $19.95 price point represented the magic number for direct home video sales, studios still attempted to find ways to market cassettes retailing for $79.95 and $89.95 – as if consumers could still justify paying almost $100 after buying Top Gun for $20. Even Return of the Jedi failed to move the expected number of units after CBS/Fox spent $2 million promoting the release[4].

All of these macroeconomic machinations reached a crescendo during the holiday season of 1988. With the availability of E.T. (1982) and Cinderella (1950) for sell-through home purchase, VHS sales revenue surpassed rental revenue for the first time in history. From our perspective where the rental market has become nonexistent, this shift might feel like a minor blip in the grand scheme of 1989, but within the industry this development signaled the proper arrival of the home video generation – and more than ten years after the first VHS tapes went on sale for home consumption, Hollywood struggled to find balance.

All I understood at the time was that the movies I loved in the theater suddenly appeared for purchase where they weren’t before and what kid wouldn’t find that kind of novelty thrilling? Gone were the days of renting a VHS tape and dubbing three mismatched movies onto a cassette tape for maximum squiggle and jitters. (SLP, FTW!) I could walk into a video store in 1989 and find newly released movies I wanted to own for less than $20. Looking back, this may have been my superhero origin story. Having dished out those $100 for an original Superman, my parents also felt the seismic shift. I recall my dad walking into Suncoast Video and buying VHS copies of movies he hadn’t even seen because they were $15 and they must have been good and popular because they were right there in abdominals made from a 2×3 VHS grid for a life-size Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Next to advertisements for Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl, the sales charts in the January 7th, 1989 issue of Billboard Magazine reveals so much about the state of home video, and specifically the VHS market, as it reached the peak of its popularity as an everyday commodity.

vhs sales jan 7 1989

 

Only three of the top 10 selling cassettes – E.T., Dirty Dancing, and Lethal Weapon — featured movies released in the 1980’s. The rest were all pre-1970 classic catalog titles. Note that The Wizard of Oz had been on the chart for 179 weeks since its VHS debut in 1985! If you allow your eyes to filter down to the bottom of the chart, you’ll get a broader picture of the 1980’s video landscape – Callanetics (103 weeks), Jane Fonda (42 weeks), The Grinch (a mere VHS babe at 3 weeks), Mickey Mouse (29 weeks) and Def Leppard (21 weeks). So few sell-through releases hit these charts that a single workout tape had remained a best-seller for two years. I guarantee you know someone that bought Callanetics on VHS. Hell, there’s a good chance that you own a copy of Callanetics and don’t even know it. At that volume they had to be giving them out at baby showers and bar mitzvahs. It remains the number one selling exercise video of all time. (How many husbands gift-wrapped Callanetics to give to their wife at Christmas? Oh, that’s sweet… maybe next time stick to the mildly insulting vacuum cleaner and don’t put a bow on a VHS called ‘I think you’re fat.’)

And now for a semi-related tangent. 

Studying release dates and popularity paints a defining portrait of not just the VHS market, but the 1980’s as a commercial entity. Alongside the expected charts for VHS sales and rentals, the magazine listed sales for “Videodisks” aka Laserdiscs. For the divinely curious, Beetlejuice topped the chart – but I don’t want to talk about Laserdiscs because these weren’t yet on my radar. (We didn’t invest in that platform for another couple years.) I’d much rather talk about the format that Laserdiscs replaced, for all intents and purposes. Remember the RCA Videodisc? The bizarre hybridization of the VHS tape and the vinyl record never evolved beyond a niche market or a video nerd punchline who thought “Betamax” was too prosaic.

Also known as CEDs or Capacitance Electronic Disc – the analog playback system developed by RCA utilized a needle and groove system much like that of the phonograph. First developed in 1964, incompetence and technical difficulties delayed release until 1981. “Incompetence” is a nice shortcut for all the uninteresting nonsense that delays the release of any technology almost beyond its natural obsolescence.

Housed in a plastic casing the size of a vinyl record sleeve, the user would insert the disc into the player like a front-loading VCR. Although the CED had the same number of lines of resolution as VHS (but less than the laserdisc, which as I suggested was just over the horizon), RCA’s superior mastering techniques allowed for a higher quality picture. Grain of salt considering most everyone had a square 27” cathode ray television upon which to play these magical vinyl records.

RCA expected to sell more than 200,000 $500 players upon release in 1981 – however those estimates were made before the rapid advance of the VCR as then-RCA-head Anthony Conrad had decided to proceed with promotion of the CED system as early as a 1977 article in Popular Science. It was determined shortly thereafter that the design required further testing and development, resulting in the four-year crawl to the consumer market.

CEDs proved to be a technological success, more than doubling the data density of an audio LP at what would have been half the price of a VCR in the late 1970’s. Upon their 1981 arrival, and lacking the ability to record, RCA’s vision for the future of home video failed. By 1984 RCA abandoned development after having sold only 500,000 players. Disc sales, however, continued to remain strong – selling more than twice the number anticipated – which led RCA to continue producing discs until sometime in 1986, well after the official demise of the platform.

