GLORY OF THE 80s: Searching for Meaning

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Time once again for GLORY OF THE 80s! Every week, I look back at the films people were rushing to see during the corresponding week, 35 years ago.

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.


Each of the three films spotlighted on this edition of GLORY OF THE 80s involves some quest for meaning in life. In FOXES, a group of disaffected youths try to make sense of a world in which they feel powerless against authority figures. In THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, a group of soldiers try to find some shred of sanity within their own madness. And in SIMON, a man who believes himself an alien tries to reform the world.

All these heady themes in films that were released in mid-February/early March 1980. Here we go!

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FOXES tells the story of four teenage girls who grow up too fast in California of the mid-1970s. Jeanie (Jodie Foster) is the product of a broken home, Her father is always on the road with rock bands while her mother (Sally Kellerman) tries to balance raising a daughter with enjoying a party lifestyle in spite of her age. Despite not relating to her own mother, Jeanie tries to serve as a mother figure to her group of friends. Madge is shy, sheltered and a ripe candidate for being taken advantage of. Deirdre tries to hook up with as many boys as possible, amusing herself by playing the seductress. And then there’s Annie (Cherrie Curie), the most reckless of the group. Her stepfather is a police officer that beats her regularly. Thus, Annie is always seeking refuge in the world of drugs, alcohol and all night parties. Jeanie imagines that things would be easier if she and her friends only had a place of their own, a place where they could hang out and not deal with school, parents, boyfriends or any of the other things causing stress in their lives.

FOXES was ignored by the public when it was released, but gained a cult following soon afterwards. In a famous photo of the band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain wears a t-shirt with the film’s logo prominently displayed. It was the debut feature for Adrian Lyne, who did some amazing films in his twenty plus year career. For some reason, he has not directed a film since 2002’s UNFAITHFUL and to be honest, I miss him.

If the 1990s had Larry Clark’s KIDS, the 1980s had Adrian Lyne’s FOXES. It was a hard hitting film for the time, portraying all the stress, confusion and heartache of adolescence in the Me Decade with brutal honesty. Foster is great, as usual, giving the type of performance that reminds you she is one of the most talented actresses out there. Most surprising however is the amazing turn by Cherie Currie as the troubled Annie. Currie was best known as the lead singer of the Runaways. After the band imploded, Currie pursued an acting career. FOXES marked her screen debut and she’s a revelation. She may have been channeling some of her own life experiences and through Currie, Annie becomes the most tragic, realistic and sympathetic character of the FOXES quartet. Though Currie is a legend in music, she was never able to get a role as meaty and suited to her again.

Every film is a product of the time in which it was made. Hence, FOXES is clearly stuck in the post-disco era. The slang terminology coupled with what were hard hitting issues of the day make it feel like another planet, even if there are still plenty of themes to relate to. Where the film really falters is in the girls’ encounters with adults. There are some big eye-rolling moments with parents. Madge’s mother already agrees to get a keg for a group of underage girls to have a party but is horrified to learn that some of the girls may be drinking harder liquor. For a party girl, Kellerman’s dialogue shows her being amazingly out of touch with the modern world. This culminates in a ridiculous line where she corrects Jeanie’s grammar, pleading, “What is ‘yeah?’ Whatever happened to ‘yes?’” And then there’s Madge’s relationship with an older man (Randy Quaid) which features an argument in which he bellows “Please come back here so I can beat you up.”

This should not diminish some of the great things in the film, particularly the scenes involving Jeanie and Annie. FOXES might have felt like a bucket of cold water splashed on the face of the “life’s a party” mindset when it came out. Now, it seems like a film that has some real insight, underneath the unmistakable markers of a bygone era.  Recommended.

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THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (a.k.a. TWINKLE TWINKLE, KILLER KANE) – Towards the end of the Vietnam War, the United States military saw a surge in soldiers manifesting signs of psychosis. In order to determine whether these men were simply faking their illness to get out of combat, several experimental clinics were established. It is at the last of these clinics, set up in a gothic castle, that the soft spoken Col. Kane (Stacy Keach) finds himself taking command. He seems to take a passive approach to most of the patients as he listens to their ravings. After listening to one of the patients’ theories on Hamlet, he is inspired to attempt a radical new form of therapy.

Early on in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, director William Peter Blatty cameos as a doctor who starts to instruct the new psychiatrist. Soon however, authorities come in and escort Blatty off camera. The real doctor arrives, taking his stethoscope at which point Blatty starts raving. We never see him again. The idea that the man in charge of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is himself too whacked to lead, that the film may be going on without rhyme or reason, is one of the many bits of misdirection designed to keep the audience forever questioning the meaning of what they are watching and the motives of everyone involved.

