May Newsletter: On ‘80s Cinema and Art Not Activism

I have taken a seat back as recently released films have continued to make their way to small and smaller screens. Will we be talking about any of them ten years from now? Will there be any one of them still standing out in a decade’s time? I started to have all these conflicting feelings as I have realised that message starts to be more important than medium and I don’t think I like it. I don’t believe activism should take over art. And I think that’s what is happening in Hollywood and I think they are doing it too late, too loud, and for all the wrong reasons.

We go to different movies for different reasons and I do believe that films are important for shaping attitudes, but political propriety is a very different thing from freedom of expression and artistic excellence and I hate all the ideological compliance seeping into cinema in the 2020s. I find that movies have stopped being incredibly moving without being manipulative. How many films released throughout the period of one year can be called masterpieces by the same publication? How many “masterpieces” and “stunning” films can one take? Seeing that sort of quote on a film’s poster is the surest way to make me stay away from it. They instantly turn a poster into an advertisement, which instantly turns a film into mass entertainment.

It’s a pity that cinema has had just one John Cassavetes. “I think most of us look forward to an opportunity for working as amateurs – in the sense that ‘professional’ means you have to do a job and ‘amateur’ means you like to do it.” What movies would we be watching today if more filmmakers were in it for the joy of making films?

I have been watching and re-watching ‘80s movies, something that has just happened, without any particular reason. I have avoided Hollywood “star” directors, the kind that are nowadays favoured by a media infatuated with commercial success and by the notion of cinema as a merely populist entertainment machinery. The ‘80s were a decade that challenged film aesthetics, when filmmakers were keen to put their own ideas out there, to play with image, and reality and fiction, or, even more importantly, with just saying what they wanted to say in whatever complex or simple way they wanted to. Anything went. And they felt completely free in doing it. Cinema, and life, seemed to be about exploring, finding ways of expressing oneself, sticking to what they wanted to say, to the impressions they wanted to express in a picture. Filmmakers seemed less preoccupied with what the audience’s reaction was going to be and thought in terms of how the film should look. They didn’t try so much to force something that’s different into being the same. A film may aim to demolish preconceived notions, and by all means should mould cultures and tastes, but should not be made around preconceived notions and theoretical expectations of what the audience will do and think. It’s impossible to tell a story with ideas like that.

“It’s astonishing how decades so recent can seem centuries away,” wrote film commentator Jürgen Müller in a compendium about the cinema of the 1980s. “Weren’t the 80s thoroughly anti-classical – and less secure than the 70s in matters of taste? And don’t the 80s now seem naïve and colorful compared to the cool, elegant decade the 90s tried so hard to be?” What I like so much about the movies of the ‘80s is that you, as a viewer, trust the director to be a free thinker and you go into watching a film with an open mind. Comparing the 1980s with the current times, it’s their “self-liberation from the stranglehold of ideologies”, as Müller aptly narrows it down, that seems the hardest to believe ever to have been possible and what is to be infinitely appreciated.

“Theirs is not a culture of progress, but one of artistic survival,” writes Mark Boyle in his book, The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology (I am coming back to this book further on in the newsletter), about the natural world. Can we hope for movies made in the same vein?


I often like to explore a film from a certain perspective, like soundtracking or costume, which I recently did for Taipei Story (1985) in Power Dressing and Sunglasses after Dark. It’s amazing how, at the end of the film, you realise how the entire movie actually plays out in a single shot, the opening scene.

I have rewatched The Mosquito Coast (1986) as research for an interview. Paul Theroux’s book, on which Peter Weir’s film was based, is at its 40th anniversary this year. “If I adapt a book, it’s to appropriate something that I would have liked to write,” screenwriter Paul Schrader said in an interview for Libération. “I need this even when I work for others. In the screenplay for The Mosquito Coast, a good film based on a good book, I recognised myself in the main character.” Harrison Ford played the main character, Allie Fox, but it was River Phoenix, in the role of Allie’s son, Charlie, who threw in a truly remarkable performance. It’s his relationship with the lead, his every move and look, even more than his words, that unlocks the main character. It’s the supporting role par excellence. “I knew he was gone, and in a worried guilty way – I was thirteen years old – I felt responsible for him,” says Charlie early on in the book. River carries that feeling along on the screen in such a beautifully adapted film (Peter Weir is a director who just knows to set up an atmosphere in his films) after a great book.

