First big disappointment in art
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Red Hot Chili Peppers’ I’m With You came out, I was disappointed to the point where I began hoping they’d just break up so I could treasure Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication without having them be tarnished by later albums. So it makes me wonder, what was the first piece of entertainment by an artist you loved that greatly disappointed you? —Isaiah
I still remember the excitement I felt as a child when I first realized that individual authors sometimes carried their characters over from book to book, and often carried over their style even if they didn’t keep the characters. So if I liked one book by an author, there was a fair chance I’d get the same thrill out of later books by the same author. Then I discovered Beverly Cleary, the motherlode of enjoyable kids’ books. But after tearing through umpty-jillion satisfying little books about kids my own age (which was fun), and kids older than me having older-kid emotional adventures (which was exciting), and even the occasional book written from the point of view of a realistically rendered dog or cat (which was novel for me at the time), I hit The Mouse And The Motorcycle. What the fuck, Beverly Cleary? A mouse with a practically-magical working toy motorcycle who goes on an “adventure” to get an aspirin? Patently ridiculous. And clearly inferior to E.B. White’s similar but more adult Stuart Little. Even more annoying: There were more books about the same character, and because kids have that weird completism gene, I clearly had no choice but to read all of them, even though I hated the first one. Sadly, I didn’t get over that “I hated this, and shit, there are more of them to read, too” impulse until college. (But jeez, Isaiah, I didn’t wish Beverly Cleary would die in a fire before she further tarnished her legacy in my eyes. Lighten up, okay? It’s perfectly fine for artists to go on producing stuff that isn’t for you.)
When I was 11, there was no movie I was more excited for than Home Alone 2: Lost In New York City. The first film rapidly became my favorite movie ever made, and I really enjoyed its sense of kid independence and its elaborate Rube Goldberg climax. Clearly, if I were ever stranded while the rest of my family went to Paris, I would be the one to protect my house from burglars via the most incredible, unexpected of methods. On a band trip to Huron, South Dakota (Tigers represent!), I picked up a novelization of the second movie, because I’ve always enjoyed knowing exactly what to expect when I start watching something, so I can maximize my appreciation of the best parts. I read the book on the bus ride back, and I pretended to all of my friends that it was going to be just as awesome as the first movie, but deep down, I felt an acute sense of disappointment. Why, this was just the first movie, right down to the sad older person Kevin is initially scared of, but later befriends! They hadn’t bothered to write a new script, outside of coming up with a reason for everybody to end up in New York City together! Who were these lazy Hollywood hacks? When given the option of seeing the film in theaters (a rare treat for me as a child), I opted, instead, to bow to my sister’s wishes and see Aladdin, which had better reviews and my hero of the time, Robin Williams (look, I had shitty taste as a kid), in a key supporting role. I caught up with Home Alone 2 later on video and realized I’d made the right choice.
Like you, dear reader who I am imagining is approximately my age, I was completely captivated by Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was the greatest movie of my life, and it remains mega-awesome in just about every way. I saw it dozens of times. I, like you, can probably still pretty much recite the whole thing as I’m watching it. I was, again like you, insanely excited for the sequel, 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee. I saw it opening weekend at the Fox Bay Theater in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. I remember laughing once, at some sort of comically overlong kiss. (I may be remembering it wrong.) It was the only time I saw it, and I remember thinking, “Did I just not get that? It couldn’t have been that not-funny!” But it was really bad, right? Right.
No one likes being disappointed by a favorite artist, but sometimes that disappointment has been the gateway to understanding. When it was first released, the Coen brothers’ Fargo struck me as a retreat from the commercial failure of their over-the-top (and still underrated) The Hudsucker Proxy to a safer, more self-effacing style. (Said retreat won them the admiration of critics who’d let the flourishes of the Coens’ previous films distract from their underlying humanism; that only salted the wound.) I’ve come around, of course, although Fargo still ranks below Hudsucker and the likewise maligned Intolerable Cruelty in my Coens pantheon. I learned that when you respect an artist, you have to be willing to follow their work wherever they go, and not penalize them for failing to give you that Barton Fink feeling. I still think The Wrestler is several orders of magnitude less interesting than Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain, and that True Grit is a snooze that was way too worked-over in post, but those are judgments born of consideration rather than a trumped-up sense of betrayal.
I’m a big Stephen King fan, have been ever since I read The Stand in junior high. King writes a lot, and he publishes a lot, so it’s not really surprising that he has his share of mediocre to terrible novels, but when I was 14 or so, I would’ve told you that was ridiculous. I worshiped Mr. King, and when I picked up a hardcover copy of Insomnia in 1994, I had high hopes. These hopes were slowly and systematically crushed over the course of the book’s 800-plus pages. I was excited, then confused, then bored, then bargaining—there were freaky bald midget doctors, and references to IT and the Dark Tower, and the story hook was kind of not-bad, right? What made it worse is that I was still at a point in my life where I blamed every bad movie, book, or TV show on myself; I was convinced that if I didn’t like something, it was because I was doing something wrong. I even had myself convinced for a while that the reason I couldn’t get into Insomnia was that the font size and spacing were too large. But nothing stuck, and eventually, after I forced my way through the novel a second time, I realized it was just bad: bloated, meandering, and desperately in need of a good edit. I’ve since made my peace with the idea that my favorite author occasionally fucks up, and it was an important moment for me in terms of my own writing, because I started to figure out what made good fiction different from bad. But at the time, it felt like the sky was falling.
