Magazine | May 6, 2019, Issue

The Eighties: A Sequel

Henry Thomas in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Universal Studios)
To judge by recent pop culture, we miss the decade

Why would you want to purchase a book with a ragged dust jacket and stained pages? More to the point, why would a publisher release a book in which those defects were not the result of use but built into the product?

If you don’t know the answer to those questions, you are unlikely to be an adherent of the current craze for pop culture produced in the 1980s. The book in question, published last fall by the Random House imprint Del Rey Books, is an utterly remarkable object: Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down bills itself as the authoritative guide to the almost universally well-liked Netflix series depicting assorted supernatural phenomena in 1980s-era suburbia.

The book, though, comes close to matching the series for nostalgia value. The publisher must have recognized that it was not enough for the book merely to be about a series set in the ’80s — it had to somehow be of the ’80s. The inside design is spot-on — the chunky, wide typefaces used for headings are instantly identifiable as dating from the decade in question — but even more on point is the intentional wear and tear. The dust jacket — torn on the spine and at the edges — is itself encased in a transparent jacket cover, a touch evocative of a public-library tag sale from, say, 1987. Stamped on the cover is an orange sticker from “Melvald’s General Store,” on which this presumably secondhand book’s condition is identified: “FAIR.” For those who aren’t in on the joke, the publisher helpfully provides a disclaimer. “Don’t freak!” the message reads. “This book is supposed to look worn and torn.”

That says it all, doesn’t it? Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down may represent the ne plus ultra of ’80s nostalgia, but it is one of countless pop-culture products that seek to replicate the stuff we read, watched, and listened to in the ninth decade of the 20th century. Tapping into the same audience that helped resurrect vinyl records, Mill Creek Entertainment’s “Retro VHS” Blu-ray line — including the Chuck Norris thriller Silent Rage (1982) and the John Candy comedy Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989) — presents Blu-ray discs packaged to suggest beat-up VHS boxes. Blockbuster Video may be dead, but its spirit lives on.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks contemptuously of the politics of Ronald Reagan, but, as was made clear in the video footage in which the future congresswoman danced in the style of the cast of 1985’s The Breakfast Club, even she is not immune to the charms of the ’80s. You don’t have to be a Young Republican to be a fan of the entertainment choices available during the Gipper’s presidency. How else to explain the popularity of not just Stranger Things but also the 2017 film version of Stephen King’s It (which, like Stranger Things, meticulously recreated an ’80s-era neighborhood) or Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition? It is a fair bet that many of Ocasio-Cortez’s constituents, like the rest of America, eagerly await Jason Reitman’s sequel to Ghostbusters, which promises not to break in tone or spirit with the original version from 1984. And I wonder: Would Lori Loughlin’s indictment in the still-unfolding college-cheating scandal make such headlines if the actress had not been a staple on the ultimate lame ’80s sitcom, Full House?

Signs of the pending ’80s mania came as early as 2001 — a mere eleven years after the ’80s came to a close! — with the release of Richard Kelly’s stellar supernatural flick Donnie Darko, which, for reasons that could not be justified dramatically, was set in 1988. In the opening sequence, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes to his bicycle to navigate his residential streets — shades of Elliott and company in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — while his mother curls up with a fat hardcover edition of (you guessed it) King’s It. During dinner, the Darko clan hashes out the looming presidential election; Donnie’s sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) expresses her preference for Dukakis.

The craze was confirmed in 2010, when the late writer-director John Hughes — who churned out such ’80s-era favorites as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — was given a royal send-off at the Academy Awards. During a tribute unfolding over a staggering six and a half minutes, former teen stars including Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall tipped their hat to the man who catapulted them to fleeting celebrity. That Hughes was never honored with an Oscar nomination, let alone a win, was tactfully overlooked; all that mattered were the warm and fuzzy feelings his films conjured. Few could miss the fact that major historical revisionism was under way, as it continues to be. The 1987 Goldie Hawn farce Overboard was long considered a debacle of Ishtar-level proportions, but when the film was revived last year as a vehicle for Anna Faris, numerous outlets — including Variety, which should know better — described it as a “classic.” Perversely, the ineptitude of the new Overboard made the old Overboard look better.

Indeed, the current ’80s mania is on some level nothing more than a matter of aesthetics. Even those who did not live through the decade or do not have conscious memory of it can recognize the solid craftsmanship of Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) or Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), or the retro appeal of old-school book and VHS covers. Yet, if we go back to the mass entertainment that prompts our present feelings of nostalgia, a more complicated picture emerges. Simply put: Many movies and TV shows made during that decade ought to be celebrated — not for their elements of rad design but for their surprising wholesomeness.

