Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Faux-80's Watch: Stranger Things (Season 1, 2016)

There's an argument to be made that Stranger Things, 2016 (8 episodes, Season 1 on Netflix) is a rip off and riff on popular and cult media of the 1980's and that we should be suspicious of it's desire to emulate the stylings, feel and sensibilities of the era.  The show trades in nostalgia for Gen-X'ers (and likely Millennials, whom, it seems, grew up on the media of Gen-X), from font type to musical selection to references to kid culture of the time to conspicuously placed posters of influential films of the era.*

That it does these things is unquestionable - this is not convergent evolution.  But with 1983 (the year the story takes place) now 30-odd years in the rear-view mirror, it's also a period piece (I'll just let that sink in, 40-somethings.) just as much as Grease was in the late 70's, or 90% of the output of Martin Scorsese.  That the Duffer Brothers, show runners who wrote and directed a huge portion of the 8 episodes, chose this period to mine is not a huge surprise.  We're still working our way through Star Wars sequels and Ghostbusters relaunches.  We can casually drop an E.T. or Poltergeist reference and expect to be understood.  In perhaps more self-selective circles, we can do same with The Thing or Evil Dead.

Anyway, something happened in the 1980's that was not entirely of the era, but it showed up like an open wound in our media of the era in a way that movies have forgotten how to do.

The show is odd.  The story could stand on it's own as a sort of minor Lovecraftian horror tale in a small town.  The story itself is somewhat slender.  But to produce something like that for television without acknowledging the audience's awareness of similar projects, well known projects, is a challenge.  Instead, Stranger Things embraces the audiences' assumed shared cultural heritage (and there's something here about the pre-internet era as the last era with common cultural touchstones).  I got many of the references from the King-style fonts and titling of each chapter, to the Byer's house bearing a passing resemblance to the house in Evil Dead.  And there are plenty more, and you're welcome to cite them in the comments.

If you ever read any Stephen King or remember Spielberg's earlier work, part of what made it work so well was that both had a feel for middle class families and, basically, deeply unpolished characters going through messy times in their lives when the story kicked in.  E.T. saw Dee Wallace trying to raise three kids and asking them to do the job themselves while she kept food on the table.  And, man, name a Stephen King book.  It's unusual to see something starring kids where the parents aren't either dead or just unavailable somehow - but in the 1980's, we were used to parents who were kind of trainwrecky.

The show centers around a few groups of characters - the high schoolers complete with romantic triangle, a group of nerdy middle school boys, and the adults - mostly separate but anchored by Winona Ryder as the mother of a missing child and David Harbour as the town's gold-bricking police chief with a substance problem.

If the Millennials and their "I'm such a nerd" business want to know why us slightly older types look at them with side-eye, it's because we know, man.  Playing D&D was not cool, or knowing all of Tolkien, or all about the X-Men.  They're an adorable bunch, and it's not too hard to pick yourself out of the bunch (yeah, I was Lucas, the nay-saying safety cop).  

While the movie of Stand By Me was certainly a favorite of mine at one point in my life (it was about twelve year old boys and came out when I was 11 or 12, but its been at least a decade since I've watched it), the book - a novella called The Body - is well worth reading, of ocurse.  What both get right is that once you're old enough to pay attention to girls, you really don't ever have friends again quite like the ones you had when you were that age, and it's more than likely that whatever made you friends at that age isn't enough to keep you together for the long run.

While all three sets of characters have an emotional resonance, it's seeing kids - acting like kids and not wise-cracking miniature adults - of this age with the same ridiculous obsessions I had at the time, that became my focal point.   It's what JJ Abrams tried to capture with Super 8, but that never really clicked.  Not enough to make you think about the movie or its characters after the credits rolled.

The story begins as one of the boys, last seen leaving an all-weekend D&D session, pedals home that last stretch of country road and runs into... something.

The boy's family - mother played by Winona Ryder and brother played by Norman Reedus clone Charlie Heaton - begins looking, with almost everyone just giving the boy up for lost in their forested rural community.  However, police chief Jim Hopper, is still digging out from the mess of his own life and the tragic events besetting his quiet community give him a new focus.

I've heard folks talking about Ryder's performance in unflattering terms, and I'll be honest - I don't get it.  Ryder's voice is what Ryder's voice has always been.  She's always had the giant eyes - that's what sold her in the 90's as a gamine movie-girlfriend.  And the complaint seems to be "well, she acts crazy".

Yeah.  Her @##$%ing kid is missing.  I don't want to call you guys a bunch of unfeeling monsters, but I'm also not sure if you've checked in on parents when they're concerned about their kids.  It's not always a rational state of affairs - all of which plays to what's actually happening on screen.

Meanwhile, a girl appears with limited vocabulary, wearing a hospital gown and a shaved head.  She's somehow tied to an "energy research facility" on the edge of town.

And, it's the 1980's, so we have a teen-aged romance storyline that I liked a lot more than I thought I would.  The young woman at the middle of the storyline is pretty great for her age and looks like a junior version of author Candice Millard.  She's the nerdy girl who one of the class hunks has noticed, and she's on the cusp of maybe finding romance and climbing the social ladder when he little brother's friend disappears.

It's not that many characters to juggle, really.  And they all perform a function, even within the quartet of boys (plus, the girl, whom they pick up along the way).

It's an alternate-dimension-has-been-breached-and-the-government-types-are-covering-it-up-oh-god-what-is-that? story with plenty of scary moments and suspense/ thrills.  You'll recognize character archetypes that have somewhat gone out of style, approaches to mood and lighting that kind of went out in the 00's.  And while the story twists and turns, the 8-episode structure means the show actually remains pretty lean, just getting through the turn of events in a way that feels novelesque.

As I said - The cues from other media don't necessarily inform.  They're Easter Eggs, but they don't push the story forward so much as provide context and atmosphere.  Titles of each episode reflect the kinds of titles I remember for chapters when I read Stephen King.  The music feels like Jan Hammer/ Tangerine Dream/ name your 80's atmospheric electro-pop (by Austin, TX act SURVIVE).

But, culturally, there's something else about this time for us Gen X'ers (in the U.S and likely Canada), and it's something we seem to be returning to as we create our own media** - to share something about our existence at the time (even some of Henry's moments in The Americans ring so familiar it hurts).  Perhaps there was something about this frontier on the edge of technology, the hangover from the 1970's with it's latch-key kids raising themselves while being told they could be anything, and the barely-hanging-in-there single moms in suburbia who weren't ready for the realities of the divorce when it came, but here they were, doing it on their own.  Those kids and those of us who had parents that didn't split walked around pretty sure the Russians were going to nuke us.  We had computers and role playing games and a lot of things our parents didn't pay attention to as we went about our business, making secret worlds that didn't rely on a smart phone.  Those same parents didn't necessarily have many rules about what we should and shouldn't watch as cable entered our homes and multiple TVs in the house tucked kids away out of sight.  In some ways, we were the last era in which kids were still seen but not heard, had corporal punishment, and no one had ever heard of a "play date", and the idea of adventure being a BMX bike ride away into undeveloped woods (something I did with regularity that would chill the spine of most modern parents) was always possible.

Whether it's JJ Abrams Super 8, this year's Midnight Special, or a half-dozen other films I'm not thinking of - I don't mind that people are mining this field right now to do something new.  Look, I loe superheroes and superhero movies, but you can't just eat cheeseburgers.  You need to mix up the menu.

It's interesting to revisit the era - to see it recreated on screen and in delivery.  I confess to being disappointed when they first go in for obvious CGI as it breaks some of the spell.  And, of course, there's the occasional anachronism either via dialog, selection of props (I had a hard time believing a kid in Indiana would have an Evil Dead poster on their wall in 1983 - especially without any creases.  Movie posters were hard to come by back in the day.) or even technology (baby monitors weren't really in common use yet in 1983).

I'm choosing not to feel cynical about Stranger Things, in part because I feel it was successful in what it set out to do.  There may not be a lot of hidden meaning or deeper layers to the show (yet, I assume there will be more of the show).  And I am not sure how a show like this even works set in the modern era with cell phones and where the characters would spend the whole movie running DNA tests and staring at computer monitors.  As Indiana Jones relies on the still-exotic world that people could imagine beyond their borders in the 1930's and which was dramatized in serials and pulp fiction, using the imagery of the 1980's gives us the world of the unknown in the shadows that film and television of the era and which we're still working to top.

If borrowing some of that era's mojo to make a watchable show is what it takes, I'm more than cool with that.

I don't want to wrap this up without talking more about Elle/ Eleven - the young girl at the center of the story.  It's not a new idea, and such an 80's idea, to have someone special appear among a group of kids who have to hide and protect the most potent one of all of them.  Or, just someone special.  And the 90's turned that idea into Mac and Me and made it awful.

Like all of the characters - and this is a big deal, because lord knows TV doesn't always do this well - Elle has an arc that's absolutely fascinating.  They may explain a bit too much about her, but she's a fascinating way to take on that ET character and merge in so many other themes.

*Also, why do we suddenly get embarrassed or somehow denigrate nostalgia?  Who the @#$% cares if you get a charge out of seeing a Care Bear or a hamburger telephone that you haven't seen since you were twelve years old?  It's not like movies don't totally pat themselves on the back for their literary or filmic allusions.  Heck, Tarantino made a whole career out of reminding you how good other movies are (and still turns in a good picture while doing so).

