Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently watched this movie again, but it had been so long it was like the first time: I had forgotten about the wonder that is Babe. The small, Australian (and eventually Oscar-nominated) film that kicked off the weird CGI-talking-animals craze still stands as far and away the best of that lot. After 20 years, it is timeless: No grunge or velvet chokers here, just a polite, headstrong pig, a mischievous duck, some devoted sheepdogs, and a benevolent farmer who loves them all. This heartwarming effort, set against idyllic rural landscapes, has a valuable message about how any of us can do anything, even if others laugh: Why can’t a pig herd sheep if he’s smart enough to figure out his own way to do it? Voice actor Christine Cavanaugh was never better as the voice of Babe; same goes for James Cromwell as the farmer. George Miller is getting a ton of accolades for Mad Max: Fury Road this summer, but in 1995 Babe was his longstanding pet project, which had taken 10 years to reach the screen (with him as producer). So even though I’d seen Babe before, I got to re-live that experience by watching my kids watch it for the first time, and they were mesmerized from the moment Babe adopts Fly as his canine mom. We were all in tears at the final “That’ll do, pig,” and it will not be 20 years before I see it again; we may not even make it to 20 days.
In the summer of 1995 Nickelodeon introduced the quirkily charismatic Stick Stickly. At first glance, he was nothing more than a Popsicle stick with googly eyes, a jelly bean for a nose, and a small mouth. But as the host of Nick In The Afternoon, a programming block on the network that aired until 1998 on weekday afternoons, he became a summer friend you could enjoy a late-day snack with after a full morning of bug hunting, tree climbing, and fort building. Voiced by Paul Christie, the adorably anxious Stick Stickly earned himself a fanbase through interactive segments like “U-Dip,” where viewers would use their bare feet to pick which substance he would be dipped in for “Dip Stick,” in which Stick was blindfolded and had to guess if he was in pudding, paint, or something worse. But what I would most like to experience again is the excitement of mailing him rubber bands with accompanying fan letters in support of his desire to build a huge rubber-band ball. I’ll never forget his welcoming jingle: “Write to me / Stick Stickly / PO Box 963 / New York City, New York state / 10108!” For a seven-year-old kid living in the sticks of Wisconsin, it was exciting to have such an exotic, New York City friend to correspond with.
There was one game my sister and I ran to whenever we hit the arcade, and though I’m not sure why in hindsight, it was Area 51. It’s a basic shooting-through-baddies exercise: Aliens have invaded, and you’re supposed to shoot them and not the humans. It was simple enough for a couple of 6-year-olds to play (though we never got too far), and at the time, we didn’t even have a video game console at home. Imagine! The old Area 51 arcade games are still around, harkening back to a smaller world of video gaming. I didn’t know anything about games then, and didn’t compare and analyze media the way I do now. I’d love to return to the first time I got a simple thrill from shooting aliens with a clunky gun to watch them explode into primitive, chunky pieces.
I’ve had a hard time listening to Elliott Smith since his violent death in 2003, so it’d be nice to go back to the times when it was simply depressing—not tragic—to hear his songs. In 1995, Smith released his second and arguably best solo album, a self-titled set of songs about drug abuse (“Needle In The Hay”), an abusive stepfather (“Christian Brothers”), and false love (“The Biggest Lie”). While that may seem too much to enjoy, each was delivered in such a gorgeous package and with such sincerity that they always felt more like catharsis than wallowing.
I’d love to go back to a time before the major points of Apollo 13 became familiar to the point of cliché—when the line “Houston, we have a problem” precipitated a chilling shift in energy rather than conjuring the parodies that ensued after the movie became a hit. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge Apollo 13 its success. This exciting, great-looking movie earned all the attention that it got. But with time, its popularity did necessarily obscure one of the film’s most striking qualities, which is that the Apollo 13 mission wasn’t universally remembered before it got the Ron Howard/Tom Hanks treatment. I recall watching the incredible story unfold—the spaceship breaks! they go around the moon!—and thinking, “How did I not know about this before?” That ignorance gave the suspense of the rescue mission an added charge. I was equally amazed by the astronauts’ extraordinary feats as I was by the fact that the culture at large had pretty much forgotten about them. The movie ensured that it will be a while before we forget again.
