Whatever Happened to the Present Tense? Paranoid Ramblings on the Revisionist ‘80s (1997)

It’s not often a film comes along with a title that neatly sums up an entire decade, but Back to the Future seems to have done just that for the 1980s. Admittedly, “Forward to the Past” might have done just as well (if not at the box office). But any way you slice it, what with Star Wars 1 -111(The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), Star Trek 1 – VI, Starman, Alien, Aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Tron, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Enemy Mine, Explorers, 2010, for those with a futuristic bent, and Amadeus, Conan the Barbarian, The Colour Purple, A Room With a View, Out of Africa, Gandhi, The Natural, The Cotton Club, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Peggy Sue Got Married, and The Untouchables, for those with more nostalgic hankerings, it took no expert in such quaintly outmoded disciplines as the social sciences to see that the present-tense, for a while at least, was lying low. Even bedrock B-genre expendables, tethered to the here and now, had curiously evanescent roots: at the core of the ‘slasher movies’ was the idea that to be seen was to be killed, to completely disappear, while their ‘puberty comedy’ cousins (devolved from such ’50-set predecessors as Porky’s and Diner) unfolded in a strictly limited phase of adolescent transition.

Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)

Of course, on one level, it was largely a matter of conspicuous consumption. Hollywood’s response to the video-cassette revolution of the ‘80s was not discernibly different from its response to the advent of television in the ‘50s. Whether it be a nifty special-effects parting of the Red Sea or the breaking of a Time Barrier, the wrath of God or the wraiths of his lost ark, the big screen/small screen principle remained the same. What Cinemascope, biblical epics and stereophonic sound was to the ‘50s, Panavision, imperialist sagas and Dolby was to the ‘80s. Add to that the marketing incentive of cheaply reproducible patented plastic playthings from another planet, and the future was ours.

As for the past, besides its being an antique luxury expensive to reupholster, it was also the repository of comfortable myths, faraway depressions, and magnanimously maintained or given-away empires – not to mention missed opportunities itching for redress (Vietnam in Rambo: First Blood Part 11) or guilt’s begging to be laid to rest (Vietnam in Platoon). The sense of history as a mythic and particularly ahistorical stockpile for present wants – fostered at once by a president for whom celluloid battles were the only models for real ones, and by a VCR generation for whom the present was an all-enveloping slot into which could be inserted the temporal tidbit of one’s choice – gave to the past the take-what-you-want ease of a 24 hour convenience store.

The past was also a most convenient dumping ground for present-day conflicts. Problems that were still very much with us could be dressed up, paraded and implicitly ‘resolved’ in some safety bygone near or far corner of the Third World (the Old South in Colour Purple, Harlem in The Cotton Club, India in Gandhi and Passage to…and Africa in Out of…), thus giving us pride in our emphatic progress and belief in its analogous implementation in the future (Places in the Heart transcendentally united black and white, rich and poor, living and dead in silent communion as wine passed from hand to hand and pew to pew of an unspecified church of an unspecified faith in an unspecified time and place.) Requiem in pacet indeed.

Pat solution to life’s everyday problems, a little too corn-fed to be entirely digestible, once bathed in the golden glow of those supposedly simpler times for which Middle America so ardently yearned, regained a spurious realism (Hoosiers). And those inconvenient liberal ‘advances’, too entrenched to be ignored, that formed obstacles in the long march backwards to traditional values could be bypassed by merely pre-dating them. A masterpiece of temporal hypocrisy, Tin Men invited its audience to ridicule ‘outmoded’ forms of greed and sexism while wallowing in their untrammeled display.

Nor can one underestimate the radical political and cinematic pendulum swing from the free-form uncertainties of ‘60s-70s filmmaking. If the ‘60s tended to swamp all epochs in a haze of present-tense-indecisiveness, so that cowboys were apt as bikers to indulge in sudden, off-the-top-of-their-head pondering on the meaning or absurdity of whatever was going down, certainly one could accuse the dramatic personae of Conan, Star Wars, Silverado or, for that matter, Sophie’s Choice, of any excesses of improvisational brainstorming. And the freeze-frame endings that suspended all ‘60s solutions in who-knows?, yet-to-be-worked-out mid-gesture shamelessly gave way to wrap-up wish-fulfilments (hugs often, kisses sometimes, and, in the case of Steven Spielberg, apotheosis always) or triumphant, if temporary, survival (ya gotta leave room for the sequel).

The Shrinking Here and Now

Still, in and of themselves, these factors seem sufficient to explain the inexorable inflation of things past and future in Hollywood A-type movies and the curious shrinking of anything that took place in the present. When they didn’t transpire in an unchanging isolated pocket of ‘timeless’ America, where only the cars were dated (Murphy’s Romance), contemporary movies seemed to paint themselves into smaller and smaller corners of some underpopulated nothing-out-of-place sitcom set with all of the spontaneous charm of a microwave oven (Kramer Vs Kramer, Mr Mom, Legal Eagles)

For, paradoxically, in an era of rampant Reagan econoptimism, the present seemed a boring, even bleak place to live when unleavened by a generous dollop of time travel to liven up the proceedings. In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox had to transport himself to the pre-natal ‘50s to stake claim to the middle-class birthright (money, the ‘right kind’ of parents and a TransAm) of which he had so inexplicably been cheated (not being born middle-class apparently making him an unfortunate freak of nature or, taken one step further with Tom Cruise in All the Right Movies, a sojourner in a Calvinist purgatory from which, arbitrarily and even unfairly, only a football scholarship could win deliverance). Only a 1920s baseball team in the middle of his 1989 Iowa cornfield can save Kevin Costner in Fields of Dreams from his fear of being like his father and growing old before his time. The Ghostbusters desperately need help from beyond to bolster their flagging economy and improve their non-existent sex lives. For a lovely young widow, life before Starman (who has come in response to the Earth’s beamed message to the galaxies: ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’) was just repeated viewing of old home movies; afterwards, of course, it was previews of coming attractions. In a somewhat more sardonic mode, a bunch of young kid Explorers took the idea of running away from home to seek adventure to its logical intergalactic conclusion only to find a society of alien couch-potatoes worshipping at the altar of old sitcom reruns.

Yet the future didn’t look any too rosy either. Dune was a monochromatic nightmare of pulsating genitalia and free-form excretion. Blade Runner’s densely overpopulated street scenes made rush-hour Tokyo seem a haven of peace and quiet. The barren future-shock landscape of Mad Max was hardly designed to sell Qantas seats (not even cats and dogs made it to the 2000s, much less kangaroos and koalas). Most future societies were encountered on the brink of some or another apocalyptic internecine warfare. The heroine of The Terminator bravely undergoes countless gruelling trials to assure the advent of a horrendous post-nuclear world just marginally better than the End Of All Life As We Know It. With a president for whom World War 111 was a throwaway gag (‘We start bombing in five minutes’) and Armageddon as casual a subject of conversation as the weather, it was hardly surprising that wholesale death and destruction should loom large on the horizon.

Indeed, the future or the past, aside from affording the perfect occasion for unending conflict and simple-minded and/or hindsight heroics – either on the ground that War is Fun (‘blow up the troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile’: denied his student loan, the hero of The Last Starfighter cheerfully abandons mother, home, country and planet for the opportunity to play his favourite wargame ‘for real’), or on the principle that Struggle is Uplifting (the widow, the black and the blindman buck the odds in Places in the Heart, the heroine in A Passage to India, by her last minute repudiation of a totally false, not to mention historically inverted, charge of rape, ‘teaches her Indian victim the true meaning of courage’) – had little to offer in the way of gratification. Which, after all, was precisely the point.

The Home-Shopping Network

For, strange to say, all Hollywood’s time, money and special-effects were invested not in imagining something better than the present, but in providing a suitable vantage point from which the present could be truly appreciated. No one really wanted to go elsewhere, just change temporal perspective a bit in order to marvel anew at the here and now. It’s little wonder that It’s a Wonderful Life became the film of the ‘80s: Frank Capra’s time-travel parable toyed with the irreversible causality of parallel universes solely in order to indulge in an orgy of thankfulness for things never changing – thereby providing the inspirational blueprint for everything from Back to the Future to Peggy Sue Got Married. During the long holiday season, one could create one’s own edit of It’s a Wonderful Life by simply switching back and forth among the three or four or six TV channels that were airing it at any given hour. The underlying unshakeable belief in the inherent superiority of the present was so accepted it became a joke – pop-top cans and twist-off caps stood for the jaw-dropping advances of the last 40 years (Philadelphia Experiment, Back to the Future), while cherry cobblers and hands-on sex appeared a more than acceptable trade-off for any future expanded intelligence and an end to all wars (Starman).

It was less a matter of a different time than of an additional time, a second world to validate or compliment our own. For the whole idea behind these films seemed to be to transport simultaneous alternatives to mutually exclusive realms that cannot historically, yet do magically, share the same frame. Whatever the oppositional pairings – primitive, ‘natural’ society vs. so-called civilization (Emerald Forest, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Crocodile Dundee), Us vs Them (the crew of Star Trek endlessly encountering differences the better to ruthlessly and repetitively remain the same), past vs present (Philadelphia Experiment, Peggy Sue Got Married, Eddie and the Cruisers), or the in-house variations of transtemporal chic, the silver screen vs.‘reality’ (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Three Amigos!, The Purple Rose of Cairo) – two worlds were definitely better than one.

Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen 1985)

Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen 1985)

Not exactly coincidental, the manifest absurdities of this schizophrenic one-from-planet-A, one-from-planet-B Chinese Menu vision of options manically played themselves out in a couple of Carl Reiner’s most successful Steve Martin vehicles. All of Me crammed two mutually exclusive sexual identities into a body that could patently hold only one and let them spastically fight it out, while Man With Two Brains separated such seemingly inseparable components as mind and body then sent its hero out in a frenzy of ingenuity to try to get them back together again.

Between Two Worlds

Of course the second world, particularly when it was that present, didn’t have to be spelled out – the aggressive anachronisms of Bill Murray in The Razor’s Edge were just the tip of the very self-conscious iceberg. If Johnny Dangerously deliberately set out to wreak present-tense havoc on ‘30s gangster films in parodic salute, City Heat’s rationale for not fitting the wildly anarchic performances of Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood into any recognizable ‘30s mold (in the process giving new meaning to the phrase ‘chewing up the scenery’) seemed to be pure Anachronism for Anachronism’s sake. And such individual or generic remakes as Cat People, Against the Odds or Body Heat signally declined to either update or back up their social contexts, complacently treading water in a sea of deathless formalism.

