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Summer of ‘84—The Day the Nerd Stood Still: Top Secret!, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters

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Summer of ’84—The Day the Nerd Stood Still: Top Secret!, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters

Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Top Secret! all opened on the same day in the summer of 1984—June 8th. Coming up with a “better” desert island list would not be at all taxing. But a more fun one? Now that would be difficult. They are three of the best films of ’80s cinema: a trifecta that showcases not just vision and panache, but which also work as a most apropos representation of the decade’s commercial cinema and its sensibilities. Are they perfect? Were the eighties perfect? You see my point.

From Clash of the Titans to Ai No Corrida, it’s quite hard for me distance myself from the films I grew up on. It’s not that the veil of nostalgia makes me unable to see objectively that a childhood favorite is in fact a piece of piffle (like The Goonies, for example, which, incidentally, came out on June 7th, 1985—exactly one year to the day of the debut of the three subjects of this paean—and a shiny new penny to the first person to tell us why it was the 7th and not the 8th). But objectivity and art is like oil and water. Personal experience shapes appreciation—and even the best of us would be lying to aver otherwise. So even though I can see that The Goonies is pants, it’s hard for me to dissociate the experience of actually watching it when it first came out with seeing it again after so many years. If I run into it while switching between channels, you can bet your sweet ass I’ll be there till the credits roll. It was good enough for the 5-year-old Adrian; it’s good enough for the 31-year-old.

And it’s also impossible to take a step back while enjoying a childhood favorite that is so obviously a good film in the first place. Such is the dilemma in which I find myself here. I’d like to do my best to offer our readers during this great symposium of the films of 1984 an astute critique of this troika of awesome (not Malenkov, Beria and Molotov, but the films in question, natch); but you try doing that when one of the films features the one, the only Anal Intruder—with the optional fist attachment. They don’t make ’em like they used to (spoof films AND anal intruders).

Of the three, my favorite, and arguably the best of the bunch, has to be Top Secret!. Symphonies should be composed to its genius, memorial days dedicated in its glory, and kids should dress up as East German officers, frolicking in the streets in unadulterated joy. Better than anything the ZAZ trio have come up with in their admittedly impressive careers (including Airplane), the film’s main accomplishment is its complete courage of convictions, and its relentless pursuit of jokes to their natural conclusion. It’s not just that the French resistance soldiers are called Escargot, Détente or Avant Garde, etc. It’s that the token black member is called Chocolate Mousse.

It’s also subversive to the nth degree. What looks like zany wackiness on the surface is in fact a far more precise commentary on not just the Elvis musicals or surfer pictures-cum-war movies, but on the very nature of stereotypes themselves. The way the Nazis and the East Germans are amalgamated into the ethereal image of the repressive Hun, regardless of the politics, is exemplary of the general short-sighted view of Germans the world over (an image that was far more palpable before the fall of the Berlin Wall). The teach-yourself-German tape that Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, in his first screen role) is listening to instructs on the most crucial sentences that are sure to come in useful: “Bilchaben Frichtmitten un der heinerblachund: There is sauerkraut in my lederhosen.” The aforementioned French resistance is disorganized and bohemian, cigarettes dangling precariously from their lips, because, you know, that’s what the French do. And Europeans are not the only ones who get the brunt of the joke. What are the two things that exemplify late ’50s, early ’60s American cinema in the global pop culture? Why, surfing, of course, and shooting shit. Hence the inspired skeet surfing credit sequence, set to an ersatz Beach Boys number (”“I wish they all could be double-barreled guns…”).

Top Secret! also messes with history like a five-year-old playing with Play-Doh. The protagonist is American, but which America is he from? The pre-war years of isolation that gave birth to Rick Blaine? Or the cynical Cooler King of the war? Sgt. Possum? Elvis of the fifties? Sal Paradise? He is all of them, and also none. Just like the Germans and the French encapsulate the European stereotypes of not just cinema, but the man on the street, too. If Top Secret! has one message, it’s that what unites us is, if not disdain, then our mutual prejudices. I only hope Tarantino has had half as much fun with his war movie spoof.

