Self-Censorship: Why ’80s Films Are So Awful

Breezing through Quentin Tarantino’s new book, I stumbled on his perfect, absolutely perfect, summation of everything wrong with ’80s films. This is stuff I’ve been saying for years, though it’s often fallen on deaf ears to those who maintain that the ’80s were actually a great time for movies. Tarantino spoke briefly to the issue on Bill Maher’s show last year, but in his new book he expounds at length, and I will cite him at length:

“After growing up in the anything-goes seventies, the eighties marked a play-it-safe decade, like that other horrible decade for Hollywood movies, the fifties. But the eighties were even worse. In the fifties you could claim that it was a repressed society that imposed restrictions on Hollywood, their movies, and their artists. But in the eighties the restrictions Hollywood imposed on their own product were self-imposed. The harshest censorship is self-censorship. And it doesn’t always come from the big bad studio either. Many filmmakers watered down their own vision right from the beginning.

“When it came to artists whose film work was of an uncompromising nature in the eighties, you had David Lynch, Paul Verhoeven, Abel Ferrara, Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma (sometimes), and David Cronenberg. And that’s it. Yeah, there were one-offs. John Carpenter’s The Thing. William Friedkin’s Cruising. Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon. Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die. Jim McBride’s Breathless. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. But, Hellraiser aside, these directors were usually punished for their perceived transgressions, by the press, the public, and the industry.

“The curse of eighties cinema wasn’t just that they wouldn’t let you shoot somebody jerking off to Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. It was that the complex and complicated lead characters of the seventies were the characters that eighties cinema avoided completely. Complex characters aren’t necessarily sympathetic. Interesting people aren’t always likeable. But in the Hollywood of the eighties likeability was everything. After the seventies, film went back to the restraints of the fifties. Back to when controversial films had to be drained of life, changed, or turned into morality plays… And if you did make a movie about a fucking bastard, you could bet that fucking bastard would see the error of their ways and be redeemed in the last twenty minutes. Like, for example, all of Bill Murray’s characters.” (pp 118-121)

For the exceptions to the rule in the second paragraph, Tarantino uses some examples I’ve used (Lynch, De Palma, Cronenberg, Bigelow, Friedkin, Barker), and I find the omission of Martin Scorsese to be telling. Even Scorsese watered himself down in the ’80s. The director of Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) wouldn’t return to that kind of form until the ’90s, with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), etc. Instead he pumped out comedies and the godawful Last Temptation of Christ (1988). The only decent thing Scorsese did in the ’80s was the black comedy After Hours (1985).

I would even add qualifiers to the legitimate exceptions. Take David Lynch. Yes, he made a masterpiece with Blue Velvet (1986), but it may betray a bit of self-censorship. For all its unremitting darkness and shocking perversity, it ends in a way that no other David Lynch film does: with a happy ending. Almost a fairly tale ending, in fact, with the bad guys dead, Jeffrey and Sandy in each others arms in the parents’ home (see more below on the theme of the nuclear family), and Dorothy Valens liberated from terror and abuse, happily reunited with her little boy who had been held hostage.

None, absolutely none, of Lynch’s other films has anything close to a happy ending like this (not even the G-rated Straight Story), and many of them are downright nihilistic. Eraserhead (1977) ends with Spencer breaking under pressure and killing the baby he never wanted. The Elephant Man (1980) ends with Merrick dying in bed. Wild at Heart (1990) just ends on craziness. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) ends with Laura Palmer being brutally murdered by her father who had raped her repeatedly. Lost Highway (1997) ends at square one, with Fred trapped helplessly in a cycle of crimes for which he is falsely blamed. Mulholland Drive (2001) ends with Diane hating and killing herself. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) ends on that final shot of Laura Palmer screaming, terrorized out of her mind, when she realizes who she is. If Blue Velvet is a dark film, it at least gives the audience an exit massage.

I’m not suggesting that Blue Velvet’s ending is deficient or lame. Happy endings can work when they feel earned, and it certainly feels earned in a film as suffocating as this one. I’m just not sure that’s how Lynch would have ended it had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Maybe it was self-censorship on a subconscious level. But I suspect that even a pure artist like him may have wanted to throw his viewers a bone in an era when subversive films were widely frowned upon.

