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"Con Air" Turned Me Into a Film Buff

Not long ago I wrote about the "Worst Idea of All Time" podcast, in which the hosts mentioned that the original subject of their show was going to be Con Air until they decided it was too good a movie for their purposes.  I agreed with their assessment then and I agree now.

Con Air is kind of a forgettable movie in most respects.  It's incredibly stupid, but not offensively so.  It's the sort of action movie that I'm referring to when I say things like "dumb fun." You watch it, you groan at how absurd the plot is, and then you just enjoy the action scenes for what they are while occasionally sneering at its increasingly nonsensical plot turns.  But at the end of the day, there's just not enough there to really hang onto.

(Bad critic pull quote: "Con Air?  More like Hot Air!")

But Con Air holds a special place in my heart; it was the catalyst for my since-then obsession with film.

It's ironic that the WIoAT podcast considered watching Con Air once a week for a year because that's virtually what I actually did, only condensed into a span of about six weeks.  Pause for dramatic effect.  Six of the most important weeks of my life.

It was the summer of 1998.  I was neck-deep in teen angst, having wrapped up the eighth grade and realized how grimy a pit of Hell junior high school actually is.  I started my summer vacation not by writing angry poetry, but rather angry essays, as I guess I felt poetry was beneath me.  I was also questioning my religious faith and discovering mountains of strange new feelings, both physical and emotional, in a whirlwind of pubescent confusion.

By that point in my life, a weekly trip to the video store was a pretty well-established habit.  (Video stores are where old people like me used to get movies.  They were these buildings where you'd go and pick movies off a shelf and think long and hard about whether or not you wanted to rent them, and then you'd ask for input from somebody who'd try to sell you shit you didn't want instead. Then you'd borrow the movie for anywhere between two and twenty bucks, depending on how quick you were about returning the tapes.) (Tapes were plastic bricks that contained the movies.  You played them in a VHS player.) (VHS players were also plastic bricks, but bigger.)  But I never really thought much of the weekly ritual except that it was just kind of a mild diversion.

Then, one fateful Friday night while I was feeling hostile to the world, we wound up renting Con Air.  I remember the first time I watched it, it felt like the world shifted beneath my feet.

It was hardly the first R-rated movie I'd ever seen, nor was it even the first action movie.  But there was something so different about it.  Maybe it was just that I was watching a movie with jaded eyes for the first time, having been put off by school.  Maybe it was that the movie was so patently absurd that it invited escapism and I naturally drifted toward it.  Maybe it was the fact that they said "fuck" and the summer of 1998 was coincidentally the same summer I decided that I was going to start swearing - and by extension, the same summer I decided I would allow myself to watch movies with potty language.  Maybe it was the fact that I was seriously questioning my faith in God for the first time and the movie's shallow, quasi-religious themes toward the end when Mykelti Williamson gets shot resonated with me.

To this day, I don't know that I can fully explain why it connected with me.  Who knows?  Maybe that was just a time when I needed to connect and it could have been any movie, and Con Air just happened to be on hand.  But whatever the reason, I was suddenly and hopelessly lost in the film.

I rewatched it immediately after the movie was over.  Then I went to bed thinking about it.  The next morning, I felt like I was on the verge of making some kind of breakthrough - I just had to watch it again.  And again.  And again.

I dubbed a copy of it onto a blank tape so I could keep watching after we returned the original.  This is also when I first started to teach myself how to make copies of videos and edit tapes, which eventually led to an interest in editing film, which segued into filmmaking.  Naturally.  And my bootleg copy was shitty and blurry and kept fading between normal vision and Hell vision thanks to the copy protection on the original, but I didn't mind.  I just kept watching.

Eventually I got a legit copy of the tape and studied it further.  There was something here.  Some kind of magic. Something... cinematic.  I just had to keep watching to figure out what it was.

By the end of July, I learned the name of every single cast member and I could point them out on screen - including Renoly Santiago, who played the illustrious role of "Sally Can't Dance."  But more than that, I learned a quick resume for each and found that I could recite them on command.  (This would later prove a huge boon; think of all the treasures that awaited 14 year-old me as I explored the collected works of John Malkovich, John Cusack, Nicolas Cage, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi, Colm Meaney, Dave Chappelle, and Ving Rhames.)  I memorized all the dialogue, all the camera angles, all the musical stings.  I could piece together the intricate relationships between each character and their place both within the context of the immediate plot and the world at large.

I even learned about the production company, for Christ's sake.  I looked up Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson and thought it was just about the most genius idea ever that the logo for their joint productions changed from the dual lightning bolt to a single lightning bolt after Simpson died.

For those six weeks, I breathed Con Air.  My family probably thought I was a nut.  Or an idiot.

And then, one tragic day, I was watching Con Air for, oh, I don't know, like the sixtieth time or something, and I realized that I wasn't getting the same high I used to.  The drug of my obsession had worn off and I was in need of something new.  So when we went to the video store, I figured I should check the action section for something I hadn't even thought to watch before.

You know what I watched next?

Boom.  That's how you hook a dude.

Once I realized that the video store could have something even better than Con Air just waiting for me on the bottom shelf somewhere, I knew I couldn't stop looking for new movies.  I upped my habits.  No more "movies are okay once in awhile."  No, I was watching five, six, seven, hell, ten movies a week.  I was on a mission.  I couldn't stop until I had seen every movie on the planet.

I'm still on that mission.  I'm still finding new surprises and new treats every week.  And I owe it to one of the dumbest movies ever made.

But now: a sad epilogue to this tale.

Not long ago, I rewatched Con Air for the first time in almost fifteen years.  Sometime in my late teens I decided that I should distance myself from the film, given that the popular consensus was that it was a bad movie.  So it faded in many respects in both my memory and my esteem.

The rewatch was, unfortunately, completely uneventful.  I was neither disappointed in myself for having enjoyed a dumb movie, nor was I pleasantly impressed.  But worse: I had forgotten most of the plot, and I didn't even care anymore.

You know how you had silly in jokes with your friends when you were in high school, but then when you get older you realize that it's not that funny?  And then you meet up with one of your old pals and he's still wearing the same clothes from junior year and maybe even driving the same car, and he sees you and goes, "Toaster strudels, amirite?!" and he waits for you to laugh?  And you just smile politely, but inside you're thinking, "Dude... we stopped laughing at that years ago."

That's me and Con Air.  Sorry, bro.  We had some good times.  Some of my greatest memories, even.  But I think it's better if we just hang onto those and stay on our separate paths.  Good luck with that interview, though.  I'm crossing my fingers for you.