2004: Mars, The Night Lights & Somewhere Only We Know

Perhaps it is the passing of Chad Batista, or perhaps it is writing so much about the past these past few weeks, but I keep reflecting on people in my life who’ve died. Not just the close relatives, the ones like Batista who I only really knew in passing and seemed fine, but if you knew them well, you’d probably realize they felt trapped and wanted out.

Then I came to 2004 and my favorite sports movie of all time, Friday Night Lights. I first saw the movie as part of the most popular class at USC taught by noted movie critic Leonard Maltin. He would bring in movies that were about to be released in theaters along with someone from the film to speak on it after the screening. FNL was one of our movies, and our guest speaker was Billy Bob Thornton.

One of the kids taking the class was Lee Thompson Young, who was actually watching a movie he was in. He played “Boobie’s back-up’s back-up” who is thrust into a starting position after the star running back Boobie Miles is injured. You may know him more for his TV role as Jett Jackson. I just knew him as Lee, who was friends with a few of my friends, but definitely not someone I would consider a pal. The only time we really spent together was at one freshman assembly where we ended up sitting next to one another. He enjoyed wisecracks as much as I did, so we traded jokes back and forth during an otherwise boring presentation.

Two years ago, almost to the day, Lee killed himself. He wasn’t my friend, I hadn’t seen him since college, but I remembered how happy he seemed all the time, and that kind of got to me. Had he been depressed all that time? I will never know the answer. Reports say he was bipolar, but who knows what was going through his head, save for himself.

When you read descriptions of depression, one of the descriptors that gets used a lot is “stuck”. People feel like they’re in a situation with no way out. I’ve mentioned before that country music centers around this small town depression a lot. There are plenty of people who are content with the small town life, but for others, it is a confining thing, growing up in a place you are desperate to get out of.

Really, the whole notion of the American Dream is predicated upon improving upon your position in this world. For the players on the Permian football team in Friday Night Lights, the means to an end football brings them runs the spectrum. Some, like the fullback (Garrett Hedlund) know this is as good as life is probably going to get for him, while others, like back Boobie Miles, have been working their whole lives for football to save them from their lot in life.

I’ve complained many times in the past that movies and TV just have a hard time getting small town life right, but FNL is very much the exception to that rule. Much of that kind of life is very similar to city life. You hang out with friends at bars and restaurants on the weekend, you are generally proud of where you come from even if you intend to get out of there as soon as you can, and there are customs and places that will always make you feel like you are home.

It isn’t a romanticized wonderland, but it isn’t the pit of awful some shows make it out to be. Let me clarify, I didn’t come from a small town. I grew up in the city people in small towns traveled to on the weekends. Our Friday nights in high school were spent at the football games too, but we were mostly there to support our marching band, who was midway through one of the most dominant stretches in Kentucky band history.

The TV show version of Friday Night Lights touches on the pressure that comes with being the one who is supposed to “get out”, but there is not a scene in that TV show that holds a candle to the scene where Boobie realizes he isn’t going to the NFL, let alone a Division 1 college football program. This was the guy who had his own big dreams and the big dreams of an entire town heaped upon him, so it isn’t just about personal success, it is about the pressure of letting other people down besides yourself. If this scene doesn’t convey you just how hard it can be to have your ticket to a better life ripped to pieces in front of you.

The closing credits of Friday Night Lights informs you just how many guys ended up staying near the town of Odessa, Texas. Like I said, it is the life for some people, but for spunky teen detective Veronica Mars, getting the hell out of Neptune, California is one of her top life goals. Her first is to figure out who killed her best friend Lily. That mystery is the central storyline of this show’s first season, which I would rank as one of the top five individual seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Watching Veronica try to make it through the back half of high after being excluded from the in crowd in the fallout from Lily’s death perfectly complements seeing Boobie fall from grace in FNL. Veronica is at the bottom, trying to work her way up and out. There are few moments where she gets sad and cries because she’s simply been burnt too many times for life to faze her anymore.

I was introduced to this series by a friend, Jenni, who said I had to watch because Veronica was me. At the time, I hoped it was mostly because I too made the occasional Outsiders reference. In hindsight, I can see how she made the connection because I tended to be the girl on her own a lot during college. I had several groups of friends. There were those I lived with, those in film school with me, those in our community service fraternity, and others I amassed through classes. In that respect, I very much remain Veronica, as I never seem to be at the heart of many social groups, but stuck on the fringes of several.

Stuck probably isn’t the right word, as I choose not to get too close, which is the same choice Veronica makes over and over again. She spends the first two years of the show patiently saving money, patiently putting up with crap, and each time that skin just grows thicker and thicker. She has her soft spots, like her mom and her two primary paramours, but for the most part she assumes her friends will let her down. Even her BFF Wallace abandons her at one point.

She was supposed to go to Stanford, but with the show getting an unexpected third season, she stays in Neptune for college. The series ends with Veronica backed up against a wall, but instead of her sacrificing herself for someone, it is the one person she can rely on who throws himself on the sword. She avoids the serious trouble and, according to the movie that came out last year, transfers to Stanford, gives up the private investigator life, and moves to New York to become a lawyer.

Sounds great, right? But the movie proves that even people like Veronica can go home again, and when she is back in Neptune, she finds herself questioning her life choices. While some criticize the film’s structure as being too episodic, I found the whole thing rather perfect, because it acknowledges that those who do try to “get out” often feel just as stuck.  You inevitably end up doing things differently than you thought, you end up somewhere you didn’t expect, and the notion of being home where everything is so much more familiar sounds pretty great.

Considering I was just beginning my adventure outside the confines of Kentucky when Keane’s popular Hopes and Fears album came out, it makes sense I was so drawn to their most popular song, Somewhere Only We Know. The whole album is really a meditation on growing up and how it comes a lot faster than you expect. This song in particular is about that longing for something in your life to be fixed and stable. When you’re younger, your parents, your siblings, your house, most of these things are not going anywhere. As you hit college, friends disappear, your parents become a more remote part of your life, and it feels like absolutely nothing is static.

It is a very thrilling feeling in your 20s, the idea of complete fluidity, but as this song notes, eventually you look around and the “simple things” are gone, some opportunities have forever passed you by, and all you want is, “something to rely on.” The guys in Keane were still in their 20s when they wrote this song, but it’s a feeling I think many in our 30s understand, which is that walking away from something or giving something up at this point in your life is so much harder than it used to be because this could be the end of everything and you’re not gonna get another chance to fix it.

But even in my 20s the idea of crawling into a familiar space with someone who understood where I was coming from was an incredibly comforting idea, especially on those days when I was feeling a little bit stuck. Because wandering around the barren landscape Keane describes in their song can be frightening, and a touch overwhelming when you’re going it alone, looking for somewhere or something to make you feel a little less stuck. And, as the song notes, sometimes you get tired of all that looking and wonder if maybe the place you felt stuck in is the home you belong in after all.

Whether you stay close to home or venture out, I think we all understand that feeling of being stuck. Just remember that sometimes when people feel this way, asking for help is harder than it may seem. If you don’t think there is any way out, why bother asking someone for a favor? So keep in mind that sometimes you need to reach out and, sure, sometimes you may feel a little silly that they are fine, but better that than being stuck for years wondering if you speaking up might have made a difference.