Maybe it was just the three weeks in June that spanned the releases of Batman Forever and Apollo 13, but I recall 1995 as one of the great movie-going summers of my youth. But none of the films that I caught between school years have stuck with me like the one I saw Thanksgiving weekend of 1995: Toy Story. Twenty years, two sequels, and a multitude of crackpot theories have given us plenty of time/ways to appreciate the storytelling smarts and emotional acuity of a talking cowboy doll getting jealous about a shiny new space toy, so I’d love to go back and simply marvel at the film’s technological achievements. Toy Story persists because of what’s underneath its pixels, but subsequent Pixar innovations (and their impact on big-screen animation) have taken some of the sheen off the film’s space ranger suit. To revisit Woody, Buzz, and friends in a world without Shrek is motivation enough.
Here’s one no one else will say: Crimson Tide, the mostly forgotten “Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington fight in a submarine” movie. About a month before it came out, I slid into a debilitating anxiety disorder that would make the following months miserable. On the best days, I felt maybe 80 percent my usual self, but most days I barely kept it together. My stomach was constantly in knots—if not violently rejecting its contents—and I lived in a continuous state of fear. Even worse, nothing seemed to help. I saw Crimson Tide while visiting my sister in Chicago, and not long into the movie, someone flipped a switch in my brain. I could barely breathe, and my mind went into a frenzy of terrible, terrifying—and more maddening, unrealistic—thoughts. Anyone who saw me in the theater wouldn’t have noticed anything remarkable about this 19-year-old, except that he was rail-thin. (My nervous stomach had dropped my 5-foot-11 frame down to 120 pounds.) But inside, I was a goddamn mess. I barely remember Crimson Tide now, but I’ll never forget the panic that settled over me while watching it. Maybe I should see it again to recontextualize it, but I don’t remember thinking it was very good, so maybe I’ll just rewatch Welcome To The Dollhouse to revisit 1995.
Live music during that time of my life was often a near-religious experience for me, because I was a typical angst-filled teenager, and life is rarely full of surprises. That being said, there was still nothing quite like my first time seeing Sonic Youth perform. The band was fresh off the Lollapalooza ’95 tour, and was hitting the clubs in support of the just-released Washing Machine. I was lukewarm on the record, but had seen 1991: The Year Punk Broke, and knew this was a band that should be witnessed in person. I still remember standing there after the lights came up—standing in front of the stage, missing a shoe, watching people flooding the exits—and thinking that I had just watched something almost supernatural in its beauty. I’ve seen them multiple times since, but getting to experience that first encounter with a truly great group where nothing sounded like it did on record is an experience I’ve long wished could be repeated. I’m not sure if it was them or me (or both), but that 1995 show was transcendent.
That summer I was cleared to attend Lollapalooza ’95 by my very protective mother, who insisted on me graduating high school before attending any rock shows—even the fiercely controlled state fair version that took place within Dallas’ Coca-Cola Starplex grounds. I have a lot of great memories from that day already: Despite a disappointing set from Beck (still grappling with post-“Loser,” pre-Odelay stardom), the bands I cared most about all delivered, topped by a Sonic Youth set that began with “100%” and ended with a sprawling “The Diamond Sea,” a (mostly) ramble-free hour from Courtney Love and Hole, and Pavement, whose performance introduced me to Wowee Zowee as they instantly became one of my favorite bands. During Cypress Hill, I shared a joint with a large, tattooed guy with a shaved head who claimed he’d just gotten out of prison two days prior, which was probably the exact scenario my mom was always picturing. Yes, it was a good day. But I remember my friends and I were so intent on saving our spot, I only made my way to the second stage once (to see Versus). And if I could go back, I’d not only pay closer attention to Elastica, on what would turn out to be my only chance to see them, I’d tell my lazy, stoned teenage ass to get up and check out all the artists I’d come to love—in many cases, just a few months later. Looking at the list now, it makes me sick to think I just sat there when I could have been catching Laika, Helium, Yo La Tengo, Built To Spill, Poster Children, Brainiac, Dirty Three, and Blonde Redhead in their prime. I’d love the chance to do it all differently—although, I’d still probably try to find that ex-con.
