Sunday, August 27

1981 - Random Cinematic Year in Review

 A Random Cinematic Year In Review


Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year.

By: Emery Martin-Snyder

The most important thing to happen in the year 1981 is so blatantly obvious that I won’t spend much time on it. It is said that spring is a time of rebirth. In my case, the spring of ’81 was a time of regular birth.  Luckily, my generation has finally been put on the map. Enter the Xennials. That’s right, we’ve always been too young to be considered Gen-Xers but we’re still old enough to remember the very distinct sound that a 56K modem makes. Does anybody know how to spell that sound? We would rewind VHS tapes and researching an article like this one would usually entail something known as the Dewey Decimal System and Encyclopedias and Almanacs… These were dark times.

The world was witness to its fair share of turmoil in 1981. In Iran, after 444 days of being held hostage, 52 Americans were released. In the UK, Irish Republican Army member, Bobby Sands, would begin a hunger strike in prison demanding status for IRA members as political prisoners instead of criminals. This strike would end in his death of starvation 66 days later. Meanwhile, in Poland, the People’s Republic of Poland instituted martial law in an attempt to quell political opposition. This would last for a year in a half but its aftermath would ripple throughout the remainder of the decade, adding more fuel to the fire that would eventually end communist rule in the region.

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” – John Lack

Back here in the States, we had much bigger fish to fry. We were reinventing the music industry, whether we knew it or not. In August of 1981, Viacom introduced a brand new cable television network known as Music Television (MTV). This was a channel devoted to airing music videos. It was like radio on TV. They even called the hosts of these programs “video jockeys”.

This new television format as well as its success had an unmeasurable impact on the music industry. The music video became an industry in itself while record labels were simultaneously attempting to exploit them as a promotional tool for the recording artists. These facts invariably added a brand new dimension to an art form that was previously primarily aural. Over time, what a recording artist looked like became infinitely more and more important. In previous years, a catchy tune could catapult a singer/songwriter into pop-stardom on the FM band. Songwriting gave way to dance choreography and singing gave way to visual production value. In the coming years, the music video would introduce us to a new wave of stars. And it piped these stars right into our living room, “On Cable, In Stereo”.

These days, the channel has changed significantly. There’s a lot less focus on music and a lot more on the attempt to define and redefine youth culture. A popular rapper can use the network to redefine his career. Xzibit went from “Stay on top but remaining in the underground” to “pimping” people’s rides. And Ludacris has traded in his “Rollout” to host the network’s newest iteration of “Fear Factor”. The first music video that MTV aired was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. I doubt anyone had any idea just how prophetic this actually was.

MTV has had a profound impact on the cinematic industry as well. The music video medium evolved from bare bones concert like performances to a mini narrative short films inspired by the song. This aesthetic has increasingly found its way into films. Musical montages have become a staple plug-in to show the passage of time in everything from romantic comedies to action flicks. Montages actually predate MTV but they became far more common in the mid to late 1980’s.

The quick-cut and jump-cut editing style of filmmakers like Guy Ritchie and Edgar Wright could also give some credit to the influence of the music video medium. When done well, there is a rhythm to the cuts that keeps time with the tone of the scene. You could also point to the sleek aesthetic found in films by Michael Mann or the late Tony Scott. This was a generation of auteurism that was born in the 80’s and was immediately chastised as a bastardization of New American Cinema. This look would later evolve into its own brand of cinema that now boasts its own unique cluster of films and filmmakers.

None of this should come as a surprise considering how many of today’s most prolific directors got their start making music videos. HER director Spike Jonze got his start making videos for The Beastie Boy and Bjork. Twenty years before THE SOCIAL NETWORK, David Fincher directed Madonna’s video for “Vogue”. Before Jack Sparrow was doing his best Keith Richards impression, director Gore Verbinski directed Bad Religion’s “21st Century Digital Boy”. And remember that Meatloaf video for “I Would Do Anything for Love” that blatantly ripped off scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA? Well, that monstrosity was done by the one and only Michael Bay. The list goes on and on. Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, Gus Van Sant, Sofia Coppola and Spike Lee are really just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the big budget music video was essentially invented by a director that I’ll be speaking of a little later in my list… So let’s get to it.

SIDE NOTE: 1981 may just have been the greatest year for genre films in the history of cinema.


10 – BLOW OUT  (Directed by Brian De Palma)

I’m somewhat of a De Palma fan. But I actually think SISTERS and DRESSED TO KILL are better works than this one. What’s so impressive to me here is the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. The split focus is used here to an amazing effect. It adds a level of ‘clued in’ visuals for the audience to follow everything that’s going on.

