punk, sex and moral panic: the hidden history of 80s cinema

As a season of films exploring the other side of Reagan's America takes place London’s BFI, curator James Bell shines a light on the filmmakers who strove to keep the flame of the New Hollywood burning.

by James Bell
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16 May 2018, 8:28am

When Ronald Reagan swept to a landslide victory in the 1980 presidential election, it seemed that the countercultural wildfires that had spread across the US since the 60s had finally been stamped out. They had been ignited by such sparks as the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution and the second wave of feminism. The soundtrack had been provided by the rebel yell of rock, soul and funk, and the era was visually represented by the questing visions of ‘New Hollywood’ films like Easy Rider.

The conservative wave that Reagan rode in on -- with its promise to restore Eisenhower-era family values, small government and a harder line against the Soviets -- seemed also to mark a shift in popular culture -- and not least in cinema. American movies of the 80s are usually seen as having thrown aside the character-driven, exploratory spirit of the New Hollywood 60s and 70s in favour of Spielbergian popcorn spectacles, cartoonish Stallone/Schwarzenegger action bombast or high school comedies, with only those New York-based figures like Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver way out on the self-defined indie margins. It’s an impression that’s only been reinforced in the cultural memory by much of the recent run of films and TV. For all their knowing references, watching Stranger Things or Ready Player One you’d be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t an alternative in the Reagan decade to the likes of The Goonies, E.T., Back to the Future and John Hughes.

That’s not to deny the brilliance of those films on their own terms. As with many clichés, there’s a truth behind it, and the 80s were, inescapably, the heyday of the powerhouses such as producer duo Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Their mega-hit titles including Top Gun and Flashdance perfected the ‘high concept’ dictum, which decreed a film should be able to be summed up in a sentence or less.

But what too often gets forgotten is that amid the ‘Morning in America’ reckoning, there were some filmmakers who chose not to wake up, who strove to keep the flame of the New Hollywood burning and make personal films that revealed the other side of Reaganism’s hollow optimism. Just as in music, where a whole system of independent labels, college radio stations and self-published fanzines took a defiant stand against what they saw as the bloated rock mainstream, in the 80s there remained those ‘alternative’ filmmakers who chose a side, and ensured that the spirit of independent US filmmaking survived.

"Amid the ‘Morning in America’ reckoning, there were some filmmakers who chose not to wake up, who strove to keep the flame of the New Hollywood burning and make personal films that revealed the other side of Reaganism’s hollow optimism."

The first great film in this hidden history of 80s American cinema was one made by the man who had been the purest embodiment of the defiant New Hollywood years: Dennis Hopper. Just as Hopper’s 1969 film Easy Rider at once captured the promise and the souring of the dreams of the 60s generation, so his third feature, Out of the Blue, was a bellwether for the frustrations of the new punk kids coming of age at the dawn of Reaganism. Unflinching in the face of uncomfortable subject matter, Out of the Blue boasts one of the truly great performances in then 19-year-old Linda Manz’s portrayal of adolescent punk rocker named Cebe. Living in nowheresville, Cebe was abandoned by everyone from her recently departed heroes Elvis and Sid Vicious, to her junkie mother and abusive father (played by Hopper).

Alongside Elvis and punk, the music heard in Out of the Blue is by Neil Young, whose anthem of nihilism My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) gives the film its title. The song’s line that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” was one famously cited by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note 14 years later, when the pressures of being hailed as a godhead to a now big money ‘alternative’ music scene became too much to bear. But the alternative culture from which Nirvana emerged had once been a place of refuge for socially ostracised misfits like Cobain, and that punk community bled into several films from the 80s. The subject found its auteur in the director Penelope Spheeris, who would go on to have a hit with Wayne’s World in 1992. She had previously established herself as the cinematic chronicler of US punk with her 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilisation, which in turn spawned a fiction feature when the ever-enterprising Roger Corman funded Spheeris’s 1983 film Suburbia. Suburbia follows a number of young outcast punk kids (including Flea, later the bass player with the Red Hot Chili Peppers), who squat a house in a Los Angeles suburb they pointedly call ‘T.R. (‘The Rejected’) House’. The implicit rebuke to Reagan’s much-vaunted ‘family values’ rhetoric was that with social welfare programmes having their budgets slashed, the young outcasts of Reagan’s America would form their own protective family.

