ReelThoughts: July 20, 2009

"1988"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


1988 was a strange year for me - one in which I felt dissociated from the world at large. In the pre-Internet era, it was necessary to seek out news by turning on the television, listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper. For the most part, I did none of those things. I spent a lot of my free time with Tracie until her death on October 15 of that year, and although she watched a lot of TV while I was studying, we rarely did that together. After her death, I was in a state of shock for the rest of the year, so world news didn't penetrate, at least until I returned home for the Christmas break.

I recall three significant events from 1988. The first, and most obvious, was George H.W. Bush's win in the election, extending the "Reagan era" for another four years. This was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote. I had planned to cast a ballot for Bush but with the election happening less than three weeks after Tracie's death, I was unmotivated to go to the polls. (Tracie had been planning to vote for Dukakis, and we had a number of spirited debates about the election.) Bush won, but the optimism that Reagan's two terms had shone on the nation was beginning to fade. Iran-Contra took its toll and lingered into Bush's years, and the new president lacked the charisma and communication skills of his predecessor.

Long before the November election, in February, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court judgment against Hustler magazine in a libel suit filed by Jerry Falwell. I became interested in this case because Tracie was intensely fascinated by it. I remember her dancing around in glee when she heard the announcement. All these years later, I understand the importance of that ruling to anyone who writes for public consumption.

Finally, there was the December 21 incident featuring Pan Am 103, which was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. I think the reason this made such an impact on me was that it dominated the news cycle during the 1988-89 Christmas break, a time when I spent a lot of hours in the car traveling to and from a two-week job I was working. Since Tracie's death, I was listening less to pop music stations and more to news and talk fare. (This in part explains why my musical education pretty much died with the '80s.)

For me, the year in movies began pretty much the way 1987 had ended, with Tracie and me attending the university multiplex once per week. A lot of what we saw during the winter/spring semester was forgettable and, indeed, most of it is forgotten. Of the titles I remember, not many are worth significant discourse: Action Jackson, Biloxi Blues, Shoot to Kill. Two films left impressions: Beetlejuice, which was weird enough to inspire a post-screening conversation that started at a fast food joint where we grabbed a late night snack and continued all night. At 5:00 in the morning, exhaustion ended the discussion. (For the record, we both liked the movie. I can't recall the specifics of our conversation, just that it lasted six hours.) Colors divided us; I was impressed but Tracie thought it was na´ve and misguided.

In May, she returned to Southern California and I embarked upon an internship with Bellcore, a New Jersey-based telecommunications company (for which I have now worked, including that summer apprenticeship, for 21 years). My job location was about two hours from my parents' house, but only 30 minutes from my grandparents, so I stayed with them on weeknights and went "home" on weekends. Since most of my friends were scattered all around the country, 1988 was the year when I began regularly going to movies by myself. This was another major step on the road that would lead me into reviewing three years in the future. Tracie was supposed to visit for a couple of weeks in late July/early August, but she developed pneumonia and wasn't able to make the trip. So our contact from early May to early September was limited to phone calls.

The summer roster of movies was active. May offered Crocodile Dundee II - not a very good movie, but one of the year's most anticipated sequels. It failed to recapture the magic of the first installment and, in retrospect, probably shouldn't have been made. That same weekend (Memorial Day weekend), I also saw Willow, expected at the time to be the "fantasy equivalent of Star Wars." Not quite. I saw it once and have never had a desire to revisit it. Maybe I would look more kindly upon it today than I did when I sat in a theater and hated it 21 years ago, but I'm not going to spend two hours finding out.

June opened with Big, the delightful Tom Hanks fable, which successfully washed away the bad taste left by Willow. It was followed in quick succession by Bull Durham (one of the four-or-so best baseball movies), Red Heat (bad Schwarzenegger, but at that time of my life any Schwarzenegger was mandatory viewing), The Presidio (disappointing - expected more from Sean Connery), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (which I liked a lot more when I re-watched it several years later on video than when I first saw it in theaters), and Coming to America (which I disliked a lot more when I re-watched it several years later on video than when I first saw it in theaters).

July was a July to remember. The first week was unspectacular. I saw Short Circuit, which has become something of a cult classic, but which didn't evoke much enthusiasm from me at the time. Then came the weekend of July 15: Dirty Harry, John McClane, and Don't Call Me Stupid. Two movies in my Top 100 in one afternoon. I saw Die Hard and A Fish Called Wanda back-to-back on a steamy Saturday afternoon in a theater where the air conditioning was on full blast. It was an amazing afternoon - I have never since experienced anything quite like it. I went home and told everyone I knew to go see both movies. The Dead Pool, which I caught on Sunday, was a severe letdown. Things slowed a little after that, although I watched Midnight Run before the month ended. That movie was perhaps the best under-the-radar surprise of the year.

There were a lot of releases in August, but few of them were worth the price of admission. I was lukewarm about Cocktail (I was also bummed that weekend because Tracie was supposed to be with me), which worked as a Tom Cruise vehicle but not as much else. (I saw it largely because of Elizabeth Shue.) Married to the Mob was enjoyable, but I have always thought it to be overrated. I disliked the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street film, and the gimmicky Young Guns wasn't much better. Then the summer ended and it was time to start my senior year of college.

Tracie showed no ill effects from her bout with pneumonia. Since I had a single room for the first time since freshman year, she pretty much moved in with me, although two sleeping in one of those narrow college beds proved to be challenging. Eventually, she found a mattress somewhere and dumped it next to the bed. We ended up trading off with one of us sleeping on the floor and the other on the bed. Our movie-going pace slowed a little, in large part because we both found studying and papers to be absorbing more time than it had in previous years. In late September, we saw Gorillas in the Mist, which was different from what either of us expected. The last film we saw together was Alien Nation, which I recall being disappointed with. I have not revisited it. Finally, on the weekend when she died (in a car crash caused by a drunk driver) while home for Fall Break in Los Angeles, I saw The Accused.

After Tracie's death, I stayed away from movies for two months, finally returning at the end of the year to see three comedies: The Naked Gun, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Working Girl. I enjoyed all three, especially the first one. I missed all of the high-profile Oscar bait at the time but caught up with those films when they came out on video. (Rain Man, Dangerous Liaisons, The Accidental Tourist, and Beaches - agh!)

As I think back on it, Tracie's influence in life and death were critical components in my becoming a reviewer. She imparted to me her love of film; without her, I doubt I would see more than a dozen movies per year, and I certainly wouldn't be writing about them. Her removal from my life left a hole that I eventually filled (once I was done with school) with movies. Her final gift was that my becoming a critic was directly responsible for my encountering Sheryl, whom I married. So, as depressing as 1988 became for me, there was a happy ending after all.

The '80s concluded with 1989 - the first year of sequel domination.

Related reviews: Big, Bull Durham, Dangerous Liaisons, Gorillas in the Mist.


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