Wednesday, October 10, 2018

I Dream of Dream Machine

"Hello, Unident. This is Barbara speaking."

"Hi, my name is Matt Burns and I'm due for a cleaning so I wanted to, you know, schedule an appointment."

"Okay, let me just check here..."

The secretary went silent for a moment and this was when I heard the familiar sound. It was a drooping, whistle-type noise, kind of like something you would hear at a circus. It sounded so familiar to me. Why, it was the sound of a machine...coming from the Dream Machine video arcade located in The Walpole Mall...formerly known as The Mall at Walpole.

Wait, dentist? In a mall?

That's right. The office to my dentist is located in the middle of the Walpole Mall, just about two doors down from the Dream Machine video arcade. Yes, it's hard to take a dentist seriously when you call up their office and hear video games playing in the background but you can't exactly be Mr. Picky when you don't have the greatest dental insurance in the world.

"We had a cancellation today. Can you do a 3:15?"

At first, I was hesitant to take the appointment. I dread the dentist and I thought I could postpone the cleaning for another week or two. However, thinking about it more, I thought it would be better to get the appointment over with. This would eliminate much of my dread.

"I'll take it," I told Barbara at Unident.

Smash cut to a couple hours later and I found myself sitting in the waiting room of Unident. This was when I heard the whistle drooping sound again. Oh, that sound! It pressed some major buttons in my brain. In my hippocampus, to be specific. Where memories are stored. Okay, what I'm trying to say is that it was a nostalgic sound. It made me remember how much fun I used to have at the Dream Machine video arcade when I was a kid.


After my appointment, I felt a little giddy and decided I HAD to -- just HAD to -- do a quick walk-by. Yes, I had to see the Dream Machine after so many years. So I did and...




Well, it wasn't quite how I remembered it. The arcade was completely empty and what-I-could-see-of the games didn't look very familiar. It was ghostly. Even the neon sign that said "Dream Machine" or technically "DREAMmachine" had seen better days. The "machine" part of the sign was burnt out completely while only DREA was lit in DREAM.


It was like the Dream was struggling to stay alive...


I stood outside the arcade for a moment, mostly looking at my phone because I didn't want to look like some weirdo staring into the place. But I stood there and absorbed the sounds with my ears. The noise was pandemonium but a fun-sounding pandemonium. To me, it sounded like the early-to-mid-1990s. Boy, the Dream Machine was in such a different state then. It was THE place to be.

At that time, the arcade was in a different location, at the northwest end of the mall, right across the way from a Papa Gino's pizza parlor and a store or two down from Auntie Anne's pretzel stand. I can remember walking my way to Dream Machine, starting from the Bradlees located at the most southern end of the mall. Record Town would be on your right. So wasn't a Gap, along with a Kay Bee Toys. Then you would eventually round a corner with a Jo-Anne Fabrics and start heading west in the direction of Walden Books. This was when you heard the first sounds of the Dream Machine tickle your eardrums and they would grow...AND GROW...until you had finally arrived at the arcade.


Previous to the early-90s, I had been deprived of a proper video arcade in my life. There were a couple games at the local bowling alleys, either PJ's Bowling Lanes in Walpole or Norwood Bowling Lanes in Norwood. There would also be an occasional arcade game at a local restaurant, like The Rebel Restaurant or Papa Gino's. But there wasn't an actual video arcade anywhere in the vicinity of where I lived. In fact, the only arcade I ever remember going to was on vacation, way down on Cape Cod. There was a mini-golf place called the "Sea View Playland" and in this playland there was an awesome arcade called "The Barn of Fun". 


Barn of Fun, however, was miles away from Walpole, almost a two hour car ride. Other than that barn, there was no arcade anywhere close, at least none that I was aware of. So when the Dream Machine opened circa 1993 inside the Walpole Mall, it was A BIG DEAL.


And it was a very popular place.


Part of what made Dream Machine such a popular video arcade was that it had one of the most popular games in existence at the time. This was a very controversial game that ended up getting demonized by many politicians. It was blamed for such tragedies as Columbine and, even later, the Sandy Hook school shooting. The game is also the reason why the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) now exists and why games have ratings on them...


Of course, the game I'm referring to is Mortal Kombat (Midway 1992).


To be accurate, my own personal introduction to Mortal Kombat wasn't at the Dream Machine. I first witnessed the game played at the aforementioned "Rebel", which was a very townie-type-of restaurant named after Walpole's high school football team The Rebels. I was at The Rebel for either a birthday party or maybe a CYO basketball banquet but this was when I first saw the game and I was absolutely, completely blown away by it. This was way before it had become a pop culture sensation. I had never heard anything about it before but, boy, I remember thinking to myself that this game was revolutionary!

What struck me the most about Mortal Kombat was how "real" the graphix (i.e. graphics) were, particularly the characters who looked like real, "mortal" people. I thought to myself, "Wow, they've finally done it. They've created characters that look like real-life human beings, not cartoony versions of human beings." And there were "real" sounding voices, too, saying full sentences like "Come here!" and "Get over here!" and "Excellent" and "Finish him!" There was also "real-looking" blood. And intense gore. I thought to myself, "This game will change everything." It was exactly what I wanted in a video game: something that looked more like real life.


I ran to the Rebel's bar and handed the bartender five dollars that my parents gave me for spending money. In return, the bartender gave me a whole shit-load of Rebel quarters. Now, Rebel quarters were very unique because they were painted red, though much of the paint had worn away from being fed in and out of video game slots. Red was part of the Rebel football team's uniform at the time, hence the red quarters. Even to this day, you sometimes stumble upon a red quarter that has somehow survived from the days of The Rebel, even though the restaurant has been closed for at least a couple decades.



