Bombast: Now That's What I Call the Nineties
Jurassic Park: The Lost World
In “Walkin’ on the Sun,” the first of a string of charting singles of almost unprecedented awfulness, Steve Harwell, front man of the soon-to-be-Shrek-soundtracking pop act Smash Mouth, offered a rosy-hued glimpse into the annals of history: “Twenty-five years ago they spoke out and they broke out / Of recession and oppression and together they toked.” It should go without saying that the very act of remembering this harmonious moment was a recrimination to the fallen present.
That present was the summer of 1997, when the single was released—after the death and posthumous celebrity of Sublime’s Bradley Nowell, Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray rushed into the vacuum to provide SoCal board shorts party-pop for the frosted-tips set—and cinemas were ruled by Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Men in Black. Harwell seems to be evoking the feel-good Summer of Love, though 25 years ago would have at that moment been 1972, noteworthy for Richard M. Nixon’s China visit, landslide reelection, and Watergate adventure; The Godfather; and Jane Fonda’s tour of North Vietnam—not exactly a paradise lost. Today, unless Harwell has been adjusting the lyric appropriately, he would be referring to the summer of 1990, when the recording of Nirvana’s Nevermind was underway, the album that would kick off a decade that has been omnipresent as of late.
I am, it appears, not the only one who has had quite enough of the Nineties. Last Sunday, June 14, Smash Mouth were performing at “Taste of Fort Collins” when a person or persons in the crowd began to softly lob pieces of bread at the stage. “I’m gonna come find your ass, I’m gonna beat your ass,” the 48-year-old Harwell is seen saying to the audience in a since much-circulated clip—this despite the fact that Harwell’s physique might best be described as Grimace-like. Harwell, of course, knows full well that security would intervene before a single punch could be thrown, which is all for the best in the very probable eventuality that the offender was a Colorado hick half the age of the vocalist of 1997’s Fush Yu Mang. While Harwell berated his unseen persecutor, the band ran through their signature tune, “All Star,” the second single from 1999’s Astro Lounge, which begins with the barked line “SomeBODY once told me the world was gonna roll me.” (This is funny, given that bread projectiles were the issue here.) I was a senior in high school when “All Star” was charting, which means that, despite never intentionally having listened to it, I am forever condemned to carry its lyrics in my head, and indeed I fear that the last conscious thought which will pass through my brain before my death tremor will be: “Didn’t make sense not to live for fun…”
The phenomenon of unbidden recall, among other mental processes, is visualized in the third Pixar release directed by Pete Docter, Inside Out, an oasis in what has up until now been a deeply dispiriting summer slate. Though for many a cinephile the first quarter of the year is the time for doldrums, there’s no time of year that I like better—the big studio releases are, in the main, work that the front offices have low expectations or outright contempt for, which means there’s at least an outside chance of something lively wriggling through, and meanwhile there are false-hope-springs-eternal reports of “emerging” filmmakers and unheralded masterpieces from Park City, Utah and other festival hubs. Then, whan that Aprille with his shoures sote the droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote (to wax Chaucerian) and you actually start to see the Sundance revelations—Documentary Grand Jury Prize-winner The Wolfpack, for instance, a marvelous nonfiction subject muddled by a mediocre talent—it’s enough to send you screaming to the multiplex. Air conditioning is to be found there, but no real shelter. Despite the compelling case which David Ehrlich made this time last year, proclaiming the death of the Summer Movie Season—or, rather, its expansion to cover the entire calendar year—these months retain their distinct pungency. Summer is the time to raise high the tentpoles and round the four quadrants, and the calculating facility with which the process is undertaken, with more or less consistent success, can be depressing in the extreme.
