6Below the Line: Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, and Scoring
Above the Line
Despite consolidation by the majors, film production in the 1980s showed a healthy diversity. In part, this was due to the ancillary markets that voraciously demanded new product. But it was due as well to the robust energy of American film culture and the inherent requirements of film production.
Studio executives aimed to rationalize their capital expenditures, and this impulse had considerable institutional support in the industry. Talent agencies took "packages" to the studios. These commanded a hefty fee, but they enabled studio executives to justify the decision to green-light a production. Market research also helped guide executive decision making, though the industry remained quite secretive about the extent to which it used such research. Film projects were concept tested before scripts were written, and scripts were subjected to focus group evaluation to predict audience responses to the hypothetical film. Based on this testing, scripts could undergo further revisions.1 If a script found its way into production, the resulting film might be subject, before release, to another round of market research, the results of which could dictate additional editing to revise characters, rework the ending, or drop scenes that elicited big negatives. The ending of Fatal Attraction (1982), for example, tested poorly with audiences, so an alternative, less subtle conclusion was shot in which the villainess died on screen in a grisly manner that test audiences found emotionally satisfying.
Millions of dollars were at stake on a major production, yet predicting what an audience wanted to see was maddeningly difficult, especially with a time lag of one or more years between the onset of a production and the release of a finished picture. For these reasons, packaging, market research, and other decision-making props assumed a major institutional presence in the industry. Yet filmmaking remained an elusive enterprise, resisting the efforts of production and marketing executives to predetermine its variables. Films still had to be created. They were not paint-by-number exercises, and therefore, filmmakers commanded significant freedoms to devise shots, tell stories, and present characters. The imperative for the front office to allocate resources on the basis of predictable outcomes was, and always would be, in tension with the vagaries of the creative process. The front office needed talent, literally banked on it, but also had to let it alone to do its work. This made for many unhappy marriages but also for solid successes, and it helps explain why so much diversity existed in the productions of the 1980s or in any decade. The industry was large enough that filmmakers could work at varying degrees of proximity to the major studio-distributors, with correspondingly greater or lesser pressures to be accountable to the box office.
This latter characteristic helps explain why the so-called epoch of the blockbuster was actually less influential on filmmaking across the board than is popularly supposed. The high-tech, high-gloss, high-concept style of filmmaking (e.g., Return of the Jedi , Top Gun ) attracted a great deal of media coverage, with hypotheses that this style was taking over Hollywood in the eighties. Certainly there were filmmakers whose careers flourished because of their savvy commercial sense and whose films often seemed definable in these terms. These included Adrian Lyne (Flashdance , 9½ Weeks , Fatal Attraction ), Ron Howard (Splash , Cocoon , Parenthood ), and Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap , Stand by Me , The Princess Bride , When Harry Met Sally ). But the influence was less far-reaching than the publicity generated by these films implied. Furthermore, the industry's productions were eclectic, and it will be helpful here to show some of this variety in reference to filmmakers who do not receive extended profiles later in the chapter. Blake Edwards, for example, maintained a steady output during the period, and his films were resolutely antithetical to blockbuster style. The editing rhthms of Edwards's pictures established a slow, contemplative pacing, in which character development unfolded in all of its subtleties and in which pauses, longeurs—what comes between the dialogue—counted for so much. S.O.B. (1981) was an acidic portrait of the film industry and featured the late, great William Holden's final performance. Victor/Victoria (1982) was a sophisticated comedy about the politics of gender and sexual preference. That's Life (1986) was a mellow, introspective portrait of an aging man's assessment of his life and family. With many of Edwards's family members in the cast, it amounted to a personal and revealing self-portrait. Bereft of his collaborator, the late actor Peter Sellers, Edwards tried to keep the Pink Panther series going, but with poor results. Without Sellers's brilliant portrait of the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) and Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) came off poorly. But The Man Who Loved Women (1983), Micki and Maude (1984), A Fine Mess (1986), Blind Date (1987), Sunset (1988), and Skin Deep (1989) demonstrated Edwards's gift for creating a sophisticated blend of sight gags, slapstick, and dialogue-based comedy. Furthermore, Edwards consistently shot his films in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, making him, along with John Carpenter, one of the widescreen format's most consistent and skillful practitioners.
Many other filmmakers elaborated stylized pictures removed from the standard industry templates. Jonathan Demme, for example, made an eclectic group of films that by decade's end had moved toward the mainstream. Melvin and Howard (1980) was an incisive, low-key character piece about millionaire Howard Hughes and Melvin Dummar, an ordinary guy to whom Hughes allegedly bequeathed a fortune. Stop Making Sense (1984) and Swimming to Cambodia (1987) recorded performances by, respectively, the band Talking Heads and monologuist Spalding Gray. Something Wild (1986) changed gears unexpectedly on its audience, shifting from an endearing comedy about a straitlaced businessman (Jeff Daniels) and a kooky woman (Melanie Griffith) to graphically violent melodrama. Married to the Mob (1988) was an attempt at mainstream comedy in a story about a gangland moll (Michelle Pfeiffer) on the run from the Mafia. Demme ended the decade at work on the singularly grim and unpleasant Silence of the Lambs (1990), a violent look at serial killers that, for all its bleakness, enjoyed the biggest audience success of his career.
John Huston alternated formulaic efforts (Victory , Annie ) with more personal, unusual projects. Under the Volcano (1984) was a finely textured and atmospheric portrait of a drunken diplomat's self-destruction in Mexico on the eve of World War II. Albert Finney's magnificent performance and Huston's eye for Mexico combined to etch a memorably tragic vision of the squalid way stations visited by the diplomat on his way to a hell freely chosen. Prizzi's Honor (1985) was a droll portrait of gangland assassins (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) who fall for each other, and The Dead (1987), Huston's last film, was a luminous adaptation of the James Joyce short story about loss and aging in the context of a dinner party at turn of the century.
Philip Kaufman defined his own filmmaking territory with a pair of unusual productions. The Right Stuff (1983) could have been a standard-issue glory fest about the early days of the NASA space program, but Kaufman turned it instead into a quirky, episodic, and unexpectedly comic film whose style and rhythms remained creatively offbeat. Adapted from the Milan Kundera novel about a Czech doctor and the two women he loves, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) played more like a foreign art film than a Hollywood production. With cinematography by longtime Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist and with a cast including Juliet Binoche, Lena Olin, and Daniel Day-Lewis, the film's leisurely three-hour pace, character-centered drama, and political subtext were characteristics perhaps more typical of European productions than American ones. As with The Right Stuff and the Tom Wolfe novel on which it was based, Kaufman directed a sterling adaptation of a notoriously difficult book. Continuing this string of unusual and thoughtful films, Kaufman ended the decade filming a lush, intelligent, and sensual account of writer Henry Miller's Paris sojourn in the twenties. When released, Henry and June (1990) was the first film to carry the industry's new NC-17 rating, designating it as having nonpornographic, sexually adult content.
Directors Norman Jewison (Best Friends , A Soldier's Story , Agnes of God , Moonstruck , In Country ), Alan Parker (Fame , Pink Floyd—The Wall , Shoot the Moon Birdy , Angel Heart , Mississippi Burning ), and Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies , Crimes of the Heart , Driving Miss Daisy ) specialized in a diverse range of film topics and characters, including projects with clear commercial potential (Moonstruck, Driving Miss Daisy) and those targeted for smaller audiences (Birdy, Tender Mercies). After making two science fiction classics—Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982)—Ridley Scott turned his talents for visual design to a series of different productions: Legend (1986), an Arthurian adventure; Someone to Watch over Me (1987), a contemporary romantic thriller; and Black Rain (1989), a crime drama set in Japan and which made explicit the Japanophobia that was latent in Blade Runner. These other pictures were unbalanced by their bravura production design and cinematography. While they were handsome to look at, their narratives were insufficiently developed. This was especially apparent in Someone to Watch over Me, a picture with a formulaic storyline overlaid by glossy visuals. Scott's Blade Runner created an enduring template for subsequent science fiction (more on this later), but his other films fell short of the classic status that that picture has attained.
Postulating a profound influence by blockbuster filmmaking requires that one minimize the variety of production that actually prevailed. This chapter aims to emphasize that variety, and if the result is a less linear or teleological aesthetic history of the period, I believe that accords well with the industry's output. By contrast with this one, however, chapters 7 and 8 furnish a more topological account. There I cover the aesthetic and social patterns that emerged in eighties filmmaking and the ways in which segments of the moviegoing public responded. The aesthetic history of eighties filmmaking was formed from the tensions created between these centripetal and centrifugal forces. In the present chapter, I begin by considering key filmmakers in "below the line" departments. I then examine those above the line (directors and producers). "Above" and "below the line" are terms used by the industry in factoring production costs. "Above the line" designates those expenses incurred during production by the principal talent: director, producer, star, writer. "Below the line" designates those costs incurred during production in all other capacities.
Below the Line: Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, and Scoring
Filmmaking is a collaborative act, and a film's aesthetic design results from the creative input of a range of production personnel. The director typically has the ultimate creative authority, and other members of the production team understand that their task is to help the director realize his or her vision for the project. In practice, though, directors rely on the vital contributions from crew members in areas that have direct bearing on the way a film is going to look and sound. So important are these areas that many directors maintain enduring relationships with individual cinematographers, production designers, editors, or composers, and the artists who excell in these areas can exert tremendous influence over the look and feel of the finished film. Furthermore, front-rank artists in these departments are highly prized by the industry and may establish thriving careers on an international level. In this section of the chapter, I examine American film from the standpoint of these "below the line" production personnel, noting their important and enduring collaborative relationships with individual directors.
Demonstrating the globalization of film culture, a group of elite cinematographers collaborated with directors in multiple national film industries, European as well as Hollywood. Nestor Almendros shot French director Francois Truffaut's The Last Metro (1980) and Eric Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach (1983) collaborated with Hollywood directors Robert Benton, Mike Nichols, and Martin Scorsese on, respectively, Places in the Heart (1984), Heartburn (1986) and New York Stories (1989). After shooting a number of Wim Wenders's films in the seventies, Robby Muller worked for Peter Bogdanovich on They All Laughed (1981), Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law , Mystery Train ), Wenders again (Paris, Texas ), William Friedkin (To Live and Die in L.A. ) and John Schlesinger (The Believers ). Sven Nykvist shot Bergman's last films in the eighties (After the Rehearsal , Fanny and Alexander ) and, in Hollywood, Paul Mazursky's Willie and Phil (1980), Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Bob Fosse's Star 80, and Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Dante Spinotti maintained a prolific career shooting Italian films and such Hollywood features as Crimes of the Heart (1986), Manhunter (1986), and Beaches (1988). Vittorio Storaro continued his long collaboration with Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor ) and his more recent partnership with Francis Coppola (One from the Heart , Tucker: The Man and His Dream , New York Stories ). The relationships maintained by these cinematographers demonstrated the international scope of the contemporary Hollywood industry and its ability to attract top talents from overseas.
Hollywood's own cinematographers created outstanding and memorable visual designs for the period's films. John Alonzo captured superlative and beautiful landscapes for Tom Horn (1980) and employed strikingly garish colors to suggest the vulgarity and frenzy of the Miami drug trade in Scarface (1983). Michael Chapman's versatility carried him from the stark black-and-white of Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) to Gothic horror (The Lost Boys ), physical action (Shoot to Kill ) and high-budget, effects-based work (Ghostbusters II ). Freddie Francis excelled at period work in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) and Glory (1989). David Watkin's camerawork was extraordinarily subtle in literate, character-centered dramas and comedy (Out of Africa , Moonstruck ). Laszlo Kovacs had been closely identified with key counterculture and new wave films of the sixties and seventies (Easy Rider , Five Easy Pieces ), and he worked prolifically in the eighties on an eclectic group of mainly middle-of-the-road pictures: Heart Beat (1980), The Toy (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Mask (1985), Legal Eagles (1986). Only Frances (1982), a portrait of the tortured life of Hollywood actress Frances Farmer, harked back to Kovacs's celebrated rebel pictures. Haskell Wexler sustained his unusual career mix of mainstream commercial projects (The Man Who Loved Women , Blaze , Three Fugitives ) and left-wing political films (No Nukes , Latino , Matewan ). Zilmos Zsigmond, one of the industry's most brilliant cinematographers, had the misfortune to do some of his best work in two films that bookended the decade as examples of industry waste: Heaven's Gate (1980) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).
Strong directors developed a recognizable style across their films in large part through their ongoing collaborations with individual cinematographers. John Bailey's work served the literate, dialogue-driven filmmaking of Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill , Silverado , The Accidental Tourist ) as well the more aggressively visual filmmaking of Paul Schrader (Cat People , Mishima , Light of Day ). After shooting several films in Germany for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a director not noted for elaborate visual choreography, Michael Ballhaus began a close collaboration with Martin Scorsese (After Hours , The Color of Money , The Last Temptation of Christ ), permitting him to execute florid camera moves and the complex lighting designs they required. Director Sidney Lumet appreciated Andrzej Bartkowiak's ability to shoot fast and employ lenses, lighting, and color for symbolically expressive effects in Prince of the City (1981), Deathtrap (1982), The Verdict (1982), Daniel (1983), Garbo Talks (1984), The Morning After (1986), Power and Family Business (1989). Brian De Palma relied on Stephen Burum to create a flamboyant visual style for Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), and Casualties of War (1989), and Burum created memorably expressionistic images for Francis Coppola on Rumble Fish (1983). Ernest Dickerson's fluid camera and insistent color designs helped give Spike Lee's work (She's Gotta Have It , School Daze , Do the Right Thing ) its memorably visual qualities in the latter part of the decade, when Lee appeared as the precursor of a new wave of black filmmakers. In the eighties, when Jonathan Demme moved up from the exploitation films he made for Roger Corman's New World International, he took cinematographer Tak Fujimoto with him to create Melvin and Howard (1980), Swing Shift (1983), Something Wild (1986), and Married to the Mob (1988). Chris Menges's work for Roland Joffe gave historical tragedy physical presence and emotional resonance in The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). In more historically oriented productions, Robert Richardson's partnership with Oliver Stone yielded some of the decade's political classics: Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
Bruce Surtees was essential to Clint Eastwood's filmmaking throughout the decade, with Firefox (1982), Honky Tonk Man (1982), Sudden Impact (1983), Tightrope (1984), and Pale Rider (1985). Outside his Eastwood films, Surtees shot two of the decade's most popular pictures, Risky Business (1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984). Blake Edwards relied on Harry Stradling for much of his eighties widescreen work: S.O.B. (1981), Micki and Maude (1984), A Fine Mess (1986), and Blind Date (1987). In his collaborations with John Carpenter, Dean Cundey did some of the decade's best widescreen filming, on Escape from New York (1981), The Fog (1981), The Thing (1982), and Big Trouble in Little China (1986), his subsequent association with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future , Who Framed Roger Rabbit , Back to the Future Parts II and III [1989, 1990]) lifted him out of low-budget horror and into the industry's expensive, state-of-the-art productions. On those films that he directed, Spielberg maintained a long relationship with Allen Daviau (E.T. , Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), The Color Purple , Empire of the Sun ) and Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark , Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom , Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ).
Woody Allen's filmmaking had always been extremely literate, with its foundation in solid screenplays penned by Allen. When he began to collaborate with cinematographers renowned for their magisterial control of light, however, his work became truly cinematic, with visual designs as fully articulated as the work's verbal dimensions had been. Allen learned about light from three extraordinary collaborators: Gordon Willis (Stardust Memories , A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy , Broadway Danny Rose , Zelig , The Purple Rose of Cairo ); Carlo Di Palma (Hannah and Her Sisters , Radio Days , September ); and Sven Nykvist (Another Woman , Crimes and Misdemeanors ).
Several prominent directors of the nineties first established careers as cinematographers in the eighties. Barry Sonnenfeld, director of The Addams Family (1991) and Men in Black (1997), worked closely as cinematographer for Joel and Ethan Coen (Blood Simple , Raising Arizona , Miller's Crossing ) and Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally , Misery ). The action-oriented director of Speed (1994) and Twister (1996) Jan De Bont first worked as a cinematographer with surprising versatility: The Jewel of the Nile (1985), Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986), Ruthless People (1986), Die Hard (1988), Bert Rigby, You're a Fool (1989), and Black Rain (1989).
The production designer is a key collaborator with the director and cinematographer because the work in these areas intersects and overlaps. The colors employed on a film's sets, for example, will have consequences for how those sets are lit and shot, and decisions about camera placement will affect how a set should be dressed. Production design refers to the visual organization of a film's physical environments, whether they be real locations or artificial creations on a sound stage. Much filmmaking in the eighties afforded production designers elaborate opportunities to create intricate and expansive visions of past and future in the disparate modes of fantasy and historical realism. Production design in these films was often the dominant element of mise-en-scène, and the designers who excelled at conjuring these visions were responsible for some of the decade's memorable and enduring imagery. Legendary production designer Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove , Goldfinger , Barry Lyndon ) provided imaginatively stylized sets for one of the decade's most unusual films, Pennies from Heaven (1981), contrasting the bleakness of Depression-era America with the cheery opulence of that period's Hollywood musicals. Dante Ferretti, who constructed elaborate fantasies for Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron ) and Federico Fellini (Orchestra Rehearsal ), designed for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) a pseudo-historical magic kingdom that contained some of the period's most elaborate and outlandish sets in a fantastical portrait of nineteenth-century Germany. Ferdinando Scarfiotti's memorable work for Bernardo Bertolucci in the seventies (The Conformist , Last Tango in Paris ) gave him the international prominence that led to Hollywood productions and some of the decade's most stylized design in Flash Gordon (1980), Cat People (1982), and, again for Bertolucci, The Last Emperor (1987). Richard Sylbert's brilliant work on Chinatown (1974) was among the best of that decade, and while no comparable classic beckoned him in the eighties, he nevertheless did very strong work establishing historical periods on Reds (1981), Frances (1982), and The Cotton Club (1984). Patrizia von Brandenstein also excelled at period design, with an emphasis on opulence, in Ragtime (1981), Amadeus (1984), and The Untouchables (1987), though her work also included more austere and gritty projects (Silkwood , No Mercy ). Bo Welch's elaborate fantasy showpieces were integral to the mise-en-scène of The Lost Boys (1987), Beetlejuice (1988), and Ghostbusters II (1989), and, though he did not practice this as often, he also excelled at subdued naturalism (The Accidental Tourist ). Anton Furst's Gotham City—dark, dank, oppressive—established an unforgettable mise-en-scène for Batman (1989) and dominated that picture's visual design. The most influential production design of the eighties, however, was Lawrence G. Paull's work on the science fiction classic Blade Runner (1982), offering a ghetto environment of crumbling buildings and urban squalor coexisting with architectural opulence and high-tech modes of transport. It established a template of the futurist megalopolis that endured on screen for the next fifteen years, until director Luc Besson, cinematographer Thierry Arbogas, and production designer Dan Weil on The Fifth Element (1997) felt compelled to break with it and offer an antithetical vision.
As they did with cinematographers, many prominent directors maintained continuing collaborations with production designers. Dean Tavoularis's brilliant work was essential for Francis Coppola's efforts to break with realism and substitute stage-bound expressionism on Hammett (1982, Coppola producing), One From the Heart (1982), and Rumble Fish (1983). Tavoularis's other Coppola collaborations were more subdued and included The Outsiders (1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Gardens of Stone (1987), Tucker (1988) and New York Stories. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas found Norman Reynolds's affectionately retro designs indispensible for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Return of the Jedi (1983), and Empire of the Sun (1987). Mel Bourne, who provided Woody Allen with a versatile array of locales for the disparate Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, and Zelig, was succeeded by Stuart Wurtzel (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters) and Santo Loquasto (Radio Days, Another Woman, September, Crimes and Misdemeanors, New York Stories). Pato Guzman regularly collaborated with Paul Mazursky, producing designs for Willie and Phil (1980), Tempest (1982), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), and Moon over Parador (1988). Rodger Maus was Blake Edwards's preferred designer (S.O.B., Victor/Victoria, The Man Who Loved Women, Micki and Maude, A Fine Mess, Blind Date, Sunset). Sidney Lumet relied on Philip Rosenberg for Daniel, Garbo Talks, Running on Empty, and Family Business. Bruno Rubeo made politics concrete in the memorable locales and sets he designed for Oliver Stone on Salvador, Platoon, Talk Radio, and Born on the Fourth of July. In the seventies, Polly Platt regularly collaborated with Peter Bogdanovich, and his relative inactivity in the eighties led her to a more diverse range of productions: The Man with Two Brains (1983), Terms of Endearment (1983), and The Witches of Eastwick (1987).
Bill Kenney's work for Sylvester Stallone (Rambo , Rocky IV , Rambo III ) established him as a premier visual stylist for action blockbusters, while his designs for Lawrence Kasdan on Body Heat conveyed that film's intricate thematic motifs with much subtlety. Especially memorable was the design Kenny created for Matty's "lair," a balcony festooned with wind chimes that audibly conveyed the story's undercurrents of desire and menace. Wynn Thomas's transformation of a Brooklyn city block (strategically without trees that would offer shade) and selective application of color (red) enabled Spike Lee to convey the heat of oppressive weather and smoldering racial tension so palpably in Do the Right Thing (1989).
The decade also saw outstanding and significant work by the industry's film editors. Like production design, editing is a supremely important production component about which the general moviegoing public knows little. Editors are hardly household names in the way that some directors are, yet it is the editor's work that gives rhythm and pace to the film, provides narrative structure, and shapes and crafts many aspects of an actor's performance. The singular achievements of the decade's filmmaking were often a function of the editor's work. Nino Baragli surpassed even his customary brilliance with his editing of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984), creating a kaleidoscopic narrative that juggled multiple time frames with astonishingly fluid transitions. John Bloom surmounted the daunting challenge of telling a story backward in Betrayal (1983), starting with the ending and working toward the beginning, and he made the shots work using this peculiar time scheme. Bloom also provided one of the decade's best examples of editing for tight narrative effect in Under Fire (1983), an extremely well cut film. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's regular editor, provided edgy rhythms and lightning fast transitions in Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, and The Last Temptation of Christ.
Dede Allen had given Arthur Penn's work (Bonnie and Clyde , Night Moves ) its peculiarly off-kilter rhythms. While she found no comparable projects for her unusually angled shot transitions in the eighties, her work on Reds (1981) and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) crisply organized each projects abundant wealth of source material. Another brilliant editor of late-sixties American cinema, Lou Lombardo (who edited The Wild Bunch  to seminal effect) worked sporadically in the eighties and mainly on low-key films (Moonstruck, in Country ) where his editing choices showed the intelligence and subtlety that rarely wins Oscars. The wonderful comic effectiveness and timing of Moonstruck, for example, depends as much on Lombardo's editing as on John Patrick Shanley's script or the performances by Cher, Nicolas Cage, and the rest of the cast. Legendary editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia ) worked in the eighties with no directors the stature of David Lean, but her editing (with Antony Gibbs and Stanley Warnow) held Ragtime (1981) together amid its plethora of characters and subplots and produced a workable film from a difficult-to-adapt novel. Ray Lovejoy cut Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and he worked again with Kubrick on The Shining and supplied that picture with an entirely different—tenser, more foreboding—texture than the stately science fiction classic had possessed. Lovejoy also proved adept at editing for blockbuster effect. His cutting in Aliens sustained that sequel's narrative momentum with a speed and tension that its predecessor did not have, and his editing on Batman finessed that film's gaping narrative problems by simply rushing past them. For Walter Murch (whose classic work in the seventies included The Conversation and Apocalypse Now and in the nineties The English Patient), the eighties were a relatively quiescent decade as film editor: Disneyland's "Captain Eo" (1986), and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). After cutting in the seventies The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Deer Hunter, Peter Zinner, too, worked on less prominent projects in the eighties, the most notable being An Officer and a Gentleman (1982).
Character-centered and dialogue-based filmmakers needed sensitive editors to find the dramatic nuances in the material, the appropriate take of an actor's performance, and the right edit points to shape the subtleties of a scene. Barry Levinson relied on Stu Linder to give Diner> (1982), The Natural (1984), Tin Men (1987), and Rain Man (1988) the careful shaping that the material demanded, and Lawrence Kasdan relied on Carol Littleton for Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), Silverado (1985), and The Accidental Tourist (1988). Clint Eastwood's improvisatory approach to filmmaking, wherein he allowed the actors to find their characters and behavior on the set while shooting, found its complement in the stately, unhurried pacing supplied by Joel Cox's editing (Cox succeeding Ferris Webster for Eastwood) on Bronco Billy (1980), Sudden Impact (1983), Tightrope (1984), Pale Rider (1985), Heartbreak Ridge (1986), Bird (1988), and Pink Cadillac (1989). The pacing of the Cox-Eastwood films was at striking variance from the accelerating speed of much filmic storytelling in the eighties, especially in action films. Their eighties work anticipates and collectively points toward their supreme achievement in "real time" editing, The Bridges of Madison County (1995).
The editor's contribution to a director's work is evident in other enduring partnerships that spanned the decade. Woody Allen and Francis Coppola's projects were remarkably eclectic in style and subject matter, yet they retained regular editors despite the changing aesthetic nature of their productions. Susan E. Morse edited every Allen film of the eighties, regardless of its subject matter or visual design, and as we have seen, Allen worked with a variety of cinematographers and production designers in those years. His insistent use of Morse demonstrates the essential nature of her collaboration. Barry Malkin cut Coppola's Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Gardens of Stone as well as the Coppola-produced Hammet. He also cut Arthur Penn's Four Friends (1981), and the difference an editor makes on a director's films is evident by comparing his more linear approach to Dede Allen's fractured and off-center cutting. Brian De Palma's work was more consistent stylistically than Allen's or Coppola's, and he relied on Bill Pankow for Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), and Casualties of War (1989). Sydney Pollack used Fredric and William Steinkamp on all of his eighties work (Tootsie , out of Africa , Havana ). In its comic sophistication and narrative elegance, Blake Edwards's work exemplified the merits of classical Hollywood filmmaking, and illustrative of this, he relied on Ralph E. Winters, whose editing credits go back to Mr. and Mrs. North (1941) and Gaslight (1944) and who cut, for Edwards, S.O.B., Victor/Victoria, Curse of the Pink Panther, The Man Who Loved Women, and Micki and Maude.
Action film storytelling accelerated at a lightning pace during the decade, with edit points barely separated by a handful of frames. Mark Goldblatt's ferocious work on The Terminator (1984) was the most impressive example of editing for sheer narrative momentum since Carl Pingitore and Don Siegel's work on Dirty Harry (1971). Goldblatt also worked on the fast-moving Commando (1985), Rambo (1985) and Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986). Chris Lebenzon and Billy Webber's editing of Top Gun, Paul Hirsch's editing of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Michael Kahn's work on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) raised the threshold for narrative pacing and, through their influence, helped many of the period's most popular films increasingly resemble rollercoaster rides.
Unlike other below-the-line production components, film scoring faced a threat to its very existence in the eighties. The majors' desire to exploit ancillary markets placed increasing pressure on filmmakers to use pop music (either by currently popular artists or the recycled hits of yesterday) in place of an original score. Most film composers regarded the pop solution as a quick and dirty way of getting a soundtrack and artistically inferior to an original score, whose purpose, unlike the pop song, is to serve the film. To the extent that the pop song strategy prevailed, the art of original scoring languished, and many films were released whose soundtracks were clearly just a means of selling records. On the other hand, however, the eighties produced fine original film scores, and enough productions avoided pop music to enable major composers to continue their careers by producing work of distinction.
John Barry, for example, had famously written the brassy and jazz-inflected scores for the James Bond films in the sixties. In the eighties he produced lushly romantic com positions for Body Heat, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves (1990). Barry's ability on these films to write soaring music for full symphony orchestra resulted from John Williams's demonstration in the Spielberg-Lucas films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, etc.) of the symphony as a vital scoring resource. In the sixties and early seventies, the symphonic score had fallen out of favor, replaced by smaller groups of musicians playing rock-based music. Williams brought the symphonic score back into prominence with his stirring music for the blockbusters and enabled others to work in this mode (e.g., Randy Newman's The Natural ). James Homer's soaring Glory, replete with the Harlem Boys' Choir, was one of the decade's outstanding symphonic compositions. In this expansive mode, Maurice Jarre's score for A Passage to India concluded his collaborations (Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan's Daughter ) with director David Lean.
