I've noticed a lot of buzz in different corners of pop culture these days that refer to the year 1984 and the early-to-mid 80s in general. From Glee, to movie remakes, to music covers, to pulp fiction, nostalgia for the period is everywhere. The latest example: Dark Horse Comics is doing a new version of James Cameron's Terminator. USA Today has an 8-page preview here (hat tip: It's a Dan's World and Newsarama). Why are we preoccupied with this lost time from 25 years ago? Why are there so many reworkings of American pop culture from this period now taking place? The 1980s were important for two generations: the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. The Boomers were in their thirties and forties, not yet in positions of power, while their predecessors were busy running things. So the Boomers turned their considerable energies and attentions to reshaping popular culture, creating a look, feel and mood that we have remembered ever since. The entire decade seemed daubed with glitz. Xers, then in their teens, were equally swept away by conspiciuous consumption and golden nostalgia, flip-flopping with serious issues like the Cold War and Chernobyl. Although Gen X identifies strongly with the 1980s (you need only say 'John Hughes' to room full of Xers to understand this), it was not truly their decade. And therein lies the problem. I think we're seeing all these remakes because thirty- and forty-something Generation Xers are trying - with varying degrees of success - to revisit that important period and make it their own.
Fame Theme Song (1980). Writers: Gore/Pitchford. Producer: Pitchford. Perfomer: Cara.
Glee recalls the hit 1980 film and 1982-1987 TV show Fame, but in a softer Gen Y and Z format. The original Fame (remade in 2009), had some gritty themes. A list of songs performed on Glee (Season 1 here and Season 2 here) are a list of top hits from the early 60s to the early 2000s. But the core is indubitably the 80s. Glee pulls out a lot of quintessential 80s' material that 80s' clichées often miss. For example, it has quite a lot of material from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which by the 80s had become a cult hit.
Even the whole concept of a 'glee club,' which runs back to the 1950s, is a reference to the 80s, because the 80s saw a 1950s' revival: the Boomers were remembering their childhoods. This was evident in film adaptations of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and other movies like Grease, Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future. All involved twisted memories and time warps, where perception suddenly flip-flopped between the past and the future. Hinton's books relied heavily on flashbacks. In this scene in Rumble Fish, there's a little comment on how time changes perspective: "Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. See when you're young, you're a kid you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a coupla years here, a coupla years there - doesn't matter, y'know. The older you get, you say, Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left. Think about it. Thirty-five summers." This is a statement of someone who has reached the mid-point of their life - a point at which the Boomers were then, and the Xers are now.
The Outsiders (1983): Opening credits. Zoetrope/Warner Bros. Video Source: Youtube.
Stevie Wonder's lyrics to the title song to The Outsiders' soundtrack are a tribute to nostalgia for youth:
Seize upon that moment long ago
One breath away and there you will be
So young and carefree
Again you will see
That place in time...so gold
Still away into that way back when
You thought that all would last forever
But like the weather
Nothing can ever...and be in time
But can it be
When we can see
And yes you say
So must the day
Too, fade away
And leave a ray of sun
Life is but a twinkling of an eye
Yet filled with sorrow and compassion
though not imagined
All things that happen
Will age too old
So when we look at a show like Glee, we are seeing overlapping layers of sensibilities and tropes from different decades and different generations - from the pre-Boomer Silent Generation to Gen Y. The show is a retro redux of retro's retro, which is the source of its wide appeal. The fact that everyone can identify with it tells us how, on certain fundamental levels, not much has changed in pop culture since the end of the Second World War. Every story, film, and song has been done and redone so many times, but the archetypes remain the same. Ever noticed the similarities between Bette Davis and Susan Sarandon? Between Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett? Between Robert Redford and Brad Pitt? Some people already have here and here. Once a generation, Hollywood recycles its stars.
