1994: A BLANK CHECK FOR UNCHECKED ADOLESCENCE
I knew it was risky. And almost certain it was illegal. Echoes of a past scandal concerning Pee-Wee Herman and a movie theater were rattling somewhere in the muddle of memory, but clearly not at the top of the pile, because I proceeded... slowly… outwardly covering my guilt with nonchalance. A tan windbreaker slipped off the back of my seat onto my lap - arrangements both physical and psychological. I wish the fog of recollection would allow me to round up in my favor, to tell you that the theater was empty, or even that I was alone in my row. Unfortunately, the circumstances are as frozen in my current memories as cinema itself, printed with all the finality of a nitrate impression. No, surrounded by strangers in a local midwestern movie house, I pursued my compulsion well before reasonable skepticism dissuaded me.
The film was True Lies and I was masturbating to the scene where Jamie Lee Curtis dances a lingerie striptease. The year was 1994 and I was 13 years old.
How and why I felt emboldened to such brazen self-gratification could be attributable simply to youthful initiative, yet my pre-teen personality until then was nothing like the secret sauciness on display. I’d never tried anything like that before (or since). Only in retrospect can a case be made that I was acting out as a “product of the culture.” Hollywood’s output in 1994 was directly catered to (and in praise of) the straight male adolescent psyche and I had, throughout that year, absorbed countless Coming-of-Age narratives starring adolescent boy heroes, adult protagonists similarly lionized for their arrested qualities, primal macho reveries of sex and violence and a vivid first flush of video game pandering.
In 1994, Hollywood had red-blooded American boys in its crosshairs, and I was both victor and victim of the spotlight.
The box office tea leaves could not have been more overt. What started with Big (1988), continued with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Wayne’s World (1992), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Hook (1991), Encino Man (1992) and even T2 (1992). Here, movies whose central figure was an adolescent male (literally, psychologically and in certain cases magically) were winning audiences with overwhelming fervor. And the pop-cultural bombshell of Home Alone and Macaulay Culkin tipped the scales; The Age of Boy was nigh and 1994 was to be its apotheosis year.
Firstly the sheer volume of overt vehicles for an adolescent male hero reached a historic peak. Boys saved baseball in Angels in the Outfield and Little Big League. They taught recalcitrant adults life lessons in North, The Client and The War. They laid claim to the animal kingdom in The Jungle Book and The Lion King. They revealed themselves as the inner-children of many an adult in Forrest Gump, Clerks, The Hudsucker Proxy, Reality Bites, Cabin Boy, Clifford and Crumb. And even found time to free Tibet in Little Buddha.
1994 was also the biggest cash-in year for Macaulay Culkin with three major releases; Richie Rich, Getting Even With Dad and the animated film The Pagemaster. None of these performed particularly well, failing to create a ‘marquee Mac’ beyond Home Alone. However, the image he helped create and represent, that of a precocious boy in an unlikely position of autonomy, was deeply felt that year as a sort of temporary iconographic form. Of all the boy-driven narratives that year, Disney’s Blank Check, for me, held the most potent and indelible subtext. A film that offered up unapologetic adolescent wish fulfillment and was (by the time I collided with True Lies) one of my key cinema enablers.
11-year-old Preston Waters, by virtue of a car-over-bike accident, is handed a blank check connected to a money laundering scam. He fills in one million, gets his backpack stuffed by a buffoon banker, then proceeds to spend and live unencumbered by the restrictions and prejudices of the adult world. Blank Check attempts early on to establish a ‘money can’t buy everything’ theme. His middle-class Father is already berating Preston for a lack of income, and his entrepreneurial brothers reveal early-on their capitalist-fascist beliefs with a perversion of ‘the Golden Rule’ - “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” The screenwriters were setting out to reinstate the original Golden Rule but instead, in their relish of Preston’s power by wealth, reinforcing the false one. If they had succeeded in their intended thematic cohesion, I’m not sure it was been nearly as impactful on my 13-year-old psyche.
Blank Check sows seeds of early silicon valley idolatry; Preston assumes the cyber-identity of ‘Mr. Mackintosh’ actualizing his Father’s American Dream, for himself. He closes on a small castle and makes it home, filling it unbridled childish Id; walls of TVs blasting immersive video games in surround sound, a wilderness of giant inflatables and the ultimate male adolescent wet dream home addition; a built-in water slide. Preston flaunts it with limos and wardrobe montages and even a romantic dinner with a pretty bank teller Shay (played by Karen Duffy, at that time MTV’s resident VJ babe “Duffy”). The teller is an undercover FBI agent who sees Preston as a conduit to catching criminals by way of Mr. Mackintosh. Despite the clear obstacles, Preston’s impish clash of naivete and burgeoning bravado thaw Shay’s quite reasonable layers of professionalism and age-gap skepticism. In only a few encounters, the boy empowered by bottomless wealth is seamingly the perfect man, and he seamlessly charms Shay.
And this is where any of Blank Check’s original altruistic sentiments become overwhelmed by its unregulated glorification of adolescent instincts.