To wit, the numbers for the toxic Jurassic World, which give it—unadjusted for inflation—the biggest opening weekend of all time, globally. The movie is indefensible from any position other than “It’s only a movie!” vapidity. A cynical reunion-tour cash-in of a film ostensibly directed by a pliable, Sundance-sanctioned nonentity called Colin Trevorrow, Jurassic World exhibits invention only in the curiously elaborate dispatching of a relatively minor character, and timing only in appearing right on schedule, as the nostalgia cycle had completed its 20-odd-year loop. This is only part of a culture-wide process of gassily repeating the undigested, half-remembered Nineties, lassoing together consumers who, like myself, lived their adolescent and teenaged years in the decade and are now theoretically eager to relive them and at peak spending power to do so, as well as a younger demographic either a) nostalgic for what they imagine they missed out on or b) blissfully unaware of any precedent for their own moment in the cultural continuum, and therefore having the experience for what they believe to be the first time. This September, for example, 50 Kent Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn will be home to the first 90sFest. “Get the fanny pack ready for a one-day music festival in the heart of Brooklyn… for all of the pog slammin’, Bay-watchin’ Y2K fearin’ lovers of the best decade… ever,” as the copy reads on the official website, inviting those so inclined to purchase tickets for a lineup including Lisa Loeb, Blind Melon, and, of course, Smash Mouth.
The compulsion to sift through the detritus of the OK Soda years is not limited to crass promotions like 90sFest. Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s 16mm idyll L for Leisure is at once an indulgence in and a cross-examination of Nineties nostalgia; a key bit of narration from The Magnificent Ambersons might aptly describe the film’s view of campus life (and its numerous calendar-vacation longueurs): “In those days, they had time for everything.” Mia Hansen-Løve’s house-music-epic Eden, which opens today, begins with a perfect-from-now-on memory of a party in 1991, and follows the gradually diminishing returns of trying to recapture the moment over two decades. Speaking of which: though Sundance’s era of eyebrow-raising mega-deals and zeitgeist-defining moments is long gone, the festival’s identity remains eternally tethered to that distant memory, a fact still reflected in the films that come out of it now. When we first see the Angulo Brothers, The Wolfpack’s shut-in stars, they’re re-enacting Reservoir Dogs, Most Popular member of the fest’s Class of 1992, while Deadspin’s Will Leitch calls Rick Famuyiwa’s newly released, Sundance-premiered festival favorite Dope “A Buoyant ’90s Throwback.”
Along with a few million of my generational coevals, I was there for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park the first time around. I am not generally a boastful man, but certain accomplishments beg to be trumpeted. I was, to the best of my knowledge, the first ticket-buyer at the first screening of Jurassic Park to unspool for the paying public in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dropped off by parents with two of my friends, I was at the head of the line at Showcase Cinemas Springdale on a dewy June morning in 1993, when I was 12 years old.
The coming of Jurassic Park was the apotheosis of a passionate interest in saurians which had, curiously, been winding down as my interest in movies had been ramping up. It was the moment they passed each other on the stairs, headed in different directions. By the time The Lost World came around I sure enough saw it on two consecutive days, able to drive myself to the theater at that point, but there was more to life than dinos. So much in these formative pop experiences depends on a serendipitous correspondence between personal development and a release schedule beyond our control or understanding, and in the case of Jurassic Park, the synchronicity was perfect. When these moments occur at a susceptible age, we own them as we own little else in our engagement with art, pop, whatever you want to call it—though this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that they own us in turn. I love the Jurassic Park that I remember from that day, even as I know that the Jurassic Park that I re-watched a few days ago with a fully functioning adult brain can only be called a “masterpiece” if you’re playing fast and loose with the term.
I was, as I mentioned, 12 years old when I first saw Jurassic Park—approximately the age of Riley, the little girl whose inner life is depicted in Inside Out. In Docter’s imagining, the landscape of Riley’s mind consists of a number of island kingdoms resting on the foundation of core memories, the pillars that support her personality and keep her from spinning into moral confusion. At that point I suppose my “islands,” the building blocks of my sense of self, would have included a Dinosaur Island—I really used much of my waking life to think about these giant lizards which had been extinct for millions of years. This, along with my other dominating enthusiasms, were fairly typical for a non-athletically inclined middle-class Midwestern male during the reign of George Bush the First: role-playing, fantasy literature, comic books, video games. Together they formed the ferment of “nerd culture” from which the mass culture of 20 years hence would spring, and which my 12-year-old self was the ideal audience for, though in this instance my timing was off by a decade or so.