Indeed, in many ways, to be vague was to allow further time-fudging on the cake. Harrison Ford’s aptly-dubbed Solo persona in the Star Wars trilogy was an indispensable atavistic (or, since the saga supposedly took place in the far-distant past, futuristic) catalyst to an otherwise excruciatingly monosyllabic functionalism. And his more-Aryan-than-thou anthropologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark got to roam untrammeled by any World War 11 limitations (only the bad guys are stuck in their era’s delusions, while the heroes are beyond all that in the realm of eternal Judeo-Christian truth). Yet, in both cases, time-travel served to erase whatever unease might have been caused by the intrusion of a very ‘40s version of heroism whose place in the current scheme of things would otherwise have been highly problematic (c.f. Harrison Ford in the comparatively naturalistic setup of Witness, where, due to the explicitness of the 19th century Amish vs. 20th century urban cop clash of values, Ford didn’t get to keep the girl, or, more importantly in an ‘80s film, the kid).

The benefits to be reaped from the two-world alternation were many and varied. At the very least, it provided a Wizard of Oz-type ‘it’s good to be back in Kansas’ relief, and, often as not, a lesson to be learned along the way. Even if the apparently liberal education of such ecological excursions into things primeval as Emerald Forest, Sheena and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes were sometimes more than a little undermined by a fanatical emphasis on family (carried to its reductio ad absurdum in Greystoke, which espouses Darwinism over Creationism the better to extol the apish virtues of the nuclear unit), Poltergeist’s convincing family nightmare of a housing development devoured by its uprooted Native American dead lingered long and hard on the mind.

Who Says You Can’t Have It All?

Frequently the two worlds fostered mutual aid societies, so that primitives could heal the wounds of civilizations and civilizations reciprocate by blowing would-be exploiters out of the water (Sheena, Emerald Forest) or the present lend its makeshift improvisational talents to more ‘advanced’ civilizations too dependent upon logic to be flexible, but loaded with useful weaponry-sorcery in a pinch (Star Wars, Star Trek, Time Bandits). Among the more obvious advantages could certainly be counted the ability to have your apple pan dowdy(Starman) or Reese’s Pieces (E.T.) in the sky and eat it too. Even as classy a Pinter-scripted vehicle as French Lieutenant’s Woman managed to have both a ‘happy’ and a ‘realistic’ ending – to the cinematically reconstructed past go the spoils of romantic love, to the responsible present go the claims of prior relationships and wife and kiddies.

Then again, the cigar could explode in one’s face – the heroine in Purple Rose of Cairo dutifully chose reality over illusion, the actor over the celluloid hero, only to find that Hollywood doesn’t keep its promises on any level. For, often as not, the second world was in fact a secondary one, a mere supplier of raw material, any real exchange or interplay denied from the outset. Radio Days, set up as a dialogue between the ethnic family enclave of warm and meshugganah Jews and the streamlined WASP culture beamed over the airwaves, turns out to be only a dialogue between Woody Allen past and Woody Allen present – all detail, humour, and even contrast between sound and image reserved for the family, while one-dimensional media figures out of one-note jokes stiffly parade by like straw men set up to be knocked down by the sheer vitality of the Borscht Belt geist.

Usually, however, one got to bring back from or take to alternative worlds far more substantial booty. Starman reverently leaves his earthling love with a baby (a power that can bring dead deer back to life hardly stymied by blocked fallopian tubes) and the last of his magical ball-bearings (his son will know what to do with it). Teenwolf stoically gives up the party-animal popularity of his werewolf persona but retains enough bestial smarts to wow the women and win the basketball championship as ‘himself’. And when the screwball comedy heroine of Romancing the Stone ventures into the wilds of Colombia to rescue her sister, she winds up capturing the romance of the title in the form of a cabin-cruiser ride down 5th Avenue with a sexy adventurer in genuine crocodile boots.

The Disappearing Lower Classes

Yet the question remains: why, at a time when supposedly all you had to do was to go to business school to have it all, did it take such radical recourse to magic, luck, fledgling angels or split-second time-travel to assure success? The possibility that Michael J. Fox might just earn what he wants in the present instead of preternaturally goosing his father into earning it for him in the past never surfaced for an instant. For if God was alive and well and living in John Denver, upward mobility, from anywhere but the middle rungs of the ladder, was dead as a door nail. Sylvester Stallone stood virtually alone, along with a handful of breakdancers, in his belief in the simple, if Rock, road to fame and fortune.

In the absence of any viable lower-class context, even such underground cult items as Repo Man, UFOria or Liquid Sky, firmly grounded, for much of the time, in the complex, vital inter-reaction of a shared marginal lifestyle, just couldn’t last the course. One had to go up – and if not upscale then right off the planet in a radioactive Chevy or a miniature flying saucer. What couldn’t be realistically envisioned on a collective scale thus became what could only be fantastically imagined through the aid of time-travel, parallel universes and individual fluke, with the implications that what was available to one in extraordinary circumstances was somehow analogously available to all.

But the class contradictions of the ‘80s I-am-the-world-escapism (perfectly, mind-bogglingly, embodied in the response of a young man on TV as why he voted for Reagan: “I got my student loan”), besides informing the underlying logic of The Last Starfighter (who didn’t get his), often stubbornly reappeared in the very big-budget vehicles that were supposed to get rid of them. In Alien, the crew of a superannuated garbage scow cum space cruiser, out on yet another dirty mop-up mission, find themselves battling with a lower-life-form monster for bottom rung on the ladder – woman, veteran of more subtle battles, the only survivor.

The Underclass Re-emerges

Blade Runner took the traditional ambivalence of the private eye figure – hired to protect the rich from the poor, but closer in status and outlook to his prey than to his masters – straight into the process of production, 21st century style. Hidden in the city’s ethnically mixed, largely oriental masses are the future’s new ‘lower classes’: robots – lied to used, abused and genetically engineered to autodestruct. Detective Harrison Ford not only had to identify them and track them down, he had to exterminate them as well. He kills off a six-man robot revolution (culminating in the Christ-like death of its blond-haired, blue-eyed Teutonic leader) only to elope with the one (prot-Judaic) robot who didn’t know she wasn’t human but sided with the hero even after she learns the truth. What we have here is class consciousness as confusion, guilt and individual revolt, with a hint that the white man is on his way out anyway, and the only means of (re)production left him may well be artificial.

Blade Runner (Scott 1982)

On the other side of the fence, Terminator stripped its body-building villain down to expose the stainless steel skeleton in the industrial closet: automation, harbinger of a society that makes humanity itself redundant. And its matter-of-fact depiction of a harried proletarian world – cops, waitresses, hoboes, not a yuppie in sight – made it very clear that it’s not among the comfortably well-off that one recruits the soldiers of the future (even such an everyday luxury as a walkman becoming symbolic of a fatal unconsciousness).

But it was Aliens that definitely mapped out an ‘80s action ethos of proletarian survival, in the process plugging the Hollywood genre film back into a collective and surprisingly vital energy source. The way in which individual response, group tactics and pressure-forged solidarity shape the passive pop-up funhouse proceedings of Aliens into a mental roving ground for improvised, shared and largely non-inherent heroism was a far cry from the mindless beatitude of star-struck earthling staring up at a light-show from beyond while computer ding-dongs spelled out the Gospel according to Saint Steven. There’s something exhilarating about the split-second fusion of thought, will and option that is action in Aliens, as it was action in Objective Burma! ,Bataan and all those ‘40s films of which George Lucas, Spielberg and John Carpenter could but laboriously reproduce the mechanics, stringing together set-pieces in a nostalgic void. The immediacy that Aliens(and, for that matter, Dawn of the Dead ,Blade Runner,Alien and Terminator)brought to the action film was less a matter of specific politics than of a specific context and topography, of a social and visual field that extends beyond the frameline to intersect and play off the contradictions of a given situation instead of magically leaping over them.

Future Schlock

Of course Star Wars was equally explicit in spelling out the opposite, elitist, power-base position. Not only did it manage to combine three different images of heroic divine right from three different eras in the same movie, it succeeded in molding them into the ‘now’ image of the nuclear family. There was an old-fashioned, essentially passive (ie. feminine)idea of inbred worth (aristocracy, as in Princess Leia), the personality-based charisma of the classical Hollywood star turn (Hans Solo’s sorta sweet macho individualism) and junior’s route to the top: learning it(Luke Skywalker’s collegiate apprenticeship into the Force).

At a time when the word ‘exploitation’ was reserved for movies with blacks or women in them (stupefied hats off to Tron for identifying its good guys as ‘users’), most post-Star Wars epics were content to confidently transmit the brave new message that bourgeois civilization (Back to the Future),the artist’s inner vision (Close Encounters), world peace (2010), or the true meaning of the family (E.T.) could only be saved, yea sanctified by Technology, man’s best friend. In the Lucas/Spielberg brave new world, any problematic areas of technological survival that did crop up could be safely left to computer-age whiz kids or futuristic dei ex machina of every persuasion (In 2010, Russian and American embrace, war averted, having discovered that the whole problem with the original 2001: A Space Odyssey was that they lied to the computer; Cocoon ‘solves’ the problem of what to do with our Old by soaking them in the fountain of youth and beaming ‘em up to another planet).

But if the far-distant future could be left to its own devices, not so the day-after-tomorrow. There was a hysterical desperation in most puberty comedies to last-ditch grabbing at anything in pants or skirts that went far beyond the sexual frustrations to which it was ascribed. The high school hero of the confusingly titled Vision Quest (at the stage of looking at something to dream about?) sadly concluded – only seconds after the incredibly heroic, against-all-odds wrestling victory that will cinch him his scholarship – that you have to live every day as if there’s no tomorrow, because, in fact, there isn’t. In innumerable slasher movies, few of the heroes, heroines, or hangers-on ever made it through the night, much less their teens.

Post Graduate Studies

Life after high school – in any more detail than the one-line computer print-outs popularized by American Graffiti (X became president of Harvard, Y owns a car wash in Brownsville) – was either unbearable in its dead-end specificity (Tom Cruise well-nigh welded to the steel mill job he’s forced to take when his scholarship falls through in All the Right Moves ), or unreal in its amorphous promise (the sole image of Cruise’s forfeited architectural career: childish blueprints for an underwater astrodome). In the ironic epilogue of Night of the Comet (an ‘80s up-date of the old Roger Corman after-the-apocalypse teen pics), the youthful survivors of a radioactive comet – an ex-Valley girl, her de facto husband and someone else’s left-over children – stand at the intersection of a totally deserted street, country, planet, in their Sunday best, waiting for the light to change, while a flaky younger sister drives off with the first, or perhaps the last, passerby in a cloud of sexual promise. For beyond the adolescent pleasures of the moment beckoned only the dubious distinctions of post-school ‘grown-up’ responsibility (the end of the world substituting for more formal education in extremis). And the implacable poverty of imagination implicit in being able to reinvent the world only to come up with white-gloved respectability promised little joy upon graduation. Even when Tom Hanks, stolidly ensconced as head of his father’s produce business, gets as far-fetched a wish-fulfilment as his very own mermaid in Splash, he has to spend the rest of his days ten fathoms deep to keep her, in a turreted watery kingdom that, in the brief glimpse we get of it, looks suspiciously like Fantasyland – what’s it like down there remaining obstinately obscure in most cases.

For the immediate future tended to lack precise contours. Tom Cruise’s extra-curricula activities as pimp for a string of call girls in the slyly cynical and surprisingly sexy Risky Business not only assured him a place in Princeton business school, but was a hell of a lot more ‘hands on’ than anything he was likely to encounter down the road. While mom and dad were still trying to figure out what to do with their home computer, junior, in a fever of push-button inspiration, may have set up an electronic ménage à trois (Electric Dreams ), booked a plane reservation (Wargames ),started thermonuclear war (ditto), or concocted a knockout prom date (Weird Science ) – but what did he do for an encore?

Jump Starts

There was a fundamental discontinuity in most ‘80s Hollywood films only partially explained by a career game plan that mandated changing jobs every 18 months if you were of the elite and losing jobs every 18 months if you weren’t. When one buys, sells, manages or promotes what– or whom-ever interchangeably or feeds unending answers into data banks with no questions, time becomes the stuff of which revisionist dreams are made of, and it’s only be transporting the already acquired into another dimension that achievement can be measured. Barbra Streisand in Yentl ‘discovered’ women’s lib and American, in that order, Britain made Gandhi possible, and Michael J. Fox invented Chuck Berry. The only thing new under the sun was the ability to bring back the dead for yet another go-around (Starman,Iceman, Creator, Swamp Thing, Star Trek 111: The Search for Spock, The Heavenly Kid, Somewhere in Time, Friday the 13th, and a half-dozen time-machine reincarnations of Jack the Ripper).

Unlike Britain’s various rewrites of its manifest destiny, leisurely ploughing forward with the awful seamless majesty of one-way history, Hollywood films constantly fell into internal time-warps, jerkily propelled backwards and forwards through unexplained dilations and compressions, ellipses and leaps of faith. The heroes of Philadelphia Experiment, Starman and Timerider could span decades or light years in a single bound, but had a hell of a lot to do in two or three days. A slow-mo fast ball from The Natural took longer to cross the plate than he did to age ten years. Superman, like Gaul, was divided into three distinct parts, styles, times. And Dune used voice-over narration and ‘Their Love Grew’ title-card silhouette of boy-kissing-girl to cover most of the plot. Indeed, sometimes ’80s American movies looked like the product of a VCR gone mad, fast-forwarding to the 2100s only to suddenly reverse and play it again Sam.

For the whole concept of process has gone through untold evolutions since the ‘growth’ of the microchip. For the catapult to the three-stage rocket, technology used to work on some variant of the Rube Goldberg principle: A pushes B which ignites C which pulls on D….and Voltaire’s conceit of God as Great Clockmaker ticked on. But take apart a digital watch and there are no working parts – only a quartz ‘brain’ and a miniature display screen. And, suddenly, the analogy between God, man and machine holds only in the super-technologically medieval sense of genetic engineering – nothing connects to anything else unless someone, something programmed it. Since this is America, land of the free, where the very idea of inflexible programming is supposedly anathema, the goal became to short-circuit the program to work for you.

It was back to basics – the high-tech survival of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future ultimately hinges on the timely plugging in of an extension cord. If there’s a computer counting down the Apocalypse (Wargames), just throw in a game of Tic Tac Toe and it will ‘learn’ the futility of war. Or else you relied on the force of sheer human will, unabetted by logic or principle but strong on personality and chutzpah, to brashly oppose any given established system, whether institutional (Stripes, Police Academy , National Lampoon’s Animal House), mechanical (Han Solo’s kick-it-where-it-lives starship repairs in Star Wars) or supernatural (when in doubt, break the taboo and ‘cross the streams’, whatever that means – certainly no one in Ghostbusters knew or cared) and wishing will make it so.

This breakdown of any sense of continuum, of process, of link between cause and effect, bred some weird stabs at connection. Paranoia, of course, is a tired and true glue for every political persuasion, and one of the more curious effects of the Great Lie Theory (by means of which everything is explained by the revelation of ‘truth’) is how comforting it seemed even in its most pessimistic low-budget incarnations (Impulse, C.H.U.D., Endangered Species, Dreamscape). On the other end of the scale, as A-movie budgets escalated into the stratosphere, more and more projects were designed from the top down by committees of brainstorming studio executives whose idea of internal development was to include as many ‘key’ elements as possible from a hodgepodge of that year’s biggest grosses (Innerspace, Hudson Hawk, The Goonies, Solarbabies).

For, aside from paranoia, most of Hollywood’s attempts at uniting end and means, process and function, appeared positively off-the-wall. The kind of daring, highly controversial jump cut that transmogrified our forefather apes’ spinning bone into an orbiting space capsule in 2001 became the technocratic norm. When, in The Right Stuff, sparks from an aborigine’s prayer-fire rise to the heavens to be inexplicably transformed into the cosmic fireflies of John Glenn’s moon-bound epiphany, it still shakes up the old cognitive faculties. But when the heroes of Tron and Star Trekfollow logic to its stopping-place, they have only to casually leap into the computer to mystically fuse machine and creator in a blaze of animated glory. Suspension of disbelief no longer involved an act of imagination but a permanent state of mind. The more that analogies for heroic victory multiplied, the more the centre just wouldn’t hold, stretched further and further into the past or future, unable to gain a logical foothold in the present.

Family Values

There remained, of-course, one bastion of built-in continuity – the family – and the ‘80s were nothing if not family oriented. Thus the lure of rural fastness, life down on the farm, where the preservation of the species – agricultural or human – was work, and the struggle to stay alive, in flesh, children, or song, was itself a priceless legacy (Honkytonk Man, On Golden Pond). In such communities, historical, sexual, generational and class contradictions could be dissolved through religious communion (Footloose’s sanctification of rock and roll by the church; Places in the Heart’s piece of Christ/piece of cake resolution of racial inequity), through born-again cultural identity (Field of Dream’s displaced liberals on the farm in Iowa finding their true ‘cause’ in the restitution of America’s national identity via the redemption of a bribe-taking baseball team) or through more secular, in-the-same-boat – if emphatically not the same union – bindings (Country’s and The River’s solidarity in the face of natural or economic disaster). Fruitfulness, procreation and nurturing became careers in themselves, uniting program and programmer, solving the pesky leftover problems of ‘relevance’ and women’s lib, and turning the specific ’60s-70s generation-gap fear of monster babies (Demon Seed, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby) into the unspecified promise of infant Messiahs.

Indeed, in a funny way, the idyllic, if troubled matriarchal farm family looked forward to the enchanted electronic cottage of the future, where mom, dad, junior and sis beaver away at their respective terminals for fun and profit, and no one has to leave the safe confines of the home. And it was perhaps this uneasy vision of solipsistic domesticity that inspired Poltergeist’s simultaneous eruption of technological and hereditary guilts, as rank upon rank of the dispossessed dead imprison a little blond girl in the living room TV. So the child and its mother must pass through the primordial slime of a highly ambiguous womb-house to be born again out of technology and into the realm of the living – or, in George Romero’s Night, Dawn, Day cycle, into the land of the living dead, one step too far into the continuum.

For once off the farm, the family – the primal pattern for a natural evolution from past to present to future – became the locus for some might unnatural generative and regenerative processes. Star Trek mated Stephen Collins to Voyager 1 to produce hope-of-the-future (if unimaginable) progeny who will access the knowledge locked fast in the satellite’s computer cells. Terminator’s opponent traveled time to save the mother and thus the seed of his beloved warrior-saviour only to discover that he’d been elected to plant it. The child may be the father to the man, but Timerider’s overnight stay in a Western town made him his own grandfather. Lou Gossett’s pathogenesis in Enemy Mine’s two-man world avoided the risk of both miscegenation and AIDS, while going Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People’s who-needs-‘em rejection of non-nurturing females one better. And in Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox, by repulsing the sexual advances of his terrifyingly come-hither teenage mother-to-be in the past, effectively assured his own birth in the future.

Fox’s apparent Oedipal dilemma was less revelatory of any deep-rooted Freudian truth than it was symptomatic of a new, or rather born-again phenomenon, the ultimate break in the causal chain – the biologically confounding separation of sex and procreation. Admittedly, few films sank as far back into Victorian either/or as The Natural, wherein all-American baseballer Robert Redford was ‘saved’ from the clutches of a gun-toting femme fatale and an energy-sapping good time gal by the wholesome teenage son resulting from his first and only night spent with the hometown girl-next-door. But many went close.

If sex fared better than procreation in The Right Stuff, it was only as part of a vanishing way of life, as Chuck Yaeger’s nightly passionate horseback pursuit of his incredibly provocative wife drably gave way to the ‘what-shall-we-tell-the-kids?’ problem-sharing of troubled astronauts and their permanently permed wives on the rare occasions when NASA permitted them to share the same bed. Even Risky Business took a passing poke at the mother vs. whore controversy in wry fashion when Tom Cruise swapped his mom’s prize possession – a crystal egg – for a decidedly non-procreational roll in the hay. And Albert Brooks’ fixation on a merely metaphorical ‘nest egg’ in Lost in America snowballed the childless couple’s yoke into a national obsession. Maria’s Lovers simply inverted biological causality; it’s only after his wife had given birth to someone else’s child that its World War 11-traumatised husband could bring himself to make love to her.

Super Sperm

One of the unexpected by-products of the Fundamentalist sex-vs.-procreation schizophrenia was its curious sanctification of the one-night stand, the later having apparently replaced storks and immaculate conception, not to mention continuous sex, as source of the Blessed Event. No matter how many dates the heroes (women don’t travel in time, they encapsulate it) of Starman, Timerider, The Natural, Honkytonk Man or Terminator had to spend with their ladies fair, they got by one shot at insemination(awe-struck, devotion-and-discovery-filled though it may have been), and, evidently, once was always enough. Excalibur was at least explicit in its legend-breeding legerdemain, featuring not one but three one-nighters, the first of which produced a mythical king, the second a wicked usurper and the third, barren, a mad monk and a penitent nun.

Such semi-instantaneous creationism was only benign, however, when it manufactured children the attempt to reproduce anything full gown being a sure sign of horror (The Alchemist, Gremlins). Evidently one shouldn’t mess around with God’s adult bio-chemistry set – the oral of Creator or, in the floppy disc mode, Weird Science. Even Spock in Star Trek 111 had to be reborn as a child and grow up in a hurry.

Yet, even on the most prosaic level, once procreation was accomplished and progeny assured, it took a heap of ingenuity and a mass of mixed metaphors to keep the home fires burning. When Terms of Endearment’s matriarchal succession was menaced by cross-country mobility, adultery and cancer, its members had to frantically reform and reshuffle to patch up the gaps created by the dropping out of any key role or ingredient – substituting a drunken ex-astronaut for a philandering husband, and a feisty Texas grandmother for a dying young-thing mother. There were even a couple of idiot suitors thrown in for comic relief. In the piously revisionist mode, Places in the Heart relied on the ‘given’ (sic) asexuality of physical disability and negritude to perpetuate the family of a martyred sheriff-husband in blameless carrying-on. And Jo-Beth Williams in American Dreamer, instead of simply dumping the breadwinner even their children judge woefully inadequate, must have recourse to amnesia, romantic fiction and international drug-peddling to make the switch to a more suitable mate.

Let’s Do the ‘Time-Warp’ Again

The family in its very desperation to conform to some lost model of organic wholeness, constantly accused the artificiality of its constructs. In opting for wholesale transplants, from other marriages, towns, times, races or galaxies, of what is inevitably given up in any worked-through choice. Hollywood engendered runaway analogies whose precise applications had to remain nameless. Moral virtues forged in other worlds and other times were simply yanked out of their own context to be plugged into ours, all systems compatible in the preservation of the status quo.

In this hybrid confusion of the organic and the inorganic, this widening chasm between cause and effect, technological potential and practical use, mainstream Hollywood became a vast inter-temporal import-export system. In this shopping market of the mind, everything had a substitute, choices were never mutually exclusive (Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone, holding on to the tail of a crocodile which has swallowed a priceless emerald, and distracted by the cries of his girlfriend-in-distress, could yet save the day on both fronts – given a little time and space), wrong moves could always be righted (Robin Williams in The Best of Times mobilized half his hometown to catch a missed football pass 13 years later), and the dark ages, key-lit with hindsight and gauzed through anachronism, glowed in rich royal hues (The Colour Purple).

That is not to say that there were no films in which time travel served not to ‘have it all’ but to question it all. As always in Hollywood genre filmmaking, the prevailing trend provided a solid hook upon which all sorts of interesting variations could be hung. Yet the box-office failure of The Right Stuff, the notorious re-cutting of Once Upon a Time in America, and the blink-of-an-eye run of Insignificance, three of the most daring explorations of the nature of time and history and memory, suggest what the end of Peggy Sue Got Married amply demonstrated. It was going along great as long as it dipped into the incredible richness and confusion of a dual time sense, thanks largely to Kathleen Turner’s tour de force performance. But once the main character actually had to make a decision, Francis Ford Coppola and company panicked and flew over the rainbow to Spielberg land. First it was off to grandma’s house, seasonally drenched in sepia-toned MGM nostalgia (with Maureen O’Sullivan and Leon Ames, no less, as ghosts of Thanksgivings past), then on to some octogenarian wizardry, there not for belief but for the clincher: the enduring, and endearing tug of marital fidelity. So that, with enough ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ never-never under her belt, the beleaguered heroine could bridge the time gap and come back to husband and kids and a brand new start, old style.

Once Upon a Time in America (Leone 1984)

Once Upon a Time in America (Leone 1984)

Back to the Nineties

Early on in his first term as President, Reagan set the stage for his tenure in the White House. When confronted with angry protesters demanding the dismantling of a train purportedly carrying nuclear weapons across the country, Reagan pointed to the heavily-guarded railroad cars and claimed they were carrying empty cardboard boxes. Beyond the hubris of such boldfaced fabrication was the refusal to make the lie believable on any level, forcing the viewer’s complicity in choosing the comfort of the lie over the pain and worry of the truth. The case could be made that Hollywood in the ‘80s was only giving the public what it wanted, and had, in fact, elected when it made a movie star president.

Thus far the ‘90s have proved to be less cavalier about believability, opting for verisimilitude if not truth. There are, of course, still practitioners of implausible deniability. Thus when Reaganism, after its defeat in 1992, returned from Elba in 1994 for its 100 days, Hollywood was ready with a film that was a veritable compendium of 80s mythologies. It touted the superiority of the present by treating history as a computer-diddled joke, created millionaires by magically blowing the competition out of the water, solved the black welfare problem by trickle-down largesse, rewarded the repentant male sinner while burying the repentant female, produced a bouncing baby boy in a single squirt, and proved conclusively that blind obedience and simple-minded morality were the heart and soul of the American Dream. In 1994, the same team that gave us Back to the Future swept the Oscars with the ultimate time-travel extravaganza of bad faith, cynicism and schmaltz, the peerless Forrest Gump.

Films cited

Against All Odds (Taylor Hackford, 1984), The Alchemist (James Amante/Charles Band, 1985), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), All Of Me (Carl Reiner, 1984), All the Right Moves (Michael Chapman, 1983), Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984), American Dreamer (Rick Rosenthal, 1984), American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), Bataan (Tay Garnett, 1943), The Best of Times (Roger Spottiswoode, 1986), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982), C.H.U.D. (Douglas Cheek, 1984), City Heat (Richard Benjamin, 1984), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985), Conan the Barbarian (John Milius, 1982), The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984), Country (Richard Pearce, 1984), Creator (Ivan Passer, 1985), Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1979), Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982), Demon Seed (Donald Cammell, 1977), Diner (Barry Levinson, 1982), Dreamscape (Joseph Ruben, 1984), Dune (David Lynch, 1984), Eddie and the Cruisers (Martin Davidson, 1984), Electric Dreams (Steve Barron, 1984), Emerald Forest (John Boorman, 1985), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980), Endangered Species (Alan Rudolph, 1982), Enemy Mine (Wolfgang Peterson, 1985), E.T.:The Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982), Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981), Explorers (Joe Dante, 1985), Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989), Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz, 1981), Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980), Gandhi(Richard Attenborough, 1982), Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984), The Gods Must Be Crazy (Jamie Uys, 1981), The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Hugh Hudson, 1984), The Heavenly Kid (Cary Medoway, 1985), Honkytonk Man (Clint Eastwood, 1982), Hoosiers (David Anspaugh, 1986), Hudson Hawk (Michael Lehmann, 1991), Iceman (Fred Schepisi, 1984), Impulse (Graham Baker, 1984), Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987), Insignificance (Nicolas Roeg, 1985), It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), Johnny Dangerously (Amy Heckerling, 1984), Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984), Legal Eagles (Ivan Reitman, 1986), Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982), Lost in America (Albert Brooks, 1985), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), The Man With Two Brains (Carl Reiner, 1983), Maria’s Lovers (Andre Konchalovsky, 1984), Mr. Mom (Stan Dragoti, 1983), Murphy’s Romance (Martin Ritt, 1985), National Lampoon’s Animal House (John Landis, 1978), The Natural (Barry Levinson, 1984), Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968/Tom Savani, 1990), Objective Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945), The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell, 1981), Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984), Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980), Out of Africa(Sydney Pollack, 1985), Passage to India (David Lean, 1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986), Philadelphia Experiment (Stewart Raffill, 1984), Places in the Heart (Robert Benton, 1984), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), Police Academy (Hugh Wilson, 1984), Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982), Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1981), The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985), Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987), Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), Rambo: First Blood Part 11 (George Pan Cosmatos, 1985), The Razor’s Edge (John Byrum, 1984), Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984), Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983), Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983), The River (Mark Rydell, 1984), Romancing the Stone (Robert Zemeckis, 1984), A Room With a View (James Ivory, 1986), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Sheena (John Guillermin, 1984), Silverado (Lawrence Kasdan, 1985), Solarbabies (Alan Johnson, 1986), Somehwere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980), Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982), Splash (Ron Howard, 1984), Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979), Star Trek 111: The Search for Spock (Leonard Nimoy, 1986), Star Trek 1V: The Voyage Home (Leonard Nimoy, 1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (William Shatner, 1989), Star Trek V1: The Undiscovered Country (Nicolas Meyer, 1991), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981), Superman (Richard Donner, 1978), Swamp Thing (Wes Craven, 1982), The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983), Three Amigos! (John Landis, 1986), Timebandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981), Timerider (William Dear, 1983), Tin Men (Barry Levinson, 1987), Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), 2010 (Peter Hymans, 1984), UFOria (John Binder, 1980), The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987), Vision Quest (Harold Becker, 1985), Wargames (John Badham, 1983), Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985), Witness (Peter Weir, 1985), Yentl (Barbra Streisand, 1983).

Originally published in Metro, no. 109 (1997), pp. 3-12.
Reprinted with the permission of the estate of Ronnie Scheib.

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

Ronnie Scheib (1944-2015) was a film critic who wrote for Film Comment, Framework, American Film, 24 Images, Variety and Chicago Reader. She also wrote dialogue for Warner Bros cartoons.View all posts by Ronnie Scheib →