Friday, October 04, 2013

No Turning Back (American Eighties 33)

Talk on Hollywood Eighties Cinema, 02.10., Cinemateque Luxembourg. Thanks again, Marc Scheffen... and of course, Nikolaus Perneczky, who I hope will find himself in some of the following!


Good evening and thank you very much for the invitation.

I’ll beginn with a short warning: I will not, today, talk about the film you are about to see afterwards, Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies, but I’ll rather concentrate on some other films, that will be shown over the next few months.

But first, some general remarks about my interest in the 1980s. The project that finally became the film series “The Real Eighties” at Austrian film museum, and which has afterwards, in turn, inspired other film series in Zurich, Berlin, and now, of course, Luxembourg, must have started about four or five years ago. I don’t remember exactly, what brought up our idea to revisit - or maybe rather: to really discover for the first time - the Hollywood cinema of the 1980s. If my memory serves me right, one of the first revelations was a comedy film produced by John Hughes, rediscovered by my colleague Nikolaus Perneczky: Some Kind of Wonderful, a coming of age film and a love story driven by class consciousness. Suddenly, we found, in the very middle of pop cinema, a fascinating kernel of social realism. Some Kind of Wonderful isn’t part of the series playing here… but I think, that its opening segment nevertheless is a perfect start for this short journey through some of the decade’s most interesting films.

Mary Stuart Masterson on the Drums, Eric Stolz on the wrong side of the tracks, walking almost head-on into a moving train on the way towards a social and erotic fantasy he will ultimately reject. When seeing this intro and the film that followed it, we started to realise something that now, several years and about 500 films from the American Eighties later, feels like an almost banal truism to us: that the dynamics and vitality evident in so much Eighties Hollywood Cinema isn’t just surface glittering, or capital talking to itself; on the contrary, it is on the one hand deeply connected with the tradition of american genre cinema - in this case both the romantic comedy and the coming of age film, and on the other hand, it must be seen as a working through of the social tensions of the USA in the Reagan era.

Nikolaus Perneczky and I, the two main curators of the viennese series, are part of a group of Berlin based curators. With this group, we had previously worked on several film series concerned with political cinema, especially from non-western countries. But this is not the only reason why the American Eighties took us by surprise. The main reason may be a generational one. Both Nikolaus und I were born in the 1980s - but we are not really “children of the eighties”: we were a few years too young to really experience firsthand the popular culture - and especially the cinema - of the decade. When we discovered cinema and film history in the 1990s (or, in my case, for the most part even later), Hollywood cinema of the 1980s wasn’t exactly terra incognita for us; but it never became a prime focus for our cinephilia: of course, we knew there were some interesting directors like John Carpenter, Walter Hill, there were Blade Runner and Blue Velvet; but besides that? We always suspected, that there had to be more to it than just a huge wasteland of Spielbergian blockbusters... But it wasn’t really the first place to look for unknown pleasures. We were always much more fascinated with the films of New Hollywood, or with the classical Genre cinema, of the 30ies, 40ies and 50ies, or with the Underground and Independent film movements. And that’s just american cinema…

Once again: this is not to say, that the Hollywood Cinema of the Eighties is some kind of unknown wonderland no one has ever heard of. On the contrary: the problem might be, that many people think that there has been already everything said about this decade. The dominant cinephile history, that many people might still take for granted, goes like this: the late sixties and early seventies were a period of bliss for american cinema, were filmmakers enjoyed an unparalleled degree of freedom to break away from narrative and formal traditions in order to experiment with more personal ways of filmmaking. Already in the late seventies and with full force in the Eighties, the Empire stroke back, with the Hollywood Industry establishing a new paradigm of blockbuster filmmaking that destroyed or marginalised to the point of invisibility everything that stood in its way. For some critics, this development mirrored the social change in the era of the so-called reagonomics, which replaced the somewhat social-democratic policies of the New Deal with a stronger emphasis on the free market and resulted in the destruction of large parts of the public infrastructure.

While this line of arguing might not be completely wrong, it is certainly not sufficent when thinking about film history and its complex relationship with political history and social change. Here’s neither the time nor the place to try to esablish a fully fledged defense of American Eighties cinema - anyways, the best possible defense is the rediscovery of the films themselves; which is the main aim of the program here at the Cinemateque that you are invited to follow over the next few months. Here I want to focus on iconic scenes from three of these upcoming movies and on some thoughts on the topic of outsiderness.

But first, let me get back once more to a moment from the opening of Some Kind of Wonderful: When the train passes Eric Stoltz, there’s a moment when he, and with him the camera, turns back towards the leaving machine. A short, almost invisible window of opportunity is opening up: Eric’s charakter might just jump on the train and leave his rather miserable existence as a working-class misfit in a snobbish middle-to-upper-class environment. One might even imagine, that he would have done just that, if he had lived a few decades earlier: leave everything behind, go out into the world, start afresh. But this is no longer possible in the cinema of the 1980s. The cinema of the 1980s that we discovered while working on this project is a cinema of outsiders in a world without an outside.

So let’s move on to another outsider: Kurt Russel as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s science fiction classic Escape from New York.

[my clip was much longer...]

