Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Introduction (Part 1 of 17)

In his Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge* postulates how a critic’s faculties and tastes are influenced by his life experiences and exposure to art. I open with this statement because in writing about the 1980s a decade in which I was a child, I realize there can be a certain amount of filtering due to nostalgia or longing for ‘the good old days,’ thus, with each film I discuss in the 1980s I think it important to note when I first saw the film. Some have stood the test of time. Others are recent discoveries. I’m also trying to examine all of these films in a new light to ensure subjectivity.

I also think it’s important to note the genesis of this concept in my own reasoning as it has most definitely shifted. A little more than a year ago [as of this writing] I saw a film called Amazing Grace and Chuck for the first time and I thought to myself “This film could’ve only been made in the 80s.” I thought this both because of its aesthetics, the grain and milieu common to the 1980s. I started postulating upon that on my cornerstone on defining the 1980s noting that the 50s, 60s, and 70s had each had their own unique looks. I noted there was overlap such that early 80s films still looked like they were shot in the 70s. Yet this would be too technical and pedantic an approach. What really struck me about Amazing Grace and Chuck was the subject matter. And while you can’t pin down a decade as sporadic and variegated as the 80s (As opposed to the heavy focus on Sci-Fi in the 50s) you can see there were ideas buried even in these heavily Hollywoodized films. Yet I come to realize as I’ve viewed nearly 30 films for analysis that saying this is what the 80s were all about is folly. However, within the context of each individual film I can display a reflection of cinematic or social thinking at the time.

This is an overview of a decade of innovation. A decade where the blockbuster was ever more predominant than in the 1970s yet there seemed to be a last gasp of artistry. There were great films released amongst the garbage. Also, we would see the trends that would lead to the decline in quality in the 1990s. It was a decade with artists who still had a spark of idealism and still had something to say albeit through indirect channels.

While many of the films make connections to my youthful sensitivities, it is important to note that these films for the most part do not condescend or talk down to its intended audience which is a problem that has become more and more apparent as time has moved on. These are also films that for me have stood the test of time. Some of what was good in the eighties was adopted in the 90s and turned sour and what’s worse some of what was terrible also stayed and became worse. In this paper I will look at the motion picture in all its forms film, television, animation and the newly-invented, at the time, music video. No matter how you look at it the 80s did matter and I want to examine the decade here. It was a decade I grew up in it is true but now I can look back subjectively and examine a decade I’ve come to love.

* While primarily a poet and philosopher Coleridge wrote an abundance of dramatic criticism, introduced the term ‘suspension of disbelief’ to the artistic world, and is one of the most important concepts in cinema.

 Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments.

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