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Summer Of 85 (#110 of 17)

Summer of ‘85 Pumping Iron II: The Women

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Summer of ’85: The Strongest Femme in the World: Pumping Iron II: The Women

Cinecom Pictures

Summer of ’85: The Strongest Femme in the World: Pumping Iron II: The Women

It’s a shame I had to trek downtown to Tribeca to experience Pumping Iron II: The Women, which played as part of the 92YTribeca’s “Outsider Sports” series (on a double bill with Afghan Muscles—kudos to the creative programmer!). Not that I have anything against attending a free screening of a 16mm print courtesy of the New York Public Library. It’s just that George Butler’s follow-up to his Schwarzenegger-starring Pumping Iron needs to be disseminated on DVD in a 25th-anniversary edition complete with all the bells and whistles. Yes, this semi-doc is a film geek’s dream, one that leaves you thinking about things beyond its bodybuilding theme and hungering to learn more.

Arriving in theaters fresh on the heels of Flashdance fever, the film’s nods to that cinematic time capsule are so transparent as to be laughable, ranging from its cheesy ’80s pop soundtrack, to the competitors’ Aqua Net heavy hairstyles and “Jane Fonda Workout” wear. But beneath the superficial knockoffs lie both filmmaking and a storyline rife with controversy. Pumping Iron II: The Women follows several muscle-bound females leading up to The Caesars World Cup in Las Vegas. Filling Schwarzenegger’s shoes is Rachel McLish, a femme fatale, bodybuilding diva every bit the showboat as the future Governator. Australian Bev Francis, a former power-lifter turned bodybuilder whose masculine looks call into question the female bodybuilding ideal, is the outsider Lou Ferrigno character. Country girl Lori Bowen and brainy Carla Dunlap, the only black woman represented, fill lesser roles.

Summer of ‘85 Weird Science

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Summer of ’85: Weird Science: The Pacification of the Raging Nerd

Universal Pictures

Summer of ’85: Weird Science: The Pacification of the Raging Nerd

I don’t remember the summer of 1985 as a crucial moment in my filmic development. The previous year’s glut of money-spinning classics had raised the bar so high that a letdown was inevitable: as I recall, there was a big dropoff in attendance and a series of titles that failed to define an era. The monster hits were all pretty tame: Back to the Future is a comic riff on Speilbergian awe rather than a traumatic dirge on childhood loss, Rambo II boilerplate Reaganism without variation, A View to a Kill a pathetically lazy James Bond clunker, Cocoon a space film by Ron Howard. Love them or hate them (and I seriously dug every one), they didn’t incite long-term worship then and don’t cry out for exegesis now.

For me, the meagre significance of ’85 rests on its series of I-can’t-believe-I’m-the-only-one-who-likes-this movies, stuff that would click with a few like-minded individuals without whipping the turnstiles into a blur (while snowballing into cults on cable and VHS). It was the summer of such offside items as Joe Dante’s indefinable Explorers, Matthew Robbins’ weird rebel riff The Legend of Billie Jean (still waiting for that DVD), Dan O’Bannon’s sharply-written The Return of the Living Dead, Tobe Hooper’s camp howler Lifeforce, Martha Coolidge’s science prodigy exposé Real Genius and, of course, the immortal Better Off Dead, the mention of which still gets me more excited “oh yeah!” reactions than those of the year’s foregone conclusions.

Weird Science is one of those “oh yeah!” movies, and captured my imagination for obvious, sunken-chested reasons: it was an unabashedly nerds-rule affair.

Summer of ‘85 Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two

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Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two

TriStar Pictures

Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take Two

One part ’70s rogue male action movie, another part innovative Hollywood blockbuster pushed all the way to “11”, and totally responsible for changing action movie grammar—big silly war flicks were never the same after its May 1985 release—Rambo: First Blood Part II sits in between filmic worlds. Despite it being one of those movies everybody knows, it’s a tough one to parse. Nevertheless, Brandon Soderberg and comics artist and illustrator Benjamin Marra chopped it up about Rambo: First Blood Part II, and tried to get to the center of its wizened, gummy politics but also talk about why it’s just, well, awesome.

Summer of ‘85 Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take One

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Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take One

TriStar Pictures

Summer of ’85: Rambo: First Blood Part II, Take One

As I was heading off to my first day of elementary school, my father said, “If they ask you your religion, tell them you’re a member of the Church of the Holy Gun.”

