Friday, August 19, 2011

In Praise of 1986: a re-evaluation of my least beloved decade of film.

It's officially the beginning of late summer. It's Friday. And despite my all-consuming passion for movies, I don't want to see anything new. It has not always been this way. Once upon a time, it seemed every weekend of the summer offered some new pleasures, whether they were just a good time or something more.

One summer in particular still resonates with me. Without really thinking closely about it until now it appears to me that 1986 was a watershed year for the movies. And for me, for the rest of my days, the summer of 1986 will always be the definitive summer movie season.

I turned 15 that summer. Part of why this summer has a special place in my memory can be attributed to my proclivity at the time for taping certain clips from TV on my relatively new VCR. I filled up countless tapes with music videos from Friday Night Videos on NBC (we didn't get MTV until 1989) and other music video shows of the day. In May of 1986, I taped Entertainment Tonight's summer movie preview, a montage of scenes from coming attractions. I watched it so many times that most of it is still fresh in my mind. So unlike most summers, there's a highlight reel for that summer playing fresh in my head even now.

I have a personal connection to 1986 for reasons only peripheral to the cinema (we'll come back to that later), but I think the first thing to be said about 1986 is that it's part of a decade I have for some time considered the nadir of cinema.

Shocking, I know. But the 80's for me were the decade without a great movement, the decade that seemed to surrender all the ground gained in the pre-Star Wars 70's, the fallow period between the Second Golden Age and the Indie Explosion of the 90's. Were there great 80's films? Of course. But compared to the 60's or 70's, I felt the Reagan Era was left wanting.

Lately I've noticed that filmmakers (some my age, some of Gen-Y) have begun to proudly proclaim their love for 80's American film, even in such august venues as Elvis Mitchell's The Treatment. It makes sense that the current crop of filmmakers and executives would look to the 80's, a period where serving the audience came first and efficient entertainment supplanted artsy ambiguity. That paradigm shift is most dramatic in the career of David Gordon Green, who ten years ago wowed critics with his Malickian 70's influenced freshman and sophomore efforts. Now he's made a series of unabashedly 80's style comedies, his latest a veritable remake of 1987's Adventure's In Babysitting.

The Eighties are in, The Seventies are, for the most part, out. 

But what's so special about 1986? I think it's because 1986 is that rare year when both popular films and critical darlings flourished equally. In '86, there were plenty of crowd-pleasers and the year also delivered some arthouse classics that could be spoken in my film classes without embarrassment even in the 90's when I was in film school. In 1986, whether you liked goofy comedy, action, challenging drama or art cinema, you got it all.

In the first four months alone, we got Hannah & Her Sisters, Lucas, At Close Range, Salvador, Pretty in Pink, and even The Hitcher. On May 16th, the year's number one film was released. It was called Top Gun, and in many ways it is the apotheosis of the Simpson/Bruckheimer style that has since conquered the summer. This is significant. It marks '86 as a turning point, the end of the post-Star Wars era, the beginning of Bruckheimer's more aggressive brand of audience service. Soon the spawn of Top Gun would proliferate and kill off anything that isn't already carrying its particular strain of virus. But in 1986, it was just one part of a diverse population.

The same month Top Gun came out, Roland Joffe's The Mission (that touchstone of middlebrow quality, with a soundtrack that in many ways outlived the film) was released. One month, two films. One a bellweather of things to come, one instantly a relic of another era.

Top Gun wasn't the only monster hit of the year. The end of the summer would bring Crocodile Dundee. If those bookends depress you, consider what came between- June: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Mona Lisa, Back To School; July:  Aliens, Big Trouble in Little China, Under The Cherry Moon; August: The Fly, Howard The Duck (I know it's bad, but it has to be mentioned), She's Gotta Have It, Stand By Me. August also brought a small animated feature called Transformers: The Movie. It was not a box office champ, but its presence undeniably portends things to come.

[Quick aside: Siskel & Ebert also debuted in 1986, which clearly marked a change in how movies were perceived. I leave it to you whether "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" helped the medium, harmed it or neither.]

Because film seasons actually meant something once, the fall and Christmas season brought even more lasting favorites: Down By Law, The Mosquito Coast, Blue Velvet, Captain Eo, True Stories (yes youngsters, Warner Bros. once distributed a film by the Talking Heads guy), Three Amigos, Star Trek IV, Something Wild, Sid & Nancy, River's Edge, and the Oscar winner Platoon. 

There are other films I've failed to list that may be a favorite of yours. And I don't pretend that all of the above are masterpieces. But they do reflect a period when filmmakers could make quirky challenging films, get distribution from majors and be seen on the big screen (In at least limited release). And perhaps, popular films could deliver their payload without assaulting the senses or the intelligence of its audience.

There are other, more obvious great years in cinema; 1974 immediately comes to mind. But right now, as I look at another uninspired weekend of studio fundraising barely disguised as cinema, I long for 1986 more because it is just beyond our fingertips. We'll never get back to 1974, we've devolved too far as a culture, but 1986 seems like a reachable goal, if only our filmmakers, and audiences, demanded better.

Two more points: in early 1987, the Academy Award winner for Best Live Action Short was Chuck Workman's stirring tribute to American cinema Precious Images. Set to a rousing pastiche of orchestral music, it splices together the most indelible moments, lines, and images of popular cinema. Is it significant that this short was made in '86? It seems so to me but not in a way I can intellectualize. It was commissioned by the Director's Guild of America on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. I'm sure they had no intention of making it as a monument to a peak cinema would never quite achieve again, but I fear that is precisely how it will come to be seen. It's hard not to agree that precious little since then has achieved the status of the films in that montage (it was recut in 1996 to include more recent films, hardly necessary).

Lastly, a confession. I have a unique emotional attachment to this summer, not just because it was the beginning of my taste changing to more sophisticated fare, but also because it was the last summer with my father, who died by his own hand at 39 the following February.  I inherited my obsession with films from him, and in fact this was the summer we saw our last films together (he loved Top Gun, no lover of subtitled films was he). This summer was the end of an era for me, by the time summer came again I was in many ways another person. So you'll have to forgive me if I've conflated the way 1986 signaled the end of one chapter for me and how perhaps it signaled the end of something in the medium I've loved all my life.

The Eighties are king now. All the hand-wringing and love of Cassavetes can't change that. So if we must live under their yoke again, perhaps filmmakers can look more carefully at the year and learn how to pull off what in 1986 seemed so easy. Raunchy teen comedies, macho action and slasher pics ruled the decade, but middle ground still existed for people who wanted more from the movies. As I dream of a better crop of films, I now dream of getting back to middle ground. The high ground is gone for good.


  1. Great essay! I really enjoyed reading it. I'm about 10 years older than you, didn't ever really think all that much about '86 as a vintage year for the movies until you mentioned it just now, but your thoughts sure brought back a lot of memories seeing the films you mentioned and your premise makes a lot of sense to me. I also can hardly stand the thought of paying money to see what the local cineplex has to offer. Remakes, sequels, franchises, one after the other, and sad to say despite all the complaining from people like us, the trend shows no sign of slowing down. I'm much more content to view my classic DVDs & blu-rays at home and wait for the one art house theater in town to reopen this fall after relocating to a new building. I feel kind of sad for younger film fans who appreciate the medium but are being fed cinematic junk food week after week. It can't help but dull their taste buds.

  2. Thanks for your comment Dave. I agree 100%. I teach and spend a lot of time with teens. I try to show them older films so they realize what they're missing. I'm grateful I was born when I was and not even a few years later.