Film Comment: The Eighties (12/89)

To group movies or anything else by decades is usually an arbitrary, meaningless, journalistic hook, but not in the Eighties. This decade was coherent, organized, all but monolithic. Perhaps no other modern epoch–in this country–has been so dominated culturally by a single presence, a single beckoning, commanding gaze. There were times–think of summer ’84–when it truly seemed that there was only one person, one cultural citizen, in the nation: when it seemed that all images flowed from Ronald Reagan, and that all were returned to him.

Reagan was, then, the audience, and throughout the Eighties it was as if almost all commercial American movies were made to please him, to flatter him, at the least not to offend him–whether “him” referred to one of the many guises in which he chose to appear (militarist, visionary, common man, patriarch, adventurer, philosopher), or to the secret sadist of “We begin bombing in five minutes,” or the millenarian calling up biblical prophecies of the Antichrist and the Last Days.

If this is so, to mark films off chronologically, as if they could measure linear developments in cinema, the marketplace, or history, would be to elude the wholeness of the time, its stasis, its implicit proclamation of victory over time (time in the Eighties was not a straight line, but a circle). And it would be to diminish the surprise, the marginal no of those films that tried to find different stories to tell, or that caught the spirit of the time so completely that, almost in spite of themselves, they suggested that that spirit could not be kept coherent–governed–by the man who seemed to own it.

Thus what follows is not coherent at all; in a time of single vision, incoherence is the beginning of a new life, not to mention the first principle of a good time.

Baby, It’s You (1983)
Directed and written by John Sayles. A year earlier, in the TV-movie of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Rosanna Arquette was shockingly alive as Nicole Baker, Gary Gilmore’s girlfriend; here, changing classes, she let you believe every gesture, every frown and smile, of Jill Rubin, nice Jewish high schooler with a greaser boyfriend. She seemed like an actress who could do anything, and she’s been wasted ever since. These two performances track the loss, and the great gap between the classes Arquette once jumped: that it’s impossible to imagine her Baker and her Rubin having anything to say to each other is proof of how good she was.

Back to the Future (1985)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale. For Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson (the latter another casualty)–both were infinitely more compelling and appealing as disasters than successes, and in a Reaganist text where success is grace and failure is damnation.

Batman (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton, written by Sam Hamm. It didn’t fly, it crawled–a Manny Farber termite as big as an elephant. The way Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale sleep together (as if it’s merely what people do–compare it to the Superman-Lois Lane coupling, which took one-and-a-half films to get to, and was punished) was more displacing than anything in the damned images of Robert Mapplethorpe, who was born in Vogue, and will die there.

Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment
Andrew Brit­ton, Movie 31/32, Winter 1986. Across 20,000 weighted words, all that need be said about the films it addressed (from Return of the Jedi to Ordinary People).The whole discourse of the period, from Ralph Macchio to Sigourney Weaver, from spectacle to spectator and back again, is caught at a screening of Hell Night: “It became obvious at a very early stage that every spectator knew exactly what the film was going to do at every point, even down to the order in which it would dispose of its various characters… The film’s total predictability did not create boredom or disappointment. On the contrary, the predictability was clearly the main source of pleasure, and the only occasion for disappointment would have been a modulation of the formula, not the repetition of it.”

Blue Velvet (1986)
Directed and written by David Lynch. An hour or a week later, the drama begins to fragment, reducing none of its convulsive, gorgeous moments, but making it impossible to mark off what you’ve seen, to send it to the prison of expectation and result, to fix it in the familiarity of any certain place or time. The setting seems like suburbia–in fact it’s “that same small town in each of us” Don Henley sings about in “The End of the Innocence,” and also the rotting big city of post-war film noir. The establishing ambience feels like the Fifties, but the hero’s earring is just as surely the Eight­ies; Dennis Hopper’s suit (“The Well-Dressed Man”) the Seventies; the mys­tery woman’s torchy rendition of the title song is straight from the Helen Morgan Twenties; Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” as horrifyingly mimed by the pervert, is the Sixties; the shiny, garish tones mark a return to the Technicolor Fifties; and the awful roar that comes out of the bed as the hero and the mystery woman fall together is the voice of Grendel’s mother, thousands of years gone. Going too far in any direction one might chart, the movie made it plain how expensive compromise really is, and in a year when the word no longer carried any meaning.

