The Quintessential ‘80s Childhood (That I Must Not Have Had)
There has been on-going series of entries ever since I started Playground of Doom. (I like to throw in the title of my blog at the beginning of some of my entries…it helps fire up those engines. You know, in case someone should be so moved to Google “Playground of Doom.”)
I started entitling them as the “Why Remember Anything?” musings. The vast majority of them rotate around some obscure flick I had the (mis)fortune to still recall. The question is right there in the title: How does the psyche choose what floats up to the surface of your hazy memory?
Are you horribly lost? You will notice that I have written another one of my cheeky headlines in the space above. Yes, I grow up smack dab in the middle of the eighties…born in 1980 and I would assume that most of my earliest memories are in the first part of that decade. I don’t want to write off my entire childhood as not being ‘80s enough. I still owned a jean jacket, played “Simon,” saw the Star Wars movies multiple times, and had Billy Joel on my mom’s car radio.
So what’s the problem? There’s a bizarre empty hole in my movie viewing from that decade. I recognize titles, know an embarrassing amount about things I never saw, and have a strong idea of what I should have seen as an ‘80s kid. The issue is that I never did seem to see most of the flicks that my generation deems as “classic.”
I wrote elsewhere about my lack of exposure to the John Hughes teen comedies. The entire franchise of Nightmare on Elm Street is a foreign body to me. (That’s not entirely true; I finally saw the original one when I was all of twenty two. I had moved into my “real apartment” as a full grown adult. I decided to rent something I wasn’t allowed to watch a kid to celebrate. By that time, I was seriously underwhelmed by Freddy and fell asleep on the couch. I should have spent the money on booze and whores…but I don’t the $3 rental would have footed the bill). I also have never witnessed a full “Friday the 13” flick, except for chunks on TV.
Why is this? Is it because my family didn’t have cable? Is it because my parents were at least somewhat discerning about what I subjected my young mind to? Is it because I was a complete fucking pariah and was never invited to anyone’s house for sleep-overs? (No, never that…I was the height of schoolyard popularity!) Look, I don’t know…
I like to pat myself on the back for my highly evolved filmic tastes. (While you were watching Freddy and Jason, I was watching Psycho, motherfuckers…) Still, I have to admit that curiosity and I yearn for lost time. (Oh, we’re talking about movies, aren’t we? Excuse me.)
What am I getting at with all of this? By happenstance, I have played “catch up” in the last few months. What have I watched? You impatient people…okay; Beverly Hills Cop, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and the real humdinger Red Dawn.
This is the inverse of my “Why Remember Anything?” series. I am not coming to these films with the burden of nostalgia. Instead, I am looking at these things in somewhat of an anthropological manner. I’m digging up the history that I haven’t experienced and trying to figure out its context.
As you know, I tend to be long winded…but some of these movies I just don’t have much to say about, really. So why don’t we just get this done with?
Beverly Hills Cop
Yes, I knew the name Axle Foley. I had heard the theme song to this movie countless times. I even knew about some of the best bits; mostly the bananas in the tail pipe gag.
Still, I didn’t even know that the Eddie character was a “fish out of water.” This is a classic comedy conceit, and it’s reasonably effective here. If this were a Jackie Chan movie, that role of the outsider would be one of the only jokes. (I don’t need to remind you of Shanghai Noon or its useless sequel.) Eddie, from what I have read, improvised the vast majority of his dialogue. (My favorite bit has to do with the quality of the LAPD Cop Car. “This is the cleanest police car I’ve ever been in…”)
I give the movie massive credit for actually having a dramatic core. Why is Axel in LA? Because he is investigating the murder of his friend…and both Eddie and the movie have that awareness. The most interesting scenes (for me) happen when Eddie switches out of comedic mode and reminds us that he is out for some revenge. There is a dramatic actor there, and that is an easy thing to forget about Eddie Murphy. Thirty years later, he still hasn’t tapped into that potential as much as he could. (His only Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls is for another primarily serious role.) I suppose that is because he needs to go out and make the next flick in the Daddy Daycare franchise. (Seriously, Eddie…)
Was it worth watching? Yes. Do I feel drastically altered by it? No.
Most importantly, is it something I really felt like I missed out on? Not really.
The John Hughes Two-fer: Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles
I wrote elsewhere about an Oscar party I attended the year John Hughes died. I don’t want to paraphrase that story too much, other to invoke its’ central question: “Who the fuck is Duckie?” My friends, I can now answer that question to an embarrassing degree. That, and Long Deck Dong, the Geek, and the placement of the line: “They forgot my fucking birthday.”
I made a somewhat crucial mistake in the watching of the John Hughes flicks. I watched Pretty in Pink before the more iconic (at least from what I’ve heard) Sixteen Candles. The problem with that is that I fall into the somewhat perilous position of comparing the two. Quite frankly, I like Pretty in Pink more. Why? Well, we will get to that…
Before we do, I have to say that I finally “get it” about John Hughes. There’s a certain formula that he utilizes that I call “just insightful enough.” There is enough “real” angst among the popcorn elements to guide a generation through adolescence without thoroughly depressing them. You know that Molly Ringwald is going to end up with “the guy.” You know that no one will get seriously hurt. That said, Hughes doesn’t shortchange his audience on a realistic portrait of teenage dynamics. (This is especially true of the scenes between Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in Candles.)
