Cinema Nukes the Greed Decade With all Manner of Colorful Fare
My favorite part of this year’s Film Admissions theme is each month gives one of my colleagues a chance to wax poetic for their favorite era of the movies. David L. Gill shared his passion for the Silent era, Jim Tudor argued the 1950s were cinema’s greatest decade, and like many film fans, David Blakeslee espoused the artistry and innovation of ‘70s.
Now it’s my turn to go to bat for the ‘80s. In his introduction to our ‘40s Film Admissions, Robert Hornak wrote, “The visceral leap from [the ‘30s]…is not unlike the visual escalation from the heavy grain and sweating countenance of early ‘70s films to the slick, backlit, bodaciously special-effected contraption that was the ‘80s.” You might call that a slight on the decade that wrought Porky’s, Ishtar, and the worst Steven Spielberg movie with the best cast, Always. Perhaps you blame the ‘80s for turning Hollywood into a sequel machine obsessed with superhuman heroes. Maybe you wonder why if The Last Emperor was Best Picture-worthy it only comes up when listing Best Picture winners. I can’t argue with those gripes, and I’m the first to acknowledge plenty of jokes and cultural assumptions haven’t aged well. (For one, I can’t figure how casual, objectifying female nudity was normal even in stories targeted at older kids and teens.)
But I’m telling on myself when I sum up ‘70s cinema with my four least favorite words in reviews: long, dark, slow, and serious. The ‘80s were breezy, colorful, energetic, and over-the-top—in short, they were fun. Here are eight reasons why:
1. There’s been no better decade for comedy. Airplane!, Arthur, Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, Big, Clue—that’s just the going alphabetically. And before Saturday Night Live alums started going viral for a week, they starred in classics we still watch today like The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, This Is Spinal Tap, Three Amigos!, and Trading Places.
2. Comedy wasn’t the only genre that thrived. Action got Die Hard and Top Gun; horror got Evil Dead 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street; and sci-fi got Aliens and The Terminator.
3. Soundtracks became an art form. Traditional musicals fell into a lull, but the rise of music videos developed new filmmaking techniques and inspired musically driven stories like Dirty Dancing, Fame, Flashdance, Footloose, Say Anything…, and Top Gun. Oh, and don’t forget John Hughes or Prince’s work on Batman and Purple Rain!
4. Hollywood took young people seriously. Speaking of Hughes, his empathetic and well-made hits like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink were the pinnacle of a huge output of teen movies. (It’s no surprise this decade launched the PG-13 rating.)
5. Families consistently had fun nights at the theater. Even before the Disney Renaissance kicked off with The Little Mermaid, parents and kids alike had fun at The Karate Kid, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Princess Bride, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. We still gather annually for holiday favorites like Beetlejuice, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
6. Studios took chances on truly weird titles. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admire the chutzpah of Back to the Future Part II, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Blade Runner, The Fly, Gremlins, Labyrinth, Little Shop of Horrors, The Lost Boys, Raising Arizona, Short Circuit, Teen Wolf, and whatever Tim Burton and John Carpenterwere up to.
7. The Oscars loved well-made hits. Some winners are head-scratchers today, but The Big Chill, Broadcast News, Dead Poets Society, E.T., Fatal Attraction, Field of Dreams, Moonstruck, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tootsie, Witness, and Working Girl were all box office successes and Best Picture contenders. Rain Man won the top prize and finished fourth at the box office.
8. Even commercial fare still found ways to challenge the status quo. Like in the ‘30s, practically every movie was about money. The ‘80s didn’t put transgressive storytelling front and center like in the ‘70s, but 9 to 5; Do the Right Thing; Footloose; Full Metal Jacket; Good Morning, Vietnam; Heathers; RoboCop; Scarface; When Harry Met Sally…; and Working Girl made us think about sexism, racism, religion, war, class, capitalism, relationships, and more cultural friction points.
I could keep this list going, if for no other reason than I haven’t even gotten to international or documentary films yet. I love the ‘80s because critical and commercial success weren’t mutually exclusive in Hollywood, and it’s never been as true since then. I’m not sure if you can be nostalgic for a time you didn’t live through, but I’m as close as you can get. Let’s see if the rest of our contributors feel the same…
– Taylor Blake
ZekeFilm is 10 years old in 2022! We’re commemorating it with a year-long Film Admissions series wherein each month, we take on a decade (give or take) of cinema, in chronological order. As is always the case with Film Admissions, participants are encouraged to watch a film within that month’s topic that they’ve never seen but have been meaning to. The bigger and more well known the film, the better! Then, together, we share our individual thoughts on our findings.
