Our Year of Eighties: The Postmortem

By Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark

Joe: Where was the beef? What was Willis talking about? Who could it have been now? The 1980s presented us with so many baffling questions. Last January, Mr. Clark and I embarked upon a hazardous journey through some of the the decade's more memorable films in search of answers to these and other queries. And we did learn a great deal about the decade of Reagan and the Rubik's Cube. But more importantly, we learned something about -- wait for it -- ourselves. Along the way, we screened comedies, horror films, dramas, comedies, science-fiction films, and even comedies. Wait, did I mention "comedies" more than once? I'm sorry. It's just that those movies were so god damnably hard to write about that they left a permanent scar on my psyche. Anyway, now that our year-long vision quest is complete (damnit, we should've done Vision Quest!), I thought it was important to get some "closure" on the whole process, which is why I've invited Mr. Clark here for this frank and unguarded conversation about the movies we reviewed. I think I'll start with the obvious question: why the 1980s rather than some other, perhaps more tasteful decade?

Craig: That's a good question, Joe. I was six at the dawn of the decade and 16 when it went bye-bye, so I suppose one could say the '80s was when I came of age as a consumer of popular culture. I'm sure that must also account for why most of the movies I wanted to cover (such as Explorers, Spies Like Us, Buckaroo Banzai and Weird Science) were ones that hailed from the middle of the decade, when I was on the cusp of puberty and thus the most impressionable. And yes, we did lean rather heavily on the comedies as the expense of other genres (I notice that we didn't cover a single action film in the whole lot) and we also shied away from some of the biggest stars like Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, Cruise and Murphy. Even as we set out to watch movies that people had actually heard of (as opposed to things like Trapped Ashes and Repo! The Genetic Opera, which people could happily go their whole lives without ever seeing and never know the difference), we still managed to avoid most of the biggest movies of the decade. Could that be the result of our lingering contrarian streak? Inquiring minds want to know, Joe!

Joe: I'm glad you brought up the word "contrarian" (even though my spell checker doesn't like it) because I've made a concerted effort in the last year or so not to be a deliberate contrarian. I now wince when people use the word "mainstream" as a pejorative, and I'm getting less and less interested in -- and patient with -- the divisions between "highbrow," "middlebrow," "lowbrow" and "no-brow." So much about the way we discuss popular culture in 2011 -- not just movies, but TV and music and stand-up comedy, too -- is poisoned by this kind of thinking. It's not enough for a movie just to be "good" anymore. It has to be approved by the "right" kinds of critics and, more importantly, not be popular with the "wrong" kinds of consumers. It's not only maddening and boring, it's a creative and philosophical dead end. I don't think these kinds of battle lines were drawn so sharply in the 1980s, because it was before the dawn of the Internet and we didn't have this avalanche of opinion raining down on our heads every single hour of the day. I suppose there were rainbow-haired and safety-pinned punk kids sneering at Huey Lewis and the News, but they pretty much kept to themselves and didn't have this instantaneous global platform. I mentioned this in our discussion of Explorers that the movie chronicled the era when nerds weren't in constant contact with each other. By that same token, pop culture elitists weren't forming online alliances either, so they didn't have the opportunity to get all in our faces about liking the "wrong" kinds of entertainment. If you liked Huey Lewis back then, you could just go buy a copy of Sports at the mall and not worry about what Pitchfork or Stereogum would have to say about it.

But getting back to your question, I don't think we were being too obscure in our choices. We did cover at least one of the biggest-grossing films of all time, plus at least three entries in popular film franchises (Superman, the Muppets, Back to the Future). I think for the most part we aimed for the multiplex and not the arthouse. The artiest film we did was probably The Elephant Man, and I think that played pretty widely everywhere, didn't it? I credit you with keeping the project from getting too self-indulgent. I'm a die-hard nerd at heart, and there were certainly times when I wanted to nominate more obscure films. In retrospect, we could have done even more to appease the (ultimately nonexistent) readers, like letting them choose the movies for us in advance. Or we could have gone totally in the opposite direction and covered our own personal favorite films, regardless of popularity. Ultimately, I think we stuck to a middle ground. Were you happy for the most part with the films we chose?

Craig: For the most part, yes. Looking over the list of titles we initially threw around when we were figuring out what we wanted to write about, I'm sorry we didn't get to more that I hadn't seen. (As it is, the lone film I was introduced to during the series was Purple Rain and that was one I insisted on.) Among the films you suggested that we didn't pick were Eddie Murphy's Raw (which I suggested pairing with Bill Cosby: Himself) and A Cry in the Dark. The latter may have been a little too obscure, though, in spite of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes around the whole time doing her Meryl Streep impression. I'm also sorry we didn't cover The King of Comedy, which I saw once years ago and which might have been a good antidote to all of the comedies we did watch. And I would have liked to revisit The Untouchables, which holds a special place in my heart since it was the first R-rated film I ever saw in a theater (far away from parental supervision, of course).