With his remarkable versatility, Jerry Goldsmith worked inside and outside of this tradition as the needs of a production warranted. His scores for the Rambo series (1982, 1985, 1988) were full-blooded orchestral works, while his work on Gremlins (1984) showed his ability to write memorable themes that provided a perfect musical embodiment for a film's emotional coloration. His score Under Fire aimed to musically characterize regional revolution in Central America by using indigenous instrumentation (pan flutes), and he managed to do this while accommodating room for impressive guitar solos by Pat Metheny. Like Goldsmith, Henry Mancini was prolific and adept at working in a variety of musical modes. Mancini's witty scoring was a superb accompaniment to Blake Edwards's comedies, and together they represented one of American cinema's most important director-composer teams. Mancini scored Edwards's S.O.B., Victor/Victoria, Trail of the Pink Panther, The Man Who Loved Women, That's Life, A Fine Mess, Blind Date, and Sunset. Mancini was equally adept at scoring drama, and his music for Edwards' earlier "Peter Gunn" television series and feature Days of Wine and Roses (1962) added classic and enduring musical themes to the repertoire. In 1989, Edwards returned to television with a new Peter Gunn movie and another Mancini collaboration in a superb dramatic score.
Italian composers Giorgio Moroder and Ennio Morricone wrote striking scores using novel instrumentation, relatively simple themes subject to intensive repetition, and the integration of electronics with the conventional symphony. Moroder's insistent disco rhythms gave an unmistakably pop sound to the scores for American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982), Flashdance (1983), Scarface and Top Gun (1986), his synth-pop sound was unmistakable on Thief of Hearts (1984), for which he was the soundtrack producer, and the 1984 restoration of Metropolis (1926), which he produced and coscored. Ennio Morricone, most famous for his scores for Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, was one of the most prolific film composers in the business. In the eighties, he wrote music for over sixty films. This quantity of output, however, accompanied great variations in quality, with Morricone often seeming to plagiarize himself by recycling his own material (e.g., In the Line of Fire  and The Untouchables ). Morricone worked as an international composer in the eighties, and his scores for Hollywood pictures accompanied a great deal of work in the Italian cinema. His best Hollywood scores left an indelible imprint on the films and in the viewer's mind. By turns lyrical and violent, accentuating rarely employed instruments like pan flutes or harmonica, Morricone's music fused with the images and became an organic part of the experience of Once Upon a Time in America (1984), The Mission (1986), The Untouchables (1987), and Casualties of War (1989). One casualty for Morricone in the eighties was his score for The Thing (1982). Director John Carpenter discarded much of Morricone's composition and retained those passages that were stylistically consistent with the scores Carpenter had himself written for his other films.
Bill Conti had secured his career by scoring the Rocky series, beginning in the latter seventies, and writing the popular Rocky theme ("Gonna Fly Now"). With John Williams s themes from the Raiders and Star Wars series, this was one of decade's best-known musical leitmotifs. Conti specialized in stirring, rousing scores (others included Victory  and The Right Stuff ), and he broadened his association with Rocky director John Avildson by scoring Avildson's Karate Kid series (1984, 1986, 1989).
Prominent scoring newcomers in the eighties included Angelo Badalamenti, whose haunting and eerie music David Lynch used to great effect in Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990) and, on television, "Twin Peaks" (1990). Scoring his first films for release in 1979, James Horner emerged as a major talent in the eighties, with full bodied, epic scores for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and III: The Search For Spock (1984). But along with Glory, it was Field of Dreams (1989) that represented his finest work of the decade. Horner's Field of Dreams score was an intriguing combination of symphony orchestra and electronic instrumentation, using the former to capture the nostalgic romance of baseball and the latter to emblemize the supernatural aspects of the story. Mark Isham's scores for Alan Rudolph's films (Trouble in Mind , Made Heaven , The Moderns ) relied on unusual instrumentation and sonic effects, with the Trouble in Mind score a particular standout with its noirish mix of solo trumpet, blues, and vocal cries. Lennie Neihaus worked without bombast, in a self-effacing way, with his music for Clint Eastwood on City Heat [1984, Richard Benjamin, director], Tightrope [1984, Richard Tuggle, director], Pale Rider , Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and Bird (1988). Although he did some scoring in the seventies, Basil Poledouris emerged in the eighties as a major composer, producing the best Western movie score of the last thirty years for the television miniseries "Lonesome Dove" (1989). It was an epic score, with big-screen sweep and grandeur, and it stands with Victor Young's Shane (1953) Elmer Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven (1960) as a classic in the genre. Other significant composers who established their careers in the eighties were Howard Shore (Places in the Heart , After Hours , The Fly , Big ) and Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future , Who Framed Roger Rabbit , Back to the Future, Part II , The Aryss ). The most important new film composer in the eighties, however, was Danny Elfman, whose unique orchestrations and intricate rhythms made incalculable contributions to Tim Burtons Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), and Batman (1989). Elfman quickly established a unique musical voice and a superb ability to catch the action on screen, essential attributes that the great film composers have possessed.
Above the Line
To create an organizational schema, I have grouped the decade's major directors in terms of those who had an exemplary box-office track record (the hit makers: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, John Hughes, John Landis, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, Robert Zemeckis); those whose careers foundered (the embattled auteurs: Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, John Carpenter, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese); those who worked steadily and solidly throughout the decade (the working directors: Woody Allen, Clint Eastwod, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack); those who represented a new constituency and who added their voices to American film (the newcomers: women directors and producers, Tim Burton, James Cameron, Joe Dante, Lawrence Kasdan, Barry Levinson, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone); and those who worked outside the major channels of production and distribution (the independents and outsiders: Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Alan Rudolph, John Sayles, Paul Schrader). I have sequenced the filmmakers alphabetically in each section, except for the first one which deals with the hit makers. Because of the seminal status of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, it is appropriate to begin that section with their careers.
Year after year, the industry's big blockbuster films were its most visible products, garnering the greatest media attention and public interest. The success of the blockbusters points to a related phenomenon of the period, namely, the ascendency of the producer as both creative auteur and as custodian of studio capital. Following the Heaven's Gate disaster, with its lesson about the perils of letting an ambitious director work unsupervised, studio supervision of film production tightened, and a new era of powerful producers commenced. This was a concomitant of blockbuster filmmaking and helped provide an extra index of security for the majors. Potential blockbusters would not be entrusted to directors working without tight supervision. Most of the period's reliable hit makers functioned as powerful producers, if not also as directors.
Measured strictly by box office, Steven Spielberg was easily, and clearly, the decade's most important filmmaker. His career skyrocketed during this period and arguably was informed by the period's Zeitgeist. But to measure Spielberg's filmmaking accomplishments only by the spectacular box-office returns they generated is to misjudge his career and his talent. The discontinuity between academic and highbrow cultural criticism and the public is nowhere more apparent than in the critical reception accorded Spielberg and George Lucas. These filmmakers achieved an extraordinary rapport with the popular audience, yet the critical merit of their filmmaking has remained controversial. It is true that Spielbergs popular films evoke an uncomplicated range of emotions. Furthermore, in the eighties Spielberg had not yet become intimate in his art with the evil and moral darkness that he depicted so powerfully in Schindler's List (1993) in the character of the Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). But serious critics failed to give him his due. One finds in the work of Spielberg and Lucas some decidedly old-Hollywood virtues—a delight in economical, no-nonsense storytelling, an embrace of sentiment, an emotional immediacy unaccompanied by irony, and a love for the medium that is enthusiastic and that lacks tortured, postmodern self-consciousness. Given such qualities, it is no wonder the public embraced these filmmakers.
Spielberg's first picture of the decade, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), followed his seventies hits Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and seemed to certify him as a blockbuster filmmaker par excellance. But Raiders is more ambitious and accomplished than the appellation of "blockbuster" conveys. Based on a story by George Lucas (who also co-produced), it shows its makers' deep love for the medium, in particular the adventure stories and cliffhanger serials they recalled from their youth (and it has a basis in pulp novels as well—Indiana Jones is a Doc Savage-like character).2 The opening act is an amazing demonstration of storytelling skill, bringing the viewer in at the climactic end of one movie, which concludes before the main narrative of Raiders will begin. Jones's efforts to capture a valuable idol from a booby-trapped cave generate an escalating series of climaxes and hair breadth escapes that provide a splendid filmic conclusion—except that Raiders is only just beginning. The challenge Spielberg (and Lucas) set themselves here demonstrates their skill. By opening the film in this adrenaline-charged manner, they set a pace and level of thrill that they had to continually top, and they do. This is as self-conscious an act of narration and filmmaking as one will find (and which culminates in an overt homage to Citizen Kane  at the end), yet the film's popularity has tended to obscure the filmmaking work and the narrative ambitions that are involved.
Spielberg followed Raiders with two more popular hits: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Once again, to the dismay of serious film critics, the popular audience made a clear statement about the importance of feeling and emotion in cinema and the enthusiastic narrative skill that Spielberg brought to his work. E.T., in particular, touched viewers in a powerful manner that few filmmakers ever achieve in their work. Many critics distrusted the emotional response that Spielberg's films evoked from viewers, and this disconnect from the popular audience soon became apparent, as well, among Spielberg's filmmaking peers. Though his films (Raiders, E.T, The Color Purple) were nominated for best picture Oscars, none of them won this award, nor did Spielberg receive a best director Oscar during the decade. Moreover, he failed even to be nominated for The Color Purple. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences seemed to be sending a clear message that a schism prevailed between box-office success (at the extraordinary level that Spielberg's pictures enjoyed) and artistic success.
In 1986, the Academy did bestow an honor upon Spielberg, awarding him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In his acceptance speech, Spielberg lamented that much contemporary film was poorly written and urged filmmakers to create a more literate cinema, in which ideas and ennobling themes could be explored. These remarks surprised many listeners, who did not associate Spielberg with an especially literate style of filmmaking. But he now endeavored (and, indeed, had already started with 1985's The Color Purple) to honor this principle. In respect of this, his work in the eighties is bifurcated. The first half of the decade finds Spielberg working in a populist mode, fashioning films that connect with the greatest possible number of viewers (Raiders, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie ). By contrast, most of his features in the second half of the decade are films without clear blockbuster potential: The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun (1987), Always (1989). Only Indiana Jones and the last Crusade (1989) finds Spielberg back in a popcorn-movie mode. Based on the novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple relates a story about the life of a poor black woman (played by Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut) who endures years of abuse from her husband before she can assert her independence. Empire of the Sun was another ambitious literary adaptation, based on J. G. Ballard's novel about a young British boy separated from his parents in Shanghai when the Japanese invade China in the prelude to World War II. Always was a remake of a popular World War II movie about a pilot, killed in a crash, who returns to offer spiritual shelter and protection to the woman he loves. Though each of these films has evident failings, it was clear that Spielberg was an ambitious filmmaker who aspired to new challenges and that he was seeking to expand his range.
Of greatest significance is a point that was hard to see at the time—that World War II had a special resonance for Spielberg and that he would become one of its most significant cinematic chroniclers. The Indiana Jones films are set in and around that period, with Nazis as Jones's most dangerous antagonists. The storyline of The Color Purple runs into the late thirties, and servicemen in uniform appear as extras in the background of one scene. Empire of the Sun deals directly with the war, and Always resituates what was originally a wartime narrative (the original picture, A Guy Named Joe, was released in 1943) into more contemporary terms. These pictures in the latter eighties enabled Spielberg, with some awkwardness, to segue to a more adult-themed filmmaking and to make his initial forays into the historical period, and the moral issues, that he would take up with much greater assurance and accomplishment in Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Thus, to dismiss Spielberg as a popcorn-movie maker is doubly wrong. It minimizes the real accomplishments of his hit movies, and it overlooks the new directions in which he took his filmmaking in the latter half of the decade.
Spielberg's talent was evident as well in the impassioned pace with which he worked. He completed seven features during the decade—an extraordinary level of output—and he left his mark as director or producer on a huge outpouring of film and television programming. As a producer of work by other filmmakers, he gave important career boosts to directors Lawrence Kasdan, Joe Dante, and Robert Zemeckis. Like the powerful producers of classical Hollywood, such as Arthur Freed, Spielberg left his mark on the style of the pictures he produced. Like his own most popular work as director, these tended to involve special effects and to evoke lighthearted, adolescent adventure. His work as producer included Used Cars (1980), Continental Divide (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Gremlins (1984), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), The Goonies Back to the Future (1985) "Amazing Stories" (1985, TV series), An American Tail (1986), The Money Pit (1986), *batteries not included (1987), Innerspace (1987), The Land before Time (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Dad (1989), and Back to the Future, Part II (1989).
Spielberg's work was a major influence on the blockbuster turn in contemporary cinema, but his ambitions as a filmmaker clearly transcended this category of production. The 1980s were the transitional decade for him, taking his work from the seminal popularity of pictures like E.T., and his seventies hits, and toward the ambitious and complex issues of human evil and moral redemption that he regularly examined in the nineties (Schindler's List, Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan).
The Star Wars films of George Lucas are seminal works modern cinema, exerting a profound influence on popular culture, and they are among the most ambitiously conceived epics of film narrative ever made. The second and third installments of the series (which are episodes five and six in the narrative cycle)—The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983)—climaxed brought to conclusion the narrative elements that had been broached in the mid-seventies with Star Wars. (Accentuating the scope of these ambitions, Lucas launched in the late nineties an additional three films, which form the "back story" to the conflict between the Empire and the rebel forces.) The hugeness of this project and the expanse and wealth of story information that Lucas gave to his mythopoeic world were unprecedented in contemporary cinema. By beginning his saga in the middle of the story (Star Wars is episode four), Lucas abruptly plunged his viewers into a welldefined mythic universe, and each subsequent film elaborated upon the intricate network of characters and locations that Lucas was fashioning, installment by installment. By the end of Return of the Jedi, this imaginative universe contained a galaxy of uniquely differentiated and vividly rendered planets where critical episodes of the storyline occur. The Empire Strikes Back opens on the ice world of Hoth and a deadly clash between the Empire and the rebel forces, which have gone into hiding after launching (from the planet of Yavin 4) their assault on the first Death Star in Star Wars. The heroes, Luke, Han, and Princess Leia, escape the battle, with Luke journeying to the jungle world of Dagobah, where he encounters the Zen-like but diminutive Yoda. Han and Leia seek refuge on Bespin in the Cloud City run by Lando Calrissian. Darth Vader, though, sets a trap, freeze-dries Han, and sends him to Tatooine, the desert world where Luke grew up and where the toadlike gangster Jabba the Hut has his headquarters. The climax of the Empire-rebel struggle occurs in Return of the Jedi on Endor, a forest planet that is home to the Ewok, race of furry, cute, but fierce Rebel allies. Filling out this remarkably detailed gallery of places and characters are bounty hunters (Boba Fett, Greedo), monsters (the sand-dwelling Sarlacc), and Wild West cantinas (Mos Eisley).
Much of the series' popular appeal certainly lies in the elaborateness of its conception and the vivid and engaging details with which Lucas filled it out. But this appeal ran deep and captured the fancy of a generation of young viewers. Here the archetypal elements of the story are relevant. Lucas was familiar with folklore and mythology, particularly the work of Joseph Campbell on the structural characteristics of myth. Adroitly handled by Lucas and his team of filmmakers, the mythic substrata of the stories carried the emotional urgency of primal issues. Luke's struggle with the Dark Side and the revelation (a narrative surprise at the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back) of his relationship with Darth Vader gave the fantasy moral force and emotional resonance.
As Lucas has acknowledged,
The struggle between good and evil within us has been around since the beginning of time. All mythology and all religions address it, and it's the most intimate struggle that we cope with—trying to do the right thing and what's expected of us by society, by our peers, and in our hearts. The issues of falling from grace and being redeemed, and the strength of family and love—they're all very primary issues.3
The enthusiastic public reception for the films demonstrated the powerful rendition that Lucas had given these issues and the engaging manner in which he put them across. The archetypal force of these films is so immediate, the narratives and characters so lacking in irony, that intellectuals and critics were dismayed and somewhat uncomfortable with the communion that Lucas had achieved with his audience, as if the films' extraordinary popularity compromised their artistic worth. Interestingly, in this regard, Lucas did not, and had never, seen himself as a Hollywood filmmaker. "I am an independent filmmaker. People say my movies are just like Hollywood movies. And I say, 'I can't help it if Hollywood copies.'"4 Lucas's independence was both financial and artistic. By controlling the sequel rights to Star Wars and the related product licensing, Lucas reaped a fortune, which he used to establish his production facilities. These gave him an artistic freedom from studio interference. And he put his fortune into the films, using the success of each to finance the next. "I took the money I'd made from American Graffiti and stuck it into starting ILM, and then I took the money from Star Wars and popped it into The Empire Strikes Back, and the money from Empire into Return of the Jedi. Each film has paid for the next."5
His desire for artistic independence fueled the development of film production facilities that were geographically removed from Hollywood, with the divergent locale embodying the philosophical split from the studios, and that were on the cutting edge of research and development into sound recording and special effects. Lucas founded in 1975 the special effects house Industrial Light and Magic, based in San Rafael, California. In 1980, he began construction in Marin County, California, of Skywalker Ranch, the headquarters of Lucasfilm Ltd., his production company. The facility would contain an extensive research library and state-of-the-art sound recording facilities that served the postproduction of Lucas's pictures as well The Godfather, Part III (1990), Terminator 2 (1991), Bugsy (1991), JFK and other films by directors who were attracted to the sophisticated resources that Skywalker Ranch offered. In developing these facilities, Lucas held a long-range view of the industry's future. He wanted the resources that could train the next generations of special effects wizards and that could ease the industry's transition toward electronic methods of filmmaking, which he believed could help make cinema into a medium like painting, where the artist can control, with exacting precision, all aspects of the image. In this respect, Lucas took an industry lead in developing electronic and computerized approaches to image and sound editing—the EditDroid and SoundDroid systems—and a general upgrading of postproduction tools. Pursuing these interests—and getting ILM into solvent shape—effectively stalled his directing career. After directing the original Star Wars (1977), he served as producer on the two follow-up films and did not direct any features during the decade (though he did shoot second-unit footage on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Willow, Tucker, and other pictures). Furthermore, the completion of Return of the Jedi put the series into a long hiatus, with sixteen years elapsing before release of The Phantom Menace (1999).
But though he did not direct, Lucas used his role as a producer, and his company, to exert considerable influence on picture making during the period. As producer, Lucas worked on Kagemusha (1980), Body Heat (1981), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Twice upon a Time (1983), The Ewok Adventure (1984, TV movie), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985, TV movie), "Ewoks" (1985, TV series), Howard the Duck (1986), Labyrinth (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), Willow (1988), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Lucas used his industry influence to help filmmakers he admired get their projects into production and distribution—Akira Kurosawa and Kagemusha, Lawrence Kasdan Body Heat, Haskell Wexler and Latino (1985).6 In addition to this feature television work, Lucas designed the Disney theme park attractions "Captain EO" (1986, directed by Francis Coppola and featuring Michael Jackson) and "Star Tours" (1987), an effects ride tied in to the Empire-rebel conflict of Star Wars.
In tandem with this work, Lucas and ILM researched and developed the next generation of production tools. Indeed, Lucas's greatest influence on American film was here, in his championing of digital production methods and effects technology. As noted, Lucasfilm brought a random-access, computer-assisted electronic editor (Editdroid) on line at mid-decade and an all-digital sound editor (SoundDroid) a few years later.7 To ensure optimum, state-of-the-art sound, the Technical Building (a sound post-production facility at Skywalker Ranch) was constructed with elaborate acoustical design features. These included mechanical and electrical systems to optimize room acoustics and to isolate sound from low-level background noise.8 The facility enabled Lucasfilm to lead the industry in sophisticated sound design, and its recording stage attracted a variety of
other filmmakers and musicians (the Grateful Dead, the Kronos Quartet, Linda Ronstadt).
Lucas's effects house, Industrial Light and Magic, designed effects for the Lucas productions as well as a wide range of other prominent films. These included Dragonslayer (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), E.T. (1982), Starman (1984), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Out of Africa (1985), Mishima (1985), The Goonies (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Cocoon (1985), The Golden Child (1986), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), The Money Pit (1986), Empire of the Sun (1987), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), *batteries not included (1987), Innerspace (1987), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), The Witches of Eastwick (1987); The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Cocoon II (1988), The Accidental Tourist (1988), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988); Always (1989), Back to the Future, Part II (1989), The Abyss (1989), Ghostbusters II (1989), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Field of Dreams (1989). Through these pictures, ILM put its imprimateur upon a decades worth of film and became synonymous with cutting-edge special effects.
In 1989 and 1990, ILM's work with director James Cameron on The Abyss Terminator 2 broke new ground in the use of digital effects to create the films' slithery water creature and gleaming, shape-shifting terminator. Since then, ILM helped move the industry toward more extensive computer-based methods of filmmaking, which, Lucas believed, will give filmmakers significantly greater creative freedom because filming and post-production processes will be completely digital. "Before, once you photographed something, you were pretty much stuck with it. Now … you can have complete control over it just like an artist does, and that to me is the way it should be."9 With digital tools, Lucas points out, "you can make shots conform to your idea after the fact, rather than trying to conform the world to what your idea is."10
Of course, many filmmakers and viewers might find this compulsion for total control over filmic elements to be stifling of creative freedom, the very ideal that Lucas said he was pursuing. His passion for preplanned design was an approach to filmmaking at odds with more aleatory, improvised methods. But cinema is open to both approaches, and Lucas's design-centered aesthetic was not dissimilar to Hitchcock's passion for control, with the proviso that Hitchcock's understanding of the audience was perhaps more nuanced than Lucas's. And it is very few filmmakers who create the essential epic mythos of modern cinema and one with a cultural force that transcends the medium and imbibes the period to become its inescapable artifact. ILM was the engine driving the effects and digital revolutions in modern film, and Lucas became the industry's technological visionary, fixed on the digital future of film and transforming it away from its photomechanical base.
Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer
Along with Spielberg and Lucas, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were the decade's most successful blockbuster filmmakers. It is not incorrect to refer to them as filmmakers even though they received no director's credit on their films, nor did they direct such films. They didn't have to. As producer-auteurs (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun), they imposed a powerful visual and narrative style on the films they guided through production, and in this respect there was something of old Hollywood about their character and methods. Powerful producers were plentiful during Hollywood's classical period (David O. Selznick, Arthur Freed, Walter Wanger, Mark Hellinger), but the cult of the director that developed in the late sixties and seventies tended to delegitimize the producers creative contributions. Director Martin Brest (Going in Style , Beverly Hills Cop) noted that in the seventies "producer" was a dirty word.11 By contrast, in the eighties the legacy of Heaven's Gate and the spectacular success of Lucas and Spielberg and of Simpson-Bruckheimer Productions marked a resurgence of the producer as a key auteur.
Indeed, Simpson absolutely considered himself to be the author of those pictures that he produced, and he forcefully proclaimed this creative ownership as a means of countering a studio's inevitable assertion of creative property rights. Describing the Simpson-Bruckheimer approach, Simpson said, "We're not only hands-on, we're feet-on. We don't take a passive role in any shape or form."12 Bruckheimer noted that it was strategically important to insist on the producer's creative authority when dealing with powerful studio-distributors because, otherwise, the studio would usurp the producer's autonomy. "Don … felt, and he was right, that unless you say, 'I made this movie,' it will be Paramount's Top Gun, it will be a studio movie."13 Simpson was skeptical about the claims to sole authorship by many directors, and he regarded the director on Simpson-Bruckheimer productions as another for-hire member of the crew, a member that had one function—to serve the production. "I don't believe in the auteur theory. Some directors who shall remain nameless do regard movies as an extension of their internal emotional landscape, but Jerry and I decide on the movie we want to make. We then hire an all-star team who can implement the vision. The movie is the auteur, the boss…. No one person, director or writer, is above the call of the final result."14
Simpson was an executive at Paramount and the president of worldwide production from 1981 to 1982 when he switched (or was forced out of the studio, depending on who is telling the story) to independent production with Bruckheimer, whose background was in advertising. Considering Paramount home, Simpson-Bruckheimer turned out a stream of hits for the studio during the eighties. The production duo's chart-topping success began with their first collaboration in 1983, Flashdance, followed by Thief of Hearts (1984, and not a huge hit like the others), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Top Gun (1986) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). By decade's end, their films had generated revenues for Paramount of $2.27 billion. Paramount, in turn, was so committed to keeping the production duo that the studio tore up their existing contract in 1985 and signed them to a new, multimillion-dollar, four-year deal that gave them points on all the films they produced and a share of ancillary revenue.
More than any other eighties productions, the Simpson-Bruckheimer films embodied the "high concept" approach to moviemaking. The storylines were simple and easily described but were punched across by aggressive editing and a skillful blend of visual imagery and popular music. Flashdance and Top Gun embodied a rock video style of filmmaking in which the emphasis was on bite-sized narrative segments and a fusion of image and music. The narrative in Top Gun is exceptionally direct and unembellished ("clean" in Simpson's lexicon). Tom Cruise plays a Navy fighter pilot in training at the elite Top Gun school, where he learns the latest methods of aerial combat. He romances a teacher at the school (Kelly McGillis), loses his best friend in a flying accident, suffers a crisis of confidence and nerve, and recovers his skills in time to save a comrade in a dogfight with Soviet fighters. This bare-bones narrative gets a high-gloss visual treatment amid extended sequences cut to music and that featured little or no dialogue.
Simpson and Bruckheimer combined their complementary backgrounds to perfect their high-concept formula, merging a lean, propulsive story (Simpson) and commanding visuals (Bruckheimer). Simpson said, "We entered into this relationship from two disparate positions. With my background as writer and actor, my responsibility was always in telling and conceiving the story. I brought the verbal to the relationship. Jerry was the film editor and photographer, so he brought the visual. Verbal and visual; we were the 'V & V twins." For Simpson, the blockbuster aesthetic must be "clean"; that is, it must use a design that is clear and immediately accessible. This was the essence of high concept—a catchy premise uncluttered by excessive narrative development or dramatic ambiguities and layered with slick images like icing on a cake. "The aesthetic is: 'that's clean' … which can apply to art, a jacket, a shot in a movie, even a girl. It means 'it works.' The design works." Simpson's description of how he chose a project was also a statement of how their high-concept films worked on viewers: "I never start out intellectually. I commit my instincts. It's gut to heart to mind to mouth."15
Simpson-Bruckheimer's incorporation of music as a key element of high-concept design proved to be tremendously influential. Portions of Flashdance and Top Gun are essentially rock videos, extended montage sequences cut to music, which facilitated synergies with recorded music merchandising (see ch. 3). Flashdance and subsequent Simpson-Bruckheimer films were carefully marketed in tandem with the release of singles and albums featuring music from the sound track. The popularity of each market (recorded music and film) reinforced the performance of the other. The Beverly Hills Cop sound track sold over a million copies (platinum status) the year of the film's release, and the Flashdance sound track broke 5 million copies.
The high-concept approach became a durable and essential staple of Hollywood filmmaking and transcended the works produced by Simpson and Bruckheimer. Twins (1988), for example, made at Universal under production chief Tom Pollock, hinged its narrative premise and marketing appeals on the singular prospect, and image, of muscular Arnold Schwarzenegger and diminuitive Danny DeVito as fraternal twins. The image and the idea vividly encapsulated the film. Even as they bequeathed high concept to American cinema, Simpson and Bruckheimer's box-office success faltered at decade's end. In 1988, Paramount renegotiated their contract, promising over $300 million for five pictures of their choosing plus a percentage of the gross. The first picture under this deal, Days of Thunder, starring Tom Cruise as a race car driver, went into production with a problematic script, unusual for a Simpson-Bruckheimer picture because Simpson was renowned for giving scripts close attention. He would issue twenty- and thirty-page memos to writers specifying revisions and then oversee as many rewrites of the material. (Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne found Simpson's analyses to be intelligent and keenly attuned to issues of narrative structure.) Worse, Days of Thunder went over budget, costing Paramount $70 million and generating relatively disappointing box office, short of the Top Gun-on-wheels potential the studio wanted.
