“The more things change, the more they stay the same” – Alphonse Karr
“You’ve got to fight for your right to party” – Beastie Boys
As our culture accelerates towards its inevitable cyber Zenith (or Nadir, as the case may be), we are seeing trends appear that have sociologists and futurists debating the pros and cons of our 21st Century high-speed living, and how it relates to our shifting understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. Understandably, serious questions are being raised.
Are we psychically ready for the constant technological advancements? Are we mentally geared for the upgrades required to keep up with the deluge of gadgets and gizmos? Can we save a planet that is croaking under the weight of our mindless myopic decadence? Is Gaia on her deathbed? Can we find sustainable alternatives to our increasing need for energy? Will we ever cease the bloody war-games that underlie the economic rationalism and neo-conservatism of governments as they attempt to colonise the world? Will we ever wake up to the undermining of civil-rights as our liberties are abolished in the name of National Security? Will we see the Aging Population eventually give way to the first Immortal Population-where death becomes an optional extra for a bored, jaded public? Or, having developed natural immunities to all our existing medicines, will we see bacteria mutate from SARS and AIDS and Ebola into a new millennial plague? Will the current trend of pre-emptive surgery in men and women removing breasts and prostates so as to eliminate the threat of cancer in later life, lead to people suiciding so they’ll never die of some godawful disease? After the demise of the Larsen Ice Shelves, will the entire Antarctic Peninsula melt into our rising oceans-and will the ensuing chaos birth countless new conflicts as the dislocated masses seek refuge on higher ground? Will the advent and inevitable proliferation of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) help ensure an immaculate Police State in all major cities of the world-complete with no-go zones and militarised check-points next to all suburban shopping malls? As Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is introduced as the new & improved bar-code system on all products and passports-will we be rendered nameless numbered drones; our every move traced and tracked; telling our sorry tales of how it seemed so harmless putting E-tags on our electric/solar cars? (in the end, we had no choice as all toll booths were automated and E-tag was compulsory… with Veri-Chip implants soon to follow). Will we create a microscopic Black Hole in our newly built particle accelerator, only to have it escape the chamber and start eating the very fabric of space time? Will nanotechnology supply us with self-replicating molecular machines capable of subatomic feats of healing and modification; that, if exposed, could start munching on Earth’s matter in a colossal wave of Gray Goo? Are the Mayans correct, and we’ll all enter a new apocalyptic Golden Age on December 21st 2012? Is the Rapture coming as the Christians believe-and the Great Tribulation will sort out the heathens from the heavenly? Will the other seasons of Who’s the Boss? ever be released on DVD?
No matter how you cut it, the next decade will be one to watch. ‘May you live in interesting times’, the old Chinese curse says. And it is a curse, indeed. Things are speeding up, and converging, and some kind of crash is looming. Something has to give. So in the meantime we have the luxury of gorging ourselves and salving our anxiety with a vast array of online leisure activities. Namely: Downloading stuff. (And celebrity goss.)
Music, movies, pictures, porn, programs, games and comics. This is our new mantra. Our 21st Century raison d’être. Our guilty global pleasure. The new drug. And I partake of it whole heartedly. Broadband barbiturates. Online opiates. High-speed heroin. Cyber-Soma. The more nullifying the better. What do we want?-Oblivion! When do we want it?-Now!
But, I’d argue, as a Gen-Xer, this is nothing new. Generation-X were always pop-culture junkies. We rode the wave of late-70s/early-80s to late-80s/early-90s pop like surfing legends. And this was ‘surfing’ long before any internet associations with that word. We did it old-school. We may not have ‘invented’ the internet, but Gen-X have been the ones to refine it… reform it… hone it… sharpen it… and mould it into the slick indoctrinating beast it is today. It’s grown in line with our imperatives. We willed this thing into existence. Like it or not, we are complicit.
