Thursday, June 24, 2010

1980's Film Fest: Day 2

Yesterday we kicked things off with Jon Hughes' 1986 film "Pretty in Pink". A story of star crossed lovers set against a backdrop of Reagan era culture shifts. Today we fast forward four years in the lives of our 80's American archetypes. Now in their early 20's they face a whole host of new problems navigating the emerging world they live in.

I have long had a theory about what formula makes for a really great 80's power ballad. First you must have at least one thematic shift in the song. As an example I cite Night Ranger's "Sister Christian".



Now I can't honestly tell you what any of this song is about (incomprehensible lyrics are yet another hallmark of what makes a great 80's power ballad) but I can tell you that there are at least two stories being told here. Simultaneously. You have the story of the titular Sister Christian who's time has come and who is apparently growing up so fast. Then you have the rocking tale of someone who I think is trying to buy an airline ticket and is also motoring.
Next you really need at least one change in musical tone and/or style. For this I cite Styx's classic "Come Sail Away".



The beginning is a lovely piano ballad about the sea and memories and the impermanence of life (I think). But that back half is six kinds of rocking wackiness. Suddenly there's a starship and aliens and alien abductions. Awesome.
So take at least two parts of different storylines (in a 1:1 ratio), combine that with at least two parts of changes in style, and sprinkle in a liberal dose of incomprehensible lyrics. Now bake for at least one hour in a cocaine addicted brain and you have the perfect 1980's power ballad. The best example of this is John Parr's 1985 hit "St. Elmos Fire (Man In Motion)".



Oddly director Joel Schumacher used the same recipe to craft his film of the same name.

2) "St. Elmo's Fire"



"St. Elmo's Fire" follows a group of seven friends who have recently graduated from Georgetown University. As a side note, the reason I did not include a film actually set in college in the number two position is simple. There aren't any. Well actually there are dozens upon dozens of 80's college movies but none of them was right for selection in this festival. If anyone can recommend a film from the 1980's, set in an American college or university that does not involve either losing you virginity, scoring the most, showing the most breasts, drinking the most alcohol or throwing the most outrageous party please let me know and I will consider it for inclusion. As it stands every 80's college movie that I could think of was far too campy or insane and completely devoid of social awareness or commentary to be included.
As I said, this film follows seven longtime friends as they deal with the challenges faced by having to live in a world free of the protections of institutional learning. Our archetypes from "Pretty in Pink" have made the leap forward with us in different guises. Andie and Blane have each morphed into one of two possibilities depending upon how you feel they would have done coming of age in the early to mid 80's.
For Andie we have the options of Leslie (Ally Sheedy) or Jules (Demi Moore). Leslie is an Andie who was able to stay with Blane and find a compromise between her counter-cultural ideals and the rising Yuppie tide. Leslie is an independent woman of the 1980's and an aspiring architect. She struggles to maintain her independence after moving in with her college boyfriend Alec (Judd Nelson). More on Alec in a minute. Leslie is unabashedly a Yuppie but she also wants to follow her dreams even if it means struggling for a little while. This patience puts her at odds with the desires of Alec and casts her as an anti Jules.
Jules is Andie having gone whole hog for the 80's greed and consumer culture. Like Leslie, Jules is also an independent woman of the 1980's but there is no waiting to earn the brass ring here. She was recruited into the world of international finance right out of college and for all the world seems successful and happy. She has a great, well furnished apartment. She has a cool car, and she's very fashionable for the time. However like many Americans Jules finds herself buried under a mountain of consumer credit debt. The 1980's were a time when money was very cheap and credit was exceptionally easy to get. Does anyone else remember fully functioning credit cards just arriving in the mail completely unsolicited? On top of all of this Jules also has an ever escalating cocaine habit. It bears mentioning that before cocaine became the cliche 80's drug that it is today it did enjoy a very strong following amongst the upwardly mobile segments of American society. Cocaine was and is a drug that allowed one to keep working without fading for an extended period of time. In a culture obsessed with getting ahead this was seen as a distinct advantage. Because Jules' is facing actual problems, she is actually the most sympathetic of the three female leads. Her dysfunction can be viewed as an inner resistance to the culture and her drug habit is a literal manifestation of the toxic environment she lives in.
Our hero Blane has had his own choices to make since we saw him last. If he was able to compromise the ideals that kept he and Andie together with his natural Yuppie leanings then he will have morphed into the aforementioned Alec. Alec is a Poli-sci grad working for a Democratic Congressman whom he seems to believe in. Alec has recently moved in with his girlfriend Leslie to whom he frequently proposes marriage. Alec wants to get married for several reasons; firstly he genuinely seems to love Leslie, secondly he needs a polished and poised wife to aid him in his burgeoning political career, and thirdly he feels guilty for cheating on Leslie. Often. Yes despite his reportedly high ideals Alec it seems is buying more and more into the culture of greed. It is revealed early on that he is considering getting a job with a Republican Senator because doing so will pay more and that will allow him to buy a larger couch. Oh and marry Leslie.  Alec is also sexually greedy. He blames his frequent transgressions on Leslie's refusal to marry him, "I'll say no when she says yes." Despite all this he is the most levelheaded and successful male lead.
Alec's opposite and Blane's other optional future is Billy (Rob Lowe). Billy is full tilt counter-culture. Billy is an alcoholic former frat boy current party boy deadbeat dad who can't adjust to life outside of college. Alec gets him jobs which Billy almost immediately loses or quits and despite having married the woman he impregnated in college, he still sleeps with any woman that his good looks can reel in. Like Jules Billy is struggling with fitting into the 80's lifestyle but while Jules jumped in with both feet and is paying the consequences, Billy opted not to jump at all. To put a fine point on it Billy wears his college letter jacket throughout most of the movie. Like "Pretty in Pink's" Steff, Alec wants to mold Billy in his own image and get him to conform to the way of the world.
Even Duckie has made the leap with us but for him things haven't changed much. The Duckie of "St. Elmo's Fire" is Kevin (Andrew McCarthy ironically). Kevin is a dissatisfied junior newspaper writer working the obituary beat. He is desperately in love with someone he cannot tell and otherwise kind of a sad sack. He longs to write about the literal meaning of life but can't get it published. Kevin represents the cultural ennui that ultimately would come to characterize the 80's in America. A promise of greatness left unfulfilled and golden opportunities missed.
The final two characters that round out the group are Kirby (Emilio Estevez) and Wendy (Mare Winningham). Kirby exists entirely to fuel a subplot wherein he falls madly in love with a Dale (Andie MacDowell) and sets forth to stalk her. Don't take my word for it. You watch the film and tell me what you'd call it.
Wendy has a larger role to play but really isn't any more necessary to the plot than Kirby. Wendy is deeply in love with Billy. She gives him money, she forgives him for crashing her car while driving drunk and she always builds him up despite him frequently tearing her down. Wendy is also the repressed and sheltered girl of the group. She comes from a wealthy and overbearing family but has decided to become a social worker. She wants to break away from her family. She wants to make a positive difference in the world. Most of all she wants to change Billy into someone he can never be. Wendy could have been a far more important character but poor writing and miscasting a very good but also pregnant at the time actress hampered her development. Wendy is given such slight regard by the writers that she's not even in the penultimate scene. Kirby the stalker is in that scene but not Wendy.
"St. Elmo's Fire" is by no means a perfect film. In fact I don't even think it's a particularly good film but it does deal with many of the societal issues that faced young adults in the 1980's. The overriding theme of this film is uncertainty. Ultimately none of the characters know where they're going. Some have clung to the past, some have been singed by the present, others are grabbing whatever will get them ahead but all of them hope for the future.

