Archive for the ‘Films of the 1980s’ Category

Streets_of_fireThere’s much more to Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire than meets the eye. Too bad most people didn’t get it back in 1984.

Streets of Fire utilizes a plot that’s been stolen by nearly every 80s arcade game: An evil gang kidnaps a beautiful girl and it’s up to her tough (ex) boyfriend to rescue her and defeat the bad guys. Described as a “rock n’ roll fable,” the film is set in a strange world that incorporates elements of the 1950s and the 1980s.

Streets of Fire Directed by Walter Hill

Walter Hill made a name for himself with hits The Warriors (1979), The Long Riders (1980), and Southern Comfort (1981). This proved him a worthy successor to his idol, Sam Peckinpah. Like Peckinpah, Hill’s films featured tough guys who let their fists – and bats, bullets, and other weapons – do the talking. Streets of Fire was no exception, but its high-concept setting and Wagnerian rock-opera meets rockabilly soundtrack proved to be too high concept for the era.

Walter Hill’s Characteristic Subtext

On its surface, Streets of Fire is action-packed battle of good vs. evil. But nothing about Streets of Fire – or any Walter Hill film – can be considered basic. Streets of Fire tells a deeper, more complex story of a man’s battle with his own inner demons. More to the point, it’s the story of the protagonist’s battle with his “shadow self,” which is personified and brought to life by the film’s antagonist.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung identified the concept of “the shadow” or “shadow aspect.”In layman’s terms, Jung’s shadow represents all the negative qualities and traits about ourselves that we do not like, such as greed, cowardice, anger, fear, etc. Most people cannot admit to having this traits. Jung’s theory states that the more we ignore or deny our shadows, the darker, denser, and stronger they become.

So, to sum up my theory about Streets of Fire, the film’s hero and villain are actually the same person. And the battle between these two forces is merely symbolic of the battle that the hero is having with himself over whether to stay with the woman he loves or let her go.

Hero and Villain are One in the Same

The hero and villain in Streets of Fire are Tom Cody (Michael Pare) and Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), respectively. Hill provides enough clues throughout the film to suggest that Raven symbolizes Tom’s shadow self. Some of the more obvious though well-hidden hints include:

  • The villain’s last name is “Shaddock,” which is very close to the word “shadow.” His first name, Raven, is a black bird that’s associated with darkness and death in many cultures.
  • Raven Shaddock and his gang kidnap Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) at a rock concert. Tom Cody and his gang rescue Ellen at a bar where a rock n’ roll band is playing. Note: This is one of many examples of “mirroring” between the two characters.
  • Raven Shaddock is seen wearing a patent-leather abattoir suit, aka his “leather waders.” These look very similar to Tom Cody’s pants-and-suspenders.
  • Raven keeps Ellen tied to a bed. Tom cuts the ropes that bind her. Later, Ellen asks him why he left her and he says he didn’t want to keep her from her music career. In other words, Tom doesn’t want to “tie her down.” (Another good example of conflicting desires within the same person.)

Music Conveys “Shadow” Motif

During the rescue scene, 80s rockabilly pioneers The Blasters play two songs that spell out what’s really going on in Streets of Fire. The first is “One Bad Stud,” which describes a tough, dangerous man moving into the singer’s neighborhood and stealing his woman. If you think about it, this applies as equally to Raven as it does to Tom, making each man the “stud” and the jilted former lover.

If “One Bad Stud” weren’t enough, The Blasters have another song during the big rescue scene. This one is called “Blue Shadows.” This is Walter Hill’s rather direct way of calling attention to the film’s powerful, psychological subtext.

The Final Battle Personifies Tom’s Inner Battle

The film’s final battle between Tom Cody and Raven Shaddock is a cinematic masterpiece. Both men fight each other using chrome-plated railroad spike-drivers, making each one equal as they head into the fight. To emphasize the shadow vs. light motif, Raven is dressed in a black leather pants and shirt combo while Tom wears a white Henley. Tom eventually defeats Raven, stopping short of delivering a final blow that would have likely killed the man. Tom can’t kill himself, after all!

Note: The concept of two men fighting each other on euqal terms to symbolize man’s inner struggle with himself is a Walter Hill trademark. Consider these other Hill-directed films as examples:

  • The Warriors: Many of the gang members strongly resemble each other. Further, in the scene where Swan fights the Baseball Furies, he clutches his fists together and strikes his enemy, which symbolizes swinging a baseball bat, the chosen weapon of his foe.
  • The Long Riders: Cole Younger (David Carradine) and Sam Starr (James Remar) fight each other in a bizarre knife duel in which both men stay connected via a long sash they hold in their teeth.
  • Bullet to the Head: In an homage to Streets of Fire, the hero and the villain – both professional hitmen – fight each other with matching fireman’s axes. Much like the duel in The Long Riders, this battle symbolizes a wise, older warrior (Sylvester Stallone) doing battle with his younger, impetuous self (Jason Momoa).