I’d already been a bit of a U2 fan when The Joshua Tree came out. But that album sent me head-over-heels in love with the band. I was in junior high at the time, and I bought it on cassette (if I remember correctly, even the tape came in one of those conspicuously wasteful, CD-style long-boxes), and I played that cassette ’til the wheels were about to fall off. (Luckily, I did so before every damn song became overplayed to the point of self-parody.) I still love The Joshua Tree, though. It’s the follow-up, Rattle And Hum, that threw me. I’d graduated to high school by the time it was released, and I’d gotten heavily into punk rock, post-punk, hardcore, goth, metal, industrial, prog,’ 60s music, and all kinds of weird alternative stuff I thought was way cooler. But I wasn’t ready to give up on U2. I was somehow personally proud that the band had become so huge, and I eagerly bought Rattle And Hum the week it came out. I got it home, popped it in… and my heart sank. What the hell was this? How did that epic, atmospheric band turn into some lame, boring, classic-rock act? The flabby, phony music of Rattle And Hum wasn’t the biggest letdown, though; it was the fact that Bono and crew seemed a little too quick to embrace and flaunt their newfound status as rock’s saviors. They’d gorged themselves on their own hype. “Selling out” wasn’t the issue; if Rattle And Hum had been a solid album, I would’ve been happy to cheer them on as they rose even higher. But after that album, I could never look at them the same way again. But whatever. I had more time to listen to punk, right? And surely that kind of thing would never happen to punk.
I don’t remember how excited I was about 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, but I definitely remember how it ended my relationship with its namesake toys. At the tender age of 10, I was incensed by the seemingly needless death of Optimus Prime, the also-needless obscenity (Spike’s infamous “Oh shit!” line), and its general crappiness. My reaction would later be justified when I learned that the whole movie was simply an excuse for Hasbro to kill off the old guard so it could introduce a new (and unpopular) line of Transformers. Nostalgia for The Transformers: The Movie eventually led to its DVD release, which didn’t surprise me, but I never believed my dumb friends when they tried to tell me it was good (or “good”). Now that Michael Bay has so thoroughly poisoned that well, no one’s selling that BS anymore. At least The Transformers: The Movie eventually led to this:
Like many members of my generation, I held Ghostbusters in high esteem. How could I not? It was about busting ghosts, it had awesome special effects, many of my favorite actors were in it, and as far as I was concerned, Bill Murray could do no wrong. Hell, I loved the Ghostbusters arcade game and watched the cartoon spin-off, with original Garfield voice Lorenzo Music in the Bill Murray role. In a weird bit of synchronicity, Murray later took over Music’s gig as the voice of Garfield in the Garfield trilogy (I’m still waiting for the third one, motherfuckers!), even though it wasn’t very good. So I was beyond psyched about its sequel. It even had some relatively clever ideas about the negative energy of the people of New York causing all manner of supernatural problems, and a disgraced Ghostbusters team reduced to performing at children’s parties. When I saw Ghostbusters II, my excitement receded little by little once it became achingly apparent that Ghostbusters II was just like most sequels: just like the first one, only nowhere near as good. It wasn’t terrible, mind you, or an embarrassment, but it was apparent in every frame that money and commerce had dictated its existence rather than passion or creativity. It was wholly unnecessary, and everyone seemed to be going through the motions, particularly my hero Bill Murray, who had agreed to appear in the original, much more inspired Ghostbusters solely so Columbia would green-light his passion project, an adaptation of M. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. (Aykroyd famously wrote Murray’s role for his best friend John Belushi, but Belushi died well before shooting began.) After Ghostbusters II, the packed audience broke into applause, which confused my 12-year-old self. Were they applauding sarcastically? Or did they really enjoy this mediocre, bloated exercise that much? Or were they so enamored of the first film that they’d convinced themselves this horribly disappointing film was actually a triumph, or even particularly good? So I view the prospect of another Ghostbusters movie, possibly without Bill Murray, with even more suspicion and skepticism than most. I’ve had my heart broken by a Ghostbusters sequel before. I’d hate to have it happen again.
