Friday, April 20, 2018

Midwest Gaming Classics 2018 - Attack of the New Venue

It’s Monday April 16th, it’s 8:30 at night and it’s been 27.5 hours since MGC 2018 ended. I was lucky enough to stay all the way till it’s official end at 5PM yesterday, but only thanks in part to an ice storm and blizzard trapping me in Milwaukee and unexpected third night.

As 5PM approached it was interesting to see pinball and arcade machines being hauled out, and vendors shutting down and clearing off their tables. There was a sad finality to it all, with a hint of catharsis as it all came to a cold end as winter storm breezes blew into the massive spaces of convention from the open loading bays. I spent
the next four hours watching the loading bays from my hotel room as truck after truck pulled up to retrieve their precious cargos of arcade and pinball machines, even the huge hauler that not doubt supported Stern Pinballs full blown display.

Unlike my visit two years ago I didn’t buy any games at MGC this year, nor more importantly did I buy another pinball machine. Gaming wise the only thing I did buy was an Intellivision console, which unlike my last I’m hoping is working. My main goal was to find a Colecovision this year but sadly that didn’t work out, as there where very few at this years show and were either too expensive or in questionable condition.
With all that said though the true story this year was the change of venue. MGC’s move to downtown Milwaukee’s, Wisconsin Center, is a huge jump from its confining former venue at the Brookfield Sheridan where it had been held since 2004 and was splitting its seams when I visited last in 2016. For Midwest Gaming Classics the Wisconsin Center was a true game changer, no pun intended. Not only is the space better for the annual convention, but expands possibilities for the show in coming years.

With it now over though the big question is, was the 2018 MGC as much as a success as past years or has the change of venue changed the annual retro gaming convention irrevocably? Before the 2107 show even drew to a close, discussions on the shows future and new space were taking place and it was obvious a new venue would be necessary. Immediately following the 2017 show, the hunt for a new venue was on, but it was only about a month or so later that the Wisconsin Center was named, at least for the 2018 show. Of course news of MGC’s future following the 2018 show hasn’t exactly come out yet, so as of yet we are a little unsure whether the Wisconsin Center will be the shows new home. Of course following the hunt for a new venue after last years show, many speculated that the show may end up across the stateline at Illinois and the midwest convention mecca of Rosemont. I don’t think it we will see that anytime soon, but it’s fun to imagine MGC growing into an event that requires Rosemont, or even Chicago’s McCormick Place.

From my humble point of view what I can say is that compared to the 2016 MGC, the space of the Wisconsin Center was nice to have. In 2016 whether it was viewing an exhibit, playing pinball or arcade games, or even stopping off at vendors, the old Sheridan space felt more like a sardine can than anything else. Considering it was a chilly mid-April day as well, someone not staying at the Sheridan themselves would have to managed the tight confined spaces while either wearing or carrying a jacket with, and considering how hard it was come into and leave the convention might have to negotiate carrying packages with as well from anything bought at the vendor area. I’m not going to say we as a family didn’t have good time, but the uncomfortable conditions did cut down on how long we could stay. By 3 in the afternoon or so we felt exhausted from fighting against the continual flow of humanity, and the unbearable heat and humidity from so many bodies packed into such tight spaces. I was really glad I didn’t buy a weekend pass that time, since I don’t think we would have come back the next day after our experience on that Saturday.  At the same time though it was hard to miss much of anything in the old venue, since special speakers and live podcast recordings like that of the annually featured Retronuats where in the conference centers midway a cafe and bar, which you had to pass to get from one end of the venue to the other. So what you want about smaller spaces but they do tend to force the sense of community a little more.  

Now, on to 2018 and the Wisconsin Center. I’m going to say one thing really quick to get off my chest as it may have affected my judgement on the subject.This year I was lucky enough to stay in one of the hotels adjoining the Wisconsin Center, ironically I stayed in this same hotel two years ago for MGC 2016 still having to drive out to Brookfield, WI. The ability to stay close does make a huge difference especially with family in tow, since it gives one a quick escape to some rest time between visits, the ability to dump off purchases from the vendor area in a safe place, and more importantly no jacket to carry with. Being able to take an hour or so respite in a quiet of the hotel room does make a huge difference in the middle of the convention day and does help recharge ones personal battery, a decide where to concentrate the rest of the day on. The close stay also allowed me to take full advantage of the day staying till nearly the official end of the day on both days. Of course than again this might also be a big positive for the Wisconsin Center venue as well, since two hotels are attached via skyways, and several others within less than a two block walk. As opposed to Brookfield that only featured the Sheridan, and a few smaller hotels but not in such close proximity. To say the least though being able to go to and from MGC without the need to wear a jacket for two days was extremely nice.