To Sum Up Streets of Fire…

On the surface, it’s a classic tale of good vs. evil in a highly-stylized world. Symbolically, it’s one man’s battle with his shadow self over whether he should stay with the woman he loves or let her go. And the stylized world where this battle takes place is actually his mind.

It’s a Shame More People Didn’t “Get It”

Hill envisioned Streets of Fire as the first part of a trilogy. The sequels were tentatively to be called The Far City and Cody’s Return. As a huge fan of Streets of Fire, I can’t help but wonder what could have been had Hill been able to finish this trilogy. Would Raven seek revenge? Would Tom and Ellen reunite for good? We’ll never know. Instead, Streets of Fire is a cinematic gem that remains a misunderstood cult classic to those who remember it fondly.

About J.P. Ribner

J.P. Ribner is the author of Viking fantasy adventure series “The Berserker’s Saga.” Currently, the saga features two novels – “Legacy of the Bear” and “Prophecy of the Bear.” For more about his written work, check out his website.

Advertisements

freshFresh Horses (1988) is a hauntingly good movie that could have been great. That said, it’s still one of my favorite teen movies of the 1980s.

Cincinnati college student Matt Larkin (Andrew McCarthy) seems bored but content with his perfect college life and wealthy fiancée. Larkin’s lifelong friend Tipton (Ben Stiller) convinces Larkin to go to a “non-stop house party” over the bridge in rural Kentucky. There, Larkin meets Jewel (Molly Ringwald), a backwoods country girl in need of saving. Things get complicated after Larkin breaks off his engagement to pursue Jewel… sort of. His friends try to convince him to break it off, but Jewel’s young age and her dangerous husband aren’t enough to change Matt’s mind.

“Fresh Horses” Must Have Looked Like a Winner

The film was based off Larry Ketron’s stage play, which was burning up Broadway in 1986. The film gave Andrew McCarthy and Molly Ringwald a chance to reprise their rich-boy-falls-for-poor-girl routine, a la “Pretty in Pink.” The rest of the cast was made of people whose names and greatest performances were yet to come, particularly Viggo Mortensen and Ben Stiller. When it hit theaters in 1988, however, “Fresh Horses” failed to impress. Fortunately, it seems to have a very small cult following these days, and I’m proud to consider myself a member of said cult.

The Best Thing About “Fresh Horses” Went Largely Unnoticed

“Fresh Horses” is a good study of two people who set out to use one another yet try to convince themselves that they’re in love. It was a departure from other 80s teen flicks, which centered upon the “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” zeitgeist that defined the decade. “Fresh Horses” represents a turn from the quest to score to lives rooted in morning-after regrets. This puts it in a similar category as “Less Than Zero” – also starring Andrew McCarthy – and other somber 80s teen gems.

“Fresh Horses” a Study in Narcissism

Let’s take a look at how “Fresh Horses” illustrates the heartache and pain of entering into a relationship only to deceive from each protagonist’s point of view, staring with Matt Larkin:

From the very beginning, we see that Matt Larkin is a smug, commitment-phobic jerk. The film starts with Matt and Tip (Ben Stiller) riding Matt’s boat up and down the Ohio River. After this 10-minute montage, we discover that Matt deliberately showed late to his own engagement party. Throughout the movie, he continues to show his passive-aggressive propensity for abandoning women at the precise point in which they seem to need/want him the most. Most notably:

  • He strikes up a relationship with Jewel so he can break off his engagement with his fiancée.
  • He fails to go with Jewel to confront Green about signing the divorce papers, even though her facial expressions and tone make it obvious that this is what she wants him to do. He lets her go alone, instead.
  • Even though Ellen (Molly Hagan) makes it clear that she’s up for a one-night stand, Matt basically ignores her offer and insists they go to the abandoned railroad house. (Likely because he knows Jewel will see him there.)

Here is another of Matt Larkin’s other, obvious flaws:

  • He becomes physically abusive with his friends whenever they suggest that he just break it off with Jewel. He doesn’t do this because he loves her, he does this because his friends’ suggestion that he’s just using the girl cuts a little too close to the truth for him.

Matt repeatedly shows contempt for Jewel throughout the film.

