Entertainment Geekly: Why are we so obsessed with the 1980s?

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Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!

Measuring time in specific decades is a fallacy, but it’s a fallacy that everyone believes in. There’s no legitimate reason that we should set aside the passage of time between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989 as a specific and clearly defined unit of time. 1979 wasn’t too different from 1980; most of the movies released in 1990 were probably shot in 1989. People used to refer to the ’80s as “the MTV Decade” before every decade became some kind of MTV Decade — but it’s worth remembering that MTV’s ridiculously iconic debut video, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” featured a song written in 1978.

And yet, we all believe in decades. The ’60s are counterculture and the breakdown of the old order and Mad Men; the ’50s are conformity and McCarthyism and the secret soul-implosion of the middle-class; the ’40s are World War II and movies about World War II. But in contemporary culture, no decade really exists on the same plane as the ’80s. It’s like a genre unto itself, with tropes that are at once ethereal (synth music, neon lights, a mixture of raw brutality and endearing innocence) and hyper-specific (karate, cocaine, aesthetically unpleasing computers.)

What is the ’80s? Consider Michael Mann’s debut film Thief, back in stores now with a Criterion edition. Thief originally hit theaters in 1981. It’s sort of a heist movie, although it’s really more of a character study. James Caan plays Frank, an ex-con jewel thief. He lives in Chicago, and in Thief‘s Chicago, it’s always between midnight and 3 AM, and even though there are a million lights everything always looks a little dark. (Imagine Fritz Lang’s Metropolis painted with watercolors.) The soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream. Long stretches of the film are wordless: Just bright-dark colors, electronic music, and James Caan looking melancholy. Then there’s a gunfight. It’s great.

It’s also a clear inspiration for Drive, the Nicolas Winding Refn movie from 2011 which already feels like a Ur-Text for a certain kind of pop culture obsessive. But Thief looks a little bit like a lot of things: Thief‘s Chicago is Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles and it’s very much the Miami of Miami Vice, which Mann helped turn into the most ’80s thing about the ’80s. Thief anticipates the 1983 remake of Scarface, although the Al Pacino movie is bigger and cokier and crazier. (ASIDE: If Thief is Super Mario Brothers, then Scarface is Super Mario World, with Al Pacino’s accent as the all-important Blue Yoshi additive. And Drive is Super Mario Land, because it’s basically the same thing, but reimagined by a schizophrenic on hallucinogens. END OF ASIDE.)

And although Thief is resolutely analog — a movie about a blue-collar tough guy — when you look at Thief, you can almost see a little bit of TRON, the 1982 digital-effects odyssey which had an electronic score by Wendy Carlos, a neon-dark aesthetic, and even a weirdly similar individual-vs-the-corporate-machine story arc. (ASIDE: Three decades later, ’80s obsessives Daft Punk would score TRON: Legacy, a couple years before they created the song “Giorgio by Moroder,” a first-person homage to Giorgio Moroder, whose iconic electronic ’80s soundtracks included Scarface and a rerelease of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. END OF ASIDE.) TRON is variously unwatchable and almost perfect, sometimes at the same time. It’s a fairy tale from a time that makes no sense to anyone anymore: The idea that there are little people inside of your computer feels like the explanation of an exhausted parent in the days before visual interfaces. Some geeks try to point to TRON as an early ancestor of our contemporary digital culture, but I suspect that the real reason TRON lives on is specifically because it has nothing to do with our contemporary digital culture.

Consider another movie, new to home release and currently sitting on Netflix waiting to blow your mind. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a period ensemble piece, set during a convention of high-nerd eggheads in the days when nobody thought a computer could beat a human being at chess. Over the course of a few days, they meander around the hotel. Sometimes they talk, vaguely, about what computers might become. (Someone throws out the idea that computers could help with dating.)

The film doesn’t look anything like Thief. Bujalski shot Computer Chess on primordial cameras, and it very purposefully feels like a home video from the days before most people could even make home videos. But in its own way, the movie is just as stylized as Thief, with its mockumentary opening fading into something more free-flowing and even surreal. More importantly, the film is set in 1981, in an All-American nowhere-town. Somewhere not too far from the hotel, a movie theater could be playing Thief. One year after Computer Chess, all the shirt-buttoned glasses-wearing nerds will watch TRON and Blade Runner. Maybe one of them went into videogames and one of them built a search engine and one of them works at Apple and one of them was pushed out of a kamillion-dollar start-up.

