Let’s Get Physical, Media

For my 18th birthday I got a gift that would change my life: a DVD player. That may sound dramatic, but it’s true. Prior to that, I didn’t really buy a lot of movies. Our family had a lot of movies on VHS but they were usually things we recorded off of TV. We would rent movies more often than we would buy them. When DVDs came out though, everything changed. The picture quality was better, there were special features like commentary tracks and alternate endings, and even the packaging was cool and exciting. Suddenly you weren’t just buying the movie, you were owning a collectible as well. 

The day after my birthday I took a trip to Borders Books & Music and splurged on a stack of DVDs for my new collection. Here are some of my favorites from those early days and why they were so cool.

X-MEN – The X-Men DVD had some “Easter eggs” on it in the form of hidden special features. In the Theatrical Trailers section, if you pressed the left arrow on your remote you could highlight a rose that looked like it was just part of the menu background. If you clicked on the rose it would play an “outtake” of Spider-Man showing up on the X-Men set. Even though it was just a gag, in the days when comic book crossovers were just a fanboy fantasy this seemed cool as hell – and the fact that it was “hidden” on the DVD made it even more fun. There was also a secret feature in the Art Gallery which revealed unused designs for Blob and Beast, two characters who did not end up in the film. Add to this some sleek packaging and innovative menus and this was one of my first examples of how cool DVDs could be.

FIGHT CLUB – The packaging on Fight Club was some of the best and most unique I’ve seen to this day. It looked like something straight out of Project Mayhem, with snippets of airline safety pamphlets in the background behind the discs. It was a two disc set, with the movie on one disc and a second disc chock-full of special features. It boasted commentary tracks with David Fincher, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. As if that wasn’t enough content, there was a booklet included with tons of info on the making of the film and cast interviews. When you first pop the DVD in there’s a warning from Tyler Durden himself in the style of the FBI Warning, and there’s a hidden area in the advertising section of disc two that lets you browse a fake product catalog.  There was a rumor that there was an alternate ending hidden somewhere on one of the discs were Tyler lives and the narrator dies, but David Fincher denied ever having filmed such a scene. Still, this set was so wild that it sure seemed like something that could have been real. 

DIE HARD BOX SET – This set was an absolute game-changer for me. Two of the features on this box set were unprecedented. One was an eye-opening feature about the difference between widescreen and fullscreen. In that era most people thought the “black bars” on the top and bottom of a widescreen movie were bad. They assumed that having the picture fill the whole screen was the optimal viewing experience – and in a day and age when TVs were still 4:3, that meant chopping off the sides of the image and/or doing a “pan and scan” to show the viewer crucial parts of the scene. This special feature showed a scene from the first Die Hard in widescreen and then in fullscreen for comparison, and it made me an instant convert to the wonderful world of widescreen. There was also a feature called “The Cutting Room” where you could actually re-edit some scenes from the movie and use alternate takes of dialogue. As a film student at the time this was right up my alley, and I’ve never seen a feature like this on another DVD before or since. Yippee ki-yay, indeed!

UNBREAKABLE – This was one of my favorite movies at the time when it came out, and I saw it no less than five times while it was still in the theater. M. Night Shyamalan’s slow-paced deconstruction of the superhero genre was definitely not for everyone, but I absolutely loved it. The DVD release had really cool packaging, a ton of deleted scenes, a featurette about comic books hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, and even included some artwork by one of my all-time favorite comic artists, the legendary Alex Ross. It honestly felt like this DVD was made just for me.

SE7EN –Alternate endings and deleted scenes were big in this era, and most of the time you could see why they were left on the cutting room floor. In this case though we get one alternate ending that is pretty similar to the movie’s actual ending but with some subtle differences, AND storyboards for another, unfilmed ending where it’s Somerset who kills John Doe instead of Mills. The packaging on this DVD was very specific to the film as it looked like one of John Doe’s notebooks.

THE SIXTH SENSE – The packaging on this one matched the tone and atmosphere of the film itself, very ethereal and surreal looking. The special features included a “Rules and Clues” featurette that showcased the hints leading up to that famous twist ending, a bunch of deleted scenes, and even a “Between Two Worlds” documentary about the possibilities of the afterlife. This was a great example of a DVD that didn’t just give you the movie, it immersed you in its world.

