Skip to content

1980s Films–Unplanned Obsolescence

November 14, 2013

I’ve already written about the unique time-travel opportunities afforded by Youtube.  You can drink the tea of history steeped in time by sampling old videos. You can even relive a history that is not your own in heady sips.

In this post I’d like to comment on the particular weirdness I feel while drinking in movies from the 1980s. I don’t mean movies I’ve seen since the 1980s. I’m talking about the ones I saw then and have since been replaying only on the screens in my head. It turns out that the editor in my head is pretty good. In fact, some of those movies I never bothered to watch again were absolutely terrible without that editor in my head smoothing over the rough edges.

And I’m not just talking about the architectural density and ambition of the girls’ bangs either, product stiff on the precipices of totally tubular heads. No wonder, by the way, I always referred to that stuff as MOOSE and not MOUSSE—the girls used it to build failed antlers upon their domes with curly-cue piles of hair.


No. What I’m talking about are cultural irregularities that struck me as so normal then, which nearly bowl me over to watch now. Some of these are so personal that they’ll mean close to nothing to anyone else.  That’s fine too. I’m not necessarily conducting a journalist’s view of 1980s cinema after all, but rather a sort of poetry of response. Let this be a memoirist’s report on cinematic details that cut right through my nostalgia-producing organs—perhaps what our appendix used to do—to trigger what Roland Barthes in discussing photography would call the punctum.

According to Barthes, the punctum is the small detail that pierces through visual generality, “which pricks me, (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 26, 27. Celia Lury contrasts the view of the punctum as animating only that which is repressed in the subject-viewer of a photography, by insisting, as I do here, that it rather animates a new relation between subjects and objects. See Lury, Prosthetic Culture: Photography, Memory and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1998), 90-91.


I was watching Adventures in Babysitting the other day and was struck by the felt interior of station wagons with faux wood paneling.


The only thing more strange than that was the casual homophobia some of the young male characters bandied about between them. It wasn’t meant to be too cruel or to attract that much attention to itself as bigotry. It passed between the characters as casually as a dumb blond joke, which also comes up by the end in strange reference to a young Vinnie D’Onofrio.


But none of that is as potent in my memory banks as that black carton of orange juice seen inside the refrigerator of Sara Connor’s house in the first Terminator. 

09_imageIt seemed so normal to put juice in such a dark carton then. Good luck finding that color packaging today.

There’s also a casually-presented suggestion of rebound rape in Valley Girl. 


I was horrified, because the characters in the film were not. Less alarming but just as nostalgically, punctumously strange are the opening sequences of permissive skitching–or hitching a ride on a car via skateboard in Back to the Future.


It’s funny, for as seemingly innocuous as this film was, I recall the aggressive way insecure teens policed one another’s white Nike wear. It was the white low-top leathers with a red stripe or nothing.  How many poor unsuspecting parents thought any shoe with any stripe-like design would do? O the shame of zips or keds, swipes and streaks that were close but never swooshy enough.

From → Pop Culture

  1. Odd how the past, so obviously right at the time, can seem so hopeless in retrospect. If only we could somehow arrange to have that sensibility while it’s present; but, try as we might, we usually get it wrong, focus on the wrong aspects of current culture.

    • Exactly. The odd goal then is to live the present as if from an idealized future, that is, to live as if looking back from an imagined expansiveness that saturates rather than simply judges.

  2. This may be somewhat an aside, but since that’s where my mind took me, I’ll take you along for the ride.
    During The Riots in London a couple of summers ago, many shops were looted. Mostly however shoe shops. In today’s society, the labels one wears apparently defines their place in the hierarchy – still the case for the teens of today.
    This is the society that consumerist capitalism has created.
    We are only worth as much as the shoes we trod in – where shoes stand for the senseless material goods we use in order to try and fill up the vacuum left behind by the onset of late modernity (still unsure about the whole post-modern label).
    So sad that I wish it weren’t true.

    • senseless, just senseless, I’m sorry you had to witness that

      • What was even worse, our political class did not spend sufficient time thinking through the issues that had lead to this. They dismissed it and vilified those youths without trying to get to the bottom of it. The rioters communicated a lot via Twitter, and what I found of great interest was the fact that the community centre did not get vandalised. The Twitter feed called for everyone to keep it safe, and this was the Twitter feed of those doing the vandalising. Why was it that they attacked shops and chains in particular, but not the community centre? To me the answer was very clear: they cared about it, because that was a place that had offered them a haven in the past, and that was doing its best to help. It was a place they felt they belonged to. And that I thought was very telling. If they had been made to feel that they had a stake in their community as a whole then none of it would’ve ever happened.
        The best attempt at getting the whole story was made in fact by a playwright. The Riots was an amazing play at the Tricycle Theatre – it felt like a documentary, weaved together from stories from both sides of the argument. Nothing approaching that depth of research appeared in the mainstream however. A missed opportunity.

      • This is remarkable to me. Have you blogged about this yourself? Your take on the issue seems very relevant to me. I’d love to hear more.

      • It happened some time before I started blogging, so I have not written on the subject, although your question has certainly made me consider it. I will see what I can do. It will take some careful consideration, but I will attempt it. Thank you for the prompt.

      • The issue of what was attacked and what wasn’t is really interesting to a lot of people, I should think. You should tell that story, your story.

      • Thank you for encouraging me to write about this, Michael. It is something that had played a lot on my mind for a long time after it was no longer news. I hope I have a copy of the play. It would help with the write up. The stories it collected were exemplary.

  3. makes me think of all the designer labels and having to have them …if it was a sign of the 80’s or was it part of being dumb and young?

  4. When I was a child in the 80’s, the black Minute Maid cartons must have imprinted on me. Much like Mario Olives cans and Tombstone pizza boxes. I believe that being a child, I felt the most comfortable around family, and the black food packaging was associated with said comfort. I get the same strange sense of comfort watching the first seasons of Roseanne, and what do you know, a black Minute Maid carton appears a couple times early on in their kitchen. The 80’s had a warm amber glow, now everything is cold bright white LED. Smartphones mark the death of social interaction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: