Imagine if the films that came out during the year of your birth actually had some bearing on your development. As if a film somehow can be inextricably linked to your own lifeline. It’s a funny thing to imagine- a film sharing the same age as you. Of course, while our presence here is temporary, there is hope the film will live on forever. Our writers examine one film that shares their birthday, and in the process, expose not only their age, but why this special film still means so much to them today. – David Harris
1969 – The Wild Bunch (Dir: Sam Peckinpah) by Teri Carson
After seeing The Wild Bunch for the first time, my reaction was: “If this is a movie, then what have I been watching all my life?” I got depressed. Because there was no way I could even come close to such achievement, the film made me feel that I should quit making movies. I questioned my talent, my ability and above all, my courage. Six million dollars, 81 shooting days, 330,000 feet of film, 1288 camera set ups and 3,600 shot-to-shot edits later, Sam Peckinpah changed the face of cinema and my idea of what truly great filmmaking was about.
Peckinpah had been fired from his last film, and after three years of unemployment, The Wild Bunch was his opportunity to direct again. In its simplest terms, the story is about bad men in changing times, or as Peckinpah himself put it: “what happens when killers go to Mexico.” It’s an unrelenting, bleak tale about aging, scroungy outlaws bound by a private code of honor, camaraderie and friendship. The lone band of men (“the Bunch”), led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), have come to the end of the line and no longer are living under the same rules in the Old West. They are being stalked relentlessly by bounty hunters, one of whom is Pike’s former friend Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who would side with the outlaws if it weren’t for the threat of being sent back to Yuma Prison. In the bloody opening sequence, the Bunch ride into Starbuck, a dusty, small town. They hold up the bank and in the process annihilate the town. However, the job is a set-up: the loot they get away with is worthless steel washers. To escape the bounty hunters they cross the border into Mexico, where they agree to do a job for the dictatorial Mexican General, Mapache (Emilio Fernandez). It is to be their last job.
In the context of the times, the much-imitated and influential film was considered extremely violent. It’s impossible to determine whether it’s the most violent “ever made,” or if it was the most violent of its time, and the question is probably irrelevant. What can be said is that with the newly gained freedom attained through the development of the Code and Rating Administration and in the midst of a volatile zeitgeist, Peckinpah, with the help of the brilliant editor Lou Lombardo and cinematographer Lucien Ballard, developed a stylistic approach that, through the use of slow-motion, multi-camera filming and montage editing, seemed to make the violence more intense and visceral. Peckinpah’s intent was to “take the facade of movie violence and open it up, get people involved when they start to go into the typical Hollywood/television reaction syndrome and then twist it so it’s not fun anymore–just a wave of sickness in the gut.”
Who would rob, kill, steal guns, give the guns away to the peasants and go back to rescue a comrade and die for him? Every Western tried pull off that story but it never worked. It’s pure romance. Peckinpah’s objective from the onset was to make that story work. The budget escalated and the producer, Phil Feldman, complained to Warner Bros. exec Ken Hyman, who gave Peckinpah carte blanche after seeing the footage that was coming in. Hyman knew something extraordinary was taking place in that Mexican village. Peckinpah and his crew were creating a full landscape in the fullest artistic sense; sequence after sequence, a whole world of themes and emotions play out without dialogue. Peckinpah’s genius for improvisation produced brilliant sequences that materialized out of thin air. The Bunch’s march to their death was a scant three-line description in the screenplay. Nobody, including Peckinpah, knew what he was going to do because he never formulated a shooting plan before arriving on location. Once he was on set, before you knew it, Peckinpah built and built and built until it became that scene. The climax, The Battle of Bloody Porch, is one of the most extraordinary sequences on film. Again, Peckinpah did not have a clue as to how he was going to shoot it. He had four cameras rolling for 12 days and, legend has it, Cliff Coleman, the assistant director, was so good that the stuntmen, actors and even bullets never missed a mark, making the sequence relatively easy to edit.
As is the case with all great artists, Peckinpah had an extraordinary ability to take what people really couldn’t see and turn it into something extraordinary. As the Bunch reaches the Mexican border to take refuge in a village, Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the only Mexican in the group, recognizes differences from Texas at the edge of the border river, but not the Gorch brothers (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson). Their conversation points out their cultural differences and varied perspectives:
Angel: Mexico Lindo.
Lyle: I don’t see nothin’ so ‘lindo’ about it.
Tector: Just looks like more Texas far as I’m concerned.
Angel: Aw, you don’t have no eyes!
That’s Peckinpah speaking to the rest of the world: “you are not seeing what I’m seeing.” Peckinpah was a man who wasn’t afraid to look at himself as honestly as he could and to strip away the artifice that makes mainstream audiences tick. He really believed in who he was and what he could do. In a scene around the outlaws’ campfire, Pike dreams of one final, successful job before retiring:
Pike: This was gonna be my last. Ain’t gettin’ around any better. I’d like to make one good score and back off.