Remember how the studios sent their army of lawyers to fight the proliferation of VHS and Betamax? All of the major studios hopped on board the tiny CED bandwagon. More than 1700 Videodisc titles were released during those five years. The price per disc started at $19.98 for specialty titles like cartoons and compilations and rose to $34.98 for a single-disc movie and $39.98 for a double-disc. Compare that to the traditional $80 for a VHS tape. You could buy a movie on Videodisc for the price of a blank VHS tape (that would, of course, soon be filled with three dubbed rental tapes in SLP.)

On June 27th, 1986, the final disc pressed at the RCA pressing plant on Rockville Road in Indianapolis, Indiana was a title called “Memories of Videodisc,” a commemorative CED given out to RCA employees at the end of the Videodisc era featuring snapshots of the Rockville facilities, employees and various promotional materials. The disc begins with an 11-minute presentation from Dr. Jay J. Brandinger, RCA Vice President and general manager of Videodisc operations. During this presentation Brandinger eulogizes the format by quoting Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Now if I’m reaching back into my bag of undergraduate English classes to pull out Machiavelli memories, I’d suggest that is a rather disproportionate response to the format wars of the 1980’s – seeing as how The Prince first coined the term “Machiavellian” to describe the unlimited lengths men would go to achieve or maintain political power. Though adding the traits “duplicitous” and “amoral” to VHS’ character list alongside “jittery,” “degenerative,” and “chewable” adds a little more pizzazz to the behind-the-scenes drama. As RCA’s dream of movies on vinyl died, it’s fun to imagine them sulking in the corner, listening to The Cure, and intermittently monologuing about “bullshit capitalist dogma.”

I predominantly used my grandmother’s CED player to watch Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre as these discs constituted the majority of her personal collection. Whenever she’d babysit, we’d drive up to video rental store that had the discs for rent and pick something out. Looking back, it seems unusual that in a farm community of roughly 2000 people we had two video rental stores and one of them boasted a plethora of RCA Videodiscs and players for rental and purchase. I’ll let you guess which one of these stores survived the longest. (Hint: It wasn’t the one that invested in CEDs.)

Home video, CEDs included, played an integral part in my coming of age as a liberal-minded moviegoer. Without this new accessibility to movies, I’m not entirely certain 1989 becomes such a landmark year and I’m not sure I’m even writing about movies in the 21st century. The movies I was able to own and view on repeat, time and time again, contributed heavily to the desire to go forth and seek out more movies and more movies after that. (Who knew you know you could order VHS tapes from all over the world?! I can pick up this phone to order some bootleg Italian horror movies from Canada!) The sell-through VHS boom didn’t dampen my desire for the theatrical experience; on the contrary, it stoked the fires and made me keenly aware of future theatrical release dates. I feverishly rented movies like License to Drive (the Coreys!) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport. The more and varied movies I rented the more movies I considered in the theater. I didn’t know it yet – but my cinematic frame of reference approached a Big Bang.

I’m not sure why this memory stands out so acutely, but inside my red Trapper Keeper there lived a small calendar. It was just a single sheet of miniature dates featuring the days of the 1988-1989 school year. Now I’d probably have to squint to make anything out. Upon that calendar I began circling release dates for movies and future rentals. Fourth grade just doesn’t require constant planning and preparation, so I found a way to make the calendar personally useful. To be fair to fourth grade, however, I didn’t consider scholastic planning a useful endeavor until at least high school and even now my documentation leaves much to the imagination.

On that fourth grade calendar I had a specific week highlighted in green – I know it was green because I always kept a green highlighter in my bag. I refused to be a mindless slave to Mola Ram[5], aka the yellow highlighter.

In the event that you were merely a lusty twinkle during this greatest movie generation, Die Hard was a big deal. I’d suggest that it was an especially big deal to prepubescent boys, but that would unfairly discount the prepubescent girls with which I didn’t discuss Die Hard in 1989.

At 9, I wasn’t yet old enough to partake of John McClane’s bloody exploits in the theater. And indeed I tried. The answer to any R-rated theatrical experience resulted in the “Wait for the rental” response. My parents laid down only a few hard-liner policies regarding my viewing habits and the theatrical R-rated line was not one that could yet be crossed. Considering that as children of the 80’s we witnessed in PG-rated movies rampant sexuality, illegal drug use, exploitative violence, more shits than you could measure with a fuckstick, exploding green monsters in microwaves, and the discretization of Santa Claus (credit to Gremlins for those last two), pardon my contemporaneous skepticism over what scandalous madness happened inside an R-rated theater when I’d already seen it all on my 40” cathode ray tube.

I couldn’t have been present when the video-store clerk scribbled Die Hard on the “Coming Soon” chalkboard, sometime in December for a mid-February release date. Memory’s faulty that way; it fills in gaps to serve dramatic ends. I’d have been browsing the new releases, disgusted by the non-availability of Three Men and a Baby, when what-ho! The clerk ascending the stepstool to chalk his scrawl across the blackboard that hadn’t been properly scrubbed since the release of that Ewok movie. I paused and waited for the reveal of the titles coming to a VCR near me. Once the “D” appeared, hundreds of video-store idlers rushed the counter to mark themselves down on the waitlist, leaving me battered and torn, no match for the stampeding horde of elder moviewatchers… and 27th on the Die Hard list.

