Now THIS is the way the '80s really were for most teens, as seen in Susan Skoog's Whatever.

 

It's official–1980s nostalgia is now upon us full-force. Whether we're seeing genuine nostalgia or niche marketing posing as nostalgia is open to question (and that question is, in itself, very '80s), but clearly the floor is open for bids on whatever fond attachments people of a certain demographic might have for the decade. Unfortunately, like all appeals to nostalgia, it is mostly bullshit.

The trend actually started a few years back, when some people old enough to remember the '80s weren't even out of college yet. The first obvious offender was The Wedding Singer, which yoked its pleasantly creaky romantic machinations to the mid-Reagan era for no discernible reason except to lure the people who were listening to the "'80s Lunch Hour" on top 40 stations across the land. In turn, those lunch hours soon grew into an entire format. Before the 1990s were done, you could already listen to radio stations billing themselves as "all '80s, all the time." Romy and Michell's High School Reunion also loaded up its soundtrack with '80s hits (as did Grosse Pointe Blank, although it was a cooler movie with cooler music–the implicit message in its soundtrack was that if you actually remembered those songs from when they came out, you must have been kind of hip).

Now we also have the obligatory TV sitcom, That '80s Show, which I have never watched and do not intend to. One look at the cast photo, with its array of '80s "types" apparently drawn entirely from the oeuvre of John Hughes, is enough. The idea, apparently, is that you can invoke the '80s with a Cyndi Lauper haircut and a few references to Miami Vice (which is reportedly being developed for a big-screen revival itself).

Well, I grew up in the 1980s. When the decade started, I was still in elementary school. When it ended, I was in college. I know the '80s pretty well, and I know they were not any candy-colored Day-Glo New Wave fantasy. Most people (with the exception of my friend Craig) did not dress like Flock of Seagulls. Most people (Craig, again, excepted) did not listen to English bands with absurd names. Most people wore Ocean Pacific T-shirts and Levi's jeans, and they listened to Journey and Def Leppard.


All of which is why I was happy to find a handful of recent video releases that get the '80s more or less right. First, there's Wet Hot American Summer (R, 2001), a spoof of teen summer-camp movies (Little Darlings, Meatballs, etc.) directed by David Wain of MTV's late sketch show The State. It's a gag fest in the Airplane! mold, but it still manages to capture its moment–late summer, 1981–with affectionate precision. The striped shirts, the Jordache jeans, those feathery haircuts, it all looks right. It sounds right too. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, some campers stand around the bed of a still-dozing cabin mate and wake him up by reciting lyrics from a song most 12-year-old boys knew by heart that year: Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero."

The jokes are predictably hit-and-miss. But, as written by Wain and Michael Showalter (who also co-stars), it has a genuine sense of absurdity that elevates it well above Scary Movie territory. It also has Janeane Garofalo as the frumpy, earth-mother camp director and David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier) as a nerdy astrophysicist who volunteers at the camp.

Also set in 1981 is Susan Skoog's Whatever (R, 1998), an intelligent indie drama about two girls in a New Jersey high school on the verge of graduation. They party and contend with problem parents and worry about the future. Toward the end, the episodic film gets unnecessarily melodramatic, but the characters are likable and believable–particularly Liza Weil as Anna, a chronic stoner and aspiring art student. And the band you hear on the soundtrack isn't Human League; it's Rush.

And then there's Donnie Darko (2001, R), writer/director Richard Kelly's completely beguiling mind-bender set in 1988. From the baffling opening scenes to the pretzel-logic finale, you get that rare movie experience: You have no idea what's going to happen next. The film–which is part psychological thriller, part sci-fi/horror, part poignant adolescent drama, and often strangely amusing–is Kelly's first feature, and sometimes it shows. It's a little rough, with some scenes dragging on too long and cinematic devices (variable film speeds, bizarre lighting schemes, musical interludes) popping up almost at random. But it holds together partly because of terrific performances in the leads and mostly because Kelly's story and style are mesmerizingly weird.

It's about a mentally disturbed teenager, the eponymous Donnie Darko (October Sky's Jake Gyllenhaal) and his assorted relationships–with his eccentric but close-knit family, with the troubled new girl at his prep school, with his teachers (including an intellectual English instructor played by Drew Barrymore, who also served as the film's executive producer), with his uptight therapist, and especially with a man-sized demonic rabbit who appears to Donnie in quietly terrifying visions. Also lending name-brand support are Patrick Swayze as a syrupy motivational speaker and Noah Wyle as a physics teacher who introduces Donnie to radical theories of time travel. The plot ends up making more sense than you'd expect, in its own strange way–which I actually found oddly disappointing. But as just a taste of its unsettling nerviness, consider the following exchange, which takes place in a darkened theater: Donnie–"Why are you wearing that stupid rabbit suit?"; Rabbit–"Why are you wearing that stupid man suit? Take it off." A few scenes later, at a Halloween party, Donnie shows up...dressed as a skeleton.

What does all that have to do with the 1980s? To be honest, I'm not sure. Kelly's approach is oblique. The film's multiple reference points–the Bush/Dukakis presidential contest, the many nods to Back to the Future and Risky Business (among other '80s films), all those Tears for Fears songs–invoke the era without saying anything specific about it. The suburban dread that underlies the entire narrative is reminiscent of the mounting paranoia Spielberg conjured in E.T., and you could even see the demon rabbit as a perverse refraction of the amphibious alien. (For that matter, Barrymore herself counts as a major '80s reference point.) In a way, the movie might actually be about growing up in the 1980s, funneling all the decade's self-indulgence and gnawing anxiety through one adolescent ego.

In any case, Donnie Darko's messy weirdness, like Whatever's anomie and Wet Hot American Summer's sunny geekiness, is cobbled together from pieces of the world I actually remember. And there's not a Mr. T joke anywhere.

 

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