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IT’s Mourning in America: Modern Cinema’s End of the Eighties…

IT and Atomic Blonde touch on an intriguing (and renewed) interest in the end of the eighties.

There are a number of other examples scattered across contemporary pop culture. Halt and Catch Fire recently jumped several years in the gap between its penultimate and final seasons, straddling the end of the eighties and exploring the existential chaos of the early nineties. Mindhorn finds its central character unable to escape the shadow of a beloved cult television show that was retired in 1989, his fame ending with that decade. Although the true story that inspired it unfolded in the mid-nineties, Gold is set in the late eighties.

Part of this undoubtedly simple nostalgia. After all, the current generation of cinema audiences most likely came of age in the late eighties and grew in the nineties. This explains the wave of eighties and nineties nostalgia sweeping through popular culture, from the relaunches of shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files to belated sequels like Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World. People tend to be nostalgic towards their own childhoods, and this explains the pull of pop art like Stranger Things to modern audiences.

At the same time, it is interesting to wonder whether there is something deeper at work in all of this, if this very focused fascination with the end of the eighties is in some way intended as a commentary or reflection on the contemporary world, whether these films are trying to make sense of the modern climate through the framework of the transition from the late eighties into the nineties.

Atomic Blonde is set in the very last days of 1989. It unfolds against the backdrop of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Repeatedly throughout the film, the collapse of the Berlin Wall is presented as an apocalyptic event. In the world of Atomic Blonde, the Berlin Wall is load-bearing. Dismantling it would lead to a collapse of the entire established political order. There would be no more frontiers to conquer, no more enemies against which the west might define itself. Atomic Blonde presents the Berlin Wall as a metaphorical analogue to the Wall in Game of Thrones; it tries (and fails) to keeps out the madness.

Indeed, the timeliness of Atomic Blonde is reflected in the imagery of the wall. The wall is a figure of the collective imagination, whether as a boundary doomed to failure in Game of Thrones, or as an expression of madness in War for the Planet of the Apes, or as something through which insanity crumbles in Atomic Blonde. Of course, most of these ideas predate the particular wall that currently anchors public consciousness, but the image of the wall ripples through contemporary popular culture and is impossible to avoid.

Atomic Blonde even teases that the wall exists around the chaos of the nineties, perhaps even hinting that popular fixation on the border wall between the United States and Mexico represents a desperate attempt to restore some sense of order to the world, like some sort of subconscious attempt to slam shut Pandora’s Box before even hope can escape. Do the Berlin Wall and the Border Wall exist as gigantic iconic bookends standing on either side of a historical lacuna? As with a lot of Atomic Blonde, it is hard to tell what is really going on beyond the striking imagery.

IT unfolds slightly earlier in 1989, against the backdrop of the summer holidays for a bunch of kids who wind