Dead Ringers (1988)
Directed and written by David Cronenberg. The ulti­mate nuclear family as charnel house, then abbatoir. Money as excrement. And, save for the nightmare in which Genevieve Bujold bites the twin Jeremy Ironses apart, so austere: the perfect language for a story of born winners born dead.

Dragonslayer (1981)
Directed by Matthew Robbins, written by Robbins and Hal Barwood. A magical film about the death of magic. Unlike his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Robbins understood that heroism is about loss, defeat, and disappearance, not conquest and reconciliation; like Lucas and Spielberg, Robbins may have glanced at Joseph Campbell, but he’d also read King Lear. Set in Britain in about 400 A.D., the magic of the film’s conception is in the idea that the new Jesus religion is erasing the reality of not only sorcery but of the dragons themselves–and Robbins’ dragons, far more believable than the new Jesus, are absolutely real. There’s a metaphor in the unforgettable first glimpse of the dragon babies, who have to be killed–a meta­phor for the national pathology about abortion–but I can’t untangle it. And I must admit it’s no accident that the vile leader of the Jesusites is named “Greil”; Robbins is a friend.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Dead at 37, 1982. Imagine the Sixties if Jean-Luc Godard had died in ’67; Fassbin­der’s exit, coming as he may have been about to translate his obsessions into a language anyone could understand, may prove more violent, because while he left an unmade future, he also left an unwritten past. In the Thirties and For­ties, world history was made in Central Europe, and Fassbinder had begun to function as its artist; very likely the his­tory of the Nineties will be made there, too, but it may not have an artist.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Directed by Amy Heckerling, written by Cameron Crowe. Mall culture as real life, with classic performances by Sean Penn (the surfer), Jennifer Jason Leigh (the nice girl), and Forest Whita­ker (the football player, and the only one who’s been better since); perhaps the best bad sex scene ever put on film; incessant invention, delight in craft, jokes doubling back and blowing up the jokers; and the frankest, most casual–which is to say the most liberating–abortion sequence the American cinema will ever permit itself. Remember Blue Denim? Taking a future we won’t get for granted, Fast Times is now an echo of a golden age, when teenagers could be neither stupid nor apologetic. - Film Comment

48 Hrs. (1982)
Directed by Walter Hill, written by Hill, Roger Spottis­woode, Larry Gross and Steven de Souza. Nick Nolte seems too big for the defeat he’s always feeling for, but as the best lead actor of the decade he was also the quietest, almost as thoughtful in the way he moved as John Wayne in Red River. Here as elsewhere he was slow and shambling, but Eddie Murphy and James Remar gave Hill the juice to go fast on the eye. With timing so explosive and brutal within obvious conventions (the hotel killings) that the conventions did not survive, the film was so formally thrilling it blew off the worst day you could bring to it.

The King of Comedy (1983)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Zimmerman. Compared to this, Dead Ringers is everyday life: this was a horror movie. Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin was the creepiest character ever to carry a film, and he held the screen like Garbo. As for Jerry Lewis, TV Guide once ran a program listing for a show where Lewis was to discuss the “film curse” he was then teaching at UCLA–but this movie, about the colonization of everyday life by entertainment, was it.

Melvin and Howard (1980)
Directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Bo Goldman. The American dream–that is, the dream that Howard Hughes was a real person you could actually talk to, and that Melvin Dum­mar, the loser who came forth with a will naming him an heir to Hughes’ fortune, was a real person, too. But finally Hughes is real and Dummar is not. Set in a wasteland of trailer parks, hopeless get-rich-quick scams, game shows, divorce, and strip joints–then, the terrain Mailer mapped so cruelly in The Executioner’s Song, now Lotteryland, the borderless, internalized themepark of the Big Spin–it was, in moments, the most charming film of the decade, and all in all the most depressing.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
Directed by Terry Jones, written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones. Like any Python movie, not to mention the TV shows, mostly terrible. In nine scenes out of ten there’s no timing, the laughter you hear is that of the writers cracking up over their script, the silence that of the people in the theater watching what’s been done with it. But there are two sequences far more transgresssive, more a thumb to the nose of every piety, funnier than anything in David Lynch or David Cronen­berg’s work: the few seconds where the man who’s signed a liver donor card gets his organ pulled out, his blood spurting past camera range, his legs kicking to the edge of the frame; and the long, long scene of the fat man (Terry Jones) in the fancy restaurant, vomiting over everything in sight. No, no, you can hear Chaplin, Keaton, and even Arbuckle saying, that isn’t what we meant at all. It was, though.

