How Millennial Indies Take the ’80s Seriously

By  · Published on June 10th, 2014

New Line Pictures

The Wedding Singer is set in 1985, but it might as well have just been set in “The 80s” in big block letters, scare quotes preserved. As represented in that late ’90s Adam Sandler-starring hit, the ’80s were more of a simultaneous event than a brimming block of time that bore its own shifts and specifics as it rolled on. In the 1985 of the Sandlerverse, New Order was as popular as Nightmare on Elm Street and Billy Idol held simultaneous relevance to “Billie Jean”-era Michael Jackson. Any sign of a previous decade having existed before the ’80s is absent.

Much of cinema’s millennial nostalgia for the ’80s followed the lead of The Wedding Singer. From American Psycho to Hot Tub Time Machine, the ’80s of the ’00s have not been so much a part of history as they are an “idea” having to do with greed, excess, frivolous pop culture, and easy cracks at anachronistic fashion. But somewhere down the line, at some point between La Roux and The Americans, we started to take the ’80s seriously.

1980s nostalgia has proven a (perhaps quickly dwindling) goldmine for remakes or franchise films about toys, synth pop is omnipresent from Lady Gaga to indie rock, AMC leapt right over the ’70s, and David Byrne is still the hippest guy in town.

While the ’80s currently hold an ubiquitous status on contemporary popular culture’s many surfaces, it is also present throughout its subterranean and grassroots levels as well. For years, American indie films have explored a different relationship to the ’80s than their Hollywood counterparts. Movies like Cold in July, Beyond the Black Rainbow and House of the Devil attempt to sincerely evoke and recreate particular experiences of the 1980s instead of nostalgically excavating the decade as if it were some sort of monolithic block of history. The result is a more thoughtful take on the decade than we tend to see elsewhere. 1980s movies made today.

A few years ago, I was perusing my hometown Hollywood Video store (R.I.P.) when I saw the shelf pictured below. Among their new releases, the store decided to highlight some of their ’80s titles, with this shelf devoted to classics including Aliens and The Secret of NIMH. But inconspicuously sitting between these titles was Ti West’s House of the Devil, a 2009 film that devotedly attempts to reproduce the styles, tropes, and tones of a late ‘70s/early ’80s slasher flick.

Photo by Landon Palmer

I assume that House of the Devil was placed in its factually incorrect but spiritually accurate decade of origin by a bored clerk executing a brilliantly subtle joke for a very, very small crowd that would get it. But House of the Devil is designed in such a way that “the joke” here should, in theory, be able to follow the unsuspecting moviegoer home. West’s film attempts to realize such a straight-faced fidelity to the Halloween II era that one should be able to mistake this film about the ’80s as a film from the ’80s – that is, if one were to grab it from the video store or catch it on cable and not recognize Greta Gerwig.

House of the Devil is a pastiche by design, but it’s a pastiche that goes to great lengths not to recognize itself as such. It resides on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Wedding Singer’s take on the decade: it doesn’t exclaim its past-oriented lens by covering an indiscriminate swatch of popular culture, but imagines with considerable specificity what a makes a film of a particular year of the ’80s recognizable as such.

This is not an ’80s we’re expected to laugh at, but an ’80s we’re expected to immerse ourselves in to the point where we cannot distinguish the film’s “thenness” from its “nowness.” Rather than portray the ’80s from the benefit of hindsight, West’s film offers a form of cinematic time travel. It’s a surprisingly genuine effort at meticulously making the past present by matching efforts in front of the screen (via period dress and production design) to efforts behind the screen (via period filmmaking styles).

And this is the factor that distinguishes ‘80s-themed indies from the role that the ’80s plays in mainstream filmmaking elsewhere: these films recollect on the ’80s not only through content, but through form as well. They attempt to transcend simply being about the ’80s and instead aspire to create works of the ‘80s.

Rather than the gimmick that House of the Devil’s placement on a video shelf implies, I see this trend as evidence that filmmakers familiar with ’80s cinema and popular culture are treating seriously the subject of periodization amidst so much nostalgic noise. How do we recognize (or mis-recognize) a historical object as such? What traits distinguish the “then” from the “now”? What stylistic or tonal decisions can break an otherwise devoted attempt to reproduce a cultural product of a particular era?

Panos CosmatosBeyond the Black Rainbow pursues this project a bit differently. While it might be difficult to imagine a film exactly like this being made in 1983 (the year in which it is set), the range of influences of aesthetic decisions bear a thoughtful marker of dedication to the era.

On the one hand, the film’s form (from its cinematography reminiscent of early Michael Mann to a score that bears a debt to American Gigolo and Tangerine Dream) is met by its content. It’s basically a paranoid rejoinder to ’60s psychedelic drug culture, an underground film that imagines a post-countercultural dystopia that might as well have been Nancy Reagan’s personal hell. But on the other hand, Beyond the Black Rainbow bears an equal debt to a cinematic history of decades before, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Dark Star to The Holy Mountain. With full knowledge that the ’80s carried its own identity with respect to what occurred in the years and decades before, Beyond the Black Rainbow’s litany of influences situates it firmly during the era of its setting.

Jim Mickle’s recently released Cold in July carries this torch, but from a different angle. The film’s opening shot declares that it takes place in “East Texas, 1989,” suggesting that Mickle has transformed Joe R. Landale’s pulp novel into a period piece beholden to the year of its publication. Yet the film’s intimations of Blood Simple and ’80s Walter Hill (not to mention its awesome synth-noir score, which cements the film’s Blood Simple debt) instead insist that this, perhaps, is what a film of the book upon publication would look like.

Yet Cold in July’s relationship to the ’80s is more complicated than an exercise in period fidelity or historically specific influences. The film structures a relationship with its subject (and audience) that is simultaneously past and present. Cold in July does not simply take place in 1989 – its extrafilmic dimensions (from the aforementioned score to the Carpenter-tastic credit fonts) are periodized as well.

IFC Films

There seems to be an ambivalent crack between that opening title and the film’s otherwise dedicated evocation of the ’80s. Cold in July brings in a relic of the era in the form of Don Johnson, here eating up a star turn. The Miami Vice and “Heartbeat” crooner wears on his face the gap of history between his heyday and 2014, a constant reminder that the ’80s are past, that the decade can be meticulously evoked or broadly smirked at, but that it can never really be the present.

If there exists an interminable gap in these films between the 21st centuryness and ‘80s-ness no matter how exacting the period styles and references are, then what exactly are the filmmakers getting out of these decisions to arduously recreate the ’80s on such limited budgets? I see this work as a positive inversion of the malaise that a postmodern culture of recycled memories often creates.

Millennial ’80s indies stage a quiet push against the dulling forces of indiscriminate memory. These films posit that if we’re going to continually excavate the past for the benefit of the present (and we are), then we might as well do our due diligence and treat history with care and specificity rather than as a messy pile of compounding trivia.

Plus, y’know, badass synth scores.