I’m on a kick of re-watching 1980s films that I had not seen since I was in my teens during that decade. It’s a wild time-capsule experience due to the passing of time and my own age-related change in perspective.
Ten films are reviewed in this post, possibly in thematic order. There are spoilers, but there is a time limit on spoiler-warning courtesy.
1. “Top Gun” – Saw it in a movie theater upon its release in 1986, never since. It’s next on my list because one of the best episodes of “Murdoch Murdoch” borrows its aesthetics.
2. “Animal House” – This 1970s comedy is a forerunner to Eighties’ sex comedies. I watched it for the first time about seven years ago. The story culminates on the collapse of the town dignitaries’ parade bleachers. The red, white and blue streamers falling with the collapsing structure is so obvious a disclosure of how they feel about America, her traditional institutions, authority figures, patriotic iconography. It was also weirdly evocative of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers 23 years later.
I was disgusted with the whole thing. All those years, having never had seen it but having cheered on to “food fight!” and “to-ga! to-ga!” with the bros… It wasn’t the humor. It was the – how to put it. Honor should always be in the backdrop of things, even in ribald comedies. Antagonists in fiction shouldn’t be humiliated and then destroyed unless they objectively deserve it the way some people deserve capital punishment. In other words, being a strict authority figure and a bit of a dick, or being tall, blond and rich aren’t good cause for total personal destruction. If you’re not a sociopath or a Gamma Personality, you will agree with me on this.
This is why Eighties teen- or sex-comedies tended to make me feel like I need a shower. Of course I loved the nudity and the dirty humor. But the question always bugged me: was it really necessary to so completely destroy the bad guy? Below my threshold of consciousness, an alternate script was writing itself, in which the enemies shake hands and say “Honest misunderstanding. I see your point of view.”
Back to “Animal House.” What’s even more special, is the movie’s coda, the end-credits notes on what everyone’s been up to since graduation. The special houseguest’s id on full display:
- All-American Fraternity Brother No. 1: He goes to prison and gets raped! (hahahaahahah!)
- All-American Fraternity Brother No. 2: He goes to Vietnam and gets fragged by his own men! (hahahahaah!!! – catch my breath – hahaha! hahahaaah!!!!!)
3. “Forrest Gump” – A ’90s movie and a hurrah for civic nationalism. (I hate that term because it’s neither civic nor nationalism and it dignifies cuckservatism). To recapitulate my take on civic nationalism:
It was a moment in time, the American political order of the 1980s, which was a detente in the wake of 1960s disruptions. Official color-blindness, Whites run and own everything, minorities enjoy the benefits of White rule along with autonomy in exchange for knowing their place; Whites, in turn, keep the peace by not talking negatively about minorities.
An unstable peace because it was in essence a papered-over capitulation. They won the ’60s, so they weren’t going to be satisfied with White surrender terms of the ’80s, which weren’t all that bad for us. The flaw of that peace: it dictated that we must continue to cede ground, they get to continue encroaching.
“Forrest Gump” healed the national wounds of the Sixties by reconciling the political conflicts of that time. Doing so, it codified civic nationalism: violent radical leftism of the Sixties is condemned, drug-use and sexual promiscuity are shown as harmful. It’s okay to be pious and from a small town. That’s why the movie was called “conservative.” On the other hand:
- Single motherhood is glorified through the characters of Forrest’s mom and then Jenny.
- Fatherhood is personified in Jenny’s molester dad and Forrest’s involuntary absence during his son’s childhood.
- A dirt-poor black family becomes rich and gets a White woman servant.
- An American line of warriors ends on Lieutenant Dan’s childless interracial marriage.
4. “Stand By Me” – One of the great boyhood coming-of-age stories. If you have a preteen son, nephew, or grandson, watch it together. The dynamic among the four boys, the freedom and exploration, and the majestic Oregon landscapes are unforgettable.
Racial diversity diminishes everything it stains, including conversation. Yet here we are, and I have to friggin’ talk about it because… that’s the war they brought to us. This is why, from today’s perspective, “Stand by Me” is so nice to see. Everything in that movie is in visual harmony with human expectations of storytelling. Taken for granted then, consciously cherished now: no diversity in that film. Not one nonwhite character.
Tokenism kills the friendship vibes in such stories today, like adding an element that knocks down the story’s chemistry back to exactly the sum of its parts, while in its racially-coherent form you get the magic of friendship and discovery. (More about that when you get to “The Breakfast Club.”)
5. “Lucas” – The title character is a gamma male, repellent to Maggie when he leans to kiss her. She’s a gorgeous blonde Lucas befriended over the summer, before high school hierarchy reasserted itself in line with the laws of nature. Charlie Sheen’s alpha male quarterback is a sympathetic character, even though he is Lucas’ antagonist. That’s because the conflict here isn’t man vs. man, even as the quarterback “stole” Maggie and the other football players pick on Lucas. The conflict is man vs. himself. To earn respect, Lucas has to overcome the web of lies he had woven around himself and let go of his unearned entitlement to social status.
