Over two years ago, before The Only Ones came out, I did a countdown of 99 things (books, movies, art, places, etc.) that inspired it. It was a fun way to revisit some stuff I was actively thinking about when I wrote the book, as well as some stuff I didn’t realize influenced me until I had some time to reflect.
Well, it’s 99 days until The Riverman hits shelves and I figured, why not do it all again? So, without further ado, here is my list of #99inspirations that I’ll be counting down daily on Twitter. This doesn’t represent all of my favorite things (sorry, no bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens here), though it does include some stuff that I truly love. And hopefully it sparks some conversation about the stuff you love and the stuff that leaks into your creations.
A couple of weeks ago I sat down and treated myself to an impromptu double-feature. I started with Take Shelter, the Jeff Nichol’s film starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. It’s a brilliant little ode to paranoia. Not for everyone, but if you like your fare ambiguous, slow-burning and with a dash of doomsday prepping, then this one is for you. Since I figured my nightmares could benefit from a little more bleakness, I followed it up with John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road. Of course, the book is better. There’s no point in engaging in such arguments. But the film, I believe, was unjustly overlooked. Heartbreaking performances, impeccable art direction–a carefully realized and complete vision of Earth in its death throes. The pacing is a bit off. Some poetry is lost in the translation, but I can’t really complain. After all we live in a world where films starring Kevin James exist.
The double-feature was not really a calculated choice, but when it was over, it felt as though the two films belonged together. It was as if The Road was a spiritual sequel to Take Shelter. It didn’t follow connected characters necessarily, but it was a progression of the themes and time period. And it got me thinking…
What if I could create a grand list of movies that line up thematically and are arranged chronologically. When I say chronologically, I don’t mean by production date. I mean by the time in which they’re set. It is an ambitious task, I know, but I am a man of ambition. Need I remind you that I’ve read at least five Choose Your Own Adventure novels front to back?
I shall dub this fool’s errand The Great and Ridiculous Movie Timeline and I will make a pledge to revisit this project over the next few weeks or months until I have covered the entire scope of history, or until I have reached the limits of my interest. Let’s begin:
Sure, I could start with some dinosaur fare, some Land Before Time perhaps. I could even climb Malick’s Tree of Life or throw Kubrick’s 2001 apes a bone. But I’d prefer to kick things off with the beginnings of man and I’d prefer not to take in the entire history of the cosmos while I’m at it. Which leads me to The Missing Link. I saw this strange little film sometime in the early 90s. It’s the story of a lone hominid wandering the deserts and savannas of Africa. He’s not quite a monkey, not quite a man. That ain’t the tagline, but might as well be. Or better yet, let’s pretend the tagline is: “The only thing that’s missing is the future of his species!”
Because this guy is one of anthropology’s Last of the Mohicans. His species (paranthropus robustus) is being replaced by a smarter, more violent one. Namely our forefathers. And we are allowed to witness poor Link’s final days and homo-sapiens’ early ones. The film is done in a quasi-nature documentary style, much like the Walking With series that Discovery Channel cooked up over ten years after this film. The directors were a husband and wife team known for their nature documentaries and the wildlife footage is the film’s major strength. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Like I said, it’s been about 20 years since I’ve seen this. I can’t imagine it made any money back then and today’s audiences might have not much tolerance for its ponderous qualities. However, it is narrated by Michael Gambon (Dumbledore, kids, Dumbledore) and while you can’t get it on DVD, you can watch the entire film on Youtube (click on the video above). The picture quality is quite poor, and a fur-bikinied Raquel Welch is nowhere in sight, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better depiction of our world one million years ago.
Flash-forward about 920,000 years to the tail end of an ice-age. The world is still a savage place. A tribe of neanderthals bumbles through a series of trials and tribulations, all in the name of finding and maintaining their eternal flame. Again, this is a film that pits species against species: Neanderthals versus homo-sapiens. Homo-sapiens versus mammoths. Everyone versus cave bears and wolves and saber-toothed tigers and grammar. Still, there’s room left over for some inter-species romance and plenty of good old fashioned caveman noggin floggin’. It’s also been at least 20 years since I’ve seen this film and I’m sure it’s a bit loose with the facts and science, but I remember how it felt so much more authentic than the Clan of the Cave Bear books and movie that were all the rage in the 80s. Not to mention the fact that Quest for Fire had Ron Perlman and Evertt McGill (of Twin Peaks fame) in the cast, while Clan of the Cave Bear had Daryl Hannah and Curtis Armstrong (that’s right: Booger). Case closed.