  • When they meet and he asks for a drink of her soda. (Narcissistic boundary issues.)
  • When Matt and Tip are talking to a lawyer about Jewel’s marriage to Green, Matt does all the talking while Jewel is left to wait outside the room. (Jewel doesn’t matter even when it comes to her own life.)
  • Throughout the film, Matt talks down to Jewel in an annoying, condescending manner. (Correcting her English, chiding her about her name, etc.)
  • Matt tries to keep Jewel from meeting his parents. (He’s embarrassed to be with her.)

While Matt is a jerk, Jewel isn’t much better. Her greatest flaw is that she’s a near-pathological liar who’s also not honest with herself. She claims to resent Matt for treating her as though she’s stupid and helpless, yet she purposefully presents herself as dumb and helpless in order to convince people to help her. Then, she resents Matt for behaving in a way she more or less manipulated him into behaving. (My guess is that she does this as a justification for using people the way that she does.)

Some additional examples of Jewel’s duplicity include:

  • She sees in Matt the chance of escaping from her low-class, white trash rural existence.
  • She casually concocts stories of being abused by older men – typically older men/father figures – in order to elicit sympathy from other men.
  • She married Green for the same reason she hooked up with Matt – to hopefully improve her position in life.
  • She hints at what she wants from Matt but never comes out and says it. (Sorry! Pet peeve of mine.)
  • The lies she tells are dangerous in that they could cause men to fight and kill each other to protect her “honor.” (I think she secretly yearns for this as a means of proving her “worth.”)

Other Things That Worked in “Fresh Horses”

The film features some beautiful cinematography. The scenes shot in rural Kentucky – Jean’s house, Jewel’s house, the abandoned railroad building – have a misty and mysterious back-country beauty complete with cold metal fences, frosted grass, and dead trees that seem to reach through the fog to guide the star-crossed lovers upon their fated path.

The film also touches upon differences that separate people yet ironically make them appealing to each other in a grass-is-always-greener way: man/woman, city/country, college/high school dropout, rich/poor, etc.

What Didn’t Work in “Fresh Horses”

It’s not that Fresh Horses was filled with all things bad. It’s more of the case of wasted potential, which is even worse. It robs this amazing of film of the chance to have made a deeper impact upon pop culture.

Some of the film’s shortcomings include:

  • Molly Ringwald’s wardrobe. With her characteristic prairie skirt and high boots, she looked like she walked onto the set straight from “The Breakfast Club.” I know this was her trademark look but the character of Jewel is a backwoods country girl of meager means. She likely wouldn’t have dressed in the latest 80s teen fashions.
  • Viggo Mortensen was underused. Throughout the film, Matt Larkin is warned about Jewel’s husband, a supposedly dangerous character named “Green.” Unfortunately, he only appears in two scenes. The first is a brief appearance in a diner where Larkin sees him but doesn’t know who he is. The second is near the end, where Green delivers a highly philosophical and much-needed reality check to Larkin.
  • Note: If I had written this film, the character of Green would have appeared in at least three significant scenes. For example, I would have had Green beat up Larkin at Jean’s house rather than some random hillbilly played by playwright Larry Ketron. This would have been a better use of an interesting character AND a very talented actor! (No one knew Viggo’s potential back then, though.)
  • Ketron needed to explore Larkin’s relationship with his parents. The character of Matt Larkin was not the best of people: he cheats on his fiancée, knowingly sleeps with a married woman, and pushes his friends around, among other things. Something had to make him this way. My guess is a dysfunctional family upbringing. It would have been nice to see more than a passing hint of this.

“Fresh Horses” Haunted me for 30+ Years

I felt compelled to see “Fresh Horses” again. I last saw it in 1989 with my then-girlfriend. At that time, I thought that Matt Larkin was the unwitting and innocent victim of Jewel’s manipulative games. I remember calling her a “scheming bitch” during the final scene where Matt Larkin tearfully walked away from the ice skating rink.

After I saw it again, 27 years later, I see this movie – and the message it subtly implies – much differently.

My 40s have been a time of brutal self-examination. Some painfully honest personal inventories of all my negative qualities have taught me a lot. I now see that I was able to bury, ignore, or project these traits onto others in my 20s and 30s. Long story short, I was Matt Larkin, I just didn’t see it in 1989. My subconscious recognized the similarities and used its tricks to keep me from realizing it.

Your Favorite 80s Teen Movie…

A lot of great movies came out in the 80s. I won’t be able to revisit them all, but that won’t stop me from trying. In the meantime, feel free to shared your memories of great 80s movies such as “Fresh Horses” or any of the rest. I’d like to hear about the films that kept you awake in the dark during that amazing decade.

About J.P. Ribner

J.P. Ribner is the author of Viking fantasy adventure series “The Berserker’s Saga.” Currently, the saga features two novels – “Legacy of the Bear” and “Prophecy of the Bear.” For more about his written work, check out his website.