It was a joke, of course. But not entirely.

I grew up in a gun shop in New Hampshire. Or, more accurately, I grew up in a house with a gun shop attached to it. I was never baptized, but I was given a life membership in the National Rifle Association when I was born. My first substantial birthday present was a .22 rifle my father built for me when I was three. Other kids always wanted to come over to my house to play Cowboys & Indians because we got to use real guns from my father’s box of broken pistols and revolvers. By the summer of 1985, I was nine years old and my father had just gotten a license to sell machine guns.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (which I’ve always just called Rambo II) was one of the first R-rated movies I ever got to watch. I don’t remember if my father took me to see it at our local movie theater or if I watched it when he rented the videotape later. I expect it was the latter, but it feels in my memory more like the former—going out to see a movie was a big event in my family, much like the sequence in The 400 Blows where Antoine and his parents go to see a movie and for the time they’re under the spell of the celluloid dreamworld, it takes no effort to smile.

Summer of ‘85 The Legend of Billie Jean

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Summer of ’85: Hair is Hair: The Legend of Billie Jean

TriStar Pictures

Summer of ’85: Hair is Hair: The Legend of Billie Jean

It’s an age-old story: boy meets girl; boy sleazes on girl, then steals girl’s brother’s scooter and wrecks it; girl’s brother reclaims the scooter and gets beaten up in the process; girl confronts boy with repair bill, which he refuses to pay; boy’s father will pay, but only if girl lets him have sex with her, repeatedly; girl’s brother accidentally shoots boy’s father in the arm; girl, brother, and their friends go into hiding at an abandoned miniature-golf palace while Peter Coyote makes bewildered faces. You know…that age-old story.

Digging further into The Legend of Billie Jean raises many more questions than it answers, because as contrived and frail as the main “plot” sounds, it’s got nothing on the various B plots. Everyone remembers that Billie Jean chops her long blonde hair off à la Joan of Arc—a tortured parallel the film refuses to drop—and becomes a folk hero. Nobody remembers the rest, but along the way, the eponymous Billie Jean (Helen Slater) and her scooter-crossed brother, Binx (Christian Slater, in his film debut), acquire a hostage in Lloyd (Keith Gordon), a bored rich boy who’s eager to test his district-attorney father’s love by not only letting the Billie Jean Kids kidnap him but in fact suggesting it himself—this, after they’ve broken into his house and eaten all the food in the fridge and Billie Jean has hit him in the nuts with a guitar.

Summer of ‘85 A View to a Kill

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Summer of ’85: A View to a Kill

MGM

Summer of ’85: A View to a Kill

Roger Moore saved my evening once. I took a friend for a drink at Elaine’s, near where I lived on the Upper East Side. My friend knew that celebrities congregated there, and refused to leave for our appointed dinner until we saw one. I sighted a New York character actor, but no go—it had to be a name-above-the-title star. For a seeming eternity, none came into our orbit. Then, when I could stand the waiting game no longer, who should enter but…Beau Maverick. Simon Templar. James Bond. There could be no argument: Roger Moore was the real deal. Dinner was served.

Karmically speaking he did me a good turn, given how thoroughly he had ruined another evening of mine in May of 1985. I was 19 years old, the film critic for the Daily Northwestern, and eager to convert another friend into Bond-age. (I was a fan since my dad took me to see a double feature of Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die in 1974 or thereabouts.) Things were looking up: 1983’s Octopussy, with Moore, was divertingly silly, and Never Say Never Again later that year was a more-or-less satisfying one-off for the returning Sean Connery. A View to a Kill, which we were seeing at a preview screening at the Esquire Theater in Chicago, should have clinched it, and brought another fan into the fold.

Summer of ‘85 Day of the Dead

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Summer of ’85: Gateway to the Zombie Apocalypse: Day of the Dead

United Film Distribution Company

Summer of ’85: Gateway to the Zombie Apocalypse: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, unleashed in July of 1985, was the third in George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy (not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy), which has created a foundation for a whole horror subgenre and its attendant culture of obsessives.  It wasn’t as blithely satirical as its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, and it was far more technically sophisticated than either of its forerunners. Owing to these improvements, Day of the Dead is the most direct reference point for all subsequent “serious” treatments of the zombie archetype.  Despite its landmark status, it’s accorded far less acclaim than Dawn of the Dead, which is often heralded as the pinnacle of the trilogy.  This is unfair to Day of the Dead, which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, so much so that its iconic contribution to the genre has been overlooked.

After the carousing and confusion of Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead shows us a world where humans have gone from being entirely reactionary—desperate, safety-seeking, and ineffectively attempting to maintain their institutions—to being proactive, fortifying their positions, rebuilding society, and assessing the wider situation.  The underground bunker of Day of the Dead is a society struggling to find a political form, with a fascistic military element vying with a cadre of scientists, working against all odds toward some sort of utopian solution.  This distills into a conflict between hopeless rumination and hopeless impulse…and between short-term tactics and long-term strategy.

Summer of ‘85 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

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Summer of ’85: We Don’t Need Another Hero: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Warner Bros.

Summer of ’85: We Don’t Need Another Hero: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

After an opening that is every bit as kinetic and engaging as The Road Warrior, and promises more of the same, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome turns into a busier and more densely populated film than either of George Miller’s first two pared-down, souped-up, post-apocalyptic road epics. Where Mad Max and The Road Warrior were near-minimalist, Mad Max III is baroque, larded, even cluttered, with incidental detail, and verging on the surreal. The grotesquerie is so common and abundant that it no longer carries the jolt that it did in The Road Warrior, and the bizarre comedy that was the occasional time-out in The Road Warrior threatens to become the dominant tone by the time Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome gets to its climax. Emblematic of this is that, while energy is still the heart of the matter, as it was in the first two Mad Max films, in this one it’s not the preciousness and scarcity of gasoline that drives the plot, but rather a man who makes methane out of pigshit.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has a very long (half the film) first act and very short second and third acts. That long first act, set in a bustling outback trade center called Bartertown, is the culmination of the junkyard futurism of such films as Soylent Green, A Boy and his Dog, The Ultimate Warrior and Escape from New York—a genre that was itself spawned by the famous final moment of Planet of the Apes.

Summer of ‘85 Secret Admirer

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Summer of ’85: David Greenwalt’s Secret Admirer and the Unexpected Pleasure of a Bridge-Club Set-To

Orion Pictures

Summer of ’85: David Greenwalt’s Secret Admirer and the Unexpected Pleasure of a Bridge-Club Set-To

As the shamed bearer of an adolescent crush on C. Thomas Howell, I saw most of his movies multiple times—including not only Soul Man but the execrable volleyball roman à clef Side Out (yes, you read that last clause correctly).

Somehow, though, I managed to miss Secret Admirer when it came out. In fact, I have absolutely no contemporaneous memory of the film at all, which is a shame, because it’s relatively good. Of course, “relatively good” in the mid-’80s teen-movie genre often means “not unwatchable,” and Secret Admirer doesn’t quite qualify as fresh or unpredictable.

It’s got byzantine plotting down cold, though. Toni (an enjoyably sarcastic Lori Loughlin) is in love with her best friend, Michael (Howell), and slips an unsigned letter into his locker to testify to that fact. Michael is inspired by the letter to write a mash note to the joy of his desiring, Deborah Ann Fimple (Kelly Preston), whose interests include shopping, dating fratty college boys, and pulling her hair to the side in unflattering styles. Toni, who is disappointed but supportive, intercepts Michael’s letter to Debbie and, when she realizes how pedestrian it is, rewrites it for him without his knowledge.

Summer of ‘85 Follow That Bird

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Summer of ’85: Follow That Bird

Warner Bros.

Summer of ’85: Follow That Bird

One could almost see it as a celebration. By 1985, the original audience for the children’s educational show Sesame Street were just beginning to graduate high school and move into adulthood, and the show was still as successful as ever. This success stemmed from its ability to encompass the average preschooler’s life experience and compress it into a microcosm, with the creatures of their wild imaginations and supportive adults coexisting and teaching together. Also, Cookie Monster was pretty goofy.

Sesame Street was a safe, warm place for a child to be, but like real life, serious issues would crop up at random. The most famous of these incidents was the death of elderly storekeeper Mr. Hooper in 1983. As in real life, these issues could not simply be swept under the rug—they affected everyone. Death, serious injury, the loss of a home. In August of 1985, Sesame Street took a gamble and not only released their first theatrical film, but decided to make it on a more specific issue than they were used to, namely child protection services and biracial families. Cookie Monster was still pretty goofy, though.