Die Hard felt like the biggest movie in the world. Because I’d been denied a theatrical viewing, the anticipation created an unparalleled thirst. This was also partly due to the ads airing what seemed like every thirty minutes on television. First for the film, then for the rental. And with my 10-year-old conception of time and space, i.e. loosely based on the beginning and end of baseball season, the wait for anything between October and April felt outside of time. After seeing Three Fugitives during that last week in January, I embarked on a long, cold winter of video store trips and waiting and waiting… and waiting… for Die Hard on VHS. And while it wasn’t traversing broken glass barefoot, the intermittent weeks felt interminable and uninterrupted.

What certainly didn’t help was that dearth of theatrical releases to distract me from the “Coming Soon” Chalkboard. Conversely, I might have been too focused on Die Hard to take into account the slumbering greatness appearing at a theater near me. A few of these movies would go on to become beloved essentials in my home video library. I’m still not sure how Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure escaped me. Joe Dante’s R-rated The ‘burbs obviously waited for home video, and honestly I hadn’t yet properly become acquainted with Tom Hanks beyond The Money Pit. I do really like The Money Pit, but there’s nothing there to re-orient my limited worldview.

While I did attempt to cajole an adult or two to take me to see Who’s Harry Crumb?, all driving-age relatives and family friends opted out of the opportunity to embrace that John Candy movie. (Which I’m sure you’ll mostly all agree was their loss. To quote Harry Crumb himself, “A book cover is only skin deep. Sometimes you have to read every word to get the whole picture.”) Was I really the only one willing to admit a palpable pre-teen crush on Iron Eagle and Summer School star Shawnee Smith?

And here’s the boondoggle, a grand irony after all the straight-to-video quality grand guignol, I don’t remember my first viewing of Die Hard. I remember the build-up and the aftermath. After the release of the VHS tape for purchase, I dogged that tape within an inch of its life. I could recite all of Hans Gruber’s best lines. I lobbied for a Hans Gruber business suit at Halloween 1989, but it was decided the outfit might have been in poor taste.

You’ll be happy to know that this story has dramatic closure, despite the gap in memory. Two years later, Die Hard 2 become my first R-rated theatrical experience. It’s utterly confusing to me that I can reminisce about so many eccentric details but remember nothing about that first Die Hard viewing. Like I said, memory’s a funny thing. It’s also a cruel and unforgiving prankster. This irony appears to me in nightmarish visions of talking horse with the voice of John Candy. (In February of 1989, all human life seems to revolve around John Candy as if he were a celestial body and not just a larger than average human.) Around the same time I would have finally seen Die Hard, I watched a mostly forgotten but completely inept movie by the name of Hot to Trot (1988) starring Bobcat Goldthwaite, Virginia Madsen, Dabney Coleman, and the voice of John Candy.

I can’t even fathom the heavy sighs that accompanied my rental of Hot to Trot. I loved the Police Academy movies, much to the detriment of my early comic sensibilities. Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) and Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986) featured a primal manimal by the name of Zed, played by none other than the Bobcat. This led to the immediate rental of Hot to Trot and a nightly parental prayer than Bobcat would make no more starring vehicles for me to rent.

Around this same time my dad presented me with a VHS collection of Francis the Talking Mule movies. That’s generally how I felt my way into classic films. I’d become interested in a lesser or referential 1980’s film and my parents would present me with a reputedly more palatable alternative. I find myself doing the same thing with my daughters now. I didn’t recognize the value at the time but allowing them to discover derivative contemporary programming gives them an opportunity to build their own identity – while simultaneously allowing me to supplement with my own experience. As a parent I find it important to use contemporary benchmarks as a gateway drug. I’ve also learned that if you do not allow unfettered television privileges, they will watch anything once given the opportunity. (I have not tested them with Francis the Talking Mule… yet.)

References to older, classic films appear in all forms of media. Sure – in many ways, they’re placed there for the benefit of the parents. If parents enjoy a show, they’re far more likely to present that programming to their kids, but that doesn’t mean the obligation should end there. Talk about where these things come from. I was able to introduce my kids to The Marx Brothers and ultimately other silent and classic comedians like Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello as a result of a brief Grouch Marx routine in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The short’s called “Wideo Wabbitt” from 1956, by the way, in which a cigar-chomping Bugs imitates Groucho doing an introduction to You Bet Your Life featuring Elmer Fudd.

We tend to assign a greater value to our own nostalgia because that nostalgia represents the formative foundation for our entire frame of reference. With proper exposure to older media, we understand that it doesn’t, but we still subscribe to the feeling that our 1989 bested every 1989 that had ever been. And it goes without saying that all future 1989’s will pale in comparison. Allow me to set a baseline. Would anyone rightly proclaim Hot to Trot the righteous heir to the throne of talking horse cinema? Don’t answer right away.