SIN CITY – This set offered a truly unique viewing experience because you could watch the film multiple ways. You had the theatrical version of course, but you also had the option of watching any/all of the four storylines broken out as their own separate mini-movies. There was also the option to watch a sped-up “green screen” version of the film, which really showcased how much of the background of each scene was added digitally. Even the menus were exciting, with art from the comics morphing into scenes from the movie as an instrumental version of “Cells” by The Servant blared in the background.  As if all of this wasn’t enough, the DVD came packaged with a copy of “The Hard Goodbye” graphic novel. Take my money already!

WATCHMEN ULTIMATE CUT – The “ultimate cut” of Watchmen took Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of the movie and interwove the animated Black Freighter sequences to create an experience as close to the graphic novel as possible – and it clocked in at an insane 3 hours and 35 minutes. They obviously figured anyone who wanted to own this version was a hardcore fan, and they were not wrong. The packaging was gorgeous, and it came with not one, not two, not three, not four, but a total of FIVE discs: the movie, special features, a digital copy (back when those came on a disc instead of as a code), and two discs for a motion-comic version of the graphic novel. This was one of those sets that felt like it was rewarding you for being a fan by giving you everything they could think of.

TV SERIES SEASON SETS – It is impossible to overstate how the advent of season sets changed television. For the first time ever you could own every episode of your favorite show to watch any time you wanted. Prior to this that was not possible, unless of course you were like me and obsessively recorded every episode of your favorite shows on VHS as they aired…!  The release of legit box sets meant I could retire my VHS copies of “Lois & Clark” that I had taped off of TNT. But it also meant I could catch up on shows that I had not watched from the beginning. I started watching the show “Alias” in its third season. The show was continuity-heavy and had a lot of backstory which made it hard to jump into. However, my local Blockbuster Video had the previous seasons available to rent on DVD. So, I caught up on season one and two as season three was airing, which was an interesting and unique experience for sure.

The popularity of season sets really took off around the same time that another mythology-heavy show was becoming a cultural phenomenon… “LOST.” If you hadn’t watched it from the beginning, DVDs now gave you a way to start with episode one and get caught up. If the previous episodes had not been so easily accessible, “LOST” would not have been such a huge success, because new audiences would have had no entry point into the series. Now, in the age of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, it’s a given that you’ll start watching a show from the first episode, but prior to DVDs that wasn’t the way we watched TV. This shift in how we experience shows has changed television from being very episodic and stand-alone in terms of storytelling to having season-long storylines and plot points that play out over the course of many episodes. 

WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE THEN?

As physical media releases have progressed from DVD to Blu-ray, they have moved forward by leaps and bounds in terms of picture and audio quality, but they have lost something as well. Most Blu-ray releases have fewer special features than their DVD predecessors. The days of commentary tracks seem to be all but over. And, in general, the packaging tends to be pretty lackluster. 

Take a look at the differences in the packaging between the DVD releases of Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies and their later Blu-ray releases. The DVD releases (above) are the theatrical movie posters. You’ve got Pierce Brosnan, you’ve got the Bond girls from each film, everything looks exciting and dynamic and is a pretty good representation of the movie, right? 

The Blu-ray cover for Goldeneye looks like something you’d find in the back room of a video store if you know what I mean. Tomorrow Never Dies is even worse… it looks like they took a screenshot from the movie, slapped it on a white background in Photoshop and just typed in the title. What a downgrade!

Let’s use Fight Club as an additional example. We saw earlier in this article how awesome the initial DVD release was. Now let’s look at its Blu-ray successor. The packaging is default, there’s no booklet included, and it just feels like something you’d come across in Wal-Mart’s $5 bin. (And you just might.) I am Jack’s sense of utter disappointment. 

Like I said though, Blu-ray is noticeably better than DVD when it comes to how good the picture looks and how clear the audio sounds. I just wish they would take the time and effort to make owning the movie feel like more of an “event” like their DVD predecessors did.

DO THE DAYS OF DIGITAL MEAN THE DEATH OF DVD?

These days most people have gone entirely digital when it comes to their movie purchases, opting to store them in the cloud rather than on their shelf. And, I get the appeal of that. Being able to have your whole collection accessible anywhere, at any time, on your TV, computer, tablet, or phone is pretty convenient. But, your ability to stream that movie in high quality is only as good as your internet connection. And the vast majority of digital releases are the film only, which means no commentary tracks, deleted scenes, or any of the other extra goodies that you would get included on a disc.

While going full digital with your collection certainly saves on storage space, there’s something special about having a physical item to hold in your hand and proudly display on your shelf. It’s not just something you have access to, it’s part of a collection. For me, at least, I don’t think that will ever change.

