The Acid Trilogy Pt. I: Blue Velvet (1986)

My high school friends and I – this being the mid-to-late eighties punk rock set of Anchorage, Alaska – were obsessed with Blue Velvet. We would tear strips of blue velvet cloth we scavenged from fabric stores and tied them to our leather jackets like some kind of makeshift gang sign. We would stay up late into the night debating the finer points of David Lynch’s masterpiece and frequently quoted Frank Booth. We even developed a (un)healthy fascination with nitrous oxide due in large part to the influence of the movie. Emulating a psychopath sure seemed like a good idea at the time.

Here’s to your fuck, Frank.

Back in the day you could only buy nitrous at coffee houses and porno stores. No one else stocked it. The porno stores didn’t care one way or the other, but the coffee houses you could only hit once every couple of months or they would start to get wise as to your intentions and wouldn’t sell to you.

Like all the finer things in life, it was a hustle.

And then came the miracle. A local grocery store stocked an entire end-cap with hundreds and hundreds of boxes of nitrous oxide, at a discount and ripe for the picking. They never knew what hit them. For the next three days the checkout lines were filled with nothing but punk rockers and long hairs all carrying a handfuls of boxes and trying not to beam too suspiciously. It was a sight to behold. A lot braincells were lost that week.

Anchorage in the eighties was a different kind of cat.

Blue Velvet was our favored freak show. It was our rallying cry. On any given day it was playing in one of our homes somewhere. In Dreams by Roy Orbison found its way on nearly every comp tape we passed without fail. It even became a badge of honor to watch the movie on acid – the punk rock version of macho posturing. I’ll admit to falling for it. I took the challenge. I’m sure it forever changed my DNA and not necessarily for the better.

Frank Booth. On acid. You do the math.

Depending on the audience, Blue Velvet can come across as an interesting, albeit disturbing, cinematic masterpiece, or a bit like watching the Easter Bunny facing off a group of Satanists seeking a blood sacrifice. The former will likely appreciate and even find humor in its darkness, the latter will require a hot shower and maybe an Ambien. It’s not a movie for everyone, but therein lies its charm.

I’ll say this much, Frank is a lot freakier when tripping. I realize that comes across as stating the obvious, but things got a little weird during this viewing. The performances were intensified to the point where the whole thing just kind of dovetailed into Mexican soap opera territory. The experience was both horrifying and a little silly.

Blue Velvet was David Lynch’s finest hour. Wild at Heart and Fire Walk with Me soon followed, and then things just seemed to go awry. I have yet to make it through Mulholland Drive in its entirety. It’s certainly not for lack of trying. I’ll attempt it again some day, I’m sure. I don’t even want to talk about season 3 of Twin Peaks. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

If you haven’t seen this movie before, you probably should. Just don’t do it on acid. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

Singles (1992)

Singles is a rare beast; the modern-era romantic comedy that manages to avoid becoming a romcom. Singles is the Grease of the early nineties. This is Cameron Crowe near the height of his powers, just before peaking with Jerry Maguire and the mighty Almost Famous.

And talk about fortuitous timing. Filming of Singles took place between March and May of 1991. Four months later, Nirvana’s Smell Like Teen Spirit came out and changed the landscape of popular music forever. Singles was released the following September and suddenly the grunge movement had its very own film. And this wasn’t any number of truly awful skateboarding or breakdancing flicks trying to cash in after the fact mind you, Singles grew organically alongside the scene it was portrayed.

A seismic cultural shift turned free advertising.

This is my favorite Matt Dillon performance outside of Drugstore Cowboy and a handful of roles he took on as a teen where he always managed to get shot by the police by the end. Dillon conjures a mash-up of Jeff Spicoli and Scooby-Doo that must be seen to be beleived. Watch the eyes. Hell, watch his eyebrows. Those eyebrows deserved their own best supporting actor nod.

Members of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and a smattering of other Seattle bands and local celebrities were cast as bit characters and cameos throughout the film. I’m assuming to add authenticity and true local flavor to the film, but it can be a little painful to watch at times. Yet somehow, Cameron Crowe made the awkwardness work to the point where painful became almost enduring. It reminds me of an old Mitch Hedberg joke.