First of all, claiming ownership of the talking horse throne is like planning to dress up as Menudo for Halloween 2020. At no point during the last 30 years did that sound like a sensible goal. (Neither was it sensible in 1989.) Hot to Trot was just the talking horse movie I knew. Only because my dad responded with Francis the Talking Mule did I then have the opportunity to understand the origins of Hot to Trot. I also came to realize that we’ve been laughing at the same talking horse jokes for 50 years. My parents watched Donald O’Connor and Mickey Rooney; my friends and I embraced Bobcat Goldthwaite. From an objective point of view, that’s an unequal substitution, but we, as pre-teens in the late 80’s embraced Bobcat Goldthwaite because we loved him in Police Academy. Maybe we just connected on a level beyond words, like the apes and the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

(I never thought when I woke up this morning that I’d write about the healing properties of Hot to Trot, but I’ll accept your gesture of continued readership as indication that you too have accepted the healing properties of Hot to Trot, at least temporarily or in theory.)

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[1] It would cost you roughly $200 in 2020 dollars to own your very own copy of Return of the Jedi in 1986, which some fans would deem acceptable now that George Lucas has locked away the original cuts of these films where no one will ever find them.

[2] We now take this for granted and have slowly ceded our control back to the studios by eliminating the “clutter” of home video and opting instead for subscriptions to streaming services. Convenient and clutter-free, the streaming services have given studios the ability to take back their movie libraries, bury them behind paywalls and slyly undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Paramount. In that 1948 case, the Court found that the studios had violated anti-trust laws by controlling the production, distribution and exhibition of their movies.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/12/business/innovations-spur-boom-in-vcr-sales.html

[4] ‘Marketing ‘Top Gun’ Cassette by Aljean Harmetz Jan 15, 1987

[5] In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the heart stealing Mola Ram made his subjects drink blood from a skull in order to enslave their mind. The highlighter parallel could not be clearer.

 

The Last Greatest Hollywood Summer: The Preface

The Last Greatest Hollywood Summer: The Preface

I’ve decided to start posting chapter drafts of my manuscript about the summer movies of 1989. In light of our current quarantine situation, my writing has become nothing but a chore. I’m home-schooling kids and maintaining stress levels and writing and research has become the most impossible thing in my world. I can barely type a sentence without fielding a homework question. (Technology and seven year olds do not mix.) I try at night. I try in the morning. Distraction is required, but distraction is a terrible writing bedfellow. I know many won’t read these pages, but if you do, please your thoughtful comments. I hope our communication causes me to get back to writing. I hope writing once again becomes the distraction rather than the chore.

Introduction: Bryan Adams Was 9 Years Old During the Summer of ’69 (and Why That Matters in a Book About the Movies of 1989)

The “Summer of ‘69” represents Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Bryan Adams’ defining 212 seconds.

Feel free to argue in favor of “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but you’d be wrong. First of all, the song is either 394 or 246 seconds depending whether you’re enjoying the album version or radio edit. Secondly, After a rigorous, scientific study[1] of pop-format radio factoring in things like algorithms, biorhythms and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, I’ve determined that if you turn on any given radio station in the 21st century, you’ve a 217% greater chance of hearing “Summer of ’69” than any other Bryan Adams song. In fact, now that you’ve read this, I guarantee you’ll hear Bryan Adams today. And maybe even Bryan Ferry and definitely Janet Jackson because do you remember how many amazing cuts came from Rhythm Nation 1814? (All of them.)

Bryan Adams, in the “Summer of ’69,” croons about acquiring his first real guitar and the failings of his garage band, hanging out at the drive-in, but it’s a song about nostalgia for being young and in love with nothing much better to do.

Important fact – or at least an important fact in light of the back door I’m going to use to bridge this wayward conversation into something cinematically relevant. I always attributed these lyrics to Bryan Adams but the singer was only nine during that supposedly idyllic summer of 1969. Rather than jumping to conclusions about the Bryan Adams Time Paradox, I chose the Google. Alas, no time paradox required; Mr. Adams croons about Jim Vallance’s summer, when his songwriter would have been a ripe and ready 17. After turning this fact over in my brain, I came to the following realizations.

  1. I’ve always prematurely aged Bryan Adams about 7-8 years.
  2. The ‘Summer of 77’ would have required a much less appealing rhyme scheme as it would have succumbed to its prosaic instincts and included the word “heaven.”
  3. I’m not actually that interested in Jim Vallance’s summer, but it sounds nice in song and works so well because it makes me nostalgic for a time that I never experienced.

This made me take stock to my own “summer of 1969.” If I’d written an ode to my parallel 17-year-old summer of ‘96, it’d have leaned heavily on arcades, midnight putt-putt, and sneak-in triple features at local multiplexes. Personally, I’m very much concerned about potential “arcade” inspired lyrics. My hopes and dreams at 17 merely represented the perpetuation of dreams implanted the summer just before my 10th birthday, the resplendent summer of 1989 – the equivalent of Bryan Adams’ 1969. The year during which I presume he listened to the Beatles’ Abbey Road and it changed his life forever, allowing him to pursue his own ill-fated garage band in the summer of 1977. This history writes itself. No fact-checking necessary.

