If you’ve paid some what attention to the podcast over the past year then you figured out about halfway through that I had a plan all along. The first ten episodes of the super 70 podcast are exclusively from the 1980s. I chose to do this for several reasons and for those of you who are curious about my personal journey to podcasting and what those ten movies mean to me…please tune in. If you’re not in the slightest bit curious I highly recommend you skip this all together.
My youth in the 80s must have been what most youths in the 80s was like. I was born in a middle class suburban neighborhood and went to an integrated school. I was a fan of pop culture like everyone my age and fell victim to it as well. I watched and watched and watched movies. I became to love, to worship film. I bought a skateboard after seeing Back to the Future and dressed like a Ghostbuster for my tenth Halloween. It never occurred to me that film was an art form until I got into college and met a friend. He was very perceptive and the first film we watched together was Kevin Smith’s Clerks which he had on laserdisc.
I once saw Hitchcock say in an interview that he thought film was an art form for the masses, not for the art house. Robert Ebert wrote thousands of film reviews and framed a career that felt a need to protect the regular movie goer from a Hollywood intent on making money by shelling out stupidity. We now have teenagers making films on their iPhone. On this long road to democratizing film as art, a kid from New Jersey who never went to college charged up 27 thousand dollars on his credit card and sold his film for three hundred grand. There are obvious downsides to Clerks as every internet troll will tell you. The camera is motionless, the grain is rough, the development is uneven and the actors are all college level amateurs or lower. However, how many of you have created something for 27 bucks and sold it for 300? Kevin Smith did more than this. His next film had a budget of 6 million, backed by a major Hollywood Studio where Steven Spielberg called the shots. He soon produced a film that garnered an oscar for best screenwriting and for those what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd Smith has tackled three different genres in the last six years that seemed to have been written, directed, and marketed to a critic proof audience. The masses might not see Smith’s films, but it does not mean they are not for them.
In 2006, Smith started his own podcast, which back then was an MP3 file you had to download from his website and burn to a CD to listen to. Because of the mode of distribution, podcasting back then was not very democratic. You had to know code, pay server fees, and be hip on software. Smith couldn’t do all this so he hired Ming Chen, the star of Comic Book Men, to write the code for Smodcast on www.viewaskew.com. At the time I faced a 90 minute commute every day and listened to Smodcast from Episode One.
Ten years later I was faced with unemployment and uncertainty. I threw myself into finding work to support my family but I also had to fight the true enemy of the unemployed – boredom. I already had a website, www.thatdylandavis.com, and I had been mulling around the idea of starting a podcast on history but found the research and citations too much for someone who just wanted to do it on the side. Unlike Kevin Smith or Mike Duncan, the incredibly successful creator of the History of Rome Podcast, my podcast is not monetized and it is not a full time job. Because of my post graduate work in film studies, and because film is largely in the eye of the beholder, I decided to do a film commentary podcast. Most film podcasts were two or more people arguing about a film’s merits. The Projection Booth Podcast and the 80s All Over are two that I listen to every week. But no one seemed to be breaking it down scene by scene like were trained to do in film school. I knew it would not be for everyone, but that seemed a way to make it something special. I would do a scene by scene analysis and the Super 70 Podcast, named after Super 8 and 70mm film, was born.
Super 8 is an Eastman Kodak format for 8mm film released in 1965. It is the same size as the previous Regular 8mm format but has a greater exposed area on the sides because the perforations along one edge are smaller. By 1973 it also included an oxide strip along one border that enabled live recording of sound. The film came in a cartridge that could support two and a half minutes at 24 frames per second, the professional motion picture standard, or three minutes and 20 seconds at 18 frames per second for people shooting home movies who wanted to economize. Super 8 became extremely popular through the 1970s. My grandfather had one, and it is still in use today. In the 1980s it was largely replaced by video tape but industry people still used Super 8, especially in the advent of the music video.
70mm is twice the size of a standard 35mm frame and has greater height. When projecting a film in 70mm you see an image four times the size of 35mm film with no loss in quality. The aspect ratio is 2.20 to 1. 70mm was developed in many forms from the 1930s and 1940s but it took Mike Todd, one of the founders of Cinerama, to make 70mm popular. Cinerama required three different film projectors running a single reel of a 35mm print to produce the 2.20 to 1 aspect ratio on a curved screen. As impressive as the experience was, it was cumbersome and expensive to pull off. Todd left Cinerama and collaborated with the American Optical Company to create Todd-AO, a single 70mm print with 6 channel sound on the same aspect ratio. 70mm was revealed in 1954 with Oklahoma!, and framed such epic films as The Sound of Music and Patton. I first saw 70mm watching Cleopatra in the early 90s and I knew I was seeing something special. Super Panavision 70 was a competitor that MGM used to film Ben-Hur, and the format was used to show Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, and more recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight which used an anamorphic squeeze to see a 65mm film on a 70mm without quality loss. As digital technology overtakes film in both image capture and projection, 70mm is on the decline, but audiences still love it, and I do too.
I am not against watching movies on your iPhone. I do understand how it irks some people, especially in the industry, that large scale projections are being miniaturized in a commercial process. I also understand that film as celluloid is special and takes talent to use. But it also takes talent to know what image you want to create using a RED or other digital camera. Super 8 and 70mm was to me the two ends of the movie making spectrum. One was extremely simple to use, the other only for global corporations to pull off. Super 8 was for everyone to use and 70mm was for everyone to enjoy. That’s why this podcast is called Super70.