For the last three months on Twitter I’ve been counting down to the release of The Only Ones by listing 99 novels, movies, songs, people, places and miscellany that have inspired the book. It has been a way to honor influences and start conversations, but mostly it has been a way for me to figure out where all of this came from. These aren’t necessarily my favorite works of art (some are), but they’re the ones that gave the story its shape. So, without further ado:
If you have friends, as I assume some of you do, then you know that nothing beats playing existential head games with them. Here’s an example. For the last five or six years, I’ve been telling one pal of mine that his job, his friends, his family – his entire life! – is one big ruse, set up from the moment he was born for a singular purpose. To pants him. None of us really like him and none of us are really the people we say we are. We’re all just actors employed to orchestrate the finest, most embarrassing pantsing in history, one that will leave him so full of shame that he will likely lose the confidence to even speak to another human again.
He, of course, can’t know when this pantsing will happen. Could be next week. Could be fifty years, perhaps at a family reunion, where dozens of grandkids will point and jeer and revel in his waist-down nakedness. That’s the beauty of it. The anticipation, the butter-thick air of tension that will envelop his entire life. I assure him that I’m his only true friend because I’ve revealed this truth to him. And he laughs as if I were joking, though I know I’ve hit a nerve. Because deep down he must wonder. Especially if he’s reading this now…and tightening his belt…
I know, I know. Sounds very Truman Show. Or The Game. But, if this premise were to hit the big screen (my email address is below, Scott Rudin), I think it would have more legs than those tired old hack jobs. Just imagine the trailer:
INT. CLASSROOM – DAY
Fade in on a math class full of grade schoolers. A TEACHER writes an unfinished equation on the blackboard. YOUNG JACK raises his hand.
Jack. Come on up and show us.
Jack stands from his desk. As he makes his way to the blackboard, a GIRL in the back row pantomimes a downward yanking motion with her hands. The teacher shakes her head subtly and mouths a silent “Not Yet.”
BOOMING VOICE: Prepare to be shocked.
EXT. FOOTBALL FIELD – NIGHT
A roaring crowd. TEENAGE JACK barrels down the middle of the field, football tucked under his arm. When he reaches the end-zone, he spikes it, and does a wobbly kneed touchdown dance. As teammates swarm him, the QUARTERBACK gives him a hug, but then inches his hands down close to Jack’s pants. Before anything can happen, the RUNNING BACK pulls the quarterback to the side.
Chill, Peyton. No greenlight yet. Besides, that’s lyrca.
BOOMING VOICE: When you see the film that made them faint at Cannes.
INT. CONVENTION HALL – DAY
MIDDLE-AGE JACK, wearing a suite, accepts a trophy from an OLDER GENTLEMAN at podium in a jam-packed Las Vegas Convention Hall. Jack shakes the gentleman’s hand and steps up to the podium. The gentleman looms nearby, his hands trembling in anticipation.
I have to say, this is really unexpected. And to have my family here makes it all the more special.
JACK’S WIFE, sitting in the front row, smiles humbly. His KIDS give the thumbs up.
I can’t think of what would make this day better. I don’t know if I even deserve this…
Behind Jack, a giant screen suddenly displays a message to the crowd: ABORT! SUSPENDERS.
The crowd lets out a disappointed groan. Jack’s Wife can’t help but shake her head. The kids mumble something under her breath. Jack lights up, misunderstanding.
Okay. Maybe I do!
BOOMING VOICE: But please…whatever you do.
INT. BEDROOM – MORNING
OLD JACK stands at his dresser.
You know what, honey?
BOOMING VOICE: Please don’t ever reveal…
QUICK MONTAGE: A barrage of images, Jack’s seemingly normal life flashing before the viewers eyes. Creshendo of music.
If you’re coming here for my top 10 movies of the year or my 50 favorite disco singles, I’m afraid I’m aiming to disappoint. Those lists are fun and everything, but I really can’t find it in myself to declare Furry Vengence the 9th finest cinematic experience of 2010, even though after doing all the calculations and checking the denominators and all that jazz, it appears to be true. Instead, I leave you with a miscellany of highlights from this “year we made contact.”
