Greed and glitter: a journey through 1980s cinema, in 25 films. [Part V]

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This is the fifth and final installment in my blog series, which began several months ago, analyzing the unique cinematic style of the 1980s. The ’80s get a bad rap, in my opinion, because of the obsession with pop culture fads–think acid-washed jeans or Depeche Mode–which bleeds over into any discussion of its cinema. But the movies of the ’80s do have a unique voice and style which can’t be seen in any other cinematic decade. This is not a “best of the 80s” list, nor even “my favorite 80s” list. Instead, I’ve chosen films that I think are relevant to, and express, the gestalt of the decade in more literal terms than others you could see. As a result, you might find some of my choices to be surprising.

Part I of the series (1980 and 1981) is here. Part II (1982 and 1983) is here. Part III (1984 and 1985) is herePart IV (1986 and 1987) is here. In this installment, we finish out the decade with films from 1988 and 1989.

They Live (1988; John Carpenter, Director)

If subsequent historical events can infuse old movies with new relevance, then John Carpenter’s bizarre science fiction satire They Live became nothing less than the new harbinger of our times with the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President. Indeed, right now, in early 2017, people are talking about They Live everywhere and seeing in it new relevance–and warnings unheeded–for the uncertain future into which a neo-fascist political resurgence is propelling us. But to Nada (Roddy Piper), the nihilistic, down-on-his-luck hero of They Live, who finds a pair of magic sunglasses that decipher modern urban society’s messages to their core (CONSUME! OBEY!) and disclose who among us are actually hideous skull-faced aliens who secretly control everything, the rise of Trump would hardly be unforeseen. The only question is, how do you fight an invader that seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time?

They Live is a fascinating piece of 1980s angst because it dares to show the flip side of what we often think of as a long summer of economic prosperity and domestic peace, but which obscured considerable socioeconomic turmoil underneath. The early scenes of They Live evoke almost the Depression, showing train-jumping hobos, Hoovervilles (Reaganvilles?) of homeless drifters living under bridges, and exhausting struggles for menial jobs and marginal existences. They Live is an expression of anger as much as a political or cultural warning. This film is going to be relevant for a long time to come.

Rain Man (1988, Barry Levinson, Director)

Rain Man is  a curious artifact: a film that had huge cultural reach in its time, but which has faded into relative obscurity since, now being remembered chiefly for the performance of Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man with remarkable–but all too common–mental powers. In the film, the callow car salesman Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) unexpectedly learns that he has an older brother, Raymond (Hoffman), who has lived in an institution for Charlie’s entire life. Charlie kidnaps Raymond and takes him across the country to L.A., in the process bonding with him and finding curious insights into the unusual way Raymond sees the world.

Aside from introducing the topic of autism to many people who were unfamiliar with it before, Rain Man is essentially the ultimate road movie. There are curious similarities in its structure and style to the old Hope/Crosby road pictures of the 1940s. Yet that Hope/Crosby innocence, personified by the unassuming and literal-minded Raymond, takes a tour of 1980s America: stifling small towns, slick Las Vegas operators, and a host of shifting self-interested motives even among those you love and trust most. Rain Man works not because it’s about autism or brotherly bonding, but because it’s the only way you could really do a road picture in the 1980s. If you haven’t seen it since 1988, it deserves another look.

Say Anything… (1989, Cameron Crowe, Director)

We all fondly remember the 1980s “teen movies,” especially those of John Hughes, but as I wrote in a somewhat controversial article three years ago, these movies aren’t really about 1980s teens. They’re about Baby Boomer adults recasting their own teenage years, most of them from the 1950s or 60s, in modern clothing. Cameron Crowe graduated high school in 1972 and is unquestionably a Baby Boomer, but his 1989 teen romantic comedy Say Anything… (don’t forget the ellipsis) at least tries to be more up-to-date than its contemporaries. The story of Lloyd (John Cusack) and his simple but complicated love for Diane (Ione Skye), the class brain and overachiever, the film strikes most of the right chords in portraying the time in which it was made, and remains a remarkably intelligent and sophisticated film for being about, and aimed at, people under 20.

Say Anything…‘s main strength lies in its style. Certain elements of music video creep into the film, especially the famous “In Your Eyes” scene, and its characters are deeply rooted in 1980s pop culture. But Crowe’s smart direction avoids the obvious icebergs in these dangerous waters that could easily have rendered the film just another mindless teen comedy. It does what few other ’80s teen movies dared to do: it takes the lives of teenagers seriously on their own terms, and refuses either to talk down to its audience, or to send them up for cheap laughs. It took guts to do that in a decade glutted with crap like Rock N’ Roll High School Forever or the execrable License to Drive.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, William Shatner, Director)

You may be aghast that I included this, undoubtedly the worst-ever Star Trek film and an uncommonly bad movie in its own right, on this vaunted list. But Shatner’s dreadful Star Trek V really is, if you look at it, a quintessential 1980s film. Curiously, when you look at it closely you can see glimpses of the epic and exciting picture Shatner wanted to make through the chinks and cracks of the aggressively mediocre one he did make. Camaraderie, hero worship, sacrifice, the pitfalls and limits of faith–all of these are admirable subjects to explore in film, and all had particular resonance in the 1980s. Unfortunately Shatner couldn’t quite get out of his own way, and away from his own ego, to do anything worthwhile with them.

The 1970s and particularly the 1980s in Hollywood perfected the “tent pole franchise” style of moviemaking. Star Trek V illustrates the downside of that creative and business model. From hokey dialogue and $1.98 special effects to total WTF moments like Nichelle Nichols’s bizarre fan dance in the desert, Star Trek V was a misfire of cosmic proportions, but what it says about the state of filmmaking in the late 1980s is worth paying attention to.

Licence to Kill (1989, John Glen, Director)

Licence to Kill was the second and last outing as superspy James Bond for Timothy Dalton, whose portrayal of 007 is criminally underrated. Indeed, Licence to Kill is not only the best Bond film of the 1980s by far, but it’s one of the best all-around action pictures of the decade, period. Its visual style has all the “greed and glitter” appropriate to the 1980s, but at its heart it’s a taut, well-written, tightly directed and edited story of vigilante revenge, featuring two opposing forces, Bond and drug kingpin Sanchez (Robert Davi), who have tremendous chemistry and dark charisma. In a franchise that so frequently emphasizes stunts and gadgets, Licence to Kill dares to be about characters.

And there’s a lot of ’80s to look at in Licence to Kill. Taking place mostly in Florida and the Caribbean, the film serves up music, costumes, hairstyles and narrative tropes that made Miami Vice such an iconic show, but also sands off their edges with a kind of old world British charm. The picture is tremendously fun to look at and experience. Many crew members worked on the Bond films decade after decade, but I read somewhere that almost everyone who worked on Licence to Kill thought it was the best of the Bond movies they worked on. Sadly, neither Dalton nor director John Glen ever got another chance; the franchise went into sleep mode until the mid-1990s.

Thanks for joining me on this journey through 1980s cinema. Hopefully you can see the films from the 80s with new eyes, as I try to do nearly every time.

The promotional image for They Live is presumably copyright (C) 1988 by Alive Films and/or Universal Pictures. I believe  my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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