The Scottish caper Restless Natives (1985), about two highwaymen who are taking a shot at a better life and accidentally become local folk heroes, is totally original and such a great comedy, speaking volumes about the time period it was created in with an elated and quirky sense of humour and unapologetically taking pleasure in the anarchy, and an excellent soundtrack, by Big Country, to back it up.

“Life’s biggest prize is to have the day before you as yours alone to do with as you wish.” That’s the kind of line that makes me love this book, both the writing and what it represents. Mark Boyle said no to technology of any kind several years ago and decided that “instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life”. He no longer wanted to measure his success in terms of “other people staring at a screen a little longer, “liking” you, sharing your work on the websites of shadowy Silicon Valley billionaires”, so started to live a life away from “bright lights to encourage 24/7 ambitions”, a different kind of life in rural Ireland, a life that would not “distract me from myself”. It’s a beautiful book not just because there is something poetic in that way of life, but because there is something poetic in the writing, too. But it’s very much real and life-affirming, too. It’s got meaning, and memory, and texture. That can only come from an intimate sense of self and of your surroundings and a deep connection with nature that is fundamental to your existence. “The pencil has changed how I think, slowed me down, and made my words human again.”

We first watched the film and then found out there is a My Neighbor Totoro book, too (published after the film). I don’t particularly understand the concept of writing a book inspired by a film, but we decided to go for the book because we loved the film so much. It works. With added dimensions to the original animations, it has captured my son’s imagination in different ways than the film.

My interview with photographer Bill Phelps. As life was turning constantly during this past year, when at times there seemed to be no belief in hope, but only in the present, one of the things that constantly kept me looking, hoping to see beyond what I saw was my on-going conversation with photographer Bill Phelps. Affection runs through all of his work, sprung from his desire to express himself, to give everything he can give, to let it go and be part of life, art and heart his greatest companions, and resulting in such a deep and profound experience for everyone being part of, witnessing or viewing it. We both feel we have become friends, which makes our conversation that much more special.

Sophy Roberts recently talked to Paul Theroux as part of her The Art of Travel stories. It’s a good conversation. And they go deep into the meaning of travel, the kind of travel that is so different than the kind that is partly responsible for the situation we are in right now, and they both say that they have a problem with the “I” in travel writing and in the travel book, because travel really is about showing you, the travel writer, how small you are, and that you should remain humble because you are among real people with better stories than you. But the beautiful thing about listening to Sophy and Paul – they both are explorers at heart – is that the urge is not to book a ticket and fly to far-flung places so that you may feel you can add a meaning to the word “somewhere”; the desire is to just go out and look. Somewhere can be everywhere.

India Hicks talks to Naomi Watts. I am not the biggest fan of actors on Instagram or social media (as I have written before), but Naomi Watts is a very special breed. And her David Lynch impersonation is priceless.

The playlist.


Audrey Wagelmans’ LA PETITE. Real life sensibility turned into fine jewellery.

Mark Boyle (of The Way Home) owns a hostel where he lives. Visitors can stay there for up to three nights for free (although some of them have stayed longer) and the only condition is that they don’t bother the others. I am glad that I can not link to it, because that’s the idea. “There’s got to be somewhere, after all, that isn’t on the Internet.” There is no website, no way to make reservations by email or phone, no way of finding the location on Google maps. The ones who truly want to get there have to make it on their own, usually by looking, by knocking on doors and asking for directions. Simple is never easy. That’s the art of travel.
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Monocle magazine, in print.


”It’s all too easy to destroy the present
while exploring the past or the future.”

Mark Boyle, The Way Home


This entry was posted in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to May Newsletter: On ‘80s Cinema and Art Not Activism