From the bar, I took the red quarters and proceeded to play game after game after game of Mortal Kombat. There may have been an exception here and there, but I almost always played as the character Scorpion. I was drawn to his yellow, ninja-like apparel, which was so aesthetically attractive to the eye. Sub-Zero had a great look, too (same ninja apparel except blue in color) but his moves were a bit more difficult to pull off. Yes, I must confess I was one of those weasels who used Scorpion's rope spear over and over again. It was a simple down-right movement with the joystick quickly followed by a tap of the top punch button. Scorpion would say either "Get over here!" or "Come here!", drag his opponent over to him by the jugular, then I would do a simple uppercut, which took away a decent amount of energy. This was an incredibly cheap "combo" (i.e. combination of moves) because it was very difficult for your opponent to escape the spear and you could basically do it over and over again until all your opponent's energy drained and you won the round.



Indeed, Scorpion was my go-to guy, I always won with him, I basically thought I was a Mortal Kombat master, so when Dream Machine opened in the Walpole Mall circa 1993 and I heard there was a Mortal Kombat there, I thought I would waltz into that arcade, become the king of the Mortal Kombat machine and everybody would be in awe at how good I was at the game. Heck, maybe I would even become a bit of a local celebrity. Perhaps a band like The Who would get wind of my skills and they'd write a song about me called "Mortal Kombat Wizard".

This didn't quite happen.


I was quickly humbled. Teenagers from all surrounding towns -- probably from as far north as Boston, as far south as Brockton, and maybe even as far west as Worcester -- came to Dream Machine, and they all came to the Machine with the intention of playing one game and one game only: Mortal Kombat. 


There was almost always a line you had to wait in if you desired to play the game. Proper arcade etiquette also called for you to place your quarters on the little lip that was just below the game screen but just above the joystick panel. This let the current players know that somebody was on deck waiting to play. The winner of the match would keep playing but the loser had to allow the next person in line to play and he or she would return to the back of the line. Oh, who are we kidding? It was always a 'he'. I don't ever remember a girl playing Mortal Kombat. If a girl ever played Mortal Kombat, I'd remember because I would have crushed on her hard.


The first time I played Mortal Kombat at Dream Machine, I thought I was pretty fricken cool stepping up to the joystick. I predictably chose Scorpion as my character and planned on doing a shit-load of "get over here's" followed by the cowardly uppercut. But there was one little problem. The teenaged dude I played, with the greezy pepperoni zits and peach-fuzz mustache, was good. Like, really good. And he absolutely destroyed my ass. He played as the character Raiden and was shooting lightning bolts at me and doing these flying Superman-type-moves where Raiden shouts out a gibberish war cry that sounded something like "Your mother's from LA!"



That one ass-kicking was not an exception, either. In fact, I rarely won any matches. The only time I did win was when a little pipsqueak kid came in with his grandmother, played me in a match and had no clue what he was doing. But there were some nasty players and I always wondered how they knew all the moves, especially the finishing "fatality" moves that required complex joystick/button combos that had to be executed quickly and at a certain distance from your opponent. Scorpion's finishing move involved him removing his mask, which revealed he was a skeleton that breathed fire, and he burnt his opponent to a toasty crisp. Sub-Zero pulled his opponent's head off and held it up high with the spine dangling beneath it. The character Kano punched through his opponent's chest and pulled the heart out, Temple of Doom style. There were many, many more nasty fatalities...


Mortal Kombat was undoubtedly an incredibly violent video game for its time and there was much debate over whether it had gone too far. When Nintendo released a version of the game in 1993, it took out all the blood and many of the more violent finishing moves as well. Sega kept the blood in but, due to the limits of the system's 16-bit computer chip, the graphics were less real-looking so it didn't seem as intense as the arcade game. Politicians, parent groups and religious figures were convinced the "real-looking" violence in Mortal Kombat was too intense for young eyes, which is laughable today, since all you have to do to see "real-looking" violence is turn on the evening news where there is raw cell phone video from mass shootings on almost a weekly basis. Did games like Mortal Kombat help create this violent culture we have today where there is hardly any regard for human life? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows. I guess an argument could be made either way. But I tend to think our violence is more rooted in an epidemic of narcissism than in violence found within video games or other entertainment for that matter, like movies or TV. If Hollywood deserves any blame, I would focus more on its narcissistic movies -- where there is a central character known as "the one" (e.g. Luke Skywalker or Neo or John Connor or friggin' Pumbaa etc.), while the rest of the world is merely comprised of "supporting characters" that revolve around them. I feel this world where there is "the one" and then "the rest" creates a culture of narcissists where nobody cares about each other. But I digress. Sorry.


As for me, I don't think Mortal Kombat made me a violent person, at least not yet (there's still time). And, trust me, I made SEVERAL frequent visits to the Dream Machine to play the MK cabinet (that's gamer-speak for playing Mortal Kombat), even though I wasn't very good at it. Heck, much of the time, I mostly enjoyed watching the other players; you know, the wizards who never lost so they played for what-seemed-like hours off of only one quarter. Talk about getting your money's worth. In hindsight, they really needed to get a friggin' life. If only they spent as much time applying Clearasil to their faces as they did looking up secret Mortal Kombat combos in gamer mags like GamePro...