Mall Memories

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When I was a kid one of my favorite things to do with my mom was go to the mall. Or, I guess I should say, malls, plural. Back in the 1980s, the mall that is now Greece Ridge Mall was actually two separate malls: Greece Towne Mall and Long Ridge Mall, located essentially right next door to one another.  Even back then, I remember my mom saying, “They should join these malls together!” It always seemed like one of those things that just made too much sense to ever really happen.

We would usually hit up both malls. Greece Towne was what you would probably consider the nicer, more “high class” of the two malls. We would usually go here for a hair cut, or back-to-school clothes, or new shoes. This was where we’d go for the serious shopping.

Long Ridge was the “artsy” mall. It was very avant-garde and had lots of interesting things to look at. There was this big, towering contraption that would constantly feed little pool balls through a looping series of pipes, lifts, and drops (I have more recently come to learn this was called “Electric Ball Circus”). There were these metal fountains that made echoey chiming sounds as the water flowed through them. There was a giant, glowing globe that changed color and had water running over it, surrounded by a pool of water that you could throw coins into. Because of all this crazy unique stuff, this was the mall I loved going to the most. If we were at Greece Towne I’d always ask if we could go look at those displays and my mom would have to remind me that those were at the other mall.

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Of course, like any kid, I always wanted to get some kind of food or treat too. There was no “food court” in either mall, at least not the way we think of them today, but there were plenty of places to grab a bite. My favorite things to get were an Orange Julius, or a Hot Sam pretzel on a stick covered with nacho cheese. But the best treat of all was a cookie from the Cookie Co. And the best place to eat it was in the Contemplation Area, a trippy little sunken alcove with TV screens and light displays. There was also a play area with big cushy foam blocks for kids to climb on… Mom usually preferred that we avoid that area. You could almost feel the germs of every snot-nosed kid that had just sneezed or slobbered all over the place seeping into the foam itself.

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Even with all these unique elements already in play, as if to spontaneously try to one-up themselves there would occasionally be something extra random going on at the mall, like the time there was a gigantic sandcastle being built inside. As a kid it seemed like the mall literally had nothing better to do than try to amaze everyone. And in many ways, maybe it didn’t. Also, every once in a while there would be a card and collectibles show going on, which, in the days before I knew what a comic book convention was, was the biggest gathering of cards and comics I’d ever seen right there in the corridors between the stores.  At certain times of the year (Easter and Christmas I think), there would be a little train that you could ride that ran around the big globe. The fact that this stuff was not always there just added to the mystical nature of the mall. It’s like you really never knew for sure what was going to be there.

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At Christmas time, things became even more magical. Displays of animatronic elves and reindeer acting out comical seasonal scenes were set up throughout the mall. It seemed like every few feet there was another display, taking over the areas where you’d usually find a fountain. An elf with ribbon sprawled all around him as he tries to wrap a present, or with his hammer going up and down as he puts the finishing touches on a special toy, were like slices of North Pole life that you were being transported to. Was Santa at this mall, or was he at the other one? Was he somehow at both? There was so much magic in the air already that anything seemed possible, so you hardly questioned it.

My parents and my aunt and uncle would take me and my cousin Nick to Greece Towne as it was getting ready to close and the shoppers were dispersing for the night, so we could run around and burn off some energy. We couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. But I still remember looking up at the big Gold Circle sign (we called it “Gold Circoco”). Being at the mall as everything was closing and being told we could run around as much as we wanted was like an adventure. We didn’t know (or care) that our parents just wanted to tire us out so we’d go to sleep. We didn’t even care that we weren’t at the mall with the foam blocks. It was a big, wide open area, it was late, and we had permission to go wild. It was more exciting than a playground.

That too-good-to-be-true idea of joining the malls together finally came true in 1994, and it came with a food court, a two-story carousel, and a big walkway of new stores that connected the two malls into one mega mall. It was awesome… but it came with a price. The unique flair that had given Long Ridge its character was tossed out, literally. Reports say that the metal fountains, foam blocks, crazy television screens and everything else were thrown into dumpsters and discarded. The word is that a private collector managed to recover the Electric Ball Circus, though… Maybe we’ll see it again someday.

The photos included with this post are ones I have found around the internet. If you are the owner of any of the photos please reach out and let me know, I would be happy to credit you as such. If you have memories of the old malls, please leave them in the comments, I would love to hear them!

