In Praise of the Eighties

As interesting as it is to read Peter Buskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, it gets one core point very wrong. It presents the common argument that the late sixties and early Seventies were a golden era of authentic director driven auteur movies with grit and balls which ended because Jaws and Star Wars replaced with calculated catharsis and caused Hollywood to suddenly start wanting to make money. And this led to the Eighties playing it safe with formulaic movies in a decade serious cinephiles consider a low point in the art form. Instead of a thumbs down, I give that theory a sturdy middle finger.

Universal was firing Steven Spielberg virtually every day during the over-long making of Jaws, and he suffered a nervous breakdown on the plane ride home after the main Martha’s Vinyard shoot concluded. (Or just after setting up the final shot of the shark explosion which he left someone else to supervise so he could make a clean getaway from the overworked crew.) Twentieth Century Fox refused to extend the shooting of Star Wars by even a couple of weeks, so George Lucas had to delegate a few more units to get pick-up shots needed, and returned from England with chest pains and a trip to the hospital. The finished movie could only be booked into 39 venues for its May 25, 1977 debut, some of which had to be coerced illegally by Fox to accept Star Wars or they could not have The Other Side of Midnight. People don’t often realize when they have a good thing.

The Auteur Theory promoted by the likes of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, as well as Francois Truffaut – especially in his famous interviews with master self-promoter Alfred Hitchcock – was good for directors and helped movie critics oversimplify the discussion of cinema. To this day, a Generation X (successful or still aspiring) filmmaker would have benefited from this culture and this idea because it made us want to direct movies. Frank Capra wrote (with some collaboration) an autobiography called The Name Above the Title. Peter Bogdanovich eventually wrote a book called Who the Devil Made It.

Great movies like Apocalypse Now or less celebrated films like Heaven’s Gate had an air of director-gone-made, whether or not that was fair. A Coppola or Altman or Cimino had more rope to hang themselves. A movie that cost more than planned or that went over schedule was considered self-indulgent. And if the pace of the finished picture was not brisk, that made it all seem too self-serious. This was truly the natural and inevitable end of elevating the director and praising a vision as automatic art worthy of high risk. People who exclusively watched recent American movies, and nothing from before his or her own birth year, and had no interest in reading subtitles might look at the Nineteen Eighties as a safe, programmed time for cinema. But it was not.

The craft of cinema, and the direction of the audience, became refined. The narratives had less meandering. Home video in the form of Betamax and VHS or example brought out studio archives of older films for the young audience to catch up on. The theatrical releases are too much to list, so the years are summed up with only a sampling of titles.

1980 brought The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Altman’s ramshackle but somehow oddly charming Popeye, The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, Caddyshack, Used Cars by Robert Zemeckis, Nine to Five, Stir Crazy, The Fog, My Bodyguard, Fame, Flash Gordon and for the serious there was Kashemusha, Lion of the Desert, The Big Red One, The Elephant Man, Ordinary People, and Coal Miner’s Daughter.

1981 hit us with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, Das Boot, Superman II, On Golden Pond, Stripes, Arthur, An American Werewolf in London, For Your Eyes Only, Time Bandits, Body Heat by Lawrence Kasdan, The Four Seasons by Alan Alda, The Evil Dead, Reds, Thief, Quest for Fire, My Dinner with Andre, Escape from New York, Scanners, Heavy Metal, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I, Porky’s, Clash of the Titals, Ragtime, Taps, Gallipoli, and Chariots of Fire which won the Best Picture Oscar.

1982 gave us too many choices, including Sophie’s Choice itself. Arguably My Favorite Year. E.T., Blade Runner, Gandhi, First Blood, The Thing, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Pink Floyd The Wall, Tootsie, The Verdict, Young Doctors In Love, Poltergeist, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Conan The Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, Victor Victoria, Night Shift, Diner, Missing, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Grey Fox, The World According to Garp, Annie, Tron, 48 Hours, Rocky III, Creepshow, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Bad Boys (the one with Sean Penn).

1983 was crazy with Return of the Jedi, Scarface, A Christmas Story, The Right Stuff, Trading Places, national Lampoon’s Vacation, Terms of Endearment, The Outsiders and Rumblefish from Coppola, Wargames, The Meaning of Life, Never Cry Wolf, The Big Chill, Videodrome, Silkwood, Christine, Zelig, Strange Brew, two Bond movies Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, Sudden Impact, Tender Mercies, Flashdance, Lone Wolf McQuade, Brainstorm, Educating Rita, Cujo and The Hunger.

