100 American Movies to Save: Sneers (1978-1984)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

Dawn of the DeadGeorge A. Romero1978Narrative feature
Real LifeAlbert Brooks1979Narrative feature
The WarriorsWalter Hill1979Narrative feature
PopeyeRobert Altman1980Narrative feature
The FogJohn Carpenter1980Narrative feature
Melvin and HowardJonathan Demme1980Narrative feature
PolyesterJohn Waters1981Narrative feature
MissingCosta-Gavras1982Narrative feature
The Dark CrystalFrank Oz and Jim Henson1982Narrative feature
A Soldier’s StoryNorman Jewison1984Narrative feature

Dawn of the Dead is the least of the four Living Dead films, and perhaps even the least keen of the group. There’s a good case to be made that no white filmmaker in America has ever made a movie with a sharper understanding of racial politics than George Romero did with Night of the Living Dead. Day of the Dead is the most important postcolonial horror movie in American history, even more than Creature from the Black Lagoon, answering not just that the subaltern zombie can speak but that he can speak coherently. And Land of the Dead is sorely underappreciated, a vision of class warfare to come. Compared to that, Dawn of the Dead and its mall setting are a little understated for my tastes. Living in the mall and having access to basically all the consumer dreams of the inflation-stricken late ’70s stand as strong critiques, just not as generational ones.

I’ve ultimately opted for Dawn because of a vibe. Horror is a young person’s genre, as much because young people are drawn to horror as a genre as it is that much of the genre is targeted at them. Dawn of the Dead sits at this position between the popular horror of the 1970s and the popular horror of the 1980s. Like the best horror of the ’70s, Dawn is about the horror of being an adult more than the horror of being a child. The Exorcist is scary not because puberty is horrifying to its preteen star, but because puberty is horrifying to the adults watching it happen to kids; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about adults striking out on their own only to find that they’ve got a Vietnam War in their backyard. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is about an adult woman gaslighted (or not!) by her husband and his friends; Eraserhead speaks for itself. With Halloween and Carrie, the shift towards horror about teenagers begins in earnest, a change that’s evident in most of your favorite horror flicks of the ’80s and their many sequels. Dawn of the Dead is a fulcrum, using the mall to infantilize and relax the adult characters who ought to know better than to let their guard down in the midst of an ongoing emergency. At the same time, it takes place in a setting which is just as familiar in Valley Girl or Fast Times at Ridgemont High; the horror of the mall comes first before it becomes a home away from home.

“Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We have four of those.” It’s a deranged countdown, and it’s a sign of things to come in Real Life. In 2022, even children understand that the fact of observing something is going to affect how the observed party behaves. In 1979, when Real Life was released, this truth seems to have been reserved primarily for specialists and Albert Brooks. What a William Labov knew from experience—that people alter their speech when they know you’re trying to study their natural speech patterns—Brooks must have known instinctively. No one creating a mockumentary in the several decades since has ever reckoned like Brooks does with the inclination of the camera to bewitch, bother, and bewilder. Not Christopher Guest, not anyone at NBC in the mid-late 2000s, not Sacha Baron Cohen, not even my beloved folks at Documentary Now!: no one. There’s a good argument to be made that even the people making documentaries don’t realize this power like Brooks does. The focus of Real Life is ostensibly on a documentarian who insists on molding this family he’s observing into a more compelling story, which I’m sure must have rung true for the Maysles once upon a time. But the Maysles or D.A. Pennebaker or their progeny didn’t put themselves into the movie more than they had to. They didn’t hide, but they were not the story. It’s impossible not to be the story when you see strange Ettinauer sprites bustling around the house, dropping themselves into each other’s shots and being carried out of a burning house to the music of Max Steiner.

Gene Kelly could be the lead in a razzle-dazzle musical with marvelous costumes and footwork and gags and dames, but he’d find a way to cast an umbrella as his chief co-star. David Patrick Kelly could be the chief antagonist in a film with a mythic background and staggering backdrops, where fight choreography and fodder for a thousand Halloween costumes intermingle, and he’d find a way to bring on three empty beer bottles as backup singers for his ballad.

The Warriors was released in 1979, a few years after the Zapruder film debuted on late night television; its predecessor, a novel of the same name, was published about a year and a half after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. What if we got the wrong man? is the question that has hovered over the Kennedy assassination and the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald almost since afternoon’s end on November 22, 1963. What if we got the wrong gang? is the question posed by The Warriors, a thought which is made even more chilling because the actual assassin, Luther, is the one who points the finger at the proud children of Coney Island. Cyrus, who had the power to bring a kind of peace to New York City (and which honestly kind of sounds good to me? maybe Roger Hill was a great actor?), was gunned down and his murder immediately set the dogs on someone else. The Warriors is a film which, in the wake of Jim Garrison, dares to bring justice against the actual perpetrators and dreams of a sunlit morning on the beach for Lee Harvey Oswald.

