Can someone explain the 80s to me?

8 August 2011

As a survivor of that decade of synthesizers and Ronald Reagan, I ought to understand the 1980s on a cellular level — after all, I went to junior high, high school and college during that time, which means I should have had my finger on some kind of cultural pulse. I well remember what it was like to watch early MTv and listen to a Walkman for the first time (“now my life has a soundtrack!”), and feel utterly terrified by the threats of nuclear war and AIDS. Yet just recently I’ve watched several films that leave me baffled, as if I missed something essential to that era. And I think it’s all encapsulated by the art of Patrick Nagel, which was endemic to that era and which I just don’t get:

Back in high school one of my best male friends loved Nagel’s art. I remember sitting in his room listening to him wax on about it as we gazed at a poster on the wall. These images somehow sparked a sense of perfect beauty and sexual titillation for him in a way I couldn’t understand; to me they seemed cold and cartoonish, super-modern and yet retro. Nagel’s women seemed problematic, disguised in an idealized but slightly mean-spirited form. They still seem that way. These were like those lookalike women in Robert Palmer’s annoying video for “Simply Irresistible” — transformed via red lipstick, too much eye makeup, and very pale pancake makeup into plastic women whose hips all swiveled identically. (That video never made sense to me either — who wants a lookalike woman?)

These thoughts come up because, after reading an ecstatic review in The Nation of Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (1985) now on DVD for the first time, I knew I had to see it — but when I did I got confused. “A lost classic,” the article says. “A luminous low-budget genre patchwork fashioned from the expressionistic fabric of classic Hollywood, and stitched together with threads of Edward Hopper and David Bowie.” Instead, the film seemed dedicated to stock characters whose motivations seemed both incoherent and changeable, and beset with forgettable dialogue and bizarrely jumpy editing. I was simultaneously baffled and bored.

Even major plot points seem incomprehensible: the hard-bitten ex-cop (Kris Kristofferson) falls hard for that innocent blonde (Lori Singer) who’s just arrived in the big city from the mountains; meanwhile, the blonde’s boyfriend (Keith Carradine) goes from hunky mountain man to makeup-encrusted bad guy with a hell of an up-do and an 80s wardrobe to die for. Was I supposed to root for Kristofferson’s character, who date-rapes Geneviève Bujold in the first act? Then it turns out that the kingpin of all criminals, a man named Hilly Blue, is played by Divine! If only John Waters had directed it, Trouble in Mind might have made sense. My head was spinning, and even though I just watched it last night, I’d have to really think to remember how it turned out.

This film looks a lot like Nagel’s weird art: it pushes you away, demands that you focus on style. It’s sort of a throwback to the 40s, but not really. I’ve found other critics who love it and find it romantic — but I don’t see how. Take Lori Singer, for example. No one could have clearer blue eyes or floatier blonde hair than Lori Singer, and she gets to trot out her genuine Texas drawl:

many thanks to JMM for the much-improved photo

…yet why don’t we care about her? Caught between the stalker-like attention of Kristofferson and the increasingly sociopathic Carradine, she ought to have evoked more sympathy. I spent most of the 80s in a similarly idealistic, wide-eyed teenage and college bubble — yet like all other teenagers during that era, I also adopted some degree of premature cynicism, perhaps as a result of the unholy combination of Madonna and Reagan/Bush. Singer’s character is given no room to move — the script demands that she choose between two bad male options. Thus shoehorned, she increasingly seems to be a negligible character, one wholly dependent on the fortunes of men.

Nor was Trouble in Mind a one-off oddity. I also recently saw Rudolph’s Choose Me (1984), which likewise combines an odd nostalgia for old Hollywood with some of Nagel’s hyper-modern dedication to spiky hair and gritty city bars and cafes. In this case, protagonist Carradine ricochets between Bujold, Lesley Ann Warren, and Rae Dawn Chong. (Why does such a weak actor get to choose from such excellent women?) In both films, sex is often violent and leads to violence between men; men’s views of sex and love are quixotic; women’s sexual urges are mercurial; and the narrative arc for female characters sees them go from stereotype (innocent blonde, worldly bar owner, sex-phobic) to finding their true selves only via sex with the male protagonist. I will say this: Geneviève Bujold was given crap to work with, but I could look at her all day: she looks like the strongest-minded pixie you’ll ever meet.

