Sunday, December 19, 2010

What's the deal with 80s cult films?

I lived through the 1980s. I was trying to start a career and successfully starting a family. I should remember the era as a golden time. It sucked. Disco refused to die, although people with their hearts in the right places tried to stomp it with hobnail boots. Movies for grownups disappeared. The clothes were mostly hideous. The government under Ronnie Ray-Gun found it could act like a bad boyfriend, taking our money and giving us nothing for it, letting us lose our jobs and refusing to help or support us and making up stories so we'd feel better, and co-dependent America ate it up.

It was an era of "bad is good", "tacky is stylish", "lame is cool" and, of course, the era of Gordon Gekko telling us "greed is good." (Any biologist will tell you that self-preservation and self-interest is good. Organisms that take more than they need will die from it.) And if anything demonstrates that "bad is good," it's 80's cult movies.

Maybe I was just too old. But if Point Blank is a cult film representing the 60s, and Red Dawn is a cult film representing the 80s, one must acknowledge a overall degeneration in the amount and quality of gray matter among the populace.

The cult film thing got so big after the success of midnight audience participation showings of Rocky Horror, that film executives apparently began making films in order to become objects of cult, rather than appealing to the general movie-going public. Thus, we have The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension (1984). Incidentally, the filmmakers objected to the distributor adding the last half of that title. Why? Because it destroyed the dignity of their fine work?????

According to John Lithgow's comments made at the L.A. Film Festival in May, the character and mythology of Buckaroo Banzai began as a sort-of running joke between college classmates writer Earl MacRauch and director W.D. Richter. Once Richter had gained a foothold in the business, they decided to unleash their joke adventure into a world primed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones to accept riffs on 30s serial adventures as a respectable film genre. They had worked out a back story and a milieu for Banzai and his Hong Kong Cavaliers, which actually sounds as if it would have been fun if they series of films they planned had actually been made. But the first film crashed in general release (as it deserved to), and this one film represents the entire saga.

The problem is a textbook example of the Springtime for Hitler syndrome. When you're making a silly piece of work, you can't make everything silly or it becomes tedious; most of all, you cannot have ALL your characters be silly, especially the ones who are supposed to be scary, like Hitler. And Buckaroo Banzai, supposed to be a light romp of an adventure turned into a grand Olympian conclave of overactors, led by the Grand Pooh-Bah of OTP, John Lithgow.

Also seen is this clip, is Lithgow's greatest living rival for the title of King of OTP, Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd is under a severe handicap in this film, having his head encased in a lizard thing, but he does what he can (and more than makes up for it in the Back To The Future trilogy and Star Trek III). But I would maintain that Lithgow still deserves the top spot. Whereas Lloyd's characters are loud and overstated because that's what the voices inside their heads tell them to do, Lithgow seems always to be playing for the least affluent theatergoers in the 3rd balcony who seem to live in Lithgow's head. He is, by his own admission, most comfortable in theater and in television with a studio audience, and always looks disappointed in films that his unhinged antics are not met with wild applause and cheering.

Completing this particular Pantheon is Jeff Goldsmith, who is so consummate an overactor, that he can overact while appearing to underact. His character are is quiet almost to the point of appearing sleepy, but prone to reel off a long run of supergeek gobbledegook so potent as to suck the air out of any scene he appears in. (I just regret that nobody thought to bring Christopher Walken into the cast - or that he was perhaps unavailable.) Is it a wonder that nobody can take this film seriously, or even figure out how it wants to be taken? The cardboard cut-out production design, bombastic music and cheesy photography don't help. (The photography isn't the director's fault - the studio fired his choice and hired the guy who shot The Man From Uncle, a cheese-fest if there ever was one.) Worst of all, the film lacks the sincerity and authenticity of, say, a movie like Evil Dead. Even if it's not good, you know that Sam Raimi BELIEVES in it.

Nobody could like this film and nobody did. There were a few people who LOVE it, and they still do, and it is entirely possible you are or may be one of them. If so, I pray to heaven you do not have a job that involves dangerous equipment or small children, lest you cause serious damage.

Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), on the other hand, bears all the marks of a sincerely-intended piece of work, but fated for cult status nonetheless.

First of all, the producers were banking on the popularity of a rock group as the basis of their audience, heedless of the fact that the fan base of the most popular rock or pop stars at any time; let's say, for example Lady Gaga as I write this, constitute less than 5% of the number of people you need to see a moderately-budgeted motion picture just to get your money back, let alone make a profit. Music - even pop - is a poor basis for commercial success. Add to this that the story is not the usual trope of teenage rebellion against stifling adult society that fuels such works as Tommy, Footloose and Rock, Rock, Rock. (The latter is the one about Tuesday Weld raising enough money to buy a prom dress.) Instead, Our Hero in The Wall has ALREADY achieved Rock God status and finds that it Means Nothing. We can all identify with that, can't we, especially when we're 15 years old? Oh dear, I have fame and wealth and power over people and I can have anything and anything I want, but I am numb inside because I don't know who I am or what my life is for. That's a pretty common problem, don't you think?

Add to that, the film's narrative is not only broken up into barely-related fragments without dialogue rather than a linear story with plots, subplots and characters. The style is more like the cinema equivalent of tableaux vivants, as in this perhaps most famous example attacking the ineffectual and sterile nature of education as we know it.

On top of this, the narrative is frequently interrupted by nightmare animation sequences by Gerald Scarfe, which at least has the possible advantage from a parent's point of view of convincing teens to delay sex for years, perhaps even decades:

All snark aside, this is serious work seriously intended and a signal achievement in the relationship of music to imagery. But I sure hope the people who permitted this film to be made were under no illusion that this would be a blockbuster.

The authors of the meta-musical [title of show] write, "I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing/Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing." That's the definition of cult, a type of product that thrived in a peculiar way 25 years, before the Coming of the Conglomerates.

If I've piqued your interest in The Wall (and it is worth seeing if you're not easily disturbed by movies or music), here's the whole darn thing for you to watch, provided you have a spare 95 minutes:

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