Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)


I checked the runtime of our latest Best Picture and thought “Oh good it’s only 163 minutes.”

So that’s where I’m at this decade.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, you say? A lengthy period romance, you say. Mm.

Yep, sure glad I didn’t review Amadeus to the tune of some 80s pop tune, that woulda just turned out weird.


Meryl Streep plays a Danish girl
Weds her lover’s brother so that she can be a baroness
She leaves behind her entire world
Buys a Kenyan farm and locals to whom she’s a patroness
The romance fails in just one day
Wedding night is filled with insults, petty spite, and bitterness
The viewers as one voice will say, “Redford is the perfect guy for you”

It didn’t take a lot to explain the plot to you
It’s something that a hundred minute film could simply do
There’s so much more Out of Africa
Really take their time to drag us through this woman’s life (ooh, ooh)

Streep hands out a syllabus
The village seems too happy ’bout their Danish would-be saviour
Her husband gives her syphilis
A doomed romance with Redford is mistaken for some grandeur
And now I feel like Sisyphus, cause there’s still forty minutes left to go

Doomed romance keeps getting a big to-do
So many tragedies that the Oscars put us through
So much is sad in Out of Africa
Gonna take some time to treat poor Meryl super bad (ooh, ooh)

(The xylophone solo seems like a good moment to mention that World War 1 happens, but our main character rides most of it out in Demark fighting syphilis while we watch a montage of lions and oops we’re back)

Kept wondering when the movie would be through…

It took a lot to get all the way through you
There was so much more than your simple plot should put us through
Get to the point, Out of Africa
There was so much Out of Africa
(There was so much)
Didn’t need so much Out of Africa

(Didn’t need so much)
Move it along, Out of Africa
I didn’t care for Out of Africa

(really took your time)
Really took your time to have two love stories go bad (ooh, ooh)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Number 90. Under Cavalcade. Ouch. But over Cimarron, which is unforgivable. They flag its “excessive length and glacial pacing,” which is absolutely a fair cop.

Out of Africa made it to number five at the year’s box office, because sweeping romances in far-off locales do draw a crowd, but the year’s true smash hit had a different adventure in mind.

The Box Office Champ

The classic 80s time travel comedy about Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) whose best friend, inventor Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) builds a time-travelling DeLorean which accidentally strands Marty in the 50s, where he needs to get his parents’ teen romance back on track.

This one gets picked on a lot. Cracked After Hours, still my favourite pop culture nitpick series (one of the few that isn’t trash, I do miss it), got its start picking apart Back to the Future. John Mulaney has a whole routine on what a bonkers premise it is, especially the part where a high school student’s best friend is a 70-something disgraced nuclear physicist.

And they do this because it’s easy. Time travel movies are easy to pick apart because time travel, while a fun premise, draws plot issues like fruit flies to vinegar, and Back to the Future is worse than average.

But I am not here for cheap nitpicks, readers. I’m not here to ask what it says about predestination and free will that Marty McFly rewrites his parents’ entire adult lives but they still have kids at the exact same three times. I’m not here to speculate whether Marty gets sent to a psych hospital because he doesn’t know any details about his own life, and has imagined an entirely different one overnight. Or whether George and Lorraine ever had a fight about how their third child looks exactly like their charming friend from high school. I’m not here to point out how impossible it is to know the precise timing of a bolt of lightning from a clock with no second hand, and I am 100% not here to point out that “Twin Pine Mall” becomes “Lone Pine Mall” because Marty ran over one of the pines in 1955 like we didn’t all notice that in 198-goddamn-5.

Because trying to ensure that your entire premise is free from plot holes or handy conveniences isn’t how you make a fun adventure, it’s how you make the live-action Beauty and the Beast, or rather how you make it badly. It’s how you end up with multiple characters in Tenet summing up the mechanics of the core concept with “Don’t try to understand it.”

Michael J. Fox is at his full power as a charming comic lead in this movie, and it’s this rather than the same year’s Teen Wolf that explains how he stole Family Ties from the adult stars, why he became a bankable film lead for some time after, why Spin City is an underrated 90s sitcom you should check out if you can find it. (You probably can’t find it.) Christopher Lloyd has delightful manic energy in this, his most iconic role, even if his pronunciation of “gigawatts” is… debatable.

The score is one of the decade’s best, and yes that includes multiple John Williams themes. The primary Back to the Future theme by Alan Silvestri absolutely slaps, even more than his Avengers theme, possibly the only iconic leitmotif from the entire MCU. It perfectly underscores every action beat.

And those action beats work! The skateboard chase through the 50s time square, George finding the strength to lay out his bully, Doc Brown’s series of complications repairing the clock tower wiring, Robert Zemeckis shoots the heck out of them. Biff looming over Marty, George’s fist balling, Marty seeing his town square 30 years in the past for the first time, Zemeckis had some game, y’all.

Can you pick it apart? Sure. But if you just roll with it, it’s still a fun ride. Even if the 80s are as alien to the modern day as the 50s were to the 80s. Except for the president of the US having been an entertainment figure who had some screwed up economic policies and ignored a plague, that we know all too well. After all, there’s a reason this movie was such a smash hit (beating not one but two sell-out-Stallone vehicles) that by the time the VHS came out they’d slapped a “To Be Continued” on the end. (Took a minute to get there, though.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 96% from critics, 94% from audiences, soundly defeating Out of Africa on both measures. By over 30% from critics. In the fight of Art Vs Commerce, Art is getting its ass kicked.

What Links Them? Hoof. This one’s tricky. Let’s see… they both took place in part or in whole in the past? That’s not much, let’s see… both feature a woman whose first choice in romantic partner is utterly inadvisable and needs to be talked into the better choice.

What’s The Mashup? In Out of the Past, newly married Baroness Karen von Blixen comes to Kenya to start a farm, but finds herself drawn to eccentric scientist Doc Brown, whose theories and notions seem decades ahead of their time, and has a much faster and safer cure for syphilis than the local doctor prescribed. One that doesn’t mean moving back to Denmark during a massive world war. Things get complicated when an odd young man named Marty comes to town and gets in a conflict with Karen’s husband’s safari client, American hunter “Buffalo” Tannen.

Other Events in Film

1985 was a big year of big hits (‘sup, Cocoon), notable sequels (how do, Jewel of the Nile), cult classics (what’s good, Fright Night), and legendary flops (solemn nod towards Santa Claus: The Movie), but I’m gonna try to stick to the highlights here.

  • This Year in Bond: A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s swan song in the role, features Christopher Walken as the villain and a sweet Duran Duran theme song. Sure Roger Moore was a little old for romance with his Bond girl but welcome to Hollywood.
  • This Year in Scorsese: After Hours, a black comedy of which I know basically nothing.
  • THE GOONIES. THE GOONIES HAPPENED IN 1985. Such a classic.
  • Sylvester Stallone takes his two big characters full-Reagan-era-jingoist, with John Rambo saving POWs to retroactively win Vietnam in Rambo: First Blood Part II, while Rocky Balboa boxes Soviet Union communism into submission in Rocky IV. Neither is what you’d call subtle about it.
  • Steven Spielberg executive produced Back to the Future, but as a director, he took a break from blockbusters to dig into American slavery in The Color Purple, the first film for both Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey,
  • Disney attempts an animated fantasy epic with The Black Cauldron. Doesn’t do great. Disney’s having some problems lately.
  • Terry Gilliam’s surrealist dystopia movie Brazil makes us ask why Terry Jones got to direct all the Monty Python movies. If Time Bandits hadn’t already.
  • The young casts of St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club become known as the Brat Pack, staples of 80s teen coming-of-age movies. (Sometimes but not always under the eye of John Hughes, who we sadly won’t discuss much here.)
  • Clue adapted a board game into a cult classic comedy, with the twist of different theatres having different endings.
  • George Romero wraps up his zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead.
  • Tim Burton makes his feature directing debut with Paul Reubens’ breakout character, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
  • Also making their directorial debut? Joel and Ethan Coen with Blood Simple, also the debut of Joel’s wife Francis McDormand, who became a Coen brothers staple.
  • Godzilla 1985 attempts to make a US-friendly Godzilla movie the same way they did in the 50s: take a Japanese release, dub all the dialogue into English, and stick Raymond Burr into it.

Next Page: War. Huh. Good god y’all. What is it good for? Oscars and Tom Cruise flicks.

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