In the wake of this "failure," Paramount demanded a restriction on their gross participation perk, whereupon Simpson and Bruckheimer left Paramount for Disney, ending their spectacular alliance with the decade's most successful major. At Disney, cost cutting was the norm, and Simpson-Bruckheimer's lavish ways were ill suited for their new employers corporate climate. They had difficulty putting projects together. The Ref, their next release, did not appear until 1994, and it performed poorly. But in 1995-96, they came back with three huge hits, Crimson Tide, Dangerous Minds, and The Rock. By now, though, Simpson's drug use, which had been a chronic feature of his life, was out of control, and Jerry Bruckheimer dissolved the partnership. Simpson quickly self-destructed. Drug and psychological problems overwhelmed him. Five months later, in January, he died of a drug overdose.
It was a dispiriting fall from power and a cautionary tale of Hollywood excess. Yet throughout the eighties, Simpson and Bruckheimer's hits helped make Paramount the most successful major of the decade, dramatized the windfall profits that ancillary synergies could produce, and helped turn film narrative into a series of adrenaline-pumping audiovisual montages. And although Simpson could not control the chaos of his private life, before his partnership with Bruckheimer ended, they had given the industry the quintessential elements of blockbuster marketing.
The decades king of teen comedy was John Hughes. Beginning with his first film as director, Sixteen Candles (1984), Hughes worked prolifically, directing a film a year through the remainder of the decade. By contrast, in the nineties, he was virtually quiescent as a director, though not as a writer. Thus, to date, he remains essentially a filmmaker of the eighties.
Sixteen Candles established the essential Hughes milieu of adolescent longing and angst played as lighthearted comedy. Shot for less than $6.5 million, the picture broke the rules of teen comedy and set new ones. Hughes felt that sixteen-year-olds were poorly served by the films aimed their way, so he pitched the Sixteen Candles story with a female character at its center and with sex deemphasized. Samantha (Molly Ringwald) is a high school student fast approaching her sixteenth birthday, and she struggles with her crush on the school's most popular guy while trying to fend off the awkward affections of the school geek. "It was my intent to write it from the female point of view, because this genre is generally about males, and sex is a predominant theme…. When you're 30, you forget that at 16 sex was not your primary motivation; you were much more interested in having a boyfriend or girlfriend."16
Hughes's sensitivity to the moviegoing interests of young viewers, and to the real-life issues that subtended their moviegoing, made his pictures phenomenally successful and influential within their demographic niche and established a galaxy of new performers. In Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, (1985), and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Hughes's casting choices helped launch the careers of a gallery of young actors that became known, somewhat derisively, as the brat pack: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, and Matthew Broderick.
As a writer-director, Hughes had a gift for capturing authentic-sounding teen dialogue, which he achieved partly by inventing new slang terms, and he centered the films' action within the somewhat solipsistic worlds of their young characters. Thus, adult life in these films is properly distanced from the ideals, longings, and shenanigans of his teens. But unlike Spielberg, who sometimes imposed childlike responses on his viewers, Hughes's strategy was more sociological. He did not say, like Spielberg, that it's better to be a kid. Instead, he was interested in observing and recording the codes and rituals of teen life. He played to that audience without attempting to regress his viewers to that level, emphasizing story and characters and letting the jokes emerge later and from this grounding. "I never start with the jokes. I look at an issue and try to find the story in it…. You get a lot of bad comedy from people sitting around a bar saying 'wouldn't it be funny if…'"17
Hughes's most stylish and popular film in the teen series was Ferris Bueller ($29 million in domestic rentals), about "one man's tireless crusade to take it easy." While cutting classes, Ferris embarks on a wild series of misadventures about which his parents and other adults remain completely clueless, as Hughes stylishly captures the solipsism of adolescence.
Hughes profitably ventured outside the teen genre with two popular John Candy vehicles (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles , also starring Steve Martin, and Uncle Buck ), but he is best known for the Brat Pack cycle that he helped popularize. If in the nineties he turned his energies to writing and producing, Hughes's eighties films defined the quintessential look and sound for an affluent, suburban youth culture. In an era of special effects, Hughes showed that one could be successful on modest budgets, with smart, funny writing and with pictures rooted in a real sociocultural milieu.
Landis suffered the indignity of being the only American director prosecuted for the death of actors under his filmmaking supervision. The trial, its publicity, and its aftermath hung like a pall over his career during the decade and affected his already rocky relationship with the nation's film critics. The pictures he made during this period, before, during, and after the trial, contained some notable hits but also some overbudgeted, overproduced misfires.
He began the decade as an auspicious and commercially promising filmmaker. National Lampoon's Animal House, which Landis directed, was one of the biggest hits of 1978, and it made him into a golden boy at Universal. Steven Spielberg admired and liked the picture, and he and Landis became friends. Eager to support their new filmmaker, Universal executives funded The Blues Brothers, a comedy Landis fashioned around "Saturday Night Live" performers John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and the characters and sketch material they had created on that popular television show. But instead of being a character-driven comedy, the movie escalated into a series of overproduced musical numbers, explosions, and car crashes. The budget went beyond what Universal had anticipated, with press reports of a production cost in excess of $30 million. When the picture was released in 1980, critics were appalled at the expenditure of so much money on so noisy a film. The Washington Post called it a "ponderous comic monstrosity," and critic Kenneth Turan remarked that "it has more car crashes than a demolition derby" and "fewer laughs than an afternoon at traffic school."18
Despite these reactions, the picture sustained a devoted cult following that ensured its relative success at the box office. Intent to prove that he could work within a modest budget, Landis next made An American Werewolf in London (1981) for Polygram Pictures and producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Landis again aimed for the outrageous. He had filmed Animal House with grossly funny and wickedly lewd humor. This time, he deliberately blended slapstick comedy with graphic violence and gory special effects. The monster wreaks extremely bloody carnage and corpses decay in lingering detail while Landis stages wacky car crashes. He described his approach in these terms: "Let's say you were walking in Times Square and feeling very high—like you feel after a good movie or a great concert. … And let's say at that particular moment you were approached by … Dracula, and he attacks you and starts biting your neck with his long eyeteeth. … That sort of fast transition is going to happen all the time in this movie, and that's what nobody liked about the script."19
An American Werewolf was a modest success, and it helped sustain Landis s reputation as an iconoclastic director whose irreverent work was especially appealing to young viewers, that vital industry demographic. When Universal floated the idea to Spielberg of doing a movie based on Rod Serlings "Twilight Zone" television show, Spielberg expressed his interest, and Landis was one of the directors recruited to helm a segment of this anthology film. It gave him an opportunity to work with Spielberg, who was directing another segment for the film and serving as the picture s producer.
Landis scripted a dark tale about a bigot, played by Vic Morrow, who inexplicably finds himself trapped in other times and places—the American South, Vietnam, Germany during the Nazi era—where he becomes the target and victim of racial hatred. The character learns what it is like to be the object of irrational animosity. Morrow's character gets a chance at redemption, though, when he lands in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and rescues two Vietnamese children from a helicopter attack on their village. The filming of this sequence produced a grotesque accident, one for which Landis and four associates were held accountable. They were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the events that led to the deaths on 23 July 1982 of Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Chen.
During action in which Morrow fled the burning village carrying the children, a helicopter piloted by Dorcey Wingo (one of Landis's codefendents) was hit by a special effects explosion and careened out of control, crushing one of the children and decapitating Morrow and the other child. The prosecution argued that Landis exhibited gross negligence in asking his effects crew to produce explosions so large they were unsafe and in asking the pilot to fly unnecessarily close to the fireball for the sake of a more impressive shot. Reporting on the accident, California's OSHA found thirty-six safety violations on the set.20 Making matters worse, the production had employed the children illegally. They had no work permit, and they were working well after dark.
When a judgment was finally rendered nearly five years later, on 29 May 1987, Landis and his four codefendents were acquitted of the charges brought against them. But in the interval and through the massive publicity the case and the trial had generated, Landis and Twilight Zone: The Movie came to symbolize, fairly or not, a reckless handling of actors in pursuit of the biggest explosion or the most stupefying effects sequence. Worse yet, the picture as released retained its Vic Morrow segment. Morrow and the children died "on camera," that is, during filming, but the footage showing their deaths did not appear in the finished film. The Vietnam sequence was dropped. As it now exists in Twilight Zone: The Movie, Landis's segment ends with Morrow's character trapped in Nazi Germany and shipped off with Jews to an extermination camp. It makes for creepy viewing. Its violence and general nihilism are compounded by a viewer's knowledge of the accident and resulting deaths. Furthermore, the retention of the Morrow segment in the finished film enhances the unpleasant aura of exploitation that hangs over this picture.
Landis continued working through this five-year debacle from the accident to the end of the trial. His next picture, Trading Places, was the third biggest box-office film of 1983 and helped skyrocket Eddie Murphy to superstardom. It was a well-written, clever comedy about a pauper (Murphy) who becomes rich on the whim of a wealthy benefactor and must contend with the awkwardness of his new class identity. As a comic vehicle, it allowed Murphy full reign in expressing his streetwise sassiness to skewer upper-class pomposity. Audiences loved Murphy and loved the film. But after this picture, and as the publicity fallout from the Twilight Zone case intensified, Landis's career went into an eclipse. He kept working, but his subsequent films failed to achieve solid commercial success in relation to their production costs. In addition, the critics were unkind to Into the Night (1985), Spies Like Us and Three Amigos! (1986), pictures that were often clever but also seemed derivative of earlier films and genres and too full of in-jokes and cameos by Landis's friends. Of these subsequent films, only Coming to America (1988), teaming him again with Eddie Murphy, gave Landis a measure of his earlier success. He ended the decade on this slow fall from his former box-office fame and remained most renowned for the Twilight Zone disaster. His work epitomized the brashness of megabuck studio filmmaking in which explosions, car crashes, and a general vulgarity of tone became prized assets for which the studios would spend millions.
Jon Peters and Peter Guher
Never as powerful Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Peters and Guber had a fitful, precarious cachet in eighties Hollywood because of their (sometimes remote) association with three of the decade s big hits: The Color Purple (1985), Rain Man (1988), and Batman (1989). Unlike Simpson and Bruckheimer, though, they were not hands-on producers but instead tended to be packagers of scripts, directors, and stars, and in this regard their work personified the importance of marketing in eighties Hollywood.
Early in their careers, Peters and Guber showed the flair for promotion that gained them prominence in the industry. Promoted from Barbara Striesand's hairdresser-lover to the producer of her film A Star Is Born (1976), Peters helped design its ad campaign featuring a nude embrace between Streisand and co-star Kris Kristofferson. The picture grossed over $90 million, and its success enabled Peters to form in 1977 his own production company, the Jon Peters Organization. Guber's breakthrough hit was The Deep (1977), based on a novel about sunken treasure by Jaws author Peter Benchley. Guber based the film's marketing around actress Jacqueline Bisset's wet T-shirt, and the picture, despite its mediocrity, became the second biggest box-office film of 1977. "That T-shirt made me a rich man," Guber remarked.21
In 1980, Peters and Guber joined forces as joint producers at PolyGram Pictures, where they produced a string of films in 1981 that generally failed to find much popular acceptance: King of the Mountain, The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, Endless Love, and An American Werewolf in London. As a result, PolyGram's European financiers sought to cut their loses (up to $80 million) and get out of the movie business. Peters and Guber left the company, set up shop as the Guber-Peters Co. in 1982, and found a home at Warner Bros., which agreed to finance and distribute their productions. Nearly all of the initial films were box-office losers: Vision Quest (1985), The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), Clue (1985), Head Office (1985), Youngblood (1986), The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986). The exception was The Color Purple (1985), directed by Steven Spielberg. Guber-Peters were associated with this picture because they owned the rights to the novel, but Spielberg had them barred from the set during filming and never collaborated with them on the project.22 Nevertheless, Guber and Peters treated Color Purple as the jewel in their crown.
Another string of box-office disappointments (Who's That Girl , Innerspace , Caddyshack II ) was offset by The Witches of Eastwick, the sixth biggest revenue-generating film of 1987. Director George Miller wanted a low-key and witty film about a clash between the devil and three small-town women, but Peters pushed aggressively for a heavy dose of special effects. Peters won, and the resulting picture was a box-office winner.
After a precipitous attempt to buy the remains of MGM/UA from Kirk Kerkorian in 1988, Peters and Guber had two huge successes that strengthened their reputation as hit makers. Rain Man was the top film of 1988's box office; as with The Color Purple, however, Peters and Guber had a stake in the script but were absentee producers on the project itself, visiting the set only once.23 By contrast, Batman (1989), a huge moneymaker for Warners, Peters took a more active role, recruiting Jack Nicholson to the project, urging director Tim Burton to add more action and romance, and helping design the very successful ad campaign.
Despite their uneven track record, Sony felt that Guber and Peters were essential for the success of its newly acquired Columbia Pictures. Accordingly, the electronics giant bought out their Warners contract for $200 million and appointed them to run Columbia Pictures. Sony's action was widely criticized as excessive and unnecessary, but it seemed to be a formal acknowledgment of the producer-as-superstar status that had become such a distinguishing feature of eighties Hollywood. But their five-year tenure at Columbia proved to be a disaster. Prominent box-office bombs—Bugsy (1991), Hudson Hawk (1991), City of Joy (1992), The Last Action Hero (1993), I'll Do Anything (1994), Geronimo (1993)—led to Guber's firing as Columbia head and Sony's posting of a $3.2 billion loss in its second quarter 1994. An era of overspending on inflated productions helped produce this massive loss and brought an end to Guber's power-broker posting.
Ironically, given the poor showing of their Columbia films, Guber and Peters's strengths had always been in marketing and promotion, and their regard for films as revenue-generating commodities was certainly in synch with the predominant thinking in the majors' executive suites. But their uneven track record contained only a few prominent hits (on some of which they had a distant association), and this mixed performance ensured that Guber and Peters remained occasional players in the highly uncertain and unstable world of the hit-making studio executive.
A Spielberg protégé, Robert Zemeckis directed several of the 1980s' top hits (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rarbit, both Spielberg productions), and he moved to the forefront of special effects filmmaking by virtue of Roger Rabbit and, in the 1990s, Death Becomes Her (1992) and Forrest Gump (1994). A university film school attendee, Zemeckis' award-winning student film, Field of Honor, earned Spielberg's attention, and Zemeckis subsequently co-wrote the story for Spielberg's 1941 (1979). The following year, he directed a fast, funny satire of car salesmen in the Spielberg-produced Used Cars (1980), which was released to poor box office ($5 million in rentals). The industry tagged Used Cars, Zemeckis's earlier I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), and 1941 as failures, he was temporarily unemployable. No studio would touch his screenplay for a film called "Back to the Future"! As a result, he was unable to land a directing job for several years.
But he returned with a picture that attracted a great deal of attention. Romancing the Stone, produced by actor Michael Douglas, earned $36 million in rentals, placing it in the top ten for 1984. The film was an old-fashioned, lighthearted adventureromance about unlikely lovers (Douglas and Kathleen Turner) in peril in South America, and it contained none of the gadgetry and special effects for which Zemeckis's work would become known. He passed on doing the sequel (The Jewel of the Nile ) and concentrated on his Back to the Future project, about young Marty McFly's (Michael J. Fox) comic adventures time-traveling in a sporty DeLorean auto.
Back to the Future (1985) is one of the quintessential eighties films. Tremendously successful, it spawned two sequels (1989, 1990), and it epitomized the collective yearning for a pristine past that the Reagan years had defined as a core national aspiration. Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), Marty's loony inventor friend, creates a time machine that enables Marty to travel back in time to his hometown in 1955, where he meets his parents when they were high school teens. To ensure that their future (and his present life in the eighties) will come true as he has known it, Marty has to act as matchmaker, encouraging their courtship. Oedipal complications ensue, however, when his mother develops a crush on Marty, whom she perceives as an attractive and mysterious visitor in town. Downplaying this narrative wrinkle, Zemeckis concentrates on Marty's efforts to make the past right (i.e., get his mom and dad to fall in love), much as President Reagan was exhorting the nation to return to its collective past in order to find its cultural bearings amid an uncertain present. As in Reagan's rhetoric, the past here is a more shining and idealistic time than is the present. Marty's hometown in the eighties is blighted with litter, homeless drunks sleeping in public, and porno movies at the corner theater. By contrast, in the fifties the town was spotless and bursting with the aspirations of youth. Moreover, as Reagan urged the nation, Marty uses the past to remake the present. At the end of the film, he learns that his intervention into his parents' lives in 1955 has made them happier, more self-fulfilled, and successful in the eighties. In these ways, Back to the Future venerates small-town America in terms consistent with the rhetoric of the Reagan presidency (while, nevertheless, aiming a few jokes at Reagan for being an actor-turned-president). The film owed much of its success to this artful manipulation of the eighties Zeitgeist (shared by another of the period's hits, Field of Dreams ), but its popularity was also a function of its warm and affectionate portrait of Marty's deepening involvement with his parents and his discovery of the conditions that made them who they are.
Back to the Future commenced the special effects turn in Zemeckis's filmmaking, an emphasis that would become one of his distinguishing directorial characteristics. Dr. Brown's time-traveling auto leaps through the decades in a burst of light and leaves a double trail of flame in its wake. To create these and other effects, Zemeckis began a collaboration with Industrial Light and Magic that continued on his subsequent films and produced a series of Academy Awards for best effects (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, and Forrest Gump).
Preceding the digital effects revolution, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Zemeckis's next film, was the climactic achievement of traditional compositing and matte effects work.24 Its seamless blend of live-action and animated footage, in a tale of a private eye (Bob Hoskins) investigating a crime in Toontown amid its cartoon denizens, would today be accomplished through computer animation and compositing of all-digital elements. But such was the skill with which Zemeckis and ILM executed the blend of live action and animation, and so witty were the results, that Roger and his cohorts became the year's most popular film characters.
Zemeckis carefully integrated the effects work with a clever story that linked disparate styles: film noir and famous cartoon characters from classic animated entertainment. Eddie Valiant, the private eye, works 1947 Hollywood, and like noir heroes he's haunted by past trauma. A cartoon character killed his brother. "Just like a toon to drop a safe on a guy's head," a cop mutters about the deed. Like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Valiant is drawn into a complex web of crime hinging on a corrupt land deal. To investigate he must return to Toontown, where the cartoon characters who work in Hollywood movies live and where he'll confront the scars of his past. Against this noir tableau, the film introduces a gallery of cartoon greats (mainly from Warners and Disney films) who make nostalgic and funny cameo appearances: Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Dumbo, Porky Pig, Pinocchio, Donald Duck, Yosemite Sam, Mickey Mouse, and, in her black-and-white glory, Betty Boop. To these old favorites the film adds two new animated characters. Roger is a well-meaning but buffoonish and long-suffering rabbit who lacks Bugs's impish savoir faire, and his wife, Jessica Rabbit, is an impossibly voluptuous human, voiced by Kathleen Turner, and given the film's best line of dialogue: "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."
The film's extraordinary accomplishment lies in the unprecedented sophistication of its integration of live action and 2D animation. The film featured 1,031 optical shots where live action and animated footage were composited together, and this material was photographed using the eight-perforation, horizontal VistaVision process. With its larger frame size, VistaVision provided optimal clarity and resolution to offset generational loss during optical printing (which necessitated the rephotographing of layered elements in order to create the final composited image).
Zemeckis, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and the ILM effects artists aimed to give the 2D animation a compelling three-dimensional look because the aesthetic conceit of the film is that Bob Hoskins and the other performers are interacting with the cartoon characters. To accomplish this, Zemeckis and Cundey resolved to shoot the film with complex camera moves and lighting textures (smoke, fog) that typically are not used in cartoons. For example, when Valiant goes to the Ink and Paint Club to watch Jessica sing, its cartoon patrons move behind the room's curtain of smoke. To make it easier for the actors and the cinematographer, the shots were rehearsed with full-figure models standing in for Roger, Jessica, and the other toon characters. Lighting, camera moves, and the actors' performances were established with reference to these figures, which were then removed during shooting. For the sequence where Valiant visits Toontown and Hoskins was the blue-screen element (acting against a blue screen for subsequent compositing with an animated landscape), the animators' layouts of the background were matted in on a TV monitor, enabling Zemeckis to visualize the full shot and plan camera and character moves. To enhance the 3D appearance of the toon characters, the animators added an uncommon degree of shadow and lighting information, and these effects were augmented further during the compositing stage. In addition to the light and color linkages, the camerawork connected the live action and animated environments, as when Zemeckis and Cundey shifted focus within a shot between live actors and the cartoon figures. These ingenious techniques worked splendidly. After an initial gasp, the viewer completely accepts that the cartoon characters exist in real time and space.
An uncommonly clever and well executed film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a uniquely innovative and ambitious achievement. Filmed with intelligence and filled with a love for cinema, especially the old cartoon classics, it speaks eloquently and with delight to young and old viewers, enchanting the old with familiar toon faces and amusing the young with stupendously well executed slapstick. It is one of the decade s key films, marking the passage of eras. Achieving that ever-difficult integration of art and technology, it epitomizes the glories of traditional methods of special effects compositing at the onset of a digital future. Like Sunrise (1927) at the close of the silent era, it is a summa of the old style that offers an implicit challenge to the new.
With that of Lucas and Spielberg, Zemeckis's work personified the contemporary fusion of narrative and special effects, and as Roger Rabbit shows, Zemeckis understood that effects were not the movie and should be carefully motivated and used with intelligence. In the nineties, the digital revolution enabled Zemeckis to be even more audacious, taking presidents Kennedy and Clinton and compositing them with the narrative and characters of Forrest Gump and Contact (1997).
The well-rendered familial drama of Back to the Future and the emotional darkness in Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Gump, and Contact indicated that Zemeckis was an ambitious filmmaker who placed effects in service to cinema and not vice versa. He was the only filmmaker to have emerged from Spielberg's shadow with a technical prowess equaling or surpassing his mentor. He was one of the few contemporary directors whose work conjoined cutting-edge effects with a sophisticated grasp of narrative and an aspiring artistic sensibility.
The Embattled Auteurs
The 1980s were a difficult decade for some of the industry's most ambitious and talented filmmakers. In the 1960s and 1970s, these directors achieved significant critical, and sometimes great commercial, success, yet in the 1980s they struggled to obtain financing for productions and several careers foundered. One of the most striking facets of eighties cinema is the list of major filmmakers whose careers stalled during the decade.
It is tempting to ascribe this phenomenon to changed economic circumstances. With the problem viewed this way, the majors were pursuing blockbusters and funding those filmmakers most likely to create them, and these did not include the seventies auteurs. Their films had been driven more by art and poetic sensibility than by the box office, and in the eighties the line between thinking films and commercial ventures became more absolute. Furthermore, tighter production controls were implemented post-Heaven's Gate with the result that maverick auteurs were kept on a shorter leash. While there is certainly some truth to these contentions, they fail to explain why other fine directors maintained strong career continuity in the eighties and why so many new and original filmmakers were able to begin their careers in this period. Plainly, many opportunities for work existed inside and outside of the industry. Ascribing the failed-auteur syndrome to the politics and economics of blockbuster production is too simplistic an explanation, and it provides an overly schematic portrait of the industry and the decade's filmmaking, which was too broad and eclectic to be characterized by an "us versus them" or "art versus commerce" dichotomy. But the phenomenon was real. Major filmmakers who were regarded ten years previously as the luminaries of American film culture were adrift in the eighties and encountered great difficulties sustaining their careers. The factors responsible for this turn of affairs were complex and varied, and they differed according to the filmmaker. They included the effects of intransigent personalities, hostility to the system and the prospect of working for the majors, and creative crises precipitated by personal estrangement from the sociocultural moment and the exhaustion of one's available talents. As this constellation of problems descended on the seventies auteurs, their collective crisis in the eighties began.
Altman's fall in the eighties epitomized the fate of seventies auteurs. During the eighties, his career absolutely collapsed as a feature filmmaker receiving funding and distribution from the majors. He was unemployable within the system, despite having made such seventies classics as McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). To the studios, his aleatory filming methods, cavalier treatment of scripts, and disdain for conventional narrative amounted to irresponsible filmmaking, and the poor box-office performance of his late-seventies pictures set him up for a crisis.
It came with 1980's Popeye, made for Paramount and Walt Disney. The production went over budget and was plagued with shooting difficulties not of Altman s making. In the context of a troubled production, however, studio executives found Altman s meandering narrative style and improvisatory filming methods to be unacceptable, and he took the fall for the picture's delays. Moreover, Popeye was not a huge hit. Its worldwide rentals were respectable, yet because it fell short of blockbuster status, the industry perceived the film as a failure. After a string of box-office bombs in the latter 1970s, virtually no studio would now touch Altman. MGM was an exception, reluctantly signing him in 1983 to direct O.C. And Stigs, an awkward comedy about two teenagers tormenting the adults around them. The finished picture tested badly with preview audiences, and MGM deemed the work unreleasable.
For Altman, the eighties now became a decade of drift and continual struggle to find work. In 1981, he sold his Lion's Gate production facility and relocated to New York, and then, in 1985, to Paris. He turned to filming plays on ultralow budgets. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) was shot on super-16mm for $850,000 and was distributed by Cinecom, a small independent. Relative to the others in the cast, Cher was the biggest name, but this was only her second film, and she had not yet established much of a film career. Furthermore, although the play about a group of women holding a twenty-year reunion of their James Dean fan club had some fine moments, on the whole it was a weak vehicle to serve as the basis for a feature film. Streamers (1983) was based on a harsh David Rabe play about Vietnam-era soldiers, and Altman had to supply the financing for the production. Secret Honor (1983), based on a one-man play about Nixon's dark days, was shot on 16mm at the University of Michigan. Fool for Love (1986), from the Sam Shepherd play, was made for Cannon, a somewhat disreputable distributor that normally handled violent action pictures. Altman subsequently veered away from theatrical filmmaking and into directing plays for television (The Laundromat, 1985; The Dumb Waiter, 1987; Room, 1987; The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, 1988) and a series for HBO ("Tanner'88," 1988).
Critical reactions to Altman's journeyman period were highly variable. Some of it (Streamers, Secret Honor) drew high praise, but many commentators found Altman's work too glib, and without the controlled ironies of his early seventies masterworks. Moreover, many of the plays he was filming seemed relatively negligible, and little from this period has the cultural resonance and piercing intelligence of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, or Thieves Like Us (1973). Altman, though, proved to be a survivor. When the industry shut him out, he found ways to keep working as a filmmaker, and in the following decade he returned to prominence with The Player (1992). This trenchant, caustic satire about the deal-driven, sequelobsessed film industry was a big hit with Hollywood insiders and featured a galaxy of cameos by industry players. Altman followed this picture with a second prominently marketed critical hit, Short Cuts (1993), based on a series of Raymond Carver short stories. With these films and his demonstration that he, too, could be a player in the industry, he regained status as a filmmaker with projects attracting distribution by the majors.
One must be careful when assessing Altman's troubles in the 1980s. The temptation to celebrate the director and denigrate the Hollywood system is seductive and romantic, and there are many proponents of this view. But the lesson to be drawn from Altman's eighties travails is not that the system was necessarily intolerant or that blockbuster economics had foreclosed on the seventies auteurs. To do so is to miss the significant counterexamples. Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, and Spike Lee had successful screen careers as respected filmmakers with alternative film styles and with devoted audiences outside the blockbuster demographic. But they were, perhaps, more committed to working within the system. Altman had antagonized the majors, and like other iconoclasts before him (Sam Peckinpah, Erich von Stroheim), he found that the majors eventually fulfilled his expectations by denying him their resources.