That said, I feel we picked a goodly number of interesting films that helped to define us as moviegoers and the '80s in general. Which would explain why we stumped for so many comedies (13 by my count out of the 22 films in the series) because, let's face it, how many kids were clamoring to see historical epics like Gandhi or The Last Emperor or Woody Allen's latest attempt at being a serious filmmaker? To this day I'm still leery when it comes to Important Films with a capital "I," but back in December I re-watched Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo to see how it held up after a quarter of a century. In 1985, the 12-year-old me would have turned it off after about five minutes because it was so depressing (setting a film during the Great Depression will do that). Today I recognize it as one of his masterworks, a film that contains untold wisdom about why people go to the movies and the sorts of things they expect -- nay, demand -- to see up on the silver screen. Could we have written an article about Purple Rose? Most certainly, yes. Would it have been an appropriate choice for us? That's harder to say.

Joe: Oh, wow, I wish we'd gotten to do The Untouchables, since, as you know, I visit one of the key locations from that film every workday. I buy my breakfast (the Union Station Metro Cafe's $1.99 Breakfast Special -- cheap, cheap, cheap and oh, so good!) just a few yards away from where the "baby carriage rolling down the stairs" scene was filmed. Also, I've been quoting Robert De Niro's "enthusiasms" speech for years. Another De Niro film you mentioned, The King of Comedy, would probably rank in my personal top 10 movies of all time. It's a film I love so much, I don't know if I'd be able to write about it very effectively. For me, the hardest films to write about were the ones that were closest to my heart. (Well, those and the spoof movies!) Our articles on The Elephant Man, Monty Python's the Meaning of Life, and Little Shop of Horrors were all torturous for me. The words came much more easily to me when I didn't have that much emotional investment in the films we were covering. For that reason, I think our articles during "neglected sequels month" were some of the best we did. I ended up liking both of those movies (with some strong caveats), but I didn't feel the least need to be defensive about them. How about you? Were some films more fun to write about than others?

Craig: Oh, certainly. I relished the opportunity to bring some attention to a few of my more cult-y faves like Explorers, Buckaroo Banzai, Top Secret! and Time Bandits. Although pretty much any time I took the lead on an article it was for a film that I felt a strong connection to and wanted to do right by. I must admit one exception to that was Superman III, which I had seen in theaters but hadn't had much impetus to revisit in the years since, despite my subsequent discovery and canonization of Richard Lester's '60s and '70s work. (The fact that it's yoked in my mind with the unfortunate Supergirl probably had something to do with that as well.) I also had to tough it out through the Weird Science/Witches of Eastwick article, largely because that was something of a shotgun marriage of inconvenience. (In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have doubled up twice in the same month.) When you get right down to it, though, the hardest articles for me to write were the ones that came after the comments on the site dried up. Our forced hiatus during the month of August couldn't have helped matters, but the fact that our Meaning of Life review went out there and didn't garner a single response did a lot to take the wind out of my sails. Even our horror film month seemed to fall on deaf ears (perhaps, like Seth Brundle's, they had all fallen off) and that's one genre that pretty much guarantees reader participation whenever I post a review on my personal blog. No wonder our output dropped to one film per month for November and December, causing our proposed reviews of Stop Making Sense (which you even teased at the end of The Fly) and A Christmas Carol to bite the dust.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to my next question. If we had a chance to start over, knowing what we know now, what would you change about the series? Personally, I wish we had used more stills throughout. It wasn't until March's entry that we started putting one at the end of each article and it took us doubling up on the films in June to move to the five-image standard that we maintained (with one exception) until the bitter end. As much as I like the way Frank Oz glowers at us at the top of our Spies Like Us article, I wish we had included more stills from the actual film.

Joe: I agree with you about the stills. The more the better, and the more relevant to the movie the better. What else would I have done differently? Hmmm. Well, for one thing I would have chosen movies that would have (possibly) interested readers rather than just ourselves. I think a couple of readers commented at the beginning of the series that they wanted us to do Commando, and I think we should have gone in that direction. That could have been followed by Red Dawn or Conan the Barbarian. Also -- and I don't know whether you would have vetoed this idea -- I wish we'd used a basic template for all the reviews. Readers are looking for bite-sized pieces of information these days, and a lot of review sites and magazines are catering to them by breaking down their reviews into brief sections, each with a bolded subheading, like "What Worked," "What Didn't," "Things to Watch For," "Random Observations," etc. Even the AV Club, which has some of the smartest criticism on the net, does that for a lot of their reviews. I think some readers might have taken one gander at our articles, seen these big, imposing paragraphs, and moved on. Using subheadings or categories would not only have made our job easier, we could have used it to track specific themes throughout the project, like "What Does This Movie Tell Us About the 1980s?"