**it's worth noting that the Duffer Brothers are born in 1984, not Gen-X, and part of the generation that grew up on this stuff second hand.  It really puts an interesting spin on what kind of media the Gen Y'ers and Millennials will make.  Is it gonna be endless re-mixes of what came before?  What I see of their work on Tumblr... signs point to yes.


Paul Toohey said...

Survive also did music for Slash, a movie I was a sound mixer on for a couple days.

I expect you to all see it when it hits theaters later this year:

Unknown said...

Matt and I watched the entire series. It was better than watching the conventions. I'm burned out on cynicism, so it appealed to me. It seemed like they (the Duffer brothers) wanted to make something fun to watch. I think they did. Note: The child actors apparently tried out for their roles by reading portions of "Stand By Me." Also, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) was my favorite. "Why are you keeping this curiosity-door locked?" If I had a kid (and they were old enough to handle ideas of death and the scary parts), I would have them watch the series. It's a good introduction to the idea that science and mystery are not distant cousins.


J.S. said...

I enjoyed the movie. For the first episode or two I was sort of caught up in making comparisons to E.T., Close Encounters, Poltergeist, and a bunch of other 80's flicks. At some point, though, the characters and their situation sucked me in, and I quit caring about all of that other stuff so much. The Duffer brothers did a great job of slowly building mystery and suspense, and the series had a legitimate scariness to it, but all of these things really only worked because the writers, directors, and the actors did their jobs well, and you ended up giving a sh*t about how the whole thing was going to turn out. Take the same plot and put it in different hands, and it might have been something we all would have bailed on after a couple of episodes. One last note- I can't overstate how important the music was in turning this into a successful show. They did a great job with both the 80's soundtrack and the film's score. The scene overlaid with Peter Gabriel's version of Bowie's "Heroes" was inspired.

J.S. said...

The show. I meant I enjoyed the show.

Simon MacDonald said...

I just loved this show. Like J.S. I kept on catching the references to 80's movies but I didn't find it distracting as the story was so enveloping. I was most impressed by the performances of the child actors, I'm shocked they could get so many good young actors.

I'm confused that people did not like Winona Ryder's performance. She seemed to be doing a great job of seeming like a lady who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As Ryan said, she did lose her kid and when you factor in all of the other weird stuff going on I'm sure I wouldn't have kept it together quite so well.

Jake Shore said...

I was on vacation when this show debuted and it never got back on my radar until a couple of weeks ago. But I finally just finished and had to give my two cents. I loved this show. I loved the nostalgia but like Simon said, the story, writing and performances were so good, I just got sucked in.

What stuck out to me about the production of the film was how real the film looked. Lots of movies and tv shows attempt to do the 80s -- clothes, hairstyles, cars, decor -- but it's always kind of a half-ass effort. I mean, some of outfits and hairstyles are not exactly flattering in retrospect, so modern takes always offer a more flattering, palatable version of the 80s, so their stars don't look too ridiculous. Not to mention the way styles from 80s are mixed and matched as if the whole decade looked the same (No whitewashed jeans in 1982). Not here, I mean look at the Nancy's friend Barb. The hair, the jeans..., they went all out. It's just the most 80s film/show not made in the 80s I've ever seen.

I don't know who the Duffer brothers are, but I'm impressed how deeply they've drunk of 80s cinema and media. The attention to detail is pretty incredible. They completely out-80'd J.J. Abrams. And like you mentioned, it really does raise the question of how empty of creativity the last 20 years have been in many ways. Will anyone remember films, styles, music from the 2000s? I'm willing to bet video games offer the most nostalgic and genuine creative output of the last 15 years.

While watching, I thought of E.T., Explorers, a general 80s horror flick vibe, Stephen King, Manhattan Project, and DARYL. Even the opening credits looked like an homage to the "V" mini-series credits.

Loved the synthpop.

Overall, I was really impressed with the casting, the performances (especially the kids) and the writing. I was particularly impressed with guy who played Hopper. He was just outstanding.

As far as criticism, I didn't love Winona Ryder's performance. It was distracting. Manic and crazy would be understandable in her character's circumstances. I'm just saying Ryder didn't have the chops to pull it off credibly. She looked like was out of her league as an actor; someone trying to act like someone who just lost a child, but had no frame of reference in such a "normal" role (she's no Dee Wallace or JoBeth Williams from Poltergeist). I think Patricia Arquette or Marisa Tomei would have been a big improvement. I also thought some of the dialogue between the kids, especially the arguments, was a little clunky.

Anyway, none of this was enough to keep me from enjoying the hell out of this series. As a child of a divorced single mom with two siblings in the 80s, there is, like you said, something familiar to it all, so credit the Duffers for pulling it off.