That brings us to the remakes. By the late 80s, Boomers' nostalgia for the 1950s was now becoming associated with Gen X identity. Movies about the era of the Boomers' childhood were now aimed at Xers. Yet these retro films usually involved teenagers, not children (in fact, the Silent Generation - a generation with which Xers naturally associate themselves - were teenagers in the 1950s, not the Boomers). The films were made by Boomers, but aimed at Xers, who were teens at the time. How confusing is that? It was a weird generational cultural transference. Aside from Back to the Future (1985; sequel 1989), the most important film to do this was Dead Poets' Society (1989). The film, set in a posh American prep school in the 1950s, depicted characters who would have belonged to the Silent Generation. The audience was the then-teen or early twenty-something Xers, and the cast became known as important Gen X actors, especially Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke. The film's famous Carpe Diem scene shows pre-1914 photos of boys who died in the First World War - an Edwardian generation with which the Silents and their WWII-era predecessors would have identified.
Dead Poets Society (1989): "Seize the Day." Touchstone.
The poem from the film was written in the seventeenth century by Robert Herrick.
To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
Carpe Diem, Seize the Day, Boys: it may not look like it, but that is exactly what Generation X is doing. Generation X is the only generation which spans the pre-tech and post-tech divide exactly. They also span the turn of the Millennium exactly. It is impossible to underestimate the impact of this bridging position upon their identity and upon everything they contribute to public life. They stand, with one foot in the past, and one foot in the future. This has led to their awareness of the human cost of massive social and cultural change. Meanwhile, Boomers tended to focus on divesting themselves of the past and looking giddily toward the future, toward changing everything; they've always been convinced that they would leave their mark on history, a mark that future people would look back on, admire, and understand. That is their great conceit. It's a conceit they share with the Millennials, who assume that they are the true standard-bearers of the new century and the next thousand years. But the truth is that Boomers are blinded by their pride; and Generation Y lacks the experience with, and memories of, the past that would let them monopolize that role - they have no adult memories of the period before the Tech Revolution. Their so-called grand destiny is a fairytale fed to them by their Boomer parents, because Boomers believe with narcissistic confidence that their Gen Y children are best suited to fulfilling Boomer aims and values. Typically, their interest in Gen Y extends only so far as that young cohort revolves around the Boomers themselves.
The response from Gen Xers at being excluded from this rapturous, self-congratulatory mutual lovefest has been a dogged and urgent commitment to recognizing and preserving what must not be lost in the Boomer/Millennial rush to become hyper-futuristic. However, Xers are doing this in a way that anticipates the very future we are entering.
The Matrix (1999). Warner Bros.
And that's why we see remakes, everywhere we turn. I can't think of another generation, except perhaps the Neo-classisists in the eighteenth century, who have devoted themselves so intensely to recapturing an earlier era, in the same way as Gen X is trying to do with three eras: the 1980s, the 1950s, and the 1910s. The huge Xer Matrix films were a representation of this attitude. Morpheus first meets Neo in the ravaged, Urbex-like Victorian LaFayette Hotel, where there is a 1950s television, which Morpheus uses to explain that a future apocalypse has already happened - in the past (could that have been in 1968?). He announces in a scene here (script here): "Welcome to the dessert ... of the real."
The Matrix (1999). Warner Bros.
This is the core of Xer attitudes: Xers know that we are already living in the period after the end of the world, and everyone else just doesn't get that yet. Most of the sets on the Matrix movies are historical. Everything about the films anticipates what the Tech Revolution will do to us. Neither Boomers nor Gen Y can grasp that terrible turn-of-the-millennium paradox as easily as Xers can. They're too busy being optimistic, or they were, until the recession kicked in.
That doubt about reality fits well with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell's epoynymous book about a totalitarian state where individual love is sacrificed for the good of the malevolent collective. The protagonist's job is the regular erasure and recreation of past history to suit the present. You can read Orwell's novel here; the theatrical trailer is below.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984): "Thirty to forty group, take your places, please." Atlantic.
So - the mid-80s' remakes. You'd have to be living under a rock not to notice the many covers of 80s' songs - for example Phil Collins's Against All Odds (redone by The Postal Service for the 2004 Wicker Park soundtrack (the movie was also a remake)); there's the avalanche of redone 1980s' films, including a remake of 1984's Dune, which I blogged about here. Then there are new films recalling the early-to-mid 80s, like 2008's The Informers, which featured a role from the famous actor Mickey Rourke, whose roles in the 80s earned him pin-up status in the same moment that critics hailed him as a new Brando. There are collections of celebrity beat magazine covers from the 1980s here, which include Rourke's 1984 Vanity Fair cover with Andie MacDowell.
The Informers is an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the same name. Ellis is the main author who captured Gen X sensibilities when California's Boomers were awash in cocaine in the 1980s. He's now revisiting the characters from his 1985 novel, Less than Zero, in a novel released this summer, entitled Imperial Bedrooms (reviewed here). Ellis is known for moving deftly from gloss to horror and back again, all with an air of ennui.
So what of the mood of these remakes? It's not all Glee. From 80s' Asian retro in films like Karate Kid (1984, remade this year), to the gritty cop dramas of To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Miami Vice (1984-1990), the mid-decade brought a grim tone. Miami Vice featured singers such as Sade, with her 1984-1985 hit, Smooth Operator, and Phil Collins's In the Air Tonight. That song, played in Miami Vice's pilot episode, has been the subject of speculation and urban myths because of its troubling atmosphere and lyrics. Thus, it seems that Boomers' original nostalgia for the 1950s quickly slipped from darker dramas into horror. Blue Velvet (1986) is possibly the best example of this transition.
Blue Velvet (1986). De Laurentiis.
I think it was when I heard the 1984 mega-hit Sister Christian by Night Rider pop up in the soundtrack of the 2009 remake of 1980 movie Friday the 13th (the original featured an early role with the great Kevin Bacon) that I started to notice that the fascination with the mid-80s spans the gamut of genres - from romantic 50s' nostalgia, to drama, to horror, to sci-fi. Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street came out in 1984; it featured the screen debut of Johnny Depp, which helped make him a teen heartthrob and signature Gen X actor. A remake of Nightmare came out this year. The character of Tina in Nightmare on Elm Street, the bad girl foil for Heather Langenkamp's Nancy, played by Amanda Wyss, had a typical look among teen girls in the mid-80s.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). New Line.
And if I may follow that look through to pulp fiction, I was amazed in late 2009 to see the momentary return for the first time since 1984 of the infamous Titans' character, Tara Markov. She still had her mid-80s' haircut! Terra was the main character to introduce risqué and grim themes into the Titans titles. For some reason, it seems that Xers prefer revisting grim themes from the 1980s most of all - and making those themes even darker. It's an odd combination with their peculiar (not immediately evident) optimism about the future and their faith in tradition.
Titans: Blackest Night #1 (2009). DC Comics.
I've written at length about Tara and her reappearance here. I'll be doing a post tomorrow on the other Titans as Gen X heroes reaching their 30th anniversary. Further news on that front: December marks the first reunion of Legion of Superheroes' Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen in over two decades. The Legion was a Boomer-era title that was reworked for an Xer audience in the 80s and became a huge hit under Levitz and Giffen. A Gen X editor over at DC, Brian Cunningham, comments: "Y’see, Paul and Keith transformed the Legion from an enduring DC franchise into one of the most popular and dynamic comic book series of the 1980s. With an entire 30th century future world at their command, they crafted the most innovative, break-the-mold superhero world anyone had ever read up to that point. Their names were spoken in the same breath as Frank Miller, Chris Claremont and Wolfman/Pérez. For me and the many other fanboys of Generation X, Paul and Keith did the seemingly impossible: They made me a Legion fan. For life." After 1989 the pair did not collaborate again on Legion stories, yet are slated to do this December's Legion of Super-heroes Annual #1. I can understand Cunningham's enthusiasm. I still have that run stashed in a special box of its own.
And finally - Ack! A reprint of Bloom County classics is now out: Bloom County: It Came from NYPL. It's reviewed here, by a writer at Newsarama who is encountering Bill the Cat and Opus for the first time. The Bloom County comic series ran in the newspapers and in collected editions from 1980 to 1989.
Favourite lawyer: Steve Dallas.
In the 80s, the Baby Boomers reached their heyday. It was also one of the few periods when Generation X saw eye-to-eye with them. During that decade, many different social and cultural themes converged, which shaped the identities of both generations. But by 2015, these groups will likely have two very different pictures of this seminal decade. Remember the INGSOC motto? Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. Xers, who tend to be individualists, are struggling with collectivist Boomers right now over how to control the present and how to interpret the past.
Update: Time has noticed the mid-80s remake phenomenon and has covered it here.