Fans of 1980s Movies May Want To Tread Carefully Among Film Forum’s Many Offerings in ‘Out of the 80s’

Most of these pictures were among our reviewer’s mainstays back in the day. Yet can the warm-and-fuzzies waylay one’s contemporary standards of taste?

Via Film Forum
Jeff Bridges, Lisa Eichhorn, and John Heard in 'Cutter's Way.' Via Film Forum

As far as pop culture prognostications go, John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) fell short of its dystopian deadline. Although its positing of a war between America and an alliance of China and the Soviet Union might raise eyebrows, the borough of Manhattan was not transformed into a high-security prison in 1997. 

How, then, does Mr. Carpenter’s Watergate-inspired fantasy fare on its own terms? Unless your idea of fun is watching a veteran character actor, Ernest Borgnine, mugging his way above and beyond the call of duty, not too well. Turgid stuff, all that futurism.

“Escape From New York” was profitable at the box office and the 1980s were the commercial highpoint of Mr. Carpenter’s career. Two other of his films, “The Fog” (1980) and “The Thing” (1982), will also be screened during “Out of the 80s,” a series of more than 50 movies mounted by Film Forum and organized by the venue’s repertory artistic director, Bruce Goldstein. This overview is an adjunct to the release of Richard Shepard’s “Film Geek,” a meditation on movie-watching that is, we are told, “crafted entirely out of film clips from over 200 movies.” 

How this differs from copyright-busting outings like György Pálfi’s mind-boggling “Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen” (2012) or Joe Dante’s seven-plus-hour “The Movie Orgy” (1968) remains to be seen. As it is, Mr. Dante is represented by “The Howling” (1981), a werewolf picture that made enough of an impression to convince Steven Spielberg to hire its star, Dee Wallace, for the role of Elliot’s mother in “E.T.” Adherents to all things lycanthrope will also note the inclusion of John Landis’s “An American Werewolf in London” (1981), in which the lovely Jenny Agutter has to suffer the hairy ministrations of a cursed David Naughton.

Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, and Kurt Russell in ‘Escape From New York.’
Via Film Forum

Were the 1980s, pace Quentin Tarantino, the most atrocious decade for the movies? The list of films scheduled to appear at Film Forum doesn’t pretend to be encyclopedic or globalist in purview. Most are American, many are mainstream, and all reflect “the glory days of obsessive NYC moviegoing in the 1970s and 1980s.” Dare one say it also reflects the tastes of winsome middle-aged men who were once socially maladjusted teenage boys? I’ll cop a guilty plea here: Most of these pictures were mainstays of mine back in the day. Yet can the warm-and-fuzzies waylay one’s contemporary standards of taste?

Sometimes that’s a question better left unexplored, particularly if your memory holds dear this-or-that entertainment. Eager to revisit John McKenzie’s “The Long Good Friday” (1980), a gangster flick with Bob Hoskins and blond bombshell Helen Mirren, I turned away after 10 or so minutes: Francis Monkman’s synthesizer soundtrack is excruciating to experience, being outdated, overloud, and incommensurate with the action at hand. Try withstanding it, I dare you. 

The same can’t be said of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” the bone-rattling rap anthem that opens Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989). Remember the foofaraw that attended the film’s opening? Social commentators warned that the film would likely cause rioting in the streets. Did these critics trade in their crystal balls when that didn’t prove the case? 

Some 30 years later, this tale of a fateful flaming garbage can is at its best when most cartoonish, making one wonder if Mr. Lee’s true progenitor isn’t Gilberto Pontecorvo, the director of the anti-colonialist “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), but Frank Tashlin, the man who immortalized Jayne Mansfield in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (1957).

New Yorkers can cherry pick their own must-sees. Art house staples like “Brazil” (1985) and “Blue Velvet” (1986) nudge up against cultish fare like “Ms. ’45” (1981) and “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), and are peppered with unstoppable Hollywood products like “Back to the Future” (1985). 

There are quirky films beloved of a select few, like “Cutter’s Way” (1981), an oddly endearing mishmash in which John Heard and Jeff Bridges are outclassed by the undersung Lisa Eichhorn. Her performance is, to use Film Forum’s terminology, “bodacious,” and reason enough to hunker down for a night at the movies at West Houston Street.

The New York Sun

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