Directed by Paul Brickman/1983
by Robert Hornak
All I’d ever seen from this movie was…do I even have to say it? The first surprise, given the full-blown assumptions I’d made about it based on that one scene, is right in the opening credits: music by Tangerine Dream against a slo-mo cityscape in the early ‘80s giving off some near-verbatim Vangelis/Blade Runner vibes. The soundtrack begs the question, could I be diving into a thoughtful movie, and not the pizza-on-the-turntable, beer-cup-pyramid movie I was expecting? Well, the music certainly does its part to help me keep thinking this is a thinking man’s Porky’s, but the rudimentary storytelling does the opposite. Truth is, I’m not versed enough in early ‘80s teen sex comedies to know if this movie is the culmination of all the hormonic convergences that came before it, so to speak, or if its very basic building blocks (horny boys, hot available women, vacationing parents, dad’s doomed Porsche, etc.) are just the progenitor of all that followed.
What’s clear is that – at least at first – it wants to be an updated The Graduate, or at the very least it openly embraces the allusions: young, dark-haired, (forgive me) large-nosed boy in sophisticated blazer and sunglasses crafting sophisticated sexual adventures for himself in the heart of rich-boy suburbia, and, in one sequence, being his own POV shot as mom and dad shellac him with the rules-of-the-house before they leave for the week (feels a lot like Benjamin Braddock in his diving suit). In any case, 21-as-17-year-old Tom Cruise plays Joel, the earnest student who remains the reluctant entrepreneur well into the second half of the movie, preserving some reasonable decency in the face of what I’d expected to be a snickering, slobbering lust fest, another mark toward the thoughtful. But then we roll back from that when, after some late-in-second-act troubles go down, we’re to believe the only person Joel can turn to for a shoulder to cry on is the very woman who started it all in the first place. That’s Rebecca De Mornay as Lana, the call girl. De Mornay plays her with a strange mix of cold and mean, as opposed to actually alluring, making it somewhat more interesting – she’s not the girl next door, but just the kind of dangerous, worldly presence that a kid ensconced in straight-A Kubla Khan might think is worth the trouble of scrapping his future for. Frankly, the Tangerine Dream makes her seem like a Replicant, and more than a little bit creepy.
For about fifteen minutes toward the end, just after Lana talks Joel into turning his house into a brothel for all his friends to indulge in, for the noble purpose of repairing, of course, dad’s doomed Porsche, the movie slips from quasi-thoughtful teen-boy empowerment to an outright satire on capitalism, perhaps with an edge of insight into the cost paid for financial success running roughshod over a mansion’s worth of innocent boys, or perhaps a slight skewering of its own genre and the callous subversion of morality for a nation’s worth of weekly lawn mowing residuals. (A theory underscored by the many cutaways of framed pics of Joel as a little boy.) I don’t think I’m thinking too hard to get to that – the tone shifts so hard in that sequence it’d have to be called a mistake otherwise. It’s a kind of precocious analysis of what the ‘80s would become known for: runaway excess, the apotheosis of youth culture, overindulgence mixed with yuppie-brand optimism, and happy endings at any cost, in this case with the kid successfully conquering the hooker with the heart of a femme fatale, Tangerine Dream keyboarding us into the sunset, and – for me at least – a grinning Ferris Bueller waiting for me on the Netflix “you might also like” page.
Do the Right Thing
Directed by Spike Lee/1989
by Erik Yates
I was in high school in 1989 when Spike Lee’s seminal film, Do the Right Thing, came out, though I wouldn’t see it for another 33 years! I of course had heard about Bill Nunn’s character Radio Raheem who carried his boombox blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, Samuel L. Jackson’s Radio DJ persona, Mister Senor Love Daddy, and that this was the film debut of Rosie Perez. I of course knew Spike Lee starred in the film as Mookie, which played as a slightly more serious version of his Mars Blackmon character. The film was a cultural juggernaut sending the 1980’s out with a reflection of the culture that would prove to be all too prophetic. Not just for the awaiting 1990’s, but even 33 years later, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing continues to speak to our culture about race, poverty, responsibility, privilege, systems, and justice.
