Categorized | Arts & Culture

Offbeat and Introspective: the ’80s and ’90s

[pic] The final installment of The Big Green’s Classic Film Series focuses on the films of the 1980s and 1990s. Whether you want to be a film buff, have an interest in film history or just enjoy watching movies, these fantastic films will be a great start to a more interesting Saturday night.
The 1980s and ’90s grew and evolved from the experimental and rebellious attitudes of the 1970s to paint a darker side of cinema. Themes of dysfunction, desperation and isolation are dealt with during these decades in many different forms. You may recognize them in your favorite teen comedy of the ’80s or in a powerful independent film from the ’90s. Many of the films of the ’80s posed questions of how to deal with our struggle with reality, while films of the ’90s reveal the struggle as we try to redefine what it means to live the American Dream.
Comedies centering on the horrors of teenage life were at their peak in the 1980s. Films such as Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead and Michael Lehmann’s Heathers are lesser-known but key examples of the dark ’80s teen comedy. 1985’s Better Off Dead stars a young John Cusack as a heartbroken young man, Lane Meyer. He is determined to end his own life after his girlfriend breaks up with him for someone “more popular,” “better looking” and who “drives a nicer car.” As Lane’s life unravels, his suicide attempts become increasingly desperate and absurd. But the plot is only half the fun: Better Off Dead features some of the most memorable and hilarious supporting characters ever put on screen, like Lane’s ridiculously nerdy neighbor and his wacky family. With a classic happy ending, this offbeat film is a must-see.
[dead] Heathers, a teen movie of a darker sort, deals with the true psychosis of popularity. Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, decides she no longer wants to be part of the exclusive “in” crowd after falling for a rebellious boy. The 1989 film becomes more violent, twisted and engrossing with each passing act and is an antithesis of the saccharine sweet teen comedy. It is simultaneously shocking and thought provoking, and sends a definite message about life as a teenager.
The offbeat 1998 film Rushmore is an example of the most recent brand of teen comedy and follows the life of Max Fischer, an overly determined private school student who falls in love with a first grade teacher. As the situation becomes more complex, Max must figure out what Rushmore really means to him. The intelligent script, clever characters and subtly hilarious moments make this film one of most unique comedies of the 1990s.
A very different story of dysfunction and destruction is told in the 1999 film American Beauty. It is the story of Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey), his midlife crisis and the impact it has on his family and friends. Much of the film isn’t about plot but about mood and meaning – it’s the modern destruction of the American Dream. Greg Wright, a film class professor in MSU’s English department, said many of the films of the ’90’s dealt with these topics because “beneath the dream of the suburb, there lays a nightmare. It’s a real threat.”
[rushmore] 1980’s Raging Bull is a film about violence in a different sense. Directed by Martin Scorsese and shot in black and white, the film is about a boxer whose self-destructiveness also leads him to a life of violence outside the ring. The film challenges its audience with an aggressive protagonist, who, in many senses, is a bad person. Because of this, the film engages viewers on many different levels, making it one of Scorsese’s best.
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil is an interesting and unique look into a future society run by an inadequate government. Gilliam is best known for his work on films such as Monty Python’s The Holy Grail and 12 Monkeys, but Brazil is one of his most under-appreciated works. Though the film typically is classified as science fiction, it also serves as a warning about our future. “More than non-conformity, [it’s about] crushing the human spirit,” Wright said. With an intelligent script and stunning, unusual visual images, Brazil is a film that can be watched over and over.
The 1990s gave rise to independent and foreign films. Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski made an unusual but brilliant trilogy of films during this time that are referred to as the Trois Couleurs, or “Three Colors”: Blue, White and Red. Red, the final installment of the series, provides an intellectual and puzzling look at both its own ideas and the ideas of the other two films, which deal with contemporary French society. Kieslowski rewards an attentive audience in this film by leaving carefully placed clues with hidden meanings for the audience to ponder. The end of the self-reflexive trilogy leaves the audience rationally fulfilled, but still posing the question, “Where do we go from here?”
[roger] Along with foreign and independent films, the documentary film became increasingly popular with the mainstream American audience, beginning with the 1989 Michael Moore film Roger & Me. It follows Moore in his quest to interview Roger Smith, head of General Motors, about the closing of the GM factory in Flint that drove the city deeper into poverty. Love him or hate him, it is undeniable that Moore presents a biased, one-sided story, which led to the film’s success. Moore’s accessible style of filmmaking, combining dark humor with a poignant message, redefined the documentary genre.
That same year, Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing was set in a harsh Brooklyn neighborhood, where even the audience can feel the tension between characters, races and opposing views of aggression. Centering on the battle between love and hate, as the tension boils over and explodes into violence, the movie leaves the audience thinking about the film’s powerful, unforgettable message.
Many of the films of both the ’80s and ’90s have a sense of reflexivity to them. They are aware of what American society is thinking, and the film is often times aware of itself and its own power over the audience. The films are darker then ever but are also constantly trying to improve the efforts of the films of previous decades. The films of the ’80s reflected the struggle of an average person within his society, while the films of the ’90s focused on that person’s lack of direction. Several of these films are not to be ignored and have their roots in a century of great filmmaking.

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