2003: A Hands Down Ode to Joy, Laughter, and Love, Actually

I have a bit of a reputation as a miser. Some of it is founded as, I’ll readily and proudly admit, I am a pessimist with no intention of ever changing my outlook on life. Scientific studies have been done to show that, for some people, being a pessimist is actually a helpful way to manage anxiety and stress. I do not see the good in everything because I pretty firmly believe there are things out there that are just not good. While I admire those that think every day is a gift, I can’t relate to it. Some days are struggles, some days are tests, and there are plenty of good ones mixed in too, but there are some I would certainly have done without if given the chance.

While I am very openly a pessimist, that doesn’t mean I am incapable of optimism, happiness, and joy. This whole blog series is really a giant love letter to the pop culture that helped shape who I am. While I often have things about them I find lacking, I still love and appreciate them. That is something I find a lot of people, especially in poker media, don’t seem to understand. You can like something or somebody just fine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find places to criticize and try to improve. I am an editor at heart, so it will always be in my nature to critique.

Even so, I am still capable of that feeling of joy, that feeling which exceeds happiness, that rush that makes your heart feel like it is bubbling over and you smile so hard it hurts. Sappy as it may sound, it is not unlike the airport sequence of the oft-criticized movie Love, Actually. I will certainly criticize the glut of crappy ensemble romances like Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You, and New Year’s Eve that came in the wake of this film’s success, but I am not on board with the number of people who criticize this Richard Curtis film as calculatingly sweet and saccharine enough to cause tooth decay.

Maybe I am just a marshmallow on the inside, but most of the six or seven stories in this film bring a smile to my face a dozen years after the movie first hit the big screen. Yes, I like many others, can’t really buy that Colin Firth’s character, a writer, would ever fall in love with a person who can literally not communicate with him because they don’t speak the same language, but the story is nonetheless funny even though deeply flawed in the logic department. Several of the stories are really just occasions for jokes, be it the nude stand ins or the geeky guy Colin who finds drop dead hot girls in America thanks to his accent.

Others are more modern fables, like the little boy in love with the little girl in his class. He does what all naïve young people do when trying to impress someone: pretend to be something you are not. He learns the drums, he puts himself out there, and he is rewarded with a first kiss and a role in one of the more memorable Christmas music performances in film history.

The one that always gets me to beam and tear up all at the same time is the one with Andrew Lincoln (pre-Walking Dead) and Keira Knightley. Lincoln’s character can’t help how he feels about his best friend’s new wife, Knightley, and he does his best to stay away until she figures out what is up and calls him on it. Rather than do the selfish thing and pursue her, he puts the love of his friend and the friend’s marriage to the girl ahead of himself, and he does so oh so adorably with poster board and a portable CD player.

You’ve probably surmised I am a bit of a sucker for unrequited love and cinematic grand gestures (I’m still waiting on that Chicago music video), but one so selfless takes the cake for me. I smile to see someone rewarded for their own sacrifice (and you can save the discussion that real sacrifice would never be saying anything, cause if he never said anything we wouldn’t have a movie). I tear up a little thinking he won’t end up with the girl, but I remain filled with joy at the thought of him getting what he wanted, and a simple kiss being more than enough.

So sure, I can be a sucker for the sugar-coated rom com moments, but I have to defend my miser street cred somehow. I do this with Arrested Development. I was early on this bandwagon, tuning in to watch each week around midway through Season 2. The episode delivered 22 minutes of hysterical nonsense as the Bluth family proved how awful humans can really be. Even the straight man, Michael (Jason Bateman) is kind of a terrible person, seducing a blind woman and an MRF, ignoring his family during times of need, and aiding and abetting several crimes over the course of the series run.

These people are horrible, selfish human beings and I love them for it. It is something I think Lena Dunham and Girls can take a cue from. My issue with that show is that everyone is terrible, horrible, and boring, so I really just want them to shut up and go away, hence, I don’t watch the show. It is when characters are horrible and endearing that the real comedic magic happens.

It isn’t just that this show reaffirms my faith that, in general, people kind of suck though. In fact, it has a very high opinion of its audience, as it will call back to small gestures from episodes aired weeks earlier or in a different season altogether and very subtly put them back into play. There is no wink wink, nod nod, nudge nudge, it is just left there for viewers to discover, and the feeling of catching it when it comes out of nowhere is a feeling of remarkable joy in addition to funniness. When they come at the rapid-fire pace of Arrested Development, you basically spend 22 minutes with your mouth agape at how these people can make every second so funny.

The fourth season is one I tried to like, but never could get into. I think in many ways, the constraint of being on a broadcast network like Fox helped this show immeasurably. It is in moments where you feel stuck that you can come up with the most creative solution, while in situations where the possibilities are limitless that oftentimes the results are mediocre. See? I am an optimist. I just took the worse of two situations and presented it as the better option. Or does that just reaffirm I’m a pessimist? I digress…

Sometimes I need a break from myself for, as you can see, I am constantly questioning things, criticizing myself and others, and worrying about things both in and beyond my control. Frankly, it can get a little exhausting, but that is what solo living room dance parties are for. I have an entire Spotify playlist of the songs I cannot help but get up and dance to when they are on.

One song is a solo dance party jam for me now, but in college, it was generally performed in groups. I was at the University of Southern California when Dashboard Confessional was peaking as a rock band and my friends and I were among his loyal faithful. We saw him in concert, we bought his merchandise, and we constantly played his music, especially the song Hands Down.

If you aren’t around precisely my age, you probably don’t know this song, but Dashboard’s Chris Carrabba says it is his best song. Unlike the sad emo hits you probably associate with Dash, this song is three minutes of pure, unadulterated happiness, the kind that comes with young love. In college, we would mutually agree to study dance breaks and my friend Stephanie and I would sing and dance to this song, loudly shouting the lyrics and exuberantly jumping up and down. When we weren’t studying and just hanging out or eating somewhere, our most cynical friend Vince would even get in on the fun by yelling out, “My hopes are so high that your kiss might kill me,” and we would retort, “So won’t you kill me. So I die ‘appy.”

If there is a single song I associate with my happiest memories of college, it is this one. It would score the montage of us saving up our meal plan to buy and eat four pounds of Runts while planning the world’s best love song mix CD, the time we tried to cook a “family” dinner and Steph bought steak instead of ground beef for our pasta dish, the time an intense pillow fight sent our friend Trevor to the ER, the Wet Hot American Summer parties, the trips to the low rent coffee shop for their off-brand “Zappacinos”, the time our friend was so intoxicated she insisted on only communicating in French, and all of those glorious football games.

There are songs that I associate with college that aren’t so joyous, but this is the one that no matter where, no matter when I hear it, I will stop, smile, and realize those were some pretty awesome times. Sure our hopes were high on how things would turn out and no one killed us with their kiss, but even though adulthood may have not been quite as exciting as we expected, I am still pretty sure we’re all going to die happy with the lives we lived.

2002: Let Writer’s Block Be Writer’s Block–A Praise Chorus

A couple of people have asked me how I find time to write so many words about movies, TV shows, and songs of the past for this series. They also ask what my process is or how things get picked. Here’s the lowdown:

I know myself and know that I can neglect my personal page very easily without some sort motivation, so I have to create projects for myself like my Lenten 40 blogs in 40 days project, my classic movie adventure of 2013, and now this survey of my life through the lens of pop culture. So I came up with the idea. The next step was picking what to write about for each year. Over the course of a couple of hours, I mapped out 31 years of stuff picking not based on any theme, but based on what struck me as something meaningful to my own life.

