by Adam Douglas
Always go out with a bang.
When you’re learning the dos and don’ts and ins and outs of creative writing, one piece of advice always seems to rise to the top no matter who is teaching the class:
Always leave them wanting more.
But unless you’re planning on being a one-and-done, there’s gotta be a follow-up act. The band has to get back together and take the stage once more.
But when you’ve crafted the perfect piece, how can you ever hope to reach such heights again?
This pop-culture phenomenon is so common I’ve decided to diagnose, dissect, and discuss how its permeated its way through every form of fiction we’ve got.
Ladies and gents, submitted for the approval of the Unreality Magazine Society, I present “The Jackie Brown Effect.”
In 1994, everyone’s favorite six-syllabled film auteur Quentin Tarantino released Pulp Fiction. Not much new I can say about it. It was nominated for Best Picture, snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, very well may have changed the entire landscape of film as we know it, and got me to buy a certain wallet. You know the one.
It was more than a hit, it was a sensation. Even the most hardened critics of Tarantino cannot deny the impact that Pulp Fiction had. When The Simpsons spend a whole episode parodying you? You, my friend, have made it.
It was the unfollowable act.
So what the hell do you do after that?
In 1997, Tarantino released Jackie Brown, an adaptation of the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard. Suffice to say, it was no where near the happening that was Pulp Fiction. In fact, many Tarantino fans were incredibly turned off by the flick. Quite simply, they wanted another Pulp Fiction, and this more coolly paced, less pop-culture saturated, introspective piece of film was definitely not that.
But if you ask me, that’s a good thing. If Quentin gave us another Pulp Fiction, he would just be making Pulp Fiction for the rest of his life. Remember that incredibly human moment at the very end of Kill Bill Volume 2 where the Bride is just there on the bathroom floor laughing and crying simultaneously? That bizarre moment of pure humanity would have a hard time finding its place in another Pulp Fiction. We owe Jackie Brown more than we realize.
Still though, the argument exists, and there is no clear answer. Did Jackie Brown fail, equal, or exceed its predecessors? Cases could be made for each, and I believe we’ll be left wondering.
But while Jackie Brown is nearly impossible to determine, I’m gonna try my hand at a few other follow-ups to the unfollowable act and see how they fared.
SUPER MARIO WORLD VS. SUPER MARIO WORLD 2: YOSHI’S ISLAND
Super Mario World was a lot of people’s first video game. It was a bright, colorful, cheery adventure through a presumably new corner of the Mushroom Kingdom: Dinosaur Land. It was here that Mario met his now classic companion (pet? Sidekick?) Yoshi, where we learned capes come from flowers, and still get that 16-bit flurry of satisfaction watching so many millions of colored blocks fly from the various switch palaces.
Many have claimed that Super Mario World is a perfect game. It’s easy to see why, and hard to argue why not.
So how could one ever hope to one-up that?
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was a pioneer in the not-at-all-completely-cheap method of releasing a prequel as a sequel. The story goes that on the way to deliver the Baby Mario brothers, a stork was attacked by Bowser’s forces. The baddies got away with Baby Luigi, whilst Baby Mario fell (safely, remarkably) onto an island in the middle of the ocean full of colorful creatures called Yoshis. These diligent dinosaurs decided to be the heroes the Mushroom Kingdom needed, and reunite the future plumbers and deliver them home safely.
Yoshi’s Island was a pretty shocking departure from its predecessor. Aside from the shift in protagonist(s), the game had a radically different design scheme, going more for a 2nd-grader’s refrigerator art come-to-life style that not only worked beautifully, but also made the game wholly unique still to this day.
Gameplay underwent a phase shift as well, making the players make use of the various Yoshi functions from egg-throwing, tongue-lashing, and the now Mario game staple ground-pounding. Items and weapons were not a new concept in the Mario series, but no longer would you find fire-flowers and mushrooms. This time around we had seeds and magnifying glasses, and eggs, always eggs. Everything was new!
But was everything better?
It’s almost unfair to compare video games like this, as titles later in a console’s lifetime are typically superior. Developers have had more experience designing for the system, more time to see how players react, and more time to simply play their own games and learn from there. This is the best case scenario. Unfortunately, though, it’s not always perfect and sometimes we get Resident Evil 6.