Speaking of GamePro magazine, I was a subscriber for many years during the early-to-mid-90s. I memorized a few finishing moves that the magazine was kind enough to divulge, but I by no means possessed the ambition to memorize as many moves as the wizards at Dream Machine did. These wizards eventually kind of took over the Mortal Kombat cabinet and, soon, it wasn't even worth attempting to play the game. The wizards were just too good. It was a waste of quarters and it wasn't even fun.

It was around this time that I moved on to the other games the Dream Machine had to offer. And there were PLENTY of them. Good ones, too.


One of my favorites was a shoot 'em up game called Terminator 2: the Arcade Game (Midway 1991). This
game, of course, was based on the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which was very popular at the time. An Uzi-like gun was mounted on the T2 cabinet, you held this gun, started shooting the hell out of everything and it would vibrate in your hands as you shot. As you moved the gun, crosshairs moved along the side-scrolling screen and this helped you aim. You apparently played as Arnold Schwarzenegger's character and Arnie would say encouraging things like "Awesome" and "Excellent" as you shot everything up.

Unfortunately, I never made it past the first level of this game, which took place in dark, post-nuclear-apocalyptic Los Angeles. You had to shoot T-800 robots and other machines but you also had to be careful to avoid friendly human freedom fighters. If you shot these fighters by accident, they would grunt and scream, "No!" I would accidentally shoot at least a couple human casualties while getting my ass kicked in by the machines and I'd be "Terminated" after only a few minutes into the game. If you wanted to continue, you could feed another quarter into the slot but I don't remember ever coughing up more than maybe two or three quarters for this particular game. It was all my limited paperboy budget would allow.




T2: The Arcade Game was so fun to play and I was psyched when I learned it was coming out for both the Sega Genesis and the Sega Game Gear. I didn't have a Sega Genesis at the time (I was more of a Nintendo guy) but I DID happen to have a Sega Game Gear so T2: The Arcade Game was number-one on my birthday wish list for January 1994. My parents were kind enough to gift me with the game and I was thrilled. What I didn't anticipate, however, was that the graphics were significantly worse than what I was used to with the arcade version. Plus, you didn't shoot with a real gun that vibrated in your hands and made you feel like a badass. All you did was press the A button and aim with the cross pad, which was awkward and difficult, by the way. Don't get me wrong: I still played the crap out of the Game Gear game, but it was nowhere close to being as good the arcade version.


Overall, T2 was a great game, but it was hard and you would probably have to spend several-dollars-worth of quarters if you ever wanted to beat the game, even if you were, as Arnold would say, "Excellent" at it. Like I said, I usually only coughed up a few quarters at a time and therefore only made it a few minutes into the game. Once I'd had enough, I moved a few games to my left and played my next favorite of the aforementioned "other games":

Lethal Enforcers (Konami 1992).


This was another super-fun shoot-'em-up game where you played as a cop and had to shoot a bunch of bank robbers. You held a salmon-colored revolver-like gun that you removed from a holster and you had about six bullets to shoot before a voice from the game told you to "reload". You reloaded by aiming away from the screen and pulling the trigger and you would then proceed to shoot up more bank robber ass.

Like with T2, I rarely made it past the first level of Lethal Enforcers, which took place in a bank. The bank robbers were dressed in black with those scary stocking ski masks. They yelled things like "Eat lead, copper!" and "You can't kill me, copper!" and "You missed me, pig!" As you went through the level, you had to be careful not to shoot innocent bank tellers and civilians. Everybody popped up so quickly that it was hard not to be trigger-happy and shoot the innocent. But they would yell things like, "Don't shoot!" or "No!" or "Help me!" to let you know not to shoot them. As you went further into the level, however, things would just get cuuuurazy and it would be extremely difficult NOT to shoot an innocent casualty here and there.







Once I'd had enough of Lethal Enforcers, I made my way over to the opposite side of the arcade where I found my next go-to game: X-Men (Konami 1992). This was a more PG-friendly side-scrolling beat 'em up game where you played as one of six X-Men and must save civilization from the evil villain Magneto. Up to six players could play this game at a time and this was possible because the game console was friggin' huge with two separate screens housed in a "deluxe cabinet".



I always chose to play the game as the character Colossus; in fact, most people did, because he had a special move (technically called "mutant power") that killed multiple bad guys (technically named "sentinels") but also, unfortunately, drained your energy about three points every time you used it. Anybody who's ever played the game knows what I'm talking about: Colossus' mutant power was preceded by a constipated-sounding grunt and then a wave of what-may-have-been atomic flatulence would emanate from his body and clear the screen of (most) bad guys. Every once in a while, I would play as Wolverine or maybe Cyclops, but I usually tried to be Colossus if I could.





After I got bored with X-Men, I would likely wander over to The Simpsons Arcade Game (Konami 1991), which was another side-scrolling beat 'em up game, very similar to X-Men, only you would play as one of four Simpsons characters -- Marge, Homer, Bart, or Lisa -- in the world of Springfield. The strange plot involved baby Maggie being kidnapped by Waylon Smithers after he robs a jewelry store. Marge, Homer, Bart and Lisa must save the baby and beat up Waylon's nasty henchmen in the process. I think maybe Mr. Burns was one of the bosses you had to beat near the end of the game, perhaps even the final boss? I'm not sure because I never made it that far.

I usually played as Marge because she had the best weapon of all (a vacuum cleaner), Bart probably had the second best weapon (a skateboard), while Lisa had third best (a jump rope) and Homer, had, well...nothing. That's right: I don't think anybody in their right mind EVER chose Homer for their character, unless, of course, all three of the other characters were already chosen by three other players. Marge was always my go-to character, but, I must admit, playing as her almost felt like cheating because her vacuum cleaner made it SO MUCH easier to kill Waylon's evil minions.





