Art we tried too late
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? E-mail us at email@example.com.
This week’s question was inspired by Josh’s BLTN column for this week, in which he says this about Big Trouble In Little China: “I really wish I had seen it when it came out. If I had, I could probably look at it 20 years later with genuine fondness, and have that strange experience where you communicate with your younger self and say, “You loved that movie with all of your heart? Remember how seriously you took it? What were you thinking, you little knucklehead?”
What popular / acclaimed art did you come to too late in life to really enjoy?
The first time I had this experience was a couple of years ago with Brian Jacques’ Redwall, the first in a bestselling, much-loved series of novels about a society of medieval-ish talking animals. As a kid, I had a particular fascination with fairy tales and with books written from unusual points of view, with animal or robot or alien protagonists. So I’m not sure how I managed to completely miss out on Redwall. But by the time I got there, it was too late for me. These days, it’s a ridiculously extensive saga—20 novels, plus picture books and a TV series—and somewhere around the fifth New York Times bestseller, I thought I should see what the fuss was about. And I couldn’t make it through the first book. I found the style clunky and juvenile, and I couldn’t get over all the things I would have accepted without issue as a kid—the mice and ferrets and foxes living together in an abbey with no mention of the relative scale problem, or the predator/prey issue; the idea of intelligent animals living on farms near domesticated animals without explanation. Nothing about the world made sense to me, and none of the action captured me. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that if I’d read the first book when I was 10, I would have loved it, and I’d still be reading the series today, buoyed by nostalgia and by the joy of having grown up together with it. It’s an odd feeling, to see the vast and growing fandom for these books out there, and realize I probably would have been a part of it if things had fallen out differently, but now I’m essentially shut out.
I think that would be the Harry Potter series, not because I’m too old for it, but because during my childhood, my fantasy literature of choice was by Roald Dahl. The reason I gobbled up so much Dahl as a kid was because my mom read a lot of his books to us, since she enjoyed The Witches, The BFG, James And The Giant Peach and the rest as much as we did. Like my mom, I appreciate his writing now as an adult as well. There’s nothing wrong with the Harry Potter series as far as I’m concerned, but when I read it when it debuted (while I was in college), I just didn’t get the same zing out of it as I do from Dahl. I think if I had been a youngster when I started reading the books, though, I wouldn’t have compared them as critically—after all, I zoomed through the Baby-Sitters Club series as fast as I did with Dahl’s books, so I think I would have been more open to Potter than I am now.
Claire, an inveterate thunder-stealer, stole my thunder on the Harry Potter tip. So instead, I’ll pull out another beloved cultural property sure to enrage my fellow geeks: Star Trek. While I wouldn’t for a second deny my geekdom, it never much leaned in a sci-fi direction; that hole in my youthful dork-brain was plugged by superhero comics and old movies, so I never really developed the passion for SF that so many of my peers did. Unlike almost everyone I know of who’s roughly my age, I wasn’t a big Star Wars fan; I thought the first three movies were okay, but not good enough to make a big deal about. Who needed Luke Skywalker when you had Spider-Man? Along the same lines, I was born just a month before the original series went off the air, and when it experienced its big syndication boom in the ’70s, I was much more interested in reruns of Get Smart and Super-Friends cartoons. When the Next Generation series appeared, I was old enough to have finally seen a few episodes of TOS, but I generally found them hokey and obvious; to this day, I’ve only ever seen two episodes of TNG, one of which was excellent, and the other of which was ridiculous. (Unfortunately, the latter made the bigger impression.) Since the fandom never really got its hooks into me, and the fans can be, er, mildly off-putting, every adult attempt I’ve made to get into the various iterations of Trek, from the movies to the animated series, have left me with the same overall sensation of no-big-dealism.
