September 23, 2020
A BLANK CHECK FOR UNCHECKED ADOLESCENCEBy BENJAMIN SHEARN
I knew it was risky. And almost certainly... illegal? Echoes of a past scandal concerning Pee-Wee Herman and a movie theater and Florida rattled around somewhere in the muddle of memory.
And yet... I proceeded... slowly... outwardly covering my guilt with nonchalance. A tan windbreaker slipped off the back of my seat onto my lap - adjustments were made, both physical and psychological.
I wish the fog of recollection would allow me to round up in my favor, and that I could tell you the theater was empty. Sadly, it’s all still imprinted on my cerebellum with the same finality of light on nitrate. Surrounded by strangers in a midwestern movie house, I pursued my compulsion well before reason and restraint dissuaded me.
The film was True Lies and I was masturbating to the scene where Jamie Lee Curtis dances a goofy lingerie striptease. The year was 1994 and I was 13 years old.
How and why I committed such brazen self-gratification could be attributable to youthful fatuity. But I’d never tried anything like that before, or since. Only in retrospect can a case be made that I was acting out as a so-called ‘product of the culture.’
Hollywood’s output that year was more directly catered to (and in praise of) the straight male adolescent psyche, than any other demographic. The movie capitalists had red-blooded American boys in their crosshairs, and I was both victor and victim of the spotlight.
The box office tea leaves could not have been more overt. What started with Big, continued with Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Hook, Encino Man, T2, Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth. Here, movies whose central figures were adolescent males (either literally, psychologically, or magically) were winning audiences with overwhelming fervor.
The Age of Boy was nigh and the mid-90s were to be its apotheosis era.
Boys saved baseball in Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield and Little Big League.
They taught recalcitrant adults life lessons in North, The Client and The War.
They laid claim to the animal kingdom in The Jungle Book and The Lion King.
They revealed themselves as the inner-children of adults in Forrest Gump, Clerks, The Hudsucker Proxy, Reality Bites, Cabin Boy, Clifford, Crumb and of course the trifecta of Carrey - Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber and The Mask.
They even found time to free Tibet in Little Buddha.
But of all the boy-driven narratives Disney’s Blank Check, for me, held the most potent and indelible subtext. A film that offered up unapologetic adolescent wish fulfillment and was one of my key cinema enablers.
11-year-old Preston Waters, by virtue of a car-on-bike accident, is handed a blank check connected to a money laundering scam. He fills in one million, gets his backpack stuffed by a buffoon banker, then proceeds to spend and live unencumbered by the restrictions and prejudices of the adult world.
Blank Check attempts to establish a clear ‘money can’t buy everything’ theme, inasmuch as Preston’s family wrongly preaches the opposite. Middle-class Dad berates Preston for a lack of income, and his entrepreneurial brothers make known their capitalist-fascist beliefs with a perversion of the Golden Rule, chanting: “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”
Clearly, the screenwriters intended to affirm the original Golden Rule but end up reinforcing this false one. If they had succeeded in their intended thematic cohesion, I’m not sure it would have been as impactful on my licentious 13-year-old psyche.
Preston uses the cash to close on a small castle, and does so under a false name of a false idol; Mr. Mackintosh. He fills the house with unbridled childish Id; walls of TVs blasting video games in surround sound, a wilderness of giant inflatables and the ultimate male adolescent wet dream home addition; a built-in water slide.
Preston flaunts it with limos and wardrobe montages and even an improbably romantic dinner with a pretty bank teller (played by Karen Duffy, MTV’s “Duffy” at the time). The teller is, in reality, secretive Shay, an undercover FBI agent who sees Preston as a conduit to criminals.
Preston’s impish clash of naivete and burgeoning bravado thaw Shay’s crucial adult layers of professionalism and age-gap skepticism. In only a few encounters, this child empowered by bottomless wealth is seamingly the perfect man and he seamlessly charms Shay into an unlikely romantic co-lead.
And this is where any of Blank Check’s original altruistic sentiments fray irrevocably into an unregulated glorification of adolescent instincts.
In the film’s final act, Preston’s exposed as a fraud, broke, and in massive debt. All of which, naturally, are forgiven and absolved by quaint Disney logic. A series of jarring moral reversals then haphazardly appear. Preston experiences firsthand the cold isolation of wealth and even goes as far as to swear off money in the face of family reconciliation.
However, this turnaround is shoehorned in so suddenly it reeks suspiciously of a desperate hail mary for moral catharsis.
What Preston truly wants is plainly stated from the beginning; freedom and autonomy. He craves whatever force can transcend his child class and at the same time satiate his adolescent desires.
The eponymous Blank Check then takes on a symbolic prowess; Preston’s signature unlocks more than funds but an entire relativistic universe in which his basest intuitions are rewarded and worshipped.
All the adults of Blank Check are so passive and corrupt that Preston emerges as a God in a Godless world, self-generating all of his own moral quandaries and conclusions. Within this ethical vacuum Preston feels no pain, suffers no repercussions and is even decorated with the highest trophy of the gross straight male adolescent fantasy... the “babe.”
After all is revealed, Shay offers Preston both a statutory kiss and promise of future nooky once he’s of age or even ‘wink-wink’ before then.
With that, Blank Check accidentally offered my 1994 lizard brain a modern fable; the uncurbed ascendency of a boy king who discovers that his boyishness is fundamental to his power.
At the time Blank Check played like a fetish film for me. A revisionist myth that shifted away from adages of family, responsibility and morality, into an unambiguous exaltation of pubescent hedonism. Watching it tickled psychological pressure points with ASMR-like reward tingles, entwined with my subliminals, and endowed me with an overgrown sense of strut.
I felt as invincible as Preston, and that I lived in a world which would only ever cheer me on.
Of course, I wasn’t consciously aware of any of this as I was engaging in public self-abuse during a Schwarzenegger movie. Nor was I aware of the deep matrix of male privilege and empowerment driving all if not most of my instinctive actions.
Simultaneously I felt zero shameful misgivings or moral doubt. If I felt any fear it was only the fear of being caught. And not even from the potential for embarrassment. Only disciplinary repercussions. Even that fear was hypothetical at best. I felt more than safe that both True Lies and myself would reach denouement without incident.
If you’d ask me then, ‘why?’ I’d probably maneuver blame on to the power of runaway train hormones. Looking soberly back though, I see it as a sort of paradoxical and sad victory lap. A gestural attempt to reinforce the idea that my adolescent vigor was as powerful as a bag full of money...
Benjamin Shearn is a film editor and writer. His last feature, Ladyworld, premiered at BFI London, Fantastic Fest, TIFF: Next Wave and was presented as part of the Frontieres Showcase at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Shearn’s work in narrative and documentary films has also been exhibited at ComicCon San Diego, the Louisiana Museum of Art in Copenhagen, la Gaîté lyrique in Paris, as well as official selections of the CPH:DOX, Melbourne International, Planete+Doc, TIFF After Dark, Court Metrage du Clermont, Chicago and Boston Underground Film Festivals, amongst others. For more of his work, go to benjaminshearn.com and/or follow his absurd Instagram account @actorsupset.