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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Turbulent Times: the 1960s and 1970s

[film1] The Arts & Culture film series continues through the decades to the 1960s and ’70s, a turbulent time of change in both American history and abroad reflected in many of its films. 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 1960s and 1970s were a time of rebellion and revolution in America, and the cinema reflected that sentiment. New wave cinema was introduced in the late 1950s, leading to an outburst of creativity shown throughout the ’60s and ’70s. These films sometimes dealt with extremely taboo subject matter in a visually artistic and original manner. The films lack the politeness and political correctness of earlier and later cinema, which in part is their appeal – their cynicism and bitterness opened up a whole new world for film as an art form.
The 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a provocative story concerning a young woman bringing her fiancé to meet her progressive parents. Once they see their daughter’s fiancé is black, they are forced to deal with prejudices they did not realize they had. The powerful message deals with actual acceptance rather than self-proclaimed progressiveness about racial issues and reflects the attitudes of its time period. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is writing and acting at its best, featuring Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy in his final role.
[livingdead] George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead appeals not only to horror lovers, but anyone in the mood for a scare. This zombie film is a good example of postmodern cinema, with little introduction and an unsettling conclusion. Its portrayal of the undead and effective cinematic technique serve as an influence for all horror films made after this, including Romero’s two fantastic sequels: Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange takes a different approach to violence. This controversial 1971 film is based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, and is a perfect example of ’70s cinema, featuring a protagonist who isn’t a “good guy.” Greg Wright, a writer and film teacher at MSU, says A Clockwork Orange is a “celebration of ultra-violent behavior.” This visually breathtaking film poses a challenge because it is “assuming a certain intelligence” from the audience – it is asking them to recognize in part what the film is about, which is a countercultural celebration of the “freedom of expression,” Wright said. Colorful, clever, quirky and stunning, A Clockwork Orange is a must-see for true cinema lovers.
Another film revolving around anti-heroes, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, is undisputedly one of the best films ever made. Though it was released in 1972, it is set in the 1940s and ’50s and “redefines what it means to be an epic film,” Wright said. The film was a huge risk, with a large budget and big stars focusing on only one family rather than an entire country, as had been done in previous epics. But what it lacks in scale, it gains in character development, allowing for a deeper storyline and demanding better acting. The winner of several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Godfather is a timeless milestone in cinematic history.
[godfather] Woody Allen takes cinema in a lighter direction with films like his 1977 romantic comedy Annie Hall. One of Allen’s best films, Annie Hall is a love story for a new generation, where people found themselves surrounded by material possessions but were still unhappy. In this film, Allen is an offbeat, pseudo-neurotic character who, much like the film, “doesn’t identify with counterculture proper,” Wright said. “He’s a real person – he has sex appeal.” According to Wright, this romantic comedy is successful in “keeping a Marx Brothers’ sensibility, but lending itself to classic romantic drama.” Annie Hall is one of Allen’s top films, and is a love story with cynicism and dry humor at its best.
The 1960s was an especially great time for Italian cinema, with directors like Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini doing some of their best work on screen. Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8 ½is a stunning, self-reflexive movie about a filmmaker’s work and crisis, modeled after Fellini himself. 8 ½ combines dream-like, surrealist qualities with masterful cinematic techniques, making it one of the most original foreign films ever made.
The bitter, oversexed and jaded Cabaret of 1972 gave the word “musical” an entirely different meaning. Bob Fosse directs the Sleeping Beauty of a new generation – darker; sexier; grimmer and, of course, the film ends with the start of the Nazi rise to power. Starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, Cabaret was the winner of eight Academy Awards. Much of the classic music from the original Broadway production was cut, and other songs were written for the movie that later appeared in revivals of the stage show. With its show-stopping numbers and morally ambiguous characters, the film is a disturbingly brilliant example of ’70s postmodern cinema.
From zombies to musicals, and everything in between, the ’60s and ’70s represented a period of cinematic growth and experimentation. If you’re in the mood for cynical love stories and colorful works of ultra-violence, be sure to pick up one of these films for a fascinating movie night.

