What a Feeling

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

Alas, realism of any sort was a liability in the Reagan era. After all, 19th-century immigrant farmers may indeed have existed, but they were a thing of the past--and tough to make sexy on MTV. Immigrant farmers didn't wear ripped sweatshirts and exercise to Michael Sembello; immigrant farmers didn't slurp lobster and play footsie with their partners' privates. So: Would you believe an 18-year-old Pittsburgh welder-by-day and erotic-dancer-by-night?

One of the great things about "Cinema 80" is that it makes room for both Heaven's Gate, which is infinitely more watchable than most anything in current release, and its Eighties antithesis, Flashdance, which is currently more unwatchable than anything you could possibly imagine. (I tried twice to finish the tape, but quit both times in embarrassment and shame. Forgive me.) Regardless, Flashdance (screening Wednesday and Thursday, August 22 and 23) is a key Eighties movie not only for ushering the MTV style of shooting, cutting, and plotting into the cinema, but for marking the point at which executive producers became celebrity auteurs. Those spoiled movie brats such as Cimino couldn't be trusted to sit at the grownups' table anymore--which isn't to say that the cuisine was being designed for highly evolved tastes. (The film's elliptical cut between the flashdancer and a frying ground-beef patty makes it clear what's being served.)

When Don Simpson--the much-buzzed-about (and simply buzzed) new partner of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (American Gigolo)--was at Paramount preparing his flashy tale of a working-class woman who dreams of being a ballerina, he wrote to a friend of his for help. "How the fuck do you end this picture with a bang," Simpson wondered, "so the audience knows that our heroine succeeds, which, of course, is the conundrum--just what the fuck is her definition of success?" Memo to Don: Who the fuck cares? The movie itself was the definition of success, the videos for songs from its hit soundtrack supplying free advertising for the studio while the feature-length MTV clip grossed a fortune in theaters.

Paramount and Simpson had popularized "high concept"--if the idea doesn't fit on a moist cocktail napkin, fuhgeddaboudit--and the latter was getting high on his own supply in more ways than one. Indeed, if the drug-addled Simpson can be seen as Flashdance's real director (the credited Adrian Lyne only advertises his TV tutelage), the truest reading of the film may well be a pharmacological one. The footsie scene signifies coke, of course; the dialogue between the heroine (Jennifer Beals) and her elderly mentor (Lilia Skala) suggests nothing so much as a Valium overdose; the sexist barroom conversation reeks like a tall tumbler of Jack Daniel's; and the flashdancing connotes pure speed. What a feeling is right.

 

The Eighties may have been monolithic in terms of the basic philosophy of their blockbusters: The all-consuming way of life you see here is on sale now. Still, in a four-week film retrospective of those years, there would seem an almost infinite number of ways they could be characterized--at least in theory. Unfortunately, given the scarcity of playable 35mm prints from this least venerated of decades (no one seems to be calling for Rumble Fish Redux, alas), along with the bottom-line need to keep bodies in the seats (would anyone show up to see John Sayles's Baby, It's You besides me and my baby?), the curating of "Cinema 80" has been significantly determined by market forces, just as the movies themselves once were.

And yet a short list of films and filmmakers sadly missing from the series would seem in order, especially since the decade in question was all about the power of particular images to redefine our sense of past and present. Just off the top of my head, I regret an Eighties retro that omits the work of the era's most resilient American auteur, Martin Scorsese, and its most commercial Dr. Feelgood, Steven Spielberg. (The latter's E.T. is predictably out of circulation until its 20th anniversary next year, but his Indiana Jones trilogy--capturing the kleptomaniacal thrill of both Reagan-era trade policy and cinematic appropriation--would have been up for grabs.) A film or two by the criminally underrated Joe Dante, who satirized not just Spielberg but suburban and corporate America in the Gremlins movies, would have been a riot. And in the absence of a right-wing flight of fancy such as Top Gun or Red Dawn or Rambo, the anti-military bent of George Romero's clammily apocalyptic Day of the Dead would have done the armed forces just fine.

Although Eighties horror all but buried itself alive through the cruelly efficient slasher cycle (what's truly scary is that 60 percent of all U.S. releases in 1981 were slice-and-dice flicks), the genre still allowed for the most forceful expression of how dark the New Morning in America really was. So it's a bit of a shame that horror would be so scarcely represented in "Cinema 80." (To its credit, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining--screening late in the series on a double bill with his Full Metal Jacket--isn't the least bit supernatural when you come right down to it.) So, too, the Eighties teen-sex farce--the horny flip side of the slasher film--is MIA except for Risky Business. And movies in this genre are sorely missed for having extended a rare opportunity to women directors such as Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl). In their place, we get a doubleheader by Woody Allen (Zelig and Hannah and Her Sisters, screening Wednesday and Thursday, August 15 and 16), directing nearly a decade after his best work--or, to put a positive spin on it, a decade before his worst.

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