Dutch: Back off to what? (No answer) Have you got anything lined up?
Pike: Pershing’s got troops, spread out all along the border. Every one of those garrisons are gonna be gettin’ a payroll.
Dutch (sarcastically): That kind of information is kind of hard to come by.
Pike: No one said it was going to be easy but it can be done.
Dutch: They’ll be waitin’ for us.
Pike: I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I didn’t quit. In fact, I always look to this movie to set me straight when I start to lose my way. Like Pike, I want to be able to say “I wouldn’t have it any other way” and really mean it. The Wild Bunch is an uncompromising ballet in which the action, the detail, and the lives of the characters are as Peckinpah imagined they would be. After the final sequence of principal photography was completed, Bud Hulburd, the special effects engineer, remarked: “I just had the opportunity to hang a Rembrandt. It will probably never happen again.” He was so right.
1973- Serpico (Dir: Sidney Lumet) by Josh Vietti
Quality movie production comes in waves, continually improving or degrading, pending the movement of the wave itself. Sometimes the ebb and flow are personal to an actor, the production company or the director. The 70’s provided many sparkling examples of some of each genre’s best. Out of all of the classics, there was still one that, in my opinion, rose above to display not only one of the best in the genre, but showed what happens when good chemistry between the director, the actors and the studio all come together. The movie is Serpico.
Director Sidney Lumet is very good at putting you in the action very quickly. Few movies can draw you in within the opening minutes of a movie better than Serpico. It is about a good cop drowning in a sea of the corrupt. A man with a rigid morality, the kind that would tell you that you weren’t allowed to smoke in a completely empty bar. Sure, no patrons to complain, but it is still against the law. His moral compass is true, which presents a problem in the dirty precinct he works for. He won’t take the bribes, and hates looking the other way. And it starts to cost him as he begins to hate his job. Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino, is thorough and correct to his training. Hours spent comparing fingerprint cards, just to make sure a suspect he’s brought in doesn’t have any priors. He is dedicated to being the best cop he can be.
Although this film is about dirty cops, it’s also about the fragile state of the main character. After a transfer to a new precinct, Serpico realizes that his disdain for the police force remains unchanged, as it would seem everywhere he goes, cops are on the take. At parties, he would rather be known as just Frank, without anyone having knowledge of his profession. He is no longer proud to be a cop. It isn’t long before Frank Serpico has reached his limit. After a payoff is delivered to him, he sees this as the final straw and approaches the reality that the time for action is now. Once he talks to a politician in the mayor’s office and is advised that he should keep his mouth shut before he is killed, we begin to see the degrading of his fiber. He grows a beard, wears an earring and hippie inspired street clothes, and begins taping his phone conversations, even with the few allies he has left. His own friends are advising that he play ball, as he is appearing to no longer be trustworthy. All he wants is change. The very frustration of a man caught in an upside down world has now turned desperate, and he is starting to crack.
Pacino makes another benchmark performance here. Although The Godfather was so successful, it was not Pacino’s film. It was Brando’s film. Serpico was an opportunity for Pacino to make a statement. He spent weeks with the actual Frank Serpico before filming, getting to know him, learning his passion that he had and understanding the tribulations. Pacino applies his skills with ease, as the viewer has a good sense of what is going on inside this man’s head and the turmoil and betrayal he is subjected to. Pacino received a Best Actor nod with a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.
I generally like my movies slick, fast-paced and visually large. This movie doesn’t always capture my particular requirements when it comes to essence, but what it lacks in trickery it more than makes up for in solid drama. Never reaching a pulse pounding pace, this movie is more of a slow race, the winner not being decided on how quickly the finish comes, but rather how you arrive there. If you haven’t seen it before, or if it’s been many years since, give it another look and compare it to what is being produced today. With open eyes, you may see a different movie this time around.
1974- The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Dir: Werner Herzog) by Lukas Sherman
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is Werner Herzog’s fourth feature film. Its German title is Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle, which translates to the much more evocative and pungent “Every man for himself and God against all.” That could stand as an epigraph for many of Herzog’s films (or Herzog himself), which often concentrate on a strong, sometimes mad, protagonist who takes on or is assaulted by the world, nature or others.
When I first saw this film in 2000, I wasn’t very familiar with Herzog. I was coming off an unsuccessful year at grad school in Boston and something about the quiet intensity of the film and the poignant isolation and confusing death of the protagonist seemed to fit in with my rather deep pessimism at the time. At the same time, I was almost indignant (and still am) that Herzog wasn’t better known and I wanted to become a film programmer just so that I could run a Herzog retrospective. I doubt he needs my help, but I’d still like to do it and Herzog remains one of the few filmmakers who has never disappointed, has an inspiring work ethic, and about whom I never tire of talking. He has vision, something that can be said of very few contemporary artists.
