Friday, February 28, 2020
February 28, 2020: Leap Years: 1984 in Film
[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]
How three of the year’s many blockbuster films reflect 1980s debates.
1) Ghostbusters: I said much of what I’d want to say about Ghostbusters’ fraught relationship between science and the supernatural in that hyperlinked post. But it’s also worth stressing, as I did briefly there too, that the film’s conflicts also and perhaps ultimately boil down to the government vs. private citizens, with the film’s sympathies entirely resting with the latter community. In that way, Ghostbusters can be seen as an extension of Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” With which, when it comes to William Atherton’s deeply annoying EPA agent Walter Peck, it’s difficult to argue.
2) Beverly Hills Cop: The central conflicts in Eddie Murphy’s star-making action-comedy are distinct from, and to my mind a lot more complicated than, those in Ghostbusters. On the surface, those conflicts are the titular ones related to class and setting, as Murphy’s working-class cop (Axel Foley) from the working-class mecca of Detroit finds himself pursuing criminals in the nation’s most famously wealthy, elite location. But it’s impossible to separate those contrasts from issues of race, not least because Murphy’s character focuses a good bit on how he is perceived and treated as a black man in the largely white world of Beverly Hills. And yet, he eventually achieves his goals by partnering with a white Beverly Hills cop (Judge Reinhold’s Billy Rosewood), a relationship that crosses all these boundaries and (in the long tradition of buddy cop films) models a more productive form of community.
3) Footloose: Kevin Bacon’s star-making film presents a somewhat similar fish-out-of-water scenario, but in a very different direction: in this case the boy from the big city finds himself in a far more isolated and conservative small town, one where concerns of morality (guided by John Lithgow’s minister character) have led to bans of both rock and roll music and dancing. Lithgow is a talented actor and so imbues that character and perspective with more depth and humanity than might otherwise have been the case, giving us a sense of why someone (and thus why an entire community) might pursue these extremist practices. More broadly, I think the film reflects an emerging division that has only become more pronounced in the 35 years since, a vision of a nation in which urban and rural communities seem defined by not only distinct but contrasting values and identities. If only we had Kevin Bacon’s charismatic Ren to teach us all to dance together!
February Recap this weekend,
PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?