Part of This Complete Breakfast

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One of the first home movies we have of me as a kid is me doing my own version of the Cookie Crisp commercial.  I’m sitting at the kitchen table, holding a box of the cereal, exclaiming the slogan, “If you like cookies, you’ll love Cookie Crisp!”  (I watched a lot of TV.)

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, every cereal commercial made sure to mention that it was “part of this complete breakfast.”  It then showed a quick shot of the cereal accompanied by toast, bacon, eggs, a glass of orange juice, a bowl of oatmeal, and about eight other things.  I remember wondering why my parents were under the impression that it was okay for me to be eating just cereal and why they didn’t know I was supposed to be having a lot of other things with it.  Were they just being lazy?

Cereal was not just something to eat for kids in that era.  It was a way of life.  Each cereal had its own personality, brought to life by the colorful characters that appeared on the box and in the commercials.

LUCKY CHARMS – Lucky the Leprechaun.  The kids were always after his Lucky Charms, trying to find them like treasure.  The thrill-of-the-chase theme of the commercials as the kids try to acquire the cereal was appropriate because it mirrored the quest of trying to get your parents to buy it for you.  Even in the days before nutrition information being printed on the box, getting your mom to buy you a box of marshmallows for breakfast was a hard sell.

COOKIE CRISP – Similarly, it made sense that the mascot for this cereal was a crook who was trying to steal it.  That’s basically what you had to do if you wanted to get your hands on this one.  Eating it felt like you were really getting away with something.

CINNAMON TOAST CRUNCH – It confused me when the Cinnamon Toast Crunch bakers went from being a trio to just being one baker, Wendell.  What happened to the other two guys?  Did they split up due to creative differences?  When the commercials with just Wendell came out I kept wondering if there would eventually be commercials with just each of the other two, like maybe they were spotlighting each one individually as a series, but that never came.  I did have a wallet with a hologram picture of all three of them.  Nowadays even Wendell does not appear on the box – it’s just a sentient piece of the cereal itself.  Apparently CTC became self-aware and no longer needed its creators. Chilling.

TRIX – I never really cared for the ad campaign of a bunch of rude kids who refused to let the Rabbit have any Trix. You have a whole box, it’s not going to hurt to let him have some.  It was just too mean-spirited.  The ads all ended with the rabbit looking depressed as the kids taunted him.  “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!” Eventually they did have a promotion where you could call in and vote on whether or not you thought the rabbit should get some Trix.  I got my parents’ permission and voted for him to have some.  I guess a lot of other kids in America felt the same as me, because at the end of the promotion they did have a commercial where he finally got to try them.  But, things quickly went back to the status quo right after that and he was not able to have them in subsequent commercials.  Also, interestingly, this cereal seems to change every so often between being colored balls vs. being actually shaped like fruit. It’s like they can’t make up their mind on what this cereal even is.

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COCOA PUFFS – Sonny the Cuckoo Bird is like the opposite of the Trix Rabbit.  The Rabbit can never have Trix, and Sonny is addicted to Cocoa Puffs like they are crack.  He has a bite and loses his mind.  I also respect the fact that they recently decided that the fact that it turns the milk chocolatey should be a selling point and started marketing this right on the box.

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Imprisoned by the Sogmaster

CAP’N CRUNCH – The Cap’n was different from a lot of the other mascots in that he was benevolently giving his cereal to kids rather than them having to try to steal it from him or anything like that.  Some of his ads even had storylines that increased your investment in the product.  Who could forget when the Sogmaster locked up Cap’n Crunch in a commercial that ended with “To Be Continued,” launching the “Free The Cap’n” promotion on specially marked boxes?  A cereal commercial that ended with a cliffhanger?  I couldn’t wait for the next ad to come out to see how the Cap’n would get out of this one.

FROSTED FLAKES – Tony the Tiger always proclaimed how grrrrrreat this cereal was, usually in the context of it giving you energy for sports.  I don’t know how many athletes really fueled up with Frosted Flakes ever.  It would give you a sugar rush of energy for about 10 minutes and then make you feel sick to your stomach.  It was also one of those cereals that tended to cut up the roof of your mouth.  I don’t know if you’d want to head right out to the basketball court after eating it.  Most likely you’d be laying down with a headache and a bleeding mouth.

FRUITY PEBBLES AND COCOA PEBBLES – These cereals are the only ones I can think of that had pre-existing characters as their mascots.  How did the Flintstones get roped into being Post cereal spokesmen?  I don’t know.  It’s also interesting to think that there may be some kids today who only know the Flintstones from cereal boxes.

