What a Feeling

An Oak Street retrospective pulls us back to the flashy days of Eighties cinema

The summer of 1981

was a busy time for me--and for my mom. Two or three times a week, Mom would selflessly chauffeur her 13-year-old son to the multiplex, dropping me off at about one in the afternoon, and then returning, eight hours and four movies later, to pick me up after dark. I believe Mrs. Nelson came to regard these marathon screening sessions as akin to junior film school. (Thanks, Mom.) Certainly, Heavy Metal seemed a lot more stimulating to the kid than algebra or earth science. Obsessive about movies even then, I made a point of trying to see every American film in commercial release at least once: from the screwball scholasticism of History of the World--Part I to the summer-camp carnage of Friday the 13th, Part 2; from the tire-screeching stupidity of The Cannonball Run to the urbane angst of Modern Romance (which, I'll admit, might have gone a little over the seventh-grader's head). For the most part, I was weaned on garbage--and even as a kid, I knew it was garbage. But it interested me anyway, and, then as now, I tried to make the most of it.

There was only one summer movie that Mom flat-out forbade me to see, and that was Endless Love, a torrid teen-sex soaper with Brooke Shields ("The love every parent fears," read the tagline). So I had to sneak into that one and then keep its pleasures, such as they were, to myself. (Sorry, Mom.) Otherwise, every movie that summer was fair game. I saw a millionaire New Yorker drink like crazy and act like a kid (Arthur); a smart-aleck cabdriver join the army and act like a kid (Stripes); a caped superhero with red rubber boots fly around the globe and act like a kid (Superman II); and an ape-man cavort in the jungle with a naked Bo Derek and act like a kid (Tarzan, the Ape Man).

Being that I was a kid myself, such juvenile high jinks were just fine by me; I didn't have to regress in order to enjoy them. And yet seeing Brian De Palma's comparatively mature conspiracy thriller Blow Out on the day it opened in June of 1981 was somehow even more exciting--particularly the devastating final scene, in which John Travolta's careerist sound engineer uses the death wail of the woman he loved as the perfect scream in a sleazy slasher flick. The allegory was unmistakable even to a child: The most seemingly frivolous fiction is built, often ruthlessly, out of very real feelings.

Even as a 13-year-old, I much preferred downbeat movies with despairing endings: Chalk it up to the romantic gloom and doom of adolescence, my own not least. But, for some reason, there weren't too many of those kinds of films in the Eighties. Later, around the time that Rocky Balboa was beating a bulky Red Menace named Drago to a crimson pulp in Rocky IV (1985), I decided that the aggressively reassuring jingoism of most Hollywood movies of the era had something to do with 1980s America in general. It wasn't a stretch. After all, our president was a former movie star who quoted Rambo and Dirty Harry on TV--a man who once said, "Politics is like show business. You need a big opening. Then you coast for a while. Then you need a big finish."

Ergo, Reagan opened his eight-year blockbuster in 1981 by securing the release of all 52 U.S. hostages from Iran, and promising the greatest tax cut in the nation's history--a well-timed feel-good double feature if ever there was one. Although a Taxi Driver fan named John Hinckley briefly reinvoked the spirit of Seventies cinema by opening fire on the president (even the Oscars were rescheduled so as not to preempt that drama), Reagan himself appeared to prefer Star Wars. Indeed, he borrowed its title for the nickname of his high-tech Strategic Defense Initiative, and began referring to the Soviet Union in Lucasfilm terms as "the Evil Empire."

At that point, who could tell the difference between movies, politics, and business? The president's allegiance to his old buddies in Hollywood certainly played a starring role in his reversal of the Paramount Decrees, which for 35 years had prevented the ownership of theater chains by movie studios. Now there was nothing to stop the supremacy of the big movie at the expense of the little one. Critics increasingly followed suit by writing more about the money than about what the movies meant; two of them even made a name for themselves by reducing the art of reviewing to the rule of thumb. One of them who didn't, the New Yorker's feared and loathed Pauline Kael, had been more overtly co-opted in 1979 by that other evil empire known as Paramount Pictures. Few could blame her for having been seduced into taking a studio job by the consummate Hollywood lady-killer, Warren Beatty--another movie star with political ambitions. Beatty's particular campaign as the 1980 election approached was Reds, the three-and-a-half-hour epic he hoped to make about American journalist John Reed's hot-and-heavy affair with communism.

According to Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Beatty knew that Kael thought his idea was a terrible one. So he set out to flatter her into submission by putting her in charge of producing a film called Love and Money, written and directed by his good friend--and her latest critical darling--James Toback (Fingers). Beatty's sole stipulation was that if Kael returned to reviewing, she wouldn't write about the experience. But when her stint at Paramount turned sour (Toback quickly came to resent the critic's suggestions and had her fired from his project), she did just that, in the form of a withering and amazingly prescient 1980 article called "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers."

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