Forgive us our nostalgia. All of us. When I was kid, I bemoaned my parents' lionization of the 50s and 60s, but now here I am, approaching middle age, and I'm spending an awful lot of time reflecting on the good-old-days, which we all know were actually the 80s. At least I have an excuse. My latest novel for young readers, The Riverman, is set in 1989. And while it isn't explicit in its pop culture references--sorry, Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" does not play on the radio during any key scenes--the narrative is infused with atmosphere of the period. These were the days when the Berlin Wall was falling and TV talk shows were warning us that if we didn't die of marijuana addictions then satanic cults would get us in the end. It was the last gasp of hair bands and Porky's movies and the first gasp indie rock and Steven Soderbergh films. A moment of great transition, at least that's what it felt like to a 13-year-old.
As a new generation rolls its collective eyes when I try to assure them that C. Thomas Howell was once a big freakin' deal, I must also remind them that many of the books they're currently reading--the middle grade and young adult novels that sell by the metric ton--were written by authors who came of age in the 80s. The foundations of those novels are built on the films they watched over-and-over on thrice-dubbed VHS tapes. So kids, reconsider some of those Reagan-era gens. And parents, look closer at the novels your kids are reading. You'll find more in common than you realize.
Post-apocalyptic wastelands have been around since, well, the dinosaurs got knocked out by that asteroid. However, dudes didn’t start wearing hockey masks and shoulder pads in those wastelands until George Miller’s Ozploitation masterpiece. It’s technically a sequel, but all you need to know is that people have cars and motorcycles, but not very much gasoline. Mel Gibson wears leather, carries a sawed-off shotgun and is good at protecting gasoline (sorry, Aussies, I meant petrol).
For some contemporary end-of-the-world desolation, try Blood Red Road by Moira Young
Muppets, it ain’t. It’s hard to imagine a children’s film like this getting a major release today, but Jim Henson was riding high from the success of the Muppets, and Hollywood let him indulge his weird side. And his weird side is weird. The set-up is standard fantasy: A boy must restore balance to the universe by mending a broken gemstone. The world of Gelfings, Skeksis, Mystics and some sort of furball thing is anything but standard. It’s grotesque yet new-agey, epic in tone yet insular in delivery. What the film lacks in plot it makes up for in design and atmosphere. Which is spectacular.
For another unique take on fantasy, try: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu
Sure it’s set in the 60s and adapted from a book written in the 60s, but Coppola’s film launched a generation of 80s stars. Swayze. Dillon. Lowe. Macchio. Estevez. Cruise. Howell (see!). They all essentially got their start here. Yet more than just a showcase for young hunks, this adaptation of the seminal S.E. Hinton novel was about class warfare in Reagan’s America. If you didn’t side with the Greasers, then what sort of greedy preppy were you?
For more teenagers on the fringes of society, try: We Were Here by Matt de la Peña
The Speilberg-produced, Donner-directed, Columbus-written comedy-adventure that so many of us hold dear might not hold up quite as well as we think. At least in the logic department. And Sloth? Have you ever considered his possible origin story? Best not to. But hey, the Truffle Shuffle is still funny after all these years, and if you’re a 30-something traveling along the Oregon coast, and you stop in Cannon Beach and see Haystack Rock
, you might just start babbling about Chester Copperpot and rich stuff and saving the Goondocks, all while wondering about whatever the heck happened to Kerri Green.
For additional gadget-fueled pubescent hijinks, try the Nerds series by Michael Buckley
Okay, so Michael J. Fox created rock-and-roll. DeLoreans are rad. And our moms could very well have been quite hot back in the 1950s. Those were my big takeaways from this enduring favorite the first time I saw it. Also, all you need is a jolt of electricity and you can send vehicles through time. After hours tinkering with my model train set and some exposed wires, I think proved this last notion wrong, but if anyone has access to a flux capacitor, then I’m willing to give it another shot.
For a second dose of mending family fences with time travel, try Seven Stories Up by Laurel Snyder
In 1986, there were two movies that I was warned about: Blue Velvet and River’s Edge. Blue Velvet’s nitrous- and PBR-sucking Frank Booth is as memorably weird a monster as you’ll find in film, but please reserve a minute to watch Crispin Glover’s performance in River’s Edge. Yeah. Ridiculous. Wonderfully ridiculous, that is. It makes this dark little film, about a group of stoners who take their sweet time telling the police about a murder, seem even darker. It’s no surprise that it inspired many adults to proclaim, “This is what’s wrong with kids today!”
For a different odd but lyrical take on disaffected youth hanging out by the water, try Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
There are a few hardcore horror junkies in every school, the type who subscribe to Fangoria, know who the heck Tom Savini is, and cackle when you tell them that watching Hellraiser 2 gave you PTSD. In my day, the most cerebral of these junkies gravitated to the work of David Cronenberg and the body-horror he specialized in for at least a couple of decades. Some might argue that his remake of the Vincent Price classic is his best film. It’s certainly one of his most successful and that wasn’t because he skimped on the blood, guts and insect hair. Just try to watch the arm wrestling scene without flinching.
For extra flinching and thinking, try Scowler by Daniel Kraus
There was a time when I thought that a guaranteed way to prove you were a sensitive guy was telling a girl that your favorite movie was Cameron Crowe’s ode to boombox serenades and tax fraud. That time was from 1989 until now. The John Hughes movies that ruled the era, as fun as they are, were always suspect in the romance department (hey girls, want a boy, well put on some eyeliner for chrissakes!). Crowe challenged that, and his film is so beloved because it displays teen relationships as something more than puppy love and makeovers. Sensitive guys have known this for the last 25 years, though the serenade move has lost its cachet now that every dope can download some Peter Gabriel and thrust an iPhone in the air.
For a similarly palette-cleansing teen romance, try the upcoming Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff