ReelThoughts: February 10, 2009

"1980"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


On January 1, 1980, I was 12 years old and roughly half-way through seventh grade. It was, as Charles Dickens wrote, "the best of times… the worst of times." Junior high school was hell. In those days (and I suspect it hasn't changed much), children were no more cruel than at ages 12, 13, and 14. I enjoyed grammar school and high school, but despised junior high. Yet, away from the hallowed grounds of education, I loved my insular life which, at the time, consisted primarily of Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, and comic books. I didn't watch much television, although I almost never missed General Hospital. (This was during an era when it was hip to watch that particular soap opera.) I read a lot. And I only went to the movies when there was something I really wanted to see.

Theaters were different in 1980 than they are today. This was a curious era - after the twilight of the great movie palaces and one-auditorium venues yet before the dawn of the multiplex. Most of the theaters near where I lived were ramshackle places with one, two, or three screens. In most cases, the seat cushions were threadbare and the floors were sticky with the residue of long-ago spilled soda. There was one exception: an amazing 2000-seat theater that was kept in immaculate condition. The thing that impressed me the most about that theater was the balcony, although it was only open on special occasions. Nearly 30 years later, none of those theaters remains standing. Most have become parking lots. Two are stores. That 2000-seat cavern was first subdivided into an awkward duplex then razed so a seven-plex could be erected on the site. Of all the places I saw movies as a child, that's the only one where I could go tonight and see a film, although it wouldn't be the same. (On those rare occasions when I go to that theater, I am obsessed with trying to locate remnants of the original's skeleton. There are two auditoriums in which it's possible to do so and it gives me a pang of nostalgia to sit in either.)

The first movie I saw in 1980 was the last one I saw in 1979: Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Like a true Trekkie/Trekker (in those days, "Trekkie" was not a pejorative term, although it later gained a negative connotation), I saw the film when it opened. It wasn't until nearly a month later that I was able to wheedle a car ride to the mall from my parents so I could watch it a second time.

For me, and for many people of a similar age, the movie event of 1980 was The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, I was an avowed Star Trek fan by this time but I never completely gave up on Star Wars. I never understood the rivalry between the two fan camps. As far as I was concerned, they could co-exist peacefully and there was no need to determine whether the Enterprise would be able to destroy the Death Star, or whether Kirk would kick Han Solo's ass. All of my Star Trek friends felt the same way. The enjoyed Star Wars but weren't as passionate about it as Star Trek.

When considering childhood movie memories, The Empire Strikes Back is high on the list. It was the first time I saw a line for a movie that rivaled one for an amusement park ride. The film was in the 2000-seat theater (with the balcony open), so getting in wasn't a problem, but it took about an hour to reach the box office. The atmosphere was electric and when the lights finally dimmed (about ten minutes late), the theater thundered with applause. When it was all over, I departed the building, blinking as I emerged into the late-afternoon sunshine, to be confronted by an amazing line for the first evening showing. It wrapped nearly half-way around the mall. Not only was the 6:30 showing sold out at that point, but seats were getting scarce for the 9:30 one.

During the course of 1980, I saw only seven movies in theaters: Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Lady and the Tramp, The Nude Bomb, The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane!, Herbie Goes Bananas, and Flash Gordon. Circumstances thwarted my attempts to see two other movies. The first was The Blue Lagoon, and my desire to experience that was driven largely by hormones. But it was rated R and I certainly wasn't going to ask my father to take me. (Had I asked, the answer would have been "no.") The concept of "sneaking in" was foreign to me although, knowing what I do today about the laxity of exit door security, it wouldn't have been difficult. The other title was Xanadu. The PG rating meant there was no problem getting in. However, the movie came and went so quickly that by the time I was able to procure a ride to the lone local theater showing it, it had already moved on. Years later, I saw it in all its cheesy glory and wondered what I would have thought of it had I seen it in 1980.

1980 featured some memorable movies that, while not on my radar at the time, reached it in years to come. The Blues Brothers was a fairly big hit but it has never been among my favorites. Yes, the music is good and Belushi and Ackroyd are in fine form, but the thing as a whole is a silly mess. I am one of perhaps three people who liked the sequel better than the original, but neither has aged well. Kubrick's The Shining is an off-the-wall "interpretation" (and I use that term guardedly) of the Stephen King novel - a wacked-out version that owes more to Kubrick and Nicholson than it does to King. The Jazz Singer received some positive reviews but, when I saw it years later, I thought it was laughably bad. Much as I can appreciate Neil Diamond's singing, the man cannot act. This was a classic case of a singer who should have stuck with what he did best. Raging Bull, considered by some to be the best film of the 1980s, didn't make much of an impact in an environment that was becoming increasingly enamored with blockbusters. But, with the possible exception of The Empire Strikes Back, it remains the most honored and best remembered of all 1980 had to offer.

Then there was Friday the 13th. Like Halloween, its template, it arrived unheralded but amassed a sizeable following. If Halloween was the father of the slasher genre, Friday the 13th was the mother and big brother to the films that followed. 1980 featured only one other slasher movie, Prom Night, but the door that Halloween had cracked open was now off its hinges. The tide of blood and gore unleashed by Friday the 13th would flood theaters throughout the '80s as sequel upon sequel was spawned.

For a 12-year-old, D&D obsessed boy, there wasn't much to draw me to the theaters in 1980, but I can't claim to have known many seventh graders who attended more than a dozen movies that year. Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how much money could be made by aiming its marketing guns squarely at teenage boys. It wouldn't take long, however, before that lesson was learned. 1981 was just around the corner and with it would come the first time I would see more than three movies in one month - all of which were targeted at me.

On December 31, 1980, I was 13 years old.

Supplemental reviews for this article: Friday the 13th, The Shining, Ordinary People.


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