But not this time.
There is not one aspect of Yoshi’s Island that I would say did not exceed Super Mario World. The gameplay is tremendously more varied, the design is surprisingly complex for what first appears to be a childish art style, and the final boss battle? Come on.
Hell, there’s even a level where Yoshi drops acid.
All this and so much more contribute to my decision that Yoshi’s Island surpasses Super Mario World. They’re both great games and I love them dearly, but at the end of the day, my Yoshi’s Island cartridge has gathered significantly less dust than Super Mario World. And, yes, I know, Baby Mario’s wails haunt all our dreams, but that just further proves how memorable a game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island truly is.
LONESOME DOVE VS. STREETS OF LAREDO
I hated Westerns.
I grew up in Texas during the height of the Dallas Cowboys where cowboy hats covered every other head and everyone said (and still says ((sigh, including me))) “y’all.”
Despite the smothering of cowboy culture I still couldn’t be bothered to be interested in the genre. I loved space and super heroes. There was no room for horses and dusty plains. I read Animorphs. I watched Pokemon. Sure, Woody the Sheriff was cool, but in that world I’dve begged for a Buzz Lightyear, too.
I was and am a big reader. I’d take home a towering stack of books from my local library and polish them off within the week. I read just about everything. Just about, except Westerns.
My mother begged me for years to read Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove She would extol its virtues to no end, always adding the signature, “I guarantee you you’ll love it.” She read the book when she was pregnant with me, she would also remind me. As if I was cosmically bound to the text.
After so many years of the same old song I relented and picked up the book.
And when I set it down, after I wiped the tears away, I called Mom up and told her she was right.
Lonesome Dove wasn’t just a great book, or even just great literature, it was and still is the best book I’ve ever read. Hands down. Very few come close, but Lonesome Dove still stands surpreme.
If you’re like me and you really have no taste for Westerns, Lonesome Dove is the novel for you. It’s not a Western. It’s a romance, it’s a comedy, it’s an action film, it’s a character drama, it’s none of these, it’s everything.
It’s art. Beautiful, unforgettable, timeless art.
You like George R.R. Martin? Friends, you are going to LOVE Lonesome Dove (and Larry McMurtry in general.) The way that George can tell you an entire story about someone you never even really meet in the novel but you’re still completely captivated? He took more than a few notes from Larry. Especially when it comes to BUTCHERING the characters you love the most.
When I finished Lonesome Dove, I wished I could have forgotten every word I’d read, and taken the journey with the Hat Creek Cattle Company all over again. But since that was about as foolish a wish as bringing a couple of pigs up to Montana, I’d have to settle for the sequel: Streets of Laredo.
And settle is pretty much the perfect word.
Look, Streets of Laredo is a great book, too. But that’s just about it. It’s a great book. I would never call it great literature, and it certainly wouldn’t stand in my pantheon of greatest novels of all time.
We all have that wish at the end of a great story to know what happens after. What happens to these people we fell so deeply in love with. These humans we laughed and cried and cursed and spat with. More often than not, we never find out.
Maybe that’s for the best.
For every Wrath of Khan there’s an Insurrection. For every time the Dark Knight returns, there’s a time he strikes again. Thankfully, that’s not the exact case with Streets of Laredo.
If you loved Lonesome Dove, you will enjoy Streets of Laredo. Seeing where the (surviving) characters are years later is interesting, surprising, and generally welcomed. The story is sharp, the ending satisfying, and the experience worth taking.
But I didn’t shed a single tear walking the Streets of Laredo.
CLERKS VS. MALLRATS
Kevin Smith is why I’m a writer. And I doubt I’m alone.
Say what you will about his current output, his rise to fame is inspiring for any wannabe artist growing up in the middle of nowhere. An early-20s whatever goes from clerk to feature-film director relatively overnight? We’ve all dreamed that dream.
Kevin did what all young artist aspire to do: express. He brought to life the nuance in the tedium of retail life, he attacked the demons that start hatching when one is first labeled an “adult”
, he confronted the true questionable morality of Death Star construction methods. He presented his life in its plainness and its vulgarity in pure, fluorescent, black and white light.
And we listened.
Clerks became the rallying cry for many despondent Gen-Xers. It was Fight Club before Fight Club. It became the indie film Cinderella story and lit the fuse for many would-be writers, including this guy right here.
And then things got wacky.
Following the surprise success of Clerks, Kevin was approached by Universal Studios to write and direct what they wanted to call a “smart Porky’s.” They wanted a new racy and raunchy comedy sensation and who better at the helm than Mr. 37 himself?
I actually remember seeing a poster ad for Mallrats at, of all places, my local mall. I remember it had Jay and Silent Bob in the corner, with the majority of the poster being a (choo choo! All aboard the 90s Nostalgia Train!) Magic Eye puzzle. With a Magic Eye puzzle being a key component of the Mallrats plot (which tells us more about the film’s quality than we realize), the ad made sense.
It made even more sense, because as hard as it was for many people to see the image in a Magic Eye, it was even harder for audiences to see the film. Mallrats was poorly marketed, oddly released, and quickly forgotten. Critics hated it, and even Kevin himself admitted it was a mistake, which he later claimed was a joke, but who knows.
Mallrats was actually my first foray into Kevin’s work. I had read about him in (what’s that? The 90s Nostalgia Train has returned?!) Wizard Magazine and was intrigued. I went to (RIP) Blockbuster to rent Clerks, but since it was checked out, I picked up Mallrats instead.
And then I watched it. And then I watched it again. And then again.
I was enamored. I laughed my balls off and immediately did everything within my power to be as Brodie as possible. I memorized both Cousin Walt stories and tried to pass them off in public as true. I couldn’t get enough of the film, and was such a fan that when I finally did watch Clerks, I didn’t like it. I wanted more Mallrats!
As my tastes matured, I came to realize the genius of Clerks and what exactly it meant. But still, I liked Mallrats more. I recognized its humor was cheaper, its pop-culture admiration much more forced, and, yes, the topless scene is entirely unnecessary.
But still, the heart wants what the heart wants.
I had a very difficult time reconciling myself with the fact that critics simply hated something that I loved so much. Could it really be that bad? Was it really that much of a departure? Every sign seemed to point to yes.
But as Brodie would say, “Sign schmign.”
While obviously a very personal film, Clerks is also very much a Valentine to many filmmakers that inspired Kevin. Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” is typically the film Kevin points to when talking about his inpsiration for Clerks. In the credits for Clerks he identifies Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch for leading the way. You honestly want to tell me Clerks doesn’t take cues from “Do The Right Thing?” The parallels between these directors and others are easily apparent in Clerks, and the work only benefits from it.
And the same is true for Mallrats.
The studio wanted “smart Porky’s” and while they may not have gotten the box office they wanted, the product was exactly that. Kevin has expressed in podcasts/interviews/etc his fandom for the wild and naughty cinematic comedies that permeated the 70s and 80s: “The Blues Brothers”, “Animal House”, “Revenge of the Nerds”, just to name a few. And where Clerks is a Valentine to the esoteric examinations of everyday life you found in the films of Hal Hartley or early Martin Scorsese, Mallrats pays homage to the titillating and ribald comic schlock flicks that came before it. And it does so perfectly.
Look, gun to my head, one film gets put in the national archives, it’s gonna be Clerks. But when viewed through the prism of what the artist was trying to achieve, Kevin succeeded. Sure, it won’t maybe change your life like Clerks might, but it’ll take you on an adventure that a lonely day in a tiny convenience store never could.
That’s it for this volume of the Jackie Brown Effect. Agree? Disagree? Let’s hear it.
Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a playwright who was born in Texas, grew up in Arkansas, was raised by a Jewish man and a Cuban woman, and, somehow, he doesn’t have an accent. He is co-host of two podcasts, The JimmyJew Podcast Extravaganza and Schmame Over, which can be found at http://jimmyjew.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameover.libsyn.com/ respectively, as well as on iTunes. He is a contributing writer to www.GamersSchmamers.com. He currently lives in Brooklyn where he drinks far too much coffee