Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Film Discussion: The 1980s

Welcome back to our Film Discussion series, here at Enuffa.com!  Last time Mike Drinan (@mdrinan380) and I got together we shot the shit about films of the 1970s, one of our favorite decades in the industry.  So today we're back to talk about our formative decade, the 1980s!

Justin: Well the 80s were a VERY different decade for film than the 70s.  As we talked about before, the 70s saw the studio system essentially break down, paving the way for loads of film auteurs to create transcendent, artistic movies without a ton of studio meddling, and amazingly many of them were also box office smashes.  So many of them have stood the test of time, winning awards AND making a ton of money.  However the movie blockbuster as we know it was also invented in the 70s (Jaws and Star Wars were the two big prototypes), inadvertently giving birth to the hard division between commercial films and critical successes, so prevalent in the 80s.  The studios began to figure out in the late 70s that, "Hey, if we make more movies like this we'll make a ton more money," and began churning out sci-fi and adventure films like crazy, hoping to find the next Star Wars.  Not only that, but advances in technology and special effects pioneered by George Lucas and ILM meant that fantasy and sci-fi movies could continue pushing the envelope of what was achievable on the screen, leading to hundreds of effects-and-action-heavy popcorn movies.  Additionally films like Jaws, Halloween and Alien gave way to hosts of monster movies and slasher films, recycling the Ten Little Indians formula ad nauseum.  The industry became much more business-like, leaving many of the great directors of the 70s a bit in the lurch, stuck between wanting to make THEIR films and needing to conform to the newfound demands of the studios.

By the early 80s the split between commercial and critical success was just beginning, with a few films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. (Steven Spielberg was one of the few 70s directors whose 80s films routinely fell into both camps) still garnering Oscar nominations.  But aside from those, if you look at the big Academy Award winners of the 80s and compare them with the highest grossing films, the movies and box office returns are largely very different.  In 1980 for example, The Empire Strikes Back was the top grossing film with $209mil, while the Best Picture winner Ordinary People only made $54mil, failing to crack the top ten that year.  In '81 it was Raiders on top with $212mil and Best Pic winner Chariots of Fire at #7 with $59mil.   1982 saw E.T. at #1 with $359mil, and Best Pic winner Gandhi at #12 with $53mil.  And so on.  Only once in the 80s did the Best Pic winner also rank #1 in terms of box office, and that was Rain Man in 1988 (Terms of Endearment ranked second in 1983, and Platoon 3rd in 1986).  By contrast, in the 70s, four of the Best Pic winners were ranked #1 at the box office, seven were in the top 5, and all ten were in the top 10 of their respective years.

It was clear that Hollywood was mostly relying on effects-laden genre pictures to really drive box office success, while most of the great directors of the era were focused on smaller, drama-heavy films.  As a kid growing up in the 80s there were very few "serious" movies I was interested in; most casual moviegoers flocked to the flashy, visually stunning fare, while Oscar season featured all the grown-up art movies.

Mike: When I think back on film in the 1980s two things really jump to my mind, both of which you've mentioned already. The first is the ramping up of blockbuster film. After the huge successes of Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood was quick to jump on that formula and invest more in those films. In fact, when I think of the 80s I mostly think of the blockbusters. Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Back To The Future, Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Ghostbusters, these films really defined the decade and reinvented how Hollywood did business. It wasn't just the stars they were banking on. Studios were now looking at special effects, target audiences, merchandising when considering what films to promote and at what time of the year. Must've been a great time to be a part of the marketing division.

The second thing that jumps to mind, in regards to those lower earning critical successes you talked about, is that the 80s were now the decade for the baby boomer generation to flex their spending power. They were now in their prime money making years. So when it came time to consider Oscar winners, it's no surprise to me that movies like Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, Platoon, The Big Chill, were the praise of critics and garnering all kinds of awards. The subject matter of those films were for the baby boomers easy to relate to, creating that division between box office and critical success. The kids wanted the blockbusters, the adults wanted real life. It's still like that today.

As a kid in the 80s, I was all about the mainstream blockbuster films. However, the first film I remember ever seeing in the theater was The Big Chill, oddly enough. I was only there because my parents really wanted to see the movie and I guess they couldn't find someone to watch me. Anyways, all I remember from that viewing was Glenn Close crying in the shower and me falling asleep in the chair so there wasn't any real impact there. The blockbuster films were more fun and imaginative and seeing Temple of Doom just drew me in further as far as action-adventure films were concerned. I mean, the guy ripped a still beating heart from the man's chest. How do you NOT get drawn into that? Some of the movies I remember being really into during that decade were Back To The Future, Ghostbusters, Return of the Jedi, The Karate Kid and...Howard the Duck. Hahaha....