The film takes its plot from history. In 1828, a teenaged foundling wandered into Nuremberg. Nobody knew where he came from or who he was. He gave his name as Kaspar Hauser and claimed he had been raised in a dark cellar by a mysterious man who fed him bread and water. He became both a figure of fascination and speculation, including one theory that he was related to nobility. Then in 1833, he was stabbed under mysterious circumstances and died shortly afterward.
Herzog, concerned more with what he calls “ecstatic truth” then cold facts, takes this figure as his starting point and from there crafts a film that is one of his most beautifully shot, emotionally rich, and profound. Herzog’s five films with actor/madman Klaus Kinski often overshadow the other films in his varied, formidable canon and even those collaborations are often better known for their difficult productions (jungles, dragging boats over mountains, titanic clashes between actor and star). Unfortunately, this means his persona sometimes comes at the expense of his films and though he’s enjoying his greatest prominence in years (he was nominated for his first Oscar this year), he remains highly underrated and few of his films have received the serious attention they deserve.
The role of Kaspar is essential to the film and Herzog made the unorthodox decision to cast a non-actro that he’d seen in a film about Berlin street performers. Bruno S., with whom he also made Stroszek, was uniquely suited to play Kaspar, even if he was much older than the actual figure. The son of a prostitute, he was beaten as a child, institutionalized for many years, and referred to himself as “Der Bruno.” Wide-eye and eccentric, Bruno is absolutely compelling and believable as Kaspar. So many films romanticize or sentimentalize the simple, natural soul (Sling Blade, Forrest Gump), but Bruno and Herzog make Kaspar a figure who is tragic, an innocent cast adrift in a world that seeks to understand him (the professors and clergymen), mock him, exploit him (he’s presented as a circus attraction at one point), or make him like everyone else. There are many animals in the film and its clear that has more affinity with them than with his fellow humans. As Herzog says in Herzog on Herzog,”Kaspar’s story is about what civilization does to us all, how it deforms us by bringing us into societal line.”
This is a common, almost clichéd, theme, but Herzog makes it vital, provocative, and unsettling. Kaspar is the anti-Gump. Although he too is full of unconventional wisdom, society, rather than embracing him, sets out to destroy him, whether by treating him like a vagrant when he first appears or presenting him at a society party as a kind of pet (one woman calls him a “noble savage”). As Kaspar says, “The people are like wolves to me.” Despite Herzog’s dark vision, there’s a great poignancy to Kaspar’s isolation and this may his most nuanced and emotionally involving film. It’s hard to identity with Kinski’s spiraling insanity in films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Cobra Verde, but Bruno is intensely sympathetic and embodies some deep aspect of the human condition. Another one of his significant pronouncements is “Mother, I am so far away from everything.” Fittingly, after his confusing death, the last word is had by a petty local official who is excited to write about a report about Kaspar. Herzog clearly identified strongly with both the character and actor and, although it may be unintentional, Kaspar’s struggle can be seen as that of the artist in an uncaring world. One character tells Kaspar, “You used to think all your dreams were real.” Herzog has famously (or infamously) gone to great lengths to make his dreams or visions real.
I don’t think Herzog’s ever made a bad film and while his Kinski films will probably remain his best know, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser may be his masterpiece: something powerful, beautiful, and strange.
1977 – Annie Hall (Dir: Woody Allen) by David Harris
I could have gone the easy way out and picked Star Wars. However, if I am going to pick a movie from the year of my birth that resonates most with my life, it will have to be Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Many of my boyhood fantasies involved living in a galaxy far, far away and adhering to a code not unlike that of the Jedi. But then I outgrew my toys and the Force slowly ebbed away; I was no longer a Jedi but a Jew.
“Am I Jewish?” Sure, my parents were born to Jewish parents from New York but we always celebrated Christmas as I grew up and I don’t believe in God. Did that make me what Grammy Hall considers a real Jew? See, my family holidays always echoed the scene in Annie Hall where Allen’s Alvy Singer visits Annie’s (Diane Keaton) WASPish family upstate. While they converse about boat landings and drunken neighbors in mild-mannered gossip, the screen splits to reveal the family dinners past of Singer’s childhood. Relatives talk over each other, discussing who has cancer, who has diabetes. Not one conversation goes by with my very Jewish grandmother today where I don’t get the latest on who has passed away and who has prostate cancer. If there is truth in those 24 frames per second, Allen zeroed in on my reality.
Maybe neuroses and Judaism go hand in hand, but as I found myself fighting off hypochondria and adequacy issues in my adulthood, I am comforted by seeing another schmuck on the screen dealing with the same thing. Every moment in this film boils over with Singer’s squirmy reactions and fear. Just look at the awkward courtship scene between Allen and Keaton as the subtitles give us the real story beneath the banal dialogue. And how glorious is it when Singer is stuck behind some blowhard in a movie line who thinks he has the corner on Marshall McLuhan and yet Singer produces the actual McLuhan to shut the prick up? We’ve all been in those situations with nary a McLuhan to reveal.
