1996: Pretension, Sleeper Hits & the Infinite Sadness

I was 13 when I begged my mom to let me see my first R-rated movie in the theaters. She wanted no part in taking me, so she made a deal with my big sister. If Debbie was willing to take me to the movie of my choice on one night, we could see a movie of her choice on another night. She agreed.

That is how my first R-rated movie in the theaters was Stephen King’s Thinner.

Don’t worry, I am not going to talk about Thinner today. I am going to talk about the movie I picked, which was Sleepers. If you’re unfamiliar, the movie is based on an allegedly true story published by Lorenzo Carcaterra about how he and his three friends were sent to juvenile detention as kids and were molested by the prison guards, only to get their revenge years later.

You very likely have never heard of this thing, but at the time it was one of those movies that screamed, “Look how important I am! Give me an Oscar!” First of all, there is the cast, which included Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup, Bruno Kirby, Brad Renfro (may he RIP) and Jason Patric. It was directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man fame, and it was about some serious subject matter handled with the utmost seriousness so much so that the movie begins with the narration, “This is a story about friendship that runs deeper than blood.”

The only Oscar nom it got was for original score, which is fantastic by the way. The movie isn’t bad, it just isn’t exceptional in film history, but I was obsessed. I ended up sitting through this nearly three-hour film a total of four times in the theater. This isn’t exactly a movie designed for repeat viewing, but this was the time in my life where I became obsessed with the Oscars and more serious pictures. The fact the first half of the movie featured four attractive boys around my age (this is where Renfro came in) didn’t hurt, but it was more about proving that I was growing up and my taste was growing up too.

Let me be clear here—my tastes still and will forever always veer towards these kinds of movies. While some look forward to the summer slate of action movies, I can’t wait for Christmas time and the onslaught of Oscar bait. But this was more than just a simple enjoyment of a film. I told people for a good three or four years that it was my favorite movie (though it would be usurped by a movie released just two years later).

I don’t know if other people put as much thought into favorite movies as I do. I want to make sure it isn’t just a good movie, but representative of me and my taste. I can’t say my favorite movie is Billy Madison, even though I’ve seen it at least 20 times. It will always be a drama. It will always have names associated with quality attached, and it will always have to be one that is somewhat underrated be it at the box office, in the oeuvre of a director auteur, or critically misunderstood.

Sleepers fit the bill of all three, so even though citing a movie about kids getting molested has its own set of pitfalls, if a 13 year old told you it was their favorite, you have to assume they aren’t exactly basic. Like most adolescents, it may reek of trying too hard to be different, but I didn’t care. In all sincerity, this movie is an interesting watch if you’re a fan of flicks like This Boy’s Life, The Basketball Diaries, or mob movies in general. It is a mobster movie, a courtroom drama (my all-time favorite genre), a family drama, and a prison film with a little Stand By Me thrown in for good measure. It may overreach at times, but better to aim high and come up a little short than never try for anything, right?

Similarly, wouldn’t you rather something that has degraded in quality stay past its prime rather than be cut short too soon? This is why shows like Homeland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, House, and West Wing were on the air so long. Once you find something good, it just seems much easier to stick with it even if it starts to kind of suck rather than go seek out something new. You can acknowledge it isn’t the same (I pretend Buffy Season 7 doesn’t exist), but there is still a sentimental love for it in your heart.

I think no one would argue that ER didn’t stay long past its prime, the last bastion of NBC’s Must-See Thursday line-up. I was not one who saw it through to the end, opting out around the time Kellie Martin’s tenure on the show ended. But in its heyday, I ate that show up, fully invested in just about every character on the show, each of whom had their flaws, but were ultimately loveable.

I don’t think people really give ER enough credit when it comes to looking at the history of serious and prestige television. The credit goes to HBO primarily, but when you think about how hugely popular this very serious TV drama was and how it managed to discuss several issues that were previously unmentioned on TV, you have to give it and its police counterpart, NYPD Blue, a tip of the cap. Alan Sepinwall acknowledges this in his popular book The Revolution Was Televised, pointing out that the show, which did not dumb any of the medical lingo down for the audience, but proved there was a huge and insatiable audience for sophisticated adult drama.

Now, the adult version of me claiming Sleepers is my favorite movies runs rampant amongst my adult peers. They claim to love the most pretentious, dramatic shows they can find to prove how grown up and sophisticated they are. I like plenty of them too, and most of these people sincerely enjoy the shows they are watching. But now that the marketplace is so saturated with these serious shows, the stage is set for more shows trying way too hard and offering way too little like the second season of True Detective. I had many friends see it through to the end, but if you Google “True Detective Backlash” you’ll see what happens when the pretentiousness becomes too much for most to handle.

Sometimes though, this open wallowing in your own importance works marvelously. Such is the case with Smashing Pumpkins and their dual-disc album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I mean, just look at the name? It is a beautiful album that was showered with Grammy nominations, went platinum ten times over, and spawned five hit singles.

If you want to see a pretentious music video, watch Tonight, Tonight, which is an homage to a movie most film school nerds are familiar with, the silent classic A Trip to the Moon. As I said earlier though, when it comes to picking favorites, I hate picking the obvious, so my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song has always been 1979.

It is a bit on the nose, I’ll give you, but it is a song about adolescence written about a year front man Billy Corgan was 12 years old during. The lyrics were always a little mysterious to me, but it nonetheless captures that pent up frustration of feeling like you’re ready for more than what the world is offering. The video, showing kids pissing the day away around their neighborhood is how a lot of us spent our adolescence; biding our time until we got to be adults and live life our way. Until that day, we just tried our best to act like adults. For some kids that meant experimentation, drugs, sex, and rebellion. For less rambunctious kids like myself, it was about watching, reading, and listening to the most important things we could to prove to ourselves and those around us that we were ready for the serious matter of being an adult.


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