April 19, 2019


The Eighties: A Sequel (PETER TONGUETTE, April 18, 2019, National Review)

[T]he current '80s mania is on some level nothing more than a matter of aesthetics. Even those who did not live through the decade or do not have conscious memory of it can recognize the solid craftsmanship of Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) or Richard Donner's The Goonies (1985), or the retro appeal of old-school book and VHS covers. Yet, if we go back to the mass entertainment that prompts our present feelings of nostalgia, a more complicated picture emerges. Simply put: Many movies and TV shows made during that decade ought to be celebrated -- not for their elements of rad design but for their surprising wholesomeness.

Gone were the soul-searching sensitivity of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and the aimless intensity of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (1969). Instead, the '80s gave us a new sort of screen hero: well-adjusted teenagers who, snug and secure in their well-appointed homes, seemed to embody the energy and enthusiasm of Reagan's "morning in America." Think of Tom Cruise's entrepreneur-in-training in Risky Business (1983) or Corey Haim's automobile-obsessed youth in License to Drive (1988). Meanwhile, in the Back to the Future series and on the sitcom Family Ties, Michael J. Fox proved that by-the-books ordinariness could be popular with audiences, too.

In fact, rare was the '80s teen comedy in which the traditional family unit was presented as anything but a positive, or at least benign, force. Ferris Bueller's Day Off features the hero (Matthew Broderick) evading all forms of authority, but he has no particular animus toward his elders; after all, the elaborate sound-effects system through which he fools his father is installed in his bedroom in his parents' home! And, in the surprisingly sharp and funny License to Drive, Corey Haim flouts all the rules in his pursuit of wheels, but he is situated firmly within the constellation of a family, including his assertive but tolerant dad (Richard Masur), his daffy, pregnant mom (Carol Kane), and a pair of harmless siblings. This is a family in harmony, more or less. Even when Dad is a Wally World-obsessed fool, like Chevy Chase in the Vacation string of comedies, the family most often ends up where they started: together.

Significantly, a family lacking in two parents was usually seen as a deficit in the cinema of the '80s. For example, E.T. -- a far richer film than anything by John Hughes, let alone License to Drive -- touchingly depicts the unavoidable struggles of single motherhood. After her husband has flown the coop, Mary (Dee Wallace) is left to rear her three children, Elliott (Henry Thomas), Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Alas, Mary's grip on her kids' comings and goings is so tenuous that she is the last to know of the presence of a space alien in her home. Released two years after E.T., Michael Apted's Firstborn goes a step further in chronicling the hazards a single mother (Teri Garr) exposes her brood to when she tests the dating waters with a no-good guy (Peter Weller). [...]

Could it be that our wistfulness for the '80s represents a thinly disguised wish for the future -- a wish for homes on peaceful streets and for moms and dads who have their kids' interests at heart? During last fall's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, child-of-the-'80s Brett Kavanaugh was widely sneered at for his high-school calendars, some of which included plans to see some of the lesser cinematic achievements of the period, including Grease 2 and Rocky III. Yet, with all their scribblings about athletic events, social get-togethers, and church obligations, those calendars were, as much as any movie of the era, a reflection of the healthy, well-balanced society in which we lived during those years. What are we seeking when we pick up that crazy Stranger Things book? Is it Molly Ringwald and the Ecto-1 we miss? Or could it be a culture in which the warmth and coziness of the middle of the road was, again and again, affirmed?

Posted by at April 19, 2019 6:41 PM