Once playing The Simpsons got old, all I had to do was take a step to my left and there was NBA Jam (Midway 1993), a game that, at the time, impressed me in a similar way to how Mortal Kombat impressed me. The players kind of looked like "real" people! Amazing! The game commentator sounded like a real person, too. He said things like "Boom Shaka laka!" when a player slam-dunked, "He's heating up!" when the player started making multiple shots in a row and "From downtown!" when a player sunk a three-pointer. It's no coincidence that both NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat were made by the same company: Midway. It seemed like their company goal was to make games more "real-looking" and "real-sounding", like they wanted to take a few more steps closer to a virtual reality.




Now, it's important to mention that, so far, all the games I've discussed have been games you paid a quarter (or two) to play, and then you would play the game, have some fun and that would be it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention all the games at the Dream Machine that you played, not just for the fun, but more importantly...

For the tickets.


Exhibit a: There was a basketball game where you shot deflated basketballs into a net with a circumference just about the size of the ball itself and a rim bouncier than...well, bouncier than something very bouncy. What I'm getting at here is it was difficult to make the shots.


Exhibit B: There was the "Feed Big Bertha" game where you tossed plastic balls into the mouth of an obese woman named Bertha. Her mouth would open wide and then get narrow and, every 30 seconds or so, a fan would blow up Bertha's skirt, Marilyn-Monroe-style. The point was to get as many balls into the mouth as possible and you got even more points if you hit her tonsils that dangled in the way back.


Exhibit C: There was also a game called "Wheel'm In" where you dropped a quarter down a short ramp that you could aim and you would try to get the quarter to land on a series of moving strips, each of which was worth a certain amount of tickets. Obviously, you tried to aim for the strip worth the most tickets.

And who could forget Skee-ball?


And Whac-a-mole???


Oh, and I would be even more remiss if I didn't mention the plethora of pinball machines that the Dream Machine had to offer. The only pinball machine I remember is the Addams Family game, which was based on the popular 1991 Addams Family movie. The machine was super-noisy and I had no idea what to aim the pinball at but the game seemed like it would be fun for somebody who knew what they were doing. 
If memory serves me correctly, I think there was a Jurassic Park pinball game as well. No, that may not be true. I think the Jurassic Park game I'm thinking of was NOT a pinball machine but a shoot 'em up game where you sat in a booth, pulled curtains over this booth so you were in relative darkness and shot at dinosaurs. In hindsight, this may have been a good place to make out with a girl, not that I was really making out with anybody back then, at least not in the early-90s. Ok, same deal for the mid-90s. But the late-90s? Shit, man, it was make-out CITY for me. All right, I'm kind of lying. It was more like a make-out town, population several. Fine, maybe it would be more accurate to say make-out village with...um...just a handful of inhabitants...handful meaning one or two...or, well...oh shut up, leave me alone.

Now that I think of it, I don't think the pinball games dispensed any tickets. In fact, I just checked on this and I'm one-hundred-percent sure they didn't. They were all about getting points and beating high scores. No tickets. Sorry.

Anyway, my point is that there were several Dream Machine games that spat out tickets if you were successful sinking baskets or tossing balls or clubbing moles or what-have-you. When you were all done gaming, you would head right to the ticket counter and "cash in" these tickets, which really meant trading them in for a prize on display in a glass counter. 


3oo tickets might get you a Tootsie Roll.


500 tickets might get you a roll of Bubble Tape gum.


Then you would go home, retire for the night and Dream...Dream of going to the Dream Machine, maybe the next weekend, or maybe sooner if you were lucky. Some kids got their parents to drive them there all the time. Other kids lived so close to the mall that they could walk. I was always jealous of those kids. I thought my life would be much happier if only I lived within walking distance of the Dream Machine.


Damn, I miss that Dream Machine. Maybe someday I'll muster up the courage to actually go back to the current incarnation of the Dream Machine in The Walpole Mall and play a game or two without worrying about looking like a creepy 36-year-old man who is extremely out of place. Maybe if I bring a date along with me I won't look as creepy. I'll at least make sure there's no birthday party going on with lots of kiddies running around. I mean, then I'd REALLY look like a creep, even if I brought a date with me, not that I've thought this out too much or anything.


Heck, maybe it's just as well if I never go back to the Dream Machine, because what if it's sad and depressing? I mean, what if it's as bad inside the place as it looks from the outside? Maybe it's best to keep the memories of the Dream Machine's heyday fresh in my mind and not taint them with today's sad reality and broken dreams.


Maybe the Dream is better than the reality.


Or maybe, just maybe, I'm using way too many puns with the word 'dream' and should stop immediately.


Oh, by the way, my dentist appointment went great. No cavities. I got a free toothbrush. Soft bristles. Not my preferred bristle strength but I can't complain.



Matt Burns is the author of the hit Kindle Single I USED TO BE A GAMER: THE 8-BIT NINTENDO YEARS. If you enjoyed reading this blog, then you will love the Kindle single. Get it for only 99 cents HERE.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Weird Times en la Weirdioteca



It's very rare that you're able to experience something so fascinatingly bizarre but I believe it's also inevitable for each and every one of us. You can't force this experience. Rather, it will happen when you least expect it. Tonight, it happened for me. Tonight was my lucky night...

Monday night. 8:55pm. Local library. Second floor.