One of my favorite schlock cinema subgenres of the ’90s is the “erotic thriller,” the wave of prurient and abjectly misogynistic films hoping to capitalize on the successes of Adrian Lyne. The dream lover-turned-stalker nonsense Lifetime now trades in was once the domain of major Hollywood studios, legitimate directors, and name actors. And more often than not, the films relied on goofy, shocking twists that, once seen, can’t be unseen. Never Talk To Strangers is a classic example, and stands out as the film with the dumbest, most audacious twist of the genre. Rebecca De Mornay, who in 1992 perfected the domestic thriller in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, stars as Sarah Taylor, a sexy criminal psychologist with secrets. Sarah’s world is upended by a whirlwind romance with a debonair Spaniard (Antonio Banderas), the genesis of which coincides with the sudden arrival of an aggressive, violent stalker. I’d love to say more, but the third-act reveal is key to its hilarious awfulness, and I can’t even watch it anymore now that I know what it is. If I could, I’d watch the film again for the first time so I could laugh for a full seven minutes when the stalker’s identity is revealed.
I fully acknowledge that this is a cliché, but I’d love to re-experience having the option of purchasing tickets to see Radiohead in 1995, when the band was out on its tour for The Bends. I saw Radiohead in ’97 in support of OK Computer, but the group was still floating a little bit under the radar in 1995. For instance, in 1995, the group played Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, a tiny little hole in the wall that I mostly remember for hosting numerous Sponge performances when I was in high school. Plus, I love The Bends. What a great record. I have friends that saw Radiohead on that tour, and even now, 20 years later, I’m still jealous of them.
After the success of the previous year’s Pulp Fiction, 1995 (and several subsequent years) was flooded with inferior Tarantino knockoffs, which I studiously avoided. Unfortunately, one of those films I avoided was only marketed as a Tarantino knockoff, when in fact it was a terrific film that I only saw years later on video. So I’d love to go back and see The Usual Suspects in the theater, not knowing anything in advance about its complex, fast-paced plotting or unassailable twist ending. While I’m at it, I could have warned myself that we were approaching peak Kevin Spacey and not to bother with any of his film work after, say, A Bug’s Life.
Although I think of most other years of the ’90s as superior movie years overall, one of my very favorite films ever—I’m talking all-time top 10, probably—came out in 1995: Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming, a hilarious comedy chronicling post-graduation ennui. I did not see it during its theatrical run, which is not unusual considering that it never played on more than a couple dozen screens at once. I don’t know that I would have appreciated it enough if I had, anyway; when I first saw it on VHS a few years later, I found it amusing, but it didn’t really click for me until I rewatched it (and rewatched it, and rewatched it) during college—and the years following college, naturally. Even so, I take such ridiculous pride in having seen any number of little-seen and/or little-loved movies during their original runs—including 1995’s own Mallrats and Strange Days—that I’d love to go back and swap out something like Casper or Nine Months for perhaps the most quotable movie I’ve ever seen. Then, in the spirit of the movie, I could go ahead and be nostalgic for something I’d just experienced.
When Morrissey’s Southpaw Grammar came out in the summer of 1995, I wasn’t really paying attention. A fan of The Smiths since I was in high school in the ’80s, I still loved Morrissey, and in ’95 he’d just gotten done releasing two of his best solo albums to date, 1992’s Your Arsenal and 1994’s Vauxhall And I. Southpaw Grammar, though, was a different beast entirely. Morrissey had struck out in a fresh direction with his previous two albums—namely, an amalgam of ’50s rockabilly and ’70s glam rock that he’d been edging The Smiths toward before the band broke up in 1987—but it had taken him a few years of solo ups (Viva Hate) and downs (Kill Uncle) before he built up the confidence, and the right band, to realize his musical vision. Southpaw Grammar consummated that swaggering union of stomp, twang, and brawn, but it alienated a lot of fans; after all, this was the first Morrissey solo album to truly, entirely shed any final remnant of The Smiths’ jangly sound. The album is full of hugely distorted, massively riffed anthems like “The Boy Racer,” “Dagenham Dave,” and “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry” that also show Morrissey in full, formidable voice. Critics balked at the album’s bookends, “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” and “Southpaw,” both of which exceed the 10-minute mark—but rather than coming off as excessive to me, they’re gripping and daringly ambitious. The album came out as Britpop was peaking, and its debts to bands like Oasis and Radiohead are particularly apparent in retrospect; at the time, though, the album was received with a shrug, and I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to convince people of its greatness. I maintain that Southpaw Grammar is the best Morrissey solo album, and I wish I could experience the pomp and power of it for the first time all over again. (That said, the expanded 2009 reissue of the album, with the inclusion of amazing bonus tracks like the epic “Nobody Loves Us,” is even better.)