When you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things. All right, you’re a stand-up comedian, can you write us a script? That’s not fair. That’s like if I worked hard to become a cook, and I’m a really good cook, they’d say, “OK, you’re a cook. Can you farm?”

As for grunge itself, I could really take it or leave it. Having lived through it, the whole affair just seemed like an excuse for jocks to let their hair down while still acting like meatheads. But Singles does serve as a neat little time capsule.

I lived in Portland at the time this movie came out, and Portland and Seattle will forever be joined at the hip culturally speaking. We’d drive up to Seattle to see shows and Seattleites would head down south to do the same. The fashion was the same. The beer was the same. They had Cameron Crowe. We had Gus Van Sant. We got more rain, Seattle had better seafood.

Singles stars a smattering of the young and beautiful at the time – Kyra Sedgewick, Campbell Scott, Bridget Fonda and more. Fine actors every last one of them, but for my money the movie is made by three members of the supporting cast. First, Eric Stolz as the cantankerous street mime. Secondly, one of the best damn actors in the free world, the one and only, Paul Giamatti. Giamatti was gifted with a single line in the movie. Not just a single line, a single word. Spoiler alert: he nailed it.

Last but not least, a shoutout goes to the always amazing James Le Gros. Singles reunites Drugstore Cowboy alums Dillon and Le Gros, though they don’t share any scenes together. Le Gros gets the second best lines in the script with his pretentious delivery of, “You know, it’s okay to loathe these people. There’s so much life in you, and so much emotional larceny in these others.”

Emotional larceny. Dig it.

For those of you keeping score, the best line in the film comes from Campbell Scott’s character – and later Kyra Sedgewick’s as well – the wonderful, the romantic, “I was just nowhere near your neighborhood.”

Be still my beating heart.

Singles isn’t deep, nor does it pretend to be. It’s not trying to sell you on anything. It’s not trying to save the world. It’s 99 minutes of escapism with a smoking soundtrack which is everything it needs to be.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Whenever you see lists compiling the best and brightest movies of the eighties, it always seems like Big Trouble in Little China is tacked on at the end almost as an afterthought. If it even makes the cut at all that is. The proverbial “and guests” on the concert hall billboard. The Rodney Dangerfield of eighties slapstick action movies.

It’s John Carpenter and Kurt Russell for crying out loud. Take my money. Take it! You had me at hello.

I’ll admit to being a little Kurt Russell-obsessed. I even carry around my own smattering of Kurt Russell trivia to win friends and make people uncomfortable at parties. For example, did you know that after Walt Disney died, they found a notepad on his nightstand with just two words – supposedly his last two words – written on it?

The words? Kurt Russell.

My kids have recently gotten into the two Christmas Chronicles films on Netflix, starring Russell as the big man himself, Santa Claus. The movies are perfectly charming and filled with Christmas cheer, but the little devil on my shoulder prodded me into giving them a sneak peak of Escape from New York – a highly edited sneak peek – just to let them experience Santa in his leaner and meaner years.

My kids range just over three years apart from the oldest to the youngest, so finding the sweet spot for certain movies often takes a little finesse. But it was finally time, Big Trouble in Little China had entered the Venn Diagram. Eureka! With popcorn in hand, we sat down to watch it together.

Everything went according to Hoyle, they laughed at all the comedic spots, oohed and aahed over the action sequences. I had successfully introduced them to the works of John Carpenter. Parenting win.

(A few nights later we watched The Fog to mixed results. We’re working our way up to Christine.)

After the scene where Jack Burton declines a kiss from Gracie Law, my twelve-year-old daughter leaned over to me and whispered, “Oh, I get it. He’s gay. That’s why he has so many problems with women, he’s in love with the other guy.” I was expecting something along the lines of, “Hey, what a cool movie,” or, “Wow dad, that movie really sucked,” not a psychological analysis of Burton’s apparent identity crisis.