I've been quietly working on my laptop for the past hour or so. The announcement that the library's closing came on the loudspeaker just a few minutes ago. "The library will be closing in ten minutes. Please bring any checkout items to the front desk."

I'm packing up my laptop now. Wrapping the cord around my mouse. Removing my computer glasses and replacing them with my regular glasses.

I see the librarian making the rounds. She checks the tables. Pushes in chairs. Picks up any scraps of paper or other litter. It's obvious I'm packing up so she doesn't feel there's any need to tell me they're closing soon.

However, there is a man about four or five tables down from me. Also working on his laptop. Little bit on the older side, maybe in his 60s or so. Looks normal as far as I can tell. In fact, I had determined about 30 minutes ago that he looked so normal that it was safe for me to leave my laptop alone at my table while I ran to the bathroom to do a pee. So that's pretty normal. That's I-feel-it's-safe-to-leave-my-laptop-alone-with-this-guy-nearby normal.

The man, however, is not "packing up shop", so to speak. He continues to work on his laptop while the librarian is pushing in chairs left and right, dropping hint after hint that it's closing time. But this guy's not budging.

By this time, the librarian has determined that this man needs a friendly reminder that the library is closing in less than five minutes.

"Sir, just so you know, we're closing in five minutes..."

But the man does not respond. Nor does he acknowledge her. All he does is stare into his laptop and (seemingly) continue to do his work.

"Sir," she says louder. "We're closing soon."

The man still doesn't budge and doesn't look at her or even acknowledge he heard her in the least.

"Excuse me...Sir! We're closing."

Still, no response or acknowledgment of any kind.

I hear what's going on and grow concerned. What the fuck is happening down there?

"Excuse me! Hello! Sir! We're closing!"

Still, not even a flinch on his part. Not even a raise of the eyebrow or any other subtle gesture. Utterly nothing.

I take a more careful look and see that this man is not wearing headphones. And he does not appear to be a foreigner who may speak another language. But even if he does speak a different language, he would still acknowledge the librarian who's now standing smack-dab in front of him with her hands on her hips, practically shouting into his face.

"Hello! Sir! We're closing! Hello!"

And this bizarre exchange proceeds for the next minute or even two.

"Sir! Closing time! Hello!"

I stand at my table for a moment. Dumbfounded. This is happening, I tell myself. This is really happening right now. I look around to see if anybody else is witnessing this. But, no, it's only the three of us alone on the second floor.

I determine that this man must either be insane or he must be the most gigantic asshole who ever lived on the planet. My instincts tell me it's the latter that's true.

I swing my laptop bag over my shoulder, pretend like I'm leaving but then sneak down an aisle of books that allows me to get closer to the alleged asshole without being seen. I'm not sure if this librarian will need my help. My heart starts racing. Is the shit about to go down right now? Maybe every day of my life has been leading to this very moment. Maybe this guy IS a psycho and I'm supposed to save the librarian from him. Maybe this is why I'm living. Maybe this is why I exist.

I'm about to take my glasses off so I can fight without them being on my mind. They cost 300 bucks, after all. I don't want them damaged.

"Sir! Hello! Sir! Hello!!!"

I post myself behind a shelf of books. About as close as I can get without being seen. I'm ready to pounce if needed.

"Closing time!!! Hello!!!"

And, then, there is nothing but silence.

I creep around the bookshelf and see that the man is finally starting to pack up shop. He's putting his laptop away. And his mouse. There's also a half-drunken bottle of Pepsi Zero, which I hadn't seen from my previous vantage point. As for the librarian, I don't see where she went.

I figure it's safe to leave now.

As I'm about to descend the stairs, down to the first floor, I see the librarian circling back towards me. We lock eyes and I say...

"What was that all about?"

She shakes her head and says: "I don't know."

And that is that. No further discussion. No further questions.

I exit the library, emerge into the dark parking lot and realize I had just witnessed something very bizarre, perhaps one of the most bizarre things I had ever witnessed. 

What was that man's deal? Was he so narcissistic that he thought the library should only close when he's ready to leave? What did he think he could accomplish by ignoring the librarian? Maybe he got off on being the biggest asshole on the planet, to women, or just in general. Maybe that was his only motive: being an asshole and enjoying it.

I want to wait for this man to come out of the library and study his habits. Maybe follow him home. To see if he lives alone somewhere or with a family. I want to know what makes this gigantic asshole tick. I want to observe him for a week. I figure an asshole so gigantic must live in a miserable world of hell. I want to see this hell. I'm curious. 

More importantly, I want to know how often he drinks Pepsi Zero. Perhaps the sugar substitutes could be causing toxicity of the brain, which would account for him being the most gigantic of assholes.

I end up driving off, however, without waiting. Because I'm still not sure if what I had witnessed even happened. I'm still shaking a bit from the adrenaline as I pull out of the parking lot. I realize that I may never witness something so bizarre ever again. And that makes me kind of sad, that the weirdness of this human experience has peaked.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

LIKE BROTHERS Review

Like Brothers on my bookshelf.
The year was 2005. I had been auditing Professor Ray Carney's classes at Boston University, reading every book he wrote (Cassavetes on Cassavetes among others), corresponding with him frequently over email, habitually checking in on his website Cassavetes.com and even sometimes riding bikes with him since he only lived five minutes away from me.

One day, Carney posted on his website that he just saw a few short films by the Duplass Brothers and he was blown away by how good they were. The quality of the shorts convinced him that it was worth investing the time to see the Duplass' first feature film The Puffy Chair, which he was equally blown away by. Now, if Ray Carney said he was blown away by something he saw, you didn't take that lightly! As a very anti-Hollywood film scholar, he was perhaps the toughest cookie to please when it came to films.


