100 American Movies to Save: Setbacks (1984-1987)

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

“Fluffy Bun”John Sedelmaier1984Industrial film
Return to OzWalter Murch1985Narrative feature
Desert HeartsDonna Deitch1985Narrative feature
What Sex Am I?Lee Grant1985Documentary
Star Trek IV: The Voyage HomeLeonard Nimoy1986Narrative feature
“Gap-Toothed Women”Les Blank1987Short
Landscape SuicideJames Benning1987Documentary
Evil Dead IISam Raimi1987Narrative feature
PredatorJohn McTiernan1987Narrative feature
WalkerAlex Cox1987Narrative feature

I am younger than this commercial, and so I was a little taken aback the first time I saw it. It’s not really about Wendy’s and its beef. It’s about other joints and their buns.

The title of this ad is “Fluffy Bun” and not “Where’s the beef?” It happens to have caught on because a particularly good line reading from a particularly tiny lady captured the public imagination. It became the Joe the Plumber of the ’84 Democratic presidential campaign, when Walter Mondale made the subtext of the commercial text by suggesting that Gary Hart’s campaign reminded him of “Where’s the beef?” There’s a universal significance implied in this commercial, partially because “where’s the beef?” is an amusingly vaporous question once you try to pin some meaning to it. In the same way that the commercial isn’t really about the burger, the phrase’s meaning isn’t really about substance. It’s about disappointment. It’s why the old ladies in this commercial make it for me; there’s an intimation of nostalgia here, of burgers that were better in the good old days, of cows that were more nutritious, of food that had savor. Again, there’s more irony in the fact that the Democrats were the ones who were squabbling over the beef, because in 1984, Ronald Reagan was the second half of this commercial. No matter how old those bones were, it was Morning in America for his campaign in that year. Rather than focusing on what wasn’t there, Reagan gave the people a picture of that glossy, rotating burger with a smaller bun and more prominent meat. Ergo.

When I was young, before I had seen The Wizard of Oz, an aunt loaned me a number of the Oz books; I probably read about half of them while I was still in elementary school. I didn’t see Return to Oz until I was in my mid-20s, and it’s why, anecdotally, I have a different take on this movie than the rest of the Internet. I came in with The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz in my head already, and so none of the characters in this film were, strictly speaking, new to me. I was prepared for Jack Pumpkinhead and the Nome King and the Gump, even delighted by them.

On their self-titled debut album, Scissor Sisters have a song called “Return to Oz,” which does a pretty good job of expressing the plot points of this film with a little smidgen of crystal meth involved. They also have a cover of “Comfortably Numb” which sounds absolutely nothing like the Pink Floyd standard; it’s why their cover of “Comfortably Numb” is my standard when I talk about what makes a good cover. Return to Oz is famously disappointing, creepy, whatever, and in terms of quality even I wouldn’t suggest that it comes close to the 1939 Wizard of Oz. But it’s not trying to be The Wizard of Oz for the same reason that Scissor Sisters didn’t make a cover of “Comfortably Numb” where Babydaddy tries to do a David Gilmour impression: how could it compare? Return to Oz is about as original as an Oz sequel could be, from dropping Toto for Billina or making Dorothy closer to ten years old than twenty.

A few months ago, I called The Wizard of Oz the 77th best American movie of all time. I had Desert Hearts 78th. There are some movies that I think belong in the National Film Registry for historical meaning, representational meaning, artistic meaning, or any combination of the three. Desert Hearts hits all three of those about as well as any of the other ninety-nine movies I’ve got on this list. Here we have one of the fifteen best American movies of the 1980s, one of those remarkable stories which reveals itself subtly even if its intended audience must have known pretty plainly what they were getting into. It’s not just that we know that becoming divorcee Vivian will ultimately fall for Cay once she gives in. It’s that it happens at exactly the right moments, at precisely the right intervals. Vivian gives in to Cay in the middle of a desert rainstorm, wearing her country western best after a party. Dressed differently, in a new place, Vivian finds herself in the feel of Cay’s lips. It’s not just that Cay’s guardian, Frances, is disapproving in the extreme of Cay’s homosexuality and irate that Vivian “encourages” it. It’s that Frances’ objections are grounded in the contemporaneous sexual morality, and those are standards that she cannot attain. She was the mistress of Cay’s father, and thus she lacks even the moral high ground of the time when she tries to scathe her not-quite-daughter. It’s not just that Desert Hearts ends ambiguously, for it’s difficult to imagine a realistic scenario in which Vivian and Cay can remain together without both of them sacrificing every square inch of the rest of themselves. It’s that it ends happily anyway. The craft in this screenplay makes me prayerful.

