My favorite films of the 1980s

Drugstore Cowboy (1989) Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant’s best films tend to focus on outsiders, people separate from mainstream society. The makeshift family of Drugstore Cowboy (and the junkies with whom they interact)are firmly entrenched in the outskirts of Portland–hounded by police, haunted by dreams, and living in constant fear of feeling anything. Matt Dillon’s performance is perfect. The scene when he has to ignore his mother’s righteous anger is as powerful as anything Brando ever did. I’ve read the arguments about Burroughs. I don’t care. This film eases into its power. It’s so natural.

Paris, Texas (1984) Wim Wenders

There are many talented hands that went into the making of Paris, Texas. It carries the echoes of Sam Shephard’s familial and Western obsessions. It has a longing for a non-existent home that Wim Wenders has always returned to in one way or another. Nastassja Kinski’s almost alien presence perfectly embodies the disaffection required by her character. The Ry Cooder music, Muller’s cinematography–it’s an intoxicating brew.

But make no mistake. this is a film about one thing. Harry Dean Stanton and his effortless expression of humanity. I’d put this up against anything done at any time by anyone. There isn’t a note in the wrong place. With a character completely devastated, Stanton underplays. He’s like a walking corpse for a while. When he ceases to be dead, he seeks out the woman he loves, not to win her back but to tell her what went wrong.

Stanton expressed dissatisfaction with playing the same chain-smoking, sly, con artist he had done so many times before. This part was written for him. He embodies it the way Peter Lorre or Marlene Dietrich embodied their characters.

Veronika Voss (1982) Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Sunset Boulevard for pessimists.

White Dog (1982) Sam Fuller

— Sam Fuller gave us muscular images packed to the brim with obvious metaphorical implications. And this one–it’s much of the same. Kristy McNichol hits a dog with her car. She nurses the animal back to health, obviously falling in love with the gentle creature. Soon she discovers the animal is a “white” dog, as it it has been conditioned to attack anyone with black skin. The dog hits the streets, a deadly snarling four-legged metaphor. There’s a scene with the beast standing over a victim in front of a mural of the animals of St Francis, its white fur stained a bloody red. Paul Winfield plays the animal trainer who tries to recondition the dog. This, the most anti-racist of films, was never properly released due to threatened boycotts by the NAACP. Absolute fucking stupidity. Fuller never recovered.

Love Streams (1984) John Cassavetes

My favorite film is also the best film I’ve ever seen. Lovers of the cinema of John Cassavetes tend to be verbose and embarrassingly demonstrative (maybe copying the films a bit), so I’ll try and keep it to a minimum. I know that the first Cassavetes-directed film I saw was Gloria. It was on cable a lot when I was a kid and Gloria is my mother’s name so I was naturally interested. I remember liking it a lot. The relationship between Gena Rowlands and John Adames was really different. He was not the kind of child I saw on the screen a lot and she was not the kind of mother figure I was used to. Later, I read about his films, but the only one I could locate was Love Streams. I adored it. It was a difficult film – the editing was fairly radical and nothing happened as it would in other films. It was as if the film were speaking a different language. He offered no exposition for the characters. I was dropped in the middle of scenes and had to sink or swim to figure out what was happening. It was exhilarating. (It still is.) We don’t find out the main characters are brother and sister until an hour and a half into the film. Most directors would consider that vital information that we should know in the first five minutes. These characters don’t operate according to the plot. They are the plot and they’ll tell you things when those things come up. If they come up at all.

Let’s take one scene.:

The brother (Cassavetes) is an alcoholic who cannot love anyone. The sister is a manic depressive who loves everything she comes into contact with. She wants to fix him by buying him a baby. She buys a zoo instead. Cassavetes’ deadpan reaction when Rowlands shows up at his house with two taxis filled with animals is just about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.

It’s a study of desperation. When Rowlands realizes she has gone too far, she asks the taxi driver in her broken voice if it’s too much.

It’s heartbreaking. The final animal is a dog named Jim. He’s driven to the home by his former owner. The former owner has to deliver his only friend in the world to a man who doesn’t even want him. “This is it, Jim”

It’s tragic. Rowland’s own psychological breakdown hits when her brother’s rejection of the animals causes her to pass out from stress. She’s lost her husband and daughter and now has been turned away in a last-ditch effort to love someone.

It’s surreal. A violent rainstorm begins and Cassavetes tries to take care of the animals while Rowlands is out cold. He drags the goat through a gale-force wind and then runs inside to report to his unconscious sister. “I fed the ducks!”

It’s vicious. When the dog goes near Rowlands, Cassavetes cradles her, his cigarette coming dangerously close to her hair. He threatens the dog. “Don’t give me any trouble now.”And somehow, it’s all underplayed. The action takes place in medium shots, rather than the close-up reactions that other directors rely on.

It’s a tragic, hilarious, vicious, heartbreaking, surreal, study of desperation that isn’t forced. And that’s ONE scene. Multiply that by the number of scenes in the film and you have Love Streams.