Gone were the soul-searching sensitivity of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and the aimless intensity of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (1969). Instead, the ’80s gave us a new sort of screen hero: well-adjusted teenagers who, snug and secure in their well-appointed homes, seemed to embody the energy and enthusiasm of Reagan’s “morning in America.” Think of Tom Cruise’s entrepreneur-in-training in Risky Business (1983) or Corey Haim’s automobile-obsessed youth in License to Drive (1988). Meanwhile, in the Back to the Future series and on the sitcom Family Ties, Michael J. Fox proved that by-the-books ordinariness could be popular with audiences, too.

In fact, rare was the ’80s teen comedy in which the traditional family unit was presented as anything but a positive, or at least benign, force. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off features the hero (Matthew Broderick) evading all forms of authority, but he has no particular animus toward his elders; after all, the elaborate sound-effects system through which he fools his father is installed in his bedroom in his parents’ home! And, in the surprisingly sharp and funny License to Drive, Corey Haim flouts all the rules in his pursuit of wheels, but he is situated firmly within the constellation of a family, including his assertive but tolerant dad (Richard Masur), his daffy, pregnant mom (Carol Kane), and a pair of harmless siblings. This is a family in harmony, more or less. Even when Dad is a Wally World–obsessed fool, like Chevy Chase in the Vacation string of comedies, the family most often ends up where they started: together.

Significantly, a family lacking in two parents was usually seen as a deficit in the cinema of the ’80s. For example, E.T. — a far richer film than anything by John Hughes, let alone License to Drive — touchingly depicts the unavoidable struggles of single motherhood. After her husband has flown the coop, Mary (Dee Wallace) is left to rear her three children, Elliott (Henry Thomas), Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Alas, Mary’s grip on her kids’ comings and goings is so tenuous that she is the last to know of the presence of a space alien in her home. Released two years after E.T., Michael Apted’s Firstborn goes a step further in chronicling the hazards a single mother (Teri Garr) exposes her brood to when she tests the dating waters with a no-good guy (Peter Weller).

That is not to suggest that the decade was all sanctimony or devoid of wit. In Gremlins (1984) and The ’Burbs (1989), director Joe Dante had fun upending our ideas about small towns and cul-de-sacs; the former film remains forever distinguished by the extraordinary monologue in which Phoebe Cates recounts the circumstances of the death of her father, who, while donning a Santa Claus costume one Christmas, accidentally lodged himself in the chimney. Hearth and home were sent up in George Roy Hill’s Funny Farm (1988), but — guess what? — the urbanites at the center of the film (Chevy Chase and Madolyn Smith) ended up staying in Redbud after all.

By the same token, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) has been said to revolve around suburban sprawl — after all, the family in the film has the misfortune of having their house built on what was once an Indian graveyard — but, in the end, the film makes no challenge to the bonds of family. In the final scene, when dad Craig T. Nelson deposits his family in a Holiday Inn and tosses out the television set, he is striking a blow for strong, decisive fathers everywhere. Traditional movie tough guys were fading from the screen — Steve McQueen almost bridged the gap in his last film, The Hunter (1980), playing a flinty, competent bounty hunter who reluctantly partakes in his pregnant girlfriend’s Lamaze exercises — but there were still allowances made for such male authority figures as Sam Elliott in Mask (1985) or Sean Connery (as Indiana Jones’s old-school, disciplinarian dad) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

On the whole, the ’80s ended with as little controversy on screen as they did in real life (with George H. W. Bush besting Dukakis, proving Reagan still reigned supreme). In The ’Burbs, Corey Feldman took stock of the craziness of his neighborhood but still unapologetically pronounced to the camera, “God, I love this street!” The same year of that film, Cameron Crowe — the screenwriter of Fast Times at Ridgemont High — wrote and directed Say Anything, a teen film sketched with rare richness in its depiction of listless but pure-of-heart kickboxer Lloyd (John Cusack), his too-ambitious girlfriend Diane (Ione Skye), and Diane’s father, Jim (John Mahoney), whose retirement-home business collapses thanks to financial misbehavior that catches the eye of the feds. Yet, unlike the makers of such ’90s films as, say, Fargo or The Ice Storm, Crowe declined to indict his characters in particular or middle-class mores in general.

Could it be that our wistfulness for the ’80s represents a thinly disguised wish for the future — a wish for homes on peaceful streets and for moms and dads who have their kids’ interests at heart? During last fall’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, child-of-the-’80s Brett Kavanaugh was widely sneered at for his high-school calendars, some of which included plans to see some of the lesser cinematic achievements of the period, including Grease 2 and Rocky III. Yet, with all their scribblings about athletic events, social get-togethers, and church obligations, those calendars were, as much as any movie of the era, a reflection of the healthy, well-balanced society in which we lived during those years. What are we seeking when we pick up that crazy Stranger Things book? Is it Molly Ringwald and the Ecto-1 we miss? Or could it be a culture in which the warmth and coziness of the middle of the road was, again and again, affirmed?

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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