1984 offered 1984, Amadeus, Once Upon a Time in America, Paris, Texas, This is Spinal Tap, The Killing Fields, Blood Simple, Repo Man, Streets of Fire, Sixteen Candles, The Natural, Top Secret, Gremlins, Dreamscape, The Last Starfighter, Places in the Heart, Romancing the Stone, Starman, 2010, Splash, Purple Rain, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Footloose, Dune, Revenge of the Nerds, Red Dawn, Johnny Dangerously and a host of brand names that are still generating content: Ghostbusters, The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid, Police Academy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Beverly Hills Cop, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, The Neverending Story indeed.

1985 introduced Back to the Future, Witness, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire, The Goonies, Explorers, Brazil by Terry Gilliam, Ran by Kurasawa, The Color Purple by Spielberg. Silverado, Clue, After Hours, Mishima, Fright Night, Silver Bullet, Legend, Fletch, A Room with a View, Commando, Cocoon, Pale Rider, Day of the Dead, To Live and Die in L.A., Better off Dead, Re-Animator, Death of a Salesman, Weird Science, Real Genius, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

1986 ground out Stand By Me, Platoon, Aliens, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Blue Velvet, The Fly, Labyrinth, Star trek IV The Voyage Home, The Mission, The Name of the Rose, Highlander, Big Trouble in Little China, Hannah and Her Sisters, Top Gun, Manhunter, An American Tail, Back to School, Pretty In Pink, Short Circuit, Crossroads, Three Amigos, Crocodile Dundee, Howard the Duck, Armed and Dangerous, Lucas, Gung Ho, The Hitcher, Down By Law, Hoosiers, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, At Close Range, The Decline of the American Empire, Hearbreak Ridge, Eight Million Ways to Die, A Better Tomorrow, The Color of Money, 52 Pick-Up, About Last Night, Sid and Nancy, Ruthless People, Children of a Lesser God, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Night Mother, Little Shop of Horrors, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Legal Eagles, Iron Eagle, and Nothing in Common.

1987 saw these flicks: Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Full Metal Jacket, The Untouchables, The Princess Bride, Robocop, Empire of the Sun, Good Morning, Vietnam, Lethal Weapon, Wall Street, Predator, Babette’s Feast, The Last Emperor, The Lost Boys, Wings of Desire, Evil Dead II, Moonstruck, Withnail and I, Spaceballs, Dirty dancing, Angel Heart, Raw, Some Kind of Wonderful, Cry Freedom, Hellraiser, Fatal Attraction, Adventures on Babysitting, La Bamba, No Way Out, Roxanne, Barfly, InnerSpace, Hope and Glory, The Living Daylights, and Overboard.

1988 Die hard, Beetlejuice, Misissippi Burning, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Willow, The Land Before Time, Big, The Thin Blue Line, Running On Empty, Dangerous Liaisons, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The last Temptation of Christ, The Naked Gun, Midnight Run, Heathers, Beaches, Coming To America, Child’s Play, Dead Ringers, Stand and Deliver, Oliver and Company, Scrooged, The Accused, Bull Durham, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Colors, Frantic, Working Girl, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Torch Song Trilogy, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space

1989 presented Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, When Harry Met Sally, Christmas Vacation, Do the Right Thing, The Little Mermaid, Dead Poets Society, Batman, Field of Dreams, Glory, My Left Foot, Back to the Future Part II, Steele Magnolias, Lean on Me, Major League, Say Anything, Uncle Buck, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Born on the Fourth of July, Shirley Valentine, Parenthood, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Lethal Weapon II, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Road House, Roadkill, Always, Roger and Me, Henry V, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, License to Kill, Pet Semetary, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Ghostbusters II.

How often would the average person, even an avid movie fan, want to go to the cinema in a given year? If every week, maybe each year does not add up to 52 movies as listed here but this only scratches the surface. We were still beginning to have other options, besides Cable TV and home video rentals.

If someone in 2020 is Thirty Years Old, that sampling of titles might not be part of their viewing experience, and a few of them are prerequisites for later titles. The dialogue might be part of the vernacular even today. They may seem quaint without feeling inferior. Today people throw around the word “problematic.” The World According to Garp, one of my favourite films, has John Lithgow playing Roberta Muldoon, a trans person, Short Circuit has a white actor playing a scientist from India. Both Octopussy and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom have a strange meal being served in India as discomfort humor. Either you can reconcile yourself to a movie not being all things to each person, or you can whip out a word ending with ist or phobe and further reduce their gravity. Were there too many inventors, too many Rube Goldberg devices? Too many sequels? Well there is nothing inherently wrong with building on a premise. Even The Gods Must Be Crazy got a sequel, despite having the unusual story of an African Bushman trying to find the purpose of a pop bottle that has landed near him as if dropped from Heaven.