To achieve that, he joins the football team as a wide receiver. Due to his small size and lack of physical talent, he warms the bench for an entire season. And then — clutch moment. Final seconds of the game and his team is down by only a few points. Time for one play to get the come-from-behind win. The play call: go deep. Do or die. With one of the starters hurt, the coach puts Lucas on the field. The ball is snapped, all the receivers go deep. The quarterback (Charlie Sheen) scrambles away from pressure but can’t find an open man.
Except Lucas, who is all alone in the end zone. The opposing defense either doesn’t bother to cover him or they don’t notice him because he’s so small. The quarterback also ignores Lucas, who is wildly waving “I’m open!” Finally, in desperation, he throws a deep bomb to Lucas. A perfect throw. Lucas catc– drops – the pass! He’s instantly piled-on by the defenders, seriously injured, and taken to a hospital. His team loses the game.
Lucas eventually returns to school. Everyone’s eyes are upon him as he walks toward his locker. He knows that he had let them all down. The movie ends on a wonderful scene.
6. “Vision Quest” – My favorite ’80s movie in the teen genre. On the personal level, I related to the main character, played by Matthew Modine. Even my hair was similar to his. The story is about a high school wrestler’s quest.
An interest I indulge in on occasion is to take a decades-old image of a landscape and compare it to that same place today on Google Streetview. The older image might come from a personal photo, my recollection of being somewhere during childhood, or a scene from an older film.
Journey’s Only the Young is on the “Vision Quest” soundtrack. The video opens with Modine’s character running along a city bridge with a compelling mountain background. I learned that the movie was set and filmed in Spokane, WA. Within minutes, I located the bridge in Streetview. If anyone is curious, it’s North Monroe Street, looking west. The view hasn’t changed that much in 33 years.
7. “An Officer and a Gentleman” – This is one of three films on this list that was shot in the Pacific Northwest and features the landscape in all of its beauty. Of the big themes in this excellent film, one stands out as anachronistic: the earlier generations’ dream of upward class mobility. That’s where Boomers and those who followed them fail to communicate with each other. We’re in a much bigger game than social striving: it’s now about survival.
To be triumphantly carried out of her factory job and become a Naval officer’s wife? Here is that final scene. We don’t have factories, we don’t have working-class jobs, except for mongoloid aliens. I haven’t seen that film since 1983. That factory floor… nobody is fat. God, it stings.
8. “The Breakfast Club” – P.J. O’Rourke wrote an article in memory of John Hughes four years ago. There is a lot going on there. I’ll just excerpt the part in which he focuses on the ethnic integrity of the five main characters, the high school students serving their Saturday detention:
Imagine, painfully, a 2015 remake of The Breakfast Club. Latino-American, African-American, […] John kept his characters alike as possible, within the spectrum of high school anthropology, in order to make them as different as possible, within the spectrum of individuals. All five members of the Breakfast Club have Anglo-Saxon last names. All are attractive.
Imperial force-mixing of nations corrupts any fruit of human aspirations. And not just art, but even a study in human nature. Any higher endeavor degenerates to exactly the sum of its dissonant parts.
The world changed more dramatically between 1990 – 2020 than it did between 1500 – 1990. For us GenX’ers, those changes hit us just as we were entering adulthood, so our young sense of survival was attuned to the coming cataclysm. We felt it in our bones the way a wild animal feels the distant, silent advance of a storm. By that same time, Boomers’ animal instincts had been dulled with age and material satisfaction.
That disparity in perception of existential danger is why generations don’t see eye-to-eye. Understanding that dynamic makes it easier to have a more charitable perspective on the Baby Boomer generation over what we see as their callousness toward their grandchildren but which they see as something that they had rightfully earned:
9. “Witness” – The story arc involves the growing sexual chemistry between the young Amish widow and Harrison Ford’s character. She has a nine-year-old son. Ford plays an honest cop who is being sheltered from crooked cops by the Amish, living as one of them until he recovers from his gunshot wound. The widow and the cop develop an attraction to each other, which over time they can barely control. A village elder warns her that people are noticing her subtle indiscretions and she risks shunning. But like a lioness in heat, she won’t have any of that and talks back to the elder with proud words of feminist defiance.
The film’s message is not feminist. To honor her people, to live among them with her little boy and to enjoy the comfort and protection of her folk, she had to not only be chaste, but also refrain from creating any appearance of fornication. As Ford’s character told her on the morning after she enticed him to spy on her bathing: “If we’d made love last night I’d have to stay. Or you’d have to leave.”
The film shows the classic conflict of Individual vs. Society. The judgment of “Witness” is cast in favor of society: woman’s feminine instincts may not be let unbound.
Amish men don’t get a free ride, either. They too must contain their masculine instincts. For one, they are not free to lay a beating on a bunch of local yahoos who regularly harass them. “It’s not our way,” an Amish elder tells the cop. In this powerful scene, these strong, prime young Amish men swallow their pride and force themselves to turn the other cheek, also for the good of their people.
10. “Heathers” – Three decades later, Veronica née Sawyer still wakes up in the middle of the night with a racing heart and racing thoughts: “There is no statute of limitations on murder.”