Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: 80s on Film

This week, Landon asks why some recent movies have treated the Reagan era so damn seriously.
By  · Published on April 20th, 2009

I recently watched the trailer for The Informers (which opens in limited release this weekend), another 80s-set adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Ellis adaptations have had an interesting relationship with the temporal setting of their source material. Where American Psycho, for instance, was a dark satire that appropriated its 80s setting for social criticism of an excessive consumer culture, The Informers (judging only by its trailer) seems to revel, even celebrate, this excess. The irony here seems to be gone. As the intentionally fake-looking LA skyline/backdrop late in the trailer indicates, the façade previously criticized in American Psycho is here meant to be humorlessly embraced. The excess of the 80s exhibited here is meant for an overall sleek-looking aesthetic rather than a means of pop-cultural criticism, emphasized by the so-not tongue-in-cheek use of “I Ran (So Far Away)” by Flock of Seagulls. Though I have little doubt that The Informers is a disappointing film and far inferior to American Psycho, the trailer is surprisingly effective in its straight-face embrace of 80s pop culture, and this has a lot to do with the fact that, in the 9 years since American Psycho was released, our current culture has had a similarly straight-faced embrace of the Reagan era.

Eleven years ago, The Wedding Singer used 1980s American popular culture as little more than a punchline, continually nudging the audience in a mutual conversation that rarely extended beyond “what the hell were we thinking?” as it lambasted the fashion and music of the era while compacting as many winking references to the decade as it could. The 80s were, simply put, a joke. The Wedding Singer, having been released in the late 90s, came about at a time when Americans still couldn’t satiate their nostalgia for the 1970s, from Dazed and Confused (1993) to That 70s Show (which started in 1998), from Blind Melon to the brief resurgence of bell-bottom jeans, the 1970s were recycled, condensed and remanufactured in the 90s alongside the decade’s own defining trends. But evidenced by a program like That 70s Show (which, like The Wedding Singer, relied a great deal on winking cultural references for humor until it allowed its characters to come into their own, which then rendered its temporal setting secondary), the 1970s hardly served more than a source of superficial nostalgia or recycling of fashion in the 1990s.

It some ways, it seems like only a natural progression in the trends of recycling cultural nostalgia for the first decade of the new millennium to remanufacture the 1980s, but America’s appropriation of the 80s within these past nine years does not seem to have as simple or straightforward of a nostalgic relationship as the 90s did to the 70s. And several recent films represent the complexity with which this decade is approached and appropriated in contemporary popular culture.

Adventureland features a scene in which its jaded amusement park employees share their frustration at having to hear Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” blast on the PA system for what seems like the 1,000th time. The tendency for many nostalgic semi-autobiographical coming-of-age films that take place in the past has been to treat every personal and cultural moment as a cherished and valued memory, and similarly approach the time period recounted as the best days of one’s life. Adventureland, however, more realistically and refreshingly mixes the bitter and the sweet. The particular summer experience being recounted is undoubtedly important to the main character (and, no doubt, to the writer-director), but it is never hammered forward that this was the “best summer of one’s life.” The cultural and personal retrospective vision of the 1980s isn’t cluttered here by a head-in-the-clouds sense of emotional nostalgia, and instead posits that this summer, like any summer within any year within any decade, contains things about it that suck and other things about it that are great, both on the personal scale and the cultural scale. The 1980s are not utilized here for flat consumption of remembered trends or easy winking in-jokes at popular culture’s expense, but instead tries to capture a place and time without an interfering personal interpretation cluttered by what we’ve determined the 80s are “supposed to be” in hindsight (in other words, Adventureland appears not to be influenced by, say, VH1’s I Love the 80s).

