This week’s question is in honor of 1999 Week here at The A.V. Club:
What’s your most significant pop culture memory from 1999?
I was in middle school in 1999, and my most prominent pop culture memory from that year is less about the pop culture itself and more about the impact that it had. I don’t remember when I saw The Matrix, but I definitely remember when a kid got in trouble for running along a wall like in The Matrix. Obviously that’s impossible, and everyone at the time seemed to recognize that it was impossible, but somewhere in the process of this kid imitating a thing he saw in a movie and a teacher observing him imitating a thing he saw in a movie, the story became that he jumped 5 feet in the air and ran along a wall with his reality-bending powers. Later, surprised that he had gotten in trouble, the kid repeated the stunt in front of me and some other classmates. Basically, he had just jumped up and kicked a wall, which was not nearly as cool as what Trinity did in that lobby. The lesson: The Matrix sure was cool.
For as much as I’ve always loved animation, my exposure to anime was bare bones. None of it resonated deeply with me, and I figured I just wasn’t an anime guy. All of which is to say why I had never paid much attention to the output by Studio Ghibli. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have been so completely unprepared for how exceptional Princess Mononoke was when I went to see it in the theater on a friend’s recommendation. The experience permanently altered how I viewed animation and, more basically, compelling storytelling. It wasn’t just that the movie had no clear villains; it had very few unambiguous heroes. The titular character is unrepentantly violent—meeting the force of iron town with force. Even the nature spirit at the heart of the film, despite being threatened, isn’t a moral force; it is wild, and untamed, and just as capable of destruction as mankind. Leaving the theater, my friend I and were lost in thought. Wordlessly strolling down the streets of Milwaukee, we would just tilt our heads to the side and give off a little rattle in imitation of the small, gourdlike spirits that lived in the woods.
Like seemingly everyone else on Earth, I was looking forward to checking out Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace. Opening weekend, the schoolmate I was dating at the time and their little brother accompanied me to a midnight screening, the three of us curious at to whether we’d find it thrilling, stultifying, or just childish. (My holier-than-thou teenage attitude at the time was that, sure, I loved the original movies, but this new thing was strictly for kids, right?) There are two things that have stuck with me: First, that the roar of the audience when the Star Wars logo appeared and John Williams’ iconic score erupted through the speakers is one of the loudest sounds I have ever heard; and second, I walked out of that theater absolutely delighted by Episode 1. Like, giddily enthusiastic, my date and I already waxing nostalgic about the most fun moments of the movie, and talking about how we wished there had been such cool movies for kids when we were younger. When I went home later that year for the holidays, eager to show my family this wonderful new movie, you could almost hear the scales fall from my eyes as we sat in my living room and watched it in silence: My shock at realizing I had been hoodwinked, by the emotional fervor of that midnight screening, into thinking this was a good movie was almost more profound than my disappointment at the second viewing. So the year will always be characterized by that emotional roller-coaster that played out for the better part of six months. Sorry, Eyes Wide Shut: You were the best thing I saw in theaters that year, but you can’t hold a candle to a stupid pod race when it comes to what 1999 was all about.
Fortunately, I like the office where I work now a lot, but I have been in some really terrible workplace environments. Especially when I first moved to Chicago and was temping, shuffling between skyscrapers to places like Ernst & Young and Xerox to pay the rent, my meager wardrobe easily identifying me as a kid right out of college with no money. Those horrible jobs always involved navigating a variety of different office equipment types, and no matter where I worked (yes, even Xerox), every printer, copier, and fax machine had its own specific, frequently maddening specifications and quirks. So I don’t think any scene has resonated as much with my life as an office worker than the printer destruction scene from Office Space. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe someone had acted out my 23-year-old self’s fondest wish on the big screen. Some non-office-workers might have wondered how Peter, Michael Bolton, and Samir could harbor so much animosity toward an inanimate object, but like so many others, I understood completely.
The year was 1999, and my friends and I were a bunch of dorky English lit majors in central Illinois, wanting to be seen. The movie was 10 Things I Hate About You, an incisive update of The Taming Of The Shrew that captured the original’s wittiness while smartly updating its gender politics. The cast was full of breakouts, including Julia Stiles, the late Heath Ledger, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Larry Miller was an old hand by then, but he also turns in a delightful performance as Kat and Bianca’s overbearing, oversharing dad). We were nourished by Kat’s withering retorts and takedowns of cherished old white guy authors, but the moment that became indelible in my memory was when Ledger turned in a musical number in the stands of a soccer field. Unless you were a fan of the Australian series, Ship To Shore, at the time, this was your first impression of the late actor; and as Patrick, he showed the charisma of a leading man with the versatility of a character actor. And, okay, twist my arm, it was also the most charming stretch of movie I’d watched all that year.
In 1999 I was really leaning into my Unimpressed Teen stage, so of course I was a die-hard Daria fan. Following every one of her disinterested interactions served as affirmation for my own awkwardness, so I felt kind of beholden to her (even though she was totally animated, yes). I was also a huge musical theater fanatic, and sometimes those two aspects of my personality clashed tremendously. But on February 17, 1999, my deepest interests met for one glorious moment in television. Daria! The Musical provided a literal soundtrack for Daria’s biting wit and very relatable apathy while Lawndale prepared themselves for (and panicked over) a “big ass storm,” and I love all of it. Hilarity aside, it was an example of how there is plenty of room for both the dramatic and more reserved. Also, “God God Dammit” got me in a lot of trouble, but it was catchy!