When the day comes to write about a year, I start thinking about the three things in context and see if I can come up with a theme or through line to tie them all together. You’ve seen where I’ve stretched a bit, but most of the time I am surprised at how well they fit together.

Sometimes though, I get stuck. It happens to every writer, and it’s really not as fun as the movie Adaptation makes it out to be. If you haven’t seen it, my friend referred to it as the weirdest movie he’s ever seen. As story goes, the movie came out of Charlie Kaufman’s case of writer’s block trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief, which is a pensive tome about searching for rare flowers, not exactly an action blockbuster. In the film, the screenwriter, a fictional version of the writer of the actual movie, Charlie Kaufman played by Nicholas Cage (like I said, it’s weird), struggles with writer’s block, resorting to screenwriting seminars, stalking the book’s author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), and committing several crimes along the way.

My writer’s block is much less adventurous than Kaufman’s. In the movie, it is a beast, spiraling out of control, eventually leading to total mayhem, while mine rarely makes it off the living room couch. It usually involves falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole or playing too many Sit N Gos online. As a writer though, the movie my friend could only sum up as, “Nicolas Cage, a swamp, alligators maybe? And a lot of weirdness and something about writing,” is something as relatable as a break up or a job interview. When you’re stuck on what to write, you come up with a list of remarkably bad and out there ideas, most of which will never be shared with anyone but yourself. If you look through my recently watched movies on Netflix or what I’ve been buying on Amazon, you’d probably think I was a little strange, but when you get in a headspace where you feel like you are stuck in one place, you’ll do anything you can to get out of it.

For Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, writer’s block is bouncing a rubber ball off a wall. The characters on this show about the executive branch of the government deal with much bigger problems than writer’s block. Other things are constantly transpiring that make President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff feel like they are stuck, be it the bureaucracy of the government, a deadlocked Senate, or having to give up one goal in order to achieve a more important one.  That’s the beauty of Aaron Sorkin-penned stuff though, the constant discussion and debate that results in these “stuck” moments.

While Adaptation focuses on how these moments and ruts can make you crazy, Sorkin, who is often one for idealism, likes to roll around in the mess and get a little dirty before emerging with an answer that is so good it is well worth the time and frustration. Even though I politically disagree with a lot of what Sorkin believes, I admired at how he let the other side speak eloquently (you’re my girl, Ainsley Hayes and I’ll love you forever, Christian Slater).

He sees these blocks as opportunities, and they have resulted in some of the most iconic moments of the series. When the President is starting to falter in his decision making, erring on the side of caution way too often as campaign season nears, the team hits a wall before four words changed everything: Let Bartlet be Bartlet.

What is simultaneously funny and sad about Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing is that it is his personal blocks that lead to some of the largest points of criticism and the downfall of The West Wing. It is inevitable when you write thousands and thousands of words that you use the same turn of phrase more than a couple of times. Heck, I’ve written less than 20,000 words in this blog series and I’ve already harped on ideas more than once. Sorkin though, has a peculiar pattern of speaking, so when he repeats himself, it is glaringly obvious, as indicated by this supercut (which, coincidentally was shown to me by the same guy who finds Adaptation incredibly weird).

The other issue was that when Sorkin hit the wall, he also hit the drugs pretty hard. When you are writing every episode of a 22-episode series, it is inevitable you’re going to burn out. Because he was so nervous to share the workload, he turned to drugs to keep him energized and motivated to push through those tough stretches where the ideas just don’t show up. As a result, he headed off to rehab and the show was turned over to other people after Season 4, leaving just a shell of this near-flawless in his wake.

As a writer, moments like that give me pause. I certainly don’t think I will turn up with a coke habit, but I do wonder if the emotional and mental strain that comes with writing day in and day out is something I can handle. If you’ve read my blog before, you know I open up quite a bit on this thing. It isn’t for some people, which is why my mom gets annoyed and constantly asks, “You aren’t going to put what I said on the internet, are you?”

When you feel like you have things to share though, you have to learn to get past the fear and just put it out there. Instead of quoting something trite and overused like, “Dance like nobody’s watching,” I instead present Jimmy Eat World’s A Praise Chorus, which might very well be the anthem for this blog series of mine. With lyrics like, “Stick around, nostalgia won’t let you down,” and “I’m on my feet, I’m on the floor, I’m good to go, all I need is just to hear a song I know,” I get a nice little emo kick in the ass about the fact that there is virtue in putting yourself out there.

The song is the third (and least known) single off Jimmy Eat World’s breakout album, which was originally titled Bleed American, changed to Jimmy Eat World in the wake of 9/11, but now goes by its original title. Like Rockin the Suburbs, it is one of those albums that was so integral to my college experience, it is impossible for me to ever forget it. While my favorite song of the record will always be If You Don’t, Don’t, A Praise Chorus is one of those songs perfect for college kids, as it rallies you to go out and try the new and unfamiliar, yet couches it in a slew of song references. In essence, it is a song about not just experiencing something in a song or a book, but going out there and seeking and experiencing the feelings that come with listening Crimson and Clover or Our House to make your life worthy of its own song. It is a rally cry against simply repurposing pop culture like you’re Jurassic World. It is about taking something familiar, doing something different with it, and pushing yourself out there beyond the wall of blocks your mind has constructed in order to make sure at least a little part of the world you live in is distinctively yours.

Scoring My Life Archive

2001: Searching for Rockin and Royal Imperfection

I’ve written before about being adopted. Honestly, it is not all that interesting. My life is pretty much the same as most biologically-born kids. I’ve only ever known one set of parents, it has always been a very open thing in my family, and it isn’t really weird at all. However, the things that do make it weird are my pet peeves about how people discuss and depict adoption.

For example, I am patient when someone asks if I would like the find my “real parents”, explaining how they are the people who raised me and the descriptor they are looking for is “biological”, but it doesn’t change the fact I find the statement extremely ignorant and insensitive. I also laugh and roll my eyes when some suggest I can date my cousins or relatives because it is just the DNA, not the fact we’re related that makes things weird.

That is why The Royal Tenenbaums is a nearly-perfect movie to me. It came out the fall of my freshman year of college. I was in the midst of learning about the basic tenants of cinema at the best film school in the country, each week seeing some other new movie that redefined my ideas of what cinema was capable of. Then came this wonderful, quirky gem of a film from Wes Anderson, with its beautiful symmetry, exceptional soundtrack, and insane attention to every detail of the set design and costume design. This movie had me from the first appearance of the Futura font.

This story of a father trying to win back his estranged and troubled family was the kind of movie that made me unspeakably excited about movies. It told a simple story really, just an effed up family trying to get by, but the way Anderson told it only enhanced the emotion and the experience. You see, I am not a big fan of movies that are more about doing something interesting with form rather than using form to make the story more interesting. Take, for example, the Matrix movies, which had a glut of effects, very few of which really did much to make Neo’s story all that much more compelling in my opinion.

This movie though, appealed to those of us who loved effects and interesting camera angles and tracking shots and those of us who valued character and story first and foremost. Anderson is the great unifier of film school students, managing to be visually interesting and stylized while still focusing on interesting and unique stories.

