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Summer of ‘85 St. Elmo’s Fire

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Summer of ’85: Tickle Us, St. Elmo’s Fire

Columbia Pictures

St. Elmo’s Fire, viewed before its release as a Woodstock of sorts for ’80s-film supergroup the Brat Pack, turned into the beginning of the end for said Pack the minute it hit screens—and not just because the entire Brat Pack concept was a media chimera. The film’s sole reason for existing was evidently to put Brats Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy in the same movie together; the only bigger afterthought than Mare Winningham is the brittle, stagey script, which fails to descend to the level of campy badness and merely bores instead.

Ali Arikan, Sarah D. Bunting and Matt Zoller Seitz took a look at St. Elmo’s Fire and tried to diagnose the main cause of its dull malaise. Read on for their conclusions—or, if you’re short on time, scroll to the end for some self-portraits of their time in the trenches.

Sarah D. Bunting: I hadn’t seen St. Elmo’s Fire in years, and I remembered it as bad, but it’s not just bad. It’s criminally boring and contrived. Only Jules (Demi Moore) is someone I might find even faintly amusing in real life, and that’s only because she’s a train wreck.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Whenever I see almost any mainstream Hollywood film made from the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s, my formative movie-going years as an adult, I’m slightly amazed that I mustered up enough affection to write about movies for a living.

Ali Arikan: When I saw that first shot of the seven of them in their graduation gowns, walking towards the camera, I just wanted to be friends with them right away. So that I could lull them into a sense of false security and then murder them in their sleep.

 

St. Elmo's Fire

Sarah: The by-numbers composition of the group of friends is one of the more enervating aspects of the film. I have no sense of their personalities; they just have jobs and tics, and based on those, I’m not clear on why, for example, Billy (Rob Lowe) even knows these other people. This isn’t unique to St. Elmo’s; film is full of groups of friends that, in real life, would have nothing to do with one another.

Matt: Movies really sucked during that period. My friend Marilyn thinks that all the cocaine people were doing at the top levels of the industry seeped into the storytelling, or non-storytelling. It might also account for the overwhelming arrogance displayed by so many of these characters. They all think they’re the center of the universe and the film rarely bothers to correct them. Characters keep behaving in atrocious and/or illogical ways, and the movie validates them. Like Emilio Estevez’s character, a preppy stalker.

Ali: Here is the funny thing about it. And this would be the sort of simplification that would run through all of Hollywood’s product for “young people.” The characters are defined by one quirk and one quirk only. In real life, people become friends for a variety of reasons, and no plausible group of buddies has a “funny one,” “preppy one,” “Demi Moore,” etc. This is not your typical dramatic archetypes—this is basically piss-poor writing.

Sarah: Friends also do not generally feel the need to shoehorn museum-placard notations on character beats into conversations with each other for the benefit of the audience. “Whatever happened to that Alec Newbary political conviction I fell in love with?” Whatever happened to organic dialogue? They’re trying so, so hard to convince us that these people are interesting and friends with each other…it’s just DOA as a result. And Schumacher’s idea of what a 22-year-old writer’s life is like…

Matt: That said, there are germs of psychological reality to all the characters—it’s just that the film never really develops them. I’ve known guys like the Judd Nelson character, and the Demi Moore character, and Lowe’s character (who, along with the film, might have been singlehandedly responsible for making the saxophone permanently unsexy). Codependency is, or maybe should have been, the theme of the movie, if it had anything going on upstairs, but that’s just a sidelight.

Ali: This is it. I think the film is interesting as a showcase for Joel Schumacher: kind of like The Portrait of the Fuckwit as a Young Man. I love the way he shows sleaze by having neon lights. Of course, this approach would find its apotheosis in Schumacher’s 8MM, a “dark” film about the sleazy world of snuff movies that was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Sarah: I did enjoy that the Billy Idol mural in Jules’s apartment had a neon-light earring.

Matt: Speaking of sleaze, what’s up with all the stalker/rapist behavior by the guys? Judd Nelson’s control-freak womanizing sadism, Lowe trying to rape Demi Moore and the film treating it like just a speed bump in their relationship, and Estevez acting in ways that would prompt a restraining order in life. And again, the movie treats this as if it’s just normal movie behavior. It’s cokehead producer self-justification.

Sarah: And let’s not forget the greatest going-away present a frump like Wendy (Mare Winningham) can bestow: her virginity! Then again, this is a film that believes Rob Lowe drinking bourbon on a rooftop is the height of bad-assery.