Fact check: Bryan Guy Adams had already become a successful vocalist for the Vancouver band Sweeney Todd and would sign a contract with A&M records in 1978, having already met Mr. “Summer of ‘69” Jim Vallance the preceding year.

If there was no better time to be a rock and roll prodigy than 1969, there was also no better time to be a 10-year-old cinephile-in-training than the summer of 1989.

I couldn’t tell you much of anything about my day-to-day life. I subscribed to some early girlfriend program. Her name was Stacy. I conversed with her over a beige and corded rotary-dial phone. I misspelled “malicious” in the spelling bee because I slurred two letters together (but I knew how to spell the word, goddammit). I request that “he knew how to spell ‘malicious’” be printed in my obituary. I listened to Huey Lewis and the News while everyone else debated Jordan or Joey. They’re New Kids on the Block, by the way. You may not know it, but my generation has not yet evolved beyond NKOTB relations on a first-name basis. I pity any other Jordan or Joey that expects to be on a first-name basis with us twilight Gen-Xers.

Other than that? I went to the movies. I rented movies. I could tell you every movie I saw in the theater that summer and every movie I watched over the course of the year on VHS rentals. I can tell you where I saw them and probably what food I ate before going to the theater. A pair of plain Burger King double cheeseburgers and a Dr. Pepper. As far as I was concerned the world existed so that movies could be exhibited. It was the best of all realities, and I had no idea it wouldn’t last. I had no idea that I’d never see another summer quite like it because the movie business was about to change, radically and forever.

Chalk some of this feeling up to nostalgia. As adults we’ll never feel as passionately about anything as we did in our childhood. Our worlds opened up before us, an ever-expanding video store of potential. For some that meant first hearing a record that changed a life trajectory, a Broadway play that brought out unrealized, inner Sondheims. Whatever “it” was, that experience unlocked heretofore-unrealized passions and dreams. We elevated these moments into a realm of incorruptible purity and granted these discoveries the designation of being the best thing ever. Nostalgia preserves these emotions in suspended animation, mosquitos embedded in amber. (Those “summer of ‘93” Jurassic Park dinosaur nerds know exactly what I’m talking about.)

It could be that the summer of 1989 landed at just the right moment – that this nostalgia causes a particular movie season to float above the others, a buoy in an ocean of uniformly blasé Hollywood excess. As I’ve grown older and the dissonance between the reality and the childhood experience increases, it’s still this summer that resonates as the great intersection of emotion and nostalgia-free, objective greatness. The summer of 1989 was the best summer movie season in Hollywood history – not the most original or objectively pure (in the most Peter Biskind-y of evaluations) – but in the I’ve-got-nothing-else-to-do-let’s-all-go-to-the-movies-because-everything-is-awesome kind of best. I’ll take all challengers. It also, with the benefit of hindsight, represented a cataclysmic shift in the industry. A simultaneous lurch forward into the modern franchise era and the subtle deathgasm of 1970’s auteurism. (Don’t tell Biskind.) It was primarily, however, the end of the wildly innovative and irresponsible pop-entertainment of the 1980’s.

Contrary to all calendars, my summer of 1989 actually began, in earnest, the weekend of June 8th, 1984. Until that date, movies came and went and maybe I journeyed to a theater according to the moviegoing whims of my parents and maybe I didn’t. I’d never put skin in the game; I’d never had much in the way of my own opinions. Disney re-releases and the occasional PG-rated movie that my parents decided was a must-see. (Keep in mind that these were still “80’s PG,” so frivolous nudity and minor-to-rampant bloodletting fell under the auspices of general “parental guidance.”) Everything was new and good because I had nothing with which to compare it. My earliest theatrical memories involve some symphonic mélange of Bambi, Return of the Jedi, and Romancing the Stone[2].

At the age of six, however, that all irrevocably changed when I became receptive to marketing. Hollywood opened up a tunnel into our prepubescent brains and lit up our nucleus accumbens[3] like a pinball machine. Movie trailers. Sticker books. Novelizations. Happy meals. Cereal. Hi-C Ecto Coolers. Toxic. Green. Delicious. All of these things manifested during the lead-up to the release of both Ghostbusters and Gremlins on June 8th, 1984. The Hollywood hype machine worked its magic. Not only was I aware of these movies, I anticipated their assured greatness. Calling this anything less than an awakening in light of what would follow would be an understatement.

I remember vividly my first theatrical experience with Ghostbusters. Five-going-on-six and cowering behind slatted fingers, viewing the ghostly, sound-conscious librarian with an inseparable mixture of fear and anticipation. My first taste of modern horror cinema, the inability to watch, the inability to look away. Hook. Line. Sinker. Adults jump out of planes for the same rush I felt watching these two movies a combined total of seven times that summer. Each trip cost $4 and a sack of salty popcorn. I just had to convince my parents to take me to the movies, which wasn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds.

