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:
…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?