BONUS:
There is no optional addition for this selection. Though tomorrow's selection will include an option that could go immediately after this film.

I said in yesterday's post that I would discuss what is and what isn't a Brat Pack movie. When it comes to the Brat Pack I throw my lot in with the purists. To be considered a member of The Pack you must have appeared in either "The Breakfast Club" or "St. Elmo's Fire" with an appearance in both being preferable. You also must have appeared in at least one additional film in the 80's with another Pack member. To be considered a Brat Pack movie, the film must star at least two Pack members. For example let's take yesterdays selection, "Pretty in Pink". PiP stars Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy and Jon Cryer. Ringwald was in TBC and McCarthy was in SEF and they are both in PiP so they are officially Brat Pack members and PiP is officially a Brat Pack movie. Cryer on the other hand is not a member because he was not in either of the ensemble films.
As a further example Mare Winningham is also not a member despite being in SEF based on her never having worked with another member. She is the only lead from SEF who is not a member of The Pack. The film I passed on yesterday, "Sixteen Candles" is a Brat Pack movie because it stars Ringwald alongside Anthony Michael Hall both of whom were in TBC. The masterpiece that is "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is not a Brat Pack movie as it stars none of The Pack's members.
By this rule the Brat Pack contains just eight members and has an oeuvre that encompasses some eleven films made between 1983 ("The Outsiders", Estevez and Lowe) and 1988 ("Fresh Horses", Ringwald and McCarthy). So just because it's a John Hughes movie ("Weird Science") or stars Molly Ringwald ("The Pick-up Artist") that doesn't make it a Brat Pack movie.

Come back tomorrow when one of our archetypes will learn the consequences of greed.

2 comments:

Sarah said...

1980s movie set (at least partially) on a college campus = Gotcha!

JeremyRyanCarr said...

"Gotcha" is not a college movie it is a... spy movie?