I grew up in a small town in Southwestern Michigan and this posed some challenges to this new hobby of mine. If not for the fact that these two films remained in circulation throughout much of the year in first run and then in our relatively more local second-run theater – I may not have made such a clear and immediate connection. My parents could not have anticipated the fallout. (An undergraduate degree in Film Studies certainly never stood out as a potential endgame to taking me to see Ghostbusters so many times.)

Return of the Jedi excepted, I’d not been aware of release dates as I found movies almost exclusively from the shelves of my local video store. As the product of parents who believed in wide-open but parentally-guided viewing, I was allowed to rent and view most any title that interested me – so long as they provided constant reminders that certain language or actions remained taboo for decent and/or small humans. At a certain point I began pre-emptively turning to my mother and saying “Language!” in response to a lack of on-screen decorum.

As an only child I would retreat to my room with my bins of Star Wars, He-Man and Transformers figures and play out elaborate Shakespearean melodramas that generally involved a lot of setting up idling Stormtroopers like rows of dominoes. (I once paused Return of the Jedi during the Emperor’s arrival on the Death Star to count the number of Stormtroopers present so that I could request that many for Christmas. While I never achieved the stated number of standard-issue Stormtroopers I did have enough for a small tactical division that mostly just idled outside the gate of Castle Greyskull talking about the weather and rising interest rates.)

R-rated movies entered my frame of reference as early as 1984. Beverly Hills Cop, Animal House, and Stripes became household fixtures. As long as I refrained from abusing my relatively more adult viewing privileges, I could still choose from those beautiful new release shelves filled with shiny, unsullied VHS tapes encased in clear, plastic, strictly-for-rental covers. Exploitative violence would come in time, but first there was language and some of that aforementioned occasional, frivolous 1980s-brand nudity. To this my mother would sigh; I would pretend not to notice by feigning distraction and humming something unrelated and pure like “Mahna Mahna” from The Muppet Show. Also, not a day goes by without “Mahna Mahna” running through my head at least once so at best I’m making an educated guess here. I’m very sure, however, that I understood the awkward subtext of the situation. Old enough to know I was kinda-sorta interested in girls and that feigning indifference around my parents offered the surest route around those conversational pre-pubescent landmines. I managed to hold those back for at least another couple years.

It was during this time that I also became acutely aware of the release schedule at my local video store, a chalkboard to the left of the desk on which clerks scrawled the coming titles from the next three or so weeks. With the veracity with which I once stockpiled dinosaur genus and species I now counted down the minutes until the VHS release of Police Academy 3: Back in Training.

Outside Gremlins and Ghostbusters, I remember few other theatrical trips between 1984 and 1989. I could name other movies I first saw in the theater, but the experience, the concrete memories have all but dissipated. There’s no connection.

Even if you weren’t around or old enough to similarly experience 1989, you likely have your own 1989, the year that movies or music became more than just background noise. The year these movies became permanent moments in time, post-it notes that trigger memories enough to fill shoeboxes and nostalgia for a time that no longer exists. The fabric on the chairs of your multiplex. The way the each specific theater’s popcorn smelled upon stepping into the lobby. Perhaps the numbing repetition of an AMC pre-show bumper. The short-supply marquee letters for which vaguely similar numbers had become substitutions long before Se7en made it socially acceptable. I once recall an upside down “4” representing an “n.”

In as much as I’m writing a love letter to 1989, my 1989, it’s likewise an ode to everyone’s 1989 – be it 1993 or 1939. These first loves never leave us. Even as we consume thousands of subsequent movies, the 1989s in our life remain more immediate than the movies we watched just last week. These were dreams written on clean sheets of parchment rather than palimpsestuous layers of Hollywood regurgitation. Their sense of permanence only becomes stronger as their origin stories become more meaningful. We grow and age and reflect on them as formative touchstones. Who we’ve become as adults owes much to our 1989, our year of cinematic awakening.

The indulgence in nostalgia shouldn’t be considered a dirty exercise in solipsism. Allowing ourselves a gateway to the gooey trappings of our carefree years reminds us that “frivolous” things like music and movies do have the power to transcend time and space. They create bonds between people. Permanent memories of shared experiences. The feelings I had upon first watching Tim Burton’s Batman or waiting impatiently for that long-promised Ghostbusters sequel, reveling in the confidence that Weird Al’s UHF would become an instant classic – these things can all be summoned at a moment’s notice – the press of a button, the click of a mouse. I know exactly who sat beside me and I cherish all of these moments. Drink from the fire hose, experience Carpathian kitten loss, and definitely dance with the devil under the pale moonlight. It’s not a crime to give into the desire to backslide into our past selves when movies meant everything and the rest of it was just stuff preventing you from watching movies.