Thinking about Lee Grant got me thinking about who would hold the belt for documentarians over the past sixty years or so, which I’m sure I will incept myself into doing one of these days. With the greatest respect for Errol Morris and Rob Epstein, the way I feel today, I’d call Grant the most important American documentary filmmaker of the 1980s. Her documentaries from this decade come in at an hour or less, for the most part, and while there’s a sensationally journalistic quality in the subject matter—domestic abuse! institutionalized poverty! sexism in the workplace! trans individuals!—the documentaries are the furthest thing from sensational. There’s urgency in them, but they are not exploitative; Grant and her camera are really focused on the interviewees she finds as people. In some ways, these are just fancy episodes of 60 Minutes, as they’re on-the-spot reports on significant political questions. In other ways, especially in What Sex Am I?, you really get the sense that Grant is listening with both ears. Like Word Is Out did in the ’70s, What Sex Am I? clarifies for the 1980s that trans people are people. This doesn’t attain the artfulness of a The Thin Blue Line, but that’s not really what Grant’s film is after. She’s interested in her interviewees’ past, but almost like a friend she wants to know about their present, how they interact with their children, what their jobs are, what their hobbies are. A movie this ruddy sure makes the similarly “journalistic” dreck on Netflix feel pale by comparison.

The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock are a tight pair. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, is the last leg of the trilogy and one that barely fits into the model of the first two. Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the gang have to answer for their mutinous business in the last film at the end of this movie, and of course they’re in a position to solve a problem on Earth because they’re on Vulcan, but other than that…it’s a weird fit! On the other hand, no one who has ever watched this movie cares how weird the fit is, and it has a position in the franchise which really dates the movie. Everyone likes it. Maybe among the more vituperative Trekkies you can find partisans for First Contact or The Undiscovered Country or Wrath of Khan (raises hand), you can find aesthetes who prefer The Motion Picture, and you can find fake fans who raise the J.J. Abrams Star Trek highest. But this movie is simply beloved, which is just not a point of view I can find in MCU or Star Wars or DCEU or Harry Potter fandoms. More importantly, The Voyage Home predates the wave of environmental science-fiction that broke the box office in the late ’00s, and not just in the year of release. Where WALL-E and Avatar have to look into the distant future, The Voyage Home makes environmental thinking the responsibility of people in 1986, not the responsibility of people in centuries to come. No matter how much other movies scold the present-day audience for allowing a brown Earth in the future, The Voyage Home makes the case for people in 1986 to act like they know the future to come, not to feel bad about the future to come because they blew it in the present day. It’s become a popular mem to suggest that WALL-E brings the people of the Axiom back to Earth to die; The Voyage Home is about making the decision to live and to thrive right now.

I don’t care how cliché it is to smile all the way through a movie about teeth. I did it with “Gap-Toothed Women” anyway. It’s such a perfect idea for a short documentary, something which may not be able to fill a feature length but which is completely riveting at about half an hour. It’s a genius display of creativity and editing, and it also happens to be about as delightful and independent a document as I’ve ever seen about body positivity. It’s a concept I struggle with; it’s a concept that I’m sure most Americans struggle with. Yet without being strident or nagging or boastful or boisterous, “Gap-Toothed Women” is about developing a genuine comfort with a nonstandard physical feature. No one in this documentary, neither filmmakers nor interviewees, is asking you to find the gap between front teeth to be desirable or beautiful. (It was not a feature I’d ever really given thought to, but one that I found enticing within the first five minutes of the film.) It happens because everyone is so frank about their gaps, so willing to talk about it, so willing to discuss how they’ve experienced their lives with orthodontists and historical figures, with sexual partners and strangers. Body positivity is at its best when it has to do with personal comfort within that body, and the ultimate comfort that most of these women feel about their gaps is comforting to watch, too.