In this scene, Snake Plissken flies his plane not out of, but into New York. He has some 21 hours time to find the president who has been abducted by radicals; otherwise both he and probably the whole world will cease to exist.

Escape from New York shows, how uncompromising and bleak commercial cinema could look like in the early 1980s. The New York Carpenter envisions is an urban wasteland, populated by outcasts and gangsters, most of them easily recognizable as perverted remnants of the social movements of earlier decades: badly aged hippies, paranoid radicals, a Black Power movement that has turned into a fascist organisation. Carpenter’s New York is also a prison, walled in but not yet completely controlled by mainstream society. Utopia has, over the course of a few short years, turned into nightmare. Plissken embodies the new type of hero this new world order demands: cynical, self-sufficent, pragmatic. Isolated and iluminated he descents on this garish city from above, guided by the electronic imaging techniques which became ubiquitous in the 1980s. Perfectly detached from his environment, Plissken is neither an angel of death nor an angel of mercy - nothing but a professional doing his job. Nothing to gain but the possibility to live another day.

The next scene is from Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, a film which is generally thought to be a metaphor for the Vietnam War, but which is set in the swamps of Louisiana. The scene takes place near the end of the film, but I think it doesn’t give anything important away. The two members of the Louisiana National guard, who arrive at the village at the beginning of the scene already went through hell, after a routine training mission turned into a desperate fight for their lives, when they and their colleges enraged some mysterious locals by steeling their canoos and killing one of them. Afterwards, these city boys, who wanted nothing but a weekend away from their stressful and over-complicated everyday life, were hunted down by enemies, who are nearly invisible - at first. Out in the swamps, the local cajun seemed almost animalistic, like creatures from another, uncivilized, earlier time. The upcoming scene represents a fascinating break, turning these earlier projections and fears on its head: Suddenly, the two survivors are confronted with a real communit. - filmed by Hill in an almost ethnografic manner, with an emphasis on social rituals and the details of material existence.

While Snake Plissken flies into a decaying metropolis thoroughly destroyed by modernity, the protagonists of Southern Comfort are being confronted with a vision of a civil society untouched by the alienation and the loss of social cohesion that comes with modernity. But at the same time, the scene isn’t nostalgic at all. The protagonists keep their distance from their surroundings - with a very good reason: they soon realize, that they didn’t discover some hidden paradise in which one can retreat from the menacing outside world. Instead, the whole scene is infused with a sense of thread, which creeps in very subtle, by way of some sideway glances and the ever-repeating banjo-music. So, it becomes a very ambivalent, hard to read scene: on the one hand, it represents an surprisingly honest and open-minded confrontation with the hidden other, that lurks not somewhere far away in South-East Asia but is situated right inside the vast and multi-faced american motherland. On the other hand, it rejects all idealization of this other, hidden America and ultimately reaches once again the conclusion: there is no outside, and their is especially no turning back towards the good old days.

I’ll finish this presentation with a clip, that, on first glance, feels completely different, almost like a renewal of the very same social contract, the films of Carpenter and Hill rejected. It is from Michael Mann’s Thief.

[again, my clip was longer...]

This might look like the end of the film, but of course, it isn’t. Frank, the professional safebreaker at the center of the film, has, for one single, fleeting moment realized his ambition, formulated earlier very clearly: he no longer wants to be an outsider, a drifter, a loner - in short: he no longer wants to be someone out of a New Hollywood film. But rather a respected member of society, complete with house, car, wife and kids. Even while the camera tilts upwards, towards the horizon, we realise, that this isn’t going to happen. The realization of the American Dream, in its freshly updated version of the early 1980s, remains out of reach for Frank. Not only because of the rules of the genre, the gangster film, which insists on punishing its heros again and again for the very same thing, it celebrates them for: the reposession, and maybe even more important, the destruction of private property. But also, I think, because of the actor playing Frank.

James Caan, with his characteristic, but not in any conventional way handsome face and his massiv, everything but elegant frame, just isn’t a “body of the eighties”. Not surprisingly, Thief remained his only relevant film of the decade. The male action stars of the 1980s, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dolph Lundgren, are hyper-masculinist, but in a rather surreal, comic-book-like way. Caan represents an older concept of masculinity: less flashy and exuberant, but still connected to personal, biografical pain and to hard bodily labor. Indeed, in Thief, criminals are highly specialised professionals - and the break-in scene especially evokes just those heavy industries, that shut down more or less completely in the US over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. The strange mismatch between Caan and Frank's proletarian work ethos on the one hand, and the highly stylized surfaces of Michael Mann’s visual style on the other hand might be the most important driving force behind the film. In the end, Frank remains what he was at the beginning: just another outsider in a world without an outside.

What you’ll see now - Bruce Beresford’s country music melodrama Tender Mercies - might be a pretty steep change of pace after these clips. But I think, it develops, in a much more somber and relaxed way, some very similar ideas about both the impossibility and the necessity of outsiderness, this time before the beautiful backdrop of rural Texas. It features Robert Duvall in one of the great performances of the decade as an aging country singer and recovering alcoholic; another outsider, another body of the Seventies, confronted with the sober truth of the Eighties. It is also my personal favorite in the selection. And with this, I wish you a good projection.

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