What I'm getting at is, if Ray Carney said he was blown away by Duplass Brothers movies, I knew I had to see these movies!


Fortunately, I was able to find most of the shorts online -- not on YouTube -- but maybe it was some other video-sharing website or maybe the Duplass Brothers personal website...sorry, this isn't a very important detail. If my memory serves me correctly, I saw This is John first and was surprised by how fun and funny it was. I think I expected a more "difficult" and "complex" work because that's the kind of film I expected Ray Carney to be attracted to. But, no, this was a simple "three dollar film" and it was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I don't think I had ever laughed out loud so hard, the exception being the first time I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger's first movie Hercules in New York (I highly recommend you see this movie if you haven't).





But, yes, This is John was hilarious and "simple" but this isn't to say that the film lacked depth. I found the seven-minute short to be a fascinating character study of an insecure man who obsesses over how he wants the outside world to perceive him. I actually went so far as to write a mini-essay on This is John that talked about what-I-referred-to-as "media personas" in this digital age, how we have technology that enables us to carefully craft how others see us. In the case of This is John, it's an answering machine greeting but, today, we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, text messaging and all sorts of other ways we manufacture the way in which we want others to see us and also how we would like to see ourselves.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that This Is John and my media persona "essay" became the spark that set fire to my first (good) screenplay, which later became my first (good) novel called JOHNNY CRUISE (available HERE on Amazon -- sorry for the self-promotion), which is all about media personas among other things. I'm not sure if JOHNNY CRUISE ever would have been born if I hadn't seen This is John so I guess I have the Duplass Brothers to thank for my novel, which I consider to be my favorite and best to date.

I should also say that This is John convinced me that there was no reason why I shouldn't be making good short films on my own with what little money I had and what little equipment I owned. Money and equipment mattered little. Story, writing and acting was what mattered the most. 


I ended up making some great shorts with literally no budget and for one of them I didn't even have a crew. Everybody's heard of a one-man-band but I literally made a one-man-movie where I did all the writing, acting, cinematography and editing myself. Who knows: maybe I would have ended up making these movies anyway but This is John made me realize I could start making good movies, like right now...today!


I would eventually go on to see other Duplass shorts like Scrapple and another one I don't remember the name of but it consists of an intervention for a friend who is suspected to be gay but won't come out of the closet. Both shorts were fantastic because they both started as very simple situations but you would go deeper and deeper into characters and the dynamics of a relationship as the film proceeded. They were very interesting character and relationship studies.


Then, I heard The Puffy Chair was coming to the Boston Independent Film Festival. So I went to the screening. Waiting in line to get into the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, Katie Aselton's parents were behind me chatting. I don't know how I knew this but they had a little group of extended family members or family friends with them and it was obvious who they were. I was about to turn around and tell them how much I loved Jay and Mark's movies but I wussed out big-time.


As far as the film went, I loved Puffy Chair, especially the ending that was very anti-Hollywood, lacking proper closure and the message was that the complications in relationships never stop and, in some cases, relationships don't end up working out at all. Where in Hollywood movies, conflicts between characters always come to a happy resolution, the Duplass' movie realistically reminded us that relationships between people are always in a state of flux.


A few years passed, the Duplass' careers took off and I would go on to see Baghead, Cyrus, Jeff Who Lives at Home and even a short documentary by brothers-Duplass called Kevin, which was about an amazing guitarist/songwriter named...you got it: Kevin. All great movies.


Anyway, all of the above is a long-winded preface to my review of the Duplass' Brothers new book Like Brothers. This book is not just an inspiring "behind the scenes" look at the Duplass careers and the making of many of their movies, but it's also a great behind-the-scenes look at the soulmate-like relationship between the two brothers. 


Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the concepts of souls and soulmates and "twin flames" and "past lives" and reincarnation and all that New Age kind of stuff. Why? It's just an interest of mine. I've done extensive research on the subjects, I've visited multiple mediums and psychics, attended spiritualist meetings, etc. If souls actually exist, I can't help but wonder what the "history" is behind Mark and Jay's soul relationship. Are they twins on a soul level? Were they creative partners in a past life and both agreed to incarnate on earth at the same time, become filmmakers and tear sh** up in the independent film world? Have they always been together, whether on earth or in the spirit world? The reason I ponder all this is because, if you read their book, it's immediately apparent that their relationship seemed so close so early on in their lives. It's like they already knew each other before they were even born. Mark and Jay should really see a psychic or regression therapist to investigate into this possibility, and I'm not talking about the ones who have blinking neon signs on their windows that say "ten-dollar palm readings".


But enough of the New Age talk. Putting all that business aside, all I can say is that it's a breath of fresh air to see a relationship where there is so much mutual respect for each other, especially between brothers, for crying out loud! What's especially amazing is how much Jay respected Mark at such a young age. Usually, the big brother teases his little brother, doesn't want to hang with him, denies him three times in front of friends etc. But not Jay. This is another reason why I feel they have a soul history that extends beyond their time on earth, but damn, more New Age talk! Sorry.


Ok, putting all New Age talk aside for real this time (I swear), Like Brothers is a great read for aspiring filmmakers. Halfway through the book, Mark and Jay provide a very pragmatic step-by-step guide explaining how one can "make it" in this "brutal fu**ing [film] business". I won't share that information here but, trust me, it's good, practical advice for people who have no friggin' idea where to start. It's a great game plan that I personally wish I had heard about ten years ago but, hey, better late than never!