Justin: What was so cool about the popcorn movies back then though, was that special effects were sophisticated enough to look totally realistic at the time, but still limited and most of all EXPENSIVE enough that filmmakers couldn't rely on them alone.  This was a time when action film directors mostly still realized the effects were just a tool to tell a story, and they still needed a story to hang everything on.  And it seemed every new popcorn film was doing something new and unique instead of just regurgitating the same effects everyone else was using.  It was a truly innovative time for effects and makeup.  Artists like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin got to create lasting, legendary effects in movies like An American Werewolf in London and The Thing.  Most of these effects still look great today because they're practical and organic.  By the late 90s CGI became so commonplace that all effects-driven movies looked the same.

You mentioned stars - as we talked about in our 70s piece, leading Hollywood actors had gone from MOVIE STARS with impossibly good looks to everymen and women in the 1970s.  Filmmakers strove for realism in their casting; they wanted you to believe Al Pacino really was Michael Corleone, not that Al Pacino was PLAYING Michael Corleone.  In the 80s I feel like things swung back in the other direction a little - actors became movie stars largely because of their looks and charisma, especially in the case of action movies, because audiences wanted to see their favorite action hero in a new scenario.  Stallone and Schwarzenegger essentially played themselves in every movie, and you watched not because you wanted to see them disappear into a character, but because you wanted to live vicariously through Arnold mowing down terrorists with a machine gun.  Great acting performances started to be relegated to the art films, further illustrating the divide between blockbusters and award winners.

Mike: There was a lot more imagination with the popcorn movies during in that decade. Some of that spilled over into the 90s but there were some really cool and interesting premises being put out there with major studio backing. We've talked about the Star Wars films and the Indiana Jones franchise as examples of that, but one film from that decade in particular, for some reason doesn't get talked about enough and it's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That was such a fascinating film to see when it was theaters. I've always thought it was a great idea for the animated world to be infused into the real world and what that looked like. There were so many characters and different things Zemeckis did in that movie that was just incredible. And Christopher Lloyd was so fucking good!

You're right about the actors being movie stars, being more about looks and charisma than acting during the 80s. There seemed to be more of a calling for the rugged man type like Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and his stubbly beard and shirt split open to show more of his chest, and of course Tom Selleck. I mean, who else could play the leading role in Three Men and A Baby?

The 80s also really expanded on the "raunchy comedy" sub-genre that 70s comedies like Animal House opened the door for. Comedies like Porky's, Caddyshack, Stripes, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Revenge of the Nerds, the Police Academy movies, and Bachelor Party were really entertaining for a whole slew of reasons other than just comedic genius. This sub-genre of comedy would only be expanded upon to the nth degree in the next decade. However, that's not to suggest the 80s didn't give us some of the most classic comedy films of all time, like Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Spaceballs and Beetlejuice. Not to mention two of my all time favorite comedy films Airplane! and The Naked Gun. Leslie Nielsen is a god.

Justin: Roger Rabbit was great - one of the more imaginative popcorn movies of the era.  Robert Zemeckis became one of the decade's most promising new directors.  He riffed on the Indiana Jones movies with Romancing the Stone, gave us one of the great sci-fi/comedies in Back to the Future, and of course Roger Rabbit

The 80s introduced the idea of movie star as superhero (kinda like with wrestling, where everyone was impossibly muscular and looked superhuman).  The aforementioned Arnold and Sly, Van Damme, etc.  Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Paul Hogan and Tom Selleck were kind of the grittier versions of this.  Like Wolverine to Arnold's Superman.

Yeah the raunchy comedies got turned way up (like pretty much everything in the 80s).  Excess was the tone of the decade.  How far can we take filthy comedy?  It was true with standup comedians as well.  For every thoughtfully dirty comic like George Carlin there were a host of one-dimensionally crude guys like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison.

Another thing to note is that the directors who emerged in the 80s were the first generation to do so post-blockbuster.  Where the 70s directors were film school auteurs inspired by classic Hollywood, some 80s directors were inspired by the earliest megahits.  So you'd get Star Wars-esque movies like The Last Starfighter (a great guilty pleasure), or Alien-type movies like Leviathan, or Indiana Jones-type movies like King Solomon's Mines.  And of course there were directors like James Cameron who really took these 70s blockbuster ideas somewhere different, hence Aliens.

Mike: God damn, Romancing The Stone is still one of my favorite films to watch! "Goddamn it, I knew I should've listened to my mother. I could've been a cosmetic surgeon, five hundred thou a year, up to my neck in tits and ass."

But I digress.

The action films were really fucking great to watch. I remember seeing Predator as a kid and it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. A fucking alien that is invisible? I want all of that! Arnold really became an action legend in the 80s with Predator, Commando, The Running Man, and of course The Terminator. They were all great. Sly had one great action film, Rambo, and he had to ruin it with the sequels, like he did with Rocky (and everyone can fuck off about Rocky IV. It was awful.).