Which brings me to my next question -- what did these movies tell you about the 1980s that you didn't already know or that you had forgotten? I, for one, had forgotten just how big the Cold War still was back then. We had two action-packed comedies, Top Secret and Spies Like Us. which were essentially about smartalecky American "good guys" traveling abroad and teaching those rotten commies a lesson or two. The Cold War was great for comedy, so much more pleasant than the current War on Terror. And since the "bad guys" in the Cold War were mostly white, there was less possibility of ugly racial overtones in these comedies. I guess I miss the Cold War. How about you? Any thoughts on how these flicks reflected the decade in which they were made?

Craig: Well, since all but a handful of the films we watched were made and/or set in America (the few exceptions being The Elephant Man, Top Secret!, The Meaning of Life, Time Bandits and The Fly), they really tell us more about what this country was like in '80s than anything else. (It's quite telling that we didn't watch a single film that wasn't filmed in English.) Some of the films we picked showed us how we looked to filmmakers from other countries, with the prime examples being Superman III (a film set largely in the American heartland that was made by an expatriate American director based out of England) and Shock Treatment (ditto, only removing Americans from the equation almost entirely). Some showed us how Americans hold up when taken out of their comfort zones (as inExplorers, with its trio of young adventurers catapulting themselves into outer space, and the two Cold War films you mentioned). And some showed us how we react when our neighborhoods are invaded by alien beings both benign (E.T.) and malevolent (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Little Shop of Horrors). (It's a shame we didn't get around to Joe Dante's The 'Burbs; that would have been a perfect corollary for the latter.)

If this project reminded me of anything that I might have forgotten, it was that there was a place for sophisticated children's entertainment long before Pixar came along. (Tellingly, Pixar got its start in the mid-'80s with a series of computer-animated shorts, but it wasn't until halfway through the following decade that it made the leap to features with the first Toy Story.) Looking at films as disparate as Explorers, E.T., The Muppets Take Manhattan and Time Bandits, I was struck by how they refused to talk down to their audiences and even slowed down periodically to let things sink in and give their bigger moments the proper weight. Nowadays it seems like studios are under the impression that if the pace of a kid's film slackens for even half a second their audience will grow bored and, I don't know, use their mobile phone to Tweet that the new Shrek is boooooooooring.

Another thing I was reminded of was how readily mainstream filmmakers like Joe Dante, John Landis, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Lester were able to sneak subversive content into their big-budget, studio-sanctioned fantasy films -- and how only one of them (Zemeckis) is still considered mainstream today. Then there are the mavericks like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg who have always followed their own paths and, by remaining true to themselves, were able to come out the other end of the decade with their careers and reputations largely intact (even if some of them are more battle-scarred than others). Then again, by the time the '80s rolled around the distinction between mainstream and maverick was already starting to become irrelevant. Maybe if we'd tackled some independent films we would have a better perspective on this, but that movement didn't capture the public's attention until the very end of the decade with the left-field success of sex, lies and videotape -- and that's a film that I believe belongs more to the '90s. Bearing that in mind, I doubt I would want to spend a year of my life poking around the films of that decade. Would you?

Joe: Eh, no. The "Nineties nostalgia" thing has never really gotten off the ground, has it? Sure, there have been some attempts -- The Wackness, VH1's I Love the '90s, etc. -- but I don't see that movement gaining any real traction. I said repeatedly during this project that the 1980s were sort of a second 1950s, but somehow the 1990s skipped the idealism and upheaval of the 1960s and headed straight for the jaded cynicism of the 1970s. It was the "too cool to care" decade, and while it produced several fine films, I see no particular cinematic trends worth following in those years. I mean, does anyone want to sift through the glut of post-Pulp Fiction Tarantino wannabes from the mid-to-late-1990s? Maybe someday, "decade-defining" movies like Singles and Reality Bites might make for interesting case studies, but I think if I were to watch them today I'd just be a little embarrassed by them. The 1980s, meanwhile, are just far enough removed that I can watch movies from that time period and sort of marvel at all the little details. "Oh, I remember when people dressed like that!" or "Hey, I remember when that song was popular!"

Craig: Fair enough. Speaking of which... Ooh, ooh, what do you do? No one else can dance like you. So what's all the fuss? There ain't nobody that spies like us. Hey, hey, what do you say? Someone took your plans away. So what's all the fuss? There ain't nobody that spies like us!

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Blevins and Craig J. Clark published on January 13, 2011 6:30 PM.

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