Allen takes aim at so much in Annie Hall it’s impossible to believe he crammed it all into just 90 minutes. Relationships, religion, gurus, politics and sex are entangling in this brisk film. Though original edits of the film ran as long as 150 minutes, by zeroing in on Singer’s love affair with Annie Hall, the film turned into Oscar gold for Allen.
So, even though Star Wars occupies a magical part of my boyhood, Woody Allen’s little wand of truth is the red carpet to the pain of relationships and the evils, imaginary and real, which fill this adult world of ours. A few weeks ago at a party, one of my friends got drunk and kept calling me, “Jew.” I heard him correctly. It wasn’t, “Did JEW eat” or any slip like that. Something like that would have sent Singer running back to his analyst. I’m still not that sure if he was referring to me. And I never really had a Grammy Hall moment except when my wife’s mother asked me if Jews can eat maple syrup.
1980 – Airplane! (Dir: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker) by Tara Pierson Hoey
There were some great movies that came out in 1980. I’d like to say that Raging Bull or Coal Miner’s Daughter was the one that has resonated most with me over the years. But sadly, if not shamefully, it’s the screwball comedy Airplane! that left the biggest impression on my twisted little mind.
First of all, it’s quotable. I was able to charm my older brothers’ friends at a very young age by saying things like, “Excuse me stewardess, I speak jive” and declaring that I had a drinking problem while lifting a full glass of water to my forehead and pouring it out, letting the contents spill down my face and party dress, just like Ted Striker (my mom was not fond of this one). These days, anyone can quote Old School or Anchorman, but when I hear someone order coffee and say, “I take it black, like my men,” I know I have a future friend close-by.
Second, it was the first “forbidden” movie I can remember seeing. I don’t think my parents fully remembered some of the explicit lines and scenes (a random set of boobs jiggling in front of the camera for a few seconds, a stewardess pleasuring an inflatable co-pilot, etc), and they let some of my friends and I watch it during a sleepover in second grade. While most of the dirty jokes went right over my seven-year-old head, I do remember asking my stricken mother what kind of magazine was Modern Sperm, which the Captain reads in one scene. My mom’s mumbled, garbled reaction let me know I was in on something that I shouldn’t be in on, bringing the movie a little closer to my heart.
Mainly, though, it’s just funny. It’s the kind of movie I can watch whenever it’s on, still laughing out loud as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tries to conceal his identity and squirming as the Captain asks little Joey if he likes movies about gladiators. It’s a classic that spawned many more spoof films, serving as a template for things like Scary Movie and other satirical films. It also served as a career turning point of sorts for Leslie Nielsen, who played the role of the straight-laced, clueless doctor in the first major comedic role of a career that went on to include the Naked Gun franchise. It might not be important to cinema in the way that other movies released in the year of my birth are, but it will always be one of my favorites – the first movie I remember seeing where I laughed so hard, I cried. That’s all I’ve got. Over, Roger.
1982 – Tron (Dir: Steven Lisberger) by Nathan Kamal
Say, what you want about the Disney Corporation, they’ve produced some fantastic things over the years. 1928- Steamboat Willie, soon to become the iconic anthropomorphic mouse we all know/love/loathe. 1940- Fantasia introduced topless female centaurs to a whole new generation. 1977- Peter’s Dragon taught us all how to smile again. But in 1982, they produced one of the most awesome films of all time- Tron.
Bear with me- I said awesome, which is not the same as “breathtaking,” “well-made” or even “good.” Awesome is a quality that compels, not one that shatters standards of quality. And Tron is undeniably awesome. It’s got everything a small child could want and that a mature adult sometimes craves- bright lights, gladiatorial battles and Jeff Bridges. The story is laughable and grows more so as time and technology far surpass the once-futuristic vision of programs with personality and warring corporations. But it’s not about story- it’s about the journey. It’s about accounting programs forced to compete in death races. It’s about chess programs growing so powerful that they can control every other computer in existence and probably beat them at chess. It’s about Jeff Bridge’s high pitched shriek. And it’s about David Warner, the best bad guy ever.
As a child, I loved Tron. It was dated even back then- hell, the original Nintendo Entertainment System had better graphics than what passed for special effects. But it’s the perfect story for a child- all the good guys are blue, the bad guys are red and a well placed discus can solve everything. It’s perfect for a child, but it’s awesome as an adult.