There is but one problem though, one thing that keeps this movie out of my top ten, and it is the relationship between siblings Richie and Margot, who are secretly in love with one another. This is justified by the fact that Margot was adopted when she was two, so they aren’t really siblings.

I suppose it is possible this is how the family raised them, as they make a point of showing that the father Royal (Gene Hackman who was robbed of an Academy Award nomination that year) always referred to Margot as his “adopted” daughter, but I just can’t seem to get past it. In my head, I just can’t reason that the difference instilled by their dad outweighed years of family vacations and car rides and others treating them like siblings, so this relationship rings so completely false to me I cannot possibly take it seriously. The fact I hate this plotline so much and still treasure this movie as one of the best of that decade tells you just how incredible this movie is. It is almost perfect. It has but one flaw.

As much as I hate this one flaw, I have grown to love the movie more for its imperfection than I think I would if I found the movie flawless. Since this story is so much about learning to accept people for who they are, understanding they can change a little, but that they will fundamentally be the same at the core on the things that matter most. In a meta way, the flaw thematically drives home the need to stand by the ones you love, flaws and all, and you will be rewarded. I did, and last year I was rewarded with a genuinely perfect Anderson product: The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Sticking with something isn’t easy, let’s make that perfectly clear. With a movie, nostalgia helps you remember the good times more than the bad. If you watch it only periodically, your tolerance for the flaw is at its peak. TV shows though, those are more serious relationships, the kinds you grind week in and week out, often for the better part of a decade. Such is the case with Gilmore Girls, the charming story of a young mom in her early 30s and her teenage daughter living in the quaintest damned town you ever did see.

For years, the rapid-fire dialogue, the incredible pop culture references, and the core mother-daughter relationship had me hook, line, and sinker. Even as the show progressed and did some oddball stuff, like to pair Rory with bad boy Jess (Team Dean for life kids) or have the mother Lorelai inexplicably run away from a great guy at the altar, I stood by it. They weren’t the decisions I would make, but I appreciated and respected them.

Something terrible happened during the seventh and final season though. The studio dismissed the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. They effectively ripped out the heart of the show, leaving us with a strange zombie version with a formerly sensible Rory making all sorts of irrational decisions, Lorelai finally getting the relationship she deserved only to have the equivalent of Cousin Oliver jammed into her existence when her boyfriend learned he was a father of a rather unendearing and precocious child. Yet, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I kept watching. While it was a betrayal to Palladino to keep tuning in, this was a relationship I was deeply invested in and loved flaws and all. That last season though, like the last season of Buffy and any season of West Wing past Season 5, has been erased from my memory.

Over time, you look back on your best relationships trying to remember the good more than the bad. In order for me to keep my Gilmore Girls relationship a cherished part of my life, I had to eradicate that awful ending, the televisual equivalent of an ugly, ugly break up, from my memory. I learned to love Tenenbaums for its flaw, but with television, there is just too much time and room to veer past the point of no return. In Royal Tenenbaums, there is really only 15 minutes or so that bother me. On Gilmore Gilrs, that final season shifted the entire universe of Stars Hollow in a direction I didn’t want it to go. It wasn’t just one tiny misstep, it was a series of decisions that fundamentally shifted the previous six years of something I had invested in.

Really, every movie and TV show has their flaws and missteps. It is far more likely to encounter a perfect pop song, and at the start of the millennium, pop groups were churning them out left and right. Then came the backlash of heavy metal rock bands composed of predominantly white people singing about their pain in what most would consider to be a rather privileged life.

Enter Ben Folds stage left with Rockin the Suburbs, which lays down the law with its opening lyric: “Let me tell y’all what it’s like, being male, middle class, and white.” Folds proceeds to eviscerate the music acts of the era by mocking those trying to find fault with a perfectly good life. Unlike Tenenbaums or Gilmore Girls, who accidentally started stumbling, these musical acts were trying to commodify the alleged imperfections in their own lives, and Folds can’t help but poke a little fun at them.

That is what is amazing about Ben Folds, if you haven’t listened to much of his stuff. He is able to acknowledge that there are many things and comforts the suburbs offer and tap into the frustrations without the anger of the heavy metal bands like Limp Bizkit. The single is the title track off an album that feels like a throwback to the story songs of Billy Joel, except instead of Brenda and Eddie, you have Zak and Sara, a young couple in love, but Sara suffers from some mental illness. There are songs about how fatherhood changes everything, how growing up sucks, and how we were all carrying Cathy, but she couldn’t find it in her to carry herself. In other words, it is at times a very sad, not angry, album about the imperfections of middle class life. And Ben Folds takes them, wraps them into beautiful pop song bundles, and has delivered a perfect album which pretty much everyone in my freshman year dorm listened to on repeat, all the way through, for years and years.

Pretty much everything is going to end up less than perfect, especially when it comes to pop culture. Sometimes it is the imperfections which make the thing great. Sometimes they are just too flawed to be ignored. And in the best of times, someone can take the imperfections in their lives and turn them into something wonderful beyond reproach.

2000: Rom Coms, Inflatable Guitars, Everything You Want

Whenever people perform stupid stunts on TV, they typically include warnings advising those of us at home not to attempt them. Don’t ride your BMX down an abandoned waterslide. Don’t light your little sibling on fire then use bubbles to extinguish him. These things are typically obvious no-nos to anyone with a baseline IQ. But, as tends to be the case with warnings, someone did try it, a lawsuit ensued, and now we need a warning.

Really though, as my favorite writer Chuck Klosterman has pointed out, the warnings need to come on things that teach us about relationships and expectations, like Coldplay and John Cusack. There are simply things that, while wonderful on film or in a TV show, simply wouldn’t work in real life, fun as they may seem.

A movie I would contend is one of the most fun of the past 20 years is Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality. This story of an ugly duckling FBI loner turned drop dead hot Miss United States pageant participant (It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship competition!) is one I still quote regularly and back in the day, I took a freeze frame of Sandra’s hairdo during the interview portion of the competition and told her to do my prom hair that way.

I’ve always idolized Sandra Bullock. She is a producer in addition to an actress. She is hilarious and never apologizes for it. She still gets cast as a leading lady but isn’t conventionally gorgeous or model thin. She looks beautiful in the most normal way possible. She adopted the most adorable baby, she is close with her mother, and she is pretty much all I want to be in life.

A recurring theme in Bullock’s movies is that her male counterpart realizes that the vapid bimbos they’ve been dating are no comparison to the substance Bullock’s character offers. This is the case in Two Weeks Notice, The Proposal, Forces of Nature, and I’m sure there are more. It is a charming thought, someone realizing you are wonderful just the way you are, but Miss Congeniality is a little more realistic about matters. Let’s be honest, it takes a team of highly-trained aestheticians to get the very hot Benjamin Bratt to notice Bullock’s character, Gracie. The film tries to show how this isn’t just about grooming, it is about Gracie learning to love herself for who she is and give herself the time and attention she deserves by doing things like flat ironing her hair and avoiding carbs.

I certainly appreciate the honest of Miss Congeniality and, while the sequel may suck, I will say I adore the fact there is no romance in the sequel, just two women working together. Even this is too dangerous to try at home though. You can be as thin and gorgeous as you’re capable of being and, if a guy hasn’t expressed interest in you before, he very well isn’t going to post-make over either. And if he does, do you want to be the person whose significant other finally decided to give you a chance because you look a little hotter? Knowing deep down you have to put this amount of effort forth in order to keep them because the message has been made crystal clear: you aren’t good enough the way you are.

