It’s been a while, but Los Angeles Arts Society is on its way back to the Frida with American Psycho on Friday, September 27th! Believe it or not, it’ll be the first time the movie has played at our theater (a distinction it shares with the last film LA Arts Society screened, Shin Godzilla), and it couldn’t be more topical. Much attention has been paid to the film’s treatment of such timely issues as toxic masculinity, mindless conformity and plain old nihilism, but it’s important to remember that as thought-provoking as American Psycho is, it’s also a very fun movie!
It does take place, after all, in the ‘80s, an era skewered for its vapid consumerism and spiritual emptiness by some like American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis and remembered for its vibrant arts and culture by others like me who were too young to actually be there. Of course, this perception is shaped in no small part by the movies of the time, with films like Ghostbusters, The Goonies and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (to say nothing of a certain Netflix original series) making the decade feel real to viewers born years after the wall came down and shoulder pads went out of style.
That being said, there’s a lot of ‘80s movies that easily rival (or even surpass) the best of John Hughes and yet draw confused looks when you ask friends, family, or the cute girl/guy in the bar if they’ve seen them. Rev up your DeLorean because we’re going to take a look back at five nostalgic classics that nobody remembers!
Less Than Zero (1987)
Another film based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel, Less Than Zero was hated by the author upon its release due to, among other things, the producers swapping out the book’s despairing, barebones narrative for a more fleshed-out and sentimental story. Ellis would eventually come to appreciate the film, and watching the movie all these years later it’s easy to see why.
Nominal leads Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz perform well enough but end up playing second fiddle to the dynamic (and very young) duo of Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader. Downey Jr. shines and breaks hearts as the doomed drug addict Julian and Spader, almost unrecognizable save for his voice, steals every scene he’s in as the cold-blooded pusher who bedevils Julian. It’s a conventional story but it has sensitivity and style thanks to Marek Kanievska’s direction, with an unexpectedly moving original score and some of the most strikingly colorful lighting I’ve ever seen in a film, ‘80s or otherwise.
True Stories (1986)
If you went to a video store in the ‘90s, you probably remember the box art for a movie with a slick-looking man in a cowboy hat and sunglasses reading a newspaper. That movie is True Stories, a film that LA Arts Society had the honor of screening earlier this year as well as an under-appreciated gem of weird cinema.
Seeing how as it was directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne however, it would be surprising if it wasn’t at least a little weird! Forgoing a linear plot, the film simply follows Byrne as he narrates the going-ons in the small town of Virgil, Texas in the days leading up to its sesquicentennial Celebration of Specialness. Mixing Byrne’s deadpan delivery with the eccentric behavior of the town’s citizens (two of whom are played by Spalding Gray and John Goodman), the movie nevertheless avoids outright mean-spiritedness and instead presents a respectful homage to small-town Americana. Throw in a rocking soundtrack by Byrne’s bandmates and you’ve easily got the makings of a nostalgic ‘80s classic.
After Hours (1985)
With the decade bookended by Raging Bull and Goodfellas, it’s perhaps understandable that the rest of Martin Scorsese’s ‘80s fare often gets overlooked. It’s certainly unfortunate because these films are not only some of his best but some of his most unusual as well: titles like the cringe comedy classic The King of Comedy, the revisionist biblical epic The Last Temptation of Christ, and the one that came out smack dab in the middle of them all, After Hours.
Starring An American Werewolf in London’s Griffin Dunne as Paul Hackett, this strange adventure sees the word-processing everyman end up way in over his head after getting lost in an unfamiliar NYC neighborhood. The people who want to help him are useless and the people who don’t want to help him want to kill him, forcing Paul to navigate baffling situation after baffling situation as he tries to find his way home. Punctuated by a hypnotic score from Howard Shore that unsettles without descending into stock creepiness, the movie wears its Kafkaesque influences on its sleeve (to the point that it directly parodies the surrealist author’s parable “Before the Law” in one scene) and doubtlessly deserves to be better remembered along with the rest of Scorsese’s ‘80s titles.
Even by the standards of this list, I have to say that Ivan Passer’s Creator is especially obscure. A sci-fi-flavored romantic comedy about artificially creating romantic partners, it had the misfortune of coming out the same year as John Hughes’ similarly-premised Weird Science. While both are hardly perfect films, Creator has a couple things that Science does not.
For one thing, it has Peter O’Toole. A far cry from his roles in such weighty historical dramas as Lawrence of Arabia and Beckett, O’Toole nevertheless refrains from condescending to the material: instead, he brings a sassy weariness to the character of Harry Wolper that is waggish but endearing. It also has Rumble Fish’s Vincent Spano and Candyman’s Virginia Madsen (who, incidentally, came to The Frida for our screening of Electric Dreams recently), acting opposite each other in what has to be one of the decade’s sweetest on-screen romances.
Lastly but not least, it has interesting sexual politics and religious themes. With conversation surrounding such matters at the time largely confined to either puritanical conservatism and wishy-washy relativism, the film seems to seek a balance between the two. The two lovers engage in premarital sex for instance, but also plan to get married and hope to have kids someday. Wolper frequently invokes God as he goes about his plan to clone his late wife, meaning he would have to play God himself to bring her back. It’s a rom-com at the end of the day, but Creator certainly gives viewers more to ponder than others from that period.
American Pop (1981)
Ralph Bakshi might be most associated with the counterculture of the late ‘60s, but there’s a lot more to the adult animation innovator’s work than just Fritz the Cat. He also ingeniously melded science fiction and fantasy together with Wizards, adapted The Lord of the Rings into a successful animated film, and told the story of popular music with American Pop.
Following the immigrant Belinsky family over the course of several generations, the film creatively parallels and traces the country’s musical development. The animation may lead some to assume otherwise, but it’s not family-friendly viewing; it starts off with a pogrom in the family’s native Russia (a whole five years before Don Bluth did the same thing with An American Tail) and doesn’t shy away from sex, drugs, and rock & roll (particularly the latter). However, these elements are treated more seriously here than they are in Bakshi’s earlier films.
On a purely aesthetic level, the film is a wonder to behold, with the director’s provocative rotoscoping complementing a soundtrack that includes such iconic songs as “Purple Haze”, “California Dreamin”, and, in what is easily the highlight of the film’s musical sequences, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” All in all, it’s a vividly heartfelt reflection on the American dream, the American reality, and the place where the two meet.