Wednesday, June 23, 2010

1980's Film Fest: Day 1

I recently re-watched "St. Elmo's Fire" which of course led to reading the film's Wikipedia page. This got me thinking about 80's movies and what I think are the best 80's movies. Now let's clear something up to start; by "80's movie" I don't mean the best movie from the 80's or what we consider an 80's movie in the modern zeitgeist (as parodied in "Hot Tub Time Machine"). I am not talking about movies that were pastiches of the 80's and the pop culture and trends of that time but rather I'm thinking about films that represented what it was really like to live in 80's America. As a result this list will not include "Weird Science", "Teen Wolf", "Red Dawn" or even the masterpiece that is "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".
This list is presented in a recommended viewing order but also in a roughly chronological order. Not chronological based on when they were made but rather based on where the characters are in life. There are a couple of instances where I think you could justly jostle a couple of the selections around and there are a few films that I think would make fine additions but those will be explained as we go along.
So sit back, fire up Netflix and stock these gems away for a wet Autumn weekend.

1) "Pretty in Pink"

This may be my most controversial pick. I'm sure that "Sixteen Candles" partisans will be picketing my window for days to come but I have my reasons for choosing to start our cinematic journey through the 80's with this John Hughes ode to teenage angst and romance. "Sixteen Candles" is perfectly serviceable and it can be said remarkably similar to "Pretty in Pink" but the wedding subplot, the goofy grandparents and the oddly named foreign exchange student just make it far too campy for inclusion in this festival.
"Pretty in Pink" is the story of Andie (Molly Ringwald) who is a not so popular high school girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. Her best friend is an equally awkward New Waver called Duckie (Jon Cryer) who is desperately in love with her and cannot express it. Andie works for and is mentored by Iona (Annie Potts) who runs a New Wave record shop where Andie works after school. Together these three represent the free spirit bohemian culture of the 1980's. Something born out of the late 60's early 70's Hippie movement and the angrier Punk culture of the late 70's. They represent those that felt alienated by the emerging Yuppies and the Reagan era pre-occupation with the accumulation of wealth and material status that would come to be called the "Me Generation".
This cultural schism is represented by the conflicts that Andie and Duckie have with  the "richie" kids Steff (James Spader) and Benny (Kate Vernon). The root of these conflicts are in the socioeconomic differences between the two groups as well as the refusal of Andie and Duckie to conform to the new status quo. This conflict was at the core of US culture in the 1980's. From the Federal Government's theory of "trickle-down" economics to Reagan's "welfare queen" fairy tale, it was clear that the 80's were going to be very hostile towards those at or near the bottom of the economic ladder. Even the wildly unsuccessful "War on Drugs" and it's mandatory sentencing for Marijuana possession could be seen as an attack against counter-culture. The clearest manifestation of these hostilities toward the poor can be seen in Steff's sexual advances toward Andie. He wished to posses her and conquer her despite seeming to despise her. Andie's resistance to Steff can be seen as a rejection of the direction US society was headed.
Now enters Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Blane is a "richie" kid and he is also friends with Steff but he is enticed by Andie's free spirit when he meets her at Iona's record shop. They of course fall in love and this love, of course, causes conflicts within each of their social groups. Blane is at the crossroads that so many people felt they were at during this period. Did you reject the liberal movements of the 60's and 70's and embrace unrestrained free market capitalism? Or did you stand firm and resist what Reaganomics had to offer because you felt the social price was too high?

At this point there are two films you could add to the festival. The first is 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". Writer Cameron Crowe famously posed as a high school student to research the book that would become this film. Like our official selection, "Fast Times..." is about being a teenager in 80's America and though it's broader, campier humor keeps it from being in the festival it does deal with enough real world teenage problems (sex, pregnancy, drugs, employment) to warrant mention. If you were to add "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" to your own festival I would recommend placing it before "Pretty in Pink" so as not to disrupt the thread I'm hoping to weave throughout the official selections.
Finally I come to another film who's partisans will no doubt be raging against my machine. I am of course speaking of "The Breakfast Club". Sorry to burst the bubble of anyone who thought this was going to be my next selection for the festival but this John Hughes ode to teenage angst and romance does not make the cut. Why? Mostly because this film has never wrung true with me. I've never bought into the idea that high school was this segregated and stratified. The characters represent the cliched stock high school figures too well. You have the prim and proper and popular rich girl who really wants to be a bad girl, Claire (Molly Ringwald). The staight-laced popular jock who really wants to be a bad boy, Andrew (Emilio Estevez). The actual bad boy but with a heart of gold, John (Judd Nelson). The nerd who's not that nerdy, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) and the weirdo who's not really that weird, Allison (Ally Sheedy). And yes I realize that the point of the film is that all of these stock characters come to find out that they're not so different after all but I still think the premise is phony. I went to high school just ten years later than this film's setting at a school in Minnesota in what could charitably be called a suburb but was more like a small town and I witnessed very little of the cultural segregation shown therein. Your mileage may have varied. Aside from my own objections to the plot and characterizations, the over the top antics of the students and overall lack of greater societal reflection keeps "The Breakfast Club" from making the official cut. However it is not devoid of merit and as such if you wanted to add it to your own festival I would place it after "Pretty in Pink".

Come back tomorrow when our 80's teens go off to college and stumble deeper into the cultural morass of the time and I discuss what is and what isn't a Brat Pack movie.


B. said...

I'm not just going to protest outside your window, I'm going to do it with some Peter Gabriel and a boombox.

*mara* said...

Interesting and well-explained. I'm looking forward to the book.