There are four Robert Altman movies in the National Film Registry: Nashville, M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye. I understand that it probably sounds insane to suggest that Popeye is the one they’re missing. I’ll see you insane and go for insulting; I’d rather have Popeye here than M*A*S*H or The Long Goodbye. Popeye is the American Amarcord, partly because Altman janked the DP from Amarcord, Giuseppe Rotunno, for this film, partly because the film’s Mediterranean set recalls the Adriatic placement of Amarcord, and partly because American memory of the 1930s means Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s a nonsense world populated with nonsense people who occasionally land on moments of stunning clarity. “Burgers can’t be choosers,” after all, which might be why Popeye speaks to a picture frame representing his father but does so without a picture to look at, just a label. Jules Feiffer possesses a gift for absolutely mangling language, a power shared by people like Stephen Sondheim and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Sondheim: “And then in bed, George, I mean he kneads me, I mean like dough, George!” Feiffer almost outdoes them when Bluto cries that Sweethaven is going to get taxed into oblivion, bellowing that finally they will be “thumb taxed!”

Hey, speaking of cheerful little seaside towns in films directed by masters who don’t have nearly enough recognition from the National Film Registry:

The imagination of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is reminiscent of the imagination of John Carpenter; the monkey ghosts of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives bear a wonderful resemblance to the ill-fated sailors of The Fog who have returned to exact their revenge on Antonio Bay. But Carpenter is not Weerasethakul. These dark beings with glowing eyes are not a benign mystery thriving separate from the world of human beings, but men who understand they died because avaricious men would not let them live. When I talk about religious American directors, I usually keep it to Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese, but shame on me for not more frequently bringing John Carpenter into that mix. Starman is plain about its messianism, Vampires is a more Catholic horror movie than The Exorcist, and Prince of Darkness is about the Satan of the Christian tradition. The Fog, in which supernaturally empowered ghosts scythe the undeserving living beneficiaries of ill-gotten gains, is just the story of the sins of the fathers. In Exodus, it is said that God will punish the children of a guilty man into the third or fourth generation. Malone, the last of the townspeople to die because of what a grandfather had done, is just Exodus brought to death. That this is an American story, set in Northern California, makes this the most original morality tale from our continent since Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon.

Melvin and Howard sounds a lot like Harry and Tonto or Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is why I always imagined this to be the story of a boy and his precocious iguana. It is not that.

Howard Hughes, a gazillionaire who was famously erratic but who was also a Hollywood patron of productions and pretty girls alike, has been an object of fascination for filmmakers going back to the 1940s. Max Ophuls made Caught with Robert Ryan in the Hughes role, and I thought about including that one until I realized that I had this and The Aviator on my shortlist. Suffice it to say that we don’t really need three pretty specific Howard Hughes movies on this list, and Melvin and Howard is the lone survivor. It’s the one that is absolutely the least about Howard Hughes, who appears in the first few scenes, haunts the dreams of young Paul Thomas Anderson, and then is basically unheard of for the rest of the movie. This is really about Melvin Dummar, a milk delivery man who is not really good or bad; Paul Le Mat plays him as if Milner from American Graffiti was allowed to reach middle age, or if we could hear the loud laments of John Sims from The Crowd. Melvin is mostly an amiable sort who is not capable of getting ahead. He doesn’t have it in him, and yet he doesn’t allow that lack to stop him from trying. The meteor of the American Dream is rescued by its crater, and despite the sudden impact of the bequest that Hughes tried to leave Melvin, his presence is only going to bring about a tremendous absence visible for miles around.

There are hundreds of reasons why Polyester deserves a spot in the National Film Registry, but there’s one revolting, brilliant, silly one that stands out most to me.

When Todd Haynes was just a pup, John Waters was making an incredible response to the films of Douglas Sirk, saying all the things that the well-heeled folks of Sirk films rarely said aloud. Divine was playing Jane Wyman, more or less, the ex-wife of then-president Ronald Reagan. Tab Hunter, almost literally the closest person to Rock Hudson who Waters could have gotten, was paired with Divine in a romance that turns out, alack, to be much too good to be true. Foot fetishists didn’t get anything like this in popular culture again until Quentin Tarantino came to prominence. Like much of Waters’ more plot-heavy work moving forward, such as Hairspray and Cry-Baby, Polyester has a thoroughly entertaining story hanging around like a wallflower a little to the side of the rowdiest dancers. But why Polyester? That I can tell you in one word: Odorama! John Waters just doesn’t stop working to find new ways to engage his viewers, which is one of my favorite qualities in his movies. There’s a fine line between a mere attention-seeker and someone like Waters, who is an attention-getter.