1982- Blade Runner (Dir: Ridley Scott) by Chris Middleman
Science fiction is a troublesome genre. It’s all too easy for a narrative to be lost within $10,000,000 worth of CGI lasers and implausible technologies. Yet if we find it within ourselves to suspend our disbelief at the fantastic, sci-fi can allow us to take a keen look at our behavior as sentient humans in a sometimes crystal clear way; we could illuminate truths about ourselves that a narrative hampered by our own personal reactions to a contemporary-rooted story might not.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is one such science fiction examination of ourselves, taking elements of so many different facets of our culture and blending them into something that at once feels eerily familiar, completely possible, and above all, terribly disquieting. Whereas it’s source material, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, dealt with not only a bumbling, insecure protagonist in Rick Deckard but also the pangs of class inferiority and the merging of religion and technology, Scott’s Blade Runner instead focuses more on man’s relationship to that which it creates; in this case, Doctor Frankenstein is always terrified by what he’s done.
The Los Angeles 2019 of Blade Runner is a garish urban mass in which development has conquered any imaginable horizon and the corporations having spurred this have already moved onto colonizing space. One company, the Tyrell Corporation, has succeeded in creating lifelike androids to do the dirty work of building and securing these “off-world” facilities. At the point which these Replicants become truly sentient, they stage a failed revolt, causing terrestrial governments to criminalize the man-made life forms. Most are eliminated by bounty hunters, like Harrison Ford’s Deckard, but four desperate Replicants make their way back to Earth to demand life from Tyrell, fearing the fail-safe of a very finite lifespan was creeping up on them.
Tyrell himself flippantly shrugs off his creation’s pleas for life, before Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, crushes his skull. J.P. Sebastian, a biomechanic who’d worked on Replicant parts, is a fast-dying man in a dusty tenement creating bizarre Replicant playthings looking like the starts of the 1930s cult classic Freaks. They serve no purpose but to stoke his ego and are likely to die without his assistance. Sebastian does die, again at the hands of Batty, who was given a tortuous, brief life by the men he’s killed. This flawed relationship between creator and creation crossed over into the the real world as well, as Dick held out for years on a favored screenplay and Scott was forced into releasing the film with numbskull narration which Ford was dragged, “kicking and screaming,” as he says, into the studio to record.
Despite the utter coolness of hovering cars and the scintillating darkness and garish neon of the film’s future L.A., this is the crux of what’s always excited me about the film; speaking for myself as a writer, it’s my pursuit to capture, explain and communicate whatever it is in my head that I feel needs sharing. This is especially difficult for me with poetry, which, boiled down, is the craft of attempting to define the undefinable. Most of my writing I consider a futile pursuit, as I’m no genius able to use my language like a science. I can hope to get it right enough to satisfy myself and I can hope to get it close enough so that the reader feels it or understands it too yet ultimately, the work, if read, will have a life of its own that may not fulfill the foreseen intent of its creator. All bets are off when an editor is involved. Dick understood this and was obviously hesitant about third parties; Scott dealt with it over and over again.
Scott has called Blade Runner his most “personal and complete” film and attempted to set the record straight with the wide release of its director-approved “Final Cut” in 2007. We should address also the creativity expressed by Ford; Scott wanted the movie to be ambiguous as to whether or not Deckard was himself a Replicant, a hired hand. This angered Ford, who played the role as though Deckard were human and himself questioning the nature of existence through his own love with Sean Young’s Rachael, a Replicant. The ambiguity was never resolved- the key scenes being a Deckard’s daydream of a unicorn and the origami unicorn Edward James Olmos’ Gaf makes for him. “She won’t live forever!” Gaf tells Deckard. He thinks of these, seizing the origami work and Rachael’s arm with a resolve to enjoy the new relationship he’s created for himself for what it is. Next to nothing is resolved in this neon-lit, rain-soaked, futuristic film noir- something that helps the film embody its own slogan of “more human than human.”
1983- A Christmas Story (Dir: Bob Clark) by Lisa Bahr
As an atheist, I dread Christmas. The religious undertones that (in my opinion) ruin a perfectly good holiday for celebrating gluttony and consumerism are enough to make me ill. Luckily, I can take solace every Christmas by watching and rewatching that beloved holiday classic, A Christmas Story. Here is a movie that rejoices not in the splendor of some dead guy, but in the pure idea of desire. And although many people mistake it for nothing more than a funny holiday movie, it actually presents some pretty dark and sad themes.
If you haven’t seen the movie, you were either raised by wolves or had parents who didn’t love you. The film is about a boy named Ralphie (Peter Billingsly) who aches for a Red Ryder carbine action 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. He spends the entire year fantasizing about life with Ol’ Blue and is so over-the-top about it that you kind of want to slap him, but feel bad for him at the same time. This kid goes through a lot and if you watch it enough times, you start to think that he is going to need a lot of therapy as an adult. He endures bullies, hallucinations, maniacal parents, an anorexic little brother, pink bunny suits and a neurosis that won’t quit. By the time he finally gets the damn gun, you wonder what he’s going to obsess over next year, assuming his father doesn’t burn the house down in a fit of hysterical rage.
