ReelThoughts: July 03, 2009

"1987"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


If I was going to choose a year in which I became more than a casual movie-goer, it would be 1987. My total that year, when combining theatrical and home video titles, came in around 100 - far more than in any previous year. In the past, my bread-and-butter cinematic diet had been action, science fiction, and the occasional comedy: all the usual fare targeted at teenage boys. In 1987, however, I began to take "risks," moving beyond my comfort zone. That included seeing dramas and romantic comedies in theaters and watching a wide variety of offerings at home.

Tracie was part of the reason. A self-described "wild child Valley Girl," she looked and acted the part. Yeah, she talked like that, although I don't think I ever heard her say "Gag me with a spoon." (There were, however, plenty of other colorful phrases.) But, like, every other, like, word seemed to be, like, "like." If ever there was a more mismatched couple, we were it. A geek and an anti-geek. There were three things Tracie loved: sex, alcohol, and movies. Sharing two out of three with her for nearly two years made college an eye-opening experience.

On the news front, 1987 was an active year, although there was no single event to match the Challenger disaster. The most shocking moment - and one that remains seared in my memory - occurred on a chilly January afternoon. I was in my dorm room between classes, watching the noon news. Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania State Treasurer, was giving a live press conference following a conviction on various corruption charges. I wasn't paying much attention… until the end. Dwyer put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. On live TV. (I don't doubt there's footage of this floating around on the Internet, since almost everything seems to be out there. I didn't do a search because I have no desire to re-live the moment.)

In May, presumed Democratic presidential candidate front-runner Gary Hart was forced to withdraw from contention when his affair with Donna Rice became public. This scandal effectively ended Hart's political career. It's interesting to note that, a mere five years later, similar rumors did little to stem Bill Clinton's march to the White House, but the country was (believe it or not) considerably more conservative in 1987 than in 1992. Reagan was still king, as was proven by the reception to one of his best-remembered speeches - "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" - uttered on June 12 at the Brandenburg Gate. All year, however, he would be dogged by the Iran/Contra scandal. Democrats wanted to turn it into another Watergate, but it never gained the requisite steam.

The biggest news story of the year occurred on October 19: Black Monday. By today's standards, a 500-point drop in the Dow is steep, but it was unprecedented in 1987 and represented 23% of the index's value. In today's market, that would be like an 1800 point drop. Imagine the kind of panic that would cause. The Crash of '87 was ultimately a blip and did not lead to a worldwide economic collapse, but it caused plenty of fear where the stock market was concerned.

My first date with Tracie involved nothing more ambitious than a long walk around campus in the cold. There may have been a few snowflakes. The thing I vividly recall about that evening is losing feeling in the tips of my gloved fingers. Our second date, which came about a week later, was the first of many movies we attended together: Black Widow - not a good choice for couples in the early stage of a relationship, although Theresa Russell was hot. The next weekend, Tracie used seductive promises to get me to go with her to Mannequin. It's a truly wretched movie but, on balance, it was a sacrifice worth making. I don't recall what our next few movie dates were - we went once a week to a crumbling theater on campus and she usually picked the film. (Admittedly, choices were limited since it was only a three-plex.) Finally, on March 6, I got to choose. My options: Lethal Weapon or Tin Men. With apologies to Barry Levinson and Danny De Vito, I went with the cop buddy movie, and we both had a blast. Between early February and early May, when we parted for the summer, we saw 12 or 13 movies together.

During the summer of 1987, I became a "Kelly Girl." That's what they called those of us who worked for the country's best-known temp agency. (The female-to-male ratio of their employees, who mostly did fill-in clerical and secretarial work, was high.) The first job I was sent on was a mindless, monotonous experience in a book binding factory. The work wasn't hard, just boring. (22 years later, I can't recall exactly what I did, except that it involved sitting at a desk and I was allowed to listen to a walkman.) After a week, I was re-assigned. I spent the rest of the summer working as a file clerk for Cigna. Not challenging, but considerably more pleasant than the previous year's experience at the Woolworth diner. It was a regular 9-to-5 position, and we got to leave 30 minutes early on Friday. Whoopee! There were opportunities to flirt with some of the other "Kelly Girls" assigned there (in this case, they actually were female), but I avoided entanglements. Tracie and I spoke about getting together during the summer but the next time we saw each other was September. Although her family was wealthy, she spent the summer working as an usher at a movie theater (excepting the two weeks when she volunteered as an aide at a disabled children's camp).