If you’ve attended MCG before than you are probably aware of the fact that most of the activities tend to take place in two main rooms, the Arcade area and the Vendor area, with a third smaller area for the gaming museum and other ancillary areas for various arcades, special vendors, and special activity rooms. As you can guess much like in the past the arcade room, as it has in the past, was the busiest place at MGC this year interestingly hosting more pinball machines than arcade machines this year. The area also hosted the gaming museum this year as well, which is a collection of home consoles and computers from gamings past, and was usually located in a different room in previous years. Another highlight of the area was a place I unwittingly spent a lot of time in, this being the kiddie ride area, which consisted of a collection of coin operated kiddie rides like you’d see in front of a grocery store, my youngest son fell in love with this spot and was trying to convince me to buy a $2500 Batmobile for him. The area also hosted various pinball machine companies (a big shout out to the American Pinball guys and their Houdini Pinball machine, thanks for the T-shirt), like American Pinball with their Houdini setup, and Stern with their massive setup dedicated to their new rock band machines, as well as the Garcade family arcade with their assortment of classic machines, and Cosmotron introducing their new game demo. The space also featured an air hockey table area, and some other miscellaneous things such as large inflatable screens with various console play on them throughout the weekend. Of course last but certainly not least this was also the area in which the annual pinball tournament took place, which my wife actually competed in this year.

For the arcade room I could say that compared to past years it was far easier to get around it this year, and unlike our last MGC we were actually able to explore the whole room and get used to navigating it with ease regularly. With that said though there were times when the room was pretty crowded, and certain areas could bottleneck and become impassable. My only true complaint is that pinball machines seemed to out number arcade machines at a pretty high ratio, and next year I hope we see a 50/50 split between the machines.
Next we have the vendor area. It was no longer the crowded cramped space that had you check for you wallet every thirty seconds as in the past, but fairly wide open and as deep of a space as the arcade area. The back of the room featured additional food vendors, and eating area and of course that music area we have gotten use to seeing at MGC playing game based music. Like the vendor area in the past in also featured a large area for board gaming, and a variety of games to borrow and play. I loved the wide open areas on the vendor area this year, but I will say I didn't seem as if there were as many vendors. Of course that observation could have been illusion on my part due to the space.

Outside the vendor hall there were additional sellers as well as a large sitting area for additional gaming and eating, but the rest of MGC was one floor below. One the second floor we had a selections of rooms that themselves where crammed into smaller rooms in previous years. This included spaces for private arcades like Galloping Ghost which was huge this year, presentations rooms for special speakers and live podcasts, parts vendors, my new friends and Guys, Games, and Beer with their rec room setup and standup Vectrex arcade machines, and last but not least one of my favorite rooms at MGC the Steel Battalion room. The space for these rooms was nice, and had I had time to see a presentation or the Retronuats recording live this year the large rooms with ample seating would have been nice to go to, rather then standing room only at the old Sheridan. One of the big issues here though is that you would only know about these presentations if you checked the schedule since no other announcement was made.

Whether MGC had stayed at the Sheridan or had moved anywhere else there would of course be both benefits and caveats. In this case I think we are seeing far more benefits from the move than some of the caveat. Of course any move will have a learning curve, and no doubt MGC’s organizers are going to take notes from this years show and begin adapting the show to the new found space taking into account the new found capabilities and limitations of moving to such a large space after splitting its seams at the old Sheridan. I would personally call the show a huge success. Just one thing MGC organizers, can you speedpass those of us who bought prepaid tickets?
Anyway, I’m only trying to do MGC every other year so unless there is some huge attraction at next year's show that's a must see I probably won't be back till 2020. So if the show is still at the Wisconsin Center then, it will be interesting to see what changes where made, and what new things they may have added.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trekking Through Games: Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator

Star Trek has received at least one title on many video game consoles for last 40 years now. It’s a testament to the shows enduring legacy, as well as its fan base. These are fans who let the shows originality stir their imaginations and made them carry “The Final Frontier” into the world of video gaming only a few years after the show ended. Some of the earliest versions of Star Trek games appeared as text adventures shared on the early internet in BBS’s, or in the form of short games meant to showcase graphics rather than any kind of actual gameplay. Eventually though game designers and publishers knew a true game would have to be made.


