What Was Bad and Good About 80s Cinema?

Jim Jarmusch's
Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise”, 1984

Well, your correspondent just seems to have his finger on the pulse, doesn’t he? I was already planning this post about indie cinema from the 80s, when the Mad Marchioness tipped me off to this  BAM film series.

The inspiration for the post was the Marchioness’s recent (typically hyperbolic) pronouncement, “Everything in the 80s sucked!” And she has a point, although even she concedes it’s a statement that merits a little massaging. I’m prepared to give it a LOT of massaging, in fact, a good old-fashioned Swedish, deep-tissue work-over, but first allow me to flesh out why one might be tempted to condemn the cinema of the era:

What was bad about the decade in film:

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First and foremost, the advent of the boorish action movie. Many of you will be too young to remember this, but prior to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, there was a habit (even in Hollywood movies, although not all of them) of acknowledging that violence was a problematic tool with which to solve human problems. Not just in the war-weary post-Vietnam period, but stretching all the way back to the aftermath of World War Two. Hollywood movies constantly treated the use of violence as a QUESTION. How much is too much? Should we ever use it? You might think the Greatest Generation would be OK with bang-bang, shoot-shoot, given that the recent enemies had been Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Surely we were justified on that occasion? Well, even so, there were Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki to contemplate. And then yes, later Vietnam. From John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) to Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), a question was posed: maybe bloodlust isn’t such a good thing.

Then Reagan emerged, and told us it was all OK. Hey, listen, why beat yourself up? And then came for the first time permission from the very highest levels of American culture to embrace and glorify violence. Ostensibly anti-communism, anti-crime and anti-terrorism were the titular missions but really that was just lip service. You really just saw a lot of people reveling in the exhilaration of thuggery, the likes of Morton Downey Jr. on television, and college students chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A!” and a new kind of metastasized hero (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone) whose job it was to just MOW DOWN enemies by the dozen, uttering comical caveman-like quips along the way. This was and is an unprecedented phenomenon, a doleful one, and one I’ll never get used to. The moral depravity underlying such spectacles is beyond damaging to our culture and in the 80s it began to dominate the box office.

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And then a secondary factor of the Reagan era: a sort of poetic, ritual celebration of suburban, domestic conformity, a Boomer-led nostalgia for the 1950s. It was subtle but it began to underlay seemingly ALL mainstream Hollywood product. I associate it with Spielberg and his acolytes: after E.T. (1982) everything sort of had this look, everything was set in tract houses in subdivisions, and all the heroes were normal, middle class (almost always white) people. Goonies-Gremlins -Lost Boys-Poltergeist-Back to the Future-Stand By Me, yeah it’s all kind of a blur. Along with it came a concomitant dumbing down of the standard Hollywood product. Even supposedly serious films seemed to have all the pits and seeds strained out of them so they’d come out as sentimentalized pablum. If The Color Purple was the 1980s’ excuse for what an “important movie” looked like, the state of the union was pretty bleak.

“Hey, I’m so cool and rich I can break whatever rules I want with no consequences — unlike that poor rabble in the ghettos!”

On the issue of what passed for comedy, the criticisms are similar. My biggest beef in retrospect is with John Hughes, whose matter-of-fact point of view seemed to be that all Americans are not just middle class, but UPPER middle class — either that, or that the only characters Americans wanted to watch were rich people. Traditionally, American comedy was rooted in sympathy for the little guy: Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra, etc etc. But John Hughes’ movies are all about the problems of being a privileged and minorly-inconvenienced teenager in the cul-de-sacs of White America.

Besides Hughes, the major comedy trend of the 80s was the National-Lampoon/ SNL alum body of work….which rather than being the satirical font of sophisticated wit the 1970s seemed to promise, proved in practice to be sophomoric, disposable foolishness for the most part. (More writing on all these topics awaits; frankly I could get a whole book out of it).