9 – THE BEYOND (Directed by Lucio Fulci)

This is my favorite Fulci film. It’s actually one of three films that he released in 1981. And while I enjoy his very loose adaptation of Poe’s THE BLACK CAT as well as his haunted house flick, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, this film takes the gore cake for me. There are moments in every Fulci film that you can pinpoint that make me such a fanboy of his work. Moments that other filmmakers would have cut just a split second earlier. These are the precious milliseconds that he would make sure to capture on film just before cutting to the shot with the prosthetic or the special effect. In all honesty, I imagine that he absolutely terrified his actors. But it was all for the greater good, that being my personal entertainment. Fabio Frizzi’s score is the icing on the aforementioned gore cake.

8 – RAIDER OF THE LOST ARK (Directed by Stephen Spielberg)

I recently rewatched this film in its entirety for the first time in probably more than 20 years. I wasn’t sure how well it would actually hold up. First, I was surprised how much of this film I could still quote from memory verbatim. This was one of the few movies I had growing up. For the record, it was taped from a family friend’s HBO. I’m pretty sure that BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED was on the same VHS. I’m happy to report that this iconic action/adventure flick from my yesteryear more than holds up. RAIDERS is full of iconic moments, tied together with high production value and an adorable Karen Allen. What’s not to love?

7 – SCANNERS (Directed by David Cronenberg)

I wish every X-Men movie was like this. This film is full of some of the best practical effects ever assembled. The Godfather of special makeup effects, Dick Smith, came into this project and elevated it to a whole new level. Cronenberg would go on to great acclaim in the realm of body horror but 36 years later, SCANNERS still stands out as one of the finest accomplishments in his filmography.

6 – THIEF (Directed by Michael Mann)

Watching this flick is kind of like witnessing the birth of an auteur’s vision. His work in both television and film has proven to be extremely distinct. James Caan was a big star in 1981 and his rugged and minimalist performance here shows why. Like others on this list, I think Mann went on to make better films afterwards. I think MANHUNTER is an 80’s masterpiece. But this heist flick has such a great flare to it.

5 – THE EVIL DEAD (Directed by Sam Raimi)

Just because I prefer EVIL DEAD 2 doesn’t mean that I don’t like this one as well. I watch both of them regularly. What I appreciate here is pretty much the same thing that I just said about THIEF. Over the years, Sam Raimi has worked on a lot of films in various genres. But his work is always recognizable as his own. His films are always filled with a very frenzied creativity, especially in their camerawork. This film is a great way to see the beginning of an amazing career.

4 – MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (Directed by George Miller)

Before Furiosa graced us with her presence in 2015, this was the best of the Mad Max franchise. It seems like this movie was on TV all the time as I was growing up. I don’t think I ever watched it without commercials until I bought the blu-ray 5 or 6 years ago. But similar to RAIDERS, this is one of the films that helped raise me. Miller’s action sequences are unbelievably kinetic and stylized. Imagine some of the best choreographed fight scenes, now imagine them taking place on a convoy of metal and rubber barreling down an open highway at 70 mph.

3 – MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (Directed by Louis Malle)

Sometimes you need to take a break from all of this hyper-stylized genre action and horror and just settle in for a nice meal and watch Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn talk for 110 minutes. If this idea sounds boring or obtuse to you, you haven’t seen Louis Malle’s 1981 masterpiece. Malle had already spent over two full decades making a name for himself as one of the most creative purveyors of the French New Wave movement. I don’t find this film to be challenging or a chore to watch at all. It somehow manages breezy and engrossing simultaneously. What you end up with an easy watch that keeps you thinking about it long afterwards.

2 – POSSESSION (Directed by Andrzej Żuławski)

I want to watch this film as the 2nd part of a triple feature that starts with Roman Polanski’s REPULSION and ends with David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD. But I think this may be my favorite of those 3. Isabelle Adjani and Sam Niell give perfect performances in this cyclical conflict rolling around in their relationship. His apathy feeds into her paranoia and vice-versa. Żuławski’s direction is spot on here along with Bruno Nuytten’s cinematography. The wide angles and deep focus of a divided Berlin are often filling the frames with the saddest of all blue shades. The sadness is a veil attempt to hide the film’s underlying sense of dread that will soon enough come to fruition.

1 – AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (Directed by Jonathan Landis)

David: “Don’t I need a silver bullet or something?”
Jack: “Oh, be serious, would you…?”

I told you I’d get back to music video directors. Jonathan Landis directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Jackson’s career, MTV, and the entire music video industry was changed forever. But I digress. A year earlier, Landis released this masterpiece of movie monster magic. He clearly wanted to distance this film from classic Hollywood’s previous imaginings of the wolf man lore. I mentioned Dick Smith’s work on SCANNERS earlier but Rick Baker’s special effects work here was revolutionary. 36 years later and this is still the best werewolf transformation to ever be committed to film. He also worked on Joe Dante’s underrated THE HOWLING the same year but the meticulous time and effort put into this film elevates it to something so much more special. This is by far Landis’ best film and much like Spielberg’s JAWS, it’s a film I revisit often. It works as an afternoon distraction, Friday night feature, or as part of a Halloween marathon.

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