In 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released thanks in part to Star Wars: A New Hope’s success two years earlier and the constant push by Star Trek fans to bring the show back.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture, although in retrospect hardly the best of the Star Trek movies, was groundbreaking in itself, and set new territory for both special effects and for Star Trek movies. You can click on the links to read my previous Trekking Through Games article about the movie.  Despite that it would take another three years before any kind of video game based on the movie was made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture would appear on the Vectrex in 1982, although arguably it had little to do with the actual film and more to do with facing off against show adversaries like the Klingons, and Romulans. Owning a Vectrex I can tell you both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the sequel game Star Trek II  on the Vectrex are fun and even addictive games, that ramp up the challenge quickly, but again have very little to do with either Star Trek movie.


In 1982 Sega would release an arcade cabinet in both an upright and environmental form for a game called Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. In its arcade form the game screen was broken into three split screens, the top left was dedicated to ships systems such as shield strength, photon torpedo count, and warp engines. The upper right was a map of the sector showing the nearest starbase, enemy units, and any asteroids that may appear. The third and biggest section was the entire bottom of the screen which gave a first person view from the Enterprise’s bridge viewscreen as you encountered starbases, enemies, and the like. Despite being a vector based game, there is a lot going on with the game's single monitor. The ship controls themselves are a lot like that of Asteroids with a button to thrust forward, but with a dial for side to side movement. Other buttons fired phasers, photon torpedoes, and raised the shields for brief periods. Although it wasn't exactly the kind of game one masters in the first sitting, it is a highly entertaining game that is easy to pick up with a little practice. Sadly though, not many of the arcade cabs of this game survived and the environmental version known as the “Captain's Chair” is even rarer than the upright. Luckily, the game received many home ports almost immediately and despite lacking the vector graphics most of these ports are fairly close to the arcade version.



If you know anything about what consoles and computers were on the market in 1983, than no doubt you can guess the systems Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator was released on almost like naming off a list of usual suspects. The Atari 800, 2600, and 5200, C64, Ti-99, ColecoVision, Vic-20 and the Apple II all saw ports of this game. In my collection I have four of these ports including all the Atari versions, and the Ti-99 version, and moving from system to system I have to say they are all pretty close to each other in gameplay.
The Atari 2600 port featured an odd overlay for the standard joystick



Basically, the game revolves around protecting your starbases from Klingon attackers, by eliminating all their ships in each sector. Of course in real Star Trek terms such battles would be highly involved, but here each Klingon ship is a one hit kill with phasers, and you can take a few at a time out with a photon torpedo. As you take damage yourself, and I mean multiple hits, you can dock with starbases for repairs and more photon torpedos. After a few levels of fending off Klingons you eventually encounter a minefield being laid by the infamous STO villain NOMAD, who you must defeat to move on the the next sector. Of course on the arcade and home ports these sector boss battles are anything but clear. On the Atari 2600 version as you will see in my video, there is a sector in between in which you encounter an asteroid and meteor field that you can maneuver around to dock with starbases for needed repairs, like a helpful bonus level of sorts. Both the arcade version and Atari 2600 versions also have “anti-matter saucers” (yeah, because that was in the show) in the arcade version they stick to you like a magnetic mine, as to where with the 2600 version they just kind of float around. You’ll note in the video a purple diamond that briefly sticks to my ship in the arcade version, and my reference to a Space Invaders like flying saucer in the Atari 2600 version.  As you progress from sector to sector the game presents you with an ever increasing amount of Klingons, and NOMAD moves a little faster in laying its mines, but if you're looking for an end to this game I honestly don’t think there is one which is pretty typical for that era.




So what about all the different versions, and which is the best? Well of all of them, the only vector based one is the arcade which is also the most difficult in my opinion because well...it was meant to eat quarters. Vector based games do look pretty good graphically, and it's always easy to tell what the 3D objects represent. Also being an arcade machine with a big board and lots of processing power for the era we also get some awesome music and sound effects. All other ports are raster based, but some look a little bit better than others. The Atari 800 and 5200 ports look like an improved version of the Atari 2600 port and the ships and other objects appearing on the bottom “viewscreen” do look a little more like what they are supposed to. The TI-99 is roughly the same, but the ships and whatnot have a bright color pallet to them that makes them feel a bit cartoony.  Then comes the Apple II version which is simultaneously both better and worse than the other versions, but I would suggest you look for yourself to see what I mean. The C64 version has some really nice looking graphics too, but by far I think the Colecovision version features some of the best graphics overall, as well as the best sound, and music. Of course that surprised me since I thought the C64 or Apple II would have it hands down over any console but the Colecovision holds its own on this game. As you can tell though no matter what the version, the game pretty much stays the same with only some minor creative and technical differences between them.

Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator may not be the very first Star Trek game, but it was the first to really have notice taken of it and be universally accepted, especially in the arcades as well as the many home ports. Sadly, the game never really gained any longevity, since it was white noise amongst many of the other space games of the era. Luckily for us as Star Trek fans we got many other games after, and the franchise would continue on to some truly awesome titles that would take what SOS started to a different level like the Starfleet Command and Armada games. Although Strategic Operations Simulator may seem basic and simple compared to games such as those I just mentioned, if you're a Star Trek fan they’re something you have to really check out since they still have that connection to the first Star trek movies and the original series from an era when that's all there was.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Truth is Stranger Than Movie Fiction - The Manhattan Project

Could truth get any stranger than a fictional tale about a homemade A-bomb?

The weekend before last, trying to keep on the theme of watching at least one 80’s movie per weekend this summer, I decided to watch The Manhattan Project on Netflix. If you’ve never heard of it before, than let me first tell you it’s not a historical drama about the development of the atomic bomb, that was left to 1989’s Fatman and Littleboy. Rather, this is an interesting little flick about a teenager who creates his own atomic bomb for a science fair, using plutonium he stole from a local laboratory.

The film itself is somewhat obscure, and really wasn't a huge box office success either. No doubt part of the reason was that releasing a heavy drama in the summer of 1986, amongst such classics as Top Gun, Short Circuit, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (the latter opened the same weekend) probably wasn't the best timing on the studios part. The other issue was the general theme of the movie, which was hitting rather close to home in 1986 as fears of rogue nations such as Libya developing atomic bombs hit the news.

A quick synapses of the movie is that a physicist John Mathewson (John Lithgow) with a new way of refining plutonium moves to Ithaca, NY. Well, trying to find a place to live John meets a local realtor Elizabeth Stephens (Jill Eikenberry), and her son Paul (Christopher Collet). In attempting to get a date with Elizabeth, John offers to give Paul a tour of his facility outside of town, due to Paul’s interest in lasers. Of course Paul, being a bit of a genius and science geek, quickly figures out that the facility isn’t just refining harmless Magnesium, but something highly radioactive due to some mutations he notices in plant life nearby. Paul, with the help of his girlfriend Jenny Anderman (Cynthia Nixon), quickly hatches a plan to raid the facility and steal a sample of the material in order to expose the dangers of the facility nearby his home. Upon getting the sample Paul decides rather than take it to the press, that he would instead build an atomic bomb and enter it into the National Science Fair in New York City. Of course his plan is eventually discovered, and trouble comes to find him.

Overall it’s a pretty good flick, and has some excellent acting especially out of Christopher Collet, and John Lithgow. It’s also a pretty compelling story that keeps you going all the way to the end and at times makes you think a happy ending isn’t going to happen. Admittedly, it does have a lot of plot holes and implausibilities though, like two private security guards being the only ones on the night-shift at a facility producing weapons grade plutonium, or the fact that there just seems to be too much story to properly fit into the time frame of this movie. With that said there is a clear theme of a young man trying to do right by his town and point out an environmental danger, but getting too overzealous in doing so.

As crazy as the concepts of this movie may seem though, there have been a few cases of life imitating art that have happened since the movie came out. One of which, would go on to be the basis for its own movie, and the other would produce a truly strange story most people don’t even know about.

The Story of David Hahn - The Atomic Scout

It’s been almost a year since David Hahn died in Michigan due to complications related to alcoholism. He was only 39, but had lived and interesting life of both notoriety and trouble. You see Hanh had gained himself the moniker of “The Atomic Scout”, something he would live in the shadow of the rest of his life. At the age of 17, Hahn who had a lifelong interest in nuclear energy, decided to build his own nuclear reactor after earning his Nuclear Energy merit badge as an Eagle Scout candidate. Hahn collected bits and pieces of radioactive material from such normal household items as alarm clocks, smoke detectors, and camping lanterns and with his limited know how managed to create a simple breeder reactor. Breeder reactors, unlike standard reactors don’t need a lot of water in their processes, so Hahn was able to build one in a shed. Of course merely by dumb luck the authorities eventually caught on to what Hahn was up to, and although what he was doing wasn’t illegal, it did require the intervention of the FBI and EPA in cleaning up the radiation contamination of the Hahn’s property and surrounding area. The story itself would remain no more than a newspaper blurb, until 1998 when the story would be rehashed by Harpers Bizarre, and received a follow up book titled The Radioactive Boy Scout.  