A Christmas Story has provided 26 years of entertaining one-liners and has surely carried its weight in the economy in the form of sexy leg lamps. It’s the one part of the holidays that I can always count on being good, and has been a cornerstone of maintaining sanity in an increasingly cringe-inducing yuletide season.
1985 – Back to the Future (Dir: Robert Zemeckis) by Brady Baker
If I were to travel back in time and visit my seven-year-old self, I would fully expect me to reprimand me for blatantly disregarding the Doc’s instructions and recklessly endangering the space-time continuum. This is the degree to which I was infatuated with Back to the Future as I grew up. Each and every detail of the Zemeckis-helmed, Spielberg-produced sci-fi adventure-comedy was etched so clearly into my memory that upon hearing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in adolescence, I supposed it must be a poor quality cover of the only song that Michael J. Fox ever recorded. To this day I prefer the Back to the Future soundtrack version over the ’50s classic. Sacrilege, I know.
Assuming that the universe didn’t collapse on itself upon our meeting, I would want to explain to my blissfully unaware self each and every pop culture reference lacing the Oscar-nominated screenplay; from Reagan and JFK to Jackie Gleason and Darth Vader. It’s the same style of self-aware cultural reference that Zemeckis would exploit to incredible success in Forrest Gump nearly a decade later. But even with this knowledge, I doubt that my daily repeated viewings of the film could have been any more enjoyable. It’s not simply the co-opting of pop culture that makes Back to the Future so timeless, but the careful attention to detail that it requires. Not a single line or plot point passes without eventually proving crucial to the relatively complex storyline.
In a breath, Back to the Future follows Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly, an ’80s high-school kid who’s unwittingly shuttled to 1955 in a DeLorean that’s been flux capacitized into a time machine by the local eccentric scientist. As one might expect, Marty encounters some problems in this unique predicament. Passers-by cast puzzled looks on his unusual attire, the local pop shoppe doesn’t seem to yet stock Pepsi Free, and his very existence is threatened when he inadvertently disrupts the sequence of events that were to culminate is his future conception and birth. In only a week’s time, Marty is faced with the formidable two-fold challenge of setting his teenage parents up on a path to holy matrimony and finding a way back to his life in 1985.
As more than just a boon for Universal’s bottom line, Back to the Future vaulted its boyish lead actor, Michael J. Fox, from sitcom kid to legitimate movie star overnight and solidified Zemeckis’ status as a significant Hollywood director. Despite the relatively limited budget, he delivered a piece of top quality science fiction with just the right blend of humor, action and stunning special-effects. In the years that followed, countless science fiction films would hit screens with increasing budgets and increasingly elaborate special effects, but few would rival the depth of storytelling achieved in Back to the Future.
1985 – Lost in America (Dir: Albert Brooks) by Neal Fersko
People like to go on about how the generation that lived through the Depression and WWII carried a heroic stoicism and about the sacrifices they made for the sake of family and community. But truth is that their kids, the parents of my generation, often had to forsake the same dreams during years which people like to classify as more whiny than dire. The stakes may not have been the same, but the suburban finish line was undeniably similar. My folks always harbored a hope that they would find new peaks of creativity and feeling in their daily lives and chartered some really fascinating paths for themselves once school ended for them in the ’70s. Often I find myself going through the old college books, art projects and postcards of my parents whenever I get the chance; wondering exactly what sort of life they forsook for the heartbreaks that came with a staid and nerve-wracking working class living. Albert Brooks’ Lost in America has always provided a sort of window on the fantasy that they must have hung onto right up to the point where they decided to start raising kids. While Brooks’ satire rebukes these daydreams pretty soundly, in effect siding with my parents, he also extends sympathy laced into his blatant chiding those who long to escape a more meticulous life.
The film opens with David (Brooks) and Linda Howard (Julie Hagerty) restless over a bright but emotionally stifling future which David will wipe out in short order following a heated white collar workplace breakdown and subsequent firing being after passed over for a promotion. The couple sees these turn of events as a blessing and witness their boomer guilt blossom into a full-fledged philosophy. They cash in all of their savings and pledge to travel from place to place in an immense motor home until they “find themselves” and achieve a vague and largely unspecified spiritual fulfillment. Both are fond of pointing to Easy Rider, minus the drugs and death of course, as a point of inspiration.
But if you know anything of Brooks’ humor, you’ll recognize his fondness of easing an audience into a long and protracted storyline before knee capping his own narrative just as things get started. Intoxicated with the freedom of their convictions, Linda blows almost all of the money at a roulette wheel in Vegas and the Howards are left with $800, a hysterically monstrous Winnebago and a slew of mid-thirties anxieties as they watch their prospects for the future dim very abruptly.