All on the street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) greets what will be the hottest day of the year with their usual routines, cadences, and rhythms. As Mister Senior Love Daddy waxes poetic on the radio dial, and Radio Raheem patrols the streets blasting “Fight the Power”, Mookie heads down to work at Sal’s Famous Pizza, owned by Sal, played beautifully by Danny Aiello. Sal is a tough Italian guy who grew up in Brooklyn who built his business up over the past 25 years. His sons, Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro) are not cut from the same cloth as their dad, especially Pino. As we meet Sal, he gladly gives the local elderly drunk, that everyone affectionately calls Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a job sweeping. Da Mayor happily takes it and before long is using the money to buy some beer before stopping by his favorite frenemy’s house, a woman by the name of Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who acts like she can’t stand Da Mayor. She also serves as the neighborhood watch.
As the day wears on, and the heat is turned up (both literally and figuratively), we begin to see the small cracks forming on the fault lines of this neighborhood block. Pino wants his dad to close up his pizza stand and bring the pizza back to their Italian neighborhood, instead of this neighborhood as Pino can’t stand “blacks”. Giancarlo Esposito, as Buggin Out, enters the pizza joint upset that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” doesn’t have any “brothers” on it, just Italian-Americans. This leads to a grudge that largely gets dismissed throughout the day, as Buggin Out’s friend Mookie tries to keep the peace and diffuses the situation since he works for Sal and needs the money. Just because Buggin walks away, doesn’t mean that he is done trying to right this injustice. Mookie’s girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) is raising their child but feels that Mookie isn’t there like he needs to be. All these little micro-annoyances really grate on everyone’s nerves as the sun continues to bore down.
The day progresses and things get hotter and hotter as the Italians keep jawing against the African Americans, the African Americans keep insulting the Koreans who own a local grocery store, and the Koreans are hating on the Jews. Through dialogue and interactions that occur throughout the day, we are exposed to the tinderbox that was happening not just on screen, but in the culture at large in that time. In 1989, we were just a few short years away from the police brutality of Rodney King and ensuing L.A. Riots, and decades away from the constant barrage of black men dying at the hands of police all over our country. Spike, however, isn’t being prophetic here as much as commenting on similar incidents that had already occurred in his hometown of New York. Their names are spoken of in the film and given tribute in its credits. Sal’s Pizza becomes ground zero for the climax of the film when all of this racial conflict explodes in a series of escalating violence, revealing the true feelings of so many of the characters- even the ones that seemed innocent all throughout the film.
Spike Lee closes out the film with two quotes that serve as the guides to the thought processes so many struggles with as they seek to do the right thing, namely the path of non-violence as laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the path that may have to choose violence in the face of injustice as articulated by Malcolm X. Do the Right Thing is still a fresh, modern, and relevant take on the state of race relations, poverty, community, crime, and justice some 33 years later. It is also clearly the story Lin Manuel-Miranda had in mind when he created In the Heights. The story beats are too on point for there not to be a direct influence and connection much in the same way that West Side Story is connected to Romeo and Juliet. Do the Right Thing is also a great pairing with Spike’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, which continues the conversation on race that Do the Right Thing does so well with. I am very excited I was finally able to watch this film and can now admit that it is no longer a hole in my viewing filmography.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
Directed by W.D. Richter /1984
by Max Foizey
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is an exceedingly strange film that I believe could have only come to fruition in the 1980s. That decade has long been dismissed by many film critics as an empty populist era, but among the pop culture blockbusters there were many odd projects greenlit that defy genre conventions. No better example of this can be found than Buckaroo Banzai, one of the most original films I’ve seen. Filled with memorable characters, impressive scenes, and quotable dialogue, Buckaroo Banzai is delightfully weird.
The title character is a world-renowned genius scientist/test pilot/rock star/Presidential advisor, all of which we learn in rapid succession without much exposition. This isn’t an origin story for Buckaroo; we are dropped right in the middle of the story as he is piloting a jet car in an attempt to break the dimensional barrier. He’s successful, plowing unhurt through a mountain, making international headlines. Buckaroo’s posse, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, hang out in a compound (The Banzai Institute!) where they solve scientific problems, advise world leaders, and probably conduct band practices so they can rock out at the local clubs.
At times the movie feels like an adaptation of an independent comic book, and what do you know, in the film Buckaroo stars in his own comic book. And arcade game. It’s revealed that aliens are among us disguised as humans, and only Buckaroo and his pals can make things right. The film’s plot, though fun and easy to follow, is secondary to the joy of following these unique characters as they confidently save the world from alien invasion. Juggling so much craziness could have made the film a mess, but surprisingly it works, thanks to Earl Mac Rauch’s inventive script, Aggie Guerard Rodgers’ impressive costume design, and director W. D. Richter’s even tone.