So while the makeover has been at the heart of several great movies, it rarely works out in real life because it is more complicated than a single scene in which the person is simply seen in a new light by their paramour, who noticed what they’d been missing. But plenty of pop culture moments suffer the same problem–in the moment it may be wonderful and romantic, but taken in a larger context, a good majority of these cinematic romantic gestures are super creepy.

If you broke up with John Cusack and he showed up outside of your house in the middle of the night blaring a boombox, well, first you’d ask where the hell you get a boombox in this day and age, and then you would call the police. Because when you look at the plot of Say Anything and you look at the plot of the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Fear, they are kind of the same story of a guy who gets way too attached to a girl way too fast, they have trouble appropriately displaying their affection, and they develop adversarial relationships with the parents.

In other words, grand romantic gestures are usually a really bad idea. While my brain cerebrally understands it, my heart still swoons every time I hear “Your Eyes”. I love the romantic sweeping scenes of classic movies. Meeting at the top of the Empire State Building, proclaiming your love invoking hell fires and holocausts, roping your girlfriend’s grandpa into helping pull of a big surprise like they do in Meet Me in St. Louis, all of these moments melt my heart.

Which is no surprise why I quickly took to the quirky show about the bowling alley attorney who moved back home to win over his high school sweetheart Carol in the little-watched but much-loved Ed. Out of context, Ed Stevens is the creepiest dude imaginable. He kissed a chick he once knew, then bought a bowling alley to be near her. Much like poor Felicity, who changed her college plans because of what one dude wrote in her yearbook, Ed was just too much, too soon.

In the pilot episode, Ed shows up at the school where Carol teaches alongside her boyfriend of seven years and he is wearing a suit of armor and bearing a bouquet of flowers. This is harassment, no other way to really argue it. But it is damned adorable.

Another time, shortly after Carol and her boyfriend broke up, Carol is awoken by a noise on her roof. Is it a predator? A rapist? Nope, it is Ed throwing waffles on her roof, a continuation of an inside joke designed to cheer her up, so yes it is creepy, but it is a little bit endearing.

The further removed I get from my teen years, the more I think of Ed Stevens as a creeper, but there is something about him that makes me love him in spite of all this weird behavior. And while I wouldn’t actually want these things to happen to me in real life, there is one gesture of his that I will always hope happens to me someday.

In the third episode of the first season, Ed and Carol are trying to be friends, but Ed is still pulling out all the stops to win Carol over. He has a third party deliver her a VHS tape. Some of you may not be familiar, but there used to be places where you could make your own music videos. You could stand in front of a green screen and lip sync along with a song while the background made it look like you were by the ocean or riding on a magic carpet. Imagine a low rent version of Rebecca Black’s Friday.

Anyways, Carol pops the tape in her VCR and finds one of those music videos with Ed brandishing a pink inflatable electric guitar with clouds floating by in the background. He then lip syncs with every ounce of earnestness in his body Chicago’s You’re the Inspiration. I wish I could say I am not so weak-willed as to find this adorable, but I stand by what I said my junior of high school: if a guy ever did this for me, I would need one hell of a reason not to marry him.

So far, the Chicago-singing suitor hasn’t shown up. Instead, I have a string of what ifs and not quites and what was I thinkings. And, like most people, I’ve had my share of unrequited love. It would be nice to believe that pouring my guts out would result in a meaningful relationship, but as someone who tried it once only to have it result in a super awkward couple of months, I have to advise against people planning their own version of the pick me, choose me, love me speech.

When I was younger, I would try to explain to someone I liked how I felt and, if they didn’t fully reciprocate (I’m a real pro at kinda dating people btw), I would try to convince them I was worth it. My mom told me something that always stuck. “You don’t want to be with a guy you have to convince to like you, Jessica. They should know on their own.”

She was right, but I was still sad, so I would retreat to my room and listen to a song like Vertical Horizon’s Everything You Want on repeat. During my most pathetic moments, I would cry sing my way through the power chorus when the protagonist shifts from talking about the other guy to himself, proclaiming how he is “everything you want”, he is the right guy for her. I would wonder why my version of this song didn’t work.

This is why songs and movies and shows like this need warning labels. They are great for what they are, which is catharsis. You want to do these stupid, ridiculous things and you know they will have stupid, ridiculous results, so you act them out singing Vertical Horizon on a loop. That way you don’t show up on someone’s doorstep with a wilted waffle, a strange monologue, and a restraining order. These aren’t meant for us to replicate in our real lives. They are grow up fantasies, fairy tales really. Miss Congeniality is just The Ugly Duckling. Ed is a literal knight in shining armor. And the power ballad Everything You Want is for when we’re feeling more beastly than beautiful. Would you ever grow out your hair and let a stranger climb it? Get roofied by your stepmother after breaking and entering into a house full of miners? Didn’t think so. Treat these like you would Sleeping Beauty. They are great stories and sometimes have some metaphorical real world application, but it is not safe to try it at home.

But seriously, the one exception is the inflatable guitar. Cause I’m still holding out hope for that tape.

1999: Staplers, Slayers, and Placing the Blame

I adore Katharine Hepburn for a lot of reasons, but one in particular is this quote:

“We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault. But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.”

Growing up, I was actually taught the way Hepburn wanted people to be taught in that you need to blame yourself first, then only when given enough evidence to the contrary can you place the blame on someone else. It wasn’t something anyone in particular taught me, I just tended to pick it up from TV and books where the lesson often is placing blame anywhere but squarely on your shoulders is a bad thing to do.

This has been an incredibly useful mindset for many facets of my life. In school and at work, I do my best to get everything done with as few excuses as possible. It has made me a skilled editor, as I don’t really pull punches if I think changes can improve things. I may be the bad guy, but I am my own worst enemy, so adding a foe or two to the list doesn’t matter that much.

I know many people, myself included, who have been in jobs they can’t stand. They come up with excuses to stay, place blame on others, and ultimately keep suffering. This is why the movie Office Space stands up so well over the years. Mike Judge’s comedy is every white collar worker’s dream—admitting that the system is stupid to your superiors, acknowledging you pretend to work a lot of the time, and beating the shit out of the printer.

It may seem like a mundane comedy, but at its heart, this movie is a fantasy about being able to take control of your situation and turn it into something positive with virtually no repercussions. Whether you’re a waitress lacking the requisite flare or a middle manager at an IT company, it is up to you to fix your situation, your crappy boss, and your crappy job.

In reality though, sometimes you can’t just walk away from something you hate. It is one of the other defining differences between Xennials and Snake People. My parents raised me to believe you should be grateful for any and every job you are offered. Your job sucks? It’s supposed to. Nowadays, I constantly see people a little younger than me talking about how your work should be something you love, as if it is a requisite of employment that you not only get paid and get benefits, you have to be emotionally fulfilled by it too. While I think we all agree that would be nice, there are still those of us who consider a job a means to pay the bills, not a life-defining decision about who you are deep down inside. Sometimes I have a job just to have a job. For a while I thought my job had to be one of the key things defining who I am. But not everyone needs a career path that brings then more zen than a yoga retreat.