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And lastly? While I have great love for certain types of horror, I have no use for slasher films, and that was what reigned supreme during the 80s. Now, 30 years down the line I can look at the genre with some perspective and see “80s horror” as a thing.  But, really. A guy in a mask comes to a summer camp and chops everybody up one by one – – that’s a movie? Not the way I see it, although plenty of people seem to disagree.

(I’m older than many of my friends, for some of whom many of these 80s films are considered formative and even classics. I saw them as a teenager, when I was already old enough to have scorn for them. Here’s my post about the formative films in my own life).

And here are the movies I thought were cool as a teenager and young adult:

What was good about the decade in film

When I think of the 80s, I can’t possibly do so without thinking of all the independent film-makers who inspired me. There was a LOT of them. Yes, in numerical comparison to the mainstream product, the interesting stuff was a distinct minority. But there was still a bunch. This generation of film-makers were my heroes, and it galls me to no end to know that some of them can’t even raise the bread to make movies today.

“Raising Arizona”, the Coen Bros., 1987

To paint in broad strokes: like the mainstream film-makers, the independents too were largely Boomers with a certain nostalgia for the 1950s. And there was likewise a palpable love of the American landscape: so many cross-country road movies, so much set in the gorgeous American Southwest to the tune of a tremolo-infused electric guitar. An aesthetic in many cases of stripping down, of simplifying, in much the same way that the Ramones simplified and rediscovered three-chord rock. But rather than deifying suburban normals, these films celebrated iconoclasts, oddballs, and eccentrics — and all of them just as “American” or moreso than any soccer mom. And they brought a bit of satire and irony into it.

The roots of a lot of it were in New York’s punk-allied “No Wave” film-makers, which I wrote a little about in this 2009 article about Bette Gordon. Jim Jarmusch feels like the apex of that deadpan, “beat”, minimalist aesthetic. I remember in 1984 my friend telling me about seeing Stranger Than Paradise at his college, and telling me I had to see it. I think it made a big impression on a lot of people. That same decade saw Down By Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989)and several of the scenes of what would become Coffee and Cigarettes, although we wouldn’t see that for years.

“Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke) don’t take no shit from the fuzz (“Rumble Fish”, Coppola, 1983)

Interestingly, though, now that I look at the time line, one of the mainstream film-makers, Francis Ford Coppola had made a similar huge impression on me a year earlier. His amazing black and white weirdie Rumble Fish came out in 1983, and (being all of 17 at the time) I absolutely loved it, and it still shocks me to learn that it bombed and that people walked out of the theatre. I went to the cinema with the attitude, “Hey, this is a movie by the guy who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. How could you not go see a movie by that guy?” But seemingly no one else did. His avowed aim was to make “an art film for teenagers”. I was his precise target audience and it affected me greatly.

Harry Dean Stanton in
Harry Dean Stanton in “Paris, Texas” (1984)

What else/ who else was cool in the 80s? I was also fond of: 

Liquid Sky, (1982, Slava Tsukerman)

Paris, Texas (1984, Sam Shepard and Wim Wenders)

Alex Cox: Repo Man (1984), Straight to Hell (1986), Sid and Nancy (1986)

Jonathan Demme: Stop Making Sense (1984), Something Wild (1986), Swimming to Cambodia (1987)

The Coen BrothersBlood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987)

John Sayles: Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), Eight Men Out (1988)

After Hours (1985, Martin Scorsese — seemingly a tribute to the No Wave guys)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, Susan Seidelman)

Tim BurtonPeewee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989)  

David Lynch: Blue Velvet (1986) and of course the much earlier Eraserhead (1977) which was screened at art houses. I naturally loved The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), but those, weird and even inspirational as they are, were technically mainstream.

True Stories (1986, David Byrne)

Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989)

John Waters: crossed over with Hairspray (1988)

Sidewalk Stories (1989, Charles Lane, read my review of it here)

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David Byrne, “True Stories”, 1986

There is a lot to inspire on that list, I’m sure you’ll agree — some of these artists fulfilled their promise, some exceeded expectations, and some sadly vanished. Like I said, many of them can’t even raise the money to make films today. And those of us who they incited to make cinema? Most of us are making movies on our phones.

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