Brooks’ longtime persona is an overly smooth but always irked west coast nebbish with a sharp sense of humor on closed door conversations. The funniest scenes of the film take place in business offices and over the phone in smart give and take dialogues where David tries to bring others around to his subdued but somewhat insane sense of entitlement. However, it’s Hagerty who sheds her cartoonish Airplane! stigma to come off as the emotional heart of the movie. Kind but also confused, she brings a gentle bewilderment and a staid optimism to counteract Brooks’ regimented moral clarity. Linda, not David is the first person in the marriage to feel the dread of the yuppie tomb they’ve designed for themselves but seems unsure that acting on what feels right is a viable path. Yet Howard is the one who assumes ownership of the endeavor and constantly complains when things steadily grow worse. Their insecurity not the time spent on the road (which is very brief) coins the title of the film in a welcome bit of irony.
Watching the Howards cope under the neurosis of six figured living and the desperation of minimum wage hell was probably the best way of showing me the innumerable bullets the kids of 1985 must have dodged had their parents read too seriously into Hollywood illusions and not enough into what they had actually learned in the ’60s and ’70s. Like Brooks, my parents believed that the lesson which their generation could take away from the idea of free spirited living was to internalize their desire for love and discovery by creating a more honest and jittery home and work life. While they would never become part of any bohemian elite or even Kerouac-lite yuppiedom, each would apply their long held philosophies to important, if unglamorous, jobs. Like David and Linda, they knew the only real way to stay lost was to buy into a fantasy long after its glitter had faded.
1985 – Better Off Dead (Dir: Savage Steve Holland) by Nick Brewer
Throughout my freshman and sophomore years of high school, it was a safe bet that you would find my ass parked on a couch next to my best friends Kim and Aurora. We were just young enough to have money and eat as much cookie dough as we wanted, but old enough to actually stay up all night watching movies and MTV. The more I got to know the girls, the more I realized they had a secret language of code phrases I just didn’t understand. What does, “I want my two dollars” mean? The duo would crack up at the slightest instance of the phrase, “Sorry your mom blew up Ricky.” Finally, after almost a year of inside jokes, I was finally allowed into the club, they sat me down and watched Better Off Dead for the first time. I was instantly hooked, and what was once a film I skimmed over at Blockbuster became a weekly obsession.
A 19-year-old John Cusack plays Lane Myer, a lovable looser who’s life goes to crap when the “love of his life” Beth breaks up with him for the captain of the ski team, the aptly named Roy Stalin. Lane decides to kill himself, although unsuccessfully with hilarious results. During his attempt to hang himself in the garage, Lane realizes that he hasn’t actually done anything in his life and abandons the idea, only to have his mother throw open a door, knocking Lane off the stoop as his cries for help are muffled by a vacuum cleaner.
At Lane’s side is Charles De Mar played by Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds). Armed with a large black overcoat and a top hat, Armstrong steals the show. While during a futile quest to get drugs in a small town, Charles both snorts Jello and when on a mountain, snorts snow and proclaims, “This is pure snow! Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?” When not trying to kill himself, Lane decides he is going to get Beth back by skiing the K-12, a dangerous run as per the sign that says DANGER with an arrow pointed down. While on the quest for Beth, Lane strikes up a friendship with the French foreign exchange student Monique across the street. Monique is cuter than Beth and knows how to fix a Camaro while looking adorable, we all know where this is going.
Although Cusack and Armstrong are a great pair throughout the movie, I can’t leave out the Myer family. His mother has the best of intentions, but is the worst housewife ever, boiling bacon and creating something that can only be described as a blob… with raisins. Lane’s father is the hard-nosed dad who doesn’t understand the youth culture and tries to put his son’s life back on the straight and narrow, with little success. And the little brother Badger, is an evil genius in the making. The supporting cast does a great job of playing their roles very straight with absurd lines of dialogue.
While watching the film again for this review, I realized exactly how many of the lines I unintentionally have memorized. As Lane tries to avoid paying the paperboy, he rattles off, “My little brother got his arm stuck in the microwave. So my mom had to take him to the hospital. My grandma dropped acid this morning, and she freaked out. She hijacked a busload of penguins. So it’s sort of a family crisis. Bye!” I recited most of this before realizing I wasn’t talking to anyone in my living room.
Better Off Dead’s story isn’t the strongest, and it does follow the ’80s formula for losing the girl to the jerk, sulking about it, trying to get her back, montage, defeating the jerk and realizing there is someone better and they didn’t want the girl back to begin with, closing show with long drawn out kiss. What it lacks in story though it makes up for in slapstick comedy and hilarious dialogue, not to mention a dancing claymation hamburger singing the Van Halen song, “Everybody Wants Some.”
I want to say the lasting effect that Better Off Dead has left on me is whenever I’m trying to cheer someone up, I usually lead with “buck up little camper.” Kim and Aurora would be so proud of me right now.
1985 – Brazil (Dir: Terry Gilliam) by Danny Djeljosevic
“Whoever directed that is insane,” said a trusted friend of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. He’s not wrong — Terry Gilliam is insane. No one makes movies like he does because no one dares to. Often considered Gilliam’s best film, Brazil is also the source of one of the director’s most troubled endeavors (in terms of movies he was able to complete), as he famously had to battle Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg to get his 142-minute vision released in the United States.