Star Wars, the original trilogy. I was a humongous science-fiction geekatroid in elementary school and high school, but my parents were not movie-friendly. Nor were they home-video friendly. So even though the original trilogy came out precisely during the years of my obsession with science fiction in all its forms—printed, celluloid, and cathode-ray tube—I did not see any of the movies until after the trilogy was completed, about the time I headed to college. Of course all my friends and casual acquaintances from sixth grade on were intimately familiar with the films, even those who weren’t sci-fi fans at all. I had to pretend I’d seen them, because how could I explain to 12-year-olds that my mom wouldn’t take me to the local mall theater? That pretense gradually hardened into an acceptance that I’d missed out; there wasn’t even any shame in it after a few years went by. In the meantime, I identified myself wholly with Star Trek, partially because of its hippie-dippie mysticism (still can’t resist that to this day), but mostly because a local UHF station actually syndicated the original series, making it accessible to me in a way that Star Wars was not. And so I missed my chance to have Star Wars become the centerpiece of my childhood, the way it was for almost all of my generation, it seemed, even those who couldn’t care less about science fiction as a genre. Maybe I would have rejected Lucas’ blockbusters in favor of something more obscure, although my Trekkie nature argues against that hypothesis. Maybe I would have forsaken the Prime Directive and embraced the Force. But even though Star Wars is part of my life now, I’ve lost the opportunity to make it part of the fabric of my past.
At the risk of being woefully unoriginal, Star Wars is pretty much the only answer I can give for this. Though I have fuzzy memories of seeing the originals as a kid and not-so-fuzzy memories of desperately pining for Ewok action figures (what can I say? I was so the target demographic, and also a wuss) I watched the original Star Wars during its re-release with fresh eyes and was gobsmacked that something so ridiculous could attain the status of a sort of secular religion, or at least philosophy, within pop culture. I liked Empire Strikes Back a lot better, but I couldn’t help but think I’d experienced the magic, mystery, and wonder of George Lucas’ fantastical creation at least a decade late.
Okay, I’m gonna get murdalized in the comments for this, and I don’t want anybody to read this as “I hate this movie” or even “I don’t like this movie,” but I feel like I missed the boat a little bit on Blade Runner. I’m hedging a bit because I know you’re going to tell me that it’s one of the greatest movies of all time, and I must be stupid and missing some key element of it, or that I hate science-fiction. (I don’t; I’m kind of a sucker for science-fiction movies, actually.) But I just don’t love Blade Runner the way I’m supposed to. I didn’t see it until I was in my mid-20s, and it had been built up to such a degree that maybe it just couldn’t live up to the hyperbole. Still, I re-watch it every three or four years, so perhaps someday it’ll click, and it can be the answer to a future Q&A: “What movie did you not appreciate at first, but that finally clicked?” Or maybe we did that one already.
I was talking with a friend recently about how her younger sister had just “discovered” Bob Dylan, and we had a good, condescending chuckle at the naïve young thing. The “Bob Dylan phase” seems such a cliché among sensitive youngsters, right up there with keeping a journal and smoking clove cigarettes. But here’s my dirty secret: I never “discovered” Bob back in high school/college/whenever it was acceptable to “discover” an artist who’s been around for four-plus decades. I knew who he was, obviously, and knew his importance in musical blah blah blah… I just didn’t care that much, for whatever reason. By the time I actually sat down and listened to a couple of albums a few years back, all I could hear was the myriad nasal, slurry Dylan impressions I’ve been subjected to over the years. (You know you’ve done it.) And it made me a little sad that I couldn’t connect to something so many people have connected to, just because my pop-culture-addled mind has internalized the “Bob Dylan” caricature to the point that I can’t see past it.
I have a PlayStation 3 and I love it. It’s a great piece of machinery that plays my Blu-rays, displays my photos, and… What’s that other thing it’s supposed to do? Play videogames? I think that’s it. It’s not that I don’t use it for games, but apart from the occasional Rock Band session or round of Lego Batman, I rarely use it to its full capacity. The times I’ve gotten fully immersed in a modern videogame—most memorably with the Great Grand Theft Auto IV Time Suck Of ’08—I’ve loved the experience. I just think it’d be far more beloved by the 13-year-old me who spent hours upon hours playing Ultima IV and The Bard’s Tale and fretting over whether he could get his conjurer to level up soon enough to cast a really powerful illusion spell in time to fight the grey dragon. Last game I played on it? Dig Dug.