Critic-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich was extremely prolific in the 1970s, completing a film nearly every year from The Last Picture Show (1971) to Saint Jack (1979). Hailed by the critics in that decade as a major and brilliant new director, Bogdanovich had gotten off to a spectacular start. In the 1980s, though, his career crashed, and he rarely worked as a film director. He completed only three films, and two of these were hardly seen by audiences. They All Laughed (1981), a romantic comedy with Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara, was marred by tragedy when Bogdanovich's lover, Dorothy Stratten, was murdered by her estranged husband shortly after finishing her role. A distraught Bogdanovich retreated from filmmaking and remained inactive for several years. In the wake of Stratten's death, the picture was shelved by its distributor. Bogdanovich returned to directing with Mask (1985), a tender story of a disfigured youth and his devoted and protective mother (Cher in another winning performance that added more luster to her acting career). Bogdanovich here did not try to recycle a genre or star persona from classic Hollywood, as he had in previous work, and thus the picture's contemporaneous qualities helped it find its audience. The picture was a relative box-office success, Bogdanovich's first in a long while.
With his next film, though, he was back to mining old Hollywood material with the poor results that had recently become the norm for him. Illegally Yours (1987) was another attempt at screwball comedy (What's Up Doc? had been very successful in 1972). Whereas What's Up Doc? was derivative of Howard Hawks, with Ryan O'Neal in glasses imitating Cary Grant from Bringing Up Baby (1938), Illegally Yours offered Rob Lowe in glasses imitating Ryan O'Neal in What's Up Doc? This recycling evidenced Bogdanovich's creative problem, an apparent inability to keep creating innovative work on the order of The Last Picture Show. While his seventies films were often variants of Hollywood's early classics, now he seemed to be rehashing his own material and trading on his earlier success. Bogdanovich had been a film critic before he became a director, and a critic is creative in a second-order way, being dependent on those works and artists who furnish the basis and material for the critics livelihood. As director, Bogdanovich remained mired in the critic's predicament. He needed existing templates from which to fashion his work, as he had done with screwball comedy and the musical (At Long Last Love ), with stars (Boris Karloff and Targets ) and directors (John Ford, Howard Hawks, and The Last Picture Show ). When these ran out, his fount of original material did not sustain him, and his career foundered. Illegally Yours, his last picture of the eighties, was barely released by its distributor, and Bogdanovich then largely faded from view as an active filmmaker.
On the basis of three witty and shrewdly filmed B pictures—Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1977), and Halloween (1978)—John Carpenter seemed poised on the threshold of a major career in the 1980s. Halloween made him famous for horror, and he single-handedly defined the modern slasher film in this creepy tale about a serial killer who returns to his hometown and sharpens his knives on Halloween eve. Establishing the killer's presence and perspective with extended subjective camerawork, Carpenter gave the film a brilliant visual style and elaborated the slasher film's key signature device, the floating, optical point-of-view shot. Moving from horror to science fiction, Carpenter made another nearly as influential picture. Escape From New York (1981) was a seminal work in the era's dystopic sci-fi cycle, picturing the United States as a fascist police state overrun with crime and decay. Its images of crumbling cityscapes would, along with those of Blade Runner (1982), provide the essential iconography for a decades worth of grimly pessimistic science fiction films.
On each of these early pictures, Carpenter displayed a flair for working on low budgets while getting maximum effects and a cinematic self-consciousness that pleased critics and led them to expect more and better things from him. When he was finally allowed to graduate from B pictures and make a major studio film, he did The Thing (1982), a tense, well-made update of the Howard Hawks—Christian Nyby fifties classic.
The picture remains one of the decade s important films, but it virtually ended Carpenter's career. With then-state-of-the-art gore effects, achieved with latex and miniature models, Carpenter's Thing featured a striking visual design, locating evil and terror in the formlessness of the frozen Antarctic snowscapes. Moreover, it updated the original film by offering a potently metaphoric treatment of the monster so that the film became a symbolic commentary on its social era. Whereas Hawks's film showed the monster defeated by the teamwork and camaraderie of its human opponents, Carpenter showed a dysfunctional society in the community of Antarctic researchers. The group is riddled with tension and mistrust, and the men fail to work together to defeat the intruder. Accentuating the tension are anxieties about who is human and who not, the alien having taken over an undisclosed number of the men at the research post. To destroy the alien, the men destroy themselves and the compound that sustains them amid the frozen wastes of the icy wilderness. At film's end, two survivors warily face one another—significantly, a white man and a black man—each convinced the other is a monster. About the film's pessimistic social vision, Carpenter noted, "I was seeing this movie as a parable of our times…. It's also a lot like the world we live in right now [in the 1990s]. Not only can we not trust that we don't have diseases or that we're not some sort of killer inside, but we also don't trust each other, in general, because of the skin color or ideology. I think it's a film that's as true to its time as Hawks' version in 1951 was true to its time."25
Unfortunately for Carpenter, the picture was greeted with great hostility upon its release. The prevailing mood in Reagan America was resolutely upbeat, and in this context the film's tone seemed perverse and hateful. E.T. was the alien everyone wanted to see. Carpenter believed that its poorly timed release hurt his picture by pitting it against E.T. and the era's Zeitgeist, which that film embodied. "What happened was it was 1982, the summer of E.T. The Thing was the exact opposite of E.T. It wasn't a friendly, fun movie. It was a bleak and grim film. The perception in Hollywood, among my peers, was The Thing was a really big, gigantic bomb."26
Carpenter's career never quite recovered from the collective impression that he had used studio funding to make an odious picture. The film's special effects were attacked for being gruesome and unpleasant, possibly because of the backlash then forming against the huge wave of low-budget slasher films in distribution in 1981–82. "The Thing was probably the movie that changed my creative career more than any other. That movie was universally hated by critics and audiences…. It really affected me because my agent and people around me were calling and saying you have got to change your ways. I lost a job at Universal because of that film. I thought I made this great film."27
Carpenter's career now faltered. He made a mechanical Stephen King adaptation, Christine (1983), sweet, Spielbergish sci-fi, Starman (1984), and a wild homage to Hong Kong movies, Big Trouble in Little China (1986). He then was demoted by the majors back to B movies, where he finished the decade with Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988), the latter a nifty sci-fi political satire about the harsh social policies of Reagan America. Unable to sustain a career as a front-rank industry insider, Carpenter began and ended the decade in B pictures, where he perhaps experienced a better fit between the materials and working methods and his sensibilities. With The Thing, he had created one of the decade's memorable films, but the legacy of that picture was a broken career.
Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola's seventies triumphs The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) had given him an artistic prestige and power that was unparalleled among his director peers. In the 1980s his creative ambitions and poor business sense dissipated that power and turned him into an itinerant filmmaker no longer able to dictate his terms. In 1980, Coppola bought a ten-acre lot in Hollywood and launched Zoetrope Studios, his grand and ambitious effort to start a new studio that would be filmmaker-friendly, operate with in-house talent as did the classical studios of old Hollywood, and boldly innovate production with new technologies including the storyboarding and previsualization of shots on computer and high-resolution video and the use of satellite distribution.
Unable to secure complete funding for his first Zoetrope film, One from the Heart (1982), Coppola nevertheless plunged on and started production. His ambition to create extravagant and stylized imagery, his willingness to undertake ongoing and expensive revisions of production design even after shooting began, and his uncertainty over what the film should be about resulted in a needlessly expensive $27 million production. Amid the picture's grandly stylized sets and imagery, the storyline—about two lovers who squabble, separate, and then reconcile—was thin to the point of translucence, too slight and unembellished to support the weight of Coppola's visual design. One from the Heart was thus terribly out of balance, dazzling audiences with its images while leaving them feeling that the picture was empty at its core. Paramount dropped its plans to distribute the picture, and Coppola secured a last minute distribution deal with Columbia. But the damage was done. Reviews were poor, and the picture flopped commercially and was pulled from release.
Coppola's assets were bound to the fate of this film, and its failure led to the collapse of Zoetrope Studios and his effort to become a visionary force in the production and distribution of American film. (Jon Lewis provides a detailed account of these tribulations in Whom God Wishes to Destroy: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.) He put Zoetrope up for sale before the studio had completed its second year of operation, and his career was now adrift. The majors were unwilling to fund other expensive Coppola projects, and he seemed unable to connect with the box office on those projects that he originated (e.g., Rumble Fish , Gardens of Stone ). His cachet with the majors was eroded further when he became enmeshed in an acrimonious battle during the production and release of The Cotton Club (1984) with producer Robert Evans, the picture's financiers, and distributor Orion. Coppola and Evans had worked together to create The Godfather (1972), a genuine classic, but their relations had been strained and angry, with highly publicized disputes over the editing of the picture. While their hostilities had been relatively contained on The Godfather, they exploded into open warfare on Cotton Club. The film, originating from a series of troubled scripts, was an uneasy mixture of the musical and gangster genres in its portrait of the popular Harlem night-club. Coppola and Evans feuded over the conception, shooting, and editing of the picture, and their battles helped erode each man's career. For Evans, it was to have been his comeback as producer; for Coppola, it was a return to the gangster terrain that had made his name. But the film was neither here nor there. The narrative line was cluttered, and the gangster material failed to integrate with the music and the film's depiction of black culture, displacing those elements despite their evident historic importance. The film satisfied neither viewers looking for a gangster movie nor those looking for a portrait of Harlem's cultural vibrancy. The picture was greeted with mixed reviews, given a weak release by Orion, and returned only $13 million in domestic rentals on its $47 million production cost.
Coppola's next film, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), was a box-office success, but Coppola was a director for hire on the project. After the damage inflicted on his reputation by One from the Heart and The Cotton Club, he had not been the producer's first choice as director. Coppola signed for the project knowing that he was inheriting a preassembled package of script and star (Kathleen Turner) and that his debt load now compelled him to work as a journeyman director. Turner's winsome and emotionally expansive performance as Peggy Sue, who revisits the world of her youth during a period of marital crisis, gives the film tremendous heart, and Coppola supports her with a visual design that is shrewd and intelligent but not intrusive or showy. It was Coppola's best work in many years, and it showed what he could do when kept on a tight leash so that his aesthetic ambitions did not unbalance a picture.
His next picture, Gardens of Stone, was a thematically murky portrait of the Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery during the years of the Vietnam War. This was Coppola's first return to the subject of the Vietnam War since Apocalypse Now (1979). As with that film, however, Gardens of Stone failed to manifest a discernable point of view, and its conceptual disorganization was perhaps a result of the personal tragedy that befell Coppola during production when his son was killed in a boating accident. Because Gardens of Stone failed to find an audience upon release, Coppola was again shackled when he commenced production of Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). The film portrayed Preston Tucker's entrepreneurial efforts to build an innovative car in the 1940s independently of the Big Three automakers. But Coppola's present status meant that he'd have to make a different sort of picture than the one he had planned. Paramount agreed to fund and distribute the film after George Lucas interceded for him. As the film's executive producer, Lucas maintained tight supervision and made sure that Coppola took the film in an upbeat direction to ensure its marketability. Under Lucas's shaping, the film became a celebratory and romantic story about American entreprenurial vision instead of a dark fable about genius thwarted in the corporate marketplace (a fable that Coppola may have felt paralleled his own career). Coppola's weakened position left him no choice but to accede to Lucas's suggestions. As Coppola ruefully observed, "He [Lucas] wanted me to candyapple it up a bit, make it like a Disney film…. it's not the movie I would have made at the height of my power."28
At decade's end, Coppola acceded to further compromise—a return to the Godfather saga for a third film, released in 1990 and rushed through post-production with unsolved narrative problems. It was a picture he had been refusing to make for years, and it seemed inevitably like a step backward. He began the decade as a bold visionary seeking to transform American film. But in so trying, he harnessed his ambitions to expensive productions that flamed with audiences, and instead of transforming the industry, his place in the industry was transformed. With the failure of Zoetrope, Coppola had to extricate himself from a mountain of debt and so undertook his years as a journeyman director for hire, compelled to craft less audacious works. His eighties travails resulted from tensions between his expansive and expensive artistic goals, the need for box-office success inherent in costly productions, and his reluctance to work for that success. It was a ruinous set of contradictions that sabotaged Coppola's career and made for a dispiriting finish to an exciting beginning.
Brian De Palma
Attracted to filmmaking because it permitted exploration of his strong visual ideas, Brian De Palma found significant success in the 1970s, but when the nation's moral climate shifted in the 1980s, he found himself under fire and his work the target of protest. Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), and Carrie (1976) garnered him a solid critical reputation as an intelligent stylist of horror material. In the eighties, though, his work was criticized for its violence, especially against women, and for being overly derivative of Hitchcock. The prominent violence against women in De Palma's films—in Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984) they are slashed, stabbed, and impaled—generated tremendous opposition because the feminist critique of violence against women in media was acquiring much cultural force in the early and mid-1980s. (I explore this development in relation to Hollywood film and De Palma's work in ch. 9.)
Amid a rising chorus of criticism, De Palma baited his critics in ways that further enraged them. Scarface (1983), a three-hour update of the 1932 Howard Hawks gangster classic, featured abundant violence, including a notorious chainsaw killing that prompted the MPAA to threaten the film with an X rating unless De Palma trimmed the gore. He lashed back at his critics, saying "I want to be infamous. I want to be controversial. It's much more colorful…. if they want an X, they'll get a real X."29
Despite or perhaps because of its excesses, Scarface emerged as a quintessential eighties film, as much in tune with and as reflective of its era as the Howard Hawks's original was of Depression America. Producer Martin Bregman wanted to make a type of gangster picture—a classical rise-and-fall story—and to show a character type, like James Cagney's psychopathic Cody Jarrett, that audiences had not seen for many years. De Palma's update of the picture relocated its action to Miami and made its gangster hero a Cuban who had been expelled from Castro's Cuba as part of the Mariel boat exodus of 1980. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) arrives in a Miami awash in narco dollars and quickly rises to a position of prominence and power in the cocaine trade. The film is especially vivid in evoking the eighties as a decade of avarice, greed, and moral corruption. Pacino's Montana is perfect for the times, all appetite, a shark, dead-eyed and ferocious, killing his way to the top of the narco food chain. Tony boasts to a friend, "Me, I want what's coming to me. The world and everything that's in it."
Tony briefly attains his wish with the help of compliant U.S. businesses. With a script by Oliver Stone, the film indicts American capitalism for being a bed partner with Montana and the South American drug kingpins. Legitimate American banks launder Montana's drug money, and a U.S. government representative is shown in attendance at a strategy session held by a drug lord and his associates in the Bolivian government and military. Eventually, Montana succumbs to the product he peddles, and as the pile of cocaine on his desktop becomes a mountain, he is assassinated by the Bolivians in an extended scene of slaughter during which a defiant Tony achieves his moment of apotheosis in death.
Awash with blood and cruelty, De Palma's Scarface is unremittingly savage and cold. The chainsaw killing is one of the decade's most infamous scenes of violence. When Tony and Angel, a Cuban friend, are ambushed by a gang of Columbian drug dealers, the gang's leader forces Tony to watch as he cuts Angel to pieces with the saw. The scene originated in Oliver Stone's script, based on accounts Stone had heard and read of drug killings done in this manner. De Palma resolved to include this detail in the film in order to dramatize the intensified violence spawned by the narco trade.
The sequence is truly horrific, but like the shower scene in Psycho (1960), much of it works by suggestion and implication, lodged in the viewer's imagination with terrible clarity by images that are not graphically detailed. The dismemberment occurs off camera, and it is the horrid roar of the saw, Pacino's frenzied expressions as he watches, and the blood spattered on walls and floor that give the scene its terrible power. De Palma shows nothing of the actual cutting, but the scene (and the film) was vehemently attacked by virtually every national film critic. The scene's ingenious construction—its compositional design and editing—elicited this outrage, rather than anything explicit De Palma had shown. In part because of this scene's hideous intensity, the picture was villified, as Hawks's Scarface had been villified in the 1930s for its violence. Both films outraged their respective critical establishments, and in this way De Palma's remake was truest to its source. The film's energy and savagery, united with its political portrait of the drug trade, make for a powerful and memorable evocation of eighties narco-corruption.
De Palma followed Scarface with Body Double (1984), a retread of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) set in the world of pornographic filmmaking with generous doses of sex and violence. It was the sex-violence picture De Palma had threatened to make when he condemned his critics on Scarface with the threat to make a real X. The impalement of a woman with a power drill was the film's most incendiary scene, though the picture as a whole was widely condemned for its tawdiness.
Uncharacteristically, De Palma next tried a comedy, Wise Guys (1986), before directing his only solid hit of the decade, The Untouchables (1987), a well-mounted feature version of the popular television show. The picture has a narrative economy, momentum, and power that is unusual for a De Palma film, and this exceptional storytelling, along with a winning star performance by Sean Connery, made The Untouchables an uncommonly well rounded, well mounted production. It was precisely the kind of solid commercial filmmaking that De Palma almost never practiced.
It was the fifth biggest box-office film that year, and this clout permitted De Palma to make Casualties of War (1989), a project he was genuinely close to and which hoped would make an important statement about the Vietnam War. But the picture was unceasingly grim and brutal. It depicted a group of American soldiers who kidnap a Vietnamese woman, repeatedly rape her, and then murder her. While De Palma no doubt wanted viewers to condemn the soldiers, the close visual attention devoted to the woman's brutalization seemed almost pornographic in its fixation. As a result, and because of the turn his reputation had now taken, Casualties of War was criticized for its lurid violence against women (though the film had its source in real events), and it did miserable business. De Palma then compounded his slide by directing a picture widely perceived (like Ishtar) as a great modern stinker, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), an adaptation of the popular Tom Wolfe novel.
Despite his florid visual stylishness, De Palma's career in the eighties foundered because the sexual politics of the period were incompatible with the violence in his films, particularly when aimed at women. Impaling them with power drills and slashing at them with razors damaged his reputation among critics and in the industry itself. To date, De Palma's work has not fully recovered from this tarnishing.
Penn directed a group of key pictures in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Bonnie and Clyde , Alice's Restaurant , Little Big Man , Night Moves ) that captured the verve of the counterculture, its subsequent collapse, and the ensuing despair of the post-Watergate period. His sense of connection with the cultural politics and struggles of those decades gave his work tremendous vitality. By contrast, the politics of the later 1970s and 1980s puzzled and dispirited him, and his filmmaking could not flourish in response to its social moment. When America left the contentious sixties behind, Penn lost the crucible for his work, those conditions to which it, and he, had risen so memorably. In concert with this, the onset of the blockbuster era depleted his spirits even more. While maintaining the cautions expressed at the outset of this chapter, it seems clear that Penn was a major casualty of the industry's move toward blockbuster production and projects that had synergy across the ancillary markets. Penn felt considerable antipathy for this type of filmmaking, and this, conjoined with his political estrangement, left him effectively paralyzed as a filmmaker. Out of synch commercially and culturally, he nearly ceased work as a director in the eighties, except for three intermittent productions.
Four Friends (1981), about the impact of the sixties on a quartet young people, was based on a script over which Penn had little input, and the resulting film was intriguing if erratic in its execution. While it showed his continuing interest in the political culture of the 1960s, its themes and formal design lacked the energy and innovation of the work he had done in that period. His other two pictures during the decade were uninspired genre pieces. Target (1985) teamed him again with actor Gene Hackman, with whom he had done stupendous work in Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. But it was a routine espionage thriller that originated from Penn's desire to prove to the majors that he was not, as they perceived him, "some kind of arty, very distant, strange character who couldn't shoot an action sequence."30 Indeed, Target has some well-staged action scenes, but the picture rarely rises above them, and its sheer ordinariness seemed hard to square with the talent that had made Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. Dead of Winter (1987), a horror-chiller, Penn made as a favor to some young friends who had gotten backing from MGM but could not deliver a director who could handle the production.
Although Penn felt that these were acceptable pictures, they were far from his groundbreaking work of the late sixties. Penn's voice as a film director became quiescent during the eighties, although other strong stylists such as Scorsese and Altman found ways to keep working. Penn acknowledged about their continuing work, "I went to the movies of Altman and Cimino and Scorsese with admiration and maybe a little touch of envy. I couldn't find my subject, my story. I had trouble finding a focus."31 Penn remained disillusioned by the high cost of studio productions and by his perception that this expense militated against the possibility of doing good work in the system. This was perhaps a self-defeating outlook since it ensured that he would not get the chance to do good work in the system, even as others were, or that he would do it if given the chance. He remained somewhat bitter about his prospects: "The Hollywood studios will continue, probably in the Disney model, which is to send out memos saying, 'We gotta cut costs,' but they don't know how to cut costs. Costs are in inverse proportion to ideas! And they'll never escape their sort of formulaic predestination, they don't have the mechanism to shed that skin."32 As a result of this outlook, one of the American cinema's most gifted directors faced a virtual career shutdown in the eighties, despite the opportunities the boom in independent production afforded other directors. Penn did not, or was unable to, take advantage of this boom, and his eighties work remained sporadic and lackluster.
Martin Scorsese began the 1980s as a highly respected filmmaker but one who was on the fringes of the system, in part because his films were quirky and moved in different directions from the studio product. Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), and New York, New York (1977) were all pictures that worked against the narrative and stylistic expectations of viewers and studio executives, and none were major hits, although Taxi Driver did well and generated a great deal of critical and media attention. New York, New York was a famous failure, in both its conceptual design (an effort to mix film noir and the movie musical) and its box-office performance. Scorsese was not a filmmaker to whom the majors entrusted large budgets and big productions, but he commanded a measure of respect throughout the industry. Producer David Field noted, "I thought sure the studios should make sure that Marty always had the money to make the movies he wanted to make. He is one of these rare people, and we should just do that. Of course, you say that in a studio meeting, and people re-examine what they think of you as an executive. But I do feel that way about him."33
Scorsese began the eighties with a picture that is now widely regarded as one of the decade's best. Based on the life of boxer Jake La Motta, a middleweight champ, Raging Bull (1980) is a powerful portrait of man who channels his rage inside the ring to great success while his inability to control it outside the ring destroys his life. The boxing sequences were shot with exceptional ferocity by cinematographer Michael Chapman (using hand-held work, slow motion, Steadicam, variable camera speeds, and a flashbulb simulator), but it is the scenes of domestic violence between La Motta and his wife that are the most disturbing, particularly those eerie moments of tense calm before La Motta explodes, when his paranoia about his wife's fidelity drives him to twist every casual remark into a lunatic proof of her adultery. Scorsese makes no attempt to explain La Motta's violence by, for example, attributing it to some personal trauma. Instead, the rage simply is. It exists, beyond explanation, and Scorsese finds it sufficiently compelling to study at close range and with judgment suspended, save for a compassion that is reserved for La Motta's (but not his victims) moments of greatest defeat and alienation. The most intense and sustained of these occurs when La Motta, bereft of wife and family, is imprisoned for selling liquor to a minor and beats his fists and head against the concrete cell in a prolonged act of self-laceration. It is a harrowing moment, but it provides only a limited illumination of the character. Instead of reassuring answers, the film operates like Citizen Kane (1941) and Psycho (1960), earlier classics that highlighted the complexity and opacity of human personality. The film's La Motta is a stark and harrowing creation and a hauntingly enigmatic character.
The film is a highlight in the career collaboration between Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who plays La Motta and physically inhabits the character in extraordinary terms, taking him from a lean, muscular youth to bloated middle age. De Niro was intrigued at the prospect of showing a character emotionally falling apart by gaining weight, and he put on sixty pounds to play La Motta in his corpulent years. It became one of the most famous physical transformations by an actor in American cinema. As he had done with Taxi Driver, Scorsese here placed a violent, paranoid individual, played by De Niro with manic intensity, at the center of the film and built its design around his character flaws and pathology, as if daring the audience to admire the work or draw close to the character. Unlike in Taxi Driver, however, Scorsese and De Niro humanized La Motta so that he emerges as a suffering individual, tormented by his enduring alienation from others and his own rage and anguish. In this regard, Scorsese and De Niro responded to a pre-production challenge from United Artists. The UA executives were uneasy about the darkness and brutality in the script, and one said that LaMotta, as written, seemed to be a cockroach. Stung by that complaint, Scorsese and De Niro invested the material with great feeling, and it became for them a film about a man who lost everything but regained it spiritually. (The losing is clear enough, but the spiritual regeneration is barely implied.) Not concerned about audience reactions to this unconventional character, Scorsese was uncompromising in his treatment of the material because he felt this picture might be his last. "The idea had been to make this film as openly honest as possible, with no concessions at all for box office or audience. I said, 'That's it. Basically, this is the end of my career, this is it, this is the final one.' I was very surprised when it was received well."34 The film is a bravura display of technique, with its extraordinary black-and-white cinematography and crisp, fluent editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. Scorsese shot the picture in black and white because of the unstable color dyes in Kodaks film stocks, and, as with all of his eighties pictures, he used the 1.85 aspect ratio to prevent the film from being panned and scanned in its television and video releases.
In the purity of its aesthetic design and the passionate intensity with which it was made, Raging Bull is unique among Scorsese's eighties films. His other pictures bear the marks of their production circumstances, in terms of quick shoots, low budgets, or calculated design for box office effect. His next picture, The King of Comedy (1983), with De Niro as an obsessed celebrity hound, was distributed by Fox as a pickup (i.e., a production that Fox did not fund), and preview audiences disliked it. It remains, though, an interesting study of the symbiotic bond between celebrities and their fans, and its lowkey emotional restraint contrasts nicely with the inflamed passions of By year's end, it had earned a paltry $1.2 million in rentals and had further eroded Scorsese's commercial prospects in the industry. As if to demonstrate this, after agreeing to finance the project, Paramount pulled the plug at the last moment on Scorsese's long-cherished plan to film Níkos Kazantzákis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Stung by this decision and to demonstrate his continued viability as a filmmaker, Scorsese immediately launched into production of the low-budget ($4 million) After Hours (1985), a black comedy about a young man's bizarre misadventures in Manhattan. "The trick was to survive," Scorsese said. "That was the idea. The trick was to survive after The Last Temptation of Christ was canceled by Paramount in 1983. That was four weeks before shooting was to have started. We had everything ready. It was devastating."35 After Hours is a shaggy dog story about Paul Hackett's (Griffin Dunne) efforts to survive, mentally and physically, a series of misadventures with an erratic array of Manhattan kooks, eccentrics, and psychopaths on an evening when he is trapped in Soho without any money. A comedy filmed with aggressive camera moves, the picture was very dark in tone, perhaps in response to Scorsese's career straits.
Given these career problems, his next picture, The Color of Money (1986), was a canny move, and with it he began to establish his credentials as a filmmaker on whom the majors could bank. It required from him, though, a much less personal kind of filmmaking than he had demonstrated in Raging Bull. His iconoclastic pictures had won critical raves and the respect of executives such as David Field, but they had not advanced his status as a bankable director, someone whose name could be reliably packaged. This was something Scorsese deeply desired. He cherished the industry stature and prestige accorded such accepted masters as William Wyler, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock. Like them, he wanted to have a prized place inside the industry from which he could make personal films like The Heiress (1949), Vertigo (1958), or The Searchers (1956). Although he would not attain this standing until the early nineties, The Color of Money was a necessary project to begin the transformation. With it, he showed the industry that he could work with a major star and could build a picture around the requisites of that star's persona. In this case, the star was Paul Newman in a repeat of his role as Fast Eddie Felson from Robert Rossen's near-great The Hustler (1961). Scorsese observed, "We wound up working about nine months on the script and, in that process, we really started to shape the film for Paul. We realized we were making a star vehicle movie."36 Michael Eisner, a Scorsese supporter and the president of Disney (the film's distributor), resolved to promote the picture with full studio resources out of respect for Newman and Scorsese and because the picture was part of Disney's efforts to remake its film division with more adult-oriented films. As a result of Disney's solid backing, the picture was among the top twenty box-office films of 1986. As an artistic successor to The Hustler, however, it was a disappointment. It lacks the earlier film's psychological depth, and, although Newman clearly relished the chance to play Felson again, the material as written does not have the eloquence of Rossen's script, nor does it give Newman the great soliloques he had in the earlier picture. Furthermore, the screen time given Tom Cruise as a young hustler displaces Felson to an often-subordinate role. A rare opportunity to extend a near-classic film had slipped away.