There is a lot to love about films in the 80s, but when I sit and consider things, the 80s is one of my least favorite decades in film. Like you said, the decade was all about excess and certain genres were turned all the way up in order to get attention and buzz. I enjoy watching the raunchy comedies from time to time but they certainly don't come close to great filmmaking. Mostly it's just about showing as much nudity as they can get away with. The horror genre fell into that trap too. How many times did we roll our eyes about the two teenagers looking for a secluded place to do it while all their friends have mysteriously gone missing? Overall, I find the decade quite boring. Some favorite films of mine were made during that time and there was a shit ton of entertaining movies, but when I think back on decades like the 90s, 70s, 50s, and 40s...the 80s just sort of fall flat for me. I think it might have something to do with the lack of interesting stories being told. I've seen quite a few Best Picture winners from that decade and it's one snooze fest after another, from Chariots of Fire and Terms of Endearment to Driving Miss Daisy, the only Best Picture winner I've returned to repeatedly is Platoon. Even Rain Man gets old after a while. I don't know. The 80s will always hold a soft spot in my heart because it is the decade I was a kid in and I have a lot of great movie memories from that time, but as I've gotten older I've looked back on a lot of those films and very few have aged well.

Justin: Agree 100% about Rocky IV.  I loved it when it came out but it's really, REALLY bad.  An Awesomely Shitty Movie, you might say.

For me the 80s was a very important decade in film without necessarily being a great one.  The industry changed radically, finding new and innovative ways to smash box office records, but unfortunately at the cost of sacrificing some of the artistry.  The 70s films were such a great mix of thoughtful art and crowd-pleasing entertainment, and in the 80s Hollywood all but made those two things mutually exclusive.  There were so few films in the 80s that included both, and once Hollywood found the successful formula for a hit film they recycled it as often as they could.  That said, some of my all-time favorite films are from the 80s and like you pointed out, nostalgia carries a lot of weight.

One last aspect we should mention is that the 80s were also the era when the multiplex became king.  The trend began in the 70s as a way to show several movies at a time and thus rake in more cash, but in the 80s it really exploded.  I remember so many of the theaters I went to as a kid originated as a single-screen theater but were split into multiple screens, to the point that the seats didn't even point straight ahead because they were meant to be the side aisle of one large cinema.  Thus small mom & pop theaters were run out of business because they couldn't compete with the chains.

Mike: Megaplexes were all we had where I grew up as a kid, and they were only at the malls. There was one multi-screen AMC Theater down the street but that was it. The closest one screen theater was 30 minutes away and in downtown Norfolk, VA. They only played art house films and films that were rated "R" so my parents were certainly not inclined to go there. Also, the great thing about the megaplex, I mean as a kid, was that it was a place to hang out. They filled it with arcade games for kids and of course the concession stand wasn't too far away either. Perfect place to drop kids off to get them out of the house.

Also, the 80s really saw the boom of the home video rental service. It became the family event of the week, going to the video store and picking out movies. Some of the movies I rented all the time were Adventures In Babysitting, Howard the Duck (I loved that movie as a kid, but only when I saw it as a teenager did I realize how shitty of a movie that was) and Weird Science. It wasn't until the 90s when I really started using home video rentals for my film education, so to speak.

Justin: When I first started going to movies the multiplex was fairly new.  Every theater around me had 3-6 screens and clearly used to be one big theater before it was split up.  Then in my hometown we had a two-screen theater that mostly showed second-run movies.  But it was super cheap.   It's weird, I find myself mourning all those old theaters from my childhood that aren't around anymore.  I mean obviously the new AMC theaters with recliner seats and digital projection are WAY nicer than the theaters I had growing up.  But the old places had so much character and such a magic about them.

Oh shit, yeah we didn't talk about VHS.  Man, home video changed everything.  Instead of having to go to the theater 5 times to see your favorite movie (as I did with Raiders and Jedi, among others), you could just pop in the VHS tape and watch it every day, EVERY DAY.  As I did with Raiders and Star Wars, among others.  Raiders was the first store-bought VHS movie we owned (I think my mom paid like $40 for it!), and I legit watched that tape 60+ times.  So many of my favorite movies from the 80s are seared into my brain because I was able to repeat-binge them every day after school.  Imagine how much further I'd have gotten in life had I done something more productive....

Anyway, since we listed our top ten 70s films we may as well do that here as well.  You'll notice almost all of these are popcorn films....

10. Born on the Fourth of July
9. The Princess Bride
8. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
7. Robocop
6. The Road Warrior
5. Raging Bull
4. The Shining
3. Aliens
2. The Empire Strikes Back
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Mike: I think my Top 10 80s films are:

10) Beetlejuice
9) Airplane!
8) Do The Right Thing
7) The Princess Bride
6) Who Framed Roger Rabbit
5) Back to the Future
4) The Naked Gun
3) Raiders of the Lost Ark
2) Ghostbusters
1) E.T.

Well that's where we stand on the films of the 80s.  There was a lot of fun stuff happening but Hollywood's output during that decade was less well-rounded than in the 70s.  Film was more often about making money than about creating great art, and seldom did the two goals converge.  In the 90s however the film industry seemed to find that happy middle ground again.  But that's a discussion for another time.....

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