Hahn would go onto a short but successful military career, but would began dealing with psychological issues later on that would lead to an honorable discharge, and plague him till his death. Doctors have said that Hahns psychological issues may have been a result of his radiation exposure, as well as prolonged lead poisoning, and believe that had Hahn not declined a proper medical evaluation after his 1994 reactor incident, and later while in the Navy, that some of the problems may have been caught and treated before serious issues occurred. Later, Hahn would have trouble with the law after being caught taking the smoke detectors in his apartment building for the radioactive material inside, Police believed the sores on his body, and shown in his mugshot, show that Hahn had been in contact with radioactive materials again.  

Again this is one of those “stranger than fiction”, stories that made me think of The Manhattan Project. Although Hahn didn’t try to build a bomb, we are still talking about a teenage boy dealing with something radioactive and extremely dangerous, enough to require the FBI, EPA, and Nuclear Energy Commission to get involved. Hahn’s story also shows us some very real life ramifications of what it would have been at risk had the movie character of Paul actually constructed an atomic bomb in the real world. The movie briefly goes into Paul having caused radiation contamination to the room he was working in at his school, but never hits home the true cost of that or, of the radiation poisoning he himself would have suffered.


Erin Brockovich - Undisclosed Toxins

Another aspect to The Manhattan Project is the character of Paul crusading to make it known that the supposed medical laboratory in his town was actually a government facility for processing weapons grade plutonium. Although it’s only briefly referred to, there is also an element of environmentalism to this as well since Paul mentions the rare mutation of a five leaf Clover, which is growing everywhere around the facility. Sadly, in real life such toxin producing facilities that damage the surrounding area aren’t fictional. It’s also true that like the facility in The Manhattan Project that the U.S. Government has had “in plain sight” weapons and research facilities placed under unassuming names very near residential areas before, and that they have gone on to create environmental and health issues for the surrounding areas. Eventually, laws were passed requiring both government and private facilities to “disclose” the use of radioactive or toxic materials used on premises, but some argue, like in the case of the Lemont, Illinois Argonne National Laboratory, that the truth perhaps still isn’t being fully disclosed.

With that said though there was a real life incident that went beyond rumor and speculation to become a major headline in the early 90’s and that made it onto the big screen in 2000. In pop culture it has become known as the Erin Brockovich case due to the movie, and named after the larger than life legal aid who helped make the case. In actuality the case involved the citizens of Hinkley, CA versus Pacific Gas & Electric.

In this case PG&E, began using hexavalent chromium in order to fight costly corrosion in their natural gas pipeline and cooling towers. However, in an effort to economize, PG&E corporate cut corners and never provided proper containment for the wastewater used in the process. The issue of course is that hexavalent chromium is extremely toxic, and even a small amount of exposure could impact one's health. The water was released into retention ponds that weren’t properly lined and lead to the toxin seeping into the local water supply over time. Although the last time the toxin would be used in the process was 1966, the eight years of the toxins use before that had built up in the ground and water near the ponds, causing issues for years to come. PG&E would eventually disclose the non-toxic anti-corrosive they were currently using hoping to satisfy federal and state regulations on disclosure by using that as a general blanket, but at the same time began to quietly buy up property surrounding the plant. It was this latter action that eventually lead to Masry & Vititoe and Brockovich getting involved and looking into things a little deeper, and everything is well known history from there.

Although the actual events surrounding the release of the toxic chemicals in Hinkley, CA would occur 20 years before The Manhattan Project was made, there is still a bit of reality set into the crusading actions of the movies quasi-hero Paul. In Paul's case he knew the facility was causing contamination to the surrounding area, and believed that the citizens of his home town of Ithaca, should be informed. Of course as I stated earlier Paul's methodology for doing this may have been a bit over the top, but with that said though the parallels exist between the fictional reasons of Paul’s bomb building in The Manhattan Project, and Erin Brockovich’s very real crusade to receive justice for the long suffering citizens of Hickley, CA. The reality is that there was a facility, like that in The Manhattan Project, releasing toxins into the surrounding area while the people living nearby went completely uninformed, and believing it was all harmless.  




