Monday, July 28, 2008

He Fills His Head with Culture, He Gives Himself an Ulcer

Ah, the 1980s. As we continue our jaunt through the films of my life (see 1963-70 here and 1971-80 here) we enter the decade of my greatest film consumption. I saw plenty in college, but in grad school I upped that a serious notch as I was co-director of the student-run Bijou at the University of Iowa for three years. We screened approximately 60 films a semester, classics but also obscure older films, art films, some things the theater chain in town was too dumb to screen, so we made a killing (Stop Making Sense, thank you for keeping us in the black for a good year). I cannot begin to say how wonderful and important all those nights were to me. My guess is 3/4 of the films making all these lists first were enjoyed during that period.


So after that big build up, we start with a weakish year, after all Chariots of Fire, which is best known now for people making fun of its slow-mo set to Vangelis, won the Best Picture Oscar. (And Raiders and Stripes are fun, but best picture of a year? Just can't do it.) Therefore I'll go and get all weird and pick Pennies from Heaven. I'm sort of a sucker for musicals, and even moreso when the musical is an anti-musical musical. But the tunes are delicious, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken are great, and it's relatively depressing. Just my kind of film. As a close runner-up, let's go with Evil Dead, even if the second film is probably better. Still this gave Sam Raimi his start, and it leads with Bruce Campbell's chin. Perhaps the best cheapest-made film of all-time? (All apologies to George Romero, Robert Rodriguez, and John Sayles.)


OK, the decade is building kind of slowly. I promise it's not just because I went to school in Baltimore that I still adore Diner. But think of that cast, and how none of them topped their performances here, least of all Ellen Barkin, woman among boys. But what wonderful camaraderie. I'm also going to go out on a limb and pick Night of the Shooting Stars, which I haven't seen in years but still remember fondly, a terrific tale of Italy at the end of WWII that is poetic and powerful. Whatever happened to the Taviani Brothers?

And so I stay with foreign films but turn to Japan's great Shohei Imamura and his film Ballad of Narayama. Another film I haven't seen in years, and having lost both parents relatively recently, it would probably devastate me--a big part of the film is a man taking his mother on his back up a mountain where tradition has it the elderly must go to die. But there's so much more to this clear-eyed film, the kind of thing Hollywood could never pull off without over-weening piety or heavy-handed mawkishness.


I like things dry, I have to admit, so Stranger than Paradise, with its failing to move camera, totally floored me in 1984. Still there's much humor--"I am da vinner," the chop-sockey film we only see by how it plays on the movie-goers faces, the way Florida looks like Cleveland, the TV dinner "this is how we eat in America" bit--and much cool, from the black and white photography to that enduring emblem of hip John Lurie. Jarmusch has made a lot of fine films, but the first is still the best. And then there's Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, which I loved even more as I first saw it at the Biograph in Chicago, John Dillinger's last theater. It's a myth of much of what the U.S. is about, and love is always in the way, and the cast full of folks who can overdo don't (DeNiro, James Woods). The rest of you can have The Godfather and II, just leave me this one. Both of these films I wrote about in my non-fiction prose MA thesis, too, so I've completely thought them into myself, as it were.


Here's a year where quantity totally trumps a single knock-out quality production, and aren't we much for the better for that? Scorsese isn't necessarily known for his light touch (right Illeana Douglas?)* but he mined dark comedic gold with After Hours, a yuppie-eyed view of a cashless downtown NYC. I haven't seen it in years, but David Hare's writing and the ever-watchable Vanessa Redgrave made the small English film Wetherby a wonder. The Coca-Cola Kid, of all things, stars Eric Roberts, but also stars Great Scacchi, who in her day was as luminescent as any star ever. Plus she seemed to like doing nude scenes--her roll in bed dressed as Santa with Roberts with feathers everywhere...well, Dusan Makavejev knows sexy. Equally sexy, at times, but also silly, but also an ode to food, so how can I not love it, Tampopo is something I really need to rent again. In fact, this 1985 foursome would be a lot of fun to re-live some weekend.


I'm stuck still naming films I wrote about in the thesis, but what films. Blue Velvet is a deep disturbing dream about film itself (that severed ear fell through cinematic history all the way from Dali and Bunuel), and what it means to get to see what we thought we wanted to see only to find out we're wrong. Something Wild is somewhat similar, as Jeff Daniels wants a thrill and gets way more than he bargained for with Melanie Griffith, who then gets way more than she bargained for with Ray Liotta. Plus the Feelies play the high school reunion--I'd go back to one of mine if that could happen.


Raising Arizona. It's just incredibly funny, especially the first 15 minutes (before the opening credits even roll?), an ever-tightening montage of love and crime and a whacked out M. Emmet Walsh. All sorts of brilliant performances, not just by Hunter and Cage, but John Goodman, too. The Coens at their zaniest.