Out of the mouths of babes. And hey, now I’ve got a story to tell.

There is one scene in Big Trouble in Little China that has haunted me since the eighties. I told my kids about it and they laughed at me after they saw it. Spoiler alert: it’s the exploding head scene. Not for the special effects, they were far more weird than queasy, but for the aftermath. After the man’s cranial explosion, the alley is blanketed in what appears to be lettuce. I suppose they could have been the remnants of a nearby fruit and vegetable stand, but I’ve always deduced that the crazy samurai guy was somehow made up of lettuce. They made him far more terrifying in my eyes.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never become a vegetarian.

Raymond Chandler

The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right. To say goodbye is to die a little.

The Long Goodbye (1953)

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

The gang that swore a blood oath to destroy Precinct 13… and every cop in it! 

Unlike many of the movies I write about, I don’t have a longstanding personal connection with Assault on Precinct 13dating back to childhood. I was five years old when this movie came out, so there was no chance I was seeing this in the theater. But I can imagine the reaction of those who did being similar to my own when I saw Clerks or Reservoir Dogsfor the first time in the nineties. What a rush. John Carpenter hit the ground running, churning out classics like Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing and so much more. To steal a phrase from my favorite subreddit, his career is oddly satisfying.

Assault on Precinct 13 is the quintessential John Carpenter flick. The purest and most concentrated result of a master at work. It’s that damn good.

The film is loosely based on Rio Bravo, Carpenter has a thing for Howard Hawks, you see. The plot? Bad guys take a blood oath and swear revenge on the L.A.P.D. for the deaths of gang members in an earlier skirmish. The bad guys represent several different gangs and ethnicities from throughout the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, including one gang that is led by an apparent Che Guevara impersonator. Why the cartel picked a nearly abandoned station to launch their attack rather than, say, L.A.P.D. headquarters, is beyond me. But it works.

Austin Stoker as Lieutenant Ethan Bishop is a badass. The calmest officer under siege I’ve ever seen in the movies. He played it calm, cool, and collected, managing to be capable without going over the top which later became such a staple in eighties action movies.

Later in the film there’s a scene featuring a couple of patrol officers checking up on the old station. One of the cops looks alarmingly like Ben Stiller. (Stiller would have been all of eleven years old when Assault came out.) It’s eerie, like that old sepia-toned photograph that is the spitting image of Nicolas Cage. Watch it again and tell me I’m wrong. You can’t miss the guy.

Written, directed, edited and scored by Carpenter, Assault on Precinct 13 is a master class in filmmaking. And on a budget. Assault cost a paltry $100,000 to make, a fraction of the cost of its peers. As an example The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which came out two years earlier, had a budget of $3.8 million dollars. A hundred grand likely didn’t cover catering on most sets.

I’m not a filmmaker. Hell, I’m not even a film critic. I am simply an enthusiast, but you can’t help but spend some time under the learning tree with Assault on Precinct 13. If you’re looking for examples of the influence Carpenter has had on filmmaking, one doesn’t need to look further than Robert Rodriguez, who has made it his life mission to follow in Carpenter’s footsteps. Writing, directing, scoring, editing, Rodriguez is out there defending the faith.

Assault on Precinct 13 is practically perfect in every way.

Anybody got a smoke?

Volunteers (1985)

If you are over a certain age, you are likely acquainted with the magic and wonders of the VCR; that clunky, whirring precursor to the DVR, streaming and beyond. It seems so archaic now, but back in the day, was a godsend.

No longer beholden to the theaters, you could raid your couch for loose change, hit up your neighborhood video store and catch up on all the latest and greatest.

And the blank tapes. The glorious blank tapes. Recordable. Extended play. You could cram three or four movies onto one dainty, shoebox-sized cartridge. If one of your friends had cable television and was feeling generous, you could hand them a blank tape on Friday and by Sunday have added three feature films to your collection.

Not to mention the ability to record a network show and watch it at your leisure. No more having to wait to go to the bathroom, or get snacks. No more commercials. You could come and go as you please and never miss a thing. These were wondrous forms of black magic. It was the dawning of a brave new world.