Equally subversive, and almost as wonderful, is Gremlins, one of my all time favorite comfort films. There is not a single director working in mainstream films these days with the intensity of perverted passion that defines some of Joe Dante’s best work. In this age of the sequel, why they are yet to revisit Gremlins is beyond me (even though they came very close about ten years ago during the Furby craze). Last year, the inimitable Dennis Cozzalio did a wonderful retrospective of sorts on Joe Dante, in which he observed:

“[N]ot nearly so many people as should tend to understand that movies like Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Explorers, The ’burbs and his HBO film The Second Civil War are masterpieces of design, effect, satire and social commentary that far outstrip most of the movies that august bodies tend to crown with awards. Dante’s movies are firecrackers, ones you shouldn’t hold in your hands for long. They snap, crackle, pop and outright supernova with the kind of exuberance that most directors half his age can’t muster. Don Mancini’s Seed of Chucky is about the only movie that can stand anywhere near Gremlins 2 as an acid-blooded, tear-the-roof-off-the-joint studio sequel that makes the very idea of a sequel its radically funny foundation, a foundation from which a virtual house of mirrors explodes and plasters the walls of the cinema with a thousand different angles on creative cannibalism.”

Creative cannibalism is such a wonderful phrase and Dennis is right, as he so frequently is, that Joe Dante is Hannibal Lecter when it comes to it. Gremlins, and its superior sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch, are two powerful slaps in the face of the consumerist culture of the United States, thinly disguised as commentaries on Middle America, and Wall Street greed of the eighties, respectively.

Think about it. The cute, furry creatures that are borne out of sheer clumsiness and stupidity consume when they shouldn’t, becoming, in the process, agents of chaos and destruction. The gremlins (wonders of creature design by Chris Wallas, whose inspiration seems to range from Yoda to Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare), in this case, are representations of consumer capitalism of the eighties—spend, spend, spend is but only slightly removed from destroy, destroy, destroy. I would love to see a Gremlins film that takes place in Iraq.

Gremlins has its cake and eats it, too—it makes its bed, but sleeps on the sofa. One of the first shots of the film is our wide-eyed hero, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan—whatever happened to him? Cyborg 3: The Recycler, apparently), late for work (at a bank, obviously), crosses the town square, and the tracking shot (a good minute and a half) follows him across the piazza as, in the background, we see old buildings lining up like ghosts—a neighborhood cinema, a small shop, a little department store, and, erm, a Burger King. “Yes, we’ll take your money, and we’ll advertise your product,” Dante seems to say, “but don’t expect us to refrain from spitting at you while we’re doing it.”

While watching the film a few weeks ago, I noticed something else. The Gremlins represent destruction, they represent the racial other (as demonstrated by the Odienator in an excellent essay a few years ago), but they also represent the nadir of consumption in another way. By the end of the film, the creatures have converged in the cinema, and are destroyed as they enjoy Snow White (and, naturally, they sing along to Hi Ho). What’s the one way of killing a Gremlin (short of sticking it in the microwave—a funny gag that pays off even further in the sequel)? Exposing it to sunlight. Was this an early commentary on the summer movie crowd by Joe Dante, telling us, in his sui generis lopsided way, to stop wasting our time with summer films and go out and enjoy the sun? After all, a little sunshine won’t kill us. I hope.

Unlike Top Secret! and Gremlins, Ghostbusters hasn’t aged all that well. It might have a lot to do with the fact that it has been quoted ad nauseum by the masses, and lines like “Back off, man—I’m a scientist” are as funny to me as affixing “Electric Boogaloo” to any sequel that features the number two in the title. But the film itself has a few faults on its own, regardless. The characters never truly materialize to form a group—Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd’s sketch comedy backgrounds give each character a comedy routine, but the performers lack that certain je ne sais quoi and the group never become more than the sum of its parts (and Ernie Hudson is wasted—even his character is called Zeddemore, an afterthought, perhaps, to accommodate any African-American actor willing to take the job since Eddie Murphy reportedly turned down the part).

But it has its moments, and quite a few of them. First of all, it gets off the ground with breakneck speed. Within the first ten or fifteen minutes, the gang have confronted their first ghost, got kicked out of university and formed the Ghostbusters. Nowadays, filmmakers fashion entire trilogies out of that first act. The jokes, despite their pervasion through pop culture, are spot on, and the direction is tight and fast-paced. It’s lightweight fare, and still heaps of fun after all these years (if you’re willing to sit back and let it take you over).

I hear Ramis, Aykroyd et al are trying to make a third one. Guys, seriously, listen to William: “How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester.”

Looking back over these three films, two great and one good, I can’t help but remember the time when they first came out. Was the world simpler then? Probably not. But I was younger, and it felt that way, for sure. We all have to grow up sometime, and, yes, none of us can ever go home again. That much I know. But it’s good, every now and then, to look at the old family albums, and reminisce.

This is where I came from. And I’m happy about that.

Adrian de la Touche is a cineaste from London who writes for various online journals under various names. As a youth he used to weep in butcher’s shops.