Class of '81
Oak Street Cinema
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FIFTEEN YEARS AGO this summer, Brian De Palma's Blow Out and the animated rock epic Heavy Metal both hit our nation's movie screens. These two eventual cult films couldn't have been more dissimilar in relation to the sociopolitical vibe of the early '80s--and not only because one of them was drawn and the other filmed. Blow Out, about a movie soundman who accidentally audio-tapes an accidental political assassination, reverberated with the unresolved tensions of Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, and Watergate, not to mention unresolved movies (Blow-Up and The Conversa-tion, to name just two). Tellingly, De Palma's last image revealed the soundman holding his hands over his ears, straining to block out the shrill mix he'd helped to create. Heavy Metal, on the other hand, blared abrasive AOR tunes in six-track Dolby, and climaxed halfway through with a smiley-face spacecraft hovering over Washington. Blow Out lamented the relationship between real and reel violence; Heavy Metal got off on mayhem before saluting the happy New Morning in Reagan America.
In the same year that the movie star-turned-president took a bullet from a man inspired by--what else?--a movie (Scorsese's Taxi Driver), Blow Out featured a protagonist (John Travolta) who fails to prevent at least two politically motivated killings. It hardly made a summer splash, no doubt because it flew in the face of such recuperative adventures as Superman II and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Blow Out also exposed the limits of heroism and technology (the staples of '80s films), while invoking the real-world horrors of rape, murder, and corruption; and it didn't help that the main character was decidedly less than admirable. Having recorded the sound of a presidential candidate's car plunging into a river, Travolta's Jack Terry discovers that the car's tire had been shot out; he then sets about constructing a mini-movie out of photos of the "accident" and his own audio tape. De Palma plays the details of Jack's A/V prowess for maximum viewer pleasure, until it becomes clear that this guy is less interested in uncovering the truth than in piecing together a snuff film to rival Zapruder's.
Indeed, Jack's increasingly selfish and obsessive sleuthing reflects an '80s tide turning away from political action and toward selfishness and misogyny: A woman whom he'd saved from the crash, a makeup artist named Sally (Nancy Allen), becomes no less a pawn of Jack's scheme than the villains'. The film is full of male manipulators bound together in a vicious circle: The dead man's political rival had used Sally in an attempt to frame him; a smarmy TV news reporter manipulates Jack; and Jack in turn exploits Sally by subtly goading her into wearing a wire for her meeting with the killer. (Whether De Palma exploited his then-wife Allen isn't clear, although the two never made another movie together.) In the amazingly hyperbolic finale, DePalma conflates patriotism, dirty tricks, violence against women, and slasher movies into a single sick joke, one that's all the more dark for how fully it resonates with the real zeitgeist.
Meanwhile, Heavy Metal took the trend of movie machismo to blatantly immature ends. A largely incoherent cross between Ralph Bakshi, Penthouse Forum, and the cult comic of the same name, Heavy Metal wraps six interminable stories around the conceit of a glowing green orb called the Loch-Nar: an evil "shadow over the universe" that somehow enables most of the film's cartoonish males to get laid after changing them from wimps into musclemen. (The invariably big-busted female characters exist only long enough to disrobe.) Since the animation isn't appreciably more striking or surreal than standard Saturday-morning fare, the film's cultdom stems mainly from the fact that the difficulty of licensing the many rock songs has prevented a video release (although bootlegs have run rampant). Thus, Columbia Pictures' attempt to make a quick theatrical killing before their tape comes out--now that erstwhile supergroups like Blue Oyster Cult, Riggs, and Cheap Trick have presumably lowered their asking prices.
Visually, it's a wellspring of ill-drawn adolescent fantasies: hot-rod cars, women with their legs spread, illegal aliens, decomposing bodies, and a hasty "happy ending" that sends a victimized girl off to become a scantily clad "warrior." Speaking of adolescents, I was a wee 13 years old when I saw Heavy Metal at the Skyway on the day it opened; I remember agreeing with the Minneapolis Star's film critic Joanna Connors that it was "a surprisingly dull movie." (With tongue in cheek, she deemed Blow Out "a firecracker of a movie.")
Looking back, it seems that, despite the overwhelmingly rightward turn of our cultural products circa 1981, the year somehow gave rise to such strongly critical American films as Prince of the City, Ms. 45, Pennies From Heaven, Modern Romance, Mommie Dearest, Atlantic City, The Howling, Polyester, The Decline of Western Civilization, and Blow Out: a top 10 for 1981. Aside from the latter, none of these movies is likely to get a theatrical revival anytime soon, although any of them would be well worth checking out.
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