Last month I moved into a new apartment. I had been looking forward to it for a long time and the one thing I was most enthusiastic about was transforming my grandmother’s freestanding kitchen cabinet that was falling apart, but was unique in its construction, design and functionality. To me, it was a timeless piece.
So as I was painting it, I remembered that scene from Karate Kid and kept hearing Mr. Miyagi’s voice in my head, telling me “All in the wrist. Wrist up. Wrist down.” This reminded me of how they made a terrible re-make of it with Jackie Chan, which reminded me how they are re-making Ghostbusters with an all female cast, which reminded me of Bill Murray, which reminded me of my favorite scene from Caddyshack, which made me burst out laughing and sure enough I was on an 80s train of thought.
When was the last time you genuinely got lost in a film that made you wanna watch it over and over again? When was the last time a film actually lifted up your spirits and made you smile all day? For me, it was the Grand Budapest Hotel. Its unfiltered quirky world, the sweetness of its flawed characters, even the humor in its portrayal of villains made it an original in a murky pool of factory sealed blockbusters, lazy remakes and dialogue-free sequences of deafening special effects. I felt connected to the sense of nostalgia it ached with for simpler times, for frivolity.
Despite the fact that they are dismissed by most as “super cheesy,” 80s films have that same sweet resonance with me.
When re-discovering Kate Bush, I had written about the creative process and how “children have this remarkable ability to express themselves without the restrictions of assumed ideas on how things should be, which give them the audacity to experiment without the filter of adult insecurities such as fear of failure, status anxiety, and dreadful reflections on how the end result will be perceived. They don’t give the power of creativity to others. They manage to keep the object at heart pure and personal.”
I believe the same applies to the films from the 80s. Their highly imaginative and entertaining concepts felt like they were born out of an unflustered sense of wonder, curiosity and fun. They went for it! They had a playfulness to them. They didn’t fall back on cookie-cutter formulas, tedious special effects and fart jokes. They were intelligent and humorous. Most effectively though, instead being weighed down by financial, social or critical agendas, they were willing to take risks for the sake of their characters. Their substantial creative freedom allowed them to focus on what was really important. Telling a story.
That’s what makes a movie so special and memorable anyway. If you’re making a movie just for the sake of its explosive action (unlike Die Hard), or just for the sake of being dark and artsy (unlike Raging Bull) or just for the sake of provocation (unlike Sex, Lies & Videotape), or dumbing it down just for the sake of selling tickets (unlike Tootsie), you are bound to lose the connection with the audience at some point. Star Wars for instance. None of the special effects, back when it was revolutionary, would have been able to create such a cult following through generations if it wasn’t for its story, humor and beloved characters.
Hadley Freeman writes in her celebratory book titled Life Moves Pretty Fast, 80s films were “sweetly specific in their references, completely universal in their humor and stories.” No matter how outlandish the settings may be, we could always see a part of ourselves in the characters and learn from their stories whose plot lines appeared to be simple, but were loaded with heart and soul. That is why when you watch these movies again and again, they still feel remarkably relevant. Their rewatchability is an important sign of their significance and appeal.
Another telling sign of their infinite charm is that they are enjoyed and loved by all age groups. Currently, the only genre that seems to capture that same level of humanity, imagination, wisdom and humor is animation. Unlike other self-conscious genres that rely on over-used tricks and hyped sex scenes, or lose their edge to conservative pressure groups, animation’s inspiration seems to be derived from not exterior factors, but from the focus on telling a personal story with a clear and true intention. It is no coincidence that they do extremely well in the box office. The love for these films is not divided into age or gender categories because there is always a lesson about being… well… human. Like Pixar’s latest hitInside Out, which reassured kids and reminded adults that all emotions serve a purpose, including sadness.
It’s a difficult thing to explore a complex idea such as above with such light-heartedness. Hadley Freeman argues that the films from the 80s were also “deeply formative” and that she learned everything she needed to know about life from them. Like Ghosbusters. It wasn’t just a weird movie about chasing ghosts, but it was about a group of friends graduating from college and taking a risk to build their own company as scientiests. Unlike the bromance flicks of today where you get a bunch of men refusing to grow up until a woman forces them into adulthood, it studied the meaning of true friendship and growing up when all the while being ridiculously funny.
Besides unlikely friendships and growing pains (Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club and alike), the era actually dealt with some major social issues as well. LikeTrading Places, which is an incredibly poignant film about class, or Nine to Five which deals with women’s rights in the work place, or Dirty Dancing, which not only gets us in the groove to dance, but also tackles a heavy issue such as legality of abortion. Yet, they never come across as heavy-handed and remain to be entertaining and relatable. And that I believe comes from the strength of the script. Freeman mentions that there is “a common belief among Hollywood film-makers that darkness equals depth and serves as a compensation for throwaway, forgettable scripts.”
I always hear people say they want to escape their everyday troubles and so they want to watch something “easy.” Yet every time I watch a recent film labeled Comedy or Rom-Com, I don’t feel like I escaped anything. I’m just bored. Whereas when I watch When Harry met Sally again after not seeing it for years, I laugh out loud, feel enlightened and comforted all at the same time. And it owes that, again, to the brilliance of the script.
See, escapism doesn’t necessarily mean it should either numb or dumb you down. True escapism means being transformed from your own little bubble to a place of imagination where you re-connect with yourself and be reminded of what really matters in life…
We live in cynical times filled with anger, sarcasm and indifference. And I simply miss how disarming the 80s films were. They created a “cinematic world in which bankers are invariably evil, despite this being the decade of Wall Street, where children are always wiser than adults, and science is embraced with an intense enthusiasm, and the future viewed with excitement.”
So, like my grandmother’s cabinet, I would love to restore and share my love for these movies that were eccentric, caring and above all, hopeful no matter how dark life got.