Of course the movie has several other frightening real life parallels, like the ease of making nuclear weapons in our modern day and age, as we see with North Korea. Not to mention considering the movie was made before the breakup of the Soviet Union, we now see the sudden availability of weapons grade material on the black market, and of those with the technical know-how on weapons building now for hire. These latter issues have of course made it into movies of their own, but in reality international policing has kept pretty close tabs on such things, even though it’s obvious they haven’t always been successful.

In a way The Manhattan Project has a disturbing level of timelessness to it making it a bit more than an 80’s movie, as it sets out a scenario that has had some unrelated but strange realities parallel it since 1986. The movie is worth watching, and as I said it can be found on Netflix, but it’s probably online through Amazon as well. I’ll give a shout out to the guys at The Retro Rewind Podcast, by using their Memory Mind-meld Synopsis and saying that before seeing The Manhattan Project I did mentally intermix The Manhattan Project’s plot with the plot of Real Genius a comedy with a similar premise from 1985. So it was good to watch The Manhattan Project and separate
the film into its actual elements.


If you have any Manhattan Project stranger than fiction stories please feel free to comment below, since I’d love to hear them.      

                 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Star Wars: Rogue Squadron III - Rebel Strike Video Now Out


Drop by and check it out I have a few other videos coming out soon, and an upcoming article on some Star Wars games. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What American Graffiti Taught Me About The 80's

Writing a blog about things that are considered “retro” obviously requires a lot of trips down Memory Lane and the nostalgia that comes with it. Not only do I think about the decades and years of my own life, but I often feed off the nostalgia surrounding decades that came before those within my lifespan. Often times these decades have had an influence on the decades of my own life, or have had an influence on me directly. Although I never lived during them, the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s have always been of interest to me, since they were my parents decades and since they seem to have a real impact of the world around us, and the way we think and perceive the world.


On Friday night after another long week drew to a close, I decided to watch American Graffiti. I’d seen the movie several times during my life and at one point my Dad had it on video cassette, and I’ve had the soundtrack on CD since I was just shy of 16. Each time I've watched the movie it's been while I was at a different age and I’ve taken something different away from it each time. As a kid under 12 it was a cool movie about old cars and good music, and as a teenager and even into my 20’s it was a movie about a group of kids just trying to have fun before heading off to college. After getting a little older though, especially this weekend, I took something totally different away from the movie. Essentially the movie, and this was probably the actual theme, was about the end of innocence even down to the year the film takes place in.




Look at a copy of the movie poster, or at the DVD cover and you will see the movie slogan “Where were you in 62’?”. Keep 1962 in mind because it's pretty important to history and the movies theme. American Graffiti came out in 1973, and was one of George Lucas’s (yes, Star Wars George Lucas) first successful screenplays and directorial jobs. As matter of fact his success with American Graffiti was what got Fox Studios to back his off-the-wall sci-fi concept Star Wars, a few years later. The big question to keep in mind is, how can a film about a period only 11 years earlier be so nostalgic, and a commercial success based on that? It's actually an easy question to answer but it requires a history lesson and a look at the film.


If you've never seen American Graffiti let me sum it up for you. It's a story about five friends, all of whom graduated high school at the beginning of summer, and are now on their way to adulthood. It's now the end of summer and for two of the characters Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Howard (Ron Howard) it's their last night in their hometown of Modesto, CA before heading off to college. Along the way we also meet their nerdy friend Terry (Charles Martin Smith), hot rod driver John (Paul Le Mat), and Howard's girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams). As the night progresses Howard and Laurie pair off for their last night together, and Curt sets off to find himself and decide whether he truly wants to head off to college the following day. In the meantime John cruises Modesto’s strip in search of a race, and Terry takes off in Howard's car to find adventure and love on his own. Essentially, it's a pretty big and life changing evening for all of them. Along the way we run into some familiar faces like Harrison Ford as a rival drag racer of John’s, Mackenzie Phillips as the innocent Carol, John’s awkward date for the evening, and 1950’s and 60’s radio icon Wolfman Jack.



The movie has fun with all five characters but it's Dreyfuss’s character of Curt the movie mostly focuses on. The evening isn't just a passing of time, but more of a journey for him as the passing hours of the evening take him from a hapless indecisive teenager into adulthood. As the evening passed he encounters friends, an old flame, a favorite high school teacher, a dream girl in a white T-bird, harmless street thugs, and Wolfman Jack all of whom help him make his final decision in the morning. All of the other characters lose innocence in different ways as well. For Howard and Laurie a (*spoiler alert) near death experience sheds their innocence. For John nearly losing a race sheds his teenage feeling of being indestructible, and Terry loses his virginity.