My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Directed by Louis Malle, written by Wallace Shawn. Two men talk about freedom and selling out, at just that moment in cultural time when the two ideas were becoming irresistibly synonymous: already, Andre Gregory, talking as the free artist (he went on to star in Calvin Klein ads for Obsession), sounds smug, and Shawn, dollar-damned, sounds ready to sell out, if he could find anyone to buy what he has to sell (he went on to become the canniest small-part actor of the decade, a man whose few minutes in The Bedroom Window said more than William Hurt’s whole good career). As rendered by Malle and Shawn, the philosophy of the film was sensual: “All I want to do,”‘ a friend said when the movie was over, “is go somewhere and have quail and red wine.” She meant talk as good as the movie, but she also meant quail and red wine. But it was after midnight.

Near Dark (1987)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Eric Red and Bigelow. As you watch, the southwestern vampires seem like the Manson Family, though without a hint of Texas Chainsaw Massacre grand guignol (the bar massacre is balletic); you might also catch echoes of Melvin and Howard and, again, The Executioner’s Song–the same hideously empty landscape, boredom forcing out morals, the same sense that some people simply have to be killed, the ethos of a society recreating itself around the criminalization of abortion, which is justified by the affirmation of the death penalty.

But one can think too much. When the vampires come back to you, maybe long after you’ve rented the video–no one saw this picture in the theaters–they can seem most of all like the people you try not to look at as you walk down the street, as you leave the theater where you’ve just seen Sea of Love, once again cursing the fact that Al Pacino didn’t make it back. I tried not to look the other day, as a young man standing at the corner of a busy intersection pulled his pants down around his ankles. My god, I thought, this guy is going to piss right in the street. But he didn’t; he shit in it. Then he pulled up his pants, picked up his bottle, and walked away. That’s what you might see; when you watch Bigelow’s poem, all you hear is quiet.


Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Directed by Herbert Ross, written by Dennis Potter. The only noir musical: dancing scenes (the kids on their schoolroom desks) more vibrant than anything in Singin’ in the Rain; negation as delightful as the affirmation of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies; and Vernel Bagneris’ mime of Arthur Tracy’s apocalyptic 1937 recording of the title song, as terrifying as anything in The Killers–either version. Potter will replace Fassbinder if anyone can: as the maudit critic of Thatcherism, which may provide the ideology of the history Central Europe will make. Never mind the people who say you’ve got to see the BBC version; there is at least one living Englishman who says this was better.

Raging Bull (1980)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Schra­der and Mardik Martin. There isn’t a false moment in this good story, and Robert De Niro turns other actors into fools. But the language of the movie was made for video, or laser disc: you get to try to break the dreamlike, unutterably brutal fight scenes down to single frames, to demystify their force, to expose their artifice, and it can’t be done. You find yourself staring at Francis Bacon paintings, paintings so strong you can hardly bear to start the film again.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Lawrence Kasdan. Harrison Ford as Uncle Scrooge, and not just because the opening sequence was stolen from Carl Barks’ “The Seven Cities of Cibola,” Uncle Scrooge 7, September 1954. In a reckless search for adventure, the film summed up Scrooge & Co., ransacking all of history for the things of legend (the Philosopher’s Stone, the Lost Crown of Genghis Khan, King Solomon’s Mines), and Scrooge’s itchy fear that his fortune could vanish in an instant (looking over his shoulder, Ford always seems to need a stiff drink).