Do you ever just sit around and think about how if Marbury v. Madison had been ruled differently, then we might have had a chance of living in a country with functioning governance? Or if John Quincy Adams were a little less scared of European powers when he wrote the Monroe Doctrine, then the United States might not have purposefully stoked nominally friendly fascist governments in Central and South America? Missing has an unusual angle, an internationally produced film by a Greek-French director distributed by Universal and starring two of America’s great screen actors, Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon, as Americans based on actual Americans. Charlie, Beth, and Ed are all quite normal in their own ways. Ed is a Chamber of Commerce type who basically believes in Bunker Hill and all that jazz; Charlie, for all his pseudo-bohemian airs, is a journalist in Chile in large part because it’s significantly more fun to do journalism there than in New York. Beth is a journalist’s wife in Chile because it’s more fun, etc. None of them are quite capable of believing two things which are obvious to the Chileans, and hopefully to Americans today. First, that a foreign national can be in danger in the midst of a coup just as much as any citizen of that country is. Second, that the American government prizes its national interests (however horrifying they might be) well above the lives of any hippie expat who might stand in its way even for a moment. This is one of the great late Jack Lemmon performances, made once he was a little grizzled and his hair had turned silver. He had worked with Billy Wilder for the last time in the prior year’s Buddy Buddy, closing off an era of his own life and an era of American cinema. It requires him to be fussy again, although the fussiness of a bass player in drag or an invisible corporate stooge negotiating with his bosses is entirely different than the fussiness of a man like Ed Horman. It’s impossible to imagine C.C. Baxter dropping in on Chile from New York City and making meetings with various members of the State Department. Ed Horman does it simply, and more than that does it with expectation. It’s a performance out of line from the Jack Lemmon we expect, and on top of that it’s masterful.

All of these posts have at least one movie that I think is impossible to ignore from a technical or artistic perspective, and here’s this post’s nomination:

The Dark Crystal is a little flat for my tastes; it’s got so much hero’s journey on it that I almost don’t care if some neckbeard wants to show it as a flowchart. Its heroes are also basically unmemorable, competent enough but neither spirited nor personable enough to leave an impression. In that way it’s like The Black Cauldron, another movie made for kids back when they put literal trauma in the Happy Meals. But The Dark Crystal is instantly distinguishable as itself in every frame. I don’t mean that it’s just a really memorable movie, which it is, or that it’s distinctive, which it is, or that its authorship is plain, which is definitely is. I mean that there is not a single millimeter of this film which does not tell us instantaneously that this is The Dark Crystal. In terms of puppetry as an art form, blended with spectacular mise-en-scène, this is as great a triumph as I think we’re ever liable to get again over the course of a whole film. It’s not a great movie, but it’s one of the boldest artistic achievements of its decade. There are moments throughout The Dark Crystal, like the march of the urRu on the Skeksis stronghold or the subtly swift gait of the Landstriders, which are unlike any movements I’ve ever seen on screen before or since. Certainly there are Jim Henson productions I like a lot more than The Dark Crystal, but for everyone sequence in The Great Muppet Caper does something heretofore unseen with puppetry, The Dark Crystal has two or three that makes my eyes adjust how they’re used to physical motion.

A Soldier’s Story has some of the awkwardness of any court case whodunit. It spends more time than it probably should at the outset setting up the sizable cast, the night of the crime, flashbacks, all that stuff. It’s the price you pay when you set up the story in a fairly traditional way. But something I admire about the structure of A Soldier’s Story is its desire to skirt that as well as it can. Its first scene is surprisingly long, a setup in which we’re presented with a Sergeant Waters at his very least. Drunk, stumbling, confused, his death by pistol is one that he may not have been able to prevent if he were sober, but drunkenness sealed his fate. It is the kind of death that seems fitting (if obviously unfair) for a man like Waters. His life was an edifice proclaiming the virtues of canniness and vigilance, if not rectitude or nicety, and on a night where he lets those first two wander, his soul soon follows. The man who managed to win a fight against a younger, stronger, fitter, bigger man by throwing sand into that opponent’s eyes was nowhere to be found. The Waters-Memphis relationship is a Claggart-Budd relationship, and while I wasn’t expecting A Soldier’s Story to riff off Billy Budd, the first sequence allows us to be surprised by it. Likewise Waters’s genuine fondness for the military, which is not hinted at while he’s at the bar, nor his immediate judgment of dark-skinned Black men as the kind of that defame all Black men in the eyes of his white military superiors. The ultimate surprise of A Soldier’s Story is that the identity of the murderer, and thus the court proceedings generally, are pretty thin surprises on their own. Another way to say that is that A Soldier’s Story is exactly what it says it’s about at the top, which any judger of book covers can tell you is no little accomplishment.

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