Thursday, February 23, 2012

1980s, I Apologize To You

More and more I see a certain reverence of and fascination with the 80s. Nostalgia for the 80s has been cropping up in movies and tv with increasing frequency. Certainly, some of my college students are seeking inspiration in that particular rear view mirror.

I think I’ve written about this before, but I can’t help feeling that my experience in the 80s has nothing to do with this current house of mirrors reinterpretation of the 80s. The entirety of my high school and college experience, as well as my move to San Francisco all happened in the 80s. Three significant life moments all went down, yet I don’t see a stitch of my world view represented by the current wave of 80s nostalgia. I suppose nostalgia is about reducing an era down to its main signifiers and amplifying their importance at the expense of the margins and bit players from said era. If you head down the path of subculture, your experience gets weeded out even more as the decades pass.

In any event, I didn’t like Thriller, MTV was not that important to me, I’ve never seen Top Gun, and I never cared for Hall and Oates. And while there are certainly some John Hughes movies I like, I can honestly say I don’t hold any of those dear to my heart.

So why bring all this up now? For some reason, I got to thinking about movies from the 80s that impacted me. And whenever I think about the 80s and movies, my immediate reaction is to put the decade down. My kneejerk reaction is to think it a somewhat barren decade from a cinematic perspective. I can easily pick out films from every era that I love, that moved me, and that I hold in high regard. Yet when it comes to movies of the 80s, I usually draw a blank.

As a little exercise to myself I decided to quickly come up with a list of movies that had an immediate impact on me when I saw them in the theaters in the 80s. Not films that I discovered later on vhs or dvd. I wanted to focus solely on films I saw in a movie theater while the decade was unfolding. And I kept it fairly above ground as well. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch, but here they are.

I’m sure I could write a lot about how many of these films have not resonated in the public consciousness much beyond their release date. I could talk about how this selection of films sheds a lot of light on why I’m not on board with the current 80s nostalgia train. But for now, I’ll just list them.

Altered States (1980)

The Last Metro (1980)

Stardust Memories (1980)

Stripes (1981)

Body Heat (1981)
Das Boot (1981)

URGH: A Music War (1981)

Dance Craze (1981)

Montenegro (1981)

Blade Runner (1982)

Eating Raoul (1982)

Fanny & Alexander (1982)

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Time Stands Still (1982)

Zelig (1983)

Baby, It’s You (1983)

Star 80 (1983)

Paris, Texas (1984)

Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Streetwise (1984)

After Hours (1985)

Fool For Love (1985)

Hail Mary (1985)

Kiss of The Spider Woman (1985)

Aliens (1986)

River’s Edge (1986)
Down By Law (1986)

Matewan (1987)

Hope and Glory (1987)

Evil Dead II (1987)

Hairspray (1988)

Do The Right Thing (1989)

The Cook, The Thief, The Wife, and His Lover (1989)

As I look at the list, it’s pretty solid. Maybe they don’t all hold up and maybe it’s still not the greatest film decade ever, but I apologize to you 1980s, you're not all leg warmers and spandex.

In The Garden Of Beasts/Berlin Noir

Erik Larson’s The Devil in The White City stands as one of the most compelling non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Weaving together stories about the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and a series of murders plaguing the Chicago-area, the book reads like the most compelling of novels. Amidst the drama and intrigue, the book is a stunning look at the world of technology, science, politics, and pathology at the turn of the century.

Larson’s follow up Thunderstruck, about the race for wireless communication, was a goodie as well, though not as stellar as Devil. I just finished his most recent, In The Garden of Beasts, telling the tale of William E. Dodd, the American Ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to World War II. The book focuses on Dodd and his family as they navigate and try to make sense of the politically charged climate of pre-WWII Berlin. Hitler and his cronies are on the rise, Germany is filled with a rising bloodlust, and the country teeters on the precipice of sanity.

While I certainly enjoyed the book and gained a much greater insight into those shadowy years, the book is simply not as riveting as it should be. The main characters, Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha are just not dynamic enough to carry the weight of the book. In an era filled with monstrous villains and those trying to stand up to them, the Dodds are simply not that compelling. Ambassador Dodd comes off as the eternal, misguided optimist, who feels his presence can help bring Germany back from the brink. Martha is by far more interesting. She’s young, saucy, and filled with naive thoughts about revolutionary movements. At first she finds the Nazis and their revolution exciting, but as her time in Germany progresses, she realizes how badly she’s judged the situation. She flits through social situations with key German and Russian players, but she’s so slow to realize the looming danger presented by the Nazi regime, that the book loses a certain oomph as a result.

In The Garden of Beasts does do a nice job charting the rise of the Party and the internecine squabbles within. But the book lacks the pervasive Nazi creepiness exhibited in the work of Phillip Kerr. I recently got turned onto Kerr’s Berlin Noir series. Berlin Noir is a series of taut crime novels featuring private eye Bernie Gunther exploring the dark passageways of pre and post war Berlin. Those books are fantastic, and to be frank, do a better job capturing the psychosis of a nation about to go off the deep end. It’s a world clouded by long shadows—an environment of paranoia where nobody trusts anybody, where neighbors turn against neighbors, and where people go missing everyday. The politics are thick and it’s impossible to know which way the wind will blow and how long it will continue blowing.

All of this is alluded to in In The Garden of Beasts, but, perhaps, because our two leads are somewhat Pollyana-ish in their view of the Reich, that sense of paranoia gets muted.

Ultimately, Berlin Noir and In the Garden make for excellent companion pieces. Same time, same place, same set of ghoulish characters. In the Garden feels a little more PBS in its delivery, while Kerr captures the darker psychology at play.