All of this, as mentioned before, takes place at the end of summer in what must be late August or perhaps very early September. In itself that kind of hits home the concept of growing up since we’ve all been there, walking out of our high schools for the last time in late May or early June with diploma in hand feeling like kings of the world and playing all summer. That is till late August hits and suddenly we are on our own at college, or dealing with work obligations, or in my case both at the same time. So it’s only fitting that as the last wild night of summer draws to a close for these five characters, so to does a chapter in their lives close. As I said before though another important thing to remember about this movie is the year it takes place, 1962. For anyone who lived in that era 1962, especially the summer of 1962 represented the end of an era, specifically the 1950’s. Although technically the 50’s ended on December 31st, 1959 the era itself carried on with culture, music, and dress into the early 60’s. That era would end in 1962, as the nation itself began to lose it’s 50’s innocence first with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, and then with JFK’s assassination in November of 1963. What would follow for the nation were some heavy and tumultuous times of civil unrest and the Vietnam War, only brightened here and there by our advances into space with the moon landing in 1969, and with the new form of music The Beatles would bring us in 1964. What was left of the 50’s and the era of national innocence, much like the innocence of the characters in American Graffiti died as the Summer of 1962 ended. Without mentioning the social and national upheaval to come at the end of the movie (*spoiler alert) it’s revealed that December of both 1963 and 1964 would claim the lives of two of the main characters hitting home the loss of innocence for both the characters and the nation.



So why only 11 years after the movie took place could a film be so nostalgic, and a commercial success based on that? It’s simple in the 11 years after 1962 the world had changed so much and been through so much revolution and heartache, that 1962 seemed like a lost bygone time. A heartfelt coming of age film about the loss innocence focused on that era, seemed to hit home with the “Baby-boomer” generation that had experienced it all first hand. For my parents, despite living in Chicago in 1962, many of their personal experiences in that era seemed to reflect what the characters went through and their own memories of that era, making the whole film a nostalgic call back to their younger years. For us as Gen X’rs and Millennials 11 years ago from 2017 wasn’t much of anything since 2006 wasn’t much of a year. If you were to ask us to remember back 11 years earlier in 2011 of 2010 though, the answer may be a bit different and may give us some clue as to what the Baby-boomers felt in 1973 when thinking back on 1962. For us the years of 1999 or 2000 seemed like a time of innocence, as the 90’s drew to a close with the nation's unstoppable economy, and promises of a brighter future through technology. For us the events of September 11th changed everything, and the 1990’s age of innocence died, as tumultuous times took over with terrorism threats, huge economic downturns, and war.    



So where am I going with all this? Well some weeks back The Retroist asked an interesting question on Facebook, Are we seeing a backlash against nostalgia? Have we had enough eighties pop culture?”, (be sure to check out the full Facebook post, and The Retroist podcast). I answered the post right away but it’s also been food for thought ever since, especially as I’ve been getting ready to write a few straight up nostalgia pieces myself. I will admit that there is a slight fascination with the 80’s going on right now, a lot of it coming from the direction of popular fiction such as Netflix Stranger Things, and the upcoming movie adaptation of Player One Ready. With that in mind though I will mention that in the mid to late-90’s there was also a lot of fascination with the 80’s as well. I remember a few of the larger Chicago radio stations having 80’s music hours or weekends, I remember 80’s themed parties being a regular thing, and I remember an 80’s themed restaurant and nightclub nearby that was pretty successful for a few years. Of course there were a few short lived TV shows, and a few movies of which The Wedding Singer was the best, and best well known.