Sheinberg, however, had other ideas. He developed a 94-minute cut with a more audience-friendly happy ending, infamously known as the “Love Conquers All” version. Terry Gilliam was furious, going as far as taking ads in Variety urging Sheinberg to release his cut. It was only when critics started raving about Gilliam’s original that a slightly shorter version was released in America. Sheinberg’s cut is available as part of the Criterion edition, a testament to how editing can completely alter a movie.
As a teenager I didn’t know The Replacements, but I was adamant on seeing this weird movie by the guy who did Time Bandits and Jabberwocky. Seeing Brazil was as involved and quixotic as Gilliam’s struggle to get it released. It required extensive research followed by a long drive to the only Blockbuster in South Florida that had a copy of Brazil on VHS. Pity my father, who had to drive me there and then remember to return it to the right store. When he popped it in the VCR to see what the big deal was, he was unimpressed; it reminded him of the socially conscious films from The Old Country.
Somehow, I’ve never seen Brazil with a fully alert mind. The first time, as a bored teenager, I needed two sittings. The second, as a college student with the Sundance Channel, I couldn’t keep my attention focused. Most recently, as a grad wincing from every sip from that can of Steel Reserve, the film still threatened to put me to sleep. My heart wants to blame the beer while my mind says that Brazil is maybe a bit too thick in the middle. But I can’t fault the film for a bit of excess that might just stem from my Sega-addled attention span. Brazil is a masterpiece of science fiction — as strange and darkly hilarious as the great dystopic epics of literature. Except George Orwell and Aldous Huxley never thought to have their protagonists fight fire-breathing samurai in their dreams. Yep, Terry Gilliam is insane, and I love him for it.
1987 – Dirty Dancing (Dir: Emile Ardolino) by Michael Merline
While not a particularly memorable song due to its own inherent virtues, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” likely sits in the subconscious of just about every child of the ’80s, or even those born since. The charmingly memorable teen-anthem plays behind the final scene of 1987’s Dirty Dancing and is only a small part of the film’s highly contagious and utterly shameless dance-hit soundtrack. But between Patrick Swayze’s entire performance, the radio hit he sang for the film (“She’s Like the Wind”), the casting of decade-icon and relative disappearing-act Jennifer Grey, and all that grinding for the benefit of youngins’ everywhere, pervasive shamelessness is what makes Dirty Dancing great.
I’m not about to indulge film critics with an in-depth analysis of this particular pop-culture icon’s artistic merits, because depending on whom you ask there may not be any. It did win Golden Globes for parts of its popular soundtrack, but that doesn’t make it an Oscar-winning masterpiece. Fortunately for director Emile Ardolino and every kid with access to cable television, critical respect really doesn’t affect how easy it is to enjoy and appreciate Dirty Dancing. Hell, nobody puts Baby in a corner.
I know I once strictly avoided watching the movie. At first it was the probably the idea of youthful masculinity and playground self-defense that caused me to avoid a film with “dancing” in the title, though I certainly wasn’t considering my motivations in such a analytic fashion. Later on it was just a pompous approach to film viewing; among my elitist friends the movie had a stigma, and I certainly wasn’t about to question that. In fact, I managed to make it through high school without ever seeing the low-budget romp that made Swayze a star and Grey more than Ferris’ sister.
But early on in my college days I ended up watching Dirty Dancing with a girl after trying vainly to find something more exciting to do. Maybe this says something about the more lackluster parts of my freshman year, but I loved the movie regardless.
Dirty Dancing takes the musical formula and cuts the song-and-dance numbers – leaving an expose of what real dancers can do (figuring out this is real entertaining long before Dancing With the Stars gave it a try). The love story, though predictable, is heartwarming and takes an effective stab at addressing issues of socioeconomic status, abortion, teen lifestyle and – of course – the rigors of courtship. The dialogue and interaction between the stereotypical characters is full of extremes; the good end up being almost angelic by the end of the film, the bad are downright despicable, and every event is the best of the best or the worst of the worst for the summer inhabitants of Kellerman’s. This was certainly a product of the ’80s.
But all of these traits combine sweetly, and make Dirty Dancing a nostalgic two hours, a danceable listen and perhaps the greatest date movie of all time. And this is represented by what I think of as the most memorable scene. No, it’s not the finale, where Baby finally hits that impossible lift (you can thank the then-ripped Swayze for that). It’s that first romantic interaction between Swayze and Grey when he gets his instructor-cum-heartthrob on and the two mouth the lyrics to “Lover Boy.” Like I said before, shamelessness is the foundation of Dirty Dancing. And whether or not I’d be caught dead with the movie in my possession, I’m secretly thrilled and ready to shake my groove thing every time I see it.