Sprinkled throughout the book are also fun, hilarious and rather insightful essays/stories. These stories gave me great ideas on how to improve my storytelling craft. For example, to pass time waiting for their flights, Mark and Jay brew up movie ideas that revolve around random people they see in the airport. Also, in another chapter, Mark tells a story where, during the writing of Puffy Chair, he was literally unable to write because of stress fractures and overall physical pain. He consequently got a tape recorder and "wrote" the movie through speaking it out onto a tape. Talking out your movie is a great way to make the dialogue sound more natural and give you a better idea of pacing and how long scenes should be etc.


By the end of reading Like Brothers, I found myself holding back tears and I don't remember a book ever doing that to me before. I started reading the book thinking I would be more interested in the filmmaking tips, career advice and interesting behind-the-scenes "making of" stories. However, by the end, I realized I was perhaps more interested in the story of Mark and Jay as brothers and the journey of their relationship, from struggling "nobody's" to success stories and everything in between. At times, I could see their story as a movie, like I could literally see the footage in my mind and the soundtrack, the tone etc. For example: Jay destroying what remained of the wooden box (you'll know what I'm talking about when you read the book). That image would say so much and no dialogue would even be necessary. I think brothers Duplass should consider making an autobiographical movie someday...


So, yes, I highly recommend Like Brothers. Mark and Jay basically have the ideal filmmaking careers (i.e. one foot in the indie world and one foot, or maybe just a few toes, in the Hollywood studio world). This book tells us how they got there, as a one-of-a-kind brotherly team.



MATT BURNS is not a New York Times bestselling author but he predicts he will be in the future; thus, he’s confident in saying that he is, indeed, a New York Times bestselling author (it just hasn’t happened quite yet). Both his debut novel "Johnny Cruise" and his filmmaking memoir "Garage Movie" are now available on Amazon. Also available are his numerous Kindle singles, including his best-sellers "Jungle F’ng Fever: My 30-Year Love Affair With Guns N’ Roses", "My Raging Case of Beastie Fever", "Three Days in Hollywood", "I Used to be a Gamer" and "Bostonwood". More notably, he has been published in the Los Angeles-based literary magazine "Poetic Diversity". Burns currently lives outside of Boston and makes films/videos in his spare time. Visit mattburnsproductions.com to learn more about him.

Friday, July 13, 2018

GARAGE MOVIE: NEW EXCERPT!

Here is a new free chapter from my best-selling book GARAGE MOVIE: MY ADVENTURES MAKING WEIRD FILMS, now available on Amazon! Learn more about the book HERE and watch the trailer below.



BRITISH DINGO FROM IRELAND (2001)

Gutter was finished by January 2001 and, due to a busy school schedule, I didn’t get to make another movie until after the spring semester and when I say “after the spring semester” I literally started working on it the day after I was done with my finals. I was so happy that all the school bulls*** was behind me and I could get down to doing what was really important: making movies! Also, I didn’t have a job lined up for the summer so I wanted to work hard and squeeze out a movie before my mom got on my case about filling out applications.

The movie was another ten-minute short called British Dingo from Ireland. Where Gutter was a horror movie, British Dingo from Ireland was my attempt at making an action movie, even though the “action” was limited. The strange title of the movie was basically born out of my inability to speak in an Irish accent without it sounding either British or Australian, so I figured, well, why not create an ambiguous character who may be all three?!

And I did just that. I played a character named Mr. Dingo and he was a shady dude who wore a Scally Cap and a black trench coat (I was kind of ripping off the movie Boondock Saints, which was popular at the time). All Mr. Dingo cared about was money and he recently got himself involved in a big drug deal with some shadowy characters named Kado and Pristine. The scheming Kado and Pristine try to double-cross Dingo and screw him over. The drug deal goes sour and Mr. Dingo finds himself in a firefight.

The "firefight" involved toy guns and many gun sound effects that I believe I downloaded off Napster. The film also featured some pyrotechnics and when I say 'pyrotechnics' all we did was light a firecracker in a Miller Lite beer can to simulate the can being hit by a whizzing bullet.


Pristine (Mark Willis) and Kado (Jeremy Mitchell) scheming on how to screw over Mr. Dingo.

For British Dingo from Ireland, I again chose to shoot in Black and White for aesthetic reasons but I also determined that the digital video looked better in Black and White. It looked more like film whereas the colored video still looked too home-video-ish for my liking.

With Dingo, I also attempted using a car as a “dolly” so I could try and get some cool-looking tracking shots. I recruited one of my friends to film Mr. Dingo (me) out the car window and had another friend drive slowly. Surprisingly, the shots came out nice and smooth, especially with the help of my camera’s (aforementioned) image stabilizer.

I even found some cool shooting locations, the coolest of which was a creepy-looking warehouse in the middle of wonderful Walpole, MA. This warehouse was where the drug deal was to go down but, since I couldn’t shoot inside the actual building, I got all tricksy with the editing and cut from an exterior shot of Mr. Dingo (me) walking up to the warehouse…to an interior shot of me opening my garage door…then, I shot the rest of the scene inside my garage. In other words, I created the illusion that the inside of my garage was really the inside of the warehouse. It worked well. I mean, most people probably could tell what I did, but it still worked well enough and the illusion was all done through editing. Amazing!