Adventureland understands that, just because it takes place in 1987 doesn’t mean every frame needs to scream “1987!” The film is smart enough to realize that people of this year, just like any year, still utilized attire or consumed culture of years past, and the temporal setting doesn’t necessarily determine the characters. Adventureland deftly and skillfully balances the particular and the universal, like the brilliant-but-canceled 1980-set Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) before it, displaying icons of its place and time while simultaneously presenting characters and themes that are relatable in any context. And Martin Starr and Jessie Eisenberg now seem to be the go-to adolescents for films that take place in the 80s without taking place in the “80s” (Starr having been in Freaks and Geeks and Eisenberg having previously done the more-bitter-than-sweet semi-autobiographical 80s-set coming-of-age tale before in The Squid and the Whale (2005)). The 1980s portrayed here is thoroughly remembered, unencumbered by contemporary appropriation of the decade’s trends. (Of course, the 1970s can be argued to have been used the same way in the 1990s within the multiple proclamations of how much the “70s suck” in the similarly semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film Dazed and Confused, but these other media products mentioned accomplish this goal more subtly and thoroughly.)

Watchmen clearly has an interesting relationship to the decade. Neither personal nor attempting objectivity, Watchmen invents its own history of the decade until it becomes something almost unrecognizable. Yet “tells” of the decade are preserved in the characters’ civilian clothes, the inferiority of the technology (televisions and computers), and odd uses of popular culture—particularly the songs “99 Luftballoons” and excerpts of Philip Glass’s score of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983). This 1980s is not so much a remanufacture for nostalgia or a celebration of pop culture as much as it is a critical reinvention of time and history. This practice of temporal reinvention also occurred to a less obvious degree in the 1980-set No Country for Old Men, a film that perceives the vast landscape of West Texas as a place that isolates its characters from popular culture, a place basically caught in time. Like their 1987-set Fargo (1996), No Country perceives the rural as cut off from popular culture, an analog era where life is often slower and quieter than exists in the metropolis, or in the year of the film’s release (this is quite different from their contemporarily set Raising Arizona (1987), which had a similar rural desert setting but still acknowledged the influence of Reagan). For these films, the 80s is not a universal experience with easily identifiable signposts of culture, but a unique experience particular to one’s place in respect to this time, and the interpretation of what this 80s landscape looks like is determined by the decisions and influence of the film’s creative forces. Watchmen and No Country argue that there is no definitive version of the decade to be found.

Perhaps this multivalent approach to the decade as having no canonical, official interpretation of its various cultural moments can be seen as having started with Donnie Darko (2001), a film that fetishized much of 80s culture in the same way cultural products of the 90s did to the 70s (the film made Tears for Fears cool again), but integrated this nostalgia and celebration of culture into a fantastical narrative which rendered the generality of its cultural appropriation particular to the specific vision of the decade as manifested by the filmmaker. This film fictionalized and made fantastic and elusive those cultural moments otherwise perceived to be “real” or universal. Like Watchmen, No Country, and Adventureland, Donnie Darko particularized these general signposts of pop culture, thereby creating a new iconography associated with them (Tears for Fears juxtaposed with a hallucinated vision of a giant rabbit, for example).

But the obvious repopularization of 80s music, particularly new wave, can not be ignored with respect to this surge of 80s-set films. The Killers, Interpol, and indie-hipster musicians like Snowden, Liars, M83, and Ladyhawke are all seriously indebted to their new-wave predecessors, and their often synth-heavy and serious, unironic approach to 80s-sounding music has created a sonic landscape where “I Ran (So Far Away)” can be used in a trailer for a movie meant to be taken just as seriously. This, of course, also paved the way for a film like Control (2007), which recounted the brief career of one of the decade’s most influential bands, Joy Division. Yet even this obviously universal cultural moment of the decade is particularized through a portrayal of the band that hardly attempts to show their influence, and instead of nostalgically recounting the period as an era of artistic innovation and inspiration, shows the depressing banality of the place and time that somehow enabled such decade-defining music to arise (24-Hour Party People (2002) has a quite different take on the same subject).

Overall, films released this decade have treated the setting of the 1980s with a seriousness rarely found in the recycling of pop culture, and rather than dumb the era down into an easily identifiable set of trends and moments, these films see no authoritative or canonical reading of the era, and films of this decade have embraced a multitude of approaches and interpretations of the decade’s many facets. With their embrace of the particular over the general, the bitter over the nostalgic, and the inventive over the mindless shortcut, perhaps these films leave the moviegoer with a more thorough and unsimplified impression of the 1980s as well.

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