JUNK FOOD: Twice Upon a Time

January 2021

shelves lined with stacks of VHS tapes

Before my mother preempted the trend to ‘pull the plug’ on the channels on our set, I lived, laughed, and loved in front of the aging tube TV. But I loved it at a specific cultural moment that cannot be recreated: when Bravo showed operas. And ballets. And films. The TV programming landscape was confined to fewer channels, but the offerings were undeniably broader.

The internet’s looming ubiquity had not fully registered, let alone to a 14-year-old girl in central New York state. Had I known that I’d be spending the next 20 years using the internet to stream videos and shows I might not have been so insistent on TAPING MOVIES OFF TV. Even as I type those words I wonder if they’ve been divorced from meaning; outmoded signifiers that have not made the semiotic leap like the floppy disk SAVE icon, or ‘hanging up’ a touchscreen cell phone. Yes, little children, gather ‘round, for I am from a time when ‘content’ was what was available, rather than a revenue stream that can buy you prankster teen roommates in a shared house in the Hollywood hills. To further place myself in/out of time, I still have the movies that I taped on decaying VHS cassettes. They line my bookshelves like Beefeater guards, steadfast and anachronistic. A friend – my age, but savvier – transferred some of the tapes onto a hard drive, capturing the cassette ribbon’s information in an accessible format before the inevitable day comes when my tapes truly become albatrosses. (I’m not there yet; I have a VCR that will work if I coax it as its gears churn and whir.) And, like so many of us this past year, I’ve been spending literally all my time at home where I’m surrounded by the dust-gathering cassettes that remind and admonish me that time does take a toll. So I watched one.

pink fairy and strange animal and man in black hat; Twice Upon a Time

From 1998 to 2008 Cartoon Network ran ‘Cartoon Theater’ on Saturday nights, showing an animated feature with commercials at regular intervals. Most of the movies were miss-able—how many Scooby-Doo, Flintstones, and Land Before Time movies did the world actually need?—but there were gems amongst the garbage. “Twice Upon a Time” intrigued me from the start and I made sure the VCR was cued. Even watching it in 1999 I could tell it was, well, somewhere out of time. Construction paper characters and manipulated live-action footage were slammed together to create something I’d never seen before, and haven’t really since. The 1983 movie is incredible, written and directed by John Korty and Charles Swenson, and helmed by executive producer George Lucas, though it’s practically unheard of today. The stock characters each bear a cratylic name that both describes, and subverts his stock role: Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, Rod Rescueman, Synonamess Botch, the dream-distributing Figmen of Imagination. The story and style toe the line of what is appropriate in a balancing act similar to “Shrek,” which would come out in 2001, two years after the Cartoon Network broadcast. But in the 20+ years since I insisted on taping the then-16-year-old movie I have realized how abstract, and yet completely relevant this tiny slice of not-so-popular culture has proven. If you can find it, you should watch it.

Re-watching my copy, though, turned out to be less an exercise in nostalgia, than retrospective trend forecasting. For, you see, we taped the commercials, too. “Spice World” had just been released for Playstation, Hooked on Phonics’ tagline was already a joke amongst kids, and there were multiple ads for different wildlife videos. Like, “Wacky Babies, with Marty Stouffer” which was a physical VHS tape you could purchase by telephoning a number that flashed across the screen. There were bear cubs in trees, and fox kits on the prairie, and cheetah kittens yawning, all underscored with timpani punctuation and slide-whistle oopsy-daisies. Youtube’s first kitten video wouldn’t come until 2005, and ‘viral’ animal videos weren’t something to aspire to until the following year. But at 8:00pm on a Saturday in 1999, Cartoon Network sold 30 seconds of ad space to a video-hawking naturalist.

VHS cover with a silly bear cub for Marty Stouffer's Wild America Wacky Babies

Watching the commercial now, in 2021, on my computer, made me feel so out of space, and time, that I had to pause to collect my thoughts after the commercial break. I had pressed PLAY for some nostalgic fun but was instead doing mental backflips to understand what I was watching within the broader cultural landscape of the past 20 years. I hadn’t considered that our VCR was recording an inflection point, but it feels that way; a movie already out-of-time, and commercials for the progenitors of internet culture. And to appreciate that moment with the blessing/curse of 20 years’ hindsight is complicated, and bittersweet. But nostalgia cuts both ways: we miss the things we loved, and love the things we’ve missed. I have missed this movie because I love it, but I love the things our culture has forgotten to miss – the foundations of meme and internet culture were laid in the Saturday night, primetime slot. I can only hope that when I watch the tape again 20 years from now, ‘before it was a thing’ is still a thing.