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.

A Good Day, Not a Dark Day, for Film

I still look forward to seeing Patrick Read Johnson’s feature 5-25-77 about his personal experience visiting Industrial Light and Magic, seeing a preview of Star Wars, and anticipating the official release day when others would get to know what he did, that cinema may have changed.  I reject the theory or accusation put forward by Peter Buskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and other sources blaming Jaws or Star Wars for a “blockbuster mentality” that killed brief golden era of the late Sixties and into the Seventies (Raging Bull being a 1980 film).  The theory goes that without Star Wars (released on 32 screens apparently, or at least under 40, with Fox coercing some exhibitors into accepting it or not getting to book The Other Side of Midnight which they wanted) there would be no hard cut to Hollywood only wanting big tent pole movies.  That spin overlooks the fact that a) Everything from Gone with the Wind to Abbott and Costello movies were moneymaking ventures, b) smaller movies and underdogs and sleeper hits as well as darker themes were still being made long beyond May of 1977, c) corporations from the oil, soda pop, and wine cooler industries were taking over the studios in the Eighties, and d) whatever artistic merit Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate and various other films might have had the indulgence of directors frightened a lot of money people and the era where Pauline Kael for example elevated directors (even perhaps over-rated ones like Altman, sorry) was over.  Not because of Star Wars.

First generation Star Wars fans (according to a former Disney executive who disclosed this in a radio interview and lit up youtube recently) are considered by the current regime of Lucasfilm – particularly Kathleen Kennedy – part of a disposable demographic:  fifty-year-old white males.  So instead, the effort it so attempt to lure a new built in audience that frankly doesn’t exist.  My own ilk loves the Original Trilogy and likes The Mandalorian as a close approximation of the tone.  By 1997 we were complaining of changes made in the Special Edition releases, which were further tweaked for VHS, and then for DVDs and finally for Blu Ray and then Disney + adding Greedo’s line, “McKlunkey.”  1999 was also declared a death of Star Wars because The Phantom Menace was a dramatic mess with elements like Jar Jar that played only to children and lowered the score card for Star Wars as a series.  Under Disney, there was raised expectations, followed by mixed feelings, and for many of us a heart-breaking problem with leadership and priorities.  The newer films look slick and have a generally snappy pace but are also burdened by Kathleen Kennedy’s misguided ideology.  “If you don’t like Luke Skywalker, stay away from running Star Wars, please,” would have been great advice before it was too late.

Shaft (2019) honors its brand in terms of tone and continuity, even more than the 2000 iteration John Singleton did.  It could cast a critical and sarcastic eye on the safe space generation without apology.  Too bad the movie did not make much money.  There are so few examples of a follow-up not just being used as a counterfeit and a front for the transitory moods of the moment.

When you see Poltergeist (1982), you take for granted Beatrice Straight as an academic at a university and a parapsychologist.  When you see The Andromeda Strain (1971) you accept Katie Reid as a scientists, and in Dreamscape we accept Kate Capshaw as a scientist.  We might withhold benefit of the doubt from Denise Richards as nuclear scientist Dr.  Christmas Jones in 1999’s Bond offering The World is Not Enough but not because of her gender.  But when Paul Feig made a big deal about inspiring little girls to become scientists because of his remake of Ghostbusters in 2016, it was a head-scratcher.  Ostensibly progressive ideas did not begin current year.  My generation grew up watching Norman Lear sit-coms, as well as Mary Tyler Moore and the MASH series.  We don’t have to be lectured on liberal think by the radicalized extremes of the day.  Feigbusters might inspire little girls to become con artists exploiting a belief in ghosts, or to be a transit worker who just wants to hang out with supposed scientists.  Having fancier equipment to “kill” ghosts and more proton streams, and being able to do cartwheels while zapping ghosts doesn’t make for a better movie.  Sony and anyone associated with that movie, as well as talk show hosts, played up a gaslighting of fans for whom a stigma was invented.  A few years later, as we anticipate Jason Reitman’s reinstatement of the original continuity and ignoring the attempted reboot, the sour grapes are now coming from the other end of the spectrum.  Good.  I wish only the best for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, as the new movie is called.   Even if it has been pushed to next March instead of this summer due to Coronavirus.  One hopeful theory bandied about is that the next wave of cinema will stop patting itself on the head for its messaging and just make better movies that put story and character over side-shade and ciphers that insult the audience.

Star Wars was a practical essay on cinema that had preceded it, greater than the sum of its parts, and just fun to watch.  It also served as a primer for its components and inspirations.  We might not sit through every black and white Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serial, but we may give a chance to The Hidden Fortress or The Dam Busters, whether or not those movies play as well for young people of today as they did for George Lucas.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was also a visual essay summarizing the development of cinema and the best if can offer, coming from the fanboy whimsy of Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan and the best director in the world, Steven Spielberg.  Tarantino’s films like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Django Unchained for example are also a culmination of one person’s broad exposure to and love of movies.  It is all about the love of movies and the transmission of that either overtly or subtly to the audience.

Right now the best way to watch the original trilogy is the De-specialized editions, which I believe may only be available as torrents. Had the bonus discs of the original trilogy been full DVD quality when they were made available with the second release of the Special Editions, we might have been satisfied to have that apparently laserdisc sourced version and not a low pixel dub that was designed to steer us toward playing the special editions.  Both Star Wars (later A New Hope) and Return of the Jedi have May 25 as the anniversary of release.  The Empire Strikes Back was May 17, 1980.

I like both iterations of the animated Clones Wars shows, and Rebels had some quite good episodes. Even though Revenge of the Sith is the least weak of the prequels, I have no feeling for that trilogy.  And the more I learn about the fix being in for the Disney era and how many things might have been so much better if, say, Dave Filoni had been put in charge of Lucasfilm instead of Kennedy, it makes the heart sink. People say Kennedy knows the “business” part of the job…. yet, once your source of movie funding is Disney and you only have to get your budgets from that one place just how much “business” acumen do you need?

Star Wars was like a drug and I kept going the the cinema as a regular habit attempting to chase the dragon of whatever magic I had felt from those films from 1977 to 1983.  The rest of cinema benefited from that because I saw most movies through the Eighties and Nineties at the height of my film going, and I could be the 13 year old going to On Golden Pond or 14 year old going to see Sophie’s Choice. Liking Star Wars did not limit anyone’s taste or interest but goosed a faith in the craft and an appreciation for anything well done.