Rex Manning Day is coming up, you guys. I can’t tell you how happy, albeit slightly confused, I am that this is a thing. It’s on April 8th, for anyone who was unaware and would like to celebrate. And for anyone who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, allow me to ramble on and on about it. Like I do.
Empire Records is one of my all-time favorite movies. Which, as usual, does not mean that I’m endorsing it as a particularly good movie. Basic rundown: the night manager at a small, locally owned record store finds out that there is a scheme afoot to turn the place into one of those faceless corporate chain stores. So, of course, he steals the day’s earnings and goes to Atlantic City to try to make enough money to buy the store from the current owner, the guy who made this deal with the corporate scumfucks. Or maybe just to spite the guy and steal his money. Either way, he loses it all. The rest of the movie takes place the next day, on Rex Manning Day. Rex is a washed up crooner making an appearance at the store because his new (horrible) album has just been released, and he spends the day stressing everyone out while they have to deal with both the previous night’s crime and the news of their beloved store’s impending doom, among other ridiculous issues. Ensemble cast shenanigans ensue.
So, as I’ve mentioned more than once, I really love movies of a particular format which I have dubbed “day in the life” movies. I don’t know if there’s a real industry term for these. They span almost every genre, but I clump them all together in my head: Clerks, Airheads, SubUrbia, From Dusk ’til Dawn, Friday, Night of the Living Dead, Die Hard, Rebel Without a Cause, Dazed and Confused, and Rocky Horror Picture Show (and if we’re not being nitpicky about time itself: Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run, and 25th Hour). Indie directors and writers use this format a lot because these movies can be cheap to make, having few sets and no costume changes. They lend themselves easily to both large or tiny casts, so that many stories can be squeezed out of a brief period of realtime or one small story can be followed in excruciating detail. These kinds of movies were huge in the 80s, thanks largely to John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc, etc). I feel like they’ve fallen out of vogue since the 90s as far as blockbusters go, but there are a substantial handful of small arty ones (Jeff Who Lives at Home was great). I can’t really think of any big budget ones in recent years that aren’t cartoonish slapstick comedies (the first Harold and Kumar, for example) or shoot-em-up-type capers (Crank). Why is that? Why has this format lost its appeal for normal human storytelling? Or has it, even? Am I just watching the wrong movies?
When I say that Empire Records is one of my favorite movies, I want to make myself clear. When I was in ninth grade, I had a friend who worked at the video rental place in my town, and when they were supposed to destroy their screener copies, he would let me go through them and pick out what I wanted. Completely illegal, but I got my hands on a ton of really obscure, weird films that way, some of which I’ve tried so hard to find again that I’m starting to think they’re figments of my imagination (Nowhere, for example, and The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). Anyway, that’s how I got Empire Records, Pulp Fiction, and Trainspotting, and proceeded to watch all of them almost every day for the next few years. Those three movies are the soundtrack of my high school experience. I can recite them word for word (and I will, at great length, much to the annoyance of my comrades). They’re in my DNA, in my neurological pathways. They’re all very distinctly 90s movies, also, which is part of why I’m so fascinated that Empire has gained a kind of cult following with younger people.
I guess it’s just our turn to be retro, now that we’re done with that neon stripes and side ponytail nonsense, thank Krishna. It is weird to see kids wearing flannel and post-buyout Doc Martens, admittedly. But I wore bellbottoms in 1998, so I don’t suppose I have much of a leg to stand on here. They’re discovering Nirvana and Pearl Jam the way my generation figured out that we loved Zeppelin and The Grateful Dead, so they’ve got that on their side, and without having to tape anything off the radio, the little bastards. But it’s weird that such a cult movie would suddenly become cool, and I wonder how much of it is immediately relatable or universal, and how much of it is just kitsch. How many of those jokes are young people not getting because the times they are a-changing? What questions do they have? (The obvious first one is “Why would anyone steal CDs?”) Is it like when my generation watched The Breakfast Club? Or Ferris Bueller? I will admit to not completely understanding both of those films when I first watched them. Like, what the fuck is Saturday detention? Was that ever a real thing? And how the hell did Ferris just walk up in a topcoat and a fedora and the school let his girlfriend leave with him? Did they not have security? It’s ridiculous.
On a similar note, though, Empire is an outlandish representation of what happens when people who work together become friends – those work relationships become really important because you spend almost all of your time with those people. While all white and evidently straight, this group is a representational cross-section of 90s stereotypes (the prep, the goth, etc), very much like The Breakfast Club (the jock, the brain, etc). The difference being that in Breakfast Club, they were all from different cliques and forced to spend one day together, and in Empire Records, the employees are the clique. I feel like that cliquishness is less common now, in the way that kids interact. At least, that’s how it seems to me, an outside observer with very few teens in my immediate life. But good on you, younger generations. You whippersnappers seem to self-identify more by what you’re into than who you hang out with. I call that progress.
This is very much a music movie, for a number of reasons. First of all, Gwar is in this movie. Fucking Gwar, you guys. That’s kind of beside the point, but definitely worth mentioning. Empire Records has a badass 90s-tastic soundtrack. You know, if you’re into very boring mainstream alternative 90s music. Which I am. Some of my favorite albums are soundtracks. The Crow, Kids, Spawn, Singles, Reality Bites, The Big Lebowski, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – all awesome. More importantly, music is essential to the plot. The crux of this whole thing is Rex Manning. He’s a has-been, an artifact from a bygone era. Those tv shows with music in them (The Monkees, The Partridge Family) were already a thing of the past when Empire came out. Our generation only understands them in reruns. They’re campy and silly, and so is Rex. Consider, also, that this movie is about trying to save a record store in 1995. It doesn’t matter that Rex is a has-been, because he’s a metaphor. Almost all record stores were about to go belly up. Even if Joe, the manager, had been able to buy the store and keep it indie, unless they focused sales more on vinyl ahead of this hipster curve, the odds are good they would have closed within ten years anyway. 1995 is a weird point on the music industry timeline. Just barely pre-digital revolution (Napster started in 1999), but people were still buying cassettes. (By the way, did you know that people are releasing cassettes again? What the actual fuck, you guys? Take it down a notch, hmm? If I see a band with clapping instead of drums release a goddamn eight track, my head might explode.) To Joe’s credit, he was finding a way to do what he wanted to do. Pretty much all the characters in this film have some sort of specific ambition, except for one or two. Which means that they all have the potential to end up like Rex, sad and obsolete. As do we all. Such is life, I suppose. Like Eddie, the stoner guy who sells the vinyl, says: “A record is like a life, it goes around and around. You have to take care of it.”
So, anyway. Rex Manning Day is April 8th, and if you need an excuse to watch Empire Records, this silly holiday is as good as any. I didn’t understand why it’s April 8th, but apparently there’s a Rex Manning poster in the window with the date on it. I’ve never been able to spot it, but whatever. It does bother me that they’re somewhere close to Atlantic City in the first week of April and nobody’s even wearing a jacket. That doesn’t make sense. It’s fine, I guess. Just bugs me. Details, you know? They’re important. And if you see me posting unintelligible stuff online on that day, I have not had a stroke (probably), I’m just quoting the movie in a Tourette’s-esque fugue. “Shock me, shock me, shock me with that deviant behavior.” “I don’t feel I need to explain my art to you, Warren.” “Rap. Metal. Rap. Metal. Whitney Houston.” “So, I spoke to god, and she says ‘yo, whassup?’” “The fat man walks alone.” I could go on. But I won’t. You’re welcome.