Preston’s spending spree inevitably leaves him unmasked as a defrauder, broke, and in massive debt. A series of jarring moral reversals then appear haphazardly; Preston’s Father repents, Preston experiences alienation and isolation and even goes as far as to swear off money in the face of family reconciliation. These moralistic turnarounds are shoehorned so suddenly they lack conviction. Black Check is so exuberantly lost in its revery of Preston’s bender, it forgets entirely that the square world usually needs characters to learn from mistakes. Instead it throws a third act hail mary for a moral. But once the other shoe drops for Preston, it was, for me, too late; I was already trouncing barefoot in a public fountain (Preston and Shay’s most deeply felt romantic game).
Preston is never seeking a moral epiphany or the reinforcement of family values. What he wants is simply plainly stated from the beginning; freedom and autonomy. He craves whatever force can transcend his child class and at the same time satiate his adolescent desires. The eponymous blank check then takes on a symbolic prowess; Preston’s signature unlocks more than funds but an entire relativistic universe in which his basest intuitions are rewarded and worshipped. Any moralist take on this story would and could have so easily educated Preston on the spiritual bankruptcy of materialist pursuits. The adults of Blank Check are so passive and corrupt that Preston emerges as a God in a Godless world, self-generating all of his own moral quandaries and conclusions. Within this ethical vacuum Preston feels no pain, suffers no repercussions and is even decorated with the highest trophy of the straight male adolescent fantasy: the babe.
After all is revealed, Shay offers Preston both a statutory kiss and promise of future nooky once he’s of age or even ‘wink-wink’ before then. With that, Blank Check accidentally offered a modern fable: the uncurbed ascendency of an adolescent boy king, who discovers that his boyishness is fundamental to his power. I was entranced by this modern myth which was shifting away from adages of family, responsibility and morality, into an unambiguous exaltation of pubescent hedonism. At that time Blank Check played like a fetish film to me. Watching it tickled psychological pressure points with ASMR-like reward tingles. It’s twisted capitalist values entwined with my subliminals and endowed me with an overgrown sense of strut.
I felt as invincible as Preston, and that I lived in a world which would only ever cheer me on.
Reinforcing 1994’s graven image of the Boy-King were the ascent of Jim Carrey and the death of Kurt Cobain which were, to me, the most staggering swells of pop-culture phenomena.
Carrey ‘94 is still marveled over, with three signature films (Ace Ventura, The Mask, Dumb & Dumber) released in the same year. His name exploded out of small comedy acquaintanceship into the (not “a”) Box Office Draw. As his banner year progressed, Carrey’s persona was an unshakable throughline: A man with the energy, affectation and maturity level of a 13-year-old boy. The revelation of Carrey as a performer was that he represented and embodied the rude, horny, buffoonish soul of the male adolescent with shockingly deft and elastic ease.Where past sophomoric moron comedians had failed with the blue rinse brigade, Carrey had miraculously succeeded. Water cooler chat was suddenly flying out of talking butt cheeks. Asininity and silliness, for one year at least, trended culturally across all (or most) ages. The Mask was a proper metaphor for the Carrey effect; the addictive curse of rubber-faced indulgence gave us temporary release from mild-mannerisms of our inner-Stanley Ipkiss.
What Blank Check, or any of the other boy-hero narratives proposed, Carrey confirmed. My nature was not just acceptable and powerful but now a credible lane to movie star admiration and success. And in the case of Kurt Cobain, to legend.
I remember getting the news from friend’s Dad with hang-dog sorrow and a genuine tone of condolence. He knew he was the messenger of a fallen idol. In 1994, no figure in pop-culture was as definitive a symbol for generational youth. At with his death Kurt was forever that symbol. To age with Kurt as he matured and replaced his ripped jeans with fitted chinos, bloated into middle-age, or (dear god) was forced into social media would have, of course, felt like the ultimate violation of his mystique. And yet necessary.
While the angst, anti-establishment-ism and emo expressiveness of Cobain are crucial to the survival of pop-culture’s edge, humanistically it’s just as crucial to witness those attributes dissolve into complex adulthood; crucial for ourselves and the pop personas we emulate. In the cases of Carrey and Cobain, their personas never grew up or out of adolescent and teenage countenance. By the end of 1994, the Peter Pan icons of cinema, revered specifically for their eternal immaturity, had successfully burst out of the multiplex and into the fabric of pop-mythology.
Of course, I was aware of none of this as I was jerking off in public to Jamie Lee Curtis. Nor was I aware of the complex of male privilege and empowerment driving all if not most of my instinctive actions, including my current salacious, um, ‘effort’ let’s call it. Simultaneously I felt zero shameful misgivings or moral doubt. If I felt any fear it was only the fear of being caught. And not from the potential for embarrassment, only from disciplinary repercussions. And even that fear was hypothetical at best. I felt more than safe in the assumption that both True Lies and myself would climax without incident.
At the time, I’d most likely’ve said that that scene (despite it’s tone: clumsy, silly, parodical) was too sexy for raging testosterone to resist. In retrospect, I see the act as a paradoxically sad victory lap. A gestural attempt to reinforce the idea that my adolescent vigor was as powerful as a bag full of money.
What reason did 1994 give me to feel otherwise?