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Opening the Vault: 1940s through 1950s

[film] From James Stewart to “Stellla!” we bring you the continuation of our four-part overview of some of the best movies of the last century. 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 movie vaults from the 1940s and ’50s are home to some of Hollywood’s best films and most recognized movie stars. Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando give performances that made them famous in these classic films. The films themselves demonstrate a battle between idealism (like that of movie-musicals) and the breaking-free of that impracticality (as shown in some of the new-wave and foreign films of the late 1950s). Rather than being outdated, the films of the ’40s and ’50s are the epitome of what it meant to have elegance and style in old Hollywood.
[casa] The classic 1942 film Casablanca is well-known to contemporary audiences as a romantic flick, but is just as much a commentary on U.S. involvement in World War II. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film features Humphrey Bogart as the morally ambiguous protagonist Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as his love, Ilse. The exotic backdrop of Casablanca beautifully blends a timeless love story with themes of war, heroism, politics and choice. It is a perfect introduction to the films of the 1940s and a must-see for any film lover.
Many films of this era gave an insight into their time period. A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee William’s acclaimed play, is a perfect example of censorship in the 1950s. With such powerful stars and such controversial topics, much of this 1951 drama lies in the subtlety of the acting – what cannot be shown on screen is merely implied through restrained gestures and bits of dialogue. A Streetcar Named Desire showcases some of the best acting put to screen, with outstanding performances by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Historically, this culturally relevant film will open your eyes to just how little mainstream audiences of the ’50s were allowed to see.
Watching 1945’s Spellbound or 1958’s Vertigo, it’s easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock is still considered a master of suspense. Spellbound is a beautifully crafted story about a delusional man posing as a certain Dr. Edwards at a mental asylum, who falls for another doctor, played by Ingrid Bergman. When she finds out his secret, she is left questioning the whereabouts of the real Dr. Edwards. Featuring a dream sequence done by artist Salvador Dali and dealing with Freudian theories of psychoanalysis, this Hitchcock classic is one of the best psychological films to date.
[vertigo] Hitchcock’s Vertigo revolves around a man, played by James Stewart, with an extreme fear of heights. He is led into a world of chaos, passion and death when asked to watch a friend’s wife. The film is stylish and suspenseful and considered to be one of Hitchcock’s best.
If you’re in the mood for a stunning drama, consider William Wyler’s The Little Foxes. This 1941 adaptation of the Lillian Hellman play stars Bette Davis as the heartless Regina Giddens, who will stop at nothing for a place in her husband’s will – risking the love of her husband, daughter and brothers. Regina is one of Ms. Davis’s most memorable and convincing roles, a villain whom the audience loves to hate. Watch this for the haunting performances, a powerful storyline and the famous Bette Davis glare.
One of the most distinguishing aspects of the ’40s and ’50s in terms of film was its picture-perfect musicals, such as 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. This film, starring Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, revolves around a period in Hollywood when silent movies turned into “talkies” with the invention of sound. Along with the wonderfully-composed music, Singin’ in the Rain is also a classic love story and contains bits of hilarious physical comedy not found in film today.
[sleeping] Though Disney films, like 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, tend to be overlooked by older audiences, they are still perfect for all ages. When watching Sleeping Beauty, one of the best fairy-tale romance stories ever, you will find yourself relating to aspects of the story just as much as you did when you were a child. This is the beauty of many older Disney films; they are not only great children’s stories, they make for great pieces of timeless cinema. This was the last of the Disney films to have cells inked by hand – each background painting took seven to 10 days to paint. The color is bolder and the scenes have much greater detail than you can find in any Disney film since.
If fairy-tales don’t appeal to you, consider Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 foreign masterpiece The Bicycle Thief. The plot is simple: a man becomes employed with the help of his bicycle, but it is stolen. Unable to support his wife and child, he tries to search for the man who stole his bike. Beautifully shot and brutally honest, its effectiveness lies in its ability to portray real, complex emotions without giving the audience any easy answers.
Though the definition of beauty in Hollywood has changed throughout the years, it is hard to deny the grace and elegance of the leading men and women of the 1940s and ’50s. Some directors were at their best, and it was a defining era for Hollywood. Whether you revisit some old Disney favorites, experiment with foreign cinema or become enthralled with a psychological thriller, make sure to dust these reels off at next week’s movie night.