The increase in the number of my personal and professional responsibilities has kept me from reading as much as I’d like in recent years, but even if it hadn’t, I’d still want the opportunity to go back and read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity again for the first time. It’s no wonder that the book spoke to me so profoundly: I was a former record store employee who wasn’t in a relationship but was convinced that if I made the right mix tape, I could make the right girl fall for me… or, in other words, if I had to pick a character from the trifecta of Championship Vinyl employees whom I most closely resembled, it’d probably be poor old Dick. But I can still recall the exact passage that convinced me that this was a book that I’d cherish forever: “People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.” Five years later, when my wife and I first started dating, I gave her a copy of High Fidelity, partly because I thought she’d enjoy it, and partly because I thought it might help explain me more than I could explain myself. Apparently, I was the first guy she’d ever dated who’d given her a book. That may not have been a deal-sealing moment for our long-term relationship, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
My mom took me to see Clueless because she was the mom out of all of my friends who would chaperone us to any movie as long as my friends swore not to tell their parents what they saw. I was 9. I understood approximately none if it. I totally loved it. As I watched Clueless over and over and over again in the ensuing years, I started to get jokes I never understood before—“Well, there goes your social life,” “Do you like Billie Holiday?” “I love him,” “Sparatacus.” The wisdom, and knowledge of blowjob jokes, that comes with age made me love the movie even more. But after rewatching movies that I thought I loved, I’ve always wondered if my love of Clueless is due to some intense feelings of nostalgia (I had the cool mom!) or because my 9-year-old brain actually understood that what I was watching would endure.
This is a hard one for a gamer (and a fan of role-playing games, specifically) who grew up when I did, because I’m torn between one of the best examples of that genre, and one of the most interesting. But with apologies to Chrono Trigger, I’m going to have to go with the latter and cite EarthBound as my item of choice. I was 11 in 1995, and one of the great things about falling in love with (and growing up alongside) a medium as young as video games was that I got to be there when something truly new happened, like when a Beatles-obsessed advertising guru talked Nintendo into letting him design a game that skewered and commented on both Western culture and Eastern game design in equal measure. I had never seen a game like Shigesato Itoi’s masterpiece before, and everything about it felt fresh: It took place in the present day, in America (or “Eagleland”). You had to get money out of the ATM, and talk to your parents if you wanted to save. Enemies would run from your over-powered party, and surrender if you were clearly too strong. My God, a video game made jokes, and they were actually funny! EarthBound isn’t the best game of its generation, or even the year it came out. But it’s the first time that I realized that games could be in dialogue with the real world, that they didn’t have to be abstract quests about saving medieval realms or mushroom kingdoms. That realization was precious to me, and I’d love to come across it again.
The year 1995 was the first time someone published anything I’d written. Sure, I didn’t get paid or anything, but that short-lived, long-deceased alt-weekly published my movie reviews, stoking the film geek flames that had been sparking since I was a kid. I shudder at the thought of anyone reading those things—and they weren’t on the internet, so don’t go looking—but I recall with no small satisfaction seeing through the feel-good backstory to the bland mediocrity that was The Brothers McMullen, and not getting as carried away by Seven as seemingly everyone else. But the one movie that both challenged my fledgling reviewer skills and made me excited at the power to steer my admittedly tiny readership toward something truly extraordinary was Smoke, the New York-set independent film from co-directors Wayne Wang and novelist-screenwriter Paul Auster. I’ve watched the film—a quietly stunning multi-character drama about the people connected through a neighborhood tobacconist—probably two dozen times since that first screening (where my partly farcical press credentials got me in for free). But that first experience of seeing it—and feeling the queasy responsibility of doing justice to a film that to this day remains one of my favorite movies—is something that sticks. Sometimes a long stretch of reviewing indifferent movies or shows can grind me down, but thinking back to the first time I saw Smoke reminds me of the thrill of trying to capture just how a great movie makes me feel.
I tend to go through phases with authors, or at least I used to; these days, I barely seem to have time to get any reading done at all. But I still remember when I fell hard for the writing of Salman Rushdie. I miss that. I miss being excited to hear he had a new novel coming out. If I could, I’d go back and read The Moor’s Last Sigh for the first time to try and be amazed by it all over again. The gleeful, spinning prose, the grinning tragedy, the madness and the anger and the pure pleasure of it—I’m not sure I’d feel the same way about it as I once did, but maybe if I didn’t know about all of Rushdie’s self-aggrandizing bullshit and the meandering, occasionally beautiful but ultimately frustrating work he’s done since then, I could still fall in love.