The reality was much grittier than the pop culture we’re mocking
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November 17th saw the theatrical release of the 40th anniversary 4K restoration of Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue. It’s not unreasonable to call the 1981 film a clear cultural dividing line between the ’70s and the ’80s. It’s heroine Cebe, a spunky 15-year-old played by Linda Manz, practically defines herself by the change in the era. Cebe repeatedly curses disco, and worships punk in both music and style as the herald of her dark adolescence. She worships Elvis, mourning his recent death, and describes him as the first true punk. Cebe is a rebel without a cause, dabbling with drugs and skipping school. But no one asks Cebe what she’s rebelling against. With a father in jail, and poor economic prospects, who wouldn’t be revolting?
The restoration of Out of the Blue has the benefit of coming out during one of the odder moments of the zeitgeist- when we all remember how much we hate the ’80s. First Family Guy came out with an episode (Season 20 Episode 4 if you really want to watch it) disparaging 80s pop culture on October 17th. Then Inside Job dropped on Netflix this past October 22nd, devoting its fifth episode to lampooning a town trapped in the ’80s. And coming this week, Ghostbusters: Afterlife will receive its long-delayed theatrical release. Already early reviews are negative, with commentators broadly seeing little point in this deification of the ’80s.
What does any of this have to do with Out of the Blue? Well that’s just it. Very little. Ask anyone who was actually around in the ’80s. Yes, popular culture existed, but its importance in everyday life was if anything probably significantly less than ’80s popular culture has on us today, as bizarre as that might sound. The reasons for this are simple. Fandoms, as we know them today, simply didn’t exist yet. Where they did exist, they were more likely to be built around emerging new genres of music. Not just punk, but rock, metal, and hip-hop music were all highly dominant. The ’80s elevated the music video, redefining the entire meaning of what it meant for an artist or group to be a popular musician.
Out of the Blue, being an early ’80s film, obviously can’t get into all of this. But that’s what makes the early wading into these new cultures so fascinating. Cebe sees music mostly as a means to meet new people. The film begins and ends with her yelling about punk music into a ham radio to whatever person out there might be listening. Cebe is angry and frustrated in a way not that different from how a lot of people are today. Despite the predominant amusement park image of the ’80s we have now, it was an era of recession.
While both sides of the political spectrum today have a guided interest in pretending like Donald Trump invented the phrase, it was actually Ronald Reagan who coined the term Make America Great Again. Such sentiments would easily appeal to the likes of Cebe, whose only government authority figure, a court-appointed psychiatrist played by Raymond Burr, can barely even pretend to be interested in her problems.
Still, an anti-’80s vibe pervades our zeitgeist. Family Guy comes down hard on ’80s references. Inside Job ends with a nod to the fact that ’80s people themselves idolized the ’50s. And I doubt anyone actually wanted a new Ghostbusters movie. The big difference is, the vapidity of anti-’80s sentiment obscures both the causes and the very toxic problems created by this kind of nostalgia culture. Which is to say, you have to buy into the premise that popular culture is the best way to understand what the ’80s were like–as opposed to talking to the people in real life you probably know who could actually tell you.
When most people are criticizing the ’80s what they’re actually criticizing is the commercialism behind its best known pop culture franchises. But this obsession with ’80s pop culture isn’t driven by actual fans of the pop culture. While acknowledging its ’80s references are shallow, Family Guy still presumes them to mostly be accurate. We’ve all heard about the boombox scene in Say Anything, even if you might not recognize the name of that movie, and how it promotes stalking culture. No one who repeats this has actually seen the movie, where the boombox moment is the climax of the romance which makes up the entire plot.
Likewise, Inside Job has a rather unsubtle jab at fandoms when its lead male character repeatedly tries to force his co-workers to conform to certain ’80s tropes. No one who likes the ’80s actually thinks like this, or does this. There’s also the tacit assumption, everywhere it seems like, that the ’80s were a wasteland of racism and sexism. And they were, but where that shows up in pop culture at all is very surface level. More ambitious mainstream ’80s shows not aimed at actual children were often quite ambitious in trying to seriously address these issues. In the glow of the popular television show Roots, the mainstream started seriously addressing African-American culture. Movies like Nine to Five, at the dawn of the ’80s, also proved there was a market for serious discussion of feminist issues.
Major media corporations want us to believe in the infantile vision of the ’80s and its fandoms for two reasons. One, so they can monetize it while pretending to just be serving the will of the consumer. Second, so they can wokely critique it as a strawman, patting themselves on the back for making the world better with popular culture. But smugness never helped anyone sell movie tickets, as the 2016 all-female reboot of Ghostbusters showed.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife appears to be getting a mediocre reception just for attempting straight nostalgia without making a sufficiently cynical effort to justify its own existence. For all the trashier parts of the ’80s, something that shines through a lot of the lesser-known independent work like Out of the Blue is just how hard filmmakers did try to justify their own existence–a grim dread of real life for which pop culture was but an ineffective antidote.