1989 taught me what it meant to be an obsessive – not just about movies, but about pursuing the things that seem to love you in return. I devoured movies, and movies in turn taught me something about life. The agony and ecstasy of anticipation and disappointment, that sometimes the best laid plans go awry and not everyone gets their just desserts. Good often wins, but not always. That it’s okay to love, to feel emotion. That thrills and comedy provide necessary escapes from dull or sometimes grueling reality. But all these things would come in time. In that moment, there were only flickering images projected through a semi-transparent plastic film base coated on one side with gelatin emulsion containing microscopically small light-sensitive silver halide crystals an onto a silver screen. That’s entertainment.

There’s a reason 1989 looms so large – not just in my own personal frame of reference, but also for the movie business itself. It’s as if 1989 represented a kind of temporal fulcrum, like Back to the Future II’s alternate, branching 1985s. The future of the film industry hung in the balance. To quote Joe Banks in Joe Versus the Volcano (unfortunately a 1990 film), “I didn’t know it—but I knew it.” Even if I didn’t know why 1989 felt so important, I recognized the smell of revolution.

I was young and in love with movies with nothing much better to do.

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[1] I scanned XM/Sirius Radio channels 80’s on 8 and 90’s on 9 for a week. During this time period I heard “Summer of ‘69” three times and “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” once.

[2] My favorite 1984 movie moment? When Bambi and Thumper got high on the stash they found in the plane carcass high atop the Ewok Village canopy and forgot to take down the forcefield around Cartagena.

[3] The pleasure center.

The Bellboy (1960): Cinema Shame

The Bellboy (1960): Cinema Shame

the bellboy posterI’m playing a bit of double catch up with this viewing. Technically, I’m playing catch up on a movie I had on my Shame Statement from 2019 and I’m playing catch up because The Bellboy turns 60 this year. That’s a lot of catch up. What do you do with all that catch up? Make hot dogs, probably. But I don’t put ketchup on my hot dog, so the whole thing is moot. Sauerkraut, mustard, relish, onions. These are all acceptable hot dog toppings. Honestly, my feelings about ketchup mirror my feelings about Jerry Lewis. I’m glad they exist, but I can do without both.

My prior exposure to Jerry Lewis came with a side of Dean Martin to wash it down. That’s my preferred method of ingestion.

So Jerry Lewis is Always Jerry Lewis Even When He’s Not

The Bellboy makes me actively frustrated — not because I disliked it, but because I would have loved it had most every scene not concluded with a hammy shot of Lewis mugging facial contortions for the camera. His schtick seems to function akin to a sitcom laugh track. In case you missed the joke, here’s a face you can’t overlook. I loved the setting. Fountainbleu Miami Beach, just a few years before James Bond and Auric Goldfinger cross paths in the very same hotel. Photographed by someone named Haskell B. Boggs, the hotel becomes an omnipresent character in Lewis’ farce. The winding staircase (also seen in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), the corridors, the ins and outs, the cavernous gathering spaces where Jerry Lewis runs amuck as a bellhop named Stanley (and as a comedian named Jerry Lewis).

the bellboy 1960

I felt the influence of Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot through every perfectly calculated movement, every stumble down a step, every gesture, every glance. Jerry Lewis exclamation point face! He’s a meticulous performer, but that’s not an observation. There’s nothing about his performance in The Bellboy that doesn’t feel calculated and choreographed like a Fred Astaire tap number, which makes the moment that he breaks the spell all that much more aggravating. It happens as often as it doesn’t.

Lewis wrote and directed The Bellboy (his debut), and the film’s tone and precision reflects a tightly controlled production. It opens with a studio executive (played by Jack Kruschen in an uncredited role) describing the aimless exploits of a single bellboy. It feels more like a pre-apology to American audiences who wouldn’t have been expecting a plotless comedy featuring sequences of ridiculous situations stacked one on top of the other. I wouldn’t exactly classify them as “blackout gags” in the strictest sense — which I’ve always associated with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. Rapid-fire, vaudevillian, abruptly transitioned. Jerry Lewis spends more time developing a visual joke before abruptly moving on to another transitory vignette.

jerry lewis mugs with a sleepy lady in the bellboy

Aside from Tati (and Harpo Marx and a dash of Charlie Chaplin while we’re at it), Lewis creates an obvious through-line to Laurel and Hardy. He’d consulted his friend Stan Laurel about perfecting a kind of silent pantomime and even included a Stan Laurel lookalike character, played by Bill Richmond, who appears randomly throughout the film. Other than causing some amusing asides from the already amusing asides, the visual homage doesn’t contribute a great deal. That speaks to how I felt about most of the film.

Jerry Lewis conducts an absent orchestra

In one of the best “bits” in the Bellboy, Stanley (Jerry Lewis) conducts a persnickety and non-existent orchestra.

The Bellboy Final Verdict

Generally amiable, sometimes obvious, intermittently genius, and inevitably followed by an unwelcome round of mugging, The Bellboy succeeds and irritates in equal amounts. I did, however, cue up another viewing of Four Rooms (1995), a film obviously inspired by in part by The Bellboy. I’m happy I have more Four Rooms context and I’m happy I finally got around to giving Jerry Lewis some more of my time, but I’m just as happy that I finally get to scratch it off my list of Shame.

