What makes up the fiber of our being? What are the building blocks of our souls? Of course thereâ€™s the people in our lives: Parents, lovers, friends, children. But what about culture? What about everything, from Mozart to Megadeath, that influences us in our lives?
Iâ€™m a skeptic when it comes to the idea of Heaven, but I will say this: If Heaven is simply an intangible place, where we exist in bliss without the burden of earthly possessions, Iâ€™m going to be hugely disappointed. I am a child of earth culture, raised by our books and films and music. These things matter, and over the course of the next five articles I will be examining the top 25 cultural influences of my life, in no particular order.
1. The Universal Monsters
Anyone whose read my book, Manic Expression: A Collection, will see right away my affinity for the monsters. I go out of my way to humanize murderers, rapists, bigots, and even otherworldly demonic beasts. I do this for a simple reason: No matter how wicked a creature is, no matter how vile their deeds, they are all deserving of empathy, because each of us carries good and evil in us, and each of us is capable of terrible things.
I learned this from the Universal Monsters.
Unlike the slashers of my generation, the Universal Monsters were sad, tormented creatures one and all. The Monster, as played by Boris Karloff, is a lost soul shunned by all for how he looks. The Wolf Man is a victim of urges beyond his control. Dracula is cursed by his craving for blood. The Mummy is guilty only of being in love. The Invisible Man is misguided. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is only protecting himself from outside invaders.
Some people see these movies and take nothing more away from them than thrills and chills. Me? I learned to see things from anotherâ€™s point of view, no matter how different they may be from me.
2. Steven Spielberg
For those of us who came of age in the 80s and 90s, Spielberg is like our second dad. He is the defining filmmaker of our time, creating masterpiece after masterpiece and rarely ever misstepping. But I didnâ€™t know about box office returns when I was a kid. I didnâ€™t know that film history was being written before my eyes. I just knew how Spielbergâ€™s movies made me feel.
The tension of Jaws. The thrills of the Indiana Jones films. The wonder of Jurassic Park. To this day, E.T. makes me cry like a baby. As I matured, so did Spielberg. He helped me understand the Holocaust. He put me in the shoes of the men who took Normandy Beach. He made my heart break for a robot in the shape of a little boy. He made me ponder if revenge is ever justified.
Add to his list of accomplishments the films heâ€™s shepherded into theaters as a producer and his influence over me proves almost absurd. 14 out of my top 100 favorite films are Spielberg productions, from Back to the Future to Goonies to Gremlins. Spielberg helped shape my childhood.
Iâ€™m not alone in this. Through his work, Steven Spielberg influenced every single person that loves movies. Some call him overly sentimental, but in the cynical times we live in a man making me cry for a rubber alien with a glowing finger is a frigginâ€™ miracle.
My generation is thought of as the first to be raised by television. With both my parents working I spent long hours getting life lessons from the Keatonâ€™s, the Huxtableâ€™s, and the Simpsonâ€™s.
Nowadays kids are addicted to their cellphones, living their lives in cyberspace. I suppose the argument could be made that trading one screen for another isnâ€™t that big a deal, yet I see the difference. In the 80s and 90s we couldnâ€™t binge watch our favorite shows on Netflix, nor could we download whichever episode we wanted. I had to run home from school to catch Animaniacs, and I had to wake up early on Saturday mornings to catch The Real Ghostbusters.
I wasnâ€™t an athletic kid, and I lived in a neighborhood dominated by bullies who made stepping outside my front door more trouble than it was worth. My parents were always angry for one reason or another, so even leaving my bedroom was sometimes hard to do. Thatâ€™s where the TV came in. It was my escape, my portal to other worlds. Andy Griffith was a soothing father figure, Lucille Ball a trusted jester. The Munsterâ€™s told me to not only be different but to take pride in it.
As Iâ€™ve grown older my tastes have matured, leaning less toward He-Man and more toward the likes of Walter White, Captain Mal Reynolds, and the Doctor. Still, I have a great affection for the TV shows I watched as a child. They bring me back to a time of feeling safe, lost in the glow of a television while the world around me fell apart.
4. The Raven
So many writers influenced me growing up, but something changed in me the day I heard The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe. I learned something that many writers never do: Words are our tools. That sounds obvious, but most writers have no real concept of what it means.
I first heard The Raven on The Simpsonâ€™s first “Treehouse of Horror.” I was 10. Iâ€™d been writing for five years, mainly ripping off characters from cartoons and putting them in plots ripped off from movies. But upon hearing James Earl Jones reading Poeâ€™s poem, my eyes were opened to the possibilities of what words could be woven into. Iâ€™m still thrilled by that piece of writing, nearly a quarter of a century years later.
On the surface, The Raven is a spooky story. However, while the atmosphere is undeniably chilling in the poem, at itâ€™s core The Raven is a story of loss and hopelessness. The raven is grief, perched out of reach, taunting Poe that he will see his lost love â€œnever more.â€ I recognized what the author was saying, and in doing so my whole approach to writing changed.
Instead of simply stringing words together to tell the story, I started to use words. I tried to add layers to my stories, to imply rather than spell out. I became less literal and looked for ways to infuse what I had to say with a depth that, before, I never even knew was missing.
Poe has written other, wonderful stories that put myself and every other writer to shame, but without The Raven I doubt I would have ever had the courage to look for a voice I didnâ€™t even know I should be looking for.
5. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin
Iâ€™m a man who loves a good four letter word. The reason I get away with so casually throwing off the word â€œfuckâ€ in my videos is due to the sacrifice of one man – Lenny Bruce.
A comedian forgotten by all but students of comedy, Lenny Bruce was the first break out comic to use â€œblue material.â€ But he wasnâ€™t crude for the sake of being crude, far from it. Lenny was a master of the English language, a man who used words to show the repressed masses of 1950s America their hypocrisy. In the end, he was arrested, financially ruined, and finally driven to a drug overdose…but he won the battle.
Thatâ€™s where George Carlin comes in. Many comedians saw the door that Lenny opened and crowded through it, overwhelming audiences with shock material that was hollow and without meaning. Not George. Up until his death a few years back, George was on the road, using those words Lenny passed down to him to challenge America to wake up. He was the best kind of hippie – he never gave up the fight, never sold out. He also harbored no illusions. He had no faith in us ever giving peace a chance. We were a society with a gun to our heads, and he urged us to pull the trigger and make way for something better.
Some would say the legacy of these two men is nothing more than filth for the sake of filth. I say the legacy of these giants is freedom of speech that finally means something. After all, speech is only free if we can say â€œshit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother fucker, and tits.â€