File sharing you ask? Yep, us 80s kids invented that. We kept tape-manufacturers Casio and TDK in business twenty-five years ago. We also kept biro makers Bic and Artline and Kilometrico out of the red too, by adorning our mix-tapes with arty scrawl that personalised the journey for ourselves and our friends as we swapped them back and forth in the schoolyard. I still have boxes of tapes that I made (and from friends) that lie scratched and dusty and tired, due to their high-rotational history. Magic was/is on those tapes. And a big portion of my iPod is now lugging around their modern-day digital incarnations. All that has changed is the formats. Vinyl records and magnetic tape became CDs, which became binary code. And VHS/BETA videos became DVDs, which also, has become a download link.
The rise and availability of high-speed broadband, cheaper data storage, and Blogs, highlights the parallel story arc of file sharing and leeching in the last ten years; from pictures to songs to albums to games to movies. There is always a bigger file to download. One can never have enough giggage-in their download limit and the hard-drive.
But we do our best.
As the technology evolved so did our means of marking our territory and staking our claim on the developing landscape. We stole from FM radio; we rearranged and cut-up the existing formats of tapes and records; we tape-to-taped videos; we copied and swapped games for the Commodore 64 and Amiga 500; we lent friends comics and magazines; and we peaked at our fathers Playboy and Penthouse stash when our parents left the house.
Not much has changed.
In the ‘Summer of Love’ that was ’99-2000, when Napster reigned, I managed to download 12 Gig of songs on dial-up!; which wasn’t easy, for me. I’m sure others topped that quite easily, but hey, I was proud of myself. It was a cream dream for all music geeks. Obscure songs from obscure bands. Rare bootlegs. You name it. If it existed, it was likely to be found. I can still remember the first couple of mp3s I got: “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and The Aces; and The Dirty Three with Nick Cave doing a live version of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared”. I was hooked in no time. And I didn’t get a lot of sleep in those days. In fact, sleep and appetite were the only things reminding me I was still human. For the hours in between, I was Tron or The Lawnmower Man, finally immersed in the virtual utopian void I’d been longing for.
But nothing lasts forever…
When Napster folded in July 2001, the honeymoon was over. I toasted its demise with a (double) scotch, and milled around with the other losers online wondering what was next. Well, it didn’t take long for our collective drive to win out. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. We’d tasted blood, and now we wanted more. So along came Morpheus-and AudioGalaxy-and Kazaa-and Soulseek… and we were back in business. Let the good times roll… again.
This time round, other things started catching my eye as I skulked through the bit stream. So, adding to the list of songs being pilfered, were TV shows. Episodes of Seinfeld, to be specific. They were anywhere from 20 to 40 Meg per episode, which was HUGE back in the early days of dial-up. It took me half a day to get one-if I was lucky. But I managed to get about fifty odd episodes, which I was chuffed with. The quality was crap, for the most part, but this was a big deal-TV shows!-I mean, what’ll be next, movies?
Of course, there were always dudes out there getting and sharing movies. But, for me, on dial-up, it wasn’t an option. I did get a couple. Austin Powers Goldmember, was one-and at the crappiest quality-which took me days.
Cut to present day, 2008-movies take me about 5-6 hours to get. One day (soon) it’ll be instant.
Sometimes when I’m downloading these movies, it’ll occur to me; Y’know, not much has changed. Because back in high-school, my friends and I took our love of movies to a new level.
We were hardcore film dudes. We watched films more than any other teenagers in our neighbourhood, I’d wager. Horror was our main bag. But we consumed equal quantities of Sci-Fi, Comedy, Drama, Thriller, and as many ‘Cult’ films as we could lay our hands on. You have to remember, a ‘cult’ section in the video store was a rare blossoming thing in those days, especially in Sydney’s suburban west. If they had a copy of Suspiria or This Is Spinal Tap or Herzog’s Nosferatu, you were doing well… but you could forget about fringier things like Liquid Sky or Mondo New York. Even Logan’s Run was hard to find. And I had to order A Clockwork Orange from overseas and get it converted from NTSC to PAL-which was charged by-the-minute! Believe it. (Those darn kids don’t know how good they got it, these days. We went to serious lengths, dammit)
Having said that; the crazy suburbs were home to a lot of classic old vids (some that even today still haven’t seen wider release on DVD, eg: where the hell are all the classic Sho Kosugi films, like Revenge Of The Ninja or Pray For Death?!) And my friends and I had the foresight to capitalise on that situation.