Good times.

Volunteers was one of those movies for me. Someone taped it for me back in the day when I was a teenager. I must have watched that flick somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.7 million times, maybe more. An exaggeration to be sure, but slighter than you may think. There were periods of my adolescence where I watched it daily. Oh, to have that kind of spare time again.

And then, adulthood. Bars and nightclubs and things to do on a Wednesday night. I didn’t watch Volunteers again for some twenty years or more.

The original VHS tape is still somewhere in my garage. I may not have watched it in a couple decades, but I will never let it go. Think Brokeback Mountain, I just can’t quit Volunteers.

A few nights back, I finally broke the dry spell. To my surprise I realized I can still recite half of the dialogue from memory. To my horror, I realized how many of the catchphrases and quips I’ve honed over the years came directly from this movie.

Trapped in a tiger trap by a tiger. Thank you John Candy.

Volunteers is not a great movie, at least not in the traditional sense. Nor does it attempt to be. That’s a good thing. It’s just another goofball comedy from the eighties. But greatness is decided in the eye of the beholder. Volunteers will forever be a five star, two thumbs up movie in my eyes.

It was directed by Nicholas Meyer who also directed Star Trek The Wrath of Khan. (And wrote Star Trek The Voyage Home – the best of the lot as far as I’m concerned – a year after Volunteers.) Meyer also wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of all time, the amazing Time After Time (1979). I’m sure I’ll get around to talking about Time After Time here at some point, until then, please see it at your earliest convenience.

Volunteers pairs Tom Hanks and John Candy, a year after Splash. (I’m a fan of both flicks, but I’d argue Volunteers is the better movie.) Volunteers is my second favorite John Candy film behind Planes, Trains and Automobiles. (If you haven’t cried during the subway stop scene then it may be time to check your pulse, your humanity may be in question.)

While we’re at it, let’s throw Gedde Watanabe into the mix as well, an actor I adore and recently spent an afternoon reading all about the controversy surrounding his portrayal of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. (Also a great flick.)

There’s even a wrestling connection with Prof. Toru Tanaka – three-time WWWF tag team champion along with Mr. Fuji – as one of the handsy bodyguards of Chung Mee.

Volunteers is also the movie where Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson reconnected and eventually fell in love, marrying three years after its release. Remember that. It’s probably a Jeopardy question.

The Unbearable Boneheadedness of Being a Dad

Last night, in an unprovoked – yet completly uncontrollable – moment of Dad, I altered the lyrics to KISS’s Hotter Than Hell in an effort to persuade my children not to come into the kitchen while I was cooking.

“The pans are hot, hot, hotter than heck. You don’t want to burn yourselves.”

There really needs to be a pill to prevent this kind of thing. If anyone needs me, I’ll be rocking back and forth in a dark corner.

Gas Food Lodging (1992)

I can’t tell you the first time I saw Gas Food Lodging – whether it was in the theater or checked out from the video store – it’s just always been around.

It wasn’t the first indie film I’d ever seen, but it was one of the first I claimed as my own. It was one of the first indie films I managed to see in real-time, rather than years after the fact. It’s a lot like your first hand-picked liquor cabinet or personally selected wine rack. It’s something you could offer your guests, something you’ve curated all by your lonesome – big boy/big girl pants and all. Gas Food Lodging was a badge of honor in my eyes. The gateway drug to all the highs and lows that is independent film.

I knew Ione Skye from Say Anything… and, particularly, from River’s Edge. River’s Edge belongs to the acid flicks club – one the handful of films I’ve watched tripping balls on LSD. Ione Skye’s part of my long-term mental scarring and I adore her so.

This was my first introduction to Skye’s co-stars, Fairuza Balk and Jacob Vargas. With Fairuza, I was instantly smitten. I had a crush on her up until American History X where adoration turned to fear. She played a Nazi a little too well. As for Jacob Vargas, I haven’t seen nearly as many of his films as he deserves. Check him out in Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life), director Allison Anders follow-up film to Gas Food Lodging. Dude’s a superstar.