So that brings me oddly back to American Graffiti. You see even though The Retroist question has been rattling around my head the past few week’s I’ve had a hard time nailing down the question of nostalgia and the 80’s until I watched American Graffiti. Since American Graffiti was a walk down Memory Lane for a lot of Baby-boomers it wouldn’t be till the late 70’s and 80’s that 50’s nostalgia hit its stride. We’d see TV shows like Happy Days, interestingly inspired by American Graffiti and casting Ron Howard to boot, and Laverne & Shirley a Happy Days spin off and again featuring American Graffiti alum Cindy Williams, as well as movies like Grease, Back to the Future, and Peggy Sue Got Married to name just a few. In the end although interest in the era would pop up a little after more than a decade after it ended, it would take a full twenty to thirty years before a full out solid interest in the era took place. It was in this period that we got reunion concerts for musical groups of the time, whole radio stations dedicated to the era, a deep and loving interest in the cars of the era, and of course last but not least the Baby-boomers began to collect all the toys of the era. For my father it was vicariously getting me to buy a Lionel 2323 Santa Fe F3, one of electric train collectors, and the 50’s most iconic toys. It wasn’t just the trains, but metal trucks and cars, original Barbies, metal robots, and all those other truly iconic things that were unsalable at resale shops and garage sales a decade previous. For many Baby-boomers the toys ultimately were a nostalgic association with childhood innocence and simpler better times of prosperity and peace.


Perhaps for us as Gen Xer’s the late 90’s fascination with the 80’s, and 1998’s The Wedding Singer was like our 1973 for Baby-boomers with American Graffiti. Instead of getting a coming of age drama, sharpened by the heartache and pain of the following 11 years, we got a goofy nostalgia filled comedy. Perhaps this is a comment of the 13 years that would lapse between 1985 and 1998, or just on our generation itself. Then again, although we may not have had the civil unrest and  Vietnam War to contend with, that 13 year period between 1985 and 1998 did have some intense moments. We dealt with the first Gulf War, and the dramatic fall of Communism which had some scary moments in itself, as well as some economic hardships towards the start of the 90’s. With all that said though much how the mid-80’s saw a huge influx of movies and entertainment based on the 50’s nearly 30 years after, perhaps we as Gen-Xer’s have reached that point with the 80’s. For instance NES, and Atari games that could one be picked up by the bushel full and flee markets and garage sales a decade ago for next to nothing, now command a bit of a price, as do old toys like those of M.A.S.K., Star Wars, and GI Joe. The 80’s have crept their way into entertainment like Stranger Things, and Player One Ready and other shows and movies are out there. Unlike the Baby-boomers though we also have instant access to the entertainment of the 80’s as services like XM, and Pandora allow us to listen to 80’s music all day, and services like Amazon Video and YouTube allow us to watch movies and TV shows of the era on a whim. In essence thanks to the internet re-immersing ourselves in that era of our childhood and innocence is far easier for us, as it is easier to share it with our children.



When I honestly look at this 50’s to 80’s comparison and then try to answer The Retroist question now, the answer suddenly seems so much clearer. So are we seeing a backlash against nostalgia, and have we had enough eighties pop culture? We live in scary times, and I hate to say it but we’ve been in them for 16 years now. There are terrorist attacks, a limited amount of civil unrest, war and the potential for war going on, and the economy hasn’t really been good in about 9 years either. So we as Gen-Xer’s are dreaming of simpler times, and for many of us that's the 80’s and yes the 90’s as well. I will admit there has been a backlash as retro gamers are criticized for flooding YouTube with too many shows, and I myself found the actual book for Player One Ready to be for too heavy with 80’s content. At the same time though we as a generation need something simpler to cling in order to maintain our sanity, and a simpler time to teach or children about so they in turn can have hope. The fact that there was fairly peaceful and prosperous time that existed for just shy of 20 years before September 11th, 2001, and that was rich in culture, music, and positive world changing ideas needs to be something we can cling to and pass on the idea of returning too. In many ways the Millennials are like their great grandparents of the Greatest Generation in the 1930’s through World War II, living through two decades of uncertainty while the generation before them tells them about simpler better times, and that they will return.


In comparison looking back to all the 50’s based movies and TV shows of the 1980’s, I really don’t think we are anywhere near that with our current 80’s fascination. I will admit however that as child and even a teen I looked back at the 50’s as being a time of perfection, and when everything was good since I was almost brainwashed by pop culture to think that way. Obviously, not everything in the 50’s was squeaky clean and good, something I learned later. So we need to be careful as a generation not to overplay the 80’s in the same way the Baby-boomers overplayed the 50’s, and brainwash our our children to the point they see the era as a time of perfection.
So yes, American Graffiti a movie niether about or even made in the 1980’s, has in fact taught me about the 1980’s and how to perceive it, thanks to the eyes of a generation previous. This is why history is so important to learn not just from books, but from the recollections, films, and music of the generation that lived through it.




Do yourself a favor and check out The Retroist, it s really great low-key podcast about nostalgia, the website is theretroist.com, and the link to his question on facebook is attached the the question itself above.