Welcome to Part IV of my ongoing series investigating the cinematic style of the 1980s and how it relates to the broader cultural and historical trends of the period. I started ths series a few months ago because I’m tired of the ’80s being remembered in terms solely of pop culture nostalgia. The decade is much more than big hair, snap bracelets or Michael Jackson. Its movies are strange and complex, unique to their time. This is not a “best-of” list, nor a list of my favorite 1980s movies, but instead, films that I think reflect the decade in particularly stark or unique ways. Therefore, the choices I’ve made so far, and will make here, tend to be surprising or unexpected for some readers.
Ruthless People (1986; Jim Abrahams, Jerry & David Zucker, Directors)
When it came out in 1986, Ruthless People made press and buzz for being the inaugural film for the studio Touchstone Pictures–the “adult” division of Disney. An R-rated Disney film was indeed controversial in 1986. This light but surprisingly acerbic comedy, directed by Airplane! alums Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers, is a modern take on the old O. Henry “Ransom of Red Chief” story. When Barbara Stone (Bette Midler), wife of fashion tycoon Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is kidnapped, Sam, who was planning to murder her anyway, is delighted and strings the kidnappers (Judge Reinhold and Helen Shaver) along hoping they’ll take care of Barbara for him. Of course things get zany with a series of double-crosses and unexpected tangents, all adding up to a very funny movie.
Ruthless People is soaked in 1980s kitsch. The costumes are particularly bizarre, and as part of the plot centers around the fashion industry, they are unusually prominent. The Abrahams/Zucker team uses their signature lickety-split direction and editing to keep the film moving very quickly, aided much by the cinematography of Jan de Bont. This style foreshadowed the quick pacing and cutting of future films, especially action films of the 1990s and 2000s–and it’s no accident that de Bont went on to direct one of those iconic films, Speed from 1994. It’s hard to find a more quintessentially ’80s film than Ruthless People, and it’s a lot of fun.
Top Gun (1986, Tony Scott, Director)
In many ways, Top Gun, remembered as a feel-good, patriotic film, is a very depressing one. Its cliché-riddled plot is so thin it could be written on a cocktail napkin, its performances are wooden and phoned-in (with the exception of Kelly McGillis, who is quite good), and its politics are fulsome. Despite having said all that, I enjoy Top Gun, which was the top-grossing film of 1986, in sort of a guilty way, and that’s kind of the point. The simple story of a Navy fighter jock (Tom Cruise, before his Scientology lunacy) who has to get his wild impulses out of control to become a good pilot, Top Gun was the epitome of reckless military adventurism which seemed relatively benign in the 1980s but would ripen, over subsequent decades, into the bitter fruit of 9/11, Afghanistan and especially the Iraq War. For a patriotic “feel good” movie, 31 years on it leaves you with a lot of unpleasant things to think about.
I chose Top Gun for this list because of its slick visual style and its unabashed vaunting of form over substance. For a substantively poor film that could be written on a napkin and acted by middle schoolers, it has some haunting and beautiful images, some thrilling action sequences and a memorable soundtrack. It’s the 1980s incarnate, which is why it belongs on this list. It has also been chosen by the Library of Congress as culturally and historically significant.
Aria (1987, multiple directors)
A bizarre and obscure art-house “concept” film that is virtually forgotten today, Aria, in many surprising ways, takes over the form-over-substance job that Top Gun began and brings it to its most absurd conclusion. This film consists of ten short films by various directors, including Bruce Beresford, Robert Altman and Nicholas Roeg, which are best described as music videos for famous opera arias, including “Nessun Dorma” by Puccini (from Turandot) and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Some of the videos have plots. Others don’t. The framing narrative, if you can call it that, consists of John Hurt putting on clown make-up; in the film’s final segment, directed by Bill Bryden, Hurt lip-syncs Enrico Caruso’s seminal “Vesti la Giubba” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. If the film sounds like kind of a mess, it is.
Still, Aria is amazing because of its visuals, its emotional intensity, and the simple fact that it couldn’t have been made in any other decade. Franc Roddam’s segment involving the young lovers in Las Vegas is especially ’80s in its visual and editing style as well as its emotional nihilism; contrast that with the light sex farce of Julien Temple’s segment, and easily the most memorable and bizarre piece, Ken Russell’s interpretation of “Nessun Dorma” centering on a hallucinating car crash victim. Aria is too bold and weird even to have been made in the 1960s, and it certainly couldn’t have been made since. It’s a rare example of a film really pushing the boundaries of what was possible in the 1980s, though not always succeeding on its own terms. It’s definitely worth a look.
The Hidden (1987, Jack Sholder, Director)
A highly underrated and criminally forgotten film–except for its cult followers–Jack Sholder’s science fiction action film The Hidden is, I think, one of the best SF films of the ’80s. It’s a low-budget potboiler shot on a shoestring budget, but it’s fast, kinetic, explosive, funny and horrifying all at once. It’s the story of Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), supposedly an FBI agent who’s chasing a spree killer to Los Angeles. But the killer, it turns out, is an alien parasite that can switch bodies. The alien likes to drive sports cars, listen to heavy metal music and commit robberies. The cat-and-mouse chase through L.A. never lets up for a minute, and, despite some conventional action-movie tropes, manages to be pretty original.
The Hidden embodies the ’80s not merely in its fetishism of fast cars, shootouts and dolled-up bimbos, all favorite subjects of 1980s movies. It also marks a high point of how commercial low-budget schlock cinema–which had its heyday in the decade particularly in the horror genre (think of all the cookie-cutter slasher movies)–could sometimes go over the top narratively and stylistically and really contribute something to movies. It’s also a really fun film. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
Fatal Attraction (1987, Adrian Lyne, Director)
If there is an apotheosis of 1980s cinema, it is Fatal Attraction. No film made during the decade screams “EIGHTIES!” as loudly or as proudly as Adrian Lyne’s trashy psycho-thriller about a one night stand gone horribly wrong. You know the story. Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), a New York lawyer, has a fling with sexy co-worker Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) while his wife is away for the weekend. It turns out Alex is an obsessive nut with a particularly bad case of erotomania. Add the suffering wife (Anne Archer), a boiled bunny rabbit and the famous bathtub climax, and you’ve got an iconic thriller that will endure as long as movies themselves do.
Fatal Attraction embodies the schizoid morality of 1980s America: ostensibly a morality tale emphasizing traditional values (“don’t cheat on your wife”), the film is fun and thrilling precisely because of how transgressive it is. We’ve got heaving boobs, kitchen sink sex and an on-screen blow job in an elevator–none of which you could show in a Hollywood film today, amazing in how regressive sexuality has become in mainstream movies in recent decades. Glenn Close’s scenery-chewing flip-outs are guilty fun, and audiences literally cheered in theaters in 1987 at her bloody demise in the bathtub. So we have a morality tale that delights us with its forbidden sex and its bloody violence. America’s tortured and conflicted soul during the 1980s never got a more perfect mirror than Fatal Attraction, a movie that was made at precisely the right time–which is why, despite many imitators over the years, it can never be equaled.
Thanks for continuing with me on this journey through 1980s cinema. There will be one further installment!