1999 Did the End of the World Right
It was a year when filmmakers sent out their last dispatches before the apocalypse – full of failing, dying and learning.
Lawrence Fishburne in 'The Matrix' (1999)
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
It’s 1999, and let’s say you’re on your way to check out a movie called The Matrix and you’re young, like early-teens young, with no idea about the philosophical brainfuck you’re about to experience. Word of mouth is a slow burn in ‘99— Twitter (2006), Facebook (2004), and YouTube (2005) are not yet concepts—and like the rest of the world, your sneak peek into the film is a two minute-ish Superbowl trailer of leather-wearing people bouncing off of walls.
Suddenly, the movie is over, but it doesn’t feel over—like an instant classic is never really “over.” It changed your ideas about the potency of action films, and now you’re looking at your “real” world with reflective questions about reality. Yes, that magical negro Morpheus did something special to your mind; but it wasn’t just the movie that did that, it was the year.
Despite a then-16-year-old Britney Spears singing about literal sadomasochism, 1999 was a year when pop culture began to look more meaningful and less manufactured through my eyes. My palate in the year previous was uneven, where disaster movies like Deep Impact and the Razzie-nominated Armageddon became personal pleasures before I had a clue they were “guilty” pleasures. I didn’t have social media timelines swaying my ideas about what I should give a fuck about. Jordan Knight’s "Give it To You" was undeniably the jam, and Pokémon cards were still a drug. Everything that I heard, saw, and felt happened in contained moments—TV, newspapers, and also my barber Lloyd was predicting the end of the world. He called it Y2K.
The running theory at the time was that on Jan 1, 2000, just after midnight, the last two digits welcoming in the new Millennium—the “0s” in 2000—would play freaky with electronics, causing chaos before turning us into powerless castaways screaming at objects named “Wilson.” As every alarmist forecasted global recessions and worst case scenarios, I personally couldn’t get enough. There was a stupid exciting logic to every “pop” thing I stanned for suddenly being the last time I’d experience it. I was on some “fuck it” shit. Eminem’s Slim Shady LP would be an amazing one and done. An overplayed Buffy the Vampire Slayer would end on a high note. And most importantly, film, being already one of the most powerful and immersive mediums out there (this is before the Golden Age of TV and, like VR), was the one place where these Important concepts and experiences had a massive impact —the final word on a doomed culture/world.
As it so happened, The Matrix—as mind-blowingly ridiculous as it felt—stood as one of several films that defined that 1999 fuck-it attitude: Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, Office Space, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Three Kings, Boys Don’t Cry, Magnolia, The Iron Giant, and so on. Unbeknownst to me, it read like an industry going through its own epiphany as the doomsday clock ticked. Just a year earlier, films were marked by far less idiosyncratic storytelling, and more bankable stars. Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Cameron Diaz, Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy crowded the top box office spots in ‘98. As for the films themselves, one was a war movie (Saving Private Ryan), the other a meteor attack (Armageddon), with the rest being happy-go-lucky comedies.
North American film culture was already skittish about experimentation in the same ‘98 that birthed Furby Babies. Yes, anomalies of the late 80s and early 90s brought indie success (anything Quentin Tarantino, Starship Troopers, Sex Lies and Videotape, Trainspotting, etc) but ‘98 was limited to mostly Dark City, Run Lola Run and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The crazy genre-tampering in flicks like Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, and The Blair Witch Project in 1999 felt unrelenting by comparison, as if a mass revolt of investors—pocketed richly by the new ‘97 thing called DVDs—were looking to give texture to us as a people on its final run.
I mean, think about it: The Wachowskis created The Matrix as a film about humanity’s survival over technology. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s found-footage film, The Blair Witch Project was about our difficulty in disphering myth from fiction (it fooled many). David Fincher’s Fight Club commented the desire to be uncaged. And Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, starring John Malkovich—which I didn’t understand at the time—was about our need to lead virtual lives and be someone else; the ‘99 translation of the pop star. Few protagonists were winning—instead they were failing, dying, and learning.
Every single one of these movies felt mindful in the sense that they were pure experiences. In an internet dial-up era, social media had yet to frame expectations when some of us were still marking “doomsday” over a newscaster’s say so. You had to re-contextualize everything about your filmic views. No one would spoil that M.Nighty, The Sixth Sense twist with a “that ending tho!” tweet. The Matrix, Three Kings, Boys Don’t Cry wouldn’t be broken down by hours of podcasts and a rapid-cycle of hot takes and thinkpieces about thinkpieces. You had to think, reflect, and absorb within bubbles of your own. I’d spend days, weeks, and months reflecting on dialog that was spoken, and on ideas that were becoming a form of muscle memory about life.
There’s something to be said about my own connection to the poppy happenings of 1999, when all of the above existed at once. It’s when I felt things would be fine, but most likely wouldn’t be so fine. In the following years that brought on the good and terribles of the internet, 9/11, and racial angst, I’d like to think that 1999 was the moment that shaped my embrace of what was inevitably to come.
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