When you watch Computer Chess — which you should all do now — your understanding of the ’80s gets complicated. It could be that our current ’80s fixation is purely nostalgic. Teenagers in the 1980s are approaching middle-age now, and the modern world is all confusion and Twitter and crappy music: Such was the subject of last year’s brilliant The World’s End, wherein Simon Pegg rocked a Sisters of Mercy shirt. Certainly, nostalgia seems to have fueled the sudden re-emergence of Sylvester Stallone as a reboot of himself — and nostalgia also fuels the endless parade of films that trade on brand names from every decade. (This year sees the release of new Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies — both produced by Michael Bay, himself a kind of walking Frankenstein’s Monster of ’80s clichés transformed into Standard Operating Procedure.)

Videogame culture feels particularly rooted in the ’80s, but that might just be because the ’80s were so vividly a moment when videogame culture was just videogame culture — the polar opposite of our casual-gamer Candy Crush era. One of the best games I played last year was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, a modern game reconstructed as a kind of ’80s haunted house. Cyborgs! Lasers! The notion of World War III! As fun as the game was, the best part was the trailer, a lithium cocktail of ’80s-ness:

But if our relationship with the ’80s started off as nostalgia — in a time when a Friends flashback to the ’80s could mostly just exist for easy jokes about bad ’80s hair and worse ’80s fashion — it feels now like it’s developing into an actual cultural and artistic force. It almost seems like the people of Computer Chess are imagining a world that looks like Thief — and Blade Runner, and TRON, and MTV, and Devo. And when you watch Computer Chess you can’t help but feel like we are living in that imaginary world. You can imagine one of the guys from Computer Chess watching Scarface in theaters in 1983; two decades later, that same guy plays Vice City, and realizes the movie was a prophecy.

Lady Gaga rose to prominence as a neo-’80s icon. (Some people said she was just imitating Madonna; most people were just fine with that.) Drive had the brilliant idea of combining Michael Mann’s ’80s with John Hughes’ ’80s, with a soundtrack that featured Kavinsky, College, and Desire. All three of them are French musicians — well, Desire’s French Canadian — whose entire aesthetic seems to derive entirely from 1985: Their music suggests an 8-bit videogame soundtrack for a melancholy dance party that turns into a redemptive drug overdose.

Daft Punk, also French, just released Random Access Memories, which recreated the music of the ’70s and ’80s using mostly period-appropriate equipment — the musical equivalent of the retro-aesthetic of Computer Chess. Could it be that this is all just an example of the French doing to the ’80s what they did to the ’40s in the ’60s, when Breathless worshiped Bogart even as it tore the whole idea of Bogart into a million little jumpcut pieces? Or consider this:

I can’t think of a phrase more ’80s than “Kung Fury by Laser Unicorns.” The Kickstarter project had a goal of $200k and with two days to go is closing in on $600k — and although it’s potentially depressing to judge the lay of the culture by Kickstarter, something about Kung Fury clearly conjures up an attraction for people. Director David Sandberg sums it up in his explanation: “I was driven by a strong love for the ’80s and action movies…the 1980s is my favorite decade. I love how something can be so cheesy and so cool at the same time.”

“Cheesy” and “Cool” are words that come up frequently in the culture of the ’80s that has sprung up after the ’80s. Is there anything more to the ’80s vogue than that: The same surface pleasures, endlessly remixed and reconsidered? (The Wolf of Wall Street begins in the ’80s, and in its depiction of America, the decade never really ended.) I think there’s more wrapped up in it: The vibe of Reagan-era American exceptionalism and decadence; the pre-globalized language of videogames that felt like Japanese people interpreting American culture and the net result landing somewhere between Atlantis and Mars; the sense of a monoculture that would be gradually but then immediately decimated with the rise of the internet.

There is, more than anything, a certain unabashed excitement about the ’80s which reads now like a sadness. The ’80s were an analog world dreaming of digital. Now, digital, we dream ourselves backwards.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

To Understand the Modern Crime Thriller, Watch Michael Mann’s ThiefBilge Ebiri explains how Thief invented the modern crime movie and Christopher Nolan.

Did the Eighties Ever End? –Peter York considers the question through the prism of fashion.

’80s Don Draper — A Mad Men joke that never fails to capture the gasbag grandeur of the decade.

The ’80s Tag at Buzzfeed — Updated at least twice a week.

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