The financial success of The Color of Money began to turn things around for Scorsese. Michael Ovitz, of Creative Artists Agency, took Scorsese as a client, and Ovitz approached Universal about making The Last Temptation of Christ. Universal president Tom Pollock liked the book and admired Scorsese. The studio agreed, and the $7 million project was cofinanced by Garth Drabinsky's Cineplex Odeon, which assured exhibition outlets for the controversial production. Scorsese resolved to make a serious religious film in which Christ would be made real through an exploration of his human aspects. In this regard, he wished to overcome the tendency in Biblical films of treating Christ as a wooden figure, and the extent to which he succeeded was apparent in the controversy that embroiled the production when fundamentalist groups attacked it as sacriligious. Elated to be at last undertaking this film, Scorsese applied himself to the task with his customary intensity. The sixty-day shoot was completed under arduous conditions in Morocco, and Scorsese often had to work without the benefit of viewing rushes. The finished work is an uncommonly gritty biblical film, in which the flies, heat, and desert sand have a palpable presence lacking in earlier Hollywood Bible pictures and in which the physicality of fleshly existence is vividly contrasted with the spiritual domain. I consider this film and the controversy that surrounded it in more detail in chapter 8.
With the completion of his dream project, Scorsese returned to Disney for "Life Lessons," an exhuberantly filmed portrait of a narcissistic painter, played by Nick Nolte. It comprised his segment of New York Stories (1989), an anthology picture with other segments directed by Woody Allen and Francis Coppola. This short film was his final picture released in the eighties. Through his career crisis, he had reinvented himself as a filmmaker whom the majors might reliably support and whose critical cachet would benefit them even if Scorsese's box office was never huge. Scorsese's crisis was thus neither as long nor as severe as Robert Altmans or Arthur Penn's, in large part because Scorsese genuinely wanted the acceptance and respect of the industry and was willing to make a Color of Money to show he could do successful industry vehicles. His nineties work—Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), Casino (1995), Kundun (1997)—had solid financial backing and, for the most part, met with critical and relative commercial success, as he alternated genre pictures with more difficult and ambitious projects (Innocence, Kundun). During the eighties, then, Scorsese successfully negotiated a major career transition. He moved from the fringes of the industry to a position of power while continuing to make, for the most part, challenging and ambitious films.
While the 1980s were a rough decade for the major auteurs of the 1970s, a diverse group of younger directors successfully established their careers, adding important new voices to the American cinema. To varying degrees, the industry proved itself to be receptive to their talents, and they were able to build and sustain careers as next-generation filmmakers. American film culture benefited from the work of these new filmmakers, and the range of their creative voices demonstrated the industry's relative flexibility and readiness to fund work exhibiting diverse styles and sensibilities.
While Hollywood was still primarily a boy's town in the eighties, with men ensconced in the industry's primary power roles, an increasing number of women began to fill roles as directors and producers. While a compelling case can be made that grouping directors in terms of gender imposes distinctions that ghettoize women—for example, by implying that women would make "women's" pictures—it is nevertheless important to note the emergence of a group of women filmmakers as an important development in eighties cinema. The industry, though, was far from being an equal opportunity employer. In almost every case, women working as directors had to overcome unique challenges (e.g., men who did not like taking orders from a woman, male executives resistant to certain story situations) and confronted serious impediments to the continuity of their careers. Many, such as Susan Seidelman, Amy Heckerling, and Joan Micklin Silver, found that a successful low-budget, often independent feature enabled them to make the transition toward bigger-budget productions, whereupon they experienced difficulties sustaining a career at this level of industry financing. Furthermore, because few women were functioning as directors with funding or distribution from the majors, those who were often found their visibility to be a source of additional pressure. As director Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God ) expressed, "Every woman working maybe even still today feels that she's carrying an added responsibility, that every time a woman succeeds at doing something, it opens the door a little bit further for everybody else, and if you fail, it closes the door just that little bit.".37
Measured in terms of the industry clout that box-office success provides (e.g., access to major stars, top cinematographers, aggressive promotion and distribution), the most successful of this new group of filmmakers was Penny Marshall. She parlayed a successful television acting career ("Laverne and Shirley") into an opportunity to direct features. Marshall agreed to helm a troubled project, Jumpin' Jack Flash, which was already several weeks into pre-production; when the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle did well at the box office upon its release in 1986, Marshall was poised for the sustained industry success that so often eluded other women directors. Her next project, Big (1988), with Tom Hanks, proved to be a popular comedy about a child who wakes up one morning and finds that he inhabits the body of a thirty-year-old man. The film was well written and, as directed by Marshall, helped revive Tom Hanks's foundering film career. She now had credit for both saving a troubled production and directing a hit movie. Flush with this success, Marshall showed considerable courage with the choice of her next project, a risky switch from comedy to drama that showed a keen judgment about the material. Awakenings (1991), starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, was an achingly sad story about a rare neurological disorder, but Marshall managed to give the film an affirmative spirit, and it was a major succèss d'estime.
Unfortunately, Marshall's string of critical and popular hits was the anomoly for women filmmakers during the eighties, most of whom found themselves marginalized by the industry, despite making, on the whole, interesting and offbeat pictures. After a string of successful independent films in the 1970s, Joan Micklin Silver directed only two features in the eighties (along with two television movies). Loverboy (1989) was a flat comedy about a pizza delivery clerk, but Crossing Delancey (1988) was a superb comedy-drama about a young Jewish woman whose grandmother decides to fix her up with an eligible bachelor not quite to her taste.
Amy Heckerling began the eighties with great promise. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was that rare oxymoronic film—an intelligent teen comedy. Chronicling the desires and anxieties of Ridgemont students, whose social lives center around the local shopping mall, the film helped launch the careers of Sean Penn (as the now-classic brain-dead surfer dude Spicolli), Phoebe Cates, and the brilliant actor Jennifer Jason Leigh. Heckerling aimed to approach the requisite nudity of a teen comedy from a decidedly more female point of view by overturning the movie convention mandating female nudity but no male nudity. Her resolve to show male nudity, however, drew a threatened X rating from the MPAA, and as a result she had the lab enlarge the offending shot so the man would be displayed only from the shoulders up. "There was no way the studio could allow it to be an X, so we had to take the shot and blow it up, so I wound up having to do exactly what I had always seen in movies—a man's shoulders and a woman's breasts. I felt bad about that and, in fact, there were reviews that asked how could I, as a woman, do that."38
With the success of Fast Times, Heckerling aimed to differentiate herself from the teen sex comedies that she was now being asked to direct. Unfortunately, her next film, Johnny Dangerously (1984), was a weak, relatively unfunny gangster comedy starring Michael Keaton and Joe Piscopo. Feeling that its poor box office and reviews threatened her career, she rushed into production of National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985) without a polished script and then survived the resulting debacle—an unpleasant production resulting in a bad film—by turning to television work. But at decade's end, Heckerling returned to features and directed Look Who's Talking (1989), a vulgar comedy with John Travolta about a talking baby. The picture was coarse, with abundant bathroom humor, but extremely popular, and it renewed Heckerling's standing within the industry, which had waned since the release of Fast Times.
Another filmmaker who sustained an eighties career largely in the subgenre of teen comedy was Martha Coolidge. She had established a name in feminist circles with a well-regarded documentary about rape, Not a Pretty Picture (1975), but her industry films, while concentrating on women's relationships, tended to have a much softer point of view. Coolidge understood that her career in the industry depended on avoiding politically contentious issues. As she acknowledged, "Although my point of view is feminist-influenced, my films aren't political pictures—and certainly Hollywood is not interested in making political pictures. Nor are the studios interested in dealing with an obnoxiously political person. Or anybody who would be abrasive in any way."39 Coolidge worked more frequently in theatrical features than was the norm for women filmmakers during the period, and her eighties teen comedies comprise Valley Girl (1983), Joy of Sex (1984), City Girl and Real Genius (1985). In the early nineties she broke out of this subgenre with her finest work, to that point, as director, Ramblin' Rose (1991), a gentle drama about a wayward young woman (Laura Dern) who complicates life for a genteel family.
Amy Jones found that exploitation films, rather than teen comedies, provided her with an entry point into the industry. With Slumber Party Massacre (1982) she tried to infuse the conventional slasher film with more a pointedly female perspective, an admittedly difficult task given the requisite formula of male killer and female victims. But she moved out of exploitation pictures with her next film, Love Letters, a drama in which Jamie Lee Curtis (the queen of slasher pictures) played a young woman intrigued with the tale revealed by her mothers love letters. Maid to Order (1987) was Jones's only other feature of the eighties, a comic fantasy about a rich girl forced to work as a housemaid. Despite the picture's low budget ($4 million), Jones had little control over casting or scoring, and the picture became a programmer, an opportunity to work, rather than a personal project.40 Jones was much more closely committed to her script for Mystic Pizza (1988), but she was fired from the project by the Goldwyn Company and denied an opportunity to direct it. After Maid to Order, Jones ceased work as a director and began to build a successful career in the nineties as a writer.
Working with exploitation material—drugs, sex, violence, youth—but transforming it into serious and disturbing filmmaking, Penelope Spheeris established a prolific filmmaking career by investigating the anomie and rage within America's teen population. Her best works were two documentaries about punk rock and heavy metal that bookended the decade: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (1988). In between, she made a series of fiction films that investigated teen brutality and drug use: Suburbia (1983), Hollywood Vice Squad (1986), The Boys Next Door (1986) and Dudes (1987). Spheeris made raw films about ugly realities, and in so doing created trouble for herself from men in the industry who deemed such subjects and styles unsuitable for a woman director: "I believe one reason I have been held at arm's length in the business is that my films have always expressed a certain amount of brutality and anger, and that scares men. They don't want to see women dealing with such emotions."41 Certainly this was a rough road to follow, both in terms of the films' subject mat ter and the cool industry reception accorded her work. Despite her ability to maintain a decade-long career making hard films on harsh issues, Spheeris changed her style following Decline, Part II. Turning her rapport with youth culture toward comic ends, she found a new level of commercial success with Wayne's World (1992), substituting cool irony for the rage hitherto expressed by her film subjects.
Susan Seidelman was a New York University film school graduate whose first feature was made outside the industry as an independent, low-budget production. Shot on the streets of Manhattan, Smithereens (1984) was a comic character study of a drifter who aspires to be a punk rock singer. The film's grit and comic charm attracted the attention of Barbara Boyle, an executive at Orion Pictures who had the authority to green-light low-budget productions. Boyle liked a script Seidelman was pitching about a bored housewife who becomes intrigued with an offbeat character she meets in the personal ads, and her backing enabled Seidelman to turn it into Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), with Madonna and Rosanna Arquette. Though made with the backing of Orion, a mini-major, the picture was shot, and it plays, like an underground film, with a quirky sensibility and loopy narrative that moves in unpredictable directions. Crucially, it got made because the script secured the backing of a female executive. Seidelman had found that male executives had a much cooler reaction to the screenplay. She says it "was the kind of project which a lot of women who were vice-presidents of development had responded to—women tended to like the script. And then they would show it to their male bosses who didn't like it enough to give it the go-ahead."42
Unfortunately, Seidelman's next films—Making Mr. Right (1987), Cookie (1989), and She-Devil (1989)—featured increasing budgets and decreasingly favorable critical reactions. She-Devil, in particular, was widely considered a failure, despite a marvelous performance by Meryl Streep as a comically vengeful wife. A well-mounted BBC production of the Faye Weldon novel was released at the same time, and the feature, with its heavy-handed slapstick, suffered in comparison with the more richly textured BBC miniseries. Seidelman's eighties career is a classic demonstration of the pitfalls of moving from independent filmmaking to industry work. While Making Mr. Right, Cookie, and She-Devil all have excellent qualities, they reflect a more conservative type of filmmaking than what Seidelman had shown in and Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan. The low economic base of independent film affords considerable aesthetic freedoms to a director (along with technical constraints and a limited audience), while industry employment affords greater technical resources, a larger potential audience, and less aesthetic freedom. It is an insoluable contradiction, and Seidelman is hardly the first filmmaker to discover that the best qualities of her independent work were hard to preserve in her industry-financed projects.
Two other notable filmmakers who worked in features infrequently during the eighties were Randa Haines and Kathryn Bigelow. While compiling extensive television credits as director for "Hill Street Blues" (1981), "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (1984-84), "Tales from the Crypt" (1989), and the television movie "Something about Amelia" (1984), Haines directed only one feature film. It was, however, one of the decades prestige pictures, Children of a Lesser God (1986), focusing on the developing relationship between a teacher (William Hurt) at a school for the deaf and an angry, isolated young deaf woman (Marlee Matlin). Haines elicited exquisite performances from Hurt and Matlin, and although the picture was nominated for Oscars in the categories of best picture, actor, actress (Matlin won here), supporting actress, and screenplay, Haines conspicuously was passed over for a best-director nomination.
Kathryn Bigelow established a strong career in the nineties as a director of stylishly mounted action pictures (Blue Steel , Point Break , Strange Days ). She presaged this in the eighties with The Loveless (1983), about a gang of bikers, and Near Dark (1987), a vampire quasi-Western in modern dress about a pack of bloodsuckers roaming the West in a van. Bigelow is a highly articulate filmmaker and a proponent of the view that women directors must not be ghettoized as makers of soft, sensitive films. "Conventionally, hardware pictures, action-oriented, have been maledominated, and more emotional kind of material has been women's domain. That's breaking down. The notion that there's a woman's aesthetic, a woman's eye, is really debilitating."43 Bigelow's films are indistinguishable stylistically from male-directed action pictures, and they prove that women can excel as filmmakers in precisely the kinds of material long claimed by men.
Furthermore, the careers of successful female producers demonstrated Bigelow's claim that gender distinctions governing the selection and handling of material were eroding. Debra Hill collaborated as producer with director John Carpenter and on other horror pictures and subsequently added comedy to her producing portfolio: The Fog (1980), Halloween II (1981), Escape From New York III: Season of the Witch (1983), The Dead Zone (1983) Clue (1985), Head Office (1986), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Heartbreak Hotel (1988), Big Top Pee-wee (1988), and Gross Anatomy (1989). Gale Anne Hurd established her producing credentials with expensive, effects-based action films: The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Alien Nation (1988), Bad Dreams (1988) and The Abyss (1989). Sherry Lansing, who had been head of production at 20th Century-Fox in 1981-82, produced a series of hard-edged dramas: The Firstborn (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987), The Accused (1988), and Black Rain (1989). Kathleen Kennedy maintained an extremely prolific producing career in association with Steven Spielberg. Kennedy's productions included E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Back to the Future (1985) The Color Purple (1985) An American Tail (1986), The Money Pit (1986) Empire of the Sun (1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Back to The Future, Part II (1989), and Always (1989). In the cases of Kennedy, Lansing, Hill and Hurd, there is little inherent relation between the nature of their pictures and the gender of the producer, and this is true as well for the pictures directed by Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelow, and Penelope Spheeris. Bigelow suggested that women "should just be encouraged [by the industry] to work in an as uncompromised a form as possible, be that tougher or softer."44 To the extent that this began to occur, it was a positive development. The industry began to accommodate the place of women in roles of chief production authority. As this occurred, though, the industry remained deeply committed to the continuity of its genres and story formulas and, frankly, cared more about these than about the gender of the people who made the films. The careers of Marshall, Lansing, Hill, Hurd, Kennedy, and Bigelow demonstrate that by adhering to these traditional formulas and executing them with great professional skill, women began to secure a place for themselves as filmmakers, where what counted was the quality of the films (normatively defined by the industry), not the gender of the directors or producers.
Among other new filmmakers in the 1980s rapidly establishing highprofile careers was Tim Burton. Trained in animation at the California Institute of Arts, Burton spent the early eighties at Walt Disney Productions, where he worked as an animator. Given Burton's loopy sensibility and his delight in monsters and eccentric, twisted characters, Disney was an unlikely employer, and Burton was unhappy inside the artistic straitjacket of such Disney productions as The Fox and the Hound (1981). He found the bland optimism of traditional Disney fare uncomfortably remote from his interests:
I was just not Disney material. I just could not draw foxes for the life of me. I couldn't do it. I tried. I tried, tried. The unholy alliance of animation is: you are called upon to be an artist—especially at Disney, where you are perceived as the artist pure and simple, where your work flows from the artistic pencil to the paper, the total artist—but on the other hand, you are called upon to be a zombie factory worker. And for me, I could not integrate the two.45
Despite his frustrations, Burton completed some animated shorts at Disney that clearly prefigured the styles and subject matter of his subsequent features. Vincent (1982) used a German expressionist style (which Burton would employ again to great effect on Batman ) and narration by Vincent Price (who would do a cameo in Edward Scissorhands ) to explore the fantasies of a young, disturbed suburban boy. Anticipating Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie (1984) visualized the Frankenstein myth in the suburbs.
Unable to be a Disney team player, Burton left the studio, whereupon he established a successful feature career making quirky, darkly funny fables replete with eccentric oddballs and endearing monsters. Burton loved and identified with the monsters that he had seen in movies and read about in fairy tales because he connected them with the constricting life of his suburban boyhood, from which he felt outcast and alienated: "Monster movies are my form of myth, of fairy tale. The purpose of fairy tales for me is a kind of extreme, symbolic version of life, of what you're going through. In America, in suburbia, there is no sense of culture, there is no sense of passion. So I think those served that very specific purpose for me."46
Burton's first feature, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), was a funny, inventive fantasy showcasing actor Paul Reubens' antic, screeching adult-child character, Pee-Wee Herman, a comic grotesque in the middle of suburbia launched on a wild adventure as he tries to retrieve his stolen bicycle. The picture did fabulous business, placing in the year's top twenty box-office films. The industry took note and offered him better budgets. His follow-up picture, Beetlejuice (1988), was a dizzying romp through the afterlife, presided over by Michael Keaton's titular character, a dervish with an unbridled dled libido who instructs a pair of ghosts (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) on the essentials of effective haunting. Enlivened by Keaton's antics and Burton s boldly eccentric humor (e.g., the afterlife as an overstuffed bureaucracy with case workers and ghosts stacked up in waiting rooms), the picture was one of the year's most popular films.
Burtons affinity for dark-hued fairy tales and his solid box office led Warner Bros. executives to recruit him for Batman. Though his films had been solid commercial performers, Burton, at the time, seemed an odd choice to helm a production that had blockbuster potential. According to conventional wisdom, his style was too nontraditional and outré for a mainstream blockbuster. Furthermore, the selection of Burton as director, and Michael Keaton to play Batman offended fans of the comic strip, who dreaded whatever this team was going to concoct. Warners, it appeared, was taking a tremendous risk with these unlikely candidates. But Burton outfoxed all the prognosticators by jettisoning the traditional D.C. Comics rendition for an alternative conception of the character as a dark, tormented knight presiding over a noir world. The film's stunning production design, by Anton Furst, visualized the noir aspects of Gotham City with an oppressive flair and compensated for the film's narrative weaknesses. Burton, Furst, and cinematographer Roger Pratt created a strikingly grim Gotham City, with fascist-style architecture, expressionist shadows, and a black-on-black color palette. Seldom has architecture, conveyed with miniature models and mattes, been employed so flamboyantly as a dominant element of mise-en-scène as in Furst's elegantly monstrous designs. It was the most impressive cinematic cityscape since Blade Runner (1982). Alongside that film at the beginning of the decade, Batman is a key achievement of eighties production design.
A memorable score by Danny Elfman, in an ongoing partnership with Burton that ranks as one of cinema's best director-composer teams, added punch to the action and gave the film an epic emotional scale. Jack Nicholson's manic star turn as the Joker helped to offset the visual gloom, and Warner Bros. had the biggest hit in its history. Batman generated $150 million in domestic rentals for 1989, making it the third biggest picture of the decade.
But Burton's ambivalence about such big-buck filmmaking was quickly apparent. Inevitably tagged for the sequel, Burton made Batman Returns (1992) even more grotesque and nightmarish a film, with a central character (the Penguin, played by Danny DeVito) of uncommon vulgarity and repugnance. Perhaps because of its darkness and unpalatability, the film performed below Warners' expectations. Disappointed Warners executives farmed the Batman franchise out to a new director and star for its third installment and introduced a revamped style that jettisoned Burton s noirish design in favor of straight action-adventure.
Despite the (for Warners) unacceptable direction in which he had taken Batman Returns, Burton's sly, twisted humor and affinity for the dark side proved in the eighties to be wholly compatible with funding and distribution from the majors. Burton's popular success enabled him to develop a strikingly original cinematic voice that proferred bold comic fantasies in darkly twisted film worlds. Rather than becoming more cautious with each level of box-office success, however, Burton only grew bolder until he succeeded at subverting the parameters of blockbuster filmmaking with Batman Returns, a picture that is the antithesis of commercially conservative filmmaking. As he says about his penchant for aesthetic risk, "Those are the only things worth expressing, in some ways: danger, and presenting subversive subjects in a fun way."47 Herein lies a major distinction between Burton's work and that of David Lynch, the other surrealist of eighties American cinema. In contrast with Lynch's cold gaze, Burton had a warm regard for the loopy characters at the center of his films, and this made his work more endearing and more popular than Lynch's.
In the 1990s, James Cameron would direct Titanic (1998), at that time the highest-grossing picture in film history. His work during the 1980s followed a trajectory toward the ever-bigger budgets and increasingly complex effects that came to be associated with his name and that Titanic epitomized. His work centered in science fiction, and he credited Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with providing the experience that opened his eyes to film and showed him that cinema could function as art. Honoring the Kubrick influence, he approached science fiction as a serious medium that could reflect upon fundamental issues in human life, rather than as a genre to showcase gadgets and machines and in which people were cardboard cutouts relegated to the background. Accordingly, The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and The Abyss (1989) place human dramas at the center of their dramatic stages and use these as a basis for exploring issues posed by technology's increasing dominance in the modern world. Cameron's work drew a huge popular response because of his shrewd handling of character and his emphasis on powerful emotional drama, coupled with an extraordinary storytelling skill and impressive visual sense. Cameron confessed to disliking ambiguities in films and remarked that he admires the straight-ahead, no-nonsense narrative style of 1940s Hollywood pictures, and his work, for better and worse, reflected these feelings. The clarity of issue and character in his films is the foundation of their narrative power and humanizes their futuristic settings, while at the same time it tends to limit their artistic resonance.
Cameron started his career doing effects work on low-budget films, including Roger Corman's Battle beyond the Stars (1980) and John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981). When offered his first chance to direct, he took it, although it was a less than auspicious debut: Piranha II: The Spawning (1983) was a joint U.S.-Italian production and a sequel to a popular Corman film that had been scripted by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante. Cameron quarreled with the picture's Italian producer and has said that the film, as released, reflects the producer's editing of the material.48 While struggling with this project, Cameron wrote the treatment for The Terminator and, with then-wife Gale Anne Hurd acting as producer, got a production deal from Hemdale.
The Terminator is a stunning example of action film storytelling, shot and edited to achieve a relentless pace. but, characteristic of Cameron's work, grounding its pyrotechnics in human drama. The film's premise is relatively simple, but in it one sees Cameron reworking some of the themes from his inspirational film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. These involve the ceding of authority by people to the technological systems they have created and the paradox of intelligent machinery vying with human beings for control over their environment. The film's framing story is set in 2029, a postapocalyptic world run by machines that have triggered a nuclear war to exterminate their human makers. After the war, the surviving humans are herded into extermination camps or used as slaves who load bodies into disposal units that run twenty-four hours a day. Guerrilla war breaks out between the hunter-killer machines and the few surviving humans. The narrative is a time-loop paradox in which a soldier of the future, Kyle (Michael Biehn), is sent back to Los Angeles, circa 1984, to protect Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), who will become the mother of the man who leads the guerrillas in their battle against the machines. The machines, for their part, have created a terminator, a cyborg (part man, part machine), and have sent it back through time to hunt and kill Sarah. The film develops as an extended chase with Kyle trying to protect Sarah and to elude or kill the terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger in the performance that sparked his career). The temporal paradox of the narrative becomes apparent when it is disclosed that the man who sends Kyle into the past is John Conner, Sarah s son, who has been fathered by Kyle during a night of tenderness he shares with Sarah.
The Terminator focuses on the loss of human feeling and identity in a totalitarian world. The bleak future is a nightmare of pain, violence, and death, where the surviving humans have to disconnect themselves from their emotions in order to elude the machines. Looking at Kyle's scars, Sarah murmurs, "So much pain." Kyle replies, "Pain can be controlled. You just disconnect it." Sarah responds, "So you feel nothing?" The terminator represents the ultimate outcome of this deadening of feeling and mechanization of behavior. Like the replicants in Blade Runner and the androids in the Alien films, it is virtually indistinguishable from its human opponents, yet its responses are completely roboticized. Inside, it has a hyper-alloy combat chassis controlled by a microprocessor, while its exterior is covered with living human tissue—flesh, hair, blood—that has been specially grown for the cyborgs. Thus, while the terminator represents the frightening techno-fascism of the future, the tenderness between Sarah and Kyle is the emotional heart of the film and that which the narrative affirms.
At the end of the film, Sarah has become a female warrior, skilled in the techniques of combat and survival, and critics pointed to this unique and new vision of steely feminism. Cameron elaborated on this in his next picture, Aliens, which grounds its drama in Ripley's (Sigourney Weaver) trauma-induced anxieties and the strength of body and will she exhibits to overcome these. Preserved in suspended animation for fifty-seven years following her escape from the Nostromo and its alien visitor (events dramatized in Alien , the first film of the series), Ripley has been drifting through space in her shuttle when the Company (the moniker given to her mysterious corporate employer) rescues her and persuades her to return to LV-426, the planet from which the alien was retrieved. The Company maintains a colony of Terra-formers on LV-426. These seventy families have been working to install an atmosphere processor manufactured by the Company that will generate breathable air on the planet. The Terra-formers have vanished, however, and the Company decides to send Ripley and a squad of Colonial Marines to investigate. The human drama of the film resides in Ripley's need to confront her terror of the planet and its alien inhabitants, and she rises to this challenge when an infant girl, Newt, is discovered in hiding. Ripley becomes her surrogate mother, and in the film's flamboyant climax, she does battle against the alien queen, two ferocious mothers duking it out to protect their progeny. Here, as in The Terminator, Cameron spectacularly transformed the imagery of women in American film by offering lean, grimly determined female warriors outfitted with powerful weaponry. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day  is the climax of this feminist warrior trilogy.) As in his previous film, Cameron surrounded the human drama with a fastpaced, straight-ahead action narrative that swept the viewer along in its forward rush. He was keenly aware of the classic status that Ridley Scott's Alien had achieved and determined to find a different style and sensibility for his picture. Accordingly, rather than replicating the techno-Gothic horror design of Scott's film, he based his sequel on Vietnam and World War II combat movies, ensuring that his production would be clearly differentiated from its predecessor.
After Aliens, Cameron embarked on the lengthy production schedules that would become the norm on his next pictures. With its extensive underwater sequences and complex machinery, The Abyss (1989) was an extremely difficult, and at times dangerous, shoot. The film is a white-knuckle ride to the bottom of the ocean, where a salvage crew attempting the retrieval of nuclear weapons from a downed Navy sub encounters a race of alien beings. The storyline is relatively simple and straightforward, but Cameron keeps the tension ratcheted high with several amazing action sequences. Once again, the Kubrick influence works through the material, though this time with diminished success. (The film also reworks material from The Day the Earth Stood Still .) One of the visual highpoints is a scene analogous to the stargate sequence in 2001, as Virgil Brigman (Ed Harris) gets a dazzling tour of the aliens' underwater kingdom. The crux of the film is a Utopian wish for world peace, which is achieved through the intervention of the aliens (as in The Day the Earth Stood Still). But Cameron renders their intervention so literally as to dissipate the inherent mystery of their presence and to flatten the film's concluding emotional tone. (These qualities are exacerbated in a longer version of the film that Cameron issued in 1991 for home video.) By contrast, the wisdom of Kubrick's approach in 2001 is evident. By working at a non-verbal level with imagery whose portents elude straightforward interpretation, Kubrick evoked the ineffable with a genuine sense of mystery. Cameron spells everything out for the viewer and for the film's characters, with the result that the narrative resolution becomes trite. He might have trusted that the aesthetic evocation of mystery could be powerful, but this was a filmmaker who disliked ambiguities. The Abyss suffers as the result of that preference, despite the undeniable power of the film's riveting narrative. Cameron's fascination with the machinery of cinema and his technological ambitions seemed boundless, but they were checked by an artistic imagination that prized clarity over mystery and straight-ahead storytelling over more nuanced and less tidy narrative designs. In fairness to his work, though, it must be said that this was not a verdict rendered by the popular audience.
A witty and clever filmmaker, Joe Dante made the transition from low-budget Roger Corman productions in the 1970s to a career with the majors that was marked, alternately, by success and frustration. With a smart script by John Sayles, Dante's top-of-the-decade horror homage The Howling (1981), his second film as director, was the funniest, most affectionate, and scariest horror movie anyone had seen in years. Full of references to The Wolf Man (1941) and big-bad-wolf cartoons, Howling was sly and self-conscious and grounded Rick Baker's state-of-the-art werewolf transformations in solid story and character. The crisp editing and movie in-jokes would become hallmarks of Dante's work. He had trained as an editor at Corman's New World Pictures from 1974 to 1976, and his love for cinema was based on a voluminous knowledge of old movies. Thus, though Dante's eighties films typically involved a lot of special effects, the films are rarely mechanical, and they have a playful, lively spirit that prevents the effects from dominating the picture.
The Howling did respectable business ($8 million in rentals) for a B movie without a major marketing push, and Dante's evident filmmaking savvy brought him under the Spielberg aegis at this point. (Dante and Robert Zemeckis were the most talented filmmakers that Spielberg mentored during the eighties.) Spielberg liked The Howling and sent Dante the script for what became Gremlins (1984). Surprised at this sudden missive, Dante thought perhaps Spielberg had mistakenly sent it to the wrong person. But another invitation followed. With Spielberg producing, Dante directed a striking episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Dante's first experience working on a major studio production. "It's a Good Life" portrayed a boy trapped in a nightmarish mental world, unable to turn off the cartoon- and TV-derived images that flood his mind. Shot and edited with manic energy, the episode stood out as the most stylish and striking segment of the film. In it, Dante explored a darker side of the movie mania that he portrayed in more affectionate terms in his later Matinee (1993).
Gremlins followed, and its success launched Dante as a specialist in clever, effects-driven comedies. Dante's experiences as a director for the majors, however, were checkered with frustrations and struggle, and the Gremlins experience presaged these tribulations. (Jim Hillier profiles these problems in detail in The New Hollywood.) The film seques from a warm and sentimental opening, depicting a loving family at Christmas, to the evocation of a funny but scary nightmare in which the titular, mischievous, mean-spirited creatures overrun the family's wholesome, picture-postcard community. This latter turn of events provided Dante with lots of opportunity for movie in-jokes (cameos include animator Chuck Jones and Spielberg) and funny Gremlin skits. These contained a fair amount of rather nasty violence (e.g., Gremlins in the blender, Gremlins in the microwave, woosh, splat!) and helped prod the MPAA to revise the PG rating by adding a PG-13 category to designate general-appeal films with harder violence. Gremlins, though, was essentially a live-action cartoon with all the mayhem and lack of emotional consequence that typically beset cartoon characters. The executives at Warner Bros., the film's distributor, objected to this material and preferred that the film retain the sweetness of its opening sequences, with the darkness of its latter half toned down. They did not like the escalating mayhem the gremlins wreak nor their predominance in the latter half of the picture. Warners objected to the dailies that contained this material and objected again when the picture was assembled in rough cut form. Spielberg, though, interceded on Dante's behalf, and when Warners screened the film at a sneak preview, the audience loved the gremlins' antics and embraced the very things the Warners executives had disliked. These disparate reactions showed Dante how precarious and uncertain a director's position might be in relation to the majors, amid the uncertainties about what an audience wanted and how to shape material accordingly. In this case, the picture vindicated Dante's choices. Gremlins went on to become an enormous hit, the third biggest box-office film of 1984.
Dante's subsequent films represented less happy collaborations with the majors. Explorers (1985) was planned as a gentle fantasy about three kids who meet an alien, but Dante found his efforts to develop and polish the production stymied by Paramount, which rushed and pushed for an early summer release, leaving Dante less than a year to complete the script, get the sets constructed, and shoot and edit the picture. Moreover, Dante's aliens proved to be unsatisfying for the young audience Paramount wanted to capture and that had been conditioned by Spielberg's science fiction movies to expect emotional fireworks. Knowing humanity only through its television shows, Dante's aliens offer the viewer no epiphanies, no grand emotional payoff, just the stilted and skewed perspectives of TV talk. The picture previewed badly and never found an audience.
Dante's next film was based on a script that he did not originate. Innerspace (1987, with Spielberg producing) was an update of Fantastic Voyage (1966) and starred Dennis Quaid as a Navy pilot shrunken to microscopic size and injected into a man's body. Dante was eager to rebound from the misfire of Explorers, and he crafted a tight, witty, and entertaining film. This time, however, the picture was sabotaged by its marketing. Warner Bros. designed an ad campaign with nondescript art that failed to communicate what the film was about or what kind of picture—comedy, thriller—it was. Though his film tested well, Dante again had an expensive picture that lost money and failed to realize its potential. After directing a segment of Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), Dante began to plan for Gremlins 2, but it would be several years before that production could be completed. To remain active as a director, Dante agreed to direct a Tom Hanks vehicle, The 'Burbs (1989), and since it was a star vehicle, he had to adapt his style to Hanks s requirements, which at that time entailed broad comedy and slapstick. The film performed reasonably well, but it was a project on which Dante was essentially a director for hire rather than one that he had initiated and helped develop. Dante reversed his career slide with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), a sequel that topped the original with wonderful, bizarre gags and a plethora of movie in-jokes.
Dante was one of the happiest talents to have emerged in the 1980s. An intelligent filmmaker, he loved the medium, and his best films balance their special effects with an engagingly absurdist sensibility. His career, though, was a mixture of generally fine filmmaking and the disappointments and compromises wrought by unacceptably tight deadlines, poor marketing, and work-for-hire projects. His tribulations show the difficulties of sustaining a major directing career amid the uncertainties of studio politics and box-office fashions.
Kasdan excelled as a screenwriter in the early 1980s, and he made the difficult transition to filmmaker with an impressively assured debut. He cowrote three of the decades most popular films: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi. These scripts demonstrated a shrewd understanding of the popular audience and his ability to write commercial material, but the resulting films were, in some ways, antithetical to the kind of filmmaking he wished to practice. These are fast, furiously plotted pictures that have effects, not actors, at their center, whereas Kasdan's filmmaking proved to be literate, character-centered, and marked by a methodical, almost contemplative pacing. He characterized Raiders as the kind of movie that doesn't really require dialogue, just physical action and movement, whereas his own work as director featured extraordinary dialogue and character-based exposition.
Kasdan intentionally designed his first film as director to be one that was out of step with contemporary filmmaking. Body Heat (1981) is an outstanding film noir and a very skillful updating of the genre. Kasdan proudly described the picture as "talk heavy." "I wanted to make a movie that you have to listen to, because I don't think there have been many in America lately and I miss them."49 Kathleen Turner gave a star-making performance in her role as Matty Walker, a femme fatale seducing and betraying Florida lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt). Matty's sultry, torpid sexuality conceals a diabolically clever mind and a history of lethal manipulation that put her on par with Barbara Stanwycks Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944). Modeled on this and other classic noirs, Body Heat smartly updates the noir tradition and places it in convincingly contemporary terms. In place of the urban iconography, shadows, and paranoia of classic noir, Kasdan offers a bright, sun-dappled vision of Florida as a swamp of desire and moral turpitude and makes the omnipresent heat an index of the ambition and corruption that destroy Racine. The film's opening scene elegantly conveys Kasdan's narrative gambit with its foreshadowing of doom. Racine stands at his window watching a building burn in the distance, and he tells a nurse, who is one of his casual lovers, "It's the Seawater Inn. My family used to eat dinner there twenty-five years ago. Now somebody's torched it to clear the lot. Probably one of my clients." "It's a shame," she replies, to which Racine murmurs, "My history is burning up out there."
As in this scene, the talk throughout Body Heat is sharp and clever, the kind of dialogue a viewer has to listen for. When Ned meets Matty and tries some bad pickup lines on her, she smiles approvingly and says, "You're not too smart. I like that in a man." Late in the film when Racine suspects that Matty is duping him, he tells her, "Keep talking, Matty. Experience has shown that I can be convinced of anything."
Kasdan followed Body Heat with The Big Chill (1983), a portrait of disillusioned sixties activists coping with the eighties and feeling that their material successes have compromised their social ideals. The film's political content and its portrait of generational change seemed overly slick and calculated in comparison with John Sayles's low-budget The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), also about a group of sixties leftists weathering changed circumstances. Eminently successful in their chosen careers, Kasdan's characters suffer little but an occasional pang of conscience about how their lives have deviated from the ideals of their political youth. But the dialogue was as good as ever, and Kasdan again proved himself an actor's director. In contrast with Body Heat's intimate focus on Ned and Matty, The Big Chill was an ensemble piece, and it featured a gallery of strong performances by Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Beringer, and Kevin Kline.
The powerful ensemble effect—that the characters really are intimate friends—is testament to Kasdan's directing skill and to his working methods. Although the film seems very casual in its structure, with loosely connected and seemingly improvised scenes, the script by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek was extremely detailed, and Kasdan was meticulous in his planning. He graphed relations among the scenes and used time charts to place the characters in relation to each other during the forty-eight hours of story time. He insisted on an extended rehearsal period for the cast (rare in filmmaking), during which they evolved back stories for the characters and developed scenes between those written in the script, all to connect the group of friends as tightly as possible. During the fifty-three-day shoot, Kasdan insisted that all the actors remain on location and on the sets, whether they were in the camera frame or not. The latter requirement especially made for arduous conditions (the industry norm excuses performers from being on call for scenes in which they don't appear). But the effect of these methods was electric. Seldom have the intimate bonds between an ensemble of people been evoked so tangibly on screen. This clarity of effect, coupled with the funny dialogue and the evocative performances, helped the film find a sizable audience. Kasdan connected with viewers nostalgic for the sixties, yearning for ideals in the go-go eighties, and in this regard his film was shrewdly pitched at an audience whose demographics corresponded with the film's main characters. Despite the preference of some critics for the Sayles film, The Big Chill found its audience in young professionals who came of age in the sixties as well as those who came later, those who, experiencing the chill, knew the world as a cold place antithetical to their ideals. For such viewers, the film's characters were like old friends, and this rapport lifted the picture to strong box-office success. Some years later, with sixties angst still resonant, Kasdan's film inspired the popular televison series "Thirtysomething."
Kasdan faltered with his next project, Silverado (1985), though his considerable skill at handling an ensemble cast was on display again. An affectionate homage to the series Western and one of the few eighties productions in that genre, Silverado starred Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and Kevin Costner (whose role had been excised from The Big Chill during post-production) as a band of gunslinger heroes out to save a town from its corrupt sheriff. Unlike his earlier films, Silverado was a picture he might have described (had he written the script for another director) as the kind that doesn't need dialogue. Thus, the film did not play to his strengths as director. The pacing is extremely fast, and the editing moves the viewer rapidly to another scene whenever the actors get ready to have a conversation. Action is all Silverado, in and as a result, the film is more superficial than The Big Chill.
Kasdan finished the decade, however, with a strong return to form. The Accidental Tourist (1988) was a remarkably low-key adaptation of Anne Tyler's novel about a couple (William Hurt and Kathleen Turner again) whose marriage falters following the death of their child. The film is exquisitely paced, with Kasdan gradually, slowly peeling away the defenses of Macon Leary (Hurt) to reveal the grief and vulnerability that his repressed demeanor conceals. As with Body Heat, Kasdan bases his narrative on a unifying metaphor, here expressed in the title. "The Accidental Tourist" is the name of a series of guides penned by Leary for reluctant travelers, and as he learns anew to risk his emotions amid life's perils, he realizes there is no true safety in being an accidental tourist. Kasdan structures the film around William Hurt's remarkably restrained and subtle performance, one of the very best in eighties cinema. The performance is a treasure, but it's not the kind that wins an Academy Award. Hurt is so self-effacing in the role that he was overlooked by the Academy in its Oscar nominations. (Dustin Hoffman won that year for Rain Man, with a more labored, mannered performance as an autistic.) As Body Heat did for Kathleen Turner, however, The Accidental Tourist gave Geena Davis (in a supporting role as the eccentric woman who pulls Macon out of his shell) a big career boost and launched her toward stardom.
Kasdan's work showcased the talents of a fine writer committed to directing his own scripts in pictures that extolled the virtues of a literate cinema based in real human experience and where performance and dialogue worked the medium's magic. These were vital attributes in an era when the industry's big films often chose technical effects over scripting and performance. But they are not attributes that tend to get much attention in the marketplace or by critics. Filmmakers who show off their bag of tricks through flashy editing or swooping camera moves receive the lion's share of attention. "That's the problem with a lot of my movies, I'm afraid. I'm amazed my movies do as well as they do, because I think they're just really out of time, you know, they're not what's going down."50 Rather than going for the obvious or explicit emotional shadings in a scene or film, Kasdan aimed for subtlety and nuance, and he believed that the best art is often that which conceals the effort that has gone into its design. "Sometimes when you do your best work, it hides itself, it doesn't show itself off. The critical establishment doesn't understand movies at all, so what they respond to is the most flamboyant camera movement, the most flamboyant acting." Kasdan's films could never be accused of flashy style. Along with Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, and John Sayles, though, he created an intelligent body of work that showed the importance of a solid script, and the written and spoken word, for a distinguished film.
Writer-director Barry Levinson's first feature, Diner (1982), was the sleeper surprise of that year and boasted a cast of young actors who would soon become much better known: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser. Wickedly well written by Levinson and hilarious, Diner portrayed the drifting lives of a group of young men in 1959 Baltimore. The five friends exist in a state of arrested adolescence, having finished high school but anxious and unable to assume adult responsibilities. They hang out at the Fells Point Diner and jaw the nights away, arguing about topics like whether Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis is the better singer (the argument being settled when everyone realizes that while Sinatra is good, they make out to Mathis). The overlapping dialogue and fast, bantering conversations became Levinson hallmarks, and the dialogue is as good as it gets in movies. Modell (Paul Reiser) complains, a wonderful non sequitur, "You know what word I'm not comfortable with? 'Nuance.' That's not a real word. Like 'gesture,' 'gesture' is a good word. At least you know where you stand with 'gesture.' But 'nuance', I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong." Two other friends, Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) and Mookie (Mickey Rourke) spy an attractive young woman riding a horse. They're working stiffs, and she's obviously a Baltimore blueblood. They stop their car, and Mookie flirts and asks her name. "Jane Chisholm," she says, "like the Chisholm Trail," and rides off. Mookie asks Fenwick, "What's the Chisholm Trail?" and Fenwick, after a pause, replies, "You ever get the feeling there's something going on we don't know about?"
Other Levinson hallmarks include the Baltimore locale and his eye for period detail. Two of the guys go see a Bergman movie at the now-defunct Five West Theatre, one of Baltimore's venerable art houses. A customer in a television store wants an Emerson TV because they're the best, and he didn't like seeing "Bonanza" in color because the Ponderosa didn't look real. The guys at the diner eat their fries with gravy, not ketchup. They watch WBAL-TV and listen to WCAO radio. Levinson, who grew up in Baltimore in the 1940s, knows this locale and has mined it for his his best and most personal filmmaking. Tin Men (1987) is a companion piece to Diner, studying two feuding aluminum siding salesmen in early sixties Baltimore, characters who are wonderfully played by Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito. Less comic and aleatory in structure, more melancholy, Avalon (1990) examines the acculturation of several generations of an immigrant family that settled in Baltimore. Levinson powerfully evokes the estrangement of the youngest generation and ties it to the personal alienation television has fostered. With a running time over two hours, a focus on European immigrants, and a dearth of stars, Avalon was a decidedly uncommercial film. In many ways Levinson's most ambitious and personal film, it historicizes the Baltimore setting by studying its changes over time, whereas Diner and Tin Men provide snapshots of the locale during one brief period. Together, these films make an impressive trilogy about an American city and its changing subcultures. Levinson also used the Baltimore location for "Homicide, " a remarkable network television series on which he served as producer.
Levinson alternated between these small, hometown pictures and larger-budget, more commercial projects: The Natural (1984), with Robert Redford; Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), for executive producer Steven Spielberg; and Rain Man (1988), which earned $86 million in domestic rentals. The latter film, a comedy-drama, studied the bond that develops between a callow young man (Tom Cruise) and the autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) he did not know he had. Levinson as director solved the structural problems of the Rain Man script that had stymied other directors and kept the project in limbo for a year. Essentially, these problems involved how to handle the brothers' long car ride to Las Vegas, and Levinson, characteristically, approached the driving sequences as a means for developing and deepening the characters and their relationship. While Levinson's role on this picture was as a director for hire, his participation ensured that the project fulfilled its inherent potential and remained an actorcentered piece. (Levinson appears in a cameo role as a psychiatrist near the end of the film.) The success of Rain Man enabled Levinson to make Avalon and seemed to validate his strategy of doing a personal picture followed by one for the box office. The commercial projects are, as expected, more calculated in their appeal, while his Baltimore pictures have been riskier. Levinson's eighties career was exemplary for the skill with which he practiced both commercial and personal filmmaking, two very different modes that ordinarily are hard to reconcile.
Trained in the early 1980s at New York University's film school, Lee is, along with Martin Scorsese, NYU's most famous filmmaker alumnus. Unlike other contemporary filmmakers, though, Lee's films grew from his concerns with real-world racial and social issues. He was less enamored of cinema than a Spielberg or a Joe Dante, and his filmmaking interests flowed from his feelings and concerns about the society in which he lived, particularly its heritage of racial animosity.
Noting this difference between himself and other film school graduates, he said,
See, I wasn't really raised on movies. I went to see them, but I wasn't like Spielberg and the rest of these guys. They wanted to be filmmakers when they were still in Pampers. That wasn't my case. And in a lot of ways this might be an advantage, because for a lot of these guys, their films are about films they've seen. Their films are about films.51
Lee's NYU thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1982), was showcased in the 1983 Museum of Modern Art New Directors/New Films series, and his debut feature, She's Gotta Have It (1986), was a playful comedy about a sexually forthright woman and the befuddled men in her life. Lee completed the film for $114,000 after devoting Herculean efforts to fund-raising, and he benefited as a young filmmaker trying to break into the industry from the extensive network of independent film distributors that was flourishing at mid-decade. Filmed in black and white, the picture proved to be very successful, grossing $7.5 million domestically, and it featured the stylistic traits that would become Lee signatures: radical shifts of tone and form (e.g., the inclusion of a color musical sequence), Brechtian devices (direct address to the camera by performers), and a sharp, satirical skewering of racial attitudes.
Best of all for black audiences, they finally had a filmmaker who spoke directly to them, who understood the subtleties, norms, and humor of black American culture. Lee's success heralded the rise in the nineties of a new generation of black American filmmakers (John Singleton, Robert Townsend, the Hughes brothers) and from their works a film culture that specifically welcomed African Americans to the movies.
After Island Pictures, the independent distributor of She's Gotta Have It, pulled out of its deal for Lee's next production, the David Puttnam regime at Columbia agreed to fund the $6 million School Daze (1988). Puttnam was intent on using Columbia to advance quality films by alternative filmmakers (see ch. 2), and Lee turned this policy to his advantage by obtaining production monies and distribution. School Daze was an edgy, tone-shifting portrait of color issues (e.g., social determinations about who is black and who isn't) among the students at an all-black college, and it was controversial for some black viewers because of its airing of class and race issues within the black community. The picture was not a critical success, and it was one of many Puttnam pictures to lose money for Columbia ($11 million for production and advertising against $6 million in rentals). But it gave Lee access for the first time to an established major.
Lee's next film, Do the Right Thing (1989), proved to be one of his best pictures, one of the decade's major films, and it brought him to the front rank of contemporary American filmmakers. In this portrait of a Brooklyn neighborhood on a scorchingly hot summer day, Lee humanized his theme of racial and ethnic tension with a gallery of memorable characters, most especially pizzeria owner Sal. As played by Danny Aiello in a performance that lends much heart and feeling to the film, Sal is an Italian American who is devoted to the black and Hispanic neighborhood where his business resides and is proud that this community has eaten his food for many years. Yet Sal is also a racist, and a confrontation with a black customer (the hulking Radio Raheem, who has refused to turn down his portable stereo) provokes Sal to express his underlying animosities. The police arrive and side with Sal, the property owner. Arresting Radio Raheem, they employ a choke hold that strangles and kills him. (This police choke hold had been implicated in several real-world deaths, and Lee implicitly referenced these by its inclusion in the film.) Reacting to the police brutality, an angry crowd trashes and burns Sal's pizzeria in the film's ambiguous climax. Lee's staging of this finale elicited differing reactions from white and black audiences. Mookie, the film's most engaging and likable character and the only black employee who works for Sal, instigates the trashing and burning of the pizzeria. Lee remarked during the film's release that white viewers asked him why Mookie threw the trash can through the window of Sal's business. "No black person has ever asked me, 'Did Mookie do the right thing?' Never. Only white people. White people are like, 'Oh, I like Mookie so much up to that point. He's a nice character. Why'd he have to throw the garbage can through the window?' Black people, there's no question in their minds why he does that."52
Lee concludes the film with quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X expressing their different philosophies regarding pacifism and armed struggle. The simultaneous opposition of the King and Malcolm quotations intensified the film's ambiguities (what is the right thing?), and these helped spark a national controversy over the picture and its portrait of race in America. These debates were healthy for the nation and healthy for cinema. During a year where the big films were such escapist fare as Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Do the Right Thing was a powerful reminder that cinema can also function as a vital and vibrant medium of social discourse. The picture was successful in this regard because of the uncommon richness of its portrait of racial and ethnic tension. Amid the black, Hispanic, white, and Korean characters who express the racial polarities of contemporary American society, Sal is a fascinating and emotionally affecting character, who embodies the dilemmas of the present, and Lee and Aiello develop the character with exceptional nuance. Exemplifyng these nuances is Sal's resonse to a black patron's objection that there are no faces of famous black celebrities among the photos of prominent Italian Americans that adorn the walls of the pizzeria. Black people eat in here, the patron says, so black people should be pictured on the walls. Sal replies that it's his pizzeria, and he'll chose who goes on the walls, and if the patron opens his own business he'll have the same privilege. Lee endorsed and agreed with Sal's defense of his entreprenureal privileges. Sal's stance helped Lee develop one of the film's subthemes, which was about the need for black-owned businesses and the connection those enterprises would forge between economic development and degrees of social freedom. For Lee and for the film, Sal embodied both progressive and reactionary attitudes, and this gave the character and the film an aesthetic and social complexity that made its art and its politics especially memorable.
Do the Right Thing positioned Lee at decade's end for a major career in the nineties. His subsequent work in that decade fulfilled the promise this picture had suggested. Mo' Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Get on the Bus (1996), and Three Little Girls (1997) sustained the edgy dialogue about race in America, and the often confrontational aesthetic style, that Do the Right Thing had so memorably brokered.
In the 1980s, Oliver Stone brought left-leaning politics back to the American cinema, although to call his work leftist is to minimize its ambiguities and its internal contradictions. Stone studied film at New York University after serving in the army in Vietnam, and he directed his first feature in 1974 (Seizure). His second film as director, The Hand (1981), was an unremarkable horror picture. In the late seventies and early eighties, Stone penned several notorious scripts (Midnight Express, Scarface, Year of the Dragon) that earned him a trash-peddling reputation, but the depth of his socio-political conviction was soon apparent.
His third film, Salvador (1986), established his as a powerful directorial voice in American cinema and the only major filmmaker to create popular films that criticized U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Based on the experiences of journalist Richard Boyle (memorably played by James Woods), Salvador chronicles the bloody civil war in El Salvador and condemns the United States for its support of that country's savage and corrupt government. Shot and edited with ferocious intensity, the film searingly depicts the corruption and brutality of the Salvadoran regime and its bloodthirsty security forces. Stone unflinchingly shows graphic atrocities, including the bodies of death squad victims and the rape and murder of American church women, but this was too much for his distributor. Orion withdrew from its distribution deal because it believed the film was too violent.
Stone excised the most extreme violence and instances of sexual depravity, and he shortened the picture's overall length. Working at white-hot speed, fired by his love of filmmaking and passion for this subject, he had filmed more material than he could successfully shape into a two-hour picture. Cutting the film for content and length made the narrative more jagged than it ought to have been, but the film retained its power to grip and shock the viewer over the injustices it depicted: "I wound up pulling a lot of the violence out, and that weakened the story. The picture was two hours long and it really should've been two and a half hours. But I knew we couldn't get that version played, so I cut ruthlessly. The final version has been criticized for being choppy, and it is."53
With Orion out as distributor, Stone formed a productive relationship with Hemdale, a prominent independent that had promised to back his long-cherished project for a Vietnam War film. But Hemdale lacked the resources to give Salvador a major marketing push. As a result, the film never received the widespread national attention that a theatrical release can generate, and it went quickly to video. Though it is hardly an undiscovered film, it remains less widely known than Stone's subsequent, higher-profile productions, and this is unfortunate. In the intensity of its political vision and its moral involvement with the subject it depicts, and in its hell-bent, go-for-broke style of filmmaking, Salvador is one of the decade's most remarkable pictures.
With the completion of Salvador, Stone launched the production of his next, and breakthrough, film. Platoon was a project he had cherished for years, and fittingly, it had a bigger impact and was better received than anything he had previously done. When released in 1987, it was hailed by critics as the most authentic treatment of Vietnam yet filmed, despite Stone's inflection of the material with religious allusions and an overt bildungsroman narrative structure. Coming at the end of the Chuck Norris-Sylvester Stallone Vietnam picture cycle, in which they played ridiculously superpowered warriors, Stone's film was more faithful to the physical experience of living and fighting in a jungle environment, and it depicted in powerfully symbolic terms the war's divisive effect on America and its soldiers. The titular platoon is split between the moral examples offered by two sergeants, one savage and brutal, the other idealistic and compassionate. In the narrative savagery wins, but Stone shows in chilling detail the terms of the victory, most famously in a sequence where the Americans torture and slaughter Vietnamese villagers. Few scenes of violence in contemporary cinema have been as disturbing to watch, as morally discomforting, or as closely rooted in harrowing historical experience.
To accentuate the film's authenticity, Stone subjected his cast of actors to an unusual, rigorous pre-production course of training. For two weeks, the actors underwent grueling combat exercises under the instruction of marine officer Dale Dye, marching on full-gear hikes, living in the woods, digging trenches in which they slept, and rapelling down a sixty-five-foot tower. By the end of the second week, the cast was exhausted and weary. They had become existentially one with the characters they'd play. It was a bold move for Stone to do this, but the remarkable results are plainly evident in the film. The actors do not seem to be performing. Instead, they inhabit the characters with absolute authenticity. Stone pointed out, "The idea was to [mess] with their heads so we could get that dog-tired attitude, the anger, the irritation, the casual way of brutality, the casual approach to death. These are all the assets and liabilities of infantrymen."54
Released after the first two Rambo movies had caricatured the war with comic book heroics, Platoon's close attention to the physical stresses of living and fighting in the jungle was unprecedented, as was its powerful, if ambiguous, moral vision of the war. The picture exerted a marked influence on subsequent Vietnam War productions, and it won Stone his first best Director Oscar.
Characteristically, Stone moved immediately to his next project. Wall Street (1987) was a trenchant portrait of corporate raiders and the culture of greed that sustained them. Filmed with his customary visual gusto, the picture featured lots of camera movement to suggest the prowling sharks of this predatory environment. As with his two previous films, Stone once again had taken a difficult issue and transformed it into powerful filmmaking. Stone wrote for the film's villain, millionaire raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), one of the decade's memorable speeches, the "greed is good" monologue in which Gekko justifies his ruthless financial behavior. Stone was disappointed by the mixed reviews the picture received, but he quickly commenced another production, Talk Radio (1988), about the anomie and rage that pervades modern culture. Adapted from Eric Bogosian's stage play and starring Bogosian as an abrasive talk show host, Stone's film is aggressively cinematic, filled with elaborate camera moves, tight cutting and a sustained tension that leads inevitably to a violent climax. For all of its technical polish, the picture was a fast project made while he was prepping Born on the Fourth of July (1989), a long-delayed, much cherished project about Ron Kovic, a gung-ho marine crippled by a battlefield wound in Vietnam.
This picture won Stone his second best-director Oscar and gave actor Tom Cruise the role of his life. Stone was notorious for challenging his actors, sometimes roughly, to get beyond their limitations. Cruise was a performer who rarely stretched his gifts, but he was astonishing in the range of emotion that he commands here. He is one with this character, and he has never been better than here (as Michael Douglas has never been better than in Wall Street). The picture's style is bombastic and operatic, yet Stone captured the idealism of the early sixties and the bitter strife of the war years with his customary intensity. In the nineties he continued to apply this stylistic fervor to political filmmaking with the revisionist pictures JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), and The Doors (1991).
Stone was an original and unique American filmmaker, defiantly occupying a cinematic-political territory virtually of his own making. He stood virtually alone as director and artist in an industry where political timidity is the rule for commercial filmmaking. While Stone could sometimes be preachy or heavy-handed about the subjects on which his films were based, his film style was sensual and sense-assaulting. This intensity attracted a large audience, which gave him considerable power in the industry, and he defended his style, pointing out, "The world is spinning much faster than my camera and myself.… I think movies have to break through the three dimensions, as close as you can get. I think you go for every … thing you can to make it live."55
The Working Directors
While many seventies auteurs had a hard time in the eighties, the industry accommodated an influx of new directors (albeit to varying degrees) and provided continued, steady employment for sophisticated filmmakers gifted and skilled at working with the majors. These latter were filmmakers who maintained a consistent and prolific output and sustained distribution deals with the studios despite the industry's turmoil and transformations. Some of these filmmakers were quiet workers, whose films generally did not attract the media attention accorded Spielberg, Lucas, or Zemeckis or the sustained academic attention accorded more cerebral filmmakers. Academics and scholars tended to slight the work of many of these directors (excepting Woody Allen and possibly Sidney Lumet) because their films did not seem intellectually ambitious or cinematically self-conscious or because their merits, based in performance, dialogue, and storytelling skill, seemed overly traditional. But cinema is filled with great films and directors who fall outside established canons of academic respectability. The directors in this category were consistently intelligent filmmakers who worked regularly and reliably and who, unlike the embattled auteurs, sustained good relations with the industry. In this regard, it is not unfair to suggest that their work exemplified some of the best attributes of the American cinema: a remarkable finessing of the tensions between commerce and creative expression, a dependably high level of quality, and a vital connection to a popular audience.
Woody Allen directed ten features between 1980 and 1989, as well as a segment ("Oedipus Wrecks") of the anthology film New York Stories (1989). This extraordinary output, which set Allen apart from his peers, was made possible by Allen's depth of imagination, his special ability to work quickly, and his ongoing relationship with producers Jack Rollins, Charles Joffe, and Robert Greenhut. During the 1970s, Allen worked under contract to United Artists, whose chair, Arthur B. Krim, felt a special fondness and respect for Allen's talent and for his films. The terms of Allen's relationship with UA provided an important foundation for his eighties work. Historically, UA had been dedicated to providing directors with creative freedoms atypical of the majors, but even at UA Allen had special status. His contract called for films budgeted at $2 million, with Allen having total artistic control once UA approved the story, and Allen and his producers received 50 percent of net profits on each production. When other issues not covered by contract came up, such as Allen's opposition to the presentation of his films on airlines or television, Krim reliably supported him and in ways that were not accorded other filmmakers. About this Krim noted, "We can say with total credibility that we do it for Woody because he's special."56
In 1978, frictions with UA parent Transamerica led Krim and four of his executives to leave UA and set up their own company, Orion Pictures. UA desperately wanted to keep Allen, but once he had completed the outstanding pictures under his contract, he joined Orion in 1980 out of loyalty to Krim and his executive staff. Again he was accorded total artistic freedom plus 15 percent of gross receipts, split among Allen and his producers. The distinguishing feature of Allen's relationship with Krim and Orion was the mutual respect each accorded the other. Krim was proud of Allen's special talent and his place as an Orion filmmaker. "I feel that because Woody has been with us so long, it is a motivation for other top creative people to come to us."57 Respecting the needs of his financial backers, Allen resolutely stayed within budget and made good use of their money, never quarreling over story ideas, for example, or over projects that Orion questioned. His imagination was so fertile that he simply returned with another, better idea.
Allen's sharp, polished scripts formed a solid basis for his films, and he developed an approach to shooting—capturing a scene in a single master shot with characters and camera in constant choreographed motion—that protected the dialogue as written. By contrast, the more shots—coverage—into which a scene is broken, the greater an editor's opportunity for reworking the script as filmed. This approach also simplified the editing of his pictures. "I've done an enormous amount of movies in just a few takes. So for some pictures, we, my editor Susan Morse and I, could put the whole picture together in just one week, starting from scratch, because there are just master-shots. Forty master shots and then it's finished."58
Furthermore, although this method required an intense and extended planning session between Allen and his cinematographer, it remained an efficient manner of working Most of a production day would be spent by Allen and the cinematographer in blocking the scene's physical action, camera moves, and lighting design. By late afternoon, when the cast would be called in for shooting, few hours remained in the day, but Allen would then shoot the entire scene in one take, consuming five or six pages of script, which, as he noted, was a very respectable day's work. His method safeguarded the dialogue, gave the actors an extended interval of time (the length of the master shot) in which to play their characters, and facilitated an economical use of production time. It was an ingenious solution to the perennial problem of how to accomplish the most with finite resources.
The diversity of Allen's work demonstrated one of his special features as a filmmaker—his desire to try new subjects and styles, an outgrowth of his special relationship with Orion, which supported this diversity. Stardust Memories (1980), shot in black and white on high-contrast stock, was a Felliniesque portrait of a disillusioned filmmaker. With luminous cinematography by Gordon Willis, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) was a tribute to summer, the country (from staunch urbanite Allen!), and Felix Mendelssohn. It was written and shot around the ongoing production of Zelig (1983), a black-and-white fake documentary about a human chameleon (a picture whose conception and design prefigures Forrest Gump ). Also in black and white, Broadway Danny Rose (1984) was an affectionate homage to vaudeville and the Borscht Belt comedy that Allen practiced in his stand-up days. The melancholy of The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), about the seductive allure of the movies, was balanced by the sweetness of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), one of Allen's most popular films and one in which he permitted himself a movie-style happy ending.Radio Days (1987), a loving, warm tribute to radio in the forties, preceded two psychological dramas, September (1987), which Allen rewrote, recast and refilmed a second time when he judged the first effort to be poor, and Another Woman (1988). Allen ended the decade with Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), one of his best pictures, about a physician who arranges the murder of his lover and comes to believe there have been no moral or ethical consequences to his act.
Allen's singular ability to work so quickly and so well, backed by the support of Orion, gave him greater creative freedom in the eighties than any other American filmmaker. In this regard alone, Allen was the truest and most successful auteur in eighties American cinema.
Like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood enjoyed a long-standing relationship, based on mutual respect, fiscal conservatism, and speedy production methods, with a major distributor, in this case, Warner Bros. Eastwood's reputation in the industry for honoring budgets and shooting schedules was peerless and a major source of the confidence that Warner executives placed in him over the years. He was a rare filmmaker who could bring a production in under budget and ahead of schedule. Unlike Allen, though, Eastwood was a major box-office attraction, capable of generating millions of dollars in worldwide rentals. These factors help account for the remarkable freedoms he enjoyed to branch out as a director and actor, trying subjects, styles, and characters not normally associated with his minimalist, tough-guy image. Eastwood served as director and producer, and usually as actor, on the films that he made for his production company, Malpaso Productions, which Warner distributed.
Eastwood carefully alternated his eighties projects between those that featured him in conventional roles associated with his screen persona and ones lying outside its rather rigid boundaries. Thus, as director and star, he followed the sweet, whimsical Bronco Billy (1980) and the tender, melancholy Honkytonk Man (1982), in which he played a country-western singer, with four pictures that cast him in action roles. He appeared as a fighter pilot in Firefox (1982), Dirty Harry Callahan in Sudden Impact (1983), a Western gunfighter in Pale Rider (1985), and a foul-mouthed Marine sergeant in Heartbreak Ridge (1986). He then realized a long-cherished project into which he poured his love of jazz. Bird (1988) was based on the life of sax great Charlie Parker, and Eastwood did not take an acting role in it. He also served as executive producer of another jazz film, the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1989). White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) showed him in an uncharacteristically loquacious role, one based on director John Huston's sojourn in Africa while filming The African Queen (1951). And, as if this output were not enough, at mid-decade he directed an episode of Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" TV series. Furthermore, he acted in a string of pictures on which he did not serve as credited director (although his uncredited influence on the productions was significant): Any Which Way You Can (1980), City Heat (1984), Tightrope (1984), The Dead Pool (1988), and Pink Cadillac (1989).
Eastwood paid a price for his experimental forays into new territory. His box office clout notably diminished during the decade as most of these pictures failed to attract a large audience (excepting the very successful Sudden Impact). But his risk paid off handsomely in the nineties, when his directing career won him new critical and public recognition for Unforgiven (1992) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995). He laid the foundation for this recognition during the eighties when he acted and directed at a brisk clip, honing his skills at each and building a substantial body of work that critics eventually noticed both for its unexpected variety and for the iconic power of his star persona. The most notable aspect of Eastwood's directing style was the relaxed and unpretentious tone that he set for cast and crew. It inspired everyone to work as a team and to do so with vigor and efficiency.
Eastwood's relaxed methods had significant implications for his creative approach to cinema. He valued the unpredictable constraints imposed by sets and locations, and while he would plan the work in advance, he also believed that the best effects are often those that arise from unanticipated circumstances. Spontaneity was welcomed, not feared, by Eastwood. He valued the discoveries an actor might make on camera and the benefits that might accrue from a novel way of blocking a scene's action and filming. To provide his camera operator with maximum flexibility in covering a scene's dynamic and sometimes unplanned action, Eastwood frequently used the Steadicam. By stabilizing a handheld camera, the Steadicam enabled his operator to "catch the moment[s]" arising within a scene's dynamics and facilitated rapid and efficient filming.59 Because he felt it hindered his ability to work efficiently, Eastwood avoided using video assist. He found that people would gather after each take to watch the monitor and volunteer opinions on the effectiveness of the shot, a process that disrupted the flow of each day's work.
About his working methods, he said, "It's much more interesting to me if you're making decisions on the spot. You have to have a plan, but within that plan you adjust to something new as it hits you for the first time. I try to be open to that. The [new possibilities] you find tend to be a little better than you might have expected."60 Jack Green, a regular Eastwood cinematographer, lit scenes for Eastwood in ways that provided multiple options for blocking and visually designing the action. Green pointed out how Eastwood's preference for looseness and spontaneity affected the lighting design:
I like to light environments so that Clint has total flexibility. The night before the shoot, he usually indicates how the scene will unfold and where the camera will go, and he's certainly very well-prepared for what he wants to achieve. But Clint dislikes anything that constricts him or puts a preconceived thought into his mind. He wants to be able to walk in and do things that are completely spontaneous.61
Eastwood's aesthetic approach was quite dissimilar to George Lucas's fondness for digital methods of production. Lucas defined cinematic artistry as the ability to use digital design to completely overcome the constraints imposed by performers, locations, or external light sources. For Eastwood, creativity lay in working with those constraints and finding freedom within them. One is a technologically based concept of artistry, the other derives excitement from unexpected aspects of the encounters with sets and performers. One seeks control, the other a certain freedom. In these distinctions lie fundamentally different philosophies of cinema and filmmaking. While many applications of cinema technology inclined the medium in its blockbuster phase toward the example and direction offered by Lucas, Eastwood's approach exemplified the crucial counter-tradition of using the machinery to find the humanly meaningful moments at the center of a film.
Lumet's work consistently exhibited the strengths bequeathed him by his training as a director for stage and television. He made films quickly and economically and was exceptionally skilled at working with actors. Lumet worked steadily and reliably throughout the decade, but with his interests in performance and morally ambiguous drama he stood apart from the industry's fascination with blockbusters and effects-driven narratives. Lumet could prepare and execute a production in rapid order, and he typically stayed within a modest budget. These attributes ensured his steady employment. Prince of the City (1981), for example, had over 130 speaking roles and 135 locations, which Lumet coordinated for a quick fifty-two-day shoot. Performers were eager to work with Lumet because he was an outstanding director of actors. Whereas many directors disliked rehearsals or advising actors on how to build their characters, Lumet excelled at both. Paul Newman, for example, gave one of his best performances as a drunken lawyer seeking redemption in Lumet's The Verdict (1982), but he was not getting to the guts of the alcoholic character until Lumet offered him some discreetly personal but pointed advice on how to do so.
Lumet gave his skilled performers a cinematic showcase for their abilities; that is, he used the unique tools of cinema to extend and deepen the actor's contribution. In Running on Empty (1988), for example, a film about sixties radicals living underground, Lumet used editing in a judicious way to accentuate the emotional relationships conveyed by his actors. For the tense reunion scene between Annie (Christine Lahti) and the father (Steven Hill) whom she rejected because of her radical politics, Lumet used two cameras so the actors could play the scene without interruption. He placed the cameras to facilitate shot-reverse shot cutting, and in post-production he cut back and forth between the performers, isolating each in his or her own frame, using the cut points to separate visually father from daughter. In a subsequent scene with a very different emotional tone—Annie playing piano with her son, whom she loves but must now leave forever—Lumet used no editing. To capture the intimacy of the moment, he shot the scene in one take, using a discreet framing on the performers' backs as they sit at the piano, and slowly dollied the camera closer. Annie and her son relate to one another in an extended, unbroken visual and dramatic space. Lumet did more than simply film performances. He deepened those performances using the tools of cinema to integrate them into a coherent visual and emotional design.
In the eighties, Lumet returned to the themes of police corruption and the moral ambiguities of law enforcement that he had forcefully explored in 1974's Serpico The epic Prince of the City portrayed a corrupt cop desperately seeking redemption by informing on his friends and partners. While the decade's big box-office films typically shunned ambiguity, Lumet loved the mysteries of character and motive in Prince ("Its ambiguity on every level was one of the most exciting things about it").62 He explored these ambiguities through his visual design of the picture, using only wide-angle or tele-photo lenses to give the camera a duplicitous relationship with what it filmed. Q&A (1990) offered another dark portrait of corruption and betrayal on an urban police force.
Lumet was one of the few American directors to look at the legacy of leftist politics in American culture and society. Daniel (1983), which examined the trauma inflicted on children of activist parents (modeled on the Rosenbergs), who were arrested and executed for espionage in the 1950s, effectively and movingly contrasted the major generations of leftist protest in the 1930s and the 1960s. Running on Empty sympathetically portrayed a pair of 1960s radicals on the run from the FBI, living underground, with nowhere to go in the eighties, an era in which sixties ideals seemed eclipsed. Lumet alternated these personal projects with more commercial pictures that, whatever their limitations, were crisply directed: Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), Deathtrap (1982), Garbo Talks (1984), Power (1986), The Morning After (1986), and Family Business (1989).
In an industry where star egos are often as large as their paychecks, Lumet remained humble and realistic about the contribution he made to his films.
How much in charge am I? Is the movie un Film de Sidney Lumet? I'm dependent on weather, budget, what the leading lady had for breakfast, who the leading man is in love with. I'm dependent on the talents and idiosyncrasies, the moods and egos, the politics and personalities, of more than a hundred different people. And that's just in the making of the movie. At this point I won't even begin to discuss the studio, financing, distribution, marketing, and so on.63
At the same time, Lumet believed that movies are an art, and this was where his interest in the medium, and his ambitions for it, rested. "The amount of attention paid to movies is directly related to pictures of quality. It's the movies that are works of art that create this interest, even if they're not on the ten-highest grosses list too often."64 This was Lumet in the eighties—never on the high-gross list, working on smaller budgets, yet making a string of challenging and often quite personal films placed in distribution by the majors.
Sydney Pollack was the best 1980s equivalent of what, in the old days, were the outstanding studio contract directors—Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, William Wellman. Like them, Pollack could handle a variety of stories, themes, and textures, work within budget and with the vagaries of studio politics, and turn out consistently distinguished filmmaking. Like theirs, his films lacked a consistency of style or theme but boasted a skilled, sensitive handling of actors and a knack for effective storytelling. Pollack, in fact, was one of the best popular storytellers among contemporary American directors. Because of his training for the stage and his experience teaching acting classes, he was exceptionally good with actors and gave performance pride of place in his films.
Whereas many contemporary directors avoided rehearsals because they did not enjoy working with actors, Pollack disliked rehearsing for entirely different reasons. The insufficient period (typically under a week) allowed for rehearsal on a film production was counterproductive, he felt, and drained the freshness from a performance, precisely the freshness that he wanted to capture on film. "In a film, I'm always trying to catch a performance before it examines itself so much that it loses its life," he pointed out.
I find that I get more exciting performances from really gifted actors out of the rush of their own intuitive understanding of the part, usually in the first couple of times that they do it. It has a spontaneity and a freshness and a life that I don't know how to get unless I am able to rehearse for five or six weeks. And I've never been able to get a whole cast together, on a location, for that long prior to filming.65
Pollack's eighties productions demonstrated this care with actors and a particular facility for working with stars and helping craft star performances. These are essential attributes of popular filmmaking. Absence of Malice (1981) toplined Paul Newman as the innocent victim of a smear article by reporter Sally Field. Tootsie (1983) showcased Dustin Hoffman's hilarious performance as an actor impersonating a prim woman to win a key television role. Although Pollack was not noted as a director of comedies—he had specialized in straight dramas—his direction of Tootsie showed a real flair for comic timing.
Out of Africa (1985) teamed Pollack again with actor Robert Redford, with whom he frequently collaborated, in one of the decade's best films, an exquisitely constructed epic narrative about the experiences of writer Isak Dinesan (a luminous Meryl Streep) during her years in Africa managing a coffee plantation. The virtues of Out of Africa are the old-fashioned ones: a carefully structured script, unhurried pacing with narrative climaxes given proper proportion, and sentiment without sentimentality. Few contemporary directors could bring off this feat of popular storytelling. Pollack's facility with narrative was closely connected to his respect for the performer. The narrative of Out of Africa covered a large span of story time, during which Streep's character underwent significant emotional changes. Like virtually all films, this one was shot out of continuity, but Pollack stressed that the shooting continuity had to respect the emotional are of the characters: "I would never play a critical emotional scene near the end of a story, before we've filmed the necessary early parts. You do film out of continuity, but there are certain things that have to be done…. You don't want to start with the end scene, and say, 'Oh, don't worry, just trust me.' That's silliness."66
Interestingly, despite his filmmaking savvy, Pollack completely misjudged the picture's chances of popular success. "I liked it personally, but if I'd had to make a bet as to whether or not it was going to be a successful film, and my children's lives depended on my bet, I certainly would have bet that it wasn't going to be. It was three hours long, it was talky, there were no action scenes in it, it was not about young people."67 The film's surprising box office was augmented by its industry honors. It won Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, and music score.
Pollack's next film was his one misfire of the decade, Havana (1990), an expensive production that failed to find an audience. Robert Redford and Lena Olin played lovers whose affair unfolded against the backdrop of the Cuban revolution. Whereas Redford and Streep had a special chemistry that made Out of Africa work, Redford and Olin failed to connect on screen, and this left a gaping hole where the heart of the picture ought to have been. For his part, Pollack believed it was a well-made film, but, as with his Out of Africa experience, he admitted that it is difficult to predict a film's level of popular success. Despite Havana, his track record was impressive, and the eighties for Pollack were a decade that saw his work earn critical as well as box-office distinction.
Independents And Outsiders
The expanding video and cable television markets spawned a significant demand for new film product by mid-decade. Because the majors were unable to fund a production increase to meet this demand, independent film faced a propitious opportunity for enlarging its presence in the domestic market. As we have seen in table 2.4, in 1986 and 1987 the number of independent productions set for release by majors and indies exploded from an average of 179 during the previous three years to 295 in 1986 and 267 in 1987. Moreover, independent distribution outside the majors jumped from an average of 132 during the previous three years to 242 in 1986 and 203 in 1987. On the downside, more than a third of independent films failed to secure a release during those years.
By the mid-1980s, independent distributors were helping to fund this production bubble.68 John Sayles's Matewan was cofinanced by Cinecom International. The Coen brothers signed a multipicture contract with Circle Releasing, and Alan Rudolph found a solid backer for his best eighties pictures (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, The Moderns) in Alive Pictures. Oliver Stone's breakthrough films, Salvador and Platoon, were financed by Hemdale (which also distributed Salvador). Moreover, another independent, Vestron, Inc., pre-bought the video rights to Platoon, contributing a vital source of funding.
By decade's end, many of these companies, and others, had folded or were absorbed by parent firms. In 1988-89, Cinecom and Atlantic Releasing were sold, and Film-Dallas, Island Pictures (Alive), and Vestron, which had overextended itself, went under. The bubble of independent production, so striking a component of the latter 1980s, received considerable buffeting by decade's end with the failure of these sources of financing and distribution. But during this period, a host of uniquely talented American filmmakers took advantage of its opportunities and established solid careers. Several of the filmmakers discussed in this section moved in and out of production and distribution deals with major studios while making resolutely nontraditional films. This phenomenon demonstrates the flexibility of the industry as well as its ability to absorb unconventional talents and niche market products.
Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers split their filmmaking responsibilities, with Joel directing, Ethan producing, and both taking a writing credit. They established a close relationship with Washington D.C.-based Circle Films. Circle funded and distributed their eighties productions and allowed the Coens to work without interference, once a project had been approved.
With the backing of Circle, the Coens established a strong and prolific career with an eclectic series of films whose style and subject matter were often unpredictable. In the eighties, they completed only two films, but these were bravura showpieces that aggressively announced their talents. Joel Coen studied film at New York University (a school with a number of alums working in the eighties—Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee), and his direction showed a corresponding cinematic self-consciousness. In Blood Simple (1984), for example, the camera tracks down the length of a bar. Its path blocked by a drunken, somnolent customer, the camera tracks up, over, and past this character, and continues on its way. The drunk, of course, was a convenient prop, an excuse for moving the camera in this obstreperous way, which said, in effect, to the viewer, "Are you watching?"
Blood Simple was their debut film, and like the first works by many directors, it has a flashy and showy style that indicates its authors are hungry filmmakers ready for attention. A film noir set in Texas, and therefore without the genre's typical urban iconography, Blood Simple strongly evokes the greed, treachery, and human debasement that are essential attributes of the noir world. The narrative is relatively simple but has enough twists to keep the first-time viewer guessing about likely outcomes. Marty (Dan Hedaya) owns a bar and suspects that his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand, who became a regular performer in Coen films), has been cheating on him with one of his employees, Ray (John Gertz). Marty hires an impressively sleazy detective (M. Emmet Walsh in a performance of oily perfection and reptilian menace) to investigate. When Marty subsequently asks the detective to kill Abby and Ray, the story slides into a serpentine mode, with cross and doublecross and an escalating body count. The tension is well modulated, and the film climaxes with two memorable set pieces. In one, Ray buries a not-yet-dead Marty in a remote field, piling spades of dirt atop the protesting victim. The other is a vividly bloody showdown between Abby and the detective that provides the film with a wonderful curtain line, uttered by her bemused and dying antagonist.
Blood Simple was such a colorfully misanthropic film that the Coens evidently sought to avoid being typecast as crime film directors. Their next film, Raising Arizona (1987), was a loopy comedy about babysnatching. A childless couple, H. I. (Nicolas Cage) and Edwina (Holly Hunter) McDonnough, steal a baby from a wealthy couple who have quintuplets. "Hi" and "Ed" reason that five babies are too many, and that the couple won't miss one if it disappears. Their actions precipitate a wild series of events involving the quintuplets' parents, a pair of prison escapees (John Goodman and William Forsythe), and Leonard Smalls, a.k.a. "The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse," a flamboyant figure who haunts H.I.'s nightmares and comes to visit him in the flesh. To call Raising Arizona a comedy, however, is misleading. It is neither funny nor witty. It is more tall tale than comedy, a film of outlandish characters and improbable events. In neither this film nor Blood Simple, do the characters exhibit complexity or an inner psychic richness. The Coens excelled at taking stock characters and planting them in well-conceived narratives given a striking visual design. These are formalistic movies, and the pleasures they extend derive from their well-crafted designs, rather than from richly modulated drama.
As the decade ended, the Coens were at work on Miller's Crossing (1990), a lowkey gangster film distinguished by its dense and complex story line, and they were poised for a prolific outpouring of work, including Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), and The Big Lebowski (1997). They survived the demise of Circle Films and continued to make iconoclastic movies while attracting (in the nineties) distribution deals from the majors. Measured by their output and their creative and business acumen, the Coens were distinguished filmmakers. They showed that independents could forge a highly successful career on the periphery of the industry and that a demonstrable audience niche would produce the funding and distribution to sustain intelligent and eccentric productions.
A New York University Film School graduate, Jim Jarmusch was a teaching assistant for famed director Nicholas Ray, and he worked with German filmmaker Wim Wenders on his film about Ray, Lightning over Water (1980). Wenders gave Jarmusch some raw black-and-white film stock, unused by Wenders for the project he was then working on, The State of Things (1982). From this Jarmusch made the first half-hour installment of what eventually became Stranger Than Paradise (1984). Made for $100,000, Jarmusch's cult hit was a minimalist tale about a New York drifter whose Hungarian cousin visits him unexpectedly. With a third companion they embark for the wintry bleakness of Cleveland and then on to Florida. The narrative, such as it is, was deliberately aimless, the visual style was cool and distancing, and the film's charm resided in its oddball characters and their endearingly dysfunctional relationships with their surroundings. To promote the film, the distributor, Samuel Goldwyn Company, designed a brilliant trailer around Screamin' Jay Hawkins's performance of "I Put a Spell on You," and the film went on to gross $2.5 million. This was a notable success because the film's style is quite restrained, favoring long takes with little movement or action on screen and no use of editing to pump up its rhythms. Jarmusch was surprised at this popular acceptance. "I'm still a little confused by Stranger's success. I thought that formally and structurally the film would keep audiences at a distance and it would become a cult film in Europe and there'd be little interest in America."69
Not only did the film do well commercially, but it was also a major influence on other aspiring young filmmakers, who were impressed with what he had accomplished on so little money. Spike Lee, for example, said, "A great film for me to see was Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. It opened up to me what the possibilities could be. 'Specially since I knew Jim; he was ahead of me in film school. I knew I could do this now."70
Jarmusch's next feature, Down by Law (1986), focused on a trio of odd cellmates (a pimp, a disc jockey, and an Italian immigrant) in a wayward narrative of escape and cultural discovery. Narrative grew even more diffuse in Mystery Train (1989), about the chance encounters among characters inhabiting three different stories, linked by the hotel where they stay. The picture was financed by Japan's JVC Entertainment, demonstrating that even independent film might benefit from the emerging global entertainment economy.