Ali: I love that going-away present thing. Usually, you get a snow globe—Rob wants a quick pick-me-up before heading off to NY. I tell you how that scene could have been immensely improved upon. He asks for his going-away present, then CUT to a shot of him, outside in the rain, looking forlorn, holding her granny panties. “You want a present, here’s your present, bitch.” …Funnily enough, the way Schumacher treats his male/female relationships reminded me of the way Aaron Sorkin approached them in The West Wing.

Sarah: Alec’s whole “I cheat on you because YOU won’t commit” self-justification is particularly revolting. But the movie treats it like a quirk. Um, no. It’s a personality disorder, guys.

Matt: Okay, I just have to vent for a second about Estevez’s character.

Sarah: The floor is yours.

 

St. Elmo's Fire

Matt: He becomes obsessed with Andie McDowell at the hospital, in that shot where she picks up that little African-American boy and the hallway doors open to reveal a blast of white light, as if she’s going through the gates of heaven. It’s a Scorsese touch, cool in another movie but really weird here. And then he just becomes obsessed with her, irrationally obsessed. Then comes that scene where he follows her on a bike…in the rain!…to the restaurant and stares at her through the window. I thought, “Okay, we cut away from this and we see him coming to terms with how badly he’s lost it.”

But then…he barges into the restaurant and we get that Friday the 13th POV shot from his perspective, and he talks to Andie McDowell, who’s rightly flummoxed…and then…cut to…her apartment. She’s invited him home! What the fuck? What the holy living fuck? What…the…FUCK? Seriously? Okay, done for now.

…What the fuck? Sorry.

Ali: Speaking of WTF, I’d forgotten all about Jules’s neighbor (Matthew Laurance). How do we know he’s gay? Well, he’s holding a giant cocktail glass filled to the brim with a pink drink: the universal symbol of male homosexuality.

Sarah: And he’s a decorator.

Ali: Double queer.

Matt: Schumacher is gay, and has always been about as open about it as a director can be and still keep a spot on the A-list. Was there a streak of self-loathing there? Or is it just that it was the ’80s, where the sensitivity of the ’70s was violently rolled back and machismo was in again and movies had to take potshots at gay people wherever they appeared?

Sarah: Getting back to the Kirby/Dale Biberman subplot for a sec…can’t you give the dream girl a last name that doesn’t sound like “Beaver”? Also, can’t you cast someone who doesn’t speak in a monotone?

Ali: I love the way her date in that mountain cabin is so welcoming of this stalker guy who’s ruined their weekend. He asks to take a fucking photo of them? What the fuck?

Sarah: Ali: I assumed that was to show the police when Dale ends up dead, but the movie seems to think Kirby’s stalking is heroic. Dale’s roommate is giving him the stink-eye when he’s standing there SMELLING DALE’S PILLOW, and I was like, “Seriously.” But the movie makes it out like the roommate is just a big old unromantic buzzkill. Um, HER ROOMMATE INVITED HER STALKER INSIDE.

Ali: AND TOLD HIM WHERE SHE WAS THAT WEEKEND AFTER HE THREATENED TO KILL HER!

Matt: Yeah, that pillow bit was mind-boggling. Total disconnect from reality.

Ali: Nice parenting, Martin Sheen.

Sarah: Your boy stalks robots. “See, I’m. Not. That great. I don’t even. Remember to. Take. Out the trash.”

Ali: “Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed.” Sorry, wrong film.

Matt: Let’s go back to Rob Lowe for a second, and Demi Moore. I felt like these two were the Hollywood A-list’s fantasy self-justification. “I’ll shit all over you, and you’ll indulge me and keep loving me no matter what, because I’m so amazing.”

Ali: Oh, by the way, I’d totally forgotten that the scene in Love, Actually where Keira Knightley realizes her husband’s best friend is in love with her is a total rip-off of the one in this movie.

Sarah: Didn’t Schumacher make Moore go to rehab during filming?

Matt: I wasn’t aware of that. If so, good for him.

Ali: My favorite line in the whole movie belongs to Moore: “I only speak a little bit of Arabic, but I think I heard the word for ’gangbang.’” And I think there was something rather disturbing—and not in a good way—about Rob Lowe trying to deflower a virgin, considering his sex-tape antics.

 

St. Elmo's Fire

Sarah: I will give Lowe this: he is giving 110 percent. It isn’t usually working, but he’s trying. The sax-playing is really unfortunate and looks like he’s on the losing end of a Man vs. Boa outtake, but look at what he’s got to work with. That character is married and has a kid? And then he’s…divorced, and his ex remarries some nice man who…will raise the kid, and that’s the end of it?