MY FAVORITE QUOTE: While sharing a cab one morning with a woman she didn’t know (you’d have to live in Hoboken, NJ to understand that’s just how things usually work out), my wife heard the quote of the year. It doesn’t really stand on its own like some Oscar Wilde quip, but there’s a certain magic to it. Looking out of the window of the cab, the woman sighed, motioned to a city worker who was emptying a trash can, and said, “That guy must have such an easy life.” Now there’s a chance that this woman had some insider information about the fellow, like she knew he’d recently hit the Powerball or scored the role of the villain in the The Dark Knight Rises or some such, but my wife didn’t catch that vibe. No, this woman had more of a “poor me, sitting in a cab, trying not to be late for a morning webinar with Tony from PR to discuss the importance of Twitter in the pet insurance industry, while this simpleton empties trash cans and whistles his day away before returning to his filthy hovel for a can of Spam and a hearty round of laughs compliments of America’s Funniest Home Videos,” sort of stink about her. Grass is always greener, indeed. I don’t know who this woman was, but my hat goes off to her and her wholly insular view of the world. My second favorite quote comes from a stranger who randomly asked me and friend the following: “Hey, you guys happen to be T-shirt enthusiasts?” Our response: “We wear T-shirts.” His follow-up: “Well, I’m a T-shirt enthusiast.” End of conversation.
THE HARSHEST CELEBRITY BRUSH-OFF: Celebrities don’t care much for me. I present, as proof, my following dust-ups with some high wattage stars. The comedian Dave Attell once blew me off when I approached him in a falafel restaurant and politely gave him unsolicited advice on how to make his TV show infinitely better. Bobcat Goldthwait, the MVP of many a Police Academy film, gave me the stink-eye when I nearly ran my shopping cart into his one snowy Christmas Eve in an empty suburban grocery store. And now, just a few days ago, I was rebuffed by a certain actor who was standing at a bar after a concert, patiently waiting for the barkeep to tender him a drink. He plays an iconic television character, so I tried to be smooth in my attempt to chat him up. “Let us get you a drink ____” I told him, using his actual first name, rather than his character’s name, which I’m sure he hears more often than not. He glanced at me and my wife, pivoted around on his heel, and walked away without saying a word. I keep his identity a secret for the purposes of guessing games and anonymity, because I assume he was just shy and it wasn’t because I reeked of, I don’t know, seaweed and cheese or anything.
THE FINEST STRETCH OF ROADKILL When traveling through New Zealand a few years back, my then-girlfriend-now-wife and I played a game of our own creation called Stoat/Possum. The country is just lousy with stoats (a relative of the weasel) and possums (not this kind, but this kind) and they make up the majority of the roadkill (aside from the hobbits). So when you’re driving along and see a lump of fur on the pavement, the fun thing to do is to yell out either “STOAT!” or “POSSUM!” in a booming Orson Welles voice. No need to keep score. It’s simply good times for the whole family. Driving to see relatives this year, I came across a fair bit of roadkill. The standard raccoons and deer, the occasional skunk or groundhog. A mattress. But on one trip, I scored an amazing quadrella. I’ll break it down for you in order of impressiveness. #1. A coyote, which isn’t all that rare. #2. A fox. That’s right, the proverbial sly fox. Sure, you don’t write home about a fox being roadkill, but then, what sicko writes home about any roadkill? Take it from me. It’s a bit rare. #3. A porcupine. Now you’re getting interested. You’re imagining what it might be like to roll into a Firestone Auto Center with a porcupine sticking out of your rear tire. This is becoming quite an impressive checklist. Add to that: #4. A bear. That’s right. A big old black bear. I don’t believe I’d ever seen a bear as roadkill before that day, and certainly not on the same stretch of road as a coyote, a fox, and a porcupine. I was lucky indeed. It was like some A.A. Milne novel had gotten way out of hand, and I was there for the glorious and gory catharsis.
THE MOST POPULAR PAGE ON MY WEBSITE: By far, it’s a little blog entry I did titled “Five Animals that are Uglier than Zac Efron.” It probably accounts for 90% of this site’s search engine traffic and I’m sure it leaves plenty of girls shaking their fists in anger. Even a few have left comments, including my favorite: “he is hotter than everyone who posted this website.” Everyone who posted this website is just me, Lauren, and I resent what you’ve said. After all, have you even seen me in a pink bunny suit? I’m not sure what Efron has done in the last year other than comb his hair a lot, but his fanbase is going strong, and according to my site stats, they’re entering things like, “animals, not zac efron,” “zac efron is pregnet” and “zac efron clever?” into Google, then stopping in here for a visit. Jeff Kay, who runs the fantastic West Virginia Surf Report linked to the Efron piece and brought in boatloads of traffic as well. In the spirit of the season, I feel I should return the favor. His site is a daily read for me, and should be for you. My favorite of his writings might not be his most celebrated, but heck, it gets me every time, and it’s about something as universal as Scandinavian healthcare. It’s an old gem titled “Sleep is Creepy.” Read it, and rest easy tonight, folks.