Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Wackness

A case can be made that 1994 and New York was one of those magic time and place combinations that will go down with New York in 1977 or San Francisco in 1967.

It was the golden age of hip-hop. Two months prior, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders dropped on the same day and Nas' Illmatic came out in the spring. That fall, Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die. Illmatic, Ready to Die and Enter the Wu-Tang are pretty much the only three hip-hop albums everyone needs to own (there's s strong case for ATCQ's Low-end Theory as #4). Since then, very few hip-hop singles have reached the charts that don't convey the messages that (i) I have a lot of sex; (ii) I own a lot of expensive things; or (iii) I have a propensity toward violence without a hint of nuance or irony.

It was Rudy Giuliani's first year as mayor and a city weary from years of decay seemed happy to see the squeegee men rounded up. The Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940. The Knicks got to the NBA finals since 1973, only to be preempted by the O.J. chase. Revs and Cost posted up their inscrutable stickers on the back of every Walk/Don't Walk sign. The premier of Friends was supposed to mark the re-emergence of New York as a place twentysomethings would want to live.

CBGBs, Studio 54 and the Son of Sam it wasn't. But still, there was something afoot, even if Biggie was replaced by Puffy and "quality of life" morphed into "let's make New York look like all those other towns people fled to live here." After a strong start, the promise faltered like the Knicks' defense.

I was in Middle School at the time and like anyone else of that age, I was peripherally aware of what was going on all around me. O.J., hip-hop, Giuliani - the names were familiar but the consequences weren't. More than anything else, remember that June was a scorcher - that unique blend of hot, humid and grimy that makes you want to take a shower after you leave your air-conditioned room during halftime to dash to the boiling kitchen for a glass of orange juice. The kind of hot that makes that shower seem futile the second you get out.

In 1994, a few of my friends had older brothers who towered above us, smelled like something earthy and smoky and always had headphones around their necks. They listened to WFMU and complained about how Washington Square Park was becoming a "police state," whatever that meant.

Those guys probably knew a real-life equivalent of Luke Shapiro, the aimless Upper East Side pot dealer in The Wackness. In a way, it's a period piece for 1994 like The Wedding Singer was to the mid-80s: the soundtrack is carefully constructed, period slang is sprinkled in everywhere (remember when you could say "dope" unironically?) and every major current-events item gets a reference. But it isn't just VH1-style premature nostalgia.

Like the vastly underrated Summer of Sam, The Wackness uses the larger context to clarify its characters' motivations. Shapiro (Josh Peck) finds himself fresh out of high school, with all the promise it entails. It's summer, the music is good, business is booming and he has a love interest (Olivia Thirlby as Stephanie). Yet there's something lacking: a point. Luke wants to get laid, save his family and figure out why he's seemingly the only friendless drug dealer in the world.

To that end, he engages a shrink (Ben Kingsley) who represents a dying era of stubbornness, wanton drug use and endearing abrasiveness. Both have an inkling that their dreams are simultaneously doomed and as yet unformed.

If 1994 fails to go down in history as a turning-point year, it will be because the cultural ferment was aimless and the political trends were, in retrospect, inevitable. Just like the plot arc of this smart little film.

Nas said it best way back then:

Yet I'm the mild, money gettin style, rollin foul

The versatile, honey stickin wild, golden child

Dwellin in the Rotten Apple, you get tackled

Or caught by the devil's lasso, shit is a hassle.

A hassle indeed.

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