FROOT LOOPS – Toucan Sam was a hip, laid-back bird who encouraged you to follow his nose to some Froot Loops.  Usually he was offering that advice to someone who was down on their luck and he was suggesting they have Froot Loops as a kind of a pick-me-up.  I never cared for this cereal all that much but I respected that Toucan was a positive role model, trying to help out his fellow man by hooking them up with some of his cereal instead of keeping it from them like some of these other characters.

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GOLDEN CRISP – Sugar Bear was like the Fonz of cereal mascots.  He was cool but also seemed to get into a lot of fights.  He’d say “How about a vitamin-packed punch?” and then punch someone in the face.  In retrospect it seems weird that those ads were so violent, but Sugar Bear was just so awesome you didn’t really care at the time, you just wanted to be like him.  (This cereal was easily confusable with the very similar Honey Smacks, which featured a frog mascot called Dig’em.  It seems like a missed opportunity that Dig’em never smacked someone when they asked for his cereal.)

MONSTER CEREALS – Frankenberry, Boo Berry, and of course Count Chocula combined every kid’s natural love of monsters with their equally natural love of sugary cereals with marshmallows.  Today these cereals actually go out of production for most of the year and only become available again for a couple of months around Halloween, which only increases their mythological status.

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THE PRIZES INSIDE “SPECIALLY MARKED BOXES”

Every box of cereal used to come with a prize right inside the actual box.  These days most cereals have you send away for stuff in the mail, or enter a promo code online to see if you got something.  Back in the day you’d reach your grubby little hand inside, dig down deep into the cereal, and pull out a toy that was inevitably one of a series of toys that you’d be compelled to try to collect all of.  (Which, of course, meant buying more boxes.)  Sometimes through, to avoid getting a run of duplicates, you could send in some proofs-of-purchase and a few bucks for shipping and handling and have them send you the full set.  I was all about the Disney Afternoon, so my mom did this for me for the Duck Tales, Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck toys that were in various Kellogg’s cereals in the 90s.

Some of my favorite “lost gems” of cereal history:

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TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLE CEREAL –  When I look at a picture of the box I can still remember exactly how this stuff tasted.  It was really good.  Even though it’s been discontinued for more than two decades I’d honestly still call it one of my favorite cereals.  It was like Chex, but with more sugar, and marshmallows.  Plus, each box came with a mini-comic book inside, and there were trading cards to cut out on the back of the box.  I was obsessed with the Turtles, so anything having to with them was already a win in my book, but the fact that the cereal tasted awesome catapulted this one into legendary territory.  A few years ago I even called the Ralston company to ask them to bring this back into production.  They informed me they lost the license for Ninja Turtles a long time ago.  I suggested they could bring the cereal back and call it something else.  The person I spoke to did not seem to think that this was likely to happen but thanked me for my call.

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TEDDY GRAHAMS BREAKFAST BEARS – This cereal was amazing and prompted one of my favorite “comfort snacks” to this day, which is to pour milk on a bowl of Teddy Grahams and eat them like cereal.  The difference is that actual Teddy Grahams go soggy in milk in a matter of seconds.  You need to pour a very small bowl, eat it quickly, and then refill, or else you’ll be eating mush.  The cereal would go soggy too but it managed to resist the milk for a much longer period of time.  Actually the best consistency you could get with the cereal was to wait for it to go slightly soggy.  There was a brief window of time where it was just soggy enough to be a little bit soft but not too mushy.  With the cereal that window was a couple of minutes.  With actual Teddy Grahams it’s about five seconds.  Also the cereal box had a mask you could cut out of a bear’s face that was somewhat creepy.

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NINTENDO CEREAL SYSTEM – This cereal came out right when Nintendo was starting to become popular.  It was the first cereal I’m aware of that was actually two cereals.  Each box actually had two bags of cereal inside, a Mario cereal and a Legend of Zelda cereal.  The gimmick of two cereals in one, coupled with the fact that it had to do with video games, made this one even cooler in concept than the actual product probably tasted.  I don’t remember the taste as much as I remember how exciting it was to have it.

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GHOSTBUSTER CEREAL – I don’t remember this cereal very well other than we have a home video of my cousin getting a box of it for Christmas one year, and my aunt asking him if it’s one of his favorite things.

These are all of my cereal thoughts for now, but I have a feeling I’ll have more to say on this topic in the future.  What are some of your favorite cereals, past or present? Let me know in the comments!