It’s hard not be able to relate to Shade – Balk’s character, the younger of two sisters in which the movie revolves around. I’ve had crushes on people of the opposite sex only to find out they were gay. I think that’s a pretty common experience in this great awkward roller coaster we call life. The obsession with self and the firm belief that every event could be the end of the world. When the stakes were higher than they have ever been. On the other hand, I can totally relate to Trudi – the older sister – and all of her glorious self-destructive ways. They are two sides of the same coin.

Gas Food Lodging has a pretty smoking soundtrack as well. I completely forgot there was a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song featured in the movie. A little embarrassing as this was right around the time I was first getting into Nick Cave. I wound up going straight to Amazon to pick up a copy. It’s never too late to purchase a new old favorite. The credits roll to Love by Victoria Williams and it’s a perfect end to a nearly perfect movie.

The movie was scored by J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. fame. Instrumentals channeling outtakes from Metallica’s Fade to Black sessions. It’s pretty good too.

Anytime you can catch up on an old flick and discover (or rediscover) two new songs that will linger around for an eternity or so is a good night in my book.

I’m not nostalgic, it’s the movies that are timeless.

The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974)

When I was very young – kindergarten, maybe even slightly younger – I ran away from home. I let my parents know first, of course. I gave a quick speech explaining that I was leaving home to go live in the mountains, then walked out the door with my empty backpack on my way to Safeway to stock up on provisions. My parents – in the only decision they ever made that I found myself agreeing with – let me go, following at a distance as I made my way to the grocery store.

The impetus of such a major life decision at a relatively young age was, of course, Grizzly Adams.

Dan Haggerty starred as Grizzly Adams. Joined by Ben the bear, Mad Jack and Number Seven the donkey, and his blood brother, Nakoma.

Seventies glory.

I grew up on the television series. I also grew up in Alaska, where ducking off into the woods and disappearing didn’t seem all that farfetched. Then again, frostbite and getting eaten by a not-so friendly relative of Ben wasn’t all that farfetched either. I watched every episode as a youngling. A few years back the series came out on DVD, I snatched up my copies in record time. A made-for-tv movie too. I even have a Grizzly Adams t-shirt. Correction: I have a misprint Grizzly Adams t-shirt. I’m a dork, unashamed. I made my kids watch a few episodes with me, but they never displayed the proper verve.

(If you think of L.A. Story every time you hear the word, verve, you’re my kind of people.)

The one thing I never got a chance to see however, was the original theatrical release of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.

Thank goodness for YouTube. It took a few tries, but I finally found the original movie there. This was a big deal for me, I was finally going to see how and why old Adams got framed for murder and had to leave in exile.

Or so I thought.

Instead I got burned by one of my favorite seventies tropes – the complete and utter lack of backstory. I’ve been carrying a torch for The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams since I was a kid. And the damned thing opens the same way as the series. Adams got framed for murder, so he’s out of there.

I had been swindled. And at my favorite shell game too.

Still, we’re talking Grizzly Adams. Dan freaking Haggerty. A former animal trainer turned actor. There’s woodland creatures a plenty and the kind of scenery that kept Bob Ross up at night.

It was all of that and more. And less.

Don’t get me wrong, I got nostalgia chills up and down my spine watching this, but there were a few left turns that temporarily took me out of the bubble. Whereas the series was a typical one hour family show, the feature film is more or less a silent movie. The movie stars Dan Haggerty as Grizzly Adams and features narration by Grizzly Adams, however, the narrator is one William Woodson and not Dan Haggerty. That took a little getting used to. The simplicity of it all had a tendency to drift into Dick and Jane territory – swim, Ben, swim! It was a trip.

Still, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams was made for under $150,000 and took in upwards of $60,000,000 at the box office. The dollar amounts vary slightly from source to source, but are no less impressive. Even more impressive when you consider we’re talking 1974 dollars.

I’m still tempted to run away to live in the woods. Aren’t we all?