All too often people discuss and debate films, ranking them among one another to declare which are the best. A very popular thing to do between the likes of avid movie goers or just the common fan. All titles, whether they be classics or movies of the 21st century, are subject for debate, but so are the periods of time in which these movies were released. Well today I’m here to tell you why the 1980s’ are by far the worst period in time for American films, and all the reasons behind it.
Think about the best films ever made. I’m talking groundbreaking, innovative, cinematic masterpieces- what are the films that come to mind? Ok, great. Now ask yourself this. How many of those films were released in the period of time I’m calling “the worst.” For me there are two movies in particular that I would immediately deem as a masterpiece. But after that, the drop-off is immense. When it comes to cinema the 80’s lacked depth more so than any decade that preceded it or has since followed. A bit of a travesty in a sense, considering the decade prior, one could easily argue is the grandest film decade of them all. The quality of movies that were released in the 70’s are truly breath-taking. This was a period that delivered films for everyone, and brought ideas and stories to the big screen better than any time before it. It was the beginning of a new age in cinema, driven by the likes of young talents such as Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Altman. I could go on further in regards to the ageless classics that made this time in film so great, but this isn’t about the best movie decade of all time…it’s about the worst.
I agree it would be hard to follow up some of the movie magic that transpired throughout the 1970’s, but that doesn’t mean the 80’s had to fall flat on its face either. Beginning in 1980 we started to see a shift in demand from the average movie consumer. More desired were the big blockbuster flicks, likely to come out in July, than the usual cinematic accomplishments that emerge during what we all know as “Oscar Season.” The production companies definitely took notice. More than ever before big budgets were used on safe, consumer friendly films that were for sure going to bring back a huge return on investment. Whereas emphasis on story-telling and great characters kind of got left behind.
Risk taking is an integral part on how successful someone or something might become. When more risks are being had, yes there’s a greater chance of failure, but also a greater opportunity for achievement. Production companies felt inclined to not take as many risks because they already had the recipe to create big audience bearing films where huge profits were evident. Do I blame big-time studios for capitalizing on movies that would guarantee a huge return? Of course not! It was a part of the times, and we as an audience fed into the demand.
The 80’s was an odd era in our history and not just from a filmmaking standpoint. Everything was a lot looser back then. From the attitudes, to the drug use, to stock regulations…to the women who followed hair metal bands across the country (Yeah, I’m talking about you, mother of 3 in northern New Jersey who at one time would’ve done anything to conceive a baby with Vince Neil.) It was also a time where capitalism reigned supreme, and everybody bought in. Which is great! “Oh, smashing, groovy, yay capitalism” is a line from 1997’s Austin Powers when he finally wakes up and realizes the Americans won the cold war. But I’m serious. I’m for all that. Hell, I think Ayn Rand may be one of my favorite authors of all time. But like anything in life, there are pros and cons.
As cliché as this may sound, it is something to me that will always ring true. “When money is the main focus, the art will suffer.” Now that‘s not to say you can‘t create something beautiful and ground-breaking with prosperity being your main motive. But when one produce‘s art for the purpose of monetary gain, there will always be a definitive absence in creativity. Reason being? You are no longer creating from within. You are succumbing to consumers wants because they will ultimately dictate what it is they want to pay for. The artist’s once original ideas that may previously been seen as bold and interesting are no longer desired. I believe on this rationale alone, the art of filmmaking declined tremendously during this time.
WAIT A MINUTE. HOLD UP! YOU’RE GOING TO TELL ME GEORGE LUCAS ISN’T CREATIVE?! THAT THE STAR WARS SERIES ISN’T ORIGINAL?! THEY WERE HUGE BOX-OFFICE HITS! Listen, obviously George Lucas, the creative*(see I said it) mastermind behind Star Wars, is a genius in every sense of the word. Although at the most, I would call him an anomaly during 1980’s. To me it’s actually a terrible comparable considering he wrote Star Wars (A New Hope & Empire Strikes Back) in the 70’s and it’s a franchise that has now spanned over the course of 5 decades.
To me, filmmaking during this stretch did not challenge the audience as it did before. No decade in history has had as little films that dealt with controversial issues or importance in culture than the great 1980’s. Yes, clearly you can name me examples of films that did. Over the course of 10 years…Heck, I’d hope there would be at least a handful. But what I’m saying is- there has never been a time where less films were made regarding those topics.
Now there are plenty of 80’s movies that I enjoy. The Indiana Jones’s are fun (Ironically enough also created by George Lucas). Top Gun, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Goonies, Back to the Future…pretty much any John Hughes film. I mean c’mon, Breakfast Club! Sixteen Candles! Even as a kid I hoped one day I’d be able to skip school and do half the things Ferris Bueller did (I know, what striking aspirations). Cool action/adventure films and humorous high school movies that deal with teen angst have a special place with me. As do a lot of films during this time. But I would say they are far from masterpieces.
At the start of this write-up, I stated there were two movies released during this time that I would consider a masterpiece. And it is no coincidence that each film came out at the very beginning and the very end of this decade. The reason behind that is because both films were influenced by the times that were, and the times that were becoming. These two films are 1980’s Raging Bull and 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Raging Bull which was viewed as an instant classic and praised by all critics alike, barely broke even at the box office. Even with star Robert De Niro and gifted director Martin Scorsese at the helm, this is an example of a film that helped shift the narrative on the kind of movies studios were going to make.
By the decade‘s end a new type of filmmaking was emerging, and nobody was at the forefront more than director/writer Spike Lee. It was a sign of things to come in regards to story-telling, culture, and reality. While more films started to surface with this gripping, brash appeal, no movie embodied these qualities more than Do The Right Thing. A movie that left a footprint in the world of cinema, helped inspire the likes of John Singleton, Gary Gray and many others. It was the dawn of a new era, and much of the thinking that crippled filmmaking in the 80’s was being left behind.
By Brandon Colón