The trip to Paris, the visit from the son, the drag bar, the night of bowling, the prostitute interviews, the date from hell (if you ever think you’ve had a bad first date, watch this film – you haven’t), the psychiatrist, the dance with the mother (how is it sweet and manipulative at the same time?) and terrifying daydreams of murderous revenge and self-destruction and the constant booze, alternating with horrible noise and deafening silence.

I caught up with the rest of Cassavetes’ work on cable. Cinemax had a John Cassavetes marathon. Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie were all being shown in a row. Unfortunately, it was on a school day. But, wouldn’t you know it, I was ill when I woke up that morning and I had to stay home. When the marathon started, I found myself feeling better. One of the mistakes critics make about his films is to label them as realism. They aren’t. They’re not even close. He used many of the hallmarks of realism (many people talk about a documentary feeling), but his films are classically constructed. I think in the end, what separates him from most filmmakers is that his point of view is firmly connected to his characters. If they are neurotic (and they are) then his film will mirror that neurosis. Character consumes the films. They become cinematic expressions of their personalities(rather than a showcase for their talents –we’ve all seen films that have great performances, but we were underwhelmed by the film itself) He never goes behind a character’s back to make a hip comment about them. Sometimes I watch films and I just imagine the director speaking to the audience. “Check out this idiot. He’s pretty stupid, isn’t he?” Cassavetes refused to distance himself like that. Every character has a life and dreams and flaws. Their integrity is respected. For a long time, Love Streams was out of print, but a couple years ago Criterion released a DVD and (I think) a blue ray. Hopefully, more people will be able to see this film and it will get the attention it deserves. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve seen it 50 times. I could watch it another 50 and never be bored. Cassavetes was given six months to live before he made the film. He ended up lasting five more years. He made one more film, but it was strictly for the money and he despaired that people would think it was his last film. Love Streams was his will and testament.

Vagabond (1985) Agnes Varda

What’s the purpose of life? Was that ever officially decided? Obviously, we don’t have a shared one. Each must make their own purpose. And goddamn I love this film but I’m a little scared of it. I’m not a very goal-oriented person. I see a lot of myself in Mona. She begins the film dead. We find out she was aimless and dissatisfied with life. This film hits quite close to home. A lot of her flaws are my flaws. I’m glad someone as empathetic as Agnes Varda made it, but still, I’ll recognize its greatness without ever watching it again.

Dead Ringers (1988) David Cronenberg

After he saw The Fly, Martin Scorsese wrote David Cronenberg a note expressing how touched he was by the film. And it’s true. After Videodrome, Cronenberg had found a way to touch people in places other than their gag reflex. Dead Ringers is a film about the horror of a gaping split between mind and body.

Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists who share everything. Yes, we all know what everything means. When that becomes Geneviève Bujold, the film takes us to some very dark and disturbing and ultimately devastating places. When I went to the Cronenberg exhibition in Prague, I saw the gynecological tools for operating on mutant women. Fucking awesome!

Top Secret (1984) Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker

If Godard had made a spoof, it might look something like Top Secret. This is democracy at its finest. Dick jokes nuzzle up to elaborate cinematic gags. Dog shit and puns and surrealism and slapstick and cows with boots and Elvis and Leroy Neiman….it doesn’t stop. The best part–its models are Spy movies and Elvis movies. What were they smoking and can I have some? It’s as good as Playtime, The Gold Rush, whatever the fuck you want. This is just as good.

Near Dark (1987) Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow’s muscular vampire movie.

Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980) Nicolas Roeg

Popeye (1980) Robert Altman

I’m allowed a tie. But really, it’s been a long time since I saw Bad Timing. I just remember adoring it. Popeye has long been a favorite. If Tati and Fellini had an American baby, it would look and sound as charming as Popeye.

2 thoughts on “My favorite films of the 1980s”

  1. Hi, James, I am Fernando, your Spanish fan. I love your list, even if I would have made a different choice. Roeg’s film is wonderful (and with Garfunkel in it!), but for me Roeg is always Don’t look now, one of the greatest movies ever about loss and grief (and with this unbelievable beautiful sex scene, it always brings tears to my eyes). I love Roeg, and speaking about him is always the opportunity of remembering Don’t look now. And so I love Cronenberg, who is still making beautiful disturbing movies (do you remember Crash?). Let me just add a couple of suggestions, just for the pleasure of the conversation. Victor Erice’s El Sur is a masterpiece (maybe not like El Espíritu de la Colmena, but still). And what to say about Scorsese’s Godfellas, the great movie about the power? Well, it is a 1990’s movie, but technically it is the eighties… And, finally, my definitive pick: The Thing, by Carpenter.
    Sorry for my English, and thak you for your blog and for your novels

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll check out El Sur. The Thing is in my top 20 somewhere. Of course, I remember Crash. Paul Haggis. Matt Dillon. I joke! I joke! Crash is remarkable. I don’t know if I can pick a favorite Cronenberg, but The Brood sounds right. There’s a lot of power behind those images. For Roeg, Eureka almost made my list, but the second half of that film is a little off. It’s got one of the most exciting (and mysterious) openings. I adore that film. If I need an 80s Scorsese, I’m probably going with The Last Temptation of Christ.

      Don’t apologize for your English. I’m glad you like my books.


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