For much of the film, the prisoners run riot throughout the castle, never hurting one another, but indulging in their own delusions. There seems to be no sense of order. They are able to indulge their fantasies and interrupt Kane whenever they see fit. A lieutenant (Jason Miller) takes on the persona of a theatre director trying to translate the complete works of Shakespeare for dogs. An African-American major (Moses Gunn) walks around in a Superman outfit, sometimes substituting the “S” for an “N.” A captain (George DiCenzo) claims to possess multiple personalities, one of whom angrily tries to “punish the atoms” when they will not allow him to pass through walls.

And then there’s Capt. Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who Kane takes an express interest in. Unlike the rest of the group, Cutshaw is not a soldier but an astronaut, one who had a nervous breakdown shortly before he was to leave on a solo mission to the moon. Kane and Cutshaw have discussions, sometimes lucid and sometimes severely bent, about faith, God and the man’s place in the universe. It is within this relationship that THE NINTH CONFIGURATION becomes more than a series of vignettes. It becomes something incredibly touching and insightful, even when Kane’s own demons are brought to the surface.

Is THE NINTH CONFIGURATION a comedy? A drama? A psychological mystery? A philosophical treatise on the meaning of life? The answer to all of this and more is “yes/” But more than that, it marks the second of Blatty’s “faith trilogy,” one that started with THE EXORCIST and concluded in EXORCIST III (whose original novel ditched the Roman numeral and was simply titled LEGION). It does not preach to the viewer, instead choosing the far more effective method of making the viewer think and possibly search their own soul for answers.

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is incredible from start to finish. The cast is a neverending parade of amazing and underappreciated actors. The film never ceases to be fascinating in one way or another. It’s an unheralded classic and one of the greatest films ever made.  The Best.

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SIMON – Somewhere in the United States, there is a think tank of scientists, funded by the government in a manner so complete and secretive that no one knows what goes on inside the facility. The original intent was for the scientists to think of ways to solve the world’s problems like war and famine. Instead, like bored and selfish children, they use their station to subvert the world while laughing at the results. These include tampering with Nielsen ratings in order to keep only the worst TV shows on the air, and replacing the Richard Nixon that went to China with a clone.

Inspired by people’s belief in extraterrestrials, they bring Simon (Alan Arkin) into their ranks. Simon is a college professor with big dreams and a big heart but not a great deal of rationality. Inviting him in as one of their own, the scientists instead experiment on Simon, introducing false memories that cause Simon to believe he is a being from another planet. Simon quickly gets too big for his britches by deciding he is there to lead the Earth into an enlightened age. After the think tank’s attempts to restrain him backfire, Simon escapes and starts beaming his message to the masses by hacking into telecommunications satellites. He gives new commandments to do away with the modern era’s petty annoyances and becomes a messianic figure.

SIMON was the directorial debut of Marshall Brickman, who in addition to a long and storied television career, co-wrote some of Woody Allen’s best films (SLEEPER, MANHATTAN, ANNIE HALL). He’s a very talented writer and SIMON is full of interesting ideas. It’s different, wild and smart. What SIMON isn’t is funny, which is the most crucial component of a comedy. Throughout the film, one gets the feeling that the film read funny on paper but it just didn’t translate to the screen.

Arkin, who was great the year before in THE IN-LAWS, gets a character that works for him but only for those moments when everything is in sync. This is sadly not terribly often, especially once Simon gets the alien whammy by the think tank.  The tank itself is made up of some amazing character actors, including William Finley, Wallace Shawn, Max Wright and Austin Pendleton, the latter of which runs away with the film’s most amusing, well-rounded and on-point performance.

Films exist in phases. There’s the script, the direction and the editing. All of these need to work in order for the film to be a success. SIMON is a film that has the first step down, but flounders on steps two and three.  Disappointing.


That’s it for this week, but I still need your help! If you have any newspaper ads, clippings or information about 1980’s release dates in some area of the country, please send me an email at moviocrity@gmail.com. I will try to incorporate them in the series. Remember, we only have data on a couple of areas of the United States but are always looking to get as clear a picture as possible. You can help!

COMING SOON!

  • Sissy Spacek goes from poor girl to musical superstar!
  • Two cops look for love in all the wrong places!
  • Bud Cort experiments with education, Communism and life on the edge of the world!

ALL OF THIS AND MORE, NEXT TIME IN GLORY OF THE 80S!

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