Fortunately or unfortunately for me, the trajectory of my taste jumped the track. A year after Jurassic Park, my mental landscape as it had existed to that point would be razed and built anew from the ground up—a process that was already well underway in the summer of 1993, though the tensions of being simultaneously interested in this new onrush of angst-ridden guitar music and fantasy-art escapism hadn’t begun to seem insuperable at that point. A year later another synthesis of everything that I thought I liked and was came along, Alex Proyas’s The Crow, a feature-length advertisement for its own soundtrack which plugged into my then-budding mall-goth self-dramatization—the reboot, if not halted by the defection of prospective star Jack Huston, is due in 2016.
However much the unruliness of facts defies the effort, we have an inalienable compulsion to impose coherency on decades, to reduce them into a handful of telling details which we can string together, forming a comprehensible narrative as we connect the dots. I will forever think of the Aughts, for instance, as the decade that began with <em>Is This It, and ended with This Is It. Halfway through the 2010s, What It All Meant is still unclear, though I think I have some grip on the Nineties. Rightly or wrongly, the decade now appears to me to have consisted of an early moment of bright promise, where strange and “difficult” art which gave voice to verboten feelings had some kind of mainstream presence, followed in short order by an almost total and complete betrayal. Art-house film went from Bad Lieutenant and Hal Hartley and Kids to Shakespeare in Love and Doug Liman and a renascent Franco Zeffirelli’s Tea with Mussolini. ($45 million in U.S. domestic box-office!) Hong Kong’s buoyant pre-handover pop cinema was compromised by a post-1997 need to cater to the mainland market and bowdlerization which accompanied its best and brightest being absorbed into Hollywood—though not before making some glorious noise, a la Face/Off (97). Computer-generated imagery—the touted attraction at Jurassic Park, though a great deal of what’s most awesome in the movie are in fact instances of Stan Winston Studio at the height of their power in creating analog, animatronic effects—was to make the impossible commonplace. Instead, as the decade carried on, you got the likes of Spawn (97) and The Mummy (99), and were able to witness the destruction of civilization by a full complement of plagues in a cycle of neo–Irwin Allen disaster movies, not a single one of which was any good. (Dwayne Johnson, who wrestled as “Rocky Maivia” when Jan de Bont’s literally unwatchable 1996 Twister was doing boffo b.o., has spearheaded a revival of the genre this summer with his San Andreas.)
A parallel progression occurred on the radio and on MTV. Most rap videos prior to 1994, as I recall, involved a house party or a pack of shirtless dudes mean-mugging around a barrel full of fire in a vacant lot; by the second Clinton term, it was shiny suits and slo-mo low-angle shots of guys stepping out of stretch Humvees on the Las Vegas strip, “I did it for the money now can you get with me” and dumbing down to double dollars. “College rock” begat “Grunge” which begat “Alternative,” a progression from Kurt Cobain dressing like a bedraggled drifter who’d woken up beneath an overpass, singing “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” to Steve Harwell wearing Swingers bowling shirts and wraparound Oakleys and barking that it “Didn’t make sense not to live for fun” to the Altamount 2.0 hedonism-run-amok which was Limp Bizkit at Woodstock ’99. I don’t say any of this is true, exactly, but it seems true to me. As Eden well understands, our comprehension of the art that we grow up with and live through is inalienable from our experience of passing time, and the greatest betrayal of all, that of our own aging.
Supposing that there is even an iota of fact to this version of events I’ve outlined, it was perhaps inevitable that the pendulum would swing back just as early, censorious Nineties P.C. gave way in time to the brief celebrity of Camille Paglia and the pushback of lad culture, which, come to think of it, is due for a revival in three… two… one… Something of the same narrative has been applied to the decline and fall of the New Hollywood, whose passion for uncompromised authorship, irresolute non-endings, and ambivalent characterization reigned for little more than a season. I was born too late to experience the phenomenon of Star Wars firsthand, but I can well imagine that after a few years of downbeat Watergate parables starring Gene Hackman, the first movie in the series—whose subtitle, “A New Hope,” could have doubled as a Reagan campaign slogan—might have seemed like a revivifying blast of fresh air. I can also understand the impulse, almost as soon as that breeze had passed through, to begin mourning what had been blown away in its wake.