True story about Back To The Future Part III: I saw the third and final installment in Robert Zemeckis’ seminal trilogy at a Long Island multiplex as the cornerstone event of my 11th birthday party. My parents chaperoned myself and the several friends I could lay claim to. Given my devastating social anxiety and complete indifference toward Western-themed pop culture (traits that have persisted through adulthood), this was an ill-advised expedition to begin with. It only got worse when I got sick and vomited. I’d had better days, and I continued to demonstrate terrible instincts when it came to birthday movies. (The next year’s sojourn? FX/2: The Deadly Art Of Illusion, which at least had boobs.) More than two decades later, I’m confident I can critically distinguish BTTF III from the humiliating context in which I experienced it, and I still think it’s pretty boring. Not as boring as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but a letdown nonetheless.
Television doles up disappointment on such a consistent basis that even a wide-eyed young couch potato like yours truly couldn’t maintain a steadfast belief in its infallibility forever, which is why I’d like to think that NBC’s current basement-level ratings are payback for having begun chipping away at my youthful innocence in 1979 by foisting Fred And Barney Meet The Thing onto its Saturday-morning viewership. In addition to my burgeoning obsession with TV, I was also lapping up every comic book I could get my hands on, finding a particular fondness for team-ups like The Brave And The Bold, DC Comics Presents, and, yes, Marvel Two-In-One. When I first heard about this new cartoon, even with the imagination of a 9-year-old, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how in the hell they were going to bring together the worlds of The Flintstones and The Fantastic Four into one awesome Saturday morning spectacular, but between The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Laff-A-Lympics, I’d seen crazier combos, so I was fully prepared to give Hanna-Barbera the benefit of the doubt. I can still remember my jaw hitting the floor during the first episode, however, when I learned that a) the only time Fred and Barney would “meet” The Thing would be in the opening credits and interstitials between their respective segments, and b) their presentation of The Thing was utterly independent from the Fantastic Four. The special posited a universe where an otherwise-normal teenager named Benjy Grimm turned into his rocky alter-ego by bringing together two magic rings and saying—God, I’m cringing just typing the words—“Thing Ring, do your thing!” As you can probably tell from the tone of this paragraph, I have never fully forgiven Hanna-Barbera or Marvel Comics for committing this heinous chicanery. What a revoltin’ development, indeed…
I’d love to say that my 11-year-old self, the one super excited to see the 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel 2010 back in 1984, walked away disappointed instead of convinced he’d just seen a movie even better than Kubrick’s original. But that’s not true. I think kids have a way of coasting on their initial enthusiasm until they talk themselves into liking something they really didn’t enjoy that much, or that maybe they enjoyed because they didn’t yet have good taste. Probably my biggest disappointment early on was akin to Will’s team-up letdown. I liked classic monster movies as a kid—still do!—and had built up impossible expectations for King Kong Vs. Godzilla. Because, you know, it had King Kong and Godzilla in it. I imagined it as a nonstop battle royal destroying Tokyo or New York, or wherever it was set. But when I finally saw it on TBS it was really… boring. So much exposition. So long to get to the monster fights. And King Kong looked a little off-model, to say the least. I haven’t revisited it since, and while I doubt it’s any better or worse than most Godzilla sequels, I do think it provided a valuable lesson: What real movie could ever live up to the King Kong Vs. Godzilla of the mind?
This is going to be completely cliché, but when The Empire Strikes Back came out, I was 9 years old, and I remember it being a letdown because of its bummer of an ending. I saw the original Star Wars in re-release about a year after it originally came out, and I was as eager to see the sequel as anyone else. And just like everyone else in northern New Jersey, I stood in a snaking long line around the multiplex on Route 4 in Paramus to see it, because it was the only place in the area to see it on a 70mm screen. But when I saw it, the 9-year-old me was looking for the shoot-’em-up, action-filled happy ending from the original. The fact that this sequel was more dramatic, with more interpersonal exploration—and the fact that Lando betrayed Han to the point where poor Han got the carbonite treatment—didn’t make me feel any better. Of course, it didn’t take me too long to realize that Empire was the best of the original trilogy, mainly because it had story and drama and no cute little teddy bears with slingshots. But 9-year-old me wanted a happy ending, and was thoroughly disappointed when I didn’t get it.
When I was a kid, there was only one comic-book series I was interested in, and that was Archie. It was a girlish series, focusing on love triangles and high school and silly jokes and pretty girls and cute outfits that inexplicably ran the gamut from 1950s to 1990s. I loved any camping trip or car trip, because those were the times my mom would buy those comics for me. So in 1990, I looked forward to seeing my comic book friends come to life in the TV movie Archie: To Riverdale And Back Again. However, I was disappointed to realize how wrong it all felt. First, the Archie comic-book characters were ever-young and ever-hip, despite bouncing around different time periods. Having the characters age and don contemporary clothes instantly rendered them cringingly uncool. Also, giving them “adult” problems and having them rendered into 3-D, like Jughead’s fear of women or Betty’s sexual desperation, just made me sad and uncomfortable, possibly because unlike having a crush on a boy who liked another girl, these were issues with which I couldn’t identify. Looking back, having the characters age and come back together sounds like an intriguing concept, but at the time, I liked my characters the way I liked them: stylized, static, and relatively asexual.