Theatrically, the summer of 1987 was largely devoid of sequels. There was a second Revenge of the Nerds movie; Beverly Hills Cop II, which I didn't catch until it arrived on video the following year; and The Living Daylights, which convinced me it was time to give James Bond a long rest. (United Artists did this, but not before giving Timothy Dalton a second shot.) The summer also featured Predator, which I have never warmed to (despite having seen it three times - it still disappoints me); Robocop, which was brilliant; The Untouchables, which became my favorite movie of the year; Stakeout, which convinced me that Madeleine Stowe was the hottest working actress at the time; Full Metal Jacket, perhaps the most schizophrenic film I had seen to-date (brilliant first half, less-than-brilliant second half); Spaceballs, which I wanted to believe was funnier than it truly was; and The Lost Boys, which I suppose had some amusement factor.

It wasn't a great summer in theaters, but home video was exploding, so there were other options. A friend and I had weekend movie marathons. Every Friday on my way home from work (having left 30 minutes early), I'd pick up three movies at a video store. We'd get together around 9 pm and watch them back-to-back-to-back, usually ending around 1 am. Saturday mornings, I'd head to the store, drop off the previous night's fare and pick up three more. We did this every weekend for the entire summer - 10 weeks, five or six movies per week. We quickly ran out of new stuff we were interested in and branched out to horror and classics. I remember the night we watched Spartacus and, giddy because of sleep-deprivation, we leaped to our feet at 2:30 in the morning and shouted "I'm Spartacus" together with everyone on screen. One night, we watched Halloweens I, II, and III and marveled at the quality differences between the three. After Fright Night, I got spooked on the short, lonely walk home well past midnight. A few of the movies, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Stagecoach, were in black-and-white, but neither of us considered these to be "adventuresome" choices. We were both comfortable with black-and-white; some of our favorite TV shows were in that medium, as were the "Creature Double Feature" monster movies I used to watch on Saturday afternoons. Today, there's almost a stigma associated with monochrome; it wasn't as extreme in 1987 (although that was around the time when Ted Turner was trying to colorize some old movies).

September brought the beginning of my junior year of college and an intensification of my workload. Tracie and I synched up like a summer had not interrupted our college romance. (In fact, on my arrival back on campus, she greeted me in my dorm room, having been admitted by one of my suite-mates.) We spent less quality time together in the fall than in the spring because my engineering problem sets were longer and more involved. Still, I can recall many evenings when I would sit hunched over my desk with a pencil and calculator while she would lie on the bed reading a book or watching TV with the sound turned off (or very low). And we went to the movies every weekend.

Memorable stuff from the fall and winter: Fatal Attraction, which Tracie loathed; The Princess Bride, which I liked but did not love at first sight; it grew on me over the years; The Running Man ("lesser" Schwarzenegger); Cinderella, believe it or not; Three Men and a Baby, which became the year's surprise biggest hit; Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which would have been funnier if I had seen it before going home for Thanksgiving rather than after; the eerily relevant Wall Street; and Throw Momma From the Train and Eddie Murphy Raw, which we saw back-to-back the night after my last final before we parted for the Christmas break.

New Years Eve found me in a movie theater - something that seemed oddly appropriate considering my newfound fondness for motion pictures - watching Moonstruck. I didn't kiss anyone at the stroke of 12, but was awakened by a phone call at 3 am. Tracie, clearly inebriated, had forgotten the time difference. A grumbled a few appropriate remarks, then returned to sleep. 1988 had arrived.

Related reviews: Lethal Weapon, Robocop, Wall Street.


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