Watch The Bellboy on Amazon Prime. 

2020 Cinema Shame Statement: So This Time It’s Totally Serial

2020 Cinema Shame Statement: So This Time It’s Totally Serial

For the uninitiated, Cinema Shame is site that emboldens cinephiles to finally watch those nagging classics pinging the back of your brain every time you ask yourself “What am I going to watch tonight?” Our diet doesn’t need to be a steady stream of certified Grade-A classics, but we also shouldn’t be afraid of them. I also host the podcast that gives viewers the opportunity to share their thoughts about how these movies stand the test of time and hype. Every year Penitent Moviewatchers create a new Cinema Shame Statement to help direct their viewing schedule.

I’ve done a Cinema Shame Statement or two over the years and my 2019 has the rare distinguish of being the only one I ignored for the duration. Congrats, 2019, you’re totally shameful! It’s not that I was a lazy moviewatcher (Letterboxd tells me otherwise), I just got sidetracked by #Watch1989. And for the uninitiated, #Watch1989 was my year-long marathon of movies released in – that’s right – 1989. I watched more than 70 1989 movies, first-timers and rewatches included.

For this year’s Cinema Shame Statement, I’m going to try a slightly different method that helps direct my monthly moviewatching trends (but also makes that DVD/BD watchpile a little less embarrassing). I tend to get sucked into self-inflicted marathons and really enjoy sticking with a theme… it prevents me from staring at my library for hours on end wondering what to watch next.

Once again I consulted my favorite tomes: EW Guide / The Best Film You’ve Never Seen / Danny Peary’s Cult Movies. And away we go….

2020 Shame Statement consultants

Three of my go-to books for finding movies I should have watched by now.

Theme #1: Unwatched Criterions

I love buying movies almost as much as I love watching movies. (Okay, we’ll call it a draw.) The flaw inherent to the system is that it takes me much less time to buy movies than it does to watch them. Hence, I have a lot of Criterion Collection discs I had every intention of watching… at some point… in the near-to-immediate future. I plan to watch at least one of these beauties per month. After consulting EW’s surprisingly non-traditional lists in The Greatest Movies Ever Made, I selected 12 candidates I already have in my possession.

2020 cinema shame statement

Blow Out (Brian de Palma, 1981) – #85 Drama
Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) – #91 Drama
Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) – #28 Comedy
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970) – #96 Comedy
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976) – #55 Sci-Fi
Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973) – #65 Horror
Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980) – #80 Int’l
Fellini’s Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969) – #11 Int’l
Viridiana (Luis Bunuel, 1961) – #26 Int’l
Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952) – #23 Int’l
One Eyed-Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961) – Sleepers
High & Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) – Sleepers

Theme #2: #Watch1990

I won’t tackle #Watch1990 with the same zeal as #Watch1989 because the movies aren’t nearly as good and honestly I’ve seen a much larger percentage. I turned 12 in 1990 and I could walk to the Woods 6 in Grosse Pointe just about whenever the mood stuck me. A moment ago I scanned the list of Top 50 moneymakers from 1990 and I’d seen 48 of them (only Internal Affairs and Child’s Play II missed the bus and I’m not in a hurry to see the latter. Talk to me again during October). I really had nothing else to do, apparently. Here are Internal Affairs and 11 others that I missed. There’s some rhyme and reason to the movies below — except Side Out. I have no explanation for choosing that. Some movies just cry out for attention.

Cry-Baby 1990

Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990)
Where the Heart Is (John Boorman, 1990)
Love at Large (Alan Rudolph, 1990)
The Ambulance (Larry Cohen, 1990)
Side Out (Peter Israelson, 1990)
Cry-Baby (John Waters, 1990)
Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1990)
I Love You to Death (Lawrence Kasdan, 1990)
Chicago Joe and the Showgirl (Bernard Rose, 1990)
Henry & June (Philip Kaufman, 1990)
Avalon (Barry Levinson, 1990)
State of Grace (Phil Joanou, 1990)

Theme #3: Taking Care of (Old) Business

I’ve seen that James Belushi classic from 1990 a few times, but it seemed thematically relevant to this 2020 Cinema Shame Statement. If we are unable to keep our word, there’s nothing separating us from the beasts who think that the only stuff worth watching is on Netflix. That might be overly dramatic. I’m just saying that I’m going to atone for the sins of my Cinema Shames past. These are the movies I promised to watch over the previous years and just never did…

The Conversation 1974

Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears, 1988)
The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)
Aquirre, The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Can’t Stop the Music (Nancy Walker, 1980)
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorcese, 1978)
Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)
Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982)
Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) & Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)
Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)
The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)
The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

…and… it wouldn’t be a Cinema Shame list without the empty promise to watch…

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1990)

 

That’s a lot of goddamn movies. Own up, friends. Let’s make a promise to watch some excellent movies in 2020. Not much is going right in the world, but we can definitely tend our own gardens, watch great movies and talk about them on the Internet.