Memory’s funny, it’s about as trustworthy as Lucy Van Pelt with a football, but mine’s pretty good. But where I can remember events with great detail, it’s all unstuck in time – ask me if it was five or fifteen years ago, I’m at a loss. (Same with names, I remember your wife, dog and kids but your name is veiled in mystery.)
I mention this because when I started looking at the films of 1980 a rush of feeling hit me that I haven’t accessed since probably 1981 – and that feeling was disappointment! I was (and still am to a MUCH lesser extent) a film snob, your value to me was depended on how you embraced film, it was the Rubicon that separated acquaintances and friends. Agreement wasn’t needed (or valued), it was how you engaged film – were you a simpleton satisfied with anything that stroked your id, or were you an overly precious pseudo-intellectual who framed art with coffee-shop politics? What mattered was that you could see any genre, high or low, and engage it at its level – not the baggage you brought to it. (Bear in mind, this judgement was being passed by 18 year-old testosterone-fueled pretentious art-boy me, as insufferable a creature as every walked.)
Why disappointment? I had heroes and dreams, that’s why! This year
was packed with releases from movie gods! Clint! Cimino! Kubrick! Walter Hill! Altman! Billy Friedkin! The list goes on, I was STOKED for 1980, and like disco – it failed to deliver. I try not to be a hater, but I WAS a hater, and that’s what I’m trying to capture here – what I was thinking and feeling in 1980. Reading over the list of films from 1980 deja vu-ed me with the emotional sequence felt too often in theaters that year – essentially the stages of grief – Denial (this can’t really be this bad), Anger (Jesus, it is this bad), Bargaining (maybe it’ll get better), Depression (it will never be better), Acceptance (there is no god).
I’m a “praise the light not curse the darkness” kind of guy, so I’ll start off with my five favorites from the year – then I’ll descend into the depressing memories, shaking my head ruefully all the way.
My Top 5 (as an 18 year-old in 1980)
For a year so rife with disappointment, I struggled to narrow down a top five – I sorely wanted to include “The Elephant Man” and “The Stunt Man”
Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – I can’t communicate the simple joy of seeing this movie in the theater – expectations were high and expectations were exceeded. Also, I can’t overemphasize how “big” the movie felt, how paradigm shifting. TV was three networks and a couple of UHF channels, broadcasting things like “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Three’s Company” in the lowest of low-def. And movies were still (for the most part) using a visual language created in the silent era. Even visionary boundary-pushers like Ray Harryhausen were locked into static compositions dictated by the technology of the day. This thing hit like the switch from candles to carbon arc lights.
Airplane! – Writing this now, as an adult, it seems stupid to include this – but in 1980 the only time I’d ever laughed this hard was the previous year, which brought “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” (the only time I feared dying from laughter, I’m not exaggerating). This is a STUPID movie, it knows it, you know it and at the time I couldn’t have been happier to be stupid. Lloyd Bridges kills as the man who picked the wrong week to stop all his stress relieving vices.
Raging Bull – Four years after “Taxi Driver” Martin Scorsese cracked the code that all artists strive for – transitioning from talent to mastery. This movie is so alive, so vital, it feels like one of the fights it depicts. I remember walking out of the theater and heading to the gym, not from inspiration, but to calm some of the existential dread of seeing someone get “everything” but have nothing.
Superman II – Unlike the overachieving Star Wars sequel, Superman II precisely met expectations – feeling more like a continuation than something “new” (I only learned later that it was essentially shot at the same time as the first). I loved it, but seeing this in December after “Empire” in the summer, it already started to feel dated, nostalgic. I loved it because it was pretty good, but mostly (even at the ripe old age of 18) I was a comic book kid who was finally seeing something he loved treated with respect.
Kagemusha – Again, in this day of instant access to the popular culture of EVERY culture, it’s hard to explain the impact of seeing something like Kurosawa’s Kagemusha on the big screen for the first time. Sure, it was awesome, but more it was DIFFERENT. European cinema, while distinct from US cinema, was coming from the same cultural frame of reference. Kagemusha’s frame a reference was alien, it made you pay attention because you didn’t know what the beats were, the palette was new. This is a great movie, but what I remember most was that it widened my gaze for what was art.
The Shining – In retrospect I can dig what Kubrick was going for – but in the day? I loved the book, and Stephen King, and this thing was neither. Kubrick’s chilly aesthetic just missed the human story. Plus I hated the kid (and Shelley Duvall for that matter) so I wasn’t sweating anybody getting killed by Nicholson.
Popeye – Altman’s a great director, Robin William’s a talented guy, but this whole thing just hit me wrong. (Plus, it had Shelley Duvall.)
Heaven’s Gate – Just a year after “The Deer Hunter” annihilated me, making me think Michael Cimino could do no wrong – well, he could, and this was it. (Turns out it was probably cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond that made “Hunter” the experience it was, but hey, I was a kid.)
The Fog – John Carpenter had proved an excellent genre director. But this thing committed the number 1 sin for a horror movie, it was boring – plus Adrienne Barbeau didn’t get naked, so pretty much disappointing on all fronts.
Dressed to Kill – Brian De Palma was kinda hit ‘n miss, but with Michael Caine I figured this had to deliver – there was no delivery. Hitchcock-porn.
Any Which Way You Can – This whole “Clint Eastwood as redneck” phase was an abomination of God.
The Long Riders – Walter Hill had given me “Hard Times”, “The Driver” and “The Warriors”, and this moving isn’t “BAD”, it’s just kind of hokey. This is a perfect reason the Buddhist’s warn against expectation!
The Changeling – Another BORING horror movie, great cast, great premise but soooooo dull!
Cruising – William Friedkin! Al Pacino! Gay serial killer! Tried to be boundary pushing (and sort of was in intended and unintended ways) but just sort of limped across the finish line.
The Big Red One – Sam Fuller – legend! Was supposed to be packed full of authenticity and felt like a 1960’s TV show, like “Rat Patrol”.
Saturn 3 – Not a lot of SciFi going on back in the day, so when a high-profile project was coming it was a “big deal”. I really wanted to like this thing, but the whole Kirk Douglas/Farrah Fawcett-creepy-love-thing and slow-ass pace really killed this thing.
The Octagon – Okay, hear me out, Chuck Norris showed a lot of promise in “The Way of the Dragon” and was making some funky, off-beat action pics – nothing great, but showing some potential that we might be getting some decent US produced martial arts movies. “The Octagon” promised Norris VS. Ninjas! Ninja’s I tell ya’! Well, it sucked.
The First Deadly Sin – I LOVED Lawrence Sander’s “Deadly Sins” books, and the “The First Deadly Sin” in particular. Awesome, creepy, pulp! And was also a big fan of Sinatra. Bottom line is everybody just seemed really tired.
The Stunt Man – If you haven’t seen this, seek it out, Peter O’Toole is AMAZING.
The Elephant Man – David Lynch doing a “straight” movie, and doing it great. I cried for John Merrick!
Altered States – Haven’t seen this since it was in the theaters, it may have lost a step with the passage of time. But Ken Russell delivered an intense exploration of psychedelic drugs, sensory deprivation and a whole lot of CRAZY.
The Long Good Friday – Great Brit crime drama with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, this was part of a wave of great British film at the time, worth your time.
Atlantic City – Louis Malle gets great stuff out of Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, a subtle but good watch.
Fade to Black – I only remember how good Dennis Christopher was in this thing – it was his follow-up to “Breaking Away” – one of the great “crazy man” performances.