The Films of the Eighties: A Social History

The Films of the Eighties: A Social History

The Films of the Eighties: A Social History

The Films of the Eighties: A Social History


In this remarkable sequel to his Films of the Seventies: A Social History, William J. Palmer examines more than three hundred films as texts that represent, revise, parody, comment upon, and generate discussion about major events, issues, and social trends of the eighties.

Palmer defines the dialectic between film art and social history, taking as his theoretical model the "holograph of history" that originated from the New Historicist theories of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra. Combining the interests and methodologies of social history and film criticism, Palmer contends that film is a socially conscious interpreter and commentator upon the issues of contemporary social history. In the eighties, such issues included the war in Vietnam, the preservation of the American farm, terrorism, nuclear holocaust, changes in Soviet-American relations, neoconservative feminism, and yuppies.

Among the films Palmer examines are Platoon, The Killing Fields, The River, Out of Africa, Little Drummer Girl, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Silkwood, The Day After, Red Dawn, Moscow on the Hudson, Troop Beverly Hills, and Fatal Attraction. Utilizing the principles of New Historicism, Palmer demonstrates that film can analyze and critique history as well as present it.


It is fitting that The Films of the Eighties: a Social History should be a sequel to a book with the identical title about the seventies. Sequels -- from Superman to Star Wars to Rocky and Rambo to Indiana Jones and Beverly Hills Cop to Halloween and Friday the 13th to Mad Max and Lethal Weapon -- ruled the film offerings of the eighties. the films of the eighties, however, were simply mirroring the fact that the decade itself, in its social history, was a sequel. Call it The Fifties ii. Billy Joel's popular song of 1989, "We Didn't Start the Fire," a flashcard social history of America from the fifties to the eighties, sums up this reduplication of history.

In both the fifties and the eighties, eight years of the American presidency were occupied by a smiling, grandfatherly figure who communicated very little very well while vigorously doing nothing as the country looked on in smiling acceptance. Both decades politically embraced the ascendancy of style over substance. the striking similarity of the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations and their attendant personality cults notwithstanding, those two decades bear the burdens of quite similar social histories as well.

Both had the previous decade's war to remember and get over. Except for brush-fire wars of short duration, compared with World War ii and Vietnam, both decades enjoyed peace attended by cold war manuevering against Russia. Both were acutely nuclear holocaust conscious: the fifties in the first glow of the atomic age, and the eighties in the final realization that the fate of the earth (to purloin Jonathan Schell's title) rested in, first, the "freezing" and, then, the "disarming" of the nuclear arsenals of the world's major powers. Over the course of both decades, America and Russia continuously confronted one another. Eisenhower's fifties had Joseph McCarthy and the U-2 spy plane incident, while Reagan indulged early in his "evil empire" rhetorical saber rattling. Ironically in the eighties, as America and Russia confronted each other and jockeyed for position, Japan moved in and claimed the spoils of victory.

In the domestic arena, America in the fifties saw new beginnings of political consciousness focused upon the issues of sexual (in the aftermath of the World War ii "Rosie the Riveter" women's liberation) and racial (in the dawnings of the civil rights movement) equality, while in the eighties feminism reached its maturity and the first necessity to combat a "new . . .

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