How did we do that, you ask? Simple. We stole them.
That’s right, baby. We engineered a scheme so devious, so brilliant, that it became the thing of legend (amongst us, anyway). It was a beautiful thing. For six months or so, maybe a year (I can’t remember), we had our own internet before the internet. We had our own ‘Summer of Love’. (With no monthly fees either.)
You see, back in those days, our main local vid store was Showstopper, and we spent hours there. Arvos, weekends, whenever-if we weren’t at school, it was a good bet we were there. We knew every inch of that store. And we came to know every inch of their video cassettes too.
As the 80s came to a close, the 90s brought it’s generation of security upgrades. One of these measures consisted of the implementation of thin metallic strips that were stuck on merchandise and beeped when passed through scanning boards that were stationed at the store exits. You know the kind I mean. They quickly became industry standard, and stores still use modern variations on this design. (These days though, an alarm goes off; an ink bomb explodes in your face; red lights flash; and you’re hauled off to Guantanamo Bay-where they’ll Taser your genitals while playing loud Limp Bizkit 24/7. So beware.)
Anyway, one of my friends (we’ll call him, Dean; the other, who we’ll call Andy, completes the mighty triumvirate) came up with a plan. We rent the movie, take it home and watch it… we remove the security strip, we rewind it, we return it, and while we peruse the other vids they put the ‘de-stripped’ video back on the shelves, and we flog it. Ingenuity at it’s finest. We couldn’t fail.
We each picked a movie to rent and our plan was in action. I can’t remember what movies Dean or Andy chose, but I went with Escape from New York. In a few days time, it came time to return them, and phase two was in action. The shelves around the store were all about chest height, so they were the perfect cover to hide behind while we slapped the vid down our tracksuit pants, with an untucked t-shirt draped over the top and high-tail it out of there.
We were jubilant walking home that day. Our sneakers hardly touched the pavement. It was a victory for the little guys. We stuck it to the man. We’d gotten away with daylight robbery, literally. It was the heist of heists. We could do no wrong. We were demi-gods. We were men. Now, what film next?…
Insert Passage-of-Time/Montage here…[We see our heroes in Showstopper; eyes shifting from side to side; the dudes behind the counter serving other people; Andy and Dean nod to each other; videos are stuffed down pants; fake smiles are plastered on faces; and there are no beeps as they stroll out the door; then we see spinning vid covers (like newspaper front pages in the movies) of films like:
The Breakfast Club
An American Werewolf in London
The Evil Dead/ Evil Dead II
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The Running Man
The Deer Hunter
Sex, Lies and Videotape
The Lost Boys
Stand By Me
Dead Poets Society
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The King of Comedy
Less than Zero
The Sure Thing
(Now, we didn’t steal all of those. Some were bought. I can’t remember which. But between us, they all ended up in our collections in some way. So I added them for dramatic effect.
Thinking back, I’m sure we didn’t steal that many. Memory distorts things with time. Hindsight isn’t always 20/20. All I know is: we stole some movies for a time. And we got more than a few, so… I’ll let you imagine the volume. This isn’t an exact science.)
Within a few weeks, the movies were rolling in. We were making plans for the future. Maybe one day we’d open our own video store. Maybe just down the road from Showstopper. Maybe we could call it Showstopper II (- Son of Showstopper!), and over time the entire Showstopper video collection would dematerialise and rematerialise a few doors down in our store. It was a bold idea, but we were thinking big. Would they make the connection? Would they put two and two together when they began losing their clientele to the new video store down the road-run by teenagers no less?!
We’ll never know where it would have ended, because it, um, ended.
They say: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely; and, like all of life’s clichés, it is disgustingly true. We got greedy. We were blinded by our own power. We took things too far, and we paid the price. We thought we were being ballsy, but we were just being dumb.
Eventually we got to the point where we were not bothering to rent the movie first, to remove the strip. We’d sit at the McDonalds just up the road from Showstopper and decide which movies we wanted, then we’d walk down to the crime-scene and do the deed. We’d walk in, have a fake mozy round, sometimes split up, and find our respective films, and we’d open up the cases, take out the vids, and remove the strip in the store. Then, down the pants, and you know the rest…
Well, we got lazy. At first I think we were doing our best to dispose of the security strip, say, inside another unpopular vid that no one would rent, like: Yentl or C.H.U.D or Over The Top, or an Aussie war film like: Attack Force Z or The Odd Angry Shot. Be safe as houses in those babies. But in the end we were just shoving them behind the closest vid we could find; hearts pounding; adrenalin surging; OK, now let’s get outta here. I’m sure some even went on the floor. We got sloppy. And the whole operation suffered. We were drunk on our own afterglow. We had no foresight. We were so fixated on our short term gains that we weren’t seeing any of the long-term consequences. We didn’t see what was coming.
If we had the luxury of perspective, maybe we would’ve seen the bigger picture. And it may’ve looked something like this:
Cut Scene, to: ‘The Monthly Showstopper Staff Meeting’ The manager addressing the troops: “Alright, now… next on the agenda is… OK, where are we?… oh, that’s right. It’s come to our attention that someone is stealing videos. Now, we don’t know who it is, but we know how they’re doing it. Some of you have found the security strips on the floor and on the shelves behind videos. And the cleaner said one of them choked-up the vacuum cleaner. So we figure they must be coming in, taking off the strips, and then thieving these things right under our noses. So, we’re taking action. As of today, we’ve decided to put a second strip behind the title card underneath the plastic cover protector. This should smoke out the hoodlums behind this. Let ’em come in and take the bait. That’ll show ’em. Are there any questions? No? OK, good, lets get to it… we’re gonna work around the clock on this one. I wanna see some overtime put in on this. And keep your eyes peeled. We’re gonna nail these jokers…”
We were doomed.
One day we were in there, looking for our films, and I’d decided to go with A Prayer for the Dying. (How ironic, eh? Who knew?) I don’t know what Dean or Andy went with. I do recall Dean had acquired a large cardboard Hellraiser display stand, topped with a life-size Pinhead staring out menacingly; because Dean and Pinhead were standing at the exit as I went to walk out with A Prayer for the Dying in my pants. Andy was walking behind me. And as I walked through the scanners-BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!!!-our worst nightmare came true.
Looking back, I’m sure the looks on our faces was all the evidence they needed, but I tried to act weirdly surprised, like: ‘Wha..?’ And so they asked me to walk back through, which I did. Somewhere inside me, I was holding out hope that it was some shared hallucination, like I’d just dreamt the last few seconds, but of course-BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!!!-it went off again.
‘Do you have a movie on you?’, they asked.
‘No’, I lied. (I was stalling for valuable time. Delaying the inevitable.)
Luckily, the store counter was large, and as the staff walked around to confront me, I deftly removed the vid and balanced it on my sneaker and lowered it to the ground. Then, as the staff approached, I again acted weirdly surprised and bent down and picked up the vid and said something stupid, like: ‘Oh, but this is here on the floor…’
They took the vid from me and we somehow made it out of there. Dean sadly carrying a huge cardboard demon under his arm on the way home. But the damage was done. It was a mortal wound. The show was over. The jig was up. I never went back.
Dean and Andy did though. They braved it a few days later, and they met with: ‘Hey, tell your friend not to come here anymore. We know he was trying to steal that video…’
Which, of course, was true. But it still stung. The Summer of Love was officially over. What a bummer. Our plan was trumped. We’d been bested. And busted. Damn.
Well, we didn’t steal anymore vids, but our love of movies continued undiminished. At school-between reading the latest issues of Fangoria and Gore Zone magazines-we kept up our traditional Movie Quiz at lunch and recess, where we took turns asking each other questions and the others would slap their hand down on the aluminium seat as the buzzer. ‘OK, now, I’ll give you the names of two leading actors, and I want you to tell me the name of the movie I’m thinking of, OK?… James Woods and John Savage’ [BANG!] ‘That would be the Oliver Stone film, Salvador‘. ‘Ohh, I’m so sorry, they did indeed star in that film together, but the film I was thinking of was the Harold Becker film The Onion Field.’ ‘Oh, come on, you were just thinking the opposite of whatever I said…’ And it would roll on like that into our afternoons, laughing at each others creative line of questioning. The more obscure the better.
In class, we continued to make long elaborate jokes about our favourite films. We’d riff on actor’s names-Chuck Norris became Charles Norris/ Mark Hamill became Marcus Hamill/ Lukas Haas became ‘Lukas Haaaaaa…’. We wrote out lists of our favourite films, then score them together and see what averaged out as a collective Top Ten. We wrote stories together based around our favourite films. We drew little subversive cartoons that lampooned our favourite films. Andy even had a video camera, and we made our own five minute sequels to our favourite films (Hell, we made Die Hard 3 before Die Hard 3!). We pretty much invented our own language around films that no one else would understand. We would speak to each other in these overly dramatic voice-over voices, like the guy who did the old Roadshow Home Video trailers like: The Manitou and Enemy Mine. We watched movies, we taped movies, we swapped movies, we bought movies. We lived, breathed, ate, slept and dreamt fucking movies… all in our little suburban bedrooms that were effectively wallpapered in movie posters.
Ah, yes, the innocent/guilty days of youth…
Dean and Andy were cool guys. And I’m proud to have called them friends. Thank god we found each other in a neighbourhood that still celebrated the 70s Australian Dream of: ‘Football, Meat-pies, Kangaroos and Holden cars’. Truth be told, they were far more hardcore into movies than I was. Even at 15, they had an encyclopaedic knowledge of film. I just tried to keep up. But my initiation into the world of film, was with those guys. They were my mentors. Through their eyes, they helped me gain an appreciation of good films, and bad ones. And I’m eternally grateful. They were ahead of their time. The schoolyard critics. Sure they kept up with the latest blockbuster releases of the time, but talk could shift in a heartbeat from Die Hard 2 and Dances With Wolves to films like Ordinary People and Blood Simple. From Woody Allen to 976-Evil. Heroes were people like: Bruce Campbell, Robert Englund, Sigourney Weaver, George Romero, Tom Savini, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Terry O’Quinn (yep, Tez, dug the The Stepfather) and Mickey Rourke (if he made nothing else but Angel Heart, he would still be a legend in our eyes)-and they championed unsung actors like Dan Hedaya, Paul Gleason, Ronny Cox and J.T. Walsh.
You could walk up to Dean or Andy and say: “Lose the earring Michael… it’s not you, it’s definitely not you…” or “Mephistopheles is such a mouthful in Manhattan…” and they’d be quick on the draw with the next line.
And wherever they are, and whatever they’re up to, I’m sure they still have some of those vids. I hope so, anyway. And I’m sure they’re still keeping up with the world of film-marvelling at the career trajectories of certain actors and directors. Like: Charlie Sheen, from Platoon and Wall Street to Two and a Half Men. Arnie, from the Terminator to The Governator. It would all be grist for the mill. The jokes would be coming thick and fast. God bless ’em.
So for all you youngsters out there in J&B Hi-Fi and HMV collecting your third season of The OC or The Ghost Whisperer or Supernatural, have some consideration for that balding 30-something codger standing next to you, because they’ve probably been in this game a lot longer than you, my friend. They did the hard yards. They did the leg work. They’re the ones who laid down their adolescent lives all those years ago, so you could enjoy the freedom of choice you all take for granted today.
Show some respect.