James’ Top 25 Life Influences, part 4
16. Star Wars
Any man or boy between the ages of 2 and 60 knows that there is only one defining mythology for our time: Star Wars. End. Of. Story.
Some may say, â€œWell, actually, we think this or that is the defining mythology of our time.â€ …Sorry, youâ€™re wrong. Youâ€™re wrong because everything came from Star Wars. Star Wars reinvented not only Western culture, but global culture. It did so by taking pieces from various world mythologies and religions and repackaging them into one hell of an entertaining trilogy (and a second insanely profitable, if less influential, trilogy). Without Star Wars there is no Harry Potter, Matrix, Indiana Jones, and a million other blockbuster franchises.
I was born the same year Empire Strikes Back was released, so I never knew a world without Star Wars in it. I wore out my VHS tapes as a kid. I had all the action figures. I dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween. The writings of George Lucas had far more influence over the man I grew up to be than the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – put together.
Star Wars accomplished the same thing for my generation that classical tales like The Odyssey or The Iliad did for generations before us: It gave us a philosophy to live our lives by. To this day, when filling out census forms, hundreds of thousands of people list â€œJediâ€ as their religion. Thatâ€™s because the virtues represented in Star Wars, such as heroism, nobility, and justice, are timeless. Morality tales like Star Wars help guide us through life. It did for me.
17. Kurt Cobain
Recently, my girlfriendâ€™s friend bought my book, Manic Expression: A Collection. She got a few pages in when she stopped reading it. She said it made her uncomfortable, like she was reading my diary and finding out secrets she wasnâ€™t supposed to know. On the back cover of the book, the plot description calls my work â€œraw.â€ That would be my Gen X sensibilities showing.
Being at the tale end of Generation X, I missed out on a lot. By the time I was leaving high school, the Backstreet Boys were the biggest thing in the world and rock music was being beaten to death by Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. But I still remember where I was the day I heard Kurt Cobain was dead. I still remember how that made me feel, like something was gone that could never be recovered.
Cobainâ€™s music was like an exposed nerve, and he sang it as such. I still get a little teary eyed when, at the end of â€œSmells Like Teen Spirit,â€ Cobainâ€™s voice wobbleâ€™s on that last â€œa denial!â€ The man bared his soul to the world in everything he did, and he showed me that it was necessary to do so. Be honest and fuck those who canâ€™t handle it.
So when you read Manic Expression: A Collection and get that feeling like, â€œWow, its like Iâ€™m seeing into James’ soul,â€ thatâ€™s Kurt Cobainâ€™s influence.
18. American Film Institute
When I was 18, the American Film Institute ran itâ€™s first of 10 annual television specials. That first one, which ranked the 100 greatest American movies, utterly changed the way I watched films and the way I wrote stories.
Thanks to that special, and the subsequent nine others that ranked movies in various genres, I was introduced to dozens of classic films I otherwise might not have ever paid attention to. Duck Soup, The Third Man, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Searchers, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, and on and on and on and on. My own personal list of favorite movies is littered with films I was introduced to by the AFI.
I binged on classic movies for a year, and by the end of that year I not only was well versed in film history but I had turned a corner as a writer. It was as if submerging myself in such great art forced an evolutionary change in my story telling abilities. I wasnâ€™t ripping off what I had watched, but I was suddenly more aware of how to tell a truly well crafted tale.
Anyone who takes film seriously needs to watch the movies on the AFI lists, and, if possible, hunt down the programs themselves. From City Lights to The Godfather to Annie Hall and beyond, youâ€™ll emerge with a foundation to go forward and discover the wonders of more than century of cinema.
19. Looney Tunes
There were Disney kids and there were Warner Bros. kids. …Sorry, Moviefan12, but I was a WB kid.
Growing up in the 90s, there was plenty to love about Warner Bros. cartoons. We had Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Pinky & the Brain. Then there were the super hero cartoons – Superman and the yet to be equaled Batman.
But it all starts with Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and the rest. Iâ€™ve watched the Looney Tunes for as long as Iâ€™ve been alive, rolling on the floor of my grandparents living room on a Saturday morning, hopped up on sugary cereal and snug in my feety jam-jams. Thatâ€™s where my sense of humor was born, watching cartoons (some of which were older than my father). Bugs & the gang were not gentle, there was a sophisticated bite to their humor. For every anvil to the head, there were ten brilliantly crafted jokes that helped teach me the subtlety of the English language.
The anarchy of the Looney Tunes, who were always subverting the status quo, influences me to this day. In the end, the system will not be taken down my the soldier or the politician, but by the court jester. Sometimes the weapons will be sticks of dynamite or a cannon with a short fuse, but more often than not theyâ€™ll be just the right words, weaved into a joke so perfect itâ€™s practically magic.
20. Long Beach, California
A place can change you, alter your very DNA and make you something that, prior to living there, you werenâ€™t. Thatâ€™s what happened to me when I moved to Long Beach.
I was actually born in Long Beach, but my parents bought a house in the suburb of Lakewood and thatâ€™s where I grew up. There were few excursions to the city just down the street. My world was very small. When I first moved out at 17 I wound up in the ghettos of Carson. My first job was in the upscale Cerritos area. Long Beach wasnâ€™t even on my radar.
Then I got my first apartment, taking up with a â€œfriendâ€ of mine who swindled me to pay for his drugs. That apartment was in Long Beach, and though I got out of that situation as quick as I could I didnâ€™t stray far…not after what I saw.
One day, shortly after moving to the city, I went out with a friend. We wound up on Pine Avenue, Long Beachâ€™s premiere party street. He had to take off unexpectedly, and at first I was frightened. I didnâ€™t know where I was. Everything was so big. The buildings stretched so high, and the ocean in front of me stretched out to infinity. All I could do was wander till I found my way, passed trendy shops, expensive restaurants, and coffee bars where the rich and the poor could be found commingling because…well…they made a damn fine cup of coffee.
Lakewood was like any suburb – quiet, boring, and full of hypocrites. Long Beach was utterly different. There was a thriving gay community, out and proud and without shame. There was danger, of course (someday you should ask me about the time I was surrounded by a gang who wanted to rob me and how I left with my money and a hug from the leader!), but the danger was part of the fun. Many of you will say there are a million places in the world more exciting than Long Beach, but for me it became an identity. The smell of ocean spray and car fumes will always be the smell of freedom to me, and of home.