Those of us who can be a little too complacent can stand to learn something about blaming ourselves for our own misery and taking too much negativity because we feel we deserve it from Office Space though. Just look at poor Milton, who never speaks up and by bearing the brunt of it, only has worse and worse things heaved upon him. It may be satire, but that is how the work place and life really is. The more you prove you are a capable human being, the more will be expected of you. They’ll even take your cake and eat it too.

The more responsibility you shoulder, the more it seems easy to place the blame upon yourself. This is one of Buffy Summers’ biggest flaws on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve spoken before about late-season Buffy and her emotional struggles, but really from the time she was told she is the one and only slayer, she has heaped the literal responsibility of the entire world on her shoulders. So, when things go poorly, she blames herself. When people die, she blames herself. And when all she wants is a break like going to homecoming, she gets taught a lesson in the form of vampire mercenaries trying to murder her. When she decides to finally let a guy in and care about someone and have sex with him, he literally turns into an evil monster hellbent on killing her and her friends and the only way she can fix it is to murder her first love herself.

If Office Space is a fantasy about shirking responsibility, Buffy is a horror story not about monsters and vampire, but the unrelenting unfairness of adulthood. Milton’s series of foibles may be funny, but they aren’t that far removed from Buffy Summers, who is stuck with a gig she never asked for and constantly has to sacrifice as a result. Difference is, Buffy can’t quit being the slayer. In many ways, her situation is blameless. She didn’t get herself into this mess, but she can’t get out of it either. For those of us used to putting all the blame on our shoulders, these situations are way worse than a soul-sucking job. You know when you’re Milton that, should push comes to shove, you can say enough. When you’re in a jam you’re desperate to get out of but there is absolutely nothing you can do except put your head down and keep going, you try to figure out if there is some cosmic reason you’re in the boat you’re in, which only makes things tougher.

What is great about Buffy is creator Joss Whedon’s unrelenting honesty about how cruel life can be. I know, it doesn’t sound great, but as a show that was at the heart of my high school viewing, being reassured by this show that, yes, things are often hard for no real reason, so don’t feel like you are to blame for it is exactly what I needed.

While I am with Hepburn in the sense I would much prefer to have a friend who tends to blame themselves too much rather than too little. I find it is much better to be too self-critical than too self-assured, or else you’ll end up with too many evenings like the one described in Lit’s My Own Worst Enemy. While the song is mostly about drinking too much and blacking out, the sentiment that we kick the living shit out of ourselves from time to time resonates with sober people too. Even though I put the blame on myself for a lot of things, I still end up making stupid mistakes and know I am making them as I do it, but sometimes you just can’t help yourself.

While Drunk Jess (yes, I consider her a person unto herself) can do some dumb stuff, her complete disregard for consequences can be helpful from time to time, as she can be more forward, more assured, less guarded. Most of the time I rue her existence, but like any good worst enemy, she certainly challenges me and my life choices and, in the end, what doesn’t kill me with alcohol poisoning makes me stronger.

That is the best part of being a self-blamer. As you scrutinize every facet of your being all the time, you try and get better. When I go through a break up or I change jobs, I will exercise more, write more, read more, all in an attempt of self-betterment in case the reason behind the problem is me. I wish it could be like Office Space and I could just scream eff it and be done with the things not working in my life. But seven or eight viewings of all those Buffy episodes reminds me that, like Buffy, I can train all I want, shield myself and prepare as much as I can and, while I can try to prevent myself from being my own worst enemy, I am never going to be able to stop bad things from happening and there will always be instances where there is no one to blame.

1998: Time, Context, Saving Private Ryan & Shania

I’ve mentioned before that my sister and I have an agreement to watch a show neither of us are particularly fond of anymore called The Strain. There is a character in the show that appears to be in his early 70s. In Season 1 it is revealed he is a Holocaust survivor and I didn’t think too much of it. My sister and I were watching some of Season 2 together and he reveals that he is defying aging and is actually 94 years old.

Both my sister and I needed a minute to think it through and, yeah, we probably should’ve realized a guy who was maybe 20 during WW2 would be damn near 100 now. It was such a common thing when we were kids for some of our friends to have grandparents that were Holocaust survivors that the idea one would be very much alive and kicking today felt so normal. Really though, kids today will go their whole lives more than likely never meeting someone who experienced the Holocaust or was a WW2 vet because most of them will have passed on.

So once again, I refer to difference between Millenials and Xennials and which way those Xennials lean. Many of my friends had close relationships with grandparents or other relatives who still had a couple of decades of good years in them. While we were not around to experience what happened during WW2, we got to hear firsthand about what happened on and off the battlefield. Meanwhile those just a few years younger than us had grandparents who were kids during the war and couldn’t tell us about why we fought and just how horrifying some of those important battles could be.

When Saving Private Ryan first came out in theaters, many veterans from that war walked out about 45 minutes into the film. It wasn’t because it was bad or the depiction of the storming of Omaha Beach was outrageously incorrect. They walked out because it was too real, bringing back memories of their own experiences in the service that they weren’t prepared to relive. I was a teenager at the time, but watching this movie in the theaters brought me to tears several times over. Watching the movie certainly didn’t make me understand the experiences of my relatives, but it did help me to understand some of the burden they bore by not only fighting for our country, but suffering the memories of the horrific experiences alone, unwilling to burden others with it.

They are called The Greatest Generation by many, including myself. These principled people put others before self, learned to live with what they had, and appreciated everything that was given to them. I admire them greatly and my heart holds a special place for their era. I don’t know if it is nostalgia when you long for a time you didn’t experience, but as someone who thinks the early 1950s are the greatest time for movies ever, I don’t know what else to call my infatuation with the era.

I was genuinely infatuated with Saving Private Ryan. To this day it ranks in my all-time top five. Every time I watch it, even now, I get a little misty-eyed, especially during the scene in which the group’s medic dies. After being shot, he is trying to instruct the guys how to help him. As they tell him where the wounds are, he realizes what no one else does, that his liver has been hit and he is going to die. Like WW2 vets, it is a horror my brain can comprehend, but I can only imagine how it would’ve felt.

I had that personal connection, but people younger than me who watch this movie now will not have such an experience. I imagine it’ll be more like when I watched The Passion of the Christ. It puts a historical event in context in a very visceral way, but you still feel somewhat disconnected since there is no one in your real life to anchor the feelings you’ve experienced in the movies. Movies are great to watch just to watch, but when you can use them to connect with someone in a way you couldn’t before, it is a surprisingly fulfilling experience.

Like my sister and The Strain, I tend to watch some oddball shows in an effort to connect with my mom. Lately when I am home, she will call out to me during the part in Columbo episodes where he smarmily reveals who the killer is so I can watch with her. My mom has no interest in serial television and she isn’t a fan of gruesome murder and crime, so she skips the procedurals like Law & Order or CSI.

It is no wonder then that when ABC launched a quirky little show that amounted to a procedural about dating and falling in love that both my mom and I fell head over heels for it. Before he was Ari on Entourage, Jeremy Piven played Cupid. Not metaphorical cupid like a matchmaker, Cupid cupid. The general premise is that Cupid pissed off Zeus or someone up there and they sent him down to Earth without his powers and told him he can’t get them back until he gets 100 couples together. His psychologist thinks he is insane and the audience never quite knows for sure he is who he says he is, which is its own amount of fun, but the weekly romances were exactly the kind of procedural our life as missing.