The cast plays the proceedings straight, except for John Lithgow, who plays the villain Dr. Lizardo like a live action Looney Tune. His mad scientist is always dialed up to 11, evoking the madness of Daffy Duck combined with the look of Dr. Caligari. Peter Weller is pitch perfect as Buckaroo, never winking at the audience. It’s a kick to see Clancy Brown, Carl Lumbly, Jeff Goldblum, and Christopher Lloyd in supporting parts, and Ellen Barkin makes an impact although her character is woefully underwritten.
Apparently, the producers of the film didn’t want the movie to end on a kiss, so the filmmakers added a wonderful ending sequence consisting of the cast walking together, bopping along to the sounds of Michael Boddicker’s primo 1980s synthesizers. Bitchin’.
Directed by David Cronenberg/1983
by Jeffrey Knight
I don’t think there is anything I could possibly write about Videodrome that hasn’t been said by authors much smarter and more clever than I am. Articles, scholarly papers, and whole books have been written about the film in relation to such topics as television, technology, pornography, politics, violence, and modern social media. And it’s to director David Cronenberg’s credit that any such reading of the film never feels forced. On the surface, it is a horror movie filled with grotesque images of body horror and sexual violence. But the film’s plot-line, themes, and special makeup effects all contribute to Videodrome‘s broader message about the media, mass entertainment, and the ways in which we consume it.
Released in 1983, the same year in which the fuzzy Ewoks helped overthrow the evil Galactic Empire (a movie which Cronenberg was approached to direct if you can imagine such a thing), Videodrome has always had a reputation as a subversive, if not outright disturbing motion picture. My first, and up until now, only attempt at watching came when I was a kid, sneaking into the room where my older sister and her friends would watch ‘R’ rated horror movies on VHS. They were usually permissive of the presence of my younger brother and myself (sorry, mom), but in this instance, they chased us out. Whatever horrors Videodrome promised, it was a bridge much too far.
And I don’t know that I would’ve gotten half of what I saw if I had stayed in the room back then. Oh, I would’ve appreciated the nudity well enough, but beyond that, what? The ‘breathing’ television? The ‘flesh gun?’ The notion of a church that worships a broadcast signal? I’m not sure I can wrap my head around it at all now. But there are so many ideas here that are layered so deep that even if you miss some of them, others are sure to stick. And the overall impression that is left is one of a smart, brisk horror film, that comes with a side-helping of strong satirical elements. You don’t need to read a research paper to enjoy Videodrome on that level, but Cronenberg’s film certainly supports that sort of examination.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard/French/1985
by Jim Tudor
Sweet Mother of God, there’s a lot going on here. The very recently departed yet immortal Jean-Luc Godard demonstrated that even in this third-ish phase of his long career (and this 1985 hot potato- an era once considered “late Godard”- is actually part of the first half), his provocative fearlessness, always melding his own life’s issues with whatever his current obsessions, had only gotten bolder. Some have said that cinema was Godard’s religion, though with Hail Mary, we witness almost a reversal of sorts. While no less cinematic (in fact, it’s considerably more so) than Godard’s other movie-minded work of the time (Détective, First Name: Carmen), this one forefronts classically religious ideas, stories, and beliefs. Specifically, he’s turned to the New Testament story of Mary, mother of Jesus. It’s as though the French firebrand, in his maturing years, was overcome with The Spirit while wandering his not-exactly-picturesque corner of Switzerland, subsequently obsessed with his recent discovery, Myriem Roussel. Roussel would, of course, go on to play the title role of Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie).
Godard’s Biblical allusions don’t stop with the Christmas story. Allusions to Genesis and creation abound throughout the film. Grown Mary nonchalantly helps herself to a green apple, one of many stationed so prominently in a bright red bowl. Is this to signify forbidden fruit, or is it something else? We’re told in the film that life as we know it either took 1.85 billion years to evolve, or it was created by some sort of intelligent design in less than two minutes. Either way, water covering the planet played a key role. Hail Mary begins with a shot looking out onto a vast body of water, albeit through a barred guard rail. The shot reoccurs throughout. Is there something evolving out there, or is all that water simply an isolation? In the early part of the film, child Mary speaks of how the human eye is mostly water. Believers in the God of the Bible sometimes sing of Him as “the apple of our eye”… Such are the free associations encouraged (though anything but explicit) by Godard with Hail Mary. Possible metaphors abound.