Now that I think about it, I see two schizophrenic aspects to these films. First is the treatment of women. These women are genuinely interesting and so beautiful in unexpected ways, but they have nowhere to go. Hell, the narrative arc for a Molly Ringwald character was more complex. What am I to do with the fact that Rudolph really seems to like women — and gives us good ones — only to leave them out to dry? Second, like Nagel’s art, these two films are both set in a never-never time, somehow simultaneously in a super-modern now and a Hollywood 1940s. Trouble in Mind even layers on a little dystopia, with shadowy militia types patrolling the outskirts of the film. This wasn’t a film about the past, but rather a film in which time is negated.

I remember a pretty serious romanticization of the past during the 80s — that notion that politicians threw around, that America used to be better — and I also remember the New Wave love of ultra-modern, nearly robotic Devo-like humans. But I don’t remember those threads being thrown together in such bizarre ways that seems to confuse all of it. And I’m not willing to say that these are just bad films. I feel that Trouble in Mind and Choose Me have the potential to reveal something essential about the 80s that I never quite grasped before … and yet I’m still grasping. What is it? What have I failed to see?

What was going on in the 80s that films might take such a strange perspective on the world — one that ultimately seems so inaccessible to me, and so out of touch with my own memories of the era?

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9 Responses to “Can someone explain the 80s to me?”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    Does the item below help? It is from the Lone Star College American Cultural History page –

    The 1980s became the Me! Me! Me! generation of status seekers. During the 1980s, hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and mega-mergers spawned a new breed of billionaire. Donald Trump, Leona Helmsley, and Ivan Boesky iconed the meteoric rise and fall of the rich and famous. If you’ve got it, flaunt it and You can have it all! were watchwords. Forbes’ list of 400 richest people became more important than its 500 largest companies. Binge buying and credit became a way of life and ‘Shop Til you Drop’ was the watchword. Labels were everything, even (or especially) for our children. Tom Wolfe dubbed the baby-boomers as the ‘splurge generation.’ Video games, aerobics, minivans, camcorders, and talk shows became part of our lives. The decade began with double-digit inflation, Reagan declared a war on drugs, Kermit didn’t find it easy to be green, hospital costs rose, we lost many, many of our finest talents to AIDS which before the decade ended spread to black and Hispanic women, and unemployment rose. On the bright side, the US Constitution had its 200th birthday, Gone with the Wind turned 50, ET phoned home, and in 1989 Americans gave $115,000,000,000 to charity. And, Internationally, at the very end of the decade the Berlin Wall was removed – making great changes for the decade to come! At the turn of the decade, many were happy to leave the spendthrift 80s for the 90s, although some thought the eighties TOTALLY AWESOME.

    From the above paragraph – the single most influential person mentioned was for me Tom Wolfe. As far as reacting now to a film from then – and then wondering:

    Q – What was going on in the 80s that films might take such a strange perspective on the world — one that ultimately seems so inaccessible to me, and so out of touch with my own memories of the era?

    A – Have you considered the age of the auteurs of those films when they were made? Were you and they contemporaries or was there an age gap between you and them.

    Or are you filtering those films now based on yourself being 20 + years older which distances you from your own memories. I haven’t an answer – but the question is intriguing.

    • Didion Says:

      Not surprisingly, Rudolph is actually my mom’s age — b. 1943, and is also a Californian. So we’re a generation apart. And to answer your question, I think what seems so surprising to me about these films is that they reminded me of Nagel’s art, which I’d forgotten/repressed, as one of the super-cool visual images of that era. It’s as if other people were getting radio reception for cultural impulses that I missed entirely. But you know what, JMM? Although I can vaguely remember most of that list of items in that paragraph you quoted, weirdly enough it doesn’t help me understand these films!