I also “get it” about Molly Ringwald. The particular genius in casting a real sixteen year old in your movie is that you get to tap into that insecurity. Her reactions and interactions to just about every other actor make her relatable.
Now what about this comparison mumbo jumbo? Hughes, for my money, makes a crucial misstep in the way he handles Candles. There are too many digressions into slapstick, characters that don’t serve the story, and general silliness. The “fucking birthday” story gets lost in the mishmash of underpants and racial stereotypes. I would also note that there is no Ducky.
Let’s handle the “Duckie” scenario first. Duckie, is a fantastic display of teenage awkwardness and poignancy played by Jon Cryer. You completely buy his unrequited crush on Ringwald (and his heartbreak). You thrill to his horribly dorky bravado as he lip-synchs to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” He feels a lot less contrived than Hughes’ other characters because you can’t pigeon hole him into a high school role. (He’s not a total nerd…he’s not a jock…he’s almost a hipster…but was there hipsters in the ‘80s?)
I also feel like the Pretty in Pink script is tighter. There are digressions, but they are in the service of character. I’ll be honest; I never for a minute bought that Molly Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton were “poor.” Still, the class issue gives the romance with Andrew McCarthy an added sting. I was also a big fan of Annie Potts as the record store manager/boss. Her scenes with Molly Ringwald go somewhere, and are a good commentary on wisdom learned with age.
The ending is horribly rushed, but what can you do?
On a whole, I’m glad I watched these flicks. Now I won’t have to pretend the next time they come up at a party.
“Oh yeah, I love Long Deck Dong…me so love racist stereotypes!”
I promised to save the aforementioned “humdinger” for last, and so I have.
What to make of John Milius’ Red Dawn? Perhaps I should start with a confession; I thought I had seen this movie all the way through at least once. I know all about shouting “Wolverines!” at the top of your lungs. I could rattle off some of the cast members (most of them were also doing double duty as Outsiders.) I also have been given the impression that it was morally and politically fascistic. That said, I started watching it a few nights ago and nothing looked familiar.
I would also point out that fact nothing (and I mean nothing) seems to be literal. That is to say that I don’t believe the inherent reality of the movie…and we’ll get to if that is intentional or not.
- These are, however, the flaws that I see on the surface:
- · There is next to no character development among the teenage heroes. The one notable exception is the brother relationship between C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze. They have a couple of good scenes together, and Swayze even manages to pull off a “real” performance. (Check out his solemn “man cry” in the snowy woods towards the end of the movie). Because you don’t really get to know these kids, it makes it impossible to grieve their losses as they happen.
- · On that note: this is made by the man who wrote the immortal line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Didn’t he know how flat his script was?
- · The chronology of this movie is completely screwed up; in one scene there is summer, and in the next there is winter. Milius abandons his monthly captions (as in “January, February,” etc.) in the last half hour. That causes everything to feel non-linear…once again, is that intentional?
- · The movie starts out as good old-fashioned propaganda. Get those Ruskies out of the U.S. of A! The movie pushes past propaganda into outright pornography when the teenagers are mercilessly blown to bits. That just seemed uncalled for me to, and I was upset by it.
- · The “explanation” for the way the world has become at the beginning is rushed and becomes forgettable. I didn’t know who was supposed to be on what side.
- · How do the boys go from inexperienced with shotguns to experts in handling rocket launchers? Where did they learn military strategy so abruptly? I am talking about before they meet the Powers Booth character.
- · One last question that summates all my points: How the hell could anyone take this seriously?
Now that I have deconstructed the movie, let me try and reassemble it. This feels like a wildly imaginative adolescent daydream to me. This is a daydream that places adolescent heroes at the forefront of the story. This is the direct inverse of Lord of the Flies in which children resort to brutality without the adults. These kids don’t need the gosh darned grown ups, anyhow! They have camping equipment and cheap riffles and ammo…take that Ruskies…”Wolverines!”
As a psychology student, I can hypothesize that this kind of thing is highly flattering to the teenage ego. This is the sort of delusion that a bored thirteen year old would entertain in study hall. If you saw this movie growing up, I assume it was daydream fuel.
There is a fascinating parallel to me as an adult viewer between this movie and traditional fairy tales. In many fairy tales, children are devoured at the hands of wicked witches and monsters. That is what gives them the cautionary kick in the pants for the frightened child. Is heroically sacrificing Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell not a different of the same thing?
What about the ending in which a boy and girl escape into the promised land of “free America?” How could you not think of Adam and Eve?
None of this is to say that I think Red Dawn is “good.” In fact, I think it’s pretty shitty. However, I can’t help but wonder if this is supposed to be a fairy tale. Am I looking too deeply?
Well, now, this is a surprise…
I really didn’t intend to write this much about any of these movies.
I even smell a sequel coming on; Friday the 13, Conan the Barbarian, maybe even The Monster Squad. (Although there was a kid in third grade I knew who recited the entire movie on a daily basis. So…perhaps, not.)
Thanks for reading…all two of you.