Though Godard, like so many directors, often defaulted to a chauvinistic streak, his lensing of Roussel is never anything but wholly beautiful in both her outward spirit and her mundane humanity. And that’s just it about Hail Mary– it’s this very particular filmmaker daring to imagine- and show- the sacred figure of Mother Mary as an ordinary person. Which… she was. (And isn’t that so much of the point…?) Through her plight of a sexless pregnancy, she experiences moments of tremendous spiritual struggle, doubt, and even outright anger at God. Yes, she is seen nude quite a bit, but unlike some of Godard’s previous depictions of people in the buff, this has a fully realized sense of fine art about it. Anything but pruriently featured or objectified, Roussel’s figure is of a piece with so much of the other visuals in Hail Mary, which is without question the most immaculately shot Godard film I’ve ever seen. While it still maintains aspects of his usual ramshackle as-is aesthetic (just look at that rural roadside petrol station where thugy Gabriel forcibly performs the Annunciation), the framing and attention to lighting seems so much more in the forefront of creative concern. For his trouble, Godard recieved a harsh denouncement from the Pope, and took a pie to the face from a Christian protestor.
The outrage the film triggered was as if Godard lifted the jeweled crown of the virgin right off of her head, not unlike the fallen titular sister of Cristiana, Devil Nun (1972). In actuality, the film, in its own way, is of the utmost sensitivity to the themes and figures it’s reimagining. I won’t claim to grasp everything this dense meander of filmic poetry is doing, but I’ll claim that much is clear. And also, Hail Mary greatly broadens the conversation about Godard himself. Perhaps if I’d gotten around to this sooner, I would’ve had an easier time dealing with his obtuse 1993 exploration of Christian faith, Hélas pour moi (Oh, Woe is me).
Per the original release structure, the Cohen Media Blu-ray I watched precedes Godard’s seventy-two-minute exploration with his companion and collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville’s short, The Book of Mary (Le livre de Marie). This short, depicting Mary (“Marie”) as a tween girl, and serves as a foundation to what follows. Her wide-open world shown here only sets the stage for her later distraught feelings as a miraculously pregnant virgin whom not even her man Joseph initially believes. From there, Hail Mary dares to use the character of the most idealized mother figure to consider in no pleasant terms the uncertainty, othering and isolation felt by so many young women who find themselves with child.
Directed by Barry Levinson/1988
by Taylor Blake
Rain Man did not turn out to be the film I expected. I’ve always heard this Best Picture winner in the context of jokes about smart but socially awkward people, as if the only thing our collective culture can remember is Dustin Hoffman guessing the number of toothpicks in a box.
Hoffman’s Oscar-winning role may be more famous, but I didn’t expect Tom Cruise to be the star who bookends our story. When his father dies, Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) learns most of his estate is going to someone else. Then he learns that someone else is a brother he never knew about. Raymond (Hoffman) has lived most of his life in an institution because of his autism, and he has no concept of money. So what’s a yuppie in financial straits to do? If you’re Charlie, you take your newfound brother on a road trip to challenge the legality of your father’s will and get your share.
Hoffman’s performance is next-level, but Rain Man is so much more than that. It’s a Prodigal Son parable, and it’s the most authentic depiction of autism I’ve seen on screen—from Cruise. As someone who has lived with an autistic family member, I can affirm his character represents the spectrum of family members’ and caretakers’ emotions. I see myself in his anger at those who misjudge Raymond, in his delight when they connect, and his frustration when they can’t communicate. I also see myself when he loses his temper because of Raymond’s need for routine—the shame and regret he feels for his actions by the end of the film is more relatable than I’d like to admit. Some parts of the script fall into cliché, but its complexity allows Charlie to be one of the biggest heels you’ll ever meet on screen and empathetic. Cruise makes Charlie’s in-just-a-few-days transformation so believable that when he finally fights to protect Raymond at the risk of losing everything else, it feels like the natural next step, not a forced resolution. (Side note: I’m in the how-does-Tom-Cruise-not-have-an-Oscar camp, and I’d be beside myself if anyone but Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda had taken the second Actor award for 1988.)
As I alluded in my intro, we can debate what hasn’t aged well in this movie over 34 years. For one, it’s possible today’s audiences wouldn’t accept someone as selfish and impatient as Charlie as the hero of this story. But reducing Rain Man to one moment doesn’t give enough credit to its storytelling or to its top-notch cast (including Valeria Golino as Charlie’s way-to-good-for-him girlfriend). Thank goodness Rain Man didn’t turn out to be the movie I expected at all.