The show, which was kind of destined to fail when it was condemned to a Friday night time slot, never quite got the critical acclaim I think it deserved, though it did develop a cult following. Nowadays, shows like Say Yes to the Dress, The Millionaire Matchmaker, and other reality shows have somewhat filled the void of the relationship procedural, but none have that quirk and charm of this short-lived show. I like to think much like I was a few decades late for a time I think I would’ve thrived in, this show was about five years too early, as the proliferation of scripted TV shows recently discussed on NPR’s pop culture blog probably would’ve resulted in this show ending up on a niche cable network.

A show like Cupid was too high concept to really be timeless. Much of contemporary pop culture ties itself a little too closely to the time period. Many shows aren’t built to last anymore. Reality shows sum this up the best. If you don’t catch them on their initial run, you’re hardly ever going to see any reality competition show in syndication because once people knew who won, the interest dried up immediately.

Many songs are suffering the same fate, especially in the top 40 world where lyrics name drop other artists, TV shows, and current events. In the late 90s, punk and boy bands were dominating the charts tying themselves to the era with their sound, but there was an artist who paved the way for Taylor Swift by crossing over from country to pop who hit the charts doing very much her own thing. Shania Twain’s Still the One is a timeless kind of ballad that is just as compelling today as it was 17 years ago.

That is, so long as you keep the song out of context. When she wrote it, Shania was deeply in love with her producer, Mutt Lange. In 2010, he would leave her for her best friend. Ouch.

When Shania started her show at Caesars, I went with some friends. While not a die-hard Shania supporter, I like a lot of her songs, especially Still the One. However, knowing the story behind the song, I couldn’t help but get a little sad when we reached that portion of the performance. There are a lot of inadvertently hilarious moments in the show, like when she performs some songs on what appears to be a post-nuclear fallout cheetah planet.

For Still the One, she comes in on a white horse, fog rolls in. She gets off the horse and proceeds to sing the song to the animal, as it magically follows her around the stage. (Begging the question of logistically how this is accomplished. Do they spray her down with carrot juice or something?)

It’s intended to be beautiful, but my mind went to her failed relationship thinking to myself, “You had a husband to sing this song to forever, but now the only one to serenade is your horse. That’s pretty depressing, Ms. Twain.” This song, which is so lovely and doesn’t need any context to resonate with anyone who has ever been in love has been tainted by context.

That is what happens the more you know and the more something gets connected to a place, a person, or an era. A movie like Saving Private Ryan or a simple love song can make you feel so much more than taking in things sight unseen. For the movies, something that resonates in your head can be felt in your heart, while a song that always stirred up feelings will get you thinking about the who or why and get the song stuck in your head with more than just the melody.

1997: Good Will Hunting for the Right Decision

I’ll be the first to admit that I probably let fear play too big a role in my decision making, but I like to believe it is a fault a lot of us have. I used to not worry so much, which is a wonderful side effect of youth. In my younger days, I viewed decisions from the perspective of wrong or right. Nowadays, I realize that framework only leads to quite a bit of frustration, as decisions are more easily grouped into easy and hard and further divided into worth it and not.

At its core, Good Will Hunting is really a movie about fear and decisions. You have a kid (yes, kid, you may be shocked to remember Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is supposed to be 20) who had all the potential and intelligence in the world. With that know-how, you would think finding a way out of a working-class life with no parents, a criminal record, and only one friend he can actually rely on would be a piece of cake. It seems like an easy decision to take advantage of his photographic memory and propensity for math and make something of himself.

Xenophobia, the fear of the unknown, is a very real thing for some people though, Will included. I am related to several of these people. When I took a job that required a lot of international travel, my mom asked me, “Why do you want to go to another country? Everything you need is here in America.” My grandparents couldn’t understand why I would go to college all the way in California when I could’ve gone to Western Kentucky University for free. Minus the eff bombs and the thick South Boston accents, they are Will Hunting and his band of misfits.

I’ve always loved this movie, but I used to have a problem with the ending. Will chooses neither a life in South Boston nor a life among the math elite, but instead heads off to California, “to go see about a girl,” and it always seemed a bit like a deus ex machina moment for me. Like Will never had to make a real tough decision because the answer is true love. Congrats Will, it’s not your fault and you get to go hang out with Minnie Driver in San Francisco. You think you’ve made a breakthrough in therapy, but here you go running away from the big decision again.

Now that I am a little older and the leaps of faith I made in my younger years are harder to get off the ground, I realize how tough it was for a closed off person like Will to have enough faith in another human being to be there, to be worth it. In fact, of the three options, this one isn’t the easiest, it is probably the hardest. It is pretty easy to figure out if a job is for you or a living situation is for you. When you meet someone and they aren’t like anyone you’ve met before, you aren’t sure If these new feelings are a sign to run or a sign you’ve hit the jackpot.

A good chunk of people tend to live their life trying to keep big changes to a minimum, not realizing they may be doing themselves a disservice in the long run. Going through each day not making any changes seems easy in the moment, but it is also how you end up with a job, a spouse, a life that is simply okay, but is certainly not what your dreams were made of. It was easier for Will to believe he didn’t deserve to be loved too. Sure, he was setting himself up for a lonely life, but at least he knew it was coming and there wasn’t a chance to get his heart crushed again. You underachieved, but your soul survived intact.

There are people who are okay with that kind of life, who would rather take option A than get devastated again. There are people who are willing to make the occasional big decision and take the chance that it is worth the risk, and there is the cast of the David E. Kelley show The Practice. If you remember this show, the lawyers of Robert Donnell and Associates chose a career in which these tough decisions were a weekly affair. You might also remember that these characters are virtuous and awful all at the same time. If you haven’t watched, imagine the characters of Scandal in a law firm. There are certain things they value most, like lost causes and doing something wrong in order to accomplish what they think is right. The initial premise of the show was that the firm was kind of like Robin Hood, defending deadbeats and drug dealers in order to keep the business going and allow them the time and money to defend more noble causes.

It’s a weird kind of idealism this show espouses. They make the decisions look a little tough, but in the battle of protecting the innocent or potentially getting disbarred, they opt to possibly ruin their careers pretty much every time. Jimmy Berlutti ends up at the firm because he forged loan documents at his old job to keep them afloat.  Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) in particular has  a crisis of conscience every week, but it is never a choice between right and wrong, really. It is a choice between right and righter, and it sets an awfully high bar for how much us viewers have to be willing to heave ourselves upon the sword for a good cause. Or, as this scene illustrates, throwing your friend under the bus.

The really difficult decisions though are not the ones in which two paths are clear and you need to pick one. The really tough ones are the ones where you can’t even take action until you figure out what it is you need to choose to do in the first place. Will Hunting has a grasp on his emotional issues, but he subconsciously chooses to push people away rather than take a risk and let someone in. He is aware, but until Robin Williams’ character causes him to break down and let out all those emotions that come along with his thoughts, he can’t really accept that he has to make a decision about letting people in.

Whenever I hear the old Sister Hazel tune All For You, I get a bit of a smile on my face. As music came out of the melancholy haze of grunge, a glut of incredibly cheerful songs hit the airwaves like Deep Blue Something’s Breakfast at Tiffanys, Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, and the rise of Third Eye Blind.