Sure, the subtext of Raiders was Vic­torian/imperialist/colonialist/racist hegemony, but the movie wasn’t about living out of a money vault, even if the movie would get Spielberg his own. The last scene, with the Ark of the Covenant crated up and interred in a warehouse filled with identical boxes, a building so enormous and dead it serves as a com­mon dream of bureaucracy, could even be read as a sneer at Roosevelt’s Big Government, at the plague that would force individualists like Indiana Jones and Spielberg out of time, at least until one of them could reemerge as presi­dent. But it’s also a Scrooge ending: precisely, the end of Barks’ “The Golden Fleecing,” Uncle Scrooge 12, December 1956, where, having finally gotten his hands on Jason’s treasure, Scrooge has it made into a coat, finds it cold on the skin (or feathers, I guess), and tosses it into a trashcan–the same “trashcan of history” Reagan so loved to invoke when he was talking about communism, even if he stole the metaphor from Karl Marx. There’s a profound message here: art is plunder, and plunder is fun.

The Right Stuff (1983)
Directed and written by Philip Kaufman. The Chuck Yeager/Sam Shepard Last-Cowboy rou­tine was a bore, but Yeager’s flying scenes were not, and the point, finally, was that Yeager was wrong (the Last Cowboy was a set-up, for Kaufman if not for Tom Wolfe): the astronauts proved there was still history to make. In the end, John Glenn/Ed Harris was many times the hero Yeager/Shepard was; watching Harris as Glenn’s capsule burned on reentry, I was convinced that if what was on screen was even half true, Glenn should be President, and when­ever I think of this movie, I still think that. Not that this had anything to do with what Kaufman was after: grandeur.

The Shining (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Diane Johnson. Every mannerism, tic, gesture, or look-at-me move that through the rest of the decade would be death (until Bat­man, when all were exploded) was working here in Jack Nicholson’s performance, giving pleasure, taking it back, a buzzer in every handshake with the audience. What you saw was a man–the character and the actor–so completely absorbed in himself he has to eat the world to keep going. As such the film was as cold as Kubrick must have wanted it to be, as cruel, and likely far more nihilist–more of a prophecy.

Sixteen Candles (1984)
Directed and written by John Hughes. Glowing, with Molly Ringwald getting felt up by her grandmother on her 16th birthday, which everyone forgot. Preston Sturges came back to life, and then Hughes went back to the dead.

Suspects (1985)
David Thomson. Thomson had an interesting idea: starting with film noir, extending the notion as far as possible in terms of both time and style, he’d fill in everyone’s fantasies about the life that brought, say, Rick to Casablanca, that Jimbo Stark lived out after Rebel Without a Cause, dozens of new tales rooted in old stories, our myths. For a time the book is a wonder­ful game. Then you begin to realize that it is not a game, that the new tales and old stories are part of each other, not merely linked but rushing toward a con­clusion more total than that any single work of film noir ever inflicted. So Thomson wrote the movie film noir wanted, but’ never dared make: an alto­gether sympathetic, moving, damned mystery about America as murder. The detective was the genre, the past was the suspect, the innocent was the culprit, and the victim was the present. - Suspects (David Thomson)
The Terminator (1984)
Directed by James Cameron, written by Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd. Violence more exciting, fearsome and costly than any­thing in 48 Hrs., a better sex scene than anything in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, astonishing special effects (probably pretty cheap), stunning humor (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic, perfectly convincing “Fuck you, asshole”), and a happy ending–set far in the future, long after nuclear war. Shapely, relentless, and implacably dys­topian, it was our time’s Manchurian Candidate, which is to say the best movie of the decade.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Directed by Philip Kaufman, written by Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere. How Central Europe once tried to make history (in 1968, in Czechoslovakia, modestly, simply extending the accents and gestures of everyday life, recognizing accents as val­ues and gestures as promises, then cap­turing the desire that lay behind promises and values, until it was certain one could not live without the realiza­tion of desire); how the history Central Europe tried to make was taken from it; and a measure of the debt that, once paid in kind, will return history to those who can make it.

Used Cars (1980)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale. It goes soft in the second half, but the first half is W.C. Fields’ undifferentiated loathing as good busi­ness practice, with salesman Kurt Rus­sell as the American Henry James couldn’t have written about and Mark Twain did. Too bad the next ten years gave him more opportunity than he could handle: today he’s president of a Savings & Loan carrying a cool billion in bad paper. But he’ll get out of it.

Film Comment, November/December, 1989: “Two or Three Things We Know About… The Eighties… The Industry (by Gregg Kilday) & The Art (by Greil Marcus)”

Film Comment Nov-Dec 1989

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