      I’m not quite sure why I’m so struck by the need to have these films make sense historically. It’s just that the vision for them was so weird, and so discordant, that looking to history seems one way to twist my brain so it can grasp the meaning and the appeal of these films. (In contrast, I have no problem understanding other film genres of the 80s, and the great films of that era: Raising Arizona, Brazil, Mona Lisa, Raging Bull, Platoon, Blue Velvet, Local Hero, Hope and Glory, Broadcast News, Sex Lies and Videotape, Wings of Desire, Radio Days….

  2. Spanish Prof Says:

    Frederic Jameson take on nostalgia and film, maybe? The 1980s is one of the decades I know less about film.

    Have you seen “Mauvais Sang” (1986), by Leos Carax? I haven’t seen the movies you are writing about, but I think it could be an interesting comparison. I haven’t seen the movie in 10 years, but if I remember correctly, it combines some serious romanticism with a bleak, dystopian future. And David Bowie has never been better used as a soundtrack.

    • Didion Says:

      Spanish Prof, this is perfect! I’m heading off to the library now to remind myself of Jameson’s stuff, which I haven’t read since very early grad school (but was examined on it, so should have a better grasp). It’s his stuff on pastiche that I’m now remembering and thinking this may explain a lot for me. And no, I haven’t seen Mauvais Sang, so it’s on my list!

  3. Hattie Says:

    The 80’s in the U.S. struck me as bland and unoriginal. It’s as if we were all waiting for the Internet. I spent half of the 80’s in Europe, which was a very fine thing to do.
    The only thing I thought was interesting was the music videos.
    I’m glad I spent the time after returning to the U.S. raising my family, going to school, and teaching. It was possible, then, to look down on pop culture, and I did so with gusto.

    • Didion Says:

      It was a strange time to live through, because we seemed to feel somewhat desperate for it to be the coolest time ever, yet we were beset by tedium. And yet I still listen to some of that music and get very nostalgic for a certain kind of low-tech longing that we experienced … discovering some of those amazing bands on college radio stations. We all seemed to know that the revolution would not be televised. It’s like that haunting song & video by Arcade Fire for their song, “The Suburbs” — a darkness on the edge of town.

  4. Z Says:

    I will have to study this post. I didn’t understand the 80s at all. When they started I was living in Peru, then I came back and took the coursework and exams for the PhD, and was aware doom was striking but was holed up in the Ivory. Then went to Brazil and stayed for a couple of years. When I got back it was late 80s and I sort of woke up like Rip Van Winkle to the Horror. It was extremely Reaganite and everything had turned savage. Like those paintings, actually.

  5. JE Says:

    “a sense of perfect beauty . . . sexual titillation . . . cold and cartoonish, super-modern and yet retro. Nagel’s women seemed problematic, disguised in an idealized but slightly mean-spirited form.”

    “That video never made sense to me either — who wants a lookalike woman?”

    Well, normal, healthy, well-adjusted people don’t want lookalike women. But if you don’t really like women whom you have to deal with as sentient human beings, fembots are the way to go. Or if you’re just a confused teenager still trying to deal with hormones and shit like that, lookalike women probably look really comforting.

    The art’s curious. It made me wonder if it was a clumsy move away from earlier female images. I could imagine that art like that would be the product of people trying to get away from sixties and seventies women’s libber types they didn’t like (or whom the art-buying audience didn’t like), but they didn’t want to go back to June Cleaver types. The result: women who are utterly predictable and identical (thus June-Cleaver-safe), but a little edgy and sexualized. (Caveat: I know nothing whatsoever about Nagel, so I’m not trying to say that’s where he was coming from. It’s just my off-the-top-of-my-head and probably rather simplistic impression from looking at the art.)


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