I went to a rather liberal university, which should surprise no one, and I graduated with a philosophy degree in the 1990s. I was from a rather conservative background and I was struck how liberal everyone was from the staff to the student body. I was also struck how liberals viewed history, and almost all of my professors were liberal. I don’t view my education as slanted, if anything it helped me gain perspective. But this did mean I saw certain things in society and history interpreted in different ways. Not good, not bad, just different. History and film seemed like such black and white issues to me. It was strange to see them in tones of grey or in other cases flipped to white and black. One of the many issues that confused me was the color of the brush one used to paint all of the 1980s, including film, pop music, and literature.
When looking back to the 80s, no one seemed to have a good thing to say. Reagan was a demented neo-con. The fact that he signed an amnesty for millions of Latinos and attempted to rid the world of all nuclear weapons was never discussed. His wife was a bobble head doll, empty on the inside despite a forceful persona that cared deeply for the nation’s youth. The culture of the 1980s was inherently connected to Reagan and thus was decadent and corrupt. There seemed no way to explain the marvelous art that occurred at the time following this narrative. The one hit wonders that cranked out of Great Britain that included Spandau Ballet, the Cutting Crew were seen as anemic bubble gum pop art that suffered under a simplistic fantasy created by John Hughes and pumped up with hypermasculinity from the likes of Sylvester Stallone. Cinema in the 70’s was known for being independent, feminist, and in the hands of the artist. Everyone cherishes and celebrates the decade though it was beset by a horrible war, degenerating scandal, and the decay of our economic system. I find this confusing. By the 80s the movie studios were being taken over by banks, junk bond companies and right wing media corporations intent on pushing the country to the right and destroying culture in the process. Time magazine even ran cover with an upside down picture of Reagan that declared the official record was being overturned. Yet I see the 80s as a richer version, and definitely more advant garde, than the 70's.
The problem with the accepted narrative is that it leaves out a remarkable decade of all types of art, from Maplethorpe to Spielberg, and in the so called vacuum of 80s culture you will find David Byrne, David Bowie, and Dire Straits. The 80s is not only rich with culture but extremely diverse. Blade Runner is a great American film financed by Hong Kong money and directed by a Brit. Many directors in the 80s like Mel Brooks were second generation Americans, some like him were Jewish, spoke French, served in the Second World War, and had a hell of a sense of humor. The decade was not just American by nature. Australia came into its own in the 80’s with fantastic action films like The Road Warrior and Japan cranked out title after title after title of classics that stand the test of time: Ran; Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Akira; The Ballad of Narayama won the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1983. China had its own successful run on and off the mainland. The Hong Kong action film was not invented in the 80’s, but the island exploded with the talent of John Woo and Jackie Chan. I picked ten films for very different reasons to confront the idea that the 80s are vacuous of culture as untrue.
Blade Runner is a perfect start for the 80s. It is at the beginning of the decade and so it is not saddled with any baggage. It points to where we should be going in 10 years and thus it is afraid of our dystopian future where cyberpunks and corporations push us around. Head Office pokes fun at the gaping holes in capitalism so we can laugh at the moral majority without too much self examination. Looker uses the thriller genre to examine beauty and more importantly, what importance we put on beauty and how the eye of the beholder is all things in the powerful temple of marketing. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind shows who we can be using a heroine good at heart despite the corruption in the world. Nausicaa is not an Eliot Ness who barges down the door with a gun, but someone who recognizes that the only way to change the world is to show the people who they can be by being that person yourself. And what is wrong with wanting to be a better person? Back to the Future shows some disturbing reactionary phenomenon, but it’s good natured romp through time gives us the belief that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. Ghostbusters tests this notion, passes it but at the same time warns that if we stay on this track, dogs and cats will eventually live together. John Carpenter told us to look deeper into our society with They Live, a shocking science fiction film that body slams yuppies, or rather, the dog eat dog glutinous attitude that yuppies live by. Gallipoli is the apex of the anti-war film. It could have been any battle of any war, and thus it’s meaning in the decade after we left vietnam transcends its time setting. This is important to look at after so many movies about the American war effort in Vietnam and so many books analyzing them. Gallipoli is so anti-war it is almost dangerous. You might get to a point where you don’t believe in war at all. And if that is the case then there would be no one to stop Hitler except Mel Brooks and his 35mm panavision...and his wit. To Be Or Not To Be keeps alive the dangers of fascism by pointing out that the absurd can kill you just as readily as the banal. And finally we come to Heathers, the final word on the 80s. It can be all you define it as: full of consumers or narcissists whose only good quality is they inspire others to murder them. Killing the yuppies, as much fun as John Carpenter shows that would be, though, is not the answer. Ultimately, Heathers concludes that you should find another way. Personally, I’m going to go rent some video tapes and watch them with my friends.
This was just my take on the 1980s. A time that was described to me as a reactionary far right vacuous culture seemed to me to be fairly liberal and although film in this time struggled with misogyny in Back to the Future and racism in Gallipoli, it seemed to also be discussing domestic and global issues such as pollution, consumerism, and the value of human life. The 80s didn't seem like a dead culture to me at all. It seemed very much alive, very rich and willing to take on issues that needed to be discussed. Film can be a microcosm into the times it was made, the hopes and dreams, and also the anxiety and fears of the audience. If you can see this in the 80’s you can see analyze any film from any decade, and that was my hope. I don’t see a bunch of overboard homosexuality in the Lord of the Rings. I see a bunch of different people who strive to find their similarities in the face of evil.
In the next decade we’re going to take on some very different themes and the films won’t be so cogent this time. They’re going to be more spread out, less organized, but no less important. I’ll try to do a lot less rambling and drinking this time. I hope you’ll join me.