All For You fits right in that mold. It is a fairly simple love song really, but I always enjoyed how it was a story of a guy who finally realized what has been staring him in the face all this time. He tried to find somebody else besides this one particular girl, but in the end, “all the roads, they lead to you.”

It is a romantic conceit common in romantic comedies, the idea that your best friend or the person you never thought of in another light or someone you were once with but never fully got a chance to give it a good try is the person for you. There is usually a very obvious moment where eyes get bigger, where eyebrows raise, and the protagonist literally takes off running to tell that person they were wrong.

While the song isn’t exactly complicated, it does depict a more realistic portrayal of how this happens. It isn’t an a-ha moment, it is a period of thinking you might feel a certain way, trying to deny you feel that way, trying to decide whether these feelings are worth the risk, and hopefully, the elation that follows when you take the risk and it turns out right.

We get inundated with this elation, this moment where you make a decision and it works out like you hoped for. There aren’t a lot of pop culture artifacts in which someone makes a huge mistake they can’t recover from. Another Matt Damon vehicle, The Talented Mr. Ripley, comes to mind. It also reminds me how many people, including myself, have a hard time watching what is a well-made movie because seeing a guy descend into something he can’t fix is uncomfortable and depressing. We as a culture like those movies and TV shows that affirm us that risk is good, but we need the occasional Will Hunting or The Practice episode to at least remind us that decisions are rarely easy, consequences are real, but there are some things are well worth taking a chance on.

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.

1995: Are You an Empire Xennial or a Clueless Xennial?

When people talk about the defining teen movie of 1995, they tend to talk Clueless. It makes sense. The modern-day take on Jane Austen’s Emma stands up as a good movie 20 years later, it was a hit at the time, and really captured the cultural moment that was the Contempo Casual/grunge/Ska blend that was happening around the time.

I love Clueless too, but there is another movie from 1995 that I associate much more strongly with my adolescence and that movie is Empire Records. I actually didn’t see this movie until 1997 or so since it was a huge bomb in theaters, but developed a massive cult following on video. There are plenty of people like myself who think both movies are great, but there is a sentimental attachment to one or the other that I think might be one of the litmus tests for where on the spectrum you land between Snake People and Generation X. People have been observing for a while that there is a mini-generation between the two. Some call them Xennials, I just call them me and my peoples. Within our generation though, there are people who tend more towards one generation than the other. Those who lean Snake Person tend to prefer Clueless, while those of us who are more Gen Xers at heart live every day like it is Rex Manning Day and opt for Empire Records.

If you’re not familiar with the two films, let me give you a quick summary of each. In Clueless, Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is a well-meaning but self-absorbed and kind of unintelligent popular girl who takes a hapless loser and turns her into a well-groomed cool chick. In the end, she realizes that life isn’t always about status symbols and tries to live a more purposeful life and be a better person that she likes and stop worrying about whether or not other people like her. As a result, she remains super popular, gains even more friends, and gets to make out with Paul Rudd. If this is what you got for being a little less selfish, I am pretty sure most of us girls would by vying to run United Way right about now.

In other words, it is a lesson about how popularity isn’t everything. The moral of the story is if you are truer to yourself and kinder to mankind, you will be rewarded with a better life.

Then there is Empire Records, which is another movie about how living up to expectations isn’t all it is cracked up to be. But rather than spin a yarn about how great your life can be if care more about others, it readily admits your life probably sucks a little, but guess what? So does eveyone’s life. It is how you make the most of it that matters. Just look at the chicks in this movie. Most will tell you that Debra (Robin Tunney) is the coolest girl in the movie. We know she is cool because her wrists are bandaged from where she tried to slit them the previous night and she shaves her head in the record store bathroom. We know Gina is a cool party girl who puts up a good façade about enjoying how hot she is and the advantages that come with it. And then there is Corey (Liv Tyler) a super studious goody goody who wants to lose her virginity to Rex Manning because for this Type-A girl, even her deflowering has to be perfect.

The real scene that puts on display just how effed up these chicks are is when Gina admits she banged Rex even though she knew Corey wanted to, so Corey gets upset and takes it personal. In response, Gina, to borrow a poker term, reraises all in, goes and fetches Corey’s speed from her locker and proceeds to fling the pills at her lamenting Corey’s, “perfect, perfect future.”

It’s not just the girls either. The guys include a shoplifter named Warren, a kid who gambled the store’s deposit away in Atlantic City, two stoners who hallucinate they are playing with the band Gwar, and a too cool for school guitarist whose band is so lacking in street cred he is actually willing to let Gina front their “Damn the Man, Save the Empire” concert on the roof.

Damn the Man, Save the Empire really sums it up. This is a movie that asks teens, “you think you’re weird and screwed up? Well, can you beat this?” While Cher’s dilemma amounted to a failed driving test, a bad grade, and accidentally dating a gay guy, the stakes are much higher for Empire’s teens and the outcome is not so rosy. Sure, they keep Empire going, but Gina is still a promiscuous girl with Daddy issues. Corey is still gonna be on diet pills. Lucas will still feel nothing. But they got through today. So there is that, which you take, you build on, and you keep going.

Clueless is the Snake Person POV while Empire is for the Gen Xers in all of us. I sure wish Paul Rudd was in my future, but the teen in me bought into Empire’s view of the world more. Don’t expect much and you’ll be okay. You’re a little screwed up, but we all are really.

If that is the movie Snake Person/Gen X litmus test for the tweener generation, then I think The Real World is the TV version. If your quintessential season of this MTV reality show is the original Las Vegas season, you are a Snake Person-leaning sort. If you hear the show’s name and your mind immediately goes to Pedro, Puck, Pam, and Judd, you are a Gen Xer at heart. The Vegas season was a turning point for the show (which has now been on the air for more than two decades btw). Gone were the earnest attempts at learning about different cultures and people or starting a company or volunteering with kids. This was a season about partying and living it up with minimal responsibilities, save for a job “promoting” the nightclubs at the Palms, which is basically a license to party.

It reminds me of this growing trend of parents supporting their children after college for a couple of years. This was something my mother made abundantly clear was not an option, even if she wanted to, as we had no money. College was our safety net, then we had to get into the real world. Such was the case of the early Real World casts. Have you ever paid attention to what kind of jobs these people had? Judd worked for a nationally-recognized newspaper. Pam was a doctor. Pedro was the foremost lobbyist for AIDS and HIV awareness. Corey was the slacker because she found a job at a high-end department store. This is not an affront to the Vegas cast at all, it seems like the show required you not to have outside employment in order to be on the show, but shows you what passed for The Real World in 1995 compared to 2000.

In old school Real World, Puck got thrown out of the house because he was disrespectful. Now, you get thrown off The Real World if you commit assault. This is how lax standards have become. I mean, check this out. Can you just feel the earnestness oozing through the camera?

Speaking of earnestness, I am still not sure where Hootie and the Blowfish lands on my litmus test. I think your reaction to Let Her Cry might determine whether you are in the Xennial category at all. Because let’s be honest, most Gen Xers were a little too old and way too cool to listen to his light rock jam band and most Snake People came of age after Hootie had peaked and was already a punchline. But if you have a non-ironic sweet spot for Darius Rucker and crew, you’re probably a Xennial, a kid who missed out on all the ennui and jadedness of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the crew, but still too skeptical to fully believe we’re all special, that the world is great, and that we are all destined to end up with Paul Rudd.