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."

In the piece (which pretty well describes the way the industry has remained for the 20 years since it was written), Kael reported that corporate executives who didn't know or care much about movies (other than being starstruck) were not only in control of studio production but were becoming celebrities themselves. Their ego-driven desire for formulaic megahits on the order of Jaws and Star Wars was turning almost every movie into a potential blockbuster, mass-marketed on TV and released to thousands of chain-owned theaters simultaneously. Meanwhile, films that built word of mouth by traveling slowly around the country--helped along by print reviews--were going out of style, as were the personal and subversive epics of variably talented "New Hollywood" directors such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and Terrence Malick.

Required by their enormous budgets to seek instant audience recognition and universal appeal, movies that spoke to "the inner child in all of us" (or, rather, to the inner male child, including the overgrown boys at the studios) proliferated. Stars, as in the studio-contract days, were used as short cuts to getting the ticket buyer's attention. But now, represented by high-powered agents, they were also being dangled in front of industry suits to secure pre-sales to television and foreign markets--and stars didn't come cheap. The wildly inflated costs of production and promotion of these mass-released studio juggernauts (remember Raise the Titanic? The Black Hole? Inchon?) naturally dictated a conservatism of style, subject matter, and worldview--which is apparent in a number of the two dozen American movies screening as part of "Cinema 80," Oak Street Cinema's four-week Eighties retrospective. But perhaps more significant was the fact that many of us in the Eighties seemed to want movies that were conservative in style, subject matter, and worldview. And it makes sense: After years of government conspiracy, gas shortages, political assassinations, racial unrest, and Vietnam, reflected in a decade's worth of formally challenging and highly critical American films, how much more bad news could moviegoers take?

 

Near the end of 1980, a year whose biggest hit had been The Empire Strikes Back, United Artists released Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a three-hour-and-forty-minute, fact-based Western about the legalized slaughter of immigrant farmers by Montana cattle barons in 1892. Not exactly what you'd call a date movie. (It screens twice at Oak Street on Sunday, August 19, in an archival 35mm print.) Cimino, riding high on the five Oscars recently awarded to his epic exorcism of Vietnam, The Deer Hunter, spared no expense to re-create the period setting of his third movie. A century-old locomotive, too large to pass through modern train tunnels, was lugged from Colorado to Montana along a track laid specially for the occasion. To make the frontier mise en scène look suitably smoky, the director used gigantic fans to blow 20,000 tons of chemical dust before the cameras. For the film's 20-minute prologue, set two decades before the rest of the action, a huge tree was uprooted, shipped in several pieces to Oxford University, and reassembled there. Every building, every sign, and every piece of clothing was allegedly modeled on period photographs, whether those items were identifiable onscreen or not. "Even when detail is there but not seen," Cimino told American Film, "I still feel it contributes something."

In the end, the director had exposed 220 hours worth of film at a cost of $44 million. Eventually recouping just $1.3 million from an abridged rerelease cut that ran two and a half hours (Oak Street is screening the long version), Heaven's Gate became the biggest financial catastrophe ever to befall a major studio, enough to spell the end of United Artists and, in many ways, the New Hollywood movement as a whole. Among Cimino's countless misjudgments--or transgressions, as you prefer--was his unwillingness to cast actors with much marquee value. (Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert were hardly strong enough names to be saddled with the load of this weighty horse opera.) Still, it's hard to imagine that even Robert Redford and Paul Newman could have sold the early Eighties audience on Cimino's unfashionably bleak vision of how the West was won."The conception is a complete downer....The spirit is late-sixties, as if Cimino had just become alienated," wrote Kael in the New Yorker, dissing the industry but epitomizing the times. "It's a movie you want to deface; you want to draw mustaches on it..." And nearly everyone did.

The obvious irony was that this radical ode to immigrant "anarchists" destroyed by the pitiless forces of American capitalism would itself fall prey to those forces. After the dust had settled on the whole debacle, Variety reported that Heaven's Gate would be reissued in a third, 90-minute edition called The Johnson County War--in which the good guys prevail! This cut never actually came to pass, although the Rambo-style notion of muscularly reversing the failures of both cinema and history--replaying past traumas so that "we" get to win--certainly represented the general way of things in the 1980s.

Today, watching the full version of Heaven's Gate (which isn't advisable after a large meal, by the way), what emerges most clearly is Cimino's simultaneously bold and naive fidelity to a sort of realism that runs counter to Hollywood convention and, at times, to basic coherence. Even aside from the film's flagrant disregard for defining the basic relationships between the protagonists, the sound--on the battlefield as well as in the echo-filled lecture halls of Harvard University circa 1870--is muffled to the point of being unintelligible. Was Cimino such a stickler for period detail that he recorded the dialogue with late-19th-century equipment? Forty million bucks and the guy couldn't afford Dolby Stereo? Whatever the case, the words are as tough to hear as they might well have been more than a century ago. Which is a pretty audacious kind of realism, yes?

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.

Granted, the overwhelming white maleness of the series--not a single movie by a woman or a director of color has been included--is nothing if not representative of the decade's disturbing balance of power. But the retro's phobic Fatal Attraction and House of Games make that point pretty strongly all by themselves. And a curatorial affirmative-action principle could have created space on the roster for, say, Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel or Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman or Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The last of these is readily available in 35mm, and offers, by nearly all accounts, the decade's definitive film discussion of race relations in America. (As Right Thing's Buggin' Out would say: "We want some pictures of brothers up on the wall.")

