Brad begins

I had never seen Spielberg’s Amazing Stories when it originally came out in 1985, so I thought it was an essential part of my pop-culture education to go back and find out what I’d missed all that time ago. Things got off to a wobbly start with the first episode Ghost Train, a fable about a ghostly train wreck, directed by the Stephen himself. All of the over-the-top sentimentality, telegraphed “drama”, needless underlining and pointless bombast that sometimes mars the man’s work is on display here in full swing. Remember that Monty Python skit where the giant cardboard hand of God comes down from the heavens? Seeing Ghost Train is like watching that, but in some alternate universe where Python aren’t actually trying to be funny, but are just trying to awe and impress you with a giant cardboard hand.

But then again, maybe it was all on purpose. Perhaps Spielberg was so evolved in his thinking, so flushed with the success of E.T. and the first two Indiana Jones films, that he deliberately decided to go all “meta” on us by opening up his new T.V. series with a train wreck of an episode. Now do you see it, the sheer subtle genius of the man? A train wreck!

OK, maybe not.

But the second episode of the series, well now that’s a whole ‘nother thing. It’s called The Main Attraction, and the lead character is an utterly self-absorbed high school guy, a preening narcissistic prom-king named Brad, who is about to get his comeuppance. The episode plays like a hyperkinetic, knowing cartoon, supercharged on adrenaline and suffused with a kind of hip hopped-up insider knowingness. Diametrically opposite in tone to the lugubrious first story, every frame of this episode, from start to finish, feels as though it has just escaped, laughing with maniacal glee, out of a Tex Avery cartoon.

We are used to this sort of thing now – from Malcolm in the Middle to those frenetically post-modern Saturday morning cartoons like Pinky and the Brain and its cousins, all clearly designed to turn innocent little children into hopeless cases of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (my theory is that these shows are secretly funded by the drug companies that make Ritalin).

But back in 1985 this was something unprecedented, a sharp new tone to things, which had never quite been seen before anywhere. Like Birth of a Nation or Bonnie and Clyde in their time, people were witnessing a new aesthetic at its moment of birth. And who was the author of this episode? None other than Brad Bird, in his very first published writing credit. Yes, that Brad Bird, of Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. But this was long before all that – fourteen years before Iron Giant.

I was enthralled. Here I was, with the clarity that comes only with hindsight, seeing how a young author, writing long before his time of fame and recognition, had planted a seed into a culture – a meme that might be called “knowing post-modern mania” – which would soon germinate in the minds of young writers-to-be, and through them would spawn a new kind of story telling, would in some sense even come to define the aesthetic of an era.

Isn’t that marvelous? Twenty three years ago an unknown young writer channeled his inner Edna Mode, and began the transformation of an entire medium. Even so, I doubt that Brad spends much time thinking about the seminal influence of his early work. As Edna herself once said: “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”

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