At risk, always, is that endangered species, the grown-up movie. For the website The Talkhouse, the director Alex Ross Perry, a one-time guest star in this column, recently wrote a defense of Aloha, the latest from Cameron Crowe, whose movie Singles (92) I happen to think is not only one of the most embarrassing cultural artifacts of the Nineties, but also, along with Ten, the debut LP by the film’s co-stars, Pearl Jam, one of the worst pieces of art ever made in any medium. There is, in Perry’s view, an unresolved contradiction in the fact that the same crowd who can be heard crying out for “original movies ‘for adults’ that don’t insult your intelligence” aren’t pulling for Crowe to succeed. After all, whatever else his faults may be, the writer/director of We Bought a Zoo has never cashed a check for a sequel, reboot, or “universe expanding” spinoff, though there is the small matter of Vanilla Sky. This is not far from the sentiments expressed in Leitch’s review of Dope: despite his compunctions about the movie itself, he hopes that “it’ll be a massive hit and we’ll get more films like it”—that is, original movies “for adults” (with diverse casts, to boot).
I am not the first to notice that this kind of wish is a bit of a critical cliché. Every single time that I watch an episode of Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington’s faux movie-chat show On Cinema, I snort-laugh at the bit in the peppy introductory montage where Heidecker gives the boilerplate rave “It’s so great that they’re still making these kinds of movies.” As a filmmaker who, I am supposing, considers filmmaking his primary métier, Perry’s investment is understandable—“these kinds of movies” are, very broadly speaking, the ones he traffics in, and he has a stake in wanting them to be a viable commercial proposition. For a vocational critic, however, wishing on a star for “these kinds of movies” is a treacherous temptation, which not only invites A for Effort grade-padding but, by centering attention on the kind of movies that “they” should make/ used to make, threatens to dull receptivity to the kind of movies that they are, in fact, making.
At worst, it inclines towards a false nostalgia and an impossible desire to return to a moment in the sun, an attitude embodied in a statement made in an interview with Radio Times by the multihyphenate Simon Pegg, a standard-bearer for the nerd culture which I described earlier and, in his and Edgar Wright’s Channel 4 sitcom Spaced (1999-2001), an architect of its mainstreaming. “Before Star Wars,” Wright told the Radio Times interviewer, “the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection—gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed… I don’t know if that is a good thing.” Leaving aside for a moment whether all of the films named ought to be called “amoral,” or why, if so, that is necessarily laudable, what concerns us here is the romance of the throwback myth, with its pervasive idea that if we all clap our hands and want it badly enough it might be 1972 again, and that Robert Altman, in a Monkey’s Paw–like scenario, will pull himself from his grave, his love beads ominously clacking. It’s the same impulse behind Sundance “Those were the days” dreaminess and the reverence for real Nineties hip-hop which, whatever Ol’ Dirty Bastard might’ve said, was essential precisely because it wasn’t preoccupied with “taking it back to ’79,” and the romanticization of punk authenticity (which I discussed here, in relation to Lukas and Coco Moodysson’s We Are the Best!) and the insistent re-enactment of battles to pull down barriers separating “highbrow” and “lowbrow” which were breached sometime around 1924 and have never really been the same since. Allowing for moments of unusual fecundity, I believe that the quantity of artistic inspiration in the world remains more or less consistent—but the spirit of genius is fugitive, and the one way that you can almost guarantee that you’ll miss where it’s happening now is by looking for it where it’s been seen before.
The allure of ’59 or ’72 or ’92 inspires a particular horror in me precisely because I am susceptible to it, and never more than in the dregs of summer movie season, when quite anything looks better than 2015. So I speak for the virtues of staying present for the present, while at the same time understanding that no one can escape the undertow of an imagined Golden Age. Somebody once told me the world was gonna roll me—and so it will roll us all, borne back ceaselessly into the past.