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The Early Days: Up to 1940

Early Cinema
It’s a Saturday night, and you’re headed to Blockbuster to pick up the latest smash hit on DVD. But you get there too late — all of the copies of “National Treasure,” “Spiderman 2” and “Anchorman” are gone. Do you dare try something outside the new release section?
[filmquote] Instead of rushing to another video store, we have an alternative. Over the next four issues, the Arts & Culture section of The Big Green will explore the best movies of the past century and what made them so great, beginning with early cinema and ending with the 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.
Around the 1890s came the invention of motion pictures – literally. Early motion pictures were typically composed of only one shot of an everyday event, the modern equivalent of a moving photograph. D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 was the kick-start to movies as we know them today.
The 1920s and 1930s were an extremely important time in American and film history. Many of the techniques and genres still present in modern film were first used during this time period. These films are not outdated, but rather classic, and still have the power to make the audience laugh, cry, scared, shocked or surprised, just as they did as “new releases” way back when.
If you’re in the mood to laugh, look no further than two of the most well-known personalities of the ‘20s and ‘30s: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
“Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” from 1928, one of Keaton’s best films, is a hilarious slapstick comedy about Keaton’s character caught between a family feud and his love. And Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is just as funny today as it was in 1936.
MSU English Professor Ken Harrow says many of Chaplin’s films and his subsequent popularity were a result of the historical time. During America’s depression, “Charlie Chaplin developed the persona of the poor bum,” Harrow said. Chaplin’s films are non-threatening and were made for the everyday working viewer. They developed the “emotional and sentimental core as obviously as possible,” Harrow said.
[metro] Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece “Metropolis” is thought to be the most influential science-fiction movie ever made. Lang paints a spectacular and intricate picture of 2026, where a city is divided between lowly underground workers and rich, privileged city dwellers. This is a story of what happens when one privileged man joins the exploited workers in a powerful revolt.
One of the most critically acclaimed horror films of all time is German director F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” which debuted in 1922. Count Orlok, the villain in this adaptation of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” is unlike any vampire seen before. Murnau’s version, with its large claws and spider-like movements, makes him frightening even to this day. This expressionist film is also unique among horror films in its set design – real castles and villages were used, giving it an eerie and disturbing feel.
The ‘20s and ‘30s were also a breakthrough time for surrealist cinema. In 1929, legendary director Luis Buñuel collaborated with artist Salvador Dali to create one of the most famous and shocking surrealist films ever, “Un Chien Andalou.” Though its runtime is only 16 minutes, it contains some of the most controversial footage ever put on screen. The images are sometimes violent and bizarre, including the opening sequence of an eyeball being sliced by a razorblade. This film is an amazing example of late 1920s counterculture.
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” from 1925 is a landmark in cinematic history. Famous for its use of montage editing and close-ups, “Potemkin” “evokes a theme and evokes feelings to present an ideological message,” Harrow said. It is a story of a mutiny leading to a demonstration, which eventually brought on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The images in this film are haunting because of their intensity – the faces of the people slaughtered on the steps of Odessa will be ones you’ll never forget – much like the revolutionary film itself.
[wizardoz] The viewer looking for more traditional “old” films should opt for “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Directed by Victor Fleming in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” captivated audiences and critics alike, winning eight Oscars that year, including Best Picture. The Civil War epic is both a social commentary and one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century.
“The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps one of the most popular movies ever made, still touches hearts today. Though obviously fantastic, it is a story about finding your identity in a very confusing world. According to Harrow, that is what made it so successful – the 1939 audience could easily relate to Dorothy’s longing to get back home. Whether you’ve seen it only once, or a thousand times over, “The Wizard of Oz” is a perfect illustration of the early movie magic of Hollywood.
The pre-1940s-era films are some of the most important in cinematic history – some because of their technique, others because of their storyline and others still just because they can still make you laugh 70 years later. In any case, these films demand to be seen.

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