Similarly, I can’t get into any videogame that doesn’t involve hockey, plastic musical instruments, or the Mario brothers, and my parents are squarely to blame. (Or to be thanked?) Videogames were largely banned from our household until I was in the sixth grade, at which point the Nintendo corporation began warp-whistling its way into my life via a Game Boy Pocket, and one year later, a Nintendo 64. I can confess to spending large portions of the 1996 to 1998 wandering aimlessly through the digital worlds of GoldenEye 007, Pokémon Red, and The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. How the hell was I supposed to know that the real game doesn’t start until you sprinkle magic powder on the fucking raccoon? Yet I see no real appeal in the modern marvels of gaming like Grand Theft Auto or Gears Of War. (I also hold a tiny grudge against gaming for stealing the “it’s corrupting the youth” edge from my beloved rock ’n’ roll.) The lack of gaming in my early early years is probably why the game most often played on my Wii is Dust Collector 2009, aside from the times when I want to pretend to be Bob Mothersbaugh ripping through “Uncontrollable Urge” or my fiancée wants to beat me at Mario Party 8.
After a lot of fruitless thinking about this question, I think you’ve found my answer too, Keith. I bought a PS3 last year and was fully psyched about all the Grand Theft Auto I was going to play. I stuck with it for a while, but I lose interest in videogames quickly. I’ve only finished two in my entire life: Contra and Super Mario 2. I picked up a Call Of Duty (4, I think?) from the cheapo bin at the Game Stop by my house, and enjoyed it for a couple of days—but haven’t played it once in the intervening couple of months. If it didn’t piss off my neighbors so much, I’d probably rock some Guitar Hero World Tour, but I usually have other things I’d rather do anyway. (I’m not trying to sound condescending—it’s not like I’m too busy for videogames because I’m building houses for Habitat For Humanity or something.) Maybe I just haven’t found a game that’s really engrossing—though playing Super Mario Galaxy made me consider buying a Wii—or maybe I’m just past that point in my life. Though DJ Hero looks totally badass.
For whatever reason, every friend I knew as an early teenager who was into books was deeply attached to Stephen King, especially the Dark Tower series. I am unsure why I never jumped on the bandwagon and dove into the King books at the time—they seem like something I would have gotten into—but I absolutely cannot appreciate them now. I’ve tried from time to time, but so much of it seems clichéd or clunky, and, while I admit he has some very inventive ideas, they seem incomplete in execution. I can’t help but feel that many more talented writers could take his initial concepts and get better results. I’m not knocking the guy, and I respect his creativity and longevity and consistency and everything else, and I’m sure I’d be a huge fan if I’d first thumbed through one of his novels in middle school, instead of college. As it is now, however, I’ll occasionally pick up one of his paperbacks for an easy read while waiting for a plane or something, and find myself mildly entertained at best. And although it seems almost every person who ever enjoyed literature as a teenager is fanatical about the Dark Tower series, I don’t get that at all either.
For me it’s not a piece of art so much as a format. Every time I pick up one of those big, phonebook-sized collections of old comics (one of DC’s “Showcase Presents” volumes, say, or Marvel’s “Essentials”), I think how much I would’ve killed to have books like them around when I was 10. Back then, outside of flea markets, the best chance I had to read old comics was via the occasional “40 Years Of Superman” or “Marvel’s Greatest Villains” paperback. Every time one of those turned up at the public library, I checked it out over and over, poring over every story in a way I couldn’t now. I often pick up the new collections of Silver Age fare, and I appreciate certain qualities now that I didn’t when I was 10—like the craftsmanship and individual styles of the artists, and the sense of what-the-hell whimsy—but more often than not, I end up skimming the pages, ignoring the formulaic plots and repetitive fight scenes. Except for some true greats—a Spider-Man collection here, an Enemy Ace or Elongated Man there—I find I enjoy old comics now more from a distance. I wish I could’ve read them when I was really in the zone.
Not to go all Phipps on this one, but I’m not sure I understand the question. Or maybe it’s just that, at 30, I’ve basically got the emotional maturity of a pretty grounded 10-year-old. The only thing I can think of that I’ve seen recently that I didn’t like, and might’ve liked more if I’d seen it years ago, is Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, and I gotta tell you, I don’t really feel I’m missing out on that one. I don’t get nearly as scared at horror novels and films as I used to, but seeing as how I used to lose sleep over movie trailers, I don’t exactly miss that. And while I might’ve loved the Harry Potter series with greater abandon if I’d been closer to Harry’s age when I started them, I don’t regret taking issue with the tortured structural meanderings of the last few books simply because there could’ve been a time when I didn’t notice. To me, getting older has meant an expansion in the kind of art I can enjoy, and coming new to things I’ve missed just means being able to see them from a better perspective. Really, the only regret I have is that I wish I’d been more into punk rock when I was in high school. I think all that noise might’ve helped me have more fun with life.