In the first post in this series, I talked about the suitability of the bison as one of America’s symbols. In this one, we have to approach another one of America’s symbolic figures: the murderer. In the second post in this series, The Devil and Daniel Webster creates a jury of the many savage, violent men who already populated America’s short history. Those people have faded into the past. In the mid-80s, the new members of such a jury were known well to the average audience: Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac Killer. James Benning, in Landscape Suicide, emphasizes the surprising similarities between two obviously unlike murderers. One, the teenaged Bernadette Protti, a recent killer who had only one corpse to her name, killed with a relatively mundane instrument. The other, Ed Gein, who had been memorialized in Psycho and had a number of scalps and other interesting body parts. Benning’s movie is one in two halves, though both are made pretty much identically. Using the confessions and testimonies of Protti and Gein, the actors then speak those confessions as if they were the killers. It’s a methodical film, as Benning’s films are, and it’s a dry film as well. Landscape Suicide starts with an extended sequence of someone hitting tennis balls, and it does not work hard to draw your attention. That doesn’t stop the film from becoming riveting once one gets on the same wavelength as Benning. In that methodical way, stripped of scary background music or spectacular crime scene photographs, he comes as close as you can get to desensitizing something as inherently sensitive as murder. Landscape Suicide is “what happened” with a period after it instead of a string of question marks and exclamation points.

Save your question marks and exclamation points for Evil Dead II.

In All That Jazz, Erzsébet Földi and Ann Reinking perform “Everything Old Is New Again,” dancing to Peter Allen’s rendition in one of my absolute favorite dance routines in any film. In Evil Dead II, Bruce Campbell does a choreographed performance on a similar theme, except instead of an impeccable and adorable pas de deux, he’s losing a fight against his own hand. I go blue in the mouth saying it, but cinema is a visual medium first and foremost, and how an actor looks is simply going to matter more than how an actor sounds. Campbell sounds great in those sequences where he’s fighting with his hand (sometimes attached to his body and trying to throttle him, sometimes crawling around like a very naughty cat who is exquisitely pleased with himself), but how he looks is just terrific. When Campbell and Sam Raimi go back to the possessed hand well in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it was emblematic of everything that’s joyless and canned in the MCU. It’s a food fight with himself in that recent film. In Evil Dead II, he’s doing work that would have even gotten Buster Keaton to crack a smile.

It’s a shame, looking back at it, that the Alien franchise and the Predator franchise have had to come into contact with one another. Not only has this put the Predator franchise at a relative disadvantage given how good Alien is and how middling most of the Predator sequels have been, but those two entities are really not working on the same principles. Alien is Halloween on a spaceship. Predator is a metaphor for post-World War II American imperialism. One of these things is not like the other! When Dutch gets this assignment to enter the jungle, he does so with two misconceptions. The first is that Dillon, representing the American government, has been essentially truthful with him about the real purpose of this mercenary mission. The second is that he and his team will be able to handle what’s there. Dutch was a soldier in the Vietnam War; “fool me once” and so on. What he and his team of macho men believe will be a manageable mission for loosely humanitarian purposes turns into an all-timer of a SNAFU, one with a monster on the other end who is quite literally FUBAR. (See “What the hell are you?!” for further proof.) What’s in the jungle is much more dangerous and canny than the Americans can manage, striking from nowhere and forcing his prey to adjust to him rather than allowing these men to play by their own rules. The only one who adjusts in time is Dutch, which is why he alone makes it to the choppa.

Did someone say American incursions into Latin America? Even Spike Lee would be envious of the blatant, forceful ways that Alex Cox uses anachronism and direct address to show the connection between past and present in Walker. While Nicaragua was fighting a domestic war, Cox went there to film his movie about an American who invaded the country in order to turn it to the interests of American capital. Cornelius Vanderbilt is an easier figure to personify than “the tentacles of American free enterprise at the tail end of the Cold War,” and Peter Boyle plays the Commodore with an appropriately lusty air. Ed Harris wears William Walker like a tailormade suit; he is unremittingly fervid, serious in all things, incapable of allowing a contradiction. He is guided by severe principles and inspired by Manifest Destiny, believing that the United States in all of its tentacular glory ought to spread itself atop the other nations of the continent. He does his part as well as he can in sundrenched, bloody style, but it’s a happier ending (from a global perspective) concerning Walker than it is for Oliver North. Walker loses himself in Nicaragua and dies in vainglorious effort to maintain his presidency. North has been on radio and television and as yet no one has shot him to death.

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