Matt: Speaking of rehab, it was rather stunning to see so much liquor consumed, so many cigarettes smoked without a lecture about cancer, so much cocaine casually snorted (there’s a reason it’s ordered up via the euphemism “party favors”). In a better movie I would have applauded this as a dose of nonjudgmental realism. They are hard-driving twentysomethings. But in this film it seemed all of a piece with the raging, unmediated narcissism, the film’s lack of awareness that behavior has consequences.

Ali: I think there is some interesting stuff—the fact that the passage of time is assumed, and never overtly stated—no montages, cue cards, nothing. Schumacher also plays around with his camera; sometimes it gets in the way, but it’s commendable the way he tries to have so many tracking shots. Some work—like the one in the party—most don’t, but still.

Sarah: I would have appreciated it more if the vodka weren’t so obviously not vodka. It drives me nuts when movie characters just drink booze like it has no taste.

Ali: It’s not just the alcohol that is obviously not real. The Korean guy is also obviously not Korean. But he’s called Kim, so, every cloud…

Sarah: It’s hard for me to applaud any of the visuals when the writing feels so much like a middle-school-drama-club improv exercise.

Matt: Okay, this is probably going to sound strange considering how we’ve been slagging the entire movie, but I thought Andrew McCarthy was quite good in this part, especially considering what he was given to work with. And the character appealed to me. He and Ally Sheedy were the only ones with moral compasses. McCarthy also got the only lines in the movie that I thought rang true, or that at least were worth engaging with and arguing with, overwritten as they were. “You know what love is? Love is an illusion created by lawyer types like yourself to perpetuate another illusion called marriage, to create a reality of divorce and an illusionary need for divorce lawyers.”

Also, “The notion of people spending their entire lives together was invented by people who were lucky to make it to 20 without being eaten by dinosaurs.” Obviously cavemen and dinosaurs weren’t alive at the same time, but I still enjoyed the line.

Ali: Regarding Ally Sheedy’s character—I think, again, as Matt said, in a better film, I would have enjoyed the way she decides to play the field a bit before settling down.

Matt: There again, though, the film is just so clunky in dealing with it.

Sarah: I found Sheedy’s reactions utterly bogus.

Ali: The problem is McCarthy’s “arc” ends with his sleeping with Sheedy and then discovering the meaning of life, which, obviously, is boning Sheedy in the shower (which might very well be true). By the way, that sex scene has put me off sex. And pearl necklaces.

Sarah: I actually liked Wendy the best; I thought Winningham did really well with that part. Her relationship with Billy was kind of interesting, and then the others trying to stage interventions on it with her felt relatively real. Although I don’t buy that Wendy would still know any of these dipshits ten minutes after graduation.

Matt: And does it logically follow that a young woman who hung out with sexually active people and routinely drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes in their presence would maintain her virginity until age 23 or so? Especially if her constant companion was Rob Lowe?

Sarah: But anything proceeding from the idea that Alec is the reliable “leader” of that group of friends, I can’t get behind.

Ali: That is the key problem with this film. As we’ve said, these guys would not be friends in real life. At least, from what we see of their interactions, they seem to have nothing in common. I realise that uni friends tend to drift apart into their own caves yet still keep in touch, but these guys are from different worlds.

Sarah: And Alec in particular is from Planet Judgy Asshole.

Matt: I hadn’t seen the film since it came out, so a lot of this was new to me again, and my reactions were colored by all the movie-going I’ve done since then. The Alec stuff reminded me of Bully or Roadhouse. He’s such a raging asshole, so controlling and hateful to everybody, that there were a few points where I hoped it would turn into a revenge thriller, the kind of movie where they spend the last act figuring out how to dispose of the body.

Ali: Me, too.

Sarah: “WASTED LLLLOVE!”

Ali: But what is the message here, I wonder? Because there is that scene right at the end of the film where Rob Lowe is comforting Demi Moore, as a giant clown doll leans against the wall. Halfway through his spiel, he looks at the camera and says: “We’re all going through this.” Was this an indictment of Reaganite youth, who felt so entitled that they believed a whole pile of money would just land on their laps and they would live the life of riley forever?

Sarah: You know, Ali, I didn’t understand that speech at all. Even if his explanation of St. Elmo’s Fire is accurate—“sailors just made it up”—I don’t understand how that applies to post-college anomie.

Ali: There’s also that line at the beginning where Alec tells Billy, “It’s been four months since graduation, and you’re still living like you’re in college.” What does this mean? You grow up the second you get your diploma? Should you?

Sarah: And of all people to cop that attitude, too. “I, who play-act at adulthood by arguing over sofas with my cuckolded girlfriend, will now lecture you on how to behave.” Fuck off.

Ali: There is also the problem with the jokes. Schumacher seems to realise his gags are fucking trite, so whenever someone makes a joke, another character says “ba-doom tiss” or something. Being aware of how crappy your dialogue is does not improve its quality. It just makes it shit and self-aware.

Sarah: It reminded me of Punchline, with the myriad reaction shots of the audience LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY, as if that’s going to sell it. The forced-in-joke “boogela boogela” thing, same thing. I felt like I was watching a social-hygiene film about college friendships.

Matt: Also rather stunning: the ethnocentricity of every moment in the film. It was like Sex and the City white. Between Mr. Kim, the black hooker, the black servants, and the coke-snorting, sex-crazed Arabs, yeeesh. This movie reminded me quite a bit of the SATC films.

Sex, violence, language and potentially disturbing images or situations never bother me in and of themselves. What offends me is when a movie endorses a blatantly false sense of life, or worse, validates a limiting or destructive attitude or ideology and never examines it in any meaningful way. St. Elmo’s Fire is guilty of this, as were a lot of ’80s Hollywood movies. Watch American studio movies from the late ’70s through the mid-’80s in chronological order and you really can see the nation shaking off the dreams of the ’60s as if they were hallucinations preventing them from getting out there and making money so they can buy shit.

 

St. Elmo's Fire

Sarah: I think you’re giving St. Elmo’s too much credit. I think the only thing it validates is itself, and the decision to give the Brat Pack the celluloid equivalent of a Reykjavik summit. I remember it being a big effing deal when it came out, that so many of them were in one movie, and then: stillbirth.

Ali: It’s easily the worst of the eighties Brat Pack movies. It takes the dreams of the sixties, as Matt says, and distills it into some sort of Prozac-and-coke-based nightmare.

Sarah: Actually, maybe you’re right. There are repeated references to what a sucker Wendy is for working at the welfare office (but then her rich daddy is pimping her out to Howie Whoeverberg for a Chrysler LeBaron).

Matt: It’s there in the movie. Alec switching from Democrat to Republican, the obsession with getting a good job or a better job. Mare Winningham’s relationship with her dad. And most of all, that astounding bit in the welfare office where Winningham is trying to have an authentic human connection with the welfare mom, and she just repeats, “Give me my damn check.” She’s got three kids, two obviously from non-white fathers. And then Schumacher cuts to a wide shot, revealing that she’s got TWO MORE KIDS. Talk about “ba-doom tiss”! It’s a Reaganite sight gag. The message is, “What’s the point of caring about the less fortunate? They’re just greedy assholes like everyone else. So why not be a greedy asshole yourself?”

Sarah: But Wendy’s the only one who’s happy at the end, kind of. I mean, she’s sad that Billy took her hymen and went to New York. (That’s my first country album.) But that particular “just give me the check” scene annoyed me because nobody else in the welfare office at the time seemed to be non-white.

Matt: And don’t you just know that they cast a white woman as the welfare mom to deflect accusations of racism? They might as well have just made her black and have her pull up to the welfare office in her Cadillac. Why dance around it?

Ali: I think she should have had a rainbow of children: not only is she poor, but she’s fucked the whole neighbourhood. Black, White, Cuban or Asian. Party in the city where the heat is on, etc. One of them has pointy eyebrows and pointy ears. The other one’s a fish.

Matt: One of the children is Inuit, and is wearing a furry parka and holding a small harpoon with a fish dangling on the end.

Sarah: And the fish is made of crack.

Matt: “Mommy, can we go now? I ate all my crack fish. I need another crack fish, Mommy.”

Ali: Was this before or after the sex tape, by the way? Rob Lowe’s, obviously. Not Matt’s.

Matt: Before.

Sarah: Op. cit. Bad Influence.

Matt: I had two sex tapes. Lowe’s was in between.

Ali: I am taping one now.

Matt: Wow. Great minds!

Sarah: In between your two sex tapes?

Matt: I was wearing a parka in both. It’s my signature.

Sarah: Oh, that’s your signature.

Matt: My porn name was Nanooky.

Sarah: You are fired.

Ali: Mine is Colonel Knob.

Matt: You were promoted!

Ali: I am touching the screen with my nipples. “BILLY!”

Sarah: Any closing thoughts? Besides that Keith is going to have us all killed?

Ali: Always take off your two-metre-long pearl necklace before Andrew McCarthy fucks you in the shower.

Sarah: Crack is wack.

Matt: Stay in school, kids.

 

St. Arikan's Fire

Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication. He is a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Edward Copeland on Film and Roger Ebert’s website.

 

St. Bunting's Fire

Sarah D. Bunting talks movies, baseball, and baseball movies at TomatoNation.com.

 

St. Seitz's Fire

Matt Zoller Seitz is a Brooklyn-based critic and filmmaker and the founder of The House Next Door.