Top image: Still, ‘Running on Empty’ (1998) dir. Sidney Lumet
The 1980s is often regarded as one of cinema’s most iconic eras. Defined by adventure-comedies like The Goonies, John Hughes’ coming-of-age romps and action blockbusters like Top Gun – which have all gone on to transcend from box office hits to nostalgic must-sees – many of the decades’ most renowned hits stuck to the time’s mainstream, Reaganism narrative (ie: “greed is good”, Cold War patriotic bluster, yuppies, the rise of neo-liberalism” – explains BFI programmer James Bell below).
However, scratch at the surface and behind those blockbuster headliners lies a decade of cinematic gems that dug into the wound in society and pressed down real hard, celebrating the marginalised groups, the outcasts and oddballs that didn’t quite fit this mainstream America. It’s a side of 80s cinema that is often lost in the mix, one which captures the reality of an America in flux: under the conservative regime of Ronald Reagan; shadowed by the fear of the cold war and nuclear threat; and in the midst of an AIDS crisis where those affected were being ignored – or worse, ostracised – by those in power.
Diving into the 80s archives to rediscover these sidelined classics, Lost in America: The Other Side of Reagan’s 80s is the latest in BFI’s Deep Focus series, programmed by Sight & Sound magazine. Here, films such as Bill Sherwood’s daring Queer Drama Parting Glances (1985), Jack Sholder’s sci-fi horror The Hidden (1987) and Sidney Lumet’s political drama Running on Empty (1988) – all in original archive print – are given the recognition they deserve, and together, serve as a fascinating insight into the voices of 80s underground America. The season also offers viewers the opportunity to see striking performances on the big screen from some of cinema’s rising stars of the time, including River Phoenix, Steve Buscemi and Laura Dern.
Here, we speak to BFI programmer James Bell about exposing the outsider voices of 80s’ America and the decade’s enduring influence on contemporary culture.
Victoria Russell: Why choose to explore this alternative side of 80s cinema?
James Bell: It’s an era of American cinema that been forgotten, or mis-represented through recent things like Stranger Things or Ready Player One and this commodified nostalgia of the 80s, all of which are great, but have kind of got a narrow idea of what the 80s were, and refer to the same few films as references. There are a lot of films that tell a slightly different story about what was actually going on in America behind the facade of Reaganism. What appealed to me was the chance to bring some of these films and filmmakers back to light – this sense of rediscovery.
VR: It’s also a chance for 80s fans to discover something new?
JB: Absolutely. This season was something that excited me because I’d been watching some of these films again and realised that no one talks about them. Half of them are not even available on DVD or Blu-ray – in an age of abundance, how do you find stuff that has perhaps been forgotten? So this season is really an opportunity for people to discover or rediscover them again.
VR: What do you mean by the “other side of Reagan’s 80s”?
JB: There’s a double meaning in it really. All these films deal with social subjects and characters that sit apart from what we understand to be the mainstream narratives of Reagan’s 80s: “greed is good”, Cold War patriotic bluster, yuppies, the rise of neo-liberalism and so on. Yet these films show another side to that. So, you’ve got suburban punk kids in Suburbia (1983) or Out of the Blue (1980), and you also have a film such as Parting Glances (1986), which is one of the first feature films to deal with the emerging AIDS crisis – which Reagan’s administration were slow to act upon. So, these films show the marginalised groups, the outcasts and oddballs that didn’t quite fit this mainstream America.
And the second meaning has to do with these films sitting apart aesthetically from the mainstream American cinema of the time. The 80s were the era of the high concept blockbuster, the John Hughes teen movie, the Stallone and Schwarzenegger action film, and these films don’t fit into any of those moulds. I thought of them more as continuing to fly the flag for the tradition of what was called the ‘New Hollywood’ cinema of the 1970s, which was more concerned with experimentation, with characters over spectacle, and with exploring the interesting nooks and crannies of American society. That spirit supposedly died out in American cinema at the end of the 1970s, and was only revived again with the rise of Sundance and the indie cinema of the 1990s, and while there’s an aspect of truth in that, these films show that it’s not the whole story.
“I thought of them more as continuing to fly the flag for the tradition of what was called the ‘New Hollywood’ cinema of the 1970s, which was more concerned with experimentation, with characters over spectacle, and with exploring the interesting nooks and crannies of American society.”
VR: Why are some independent 80s films remembered – such as Paris, Texas and Repo Man – and some not?
JB: That’s a very interesting question. Both Paris, Texas and Repo Man are made by filmmakers who weren’t American. So that’s quite interesting. And I actually considered both of those films for this season.
VR: Oh really?
JB: Yeah. I think a filmmaker like Wim Wenders, at the time of Paris, Texas, was already appreciated by a cinephile audience, perhaps because of his European work. And Repo Man became a cult film through what were called ‘midnight movie’ screenings. But Repo Man definitely would’ve fitted this season, as it is brilliantly satirical about the Reagan era, and in the same way a film like The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona would also have fit, but I felt that those films were already comparatively well known. It was important for me to include a number of films by women directors in the season, as people also forget that in the 80s there were key female figures working in American cinema. So there are three films in this season directed by women – Smooth Talk by Joyce Chopra, Suburbia by Penelope Spheeris and Crossing Delancey by Joan Micklin Silver. Take a film like Smooth Talk (1985) it’s based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates and is directed by a female filmmaker, Joyce Chopra, who sadly didn’t get the career she deserved. Smooth Talk is a coming-of-age film about a teenage girl, played by Laura Dern, told from a female perspective in three senses – from the character, the writer and the director. It’s a different perspective on teenage years than you find in, say, a John Hughes film.
VR: Another film I’m very thrilled to see is Running on Empty (1998) because I’ve only ever seen it on VHS or DVD. I discovered it as a teenager because I was obsessed with River Phoenix, but I’ve never really met anyone else who’s seen it. How did you discover this film?
JB: I love it too and also saw it as a teenager. Lots of the girls at my school in the mid-90s loved River Phoenix too [laughs], although the big film at the time was My Own Private Idaho (1991), but Running on Empty is the film where you see just what an incredible actor he was. It’s still so sad that he died so young.
VR: You’re also screening the documentary Streetwise (1984)?
JB: Yes. There are films like Suburbia and Out of the Blue that show you the lives of kids abandoned by the mainstream of American life, who forge their own communities through hardcore punk music, and if you thought films were exaggerating the hard-scrabble lives of these kids at the time, Streetwise shows you that was not the case. It’s a really powerful film about homeless kids in 1980s Seattle; it’s got a real poetry to it and it’s not just observational; it really brings an empathy to these kids’ lives.
VR: What do you hope people take from seeing these films?
JB: I really hope that people of the Stranger Things generation do come and take away a wider view of what 80s America was culturally and what cinema was at that time. And also for people to discover and rediscover figures like River Phoenix, I hope that people see these young actors and see how exciting they were; both successful actors like Laura Dern or Keanu Reeves in River’s Edge, and someone like Linda Manz in Out of the Blue who didn’t sustain such a reputation. There’s just so many fine performances in this season.
VR: And what’s your favourite film of the season?
JB: I really couldn’t pick just one! But a film I hope people discover is Crossing Delancey (1988), starring Amy Irving, which is just a wonderfully charming and fresh spin on what we expect from a romantic comedy. Also, take the chance to see Mike’s Murder (1984) because it’s very rarely screened – I don’t think it’s been screened in Britain since the 1980s, and we’re showing a beautiful, rare print of it.
Lost in America: The Other Side of Reagan’s 80s – a Deep Focus season programmed by Sight & Sound – will be at BFI Southbank through May.