Other Points

I would add two points to what Tarantino says. First, I would extend his list of exceptions to include a bunch of films from the early eighties (1980-82), which are essentially seventies films at heart: The Shining (1980), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raging Bull (1980; good Scorsese), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982). All of these films are excellent, and may as well have been made in the seventies — unlike some of their sequels in the mid or late 80s (Return of the Jedi, Evil Dead 2, Mad Max 3, Conan the Destroyer) which were feces.

Second, I would point out the paper written a decade ago (2011) by Chris Maltezos, The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s. He writes:

“As the 70s progressed a notable shift in cultural perception would occur: a growing antagonism toward the liberalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s: hippies, anti-­war protests, sex and violence on television, sex education in schools, forced busing, welfare spending and legalized abortions… [leading] to a dissatisfaction which precipitated Reagan’s more nostalgic, optimistic vision for the 1980’s. This political and cultural shift veered away from the countercultural movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, harkening Americans toward patriotism, unity and traditional family values.”

That’s basically where the 80s self-censorship (that Tarantino speaks of) came from. The importance of the nuclear family in particular seeps through even in the exceptions. I already mentioned Blue Velvet. Take also Near Dark (1987). I still think it’s the best vampire film of all time, but it does have an “80s happy ending” that rubs me wrong: Caleb and Mae are given blood transfusions by Caleb’s father, which reverses their vampirism and makes them human again; the implication is that Mae will live happily ever after with Caleb, under the same roof with his father and little sister. That ending rings false, and I doubt Bigelow would have written it if she had made Near Dark in the ’70s or ’90s. Caleb and Mae would have remained vampires, tragic loners, and never seen again by Caleb’s family.

Then there is Aliens (1986), which I don’t count as exceptional though many people still (incredibly) hold it up as a superior sequel. It has aged poorly for many reasons, one of which is the happy ending of Ripley and Hicks and Newt escaping alive — Ripley clearly functioning as a maternal figure for Newt. Contrast this with the ’70s Alien and the ’90s Alien 3, both of which have a nihilistic edge and certainly no “family values” baggage. Aliens is really just Alien on steroids, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Anyway, Tarantino’s book is worth reading cover to back. It’s film criticism by an actual filmmaker, with the wit and snap we love him for. He writes much as he speaks, in a free-associative manner, going from one topic to the next sometimes without warning, but always keeping you engaged about films you know and those you’ve never seen.

2 thoughts on “Self-Censorship: Why ’80s Films Are So Awful

  1. ‘Take also Aliens (1986), which I don’t count as exceptional though many still hold it up as a superior sequel. It has aged poorly for many reasons, one of which is the happy ending of Ripley and Hicks and Newt escaping alive — Ripley clearly functioning as a maternal figure for Newt. Contrast this with the ’70s Alien and the ’90s Alien 3, both of which have a nihilistic edge and certainly no “family values” baggage. Aliens is really just Alien on steroids, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster.’

    That’s an interesting take on Aliens; it’s an action horror film first and foremost, and the arc of Ripley becoming a mother is a welcome bit of warmth amongst the darkness and violence. Plus, consider what Ripley, Newt, and Hicks went through:

    *Ripley has to struggle through her never-ending nightmares, the fear of facing the aliens again, facing said aliens, almost being facehugged, dealing with Burke’s betrayal, and then going into hell itself to save Newt, and then having to face the queen.

    *Newt faced losing her family and everyone she cared about, and surviving by herself for weeks while surrounded by aliens before being captured, almost facehugged, and almost getting sucked into space.

    *Hicks barely survived the initial alien attack, then had to step up to become a leader of a bunch of terrified marines, then deal with a betrayal, and being overrrun by the aliens before losing his entire squad and suffering horrific burns that put him out of action.

    By your standard of earned happy endings, I think the three earned theirs.

    • Those are good points, but I don’t feel the trio’s escape was well earned. The problem is the overall tone of Aliens, and the Cameron levity that runs through it, not least through the obnoxious character of Hudson. These are marines who thrive on ass-kicking; getting killed is what they sign on for. It’s nothing like the defenseless crew in Alien for whom I feel terror in every frame, or the people on the horrible prison planet in Alien 3. So while on paper it looks like Ripley, Newt, and Hicks go through hell (for the reasons you say), Cameron doesn’t know how to make us feel their hell, and thus the happy ending doesn’t work for me. It just feels like typical ’80s cheese.

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