Unlike John Sayles, who was a social realist and who therefore made movies that were accessible for a popular audience, Jarmusch practiced a more severe, controlled, and intellectualized style that was not for all tastes. His camerawork was typically spare, and it framed the action at some remove from the characters. This visual distancing helped create the cool tone of his work and prevented the viewer from enjoying an uninhibited emotional access to the characters, as is the norm in mainstream filmmaking. Jarmusch's approach to narrative dissipated the normative pleasures of commercial cinema in other ways as well. From the standpoint of story, not much happens in a Jarmusch film. "Most films aren't demanding of the audiences," he noted. "They don't trust the audience, cutting to a new shot every six or seven seconds." Jarmusch rejected montage and its inherent ability to energize a film's pacing and provide viewers with a continuing visual stimulation and excitement. In this regard, the minimalism of his work had greater affinities with the aesthetic design of such foreign filmmakers as Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu, though Jarmusch's films typically lack the warmth and sentiment of the latter director's work. This austerity has limited the popular appeal of his pictures (especially in comparison with his fellow NYU alum Spike Lee), but Jarmusch's eighties work was a major inspiration and encouragement for other up-and-coming independent filmmakers, and its studied refusal of the normative aesthetic of commercial film showed how varied are the possibilities for creative expression in cinema.
David Lynch established a unique artistic voice in eighties cinema largely on the strength of one film, Blue Velvet, released in 1986 to significant critical and popular reception (on the relatively smaller scale accorded an art film). Prior to that, his career had moved in contradictory directions. With an art school background, Lynch spent five years making Eraserhead (1976), his first feature, on borrowed money. This nightmarish film about a freakish misfit living in squalor became a popular cult item and positioned him for his next assignment. Mel Brooks invited him to direct The Elephant Man (1980), a Brooksfilm production with distribution by Paramount. In comparison with his other work, Lynch softened the ugliness of his imagery and sweetened his outlook for this tale of Victorian sensation John Merrick, horribly disfigured by elephantiasis. In evoking London during the early industrial period, Lynch worked in an essentially realistic mode, unusual for him, though he included notable scenes of hallucinatory imagery loosely correlated with the Elephant Man's subjectivity. The film as a whole, though, lacked the extended surreality of his later films. While well made, it does not have their abrasiveness or Lynch's willingness to indict society as a whole for the squalor he depicts. The deformity of Merrick (well played by John Hurt under pounds of make-up) is not yet the universal human condition that it becomes in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. The picture generated a respectable $8.5 million in domestic rentals and gave Lynch the career boost he needed to move to his next picture. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the 1980s' great messes, Dune (1984), a $40 million attempt to film Frank Herbert's massive, classic sci-fi novel. The resulting film was unbalanced by its budget and production design and was criticized by Herbert fans and by critics for its overbearing imagery and narrative incoherence.
Thus far, Lynch's eighties career had veered away from the weirdness of Eraserhead into mainstream projects, and Lynch now returned to his surrealist roots with Blue Velvet (1986). Highly praised by critics, the film presented an unusually harsh vision of the world, replete with sexual perversity and sadomasochistic cruelty. Lynch begins by evoking what appears to be a bucolic, small-town community. He shows roses in front of a white picket fence under a postcard sky, a smiling fireman on a passing truck, children crossing the street under the watchful eye of a traffic guard, a man watering his lawn. But all is illusion. In the next moment, the man has a seizure and collapses, and the camera moves from his crumpled body to a subterranean view of the lawn to show the savagery that lies hidden beneath its apparent placidity. Insects prey upon one another in a riotous frenzy.
In the opening moments of the film, Lynch vividly establishes its aesthetic and moral design—the revelation of savagery and depravity beneath the polite surfaces of daily life. Young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed ear in the woods and, fascinated by its mystery, searches for answers. His quest involves him in the affairs of a psychopath, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), and the woman (Isabella Rossellini) he has forced into a sadomasochistic affair. As Jeffrey pursues the mystery and becomes Booth's prey, Lynch shows the horror that accompanies the cheery facade of Jeffrey's hometown. Dennis Hopper's human monster, Frank Booth, is a vivid personification of evil and perversity and one of the memorable villains in eighties cinema.
It is certainly arguable that Lynch intended the subversion of small-town homilies in the film to serve a political function in Reagan America by implying that the period's ideologies of home, hearth, and family repressed the truth about human affairs. While the evocation of evil in the film is quite powerful, however, Lynch offers nothing to oppose this except Jeffrey's naive and childlike query about why people like Frank Booth exist. Furthermore, when order is restored at film's end, Lynch presents his vision of "normality" in extraordinarily alienated terms, which imply that it has no credibility. Jeffrey's trip through hell has not enlightened him or deepened his character. He and everyone in his family remain cheerfully blind. Thus, Blue Velvet is a work of ambiguous merits. It went places that few other widely distributed films of the period dared go, and it offered a pointed rejoinder to the "don't worry, be happy" cultural politics of the era. But Lynch's apparent inability to see anything but ugliness, and to find only evil credible, limited the film's aesthetic and moral resonance. Nevertheless, many critics placed Blue Velvet on their ten-best lists that year.
Lynch's eighties film career now seemed to lack a second act. He extended the ominous, anxiety-laden style of Blue Velvet to network television with the series "Twin Peaks" (1990), which was wildly successful in its first season. His follow-up feature to Blue Velvet was Wild at Heart (1990), a twisted, kinky, lovers-on-the-run road movie that crossed Elvis Presley with The Wizard of Oz (1939) and often seemed, in its insistent fascination with grotesquerie and ugliness, like a retread of Blue Velvet. Even such fine performers as Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, as the pair of lovers, failed to provide the material with much nuance. When "Twin Peaks" faltered in a subsequent season, its oddness began to look labored and contrived. Lynch's feature film career then stalled in the nineties, the surrealism that seemed so fresh and daring Blue Velvet becoming stale with repetition. For all of its flaws, Blue Velvent remained one of the most original and talked-about pictures of the decade.
In the 1970s, Alan Rudolph was a protégé of Robert Altman, serving as an assistant director on The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Nashville (1975) and coscripting Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). Rudolph emerged from Altman's shadow in the later seventies and sustained his own distinctive film career throughout the eighties. The wayward narratives of Rudolph's films and his fondness for ensemble casts were familiar elements of the Altman stylistic. Rudolph found an independent distributor for his most offbeat films in Island Alive.
The box-office failure of Remember My Name (1978), distributed by Columbia Pictures (and produced by Altman's Lion's Gate Films), led to the collapse of Rudolph's next project, The Moderns, about the American artists' colony in 1920s Paris. Rudolph was compelled to seek out more conventional material, and the early eighties saw him directing Roadie (1980), a loud comedy built around rock singer Meatloaf; Endangered Species (1982), an environmental thriller for MGM; and Songwriter (1984), a limp comedy about country-western singers that starred Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. During this period, he also made a sharp documentary, Return Engagement (1983), about Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy, who had formed a late, odd career as lecture circuit partners.
Rudolph's distinctive style emerged in mid-decade with the pictures he released through Island Alive (which in 1985 became Island Pictures), a prominent indie distributor. Choose Me (1984), shot in less than a month for $750,000, became one of his biggest successes. Choose Me focused on a group of characters who hang out in a singles bar and listen to the romantic advice of a popular talk show host (Geneviève Bujold). Rudolph's ensemble cast was extremely engaging, and the picture remained one of his most endearing portraits of the vagaries of the heart. Trouble in Mind (1985) was a campy film noir, set in the future in an unnamed Pacific Northwest town, with Kris Kristofferson as a grizzled ex-cop trying to pick up his life after release from prison. The picture boasted a fine, moody Mark Isham score, striking production design that made inventive use of real locations, a series of increasingly outrageous coiffures for actor Keith Carradine, and Divine, the famous transvestite from John Waters's films, as a bald villain. This remarkable combination of elements made for an original, if not always wholly successful, film.
Rudolph next did Made in Heaven (1987), a conventional love story (despite the oddness of having the lovers literally meet in heaven) for Lorimar. But he returned to Alive Pictures with The Moderns (1988), his long-planned project about Americans in Paris, played by the Rudolph stock company, most notably Geneviève Bujold, Keith Carradine, and Geraldine Chaplin. In contrast with the loose, laid-back style and airy substance of Choose Me, The Moderns boasted a finely detailed portrait of this chapter in art history and a series of provocative debates, voiced by the characters, about the philosophy of art. This ambitious and well-defined picture was the last that Rudolph released through Island, which folded in 1989.
Despite their generally poor commercial record, Rudolph's films were visually stylish and consistently offered the pleasure of unexpected designs, quirky characters, and an absurdist sense of humor. "I don't do realistic films. I don't even believe they exist," he said.71 Choose Me and Trouble in Mind are two of the 1980s most unique films, and The Moderns looks long and with great fascination at art world aesthetics, a topic and area of interest that demonstrated Rudolph's maverick tastes (relative to the industry). His quintessential distance from mainstream American film was best captured by Robert Altman in The Player (1992), wherein Rudolph appears (after being mistaken for Martin Scorsese in a gag that acknowledges Rudolph's relative anonymity to the general public) as a screenwriter pitching a new, high-concept action picture. It'll be a cynical political thriller, he promises, but with lots of heart. It will be Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate and, oh yes, it'll star Bruce Willis.
By virtue of his productivity and increasing critical and popular cachet, John Sayles was the most successful independent filmmaker of the period, and he aimed to maximize the opportunities afforded by his independent status. Except for the illfated Baby, It's You (1983), he resolutely stayed away from the majors, preferring to raise funding himself for his inexpensive films because of the greater creative freedom this gave him. With his first production he carefully positioned himself and defined the kind of filmmaking he wanted to practice. Of this experience, he said, "Most people who are trying to break into movies make a small horror picture. But I may only get to do this one time, and if that's the case, if I'm only going to get one shot, why not make something that I would want to see, that I wouldn't get to see unless I made it myself, or somebody not working in the studio system made it?"72
His first feature, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), was made for $125,000, with Sayles personally committing $60,000 of that total. Though Sayles did not originally plan for the picture to have a theatrical release (he saw it instead as an audition piece), it won the attention and favor of several specialty distributors when it was exhibited at festivals. As a promotional ploy, its distributors, Specialty Films and Libra Films, successfully and shrewdly compared Sayles's thrifty accomplishment to the bloated budget of UA's disastrous Heaven's Gate, released the same year.
The picture makes for an interesting, if not wholly fair, comparison with Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983). Both deal with a group of old friends on a holiday weekend who reminisce and compare the different directions their lives have taken. Both sets of characters are former sixties activists who find themselves nostalgic for the ideals and camaraderie of their youth. Kasdan's characters have more upscale occupations and consequently lead more affluent lives, and they are also older than Sayles's group, which is just turning thirty. Sayles's group, in turn, is much less angst-ridden and melancholy over lost opportunities and ideals. Thus, the aim of Return of the Secaucus Seven is relatively more modest than The Big Chill, which tries to summarize the predicament of a generation. Sayles's characters do not labor under this symbolism and social import. Kasdan's film has often been criticized for not delving deeper into its characters than it does, but then, neither does Sayles present deeply nuanced character portraits. Both films offer a casual but insightful look at the bonds among these friends, with their social attitudes given only a glancing treatment.
Sayles later would come a long way from the beginner's command of cinema technique that he showed in this film. The camerawork is uninflected, with most shots taken at eye-level positions. The shots are stationary, and the camera almost never moves to reframe the action. Thus, the staging is generally nondynamic, and there is no choreography of action in relation to a fluid camera. The setups are mostly conventional, with scenes covered by a master shot and alternating close-ups. Except for a couple of notable montages (each of which goes on longer than it should), the editing by Sayles is functional and unassertive.
Thus, Return of the Secaucus Seven showcases the talents of a novice filmmaker who was, at this point in his career, an exquisite writer and a fine director of actors but who had not yet mastered the plastic properties of cinema. The charm of the film lies in the witty writing and the endearing performances of the ensemble cast (prominent members include Maggie Renzi, who would produce a number of Sayles's subsequent films, and David Strathairn, whose versatility Sayles employed in a wide range of roles). From this auspicious debut, Sayles quickly established a productive career as director, writer, and performer while deepening his control of the camera and his understanding of what editing can contribute. He also frequently scripted films for other directors (Alligator , Battle Beyond the Stars , The Howling , The Challenge , Enormous Changes at the Last Minute , The Clan of the Cave Bear , Wild Thing , Breaking In ).
As director, Sayles completed six features during the eighties, a remarkable accomplishment for one working outside the industry's major production and distribution venues. Lianna (1983) compassionately portrayed a woman's estrangement from boorish husband and realization of her bisexual identity. Sayles's writing was as sensitive and sharp as ever, and he demonstrated his gift for drawing convincing female characters (rarely evident in male filmmakers) and directing women. (One of the most effective scenes in Secaucus Seven contrasted the women, who were sharing intimate conversation with one another, and the guys, who were off bonding, without words, in a basketball game.) Baby, It's You dealt with the awkward romance between a middle-class Jewish girl and a working-class Catholic boy in 1960s New Jersey. Working for a major studio, Sayles here strove to make a film with some commercial potential rather than the picture as he had written it. The Brother from Another Planet (1984), about a black alien visiting Earth who experiences the disparities and tensions between the races, Matewan (1987), about an Appalachian coal miner's strike, and Eight Men Out (1988), about the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal, showed Sayles's developing mastery of film form and narrative and his willingness to tackle subjects of social significance. As Sayles's command of the medium's properties grew, his emphasis on sharp dialogue and sincere performances remained a characteristic strength of his work. In Eight Men Out, he vividly characterized the eight members of Chicago White Sox who were banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series, along with a large gallery of supporting players (gamblers, hoods, journalists) that included such historical figures as Charlie Comisky and Ring Lardner (played by Sayles). Though the cast of characters is large, Sayles's dramatic focus remains sharp, with the characters precisely drawn. And his scrappy, thrifty independent filmmaker's sense served him well here. Working on a relatively low budget, he and cinematographer Robert Richardson shrewdly chose their camera positions to cover the baseball action in ways that did not reveal how small were the number of extras peopling the stands. Like Matewan, the film is rich in period detail but never loses the human drama, and the story is evocatively capped with an epilogue in 1925 that shows former Sox players Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson, ghosts of their former selves, hanging around the bush leagues, unrecognized by the fans and virtually forgotten.
Matewan is Sayles's best film of the decade. Based on a miners' strike in Mingo County, West Virginia, in 1920, it vibrantly portrays the struggle of white, black, and Italian miners against the exploitative and ruthless business practices of the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The company owns the town of Matewan and, as was customary in the industry at that time, pays its workers in scrip redeemable at the company store. When a union representative, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), arrives in town to organize the striking miners, the company retaliates by hiring black and Italian workers to take their place. Kenehan, though, rallies all of the miners by pointing out that the company has white fighting black, black fighting Italian, and hollow fighting hollow instead of addressing the real struggle, which is between those who work and those who don't. "All we got in common is our misery," he says, "and at least we can share it." The company sends in a pair of hired killers to intimidate Kenehan and the other miners, and when the strikers refuse to back down, a shoot-out ensues between the townspeople and the company goons.
With its large cast and finely textured historical detail, Matewan approaches an epic stature and scope, and during the anti-union eighties (President Reagan had fired the nation's striking air traffic controllers in 1981), it voiced a solidly pro-union and worker-centered politics. While showing the complexity of the historical incident, Sayles never lost sight of the basic class and economic conflict at the root of the strike, and seldom has a contemporary American film invested labor with such dignity and heroism. Sayles's choice of Haskell Wexler as cinematographer was a natural one. Wexler was among the industry's finest cinematographers, and he vividly captured the atmosphere of Appalachia. His control of light gave the film a professional patina that Sayles's earlier work had not possessed. Moreover, Wexler's left-wing political sensibility was eminently suited to the project. (Wexler's filmmaking credentials, in this regard, included his work as director or codirector of Latino , Underground , Introduction tothe Enemy , Brazil: A Report on Torture , and Medium Cool  and as cinematographer of Coming Home , Bound for Glory , and Interviews with My Lai Veterans ). Resonant with emotion and drama, Matewan is an outstanding example of socially committed filmmaking, in which the human drama and the sociohistorical context are masterfully integrated. Once again, it was Sayles's fine writing and sense of character that provided the solid foundation for this huge film.
Despite the social aspirations a film like Matewan possessed, Sayles was unpretentious in his approach to filmmaking. He believed that his function as a director was to offer stories with values, stories that would provide audiences with positive social and cultural experiences. Few industry filmmakers could be said to have such an orientation, nor did the industry encourage such an outlook. Thus, he remained apart from the majors, where the pursuit of high grosses often generated formulaic filmmaking and at times an indifference to the quality of the cultural experience that film can offer. As Sayles described it, "If storytelling has a positive function, it's to put us in touch with other people's lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we'll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience."73 This was an honorable mission for cinema to undertake, and Sayles kept its banner high during the decade.
Although Paul Schrader sustained distribution deals with the majors (Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros.), his choice of projects was markedly unconventional, and, as a result, he never operated within the hub or heart of the industry. Trained in film school (Columbia and UCLA) and, before that, a graduate of Calvin College, Schrader's films reflected these twin influences. They displayed a marked self-consciousness of form and a concern with spiritual crises and rituals of scarification and spiritual redemption, exemplified in his screen plays for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and his own Hardcore (1979). The box-office impact of the films he directed was small, but he successfully attracted support from the majors for his offbeat subjects and intensively stylized pictures.
American Gigolo (1980) broke with Hollywood tradition by offering a male character as sex object. Richard Gere is Julian Kay, a male prostitute whose earnings enable him to sustain an aloof and narcissistic life. John Bailey's cinematography and Ferdinando Scarfiotti's production design showcase Julian's seductive persona, with lingering shots of his wardrobe and grooming rituals and the polished circles in which he moves. In designing and filming his apartment, Schrader, Bailey, and Scarfiotti replicated the Venetian blind motif that Scarfiotti had created for Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), and Schrader had Bailey include a few still-life shots of Julian's pad in the manner of Yasujiro Ozu, another filmmaker Schrader much admired. (More analytic and intellectual than most American directors, Schrader had published a book about the "transcendental style" of Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer.) The Bresson influence, in turn, is quite strong in the film. Its narrative moves toward a resolution modeled on Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), wherein an aloof and disconnected character accepts the love another individual offers him. Julian's emotional isolation is threatened by his involvement with Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the lonely wife of a politician. Another denizen of Julian's sex world frames him for murder, and while he is incarcerated, Michelle compromises her social standing by supplying Julian with an alibi. Confronted with her love and generosity, he attains a moment of fragile grace, and Schrader ends the film here, in a close-up of Julian's head resting against Michelle's hand. The spiritual grace that Julian achieves, though, is a formalistic one, derived as an homage to Bresson, and not one that emerges organically from the narrative and characterizations. Like Julian, the film is cold and distant, and Schrader wanted, in the final shot, a sudden infusion of emotion that would transform the film's austerity. But as Schrader admitted, it's hard to do Bresson in the American cinema—the moment of transcendence must be predicated on an aesthetic of denial and austerity, "and if you do too much denial then you're out of the commercial cinema. … I've mitigated the denial, but then of course the blinding moments don't stand out so much."74 Schrader's control of the film's visual design (this was his first teaming with Scarfiotti and with Giorgio Moroder, who composed the film's score), the skill with which he uses Gere, and his integration of Bertolucci, Ozu, and Bresson make the picture a fascinating one to watch. And it is one to which he would return—he used the same ending (and repeated the Pickpocket motif) at the conclusion of Light Sleeper (1991).
Schrader had written the script for what became Light of Day (1987) but was unable to get this project going, so he next agreed to film a genre picture from a script that he had not originated. Cat People (1982) was a triumph of production design, featuring an especially close collaboration between Schrader and Ferdinando Scarfiotti (with Moroder again doing the score) in an update of the 1942 Val Lewton horror classic, with a Calvinist emphasis upon the dangers of sexuality. Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) joins her brother, Paul (Malcolm MacDowell), in New Orleans and learns to her dismay that they are part of an ancient, incestuous race that sacrificed its children to leopards. The souls of the sacrificed grew in the leopards until the animals assumed human form, but those afflicted could mate only with their own siblings. Sex with an outsider would trigger the animal transformation, and the leopard would have to kill again before it could return to human form.
This absurd narrative premise is related by a character in the film. Schrader, however, plays the story line straight, with no humor or irony, and the film never overcomes this premise. His directorial concerns, though, lay elsewhere than the elaboration of this narrative line. The camera movement, lighting, and color are extremely sensual, and they frame the core issue of the film—the terror of sexuality and its animal-like elements—which the horror structure enabled Schrader to pose. Irena struggles with the ghastly knowledge of her family history as she falls in love with Oliver Yates (John Heard), curator of the New Orleans zoo. To make love with Oliver is to risk the animal transformation, but the two of them decide to consummate their attraction, despite its dangers. The major problem with the film is that the sexual metaphor, though potent, loses its poetry by virtue of Schrader's extremely literal treatment. In the Lewton original, all was suggested, hinted, latent. In the remake, the animal is real, the viscera and blood shockingly graphic. As a result, the metaphor never attains the imaginative power that it possesses in the Lewton film. Furthermore, once the metaphor is posed, it receives little elaboration or development. Cat People is an unsuccessful attempt to sexualize and poetically transfigure generic horror material.
By contrast, Schrader's next film is a masterpiece of conceptual precision and aesthetic design. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), about Japanese novelist-filmmaker Yukio Mishima, is an extremely stylized meditation on trials of spirit and flesh, with stunning production design by Eiko Ishioka and cinematography by Schrader regular John Bailey. Its audacious visual design, complex narrative structure, and masterful thematic integration made this Schrader's best film of the decade. Mishima was Japan's most celebrated author, whose output included thirty-five plays, twenty-five novels, hundreds of short stories, and several short films. He closely identified with Japan's feudal past, its veneration for the emperor, and the warrior code of the samurai. Haunted by the disparity between word and action, Mishima sought to unite these two modes of being, and as his obsession with Japan's feudal past deepened, he came to feel that death would provide the ultimate union of pen and sword. On 25 November 1970, Mishima and several cadets of his private army seized control of Japan's Eastern Army barracks. Mishima harangued the troops from a balcony, condemning Japan's materialism and spiritual softness and urging them to join him in restoring the old national virtues. Jeered by the soldiers, Mishima retreated from the balcony. Inside a generals office, he performed the warrior's ultimate rite, seppuku (ritual suicide), encoded by tradition as an honorable way of concluding one' life.
His drastic action stunned Japan, and it provides the frame and structure for Schrader's kaleidoscopic, time-shifting film. The picture is composed of four sections, the first three of which achieve synthesis in the last: Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword. Mishima's actions on 25 November are intercut through the Beauty, Art, and Action sections and constitute the predominant focus of the concluding episode. The other material includes black-and-white flashbacks to scenes of the writer's youth, adolescence, and adulthood and color footage of floridly rendered visualizations of key Mishima novels: Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses. The presentation of these is overtly theatrical, with minimalist but extremely stylized sets, fly-away flats, and chiaroscuro spotlighting of the key action. Each novel culminates in an act of personal destruction, with the film freezing this action at its onset and as the transition point to the next of the film's four episodes. The result of this careful design is the suggestion that, through his work, Mishima was moving closer to, and preparing himself for, the final, extreme action of 25 November. By juxtaposing this literary material with the biographical passages of Mishima's life, Schrader vividly evokes the psychosexual obsessions and anxieties that fused with ultra-conservative nationalism and produced the writer's veneration for an aesthetic of beauty transfigured in death. Schrader shows Mishima's childhood frailty, the separation from his mother, his homoerotic desires and cult of bodybuilding, and his turn toward a samurai and military ideal of physical hardness and spiritual purity. While he never suggests that an answer can be found in any one of these factors, he shows how inexorably they combined to bring Mishima to the conviction that the ritual of disembowelment and beheading might constitute the supreme expression of his life's ideal and aesthetic. This act of self-destruction would be a grand moment of theater and make the life and the aesthetic as one.
Sustained by a hypnotic score by Philip Glass, Mishima is a superbly realized portrait of an enigmatic and paradoxical figure. With its complex temporal structure, it is nearly a non-narrative work. This, and its array of disparate visual styles, give it an "art film" status that places it far outside the normative patterns of American commercial film. More remarkable still, it was shot in Japan and all of the dialogue is in Japanese, except for some occasional English-language narration supplied by actor Roy Scheider. With Mishima, Schrader pursued a very personal project (his brother Leonard, a long-time Japanophile, co-wrote the screenplay), gave it a compellingly unorthodox design, and got a distribution deal with Warner Bros. This confluence of factors produced one of the decade's most original and impressive films.
For his next film, Light of Day (1987), Schrader abandoned the florid style that he had practiced in the eighties thus far and returned to the low-key naturalism and work-ing class focus that he had so memorably evoked in his first film as director, Blue Collar (1978). As a result of this shift, Light of Day has an emotional honesty and power that the other, more formalistic pictures do not achieve (though Schrader feels ambivalent about the film's restrained style), and some measure of this was no doubt due to the personal nature of this project. Schrader remarked that this was a picture about his mother and his relationship to her.75 Michael J. Fox and rock singer Joan Jett (a strong performance in her first film) play siblings trying to make a go of their rock band amid the economic hard times of Ohio's factory towns. As in Blue Collar, Schrader portrays the harshness and anxiety of working-class lives made marginal by an economy that is expanding in other sectors and regions than those the film's characters occupy. In this regard, Light of Day vividly evokes the hard edge of the 1980s economy and the communities and lives that fared badly during that era's industrial downturn. But the central focus of the film is a remarkably nuanced family portrait, exploring Joe and Patti's relationship to each other and to their parents, principally Patti's tangled relations with her mother. Jeanette (Gena Rowlands, luminous in the role) has been estranged from daughter Patti, and the film traces their melancholy reconciliation. It occurs as part of an extraordinarily tender, suspenseful, and moving deathbed scene, one that eschews melodrama in favor of honest human feeling. Schrader really grew here as a filmmaker, despite the mixed feelings he has about this picture. His script is solid and finely crafted, and he grounds the film in writing and performance rather than in the more formalistic areas of production design and cinematography, as had been his norm. From Michael J. Fox he evoked a performance of sincerity and depth and one that, in its hardscrabble, working-class origin, is the antithesis of the upwardly mobile, self-reliant, and comic personalities that Fox more typically played in the decade's films. With Mishima, Light of Day shows a filmmaker of uncommon versatility and range.
Schrader finished the decade with Patty Hearst (1988), which details the anguish and psychological torture of the kidnapped heiress, a film that returned to the prototypical Schrader focus on spiritual anguish and fleshly ordeal. Schrader aimed here for an assaultive film style, and the first extended section of the film is confined to Hearst's narrowed perspective while in captivity. The assaultive style probably foredoomed the film's chances for commercial success.
In addition to his work as a director, Schrader was prized in the industry as a leading screenwriter. His eighties scripts included those for American Gigolo, Mishima, and Light of Day, as well as two for Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull  and The Last Temptation of Christ ) and one for Peter Weir (The Mosquito Coast ). As this range of projects indicates, Schrader was one of the decade's most interesting and intelligent filmmakers. The industry's ability to accommodate his unusual films says much about the institutional flexibility of the eighties and about the space open for unconventional filmmakers, partly as a result of the general need for product in the ancillary markets. These factors bequeathed substantial benefits to eighties cinema, as the range and caliber of filmmaking covered in this chapter demonstrates.