There might not be a more beautiful first 30 minutes of a movie than that of Wings of Desire, but you have to be ready for it, awake and willing, an accomplice in the angel's work where listening has to be enough. It's easy to believe Bruno Ganz as an angel. And who better as a fallen angel than Peter Falk? There's even bonus Nick Cave. For a very different film there's The Thin Blue Line, which wins a man justice but makes us puzzle over whether truth is ever true. A formalist's dream, a hypnotic Philip Glass score. Errol Morris makes films like no one else.


A trio, as each of these films is a bit short of greatness, the first from trying too hard, the second from not trying enough, the third for showing its age. Do the Right Thing is a powderkeg about a powderkeg, which isn't easy to do. Exactly what is the power getting fought if taking down Sal's Pizzeria is the "best" one can do? Drugstore Cowboy captures drugginess without getting dopey about it. Heathers has that final act problem--the more Slater becomes crazy the less interesting he is--but it's got attitude and the perfect delivery woman in Winona Ryder.


I close the decade with a film far too little seen. Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger has all the wonderful weirdness I like in a movie from its man-on-fire credit sequence on. Danny Glover can do a billion Lethal Weapons if that lets him act, stupendously, magnetically, cruelly, in no-budget films like this one. (Be sure to find the finally released Killer of Sheep, too, while you do your Burnett research.)

*The scene where DeNiro bites her face in Cape Fear is the most horrible thing I've ever seen on film, worse than Straw Dog's bear trap, The Foruth Man's metal rod through the eye, you name it. What was Scorsese thinking?



Blogger Mike said...

The 80s is an underrated film decade (though not as much as the 50's which were only . . . the greatest film decade ever). Anyhow, I both strongly agree & strongly disagree with you assessments here.

Do The Right Thing, Drugstore Cowboy, Tampopo, Greta Scacchi in Coca-Cola Kid, Raising Arizona, Something Wild . . . all staples.

But I've never understood the Blue Velvet or Once Upon A Time In America thing. As to BV, I'm just not aLynch fan at all, so I'll chalk that up to my taste.

But OUATIA? I just think it's a very weak movie. Plot jumps everywhere, odd decisions by characters that don't fit, heavy-handed attempts at symbolism thta make me laugh (the little kid with the dessert that he eats as he waits for his go with the neighborhood girl). I know some who love this flick, but I know many others (me included) who not only don't like it but think it's awful.

Anyhow, I like most of your list and I STRONGLY recommend that you revisit Tampopo, which is one of my favorite flicks.

4:28 AM  
Blogger George said...

We've had this OUATIA spat before. I even emailed you the chapter from the thesis, so if I couldn't convince you of the film's worth in 10 pages that I spent time on, I won't be able to in a dashed off blog comment.

But I will check out Tampopo again.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

In the 80s, I was in Middle- and early High School. I really feel like I missed a lot film-wise...and some of these I'd really like to revisit now that I'm older and more mature in a different sort of way (meaning my immaturities are, oh, forget it).. Raising Arizona was great, but I haven't seen it since I caught it on video in the early 90s. I do, though, love Pennies From Heaven.

Gotta say, a lot of the time, I dig Japanese flicks. One of my faves is Akira Kurosawa's Ran. Kind of a King Lear adaptation (though I imagine you've seen it...). Loved it. I loved how the battle scenes had no soundtrack to them...they were silent as these blazes of colored flags poured into melee. Anyway, I have not seen the Ballad of Narayama. Now, the immature side of me says on that cover shot you have of the movie poster...what is that guy doing to that lady laying down??? I have my own thoughts... I digress. I looked it up and read a bit about it and it looks like a film I could get a lot out of.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your insight. Your artistic touch in discussing things you're passionate about is a real treat to read.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

I really thought that by the 80s I'd start to see films I knew. But I've only seen Wings of Desire and Raising Arizona off this list, and those only in the last few months. Neither was really my favorite ever -- WoD was just really slow-moving and I feel asleep a lot in it (I guess I don't have enough appreciation for pretty film sequences). RA was funny and quirky, just wouldn't make a top list of mine.

The others I'll just have to consider for future Netflix queue piling. In case my queue wasn't already long enough.

11:39 AM  
Blogger George said...

Smitty, you can't go wrong with any Shohei Imamura--very powerful, direct films.

Heather, sometimes it's just not the time for a film. The first time I tired to watch Ozu's Tokyo Story I just couldn't sit still so gave up. But I tried again and was blown away. Give Wenders another chance some day.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Brian H said...

Yes but...did you get your DIP-TET shots?

3:50 PM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

What if Rickey were to say that the "Chariots of Fire" OST by Vangelis made Rickey's list for favorite albums in the 80s? Is that the sort of thing you'd be interested in?

5:00 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Ozu's Tokyo Story

I had the same reaction first time I saw it. To me, the real gem of Ozu's is Late Spring

I really love that flick. Just beautiful, in every sense of the word.

(Man, I'm getting a bit emotional just thinking about it.)

4:59 AM  

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