So that leaves the race card in "Cinema 80" to be played by Hollywood vet Sam Fuller, whose long-impounded White Dog (Monday and Tuesday, on a double bill with his war movie The Big Red One) serves as a measure of how unwilling some Americans were at the time to confront racism head-on. Without seeing the finished film--in which a German shepherd trained by a white racist kills several African Americans, prompting a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to attempt to "deprogram" the beast--representatives of the NAACP expressed concern in 1982 that it might give ideas to the wrong people. In turn, Paramount, fearing a boycott, shelved the movie for nearly ten years, until it screened as part of a traveling Fuller retrospective. In 1991 I had the privilege of seeing it introduced by the then-seventysomething director at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. There, wearing a thick trench coat and a black baseball cap pulled tight over an unruly mane of white hair, the former newspaperman gave his mangy masterpiece a lead befitting a tabloid. "The film you're about to see is called White Dog," he said in between chomps on his ever-present cigar. "It's about a dog that will go completely berserk in front of your eyes."

Without appearing the director's apologist here (the film is difficult, and appropriately so), I'd say Fuller's seemingly cavalier quote reflects the daring of an artist who, throughout his career, chose to approach race issues through the bluntest of metaphors. Simply put, in White Dog, racism is a bitch: rabid, vicious, and ignorantly determined, an animal perhaps impossible to tame. Or is it? Winfield's trainer, haunted by racist violence in his past and obsessed with the challenge of curing the white dog ("He's not a monster. He was made by a two-legged racist!"), literally exposes himself during the course of his experiment, leaving the distinct impression that he has been through this process before. Indeed, one of Fuller's points is that while his white characters' naïveté is born of the privilege of not having to worry much about racism in their own lives, the black characters are immediately familiar with the white dog's particular threat.

Then there's the film's endlessly intriguing depiction of the dog itself. On the one hand, Fuller evokes a fair amount of sympathy for this purebred product of hate. (His tour of a hellish dog pound is as harrowing as anything in his Shock Corridor--and similarly predicated on exposing the fate of those oppressed.) On the other hand, in the creature's snarling face, Fuller shows us the evil we're up against.

When the film was in production at Paramount, executive Michael Eisner wanted Don Simpson to focus his no-doubt-divided attention on Fuller's movie rather than the more Simpsonesque An Officer and a Gentleman. "White Dog is Jaws," Eisner told him. But is it? Having suffered a decade of near-inactivity while the studios were busy making coffer-feeding machines, Fuller made his cinematic sympathies clear. "That's the enemy!" yells an animal trainer in White Dog, hurling darts at a poster of R2-D2.

 

If Fuller was forced to settle for seeing White Dog premiere on cable, other oppositional artists featured in the series--Oliver Stone, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and Steven Soderbergh--benefited unconditionally from Hollywood's new ancillary markets, particularly home video. The guarantee of at least some money back through worldwide distribution on tape encouraged independent companies to finance some amazingly radical work in conservative times. Stone's Salvador (Wednesday and Thursday, on a double bill with his Platoon) not only dared to call attention to American involvement in the funding of right-wing death squads, but did so with lacerating humor. Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (Monday and Tuesday, August 20 and 21, on a double bill with his Mystery Train) playfully acknowledged that there actually was a vital cinematic tradition outside our own borders. Lynch's Blue Velvet (Wednesday and Thursday, August 29 and 30) ripped open the curtain that had been placed over sexuality in American movies. And Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (Friday and Saturday, August 17 and 18) ingenuously signaled the return of provocative and literate Amerindies featuring smart female characters (imagine that!), in addition to turning the Sundance Film Festival into alt-cinema ground zero.

The irony now is that the ubiquity of video threatens to make attendance at "Cinema 80" as sparse as at, say, a screening of a new world-cinema masterpiece such as Flowers of Shanghai or The Wind Will Carry Us (which is another function of enduring Eighties trends, but we won't get into that here). Then again, the Uptown Theatre recently sold 600 tickets to a midnight screening of the Spielberg-produced kiddie flick The Goonies--so what do I know? For generations of kids, the familiar memory of having laughed along to USA Network broadcasts of, say, The Naked Gun and Airplane! several times a year might be precisely the appeal of coming out to do it again in public. (That double feature screens Monday and Tuesday, August 27 and 28.)

In terms of the period films in the series, is it nostalgia for nostalgia that makes us want to revisit the Fifties-set Diner and Stand by Me? Perhaps, though even the contemporary Eighties comedies seem oddly rooted in the past. In Ghostbusters (screening Friday through Sunday, along with Caddyshack), the title characters' freelance eviction of New York's bad element has been made downright quaint by Giuliani standards. In its day, Risky Business nearly blushed from the turn-on of bringing an Eighties sense of class to the teen-male-fantasy genre. Yet its sleek fetishization of brand-name product (the Ray-Bans, the Top Siders, the Porsche) is now de rigueur. Come to think of it, Tom Cruise, playing the film's Princeton-bound yuppie-in-training Joel Goodson, sold himself pretty shrewdly, too. How much do you think that "Old Time Rock & Roll" underwear dance was worth to the kid's career?

Maybe I shouldn't be so mordant. After all, this kid got a career out of risky business, too. But while I'm allowed to drive myself to the theater these days, the movies inside remain frozen in adolescence. Forget about retrospectives. In a way, we're all still screening the thrill rides of the Eighties, over and over. And forget about nostalgia, too. Who has time to raid that lost ark again when the order of the day is to raid its tomb?

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...