And that wasn’t the only illusion I created through editing. Don’t tell anybody but I shot most of my scenes as Dingo on a completely different day and time from the shots of Pristine and Kado. In the film, it seems like we’re all together in one warehouse scene but all I did was edit the shots together and create the illusion that we were all acting together in one scene. Of course, I did have to throw in a wide shot or two showing all three of us together; otherwise, a keen eye would grow suspicious of my trickery. The film theorist AndrĂ© Bazin would’ve appreciated the wide shots. In the 1940s, Bazin wrote that Eisensteinian montage (i.e. piecing separate shots together to create an illusion) was a fascist-like manipulation of reality. He preferred a cinema with minimal editing. He wanted those wide shots! He wanted realism! So, I heeded the words of Bazin and gave him the wide shots, but—for the most part—montage was my very best friend in the whole wide world during the making of Dingo.

Indeed, the power of editing never ceased to amaze me and I really pushed iMovie's parameters with British Dingo from Ireland. I remember that the first version of iMovie only provided two soundtracks for you to work with. This meant that you could put music on one track and then sound effects or dialogue on the other track. The problem was when you wanted to use background music, dialogue AND multiple sound FX at the same time. In editing programs today, you basically have unlimited tracks to work with so, say, if you have a car accident sequence and you want multiple sound effects (the crash, the horn sounding, glass shattering, hubcaps rolling, not to mention musical score and maybe even some dialogue, e.g. "holy s*** we're crashing!") you have plenty of tracks to layer all the sound on top of each other. But when you only have two sound tracks? Well...your options are limited.

What I ended up doing is putting sound effects on the same track as music, literally piling them atop each other, which iMovie allowed me to do and the sounds would end up playing simultaneously. But you weren't supposed to do this, so it significantly slowed down the computer. In fact, in many cases, it slowed down the computer to such an extent that my poor PowerBook laptop froze on me several times. I began to realize that iMovie was only useful for extremely simple editing. My movies were already becoming too complex what with their multiple sound FX, music and dialogue tracks etc.

Surprisingly, I didn't quite see all this as writing on the wall telling me I should make the switch to Final Cut Pro. Well, maybe I did see the writing on the wall but I ignored it, mainly because I liked and knew how to use iMovie. So, short story long, I kept using iMovie. But it was with my next movie that I pushed it too far. I’ll get to that next movie in a few moments.

I had a final cut of British Dingo from Ireland in my hands about a week after I finished shooting. I was addicted to editing it and often worked late into the night. I had this strange OCD-like thing going on where I would edit up to a certain point and then watch what I had so far and I would watch it over and over and over again. I still do that with every project I work on up to this day. It’s like I’m so impressed with what I created that I need to watch it repeatedly. Maybe it’s like being God where He creates the world and on the 7th day He sits back and enjoys what He created, only my “7th day” is repeated over and over again. Yes, it’s something like that, more or less, probably less.


A rare photo of me editing British Dingo from Ireland. You can see my camera bag nearby, as well as my trusty FireWire cable. Photo by Brian Burns.

Like with Gutter, I exported the final cut out to a MiniDV tape and then to a VHS tape. My friends watched this movie repeatedly but, this time, I was proud of what I created and, well, the movie kind of made sense, at least a tad more sense than Gutter. So I wanted to do something more with the movie than just show it to my friends. But what could I do with it?

Well, it was around this time that I had stumbled upon a website called iFilm.com. This was a website that featured videos and films made by amateur filmmakers. You could pay around 50 bucks, send your movie to iFilm, and they would upload it onto their website for the entire world to see. Again, these were the days before YouTube, Vimeo or anything like that. The idea of my short film being available on the worldwide web for the world to see…well, I thought it would be awesome! I wanted the entire world to see British Dingo from Ireland. So why not send it to iFilm?

Well, send it to iFilm I did, in the form of a MiniDV for optimal quality. I waited a few weeks and then they sent me an email about a release date. The big premiere would be July something-or-other so I got really excited. I thought this would be my big break. British Dingo from Ireland would take the world by storm.

I made a poor-man’s version of a movie poster and Xeroxed dozens of copies. Then, I went door-to-door to local businesses in the small suburb of Walpole and asked if I could hang them up on their windows or somewhere inside. I was surprised that several of these people were cool with it. They had no idea what the movie was about but I had them convinced I was going to be the next Ben Affleck and Matt Damon…combined! These days were all pre-social media, of course, so this was my only option for marketing. I literally had to print out real, physical movie posters, walk into the real, three-dimensional world and ask real, small-business owners if I could hang these posters on their windows. Today, you would start a Facebook page and Twitter handle and Instagram and all that s***. Not in 2001, though. Nope, you had to get your boots on the ground and hang fliers up in well-traveled areas.


 My poor man’s version of a movie poster for British Dingo from Ireland.

Well, the day of the big premiere came and I thought British Dingo from Ireland would become an overnight phenomenon. Not quite the case. The movie ran for two months, I believe, and I only garnered a total of 50 views. Granted, I was rather impressed by 50 views but, of course, today, getting 50 YouTube views is easy, even if you’re videotaping yourself picking your nose. Actually, bad example—that video would probably go viral in this day and age.

So, no, I didn’t quite blow up to the bigtime, but I was still impressed that I had attracted an audience of 50 people to a film I made with my own bare hands. The fact that I created a movie from scratch and that an audience of 50 people saw that movie was an incredible feeling.


Actual screenshot from the iFilm website.

Watch the British Dingo from Ireland trailer on YouTube: https://youtu.be/7-dBy2QC60g


Watch the full British Dingo from Ireland film here (note: this is a link to one of my blogs where the film is posted, not YouTube, so don’t be alarmed): http://mattburnsproductions.blogspot.com/2017/05/british-dingo-from-ireland.html