Such films weren’t alone in offering an unvarnished flipside to the conservative visions of adolescence familiar from John Hughes movies. Take River’s Edge for instance. Tim Hunter’s 1986 film boasted early starring roles for Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover and others, and was inspired by a real life case of a group of teenagers who learned that one of their classmates had murdered another schoolmate, but even after being shown the body, did nothing to alert adults for days. It was a story that fed the inevitable moral panic about the nihilism and ethical void that marked ‘Generation X’. River’s Edge’s air of bored ennui, and its Pacific Northwest setting, make it easy to imagine that its characters might have been the young Cobain and other Seattle figures who would spearhead the Grunge explosion in the early 90s. And if there was any suspicion that the depiction of such outcast youths was the stuff of sensationalised dramatic license, one need only look at Martin Bell’s heartrending, hauntingly poetic 1984 documentary Streetwise. It follows a group of unforgettably characterful homeless kids who survive on the streets of Seattle by turning tricks, dealing drugs and any other way they can, and which has been cited as a masterpiece by Harmony Korine.

Alternative perspectives in US cinema could also be found if you looked away from the white male norm. Queer directors such as Bill Sherwood, for instance, tackled the unfurling AIDS crisis in his 1986 film Parting Glances at a time when the Reagan administration hardly registered the scale of the tragedy -- much less mainstream Hollywood. And though African American independent cinema was a mostly underground scene under Reagan, at least until the emergence of Spike Lee, films such as Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1984) and Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982) offered richly drawn, intelligent characters far from the stereotypical imaginings of black life found in mainstream Hollywood.

Female filmmakers too made some of the most interesting leftfield films in the 80s. Alongside Penelope Spheeris, there was Joyce Chopra, whose Smooth Talk, based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, was another film that took the 80s teen experience to places John Hughes would never have dared to. Here the sugary comforts of the 1980s coming-of-age drama were spun into a far more unsettling confection, as a brilliant Laura Dern (in her first lead performance) plays a typical 15-year-old Californian with a fledgling sexual awareness, whose attraction to enigmatic older misfit named Arnold Friend brings unforeseen danger. Or there’s the underappreciated Joan Micklin Silver, whose Crossing Delancey injects the wholesome conventions of the romantic comedy with something more richly personal. She does so by setting the story within New York’s Jewish Lower East Side community, as a thirtysomething bookseller with uptown pretensions, named Isabelle (played by Amy Irving), is pushed to choose between a good-hearted downtown pickle seller and a pompous author. What makes films such as Suburbia, Smooth Talk and Crossing Delancey stand apart from the norm is the specificity of their settings, making them rich in the sort of true, well-observed detailing that once marked US cinema of the 60s and 70s.

The distance travelled by many ‘Baby Boomer’ Americans, from the idealism of their 1960s youth to the privileges of their middle-aged ‘Greed is Good’ 1980s, was an uncomfortable truth many had to face. The Talking Heads nailed the feeling in Once in a Lifetime, wherein David Byrne sang “you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” In cinema there were tales of “yuppie angst”, where characters have a sense that there must be something more to life than the financial success so prized by Reaganism. In Albert Brooks’s era-skewing satire Lost in America an advertising exec (played by Brooks) and his wife (a brilliant Julie Hagerty) cash in their “nest egg” home for a Winnebago and set out “ Easy Rider-style” on the trail of a life of youthful freedom that they can never reclaim. That yearning to escape the stifling conformity and apple-pie sameness of the Reagan ideal is also found in such films as Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, in which Jeff Daniels leaves his white-colour New York job and sets out on a wild road trip with Melanie Griffith’s mercurial Lulu, and along the way finds an America more diverse in ethnicity, class, music and character than he ever imagined possible. And in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1986) the buttoned-up hero (Griffin Dunne) embarks on a similar voyage of eye-opening discovery without ever leaving Manhattan.

In Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty the mourning for the lost idealism of the 60s is confronted head on, in its story of a family forced to live as fugitives from the FBI because the husband and wife are former members of a guerrilla group wanted for a bombing in the early 70s. However the real victim here is the couple’s son, played by River Phoenix (in a performance that reminds us just what a great talent was lost by his premature death), who is damned by his parents’ actions into a life on the run, cut adrift from his mainstream peers.

Of course, there are many other overlooked 80s gems to uncover where those cited above come from too -- from 1984 alone, take Alan Rudolph’s romantic roundelay Choose Me or James Bridges’s LA-set thriller Mike’s Murder as just two more examples -- and that’s before we even dare look under the rock at the thriving genre cinema of the era. Exploitation horror and sci-fi films like The Stepfather (1987), Street Trash (1987), John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1988) and Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985) offered some of the most trenchant satire of Reaganism to be found at the time. The 80s may have been the heyday of a certain kind of mainstream conservatism in US cinema, but that only made the dividing line in the culture wars all the clearer. The choice was there: were you with them or not? Mainstream or alternative? Pick your side. There’s a whole hidden history of 80s cinema waiting to be rediscovered.

‘Lost in America: The Other Side of Reagan’s 80s’ runs at BFI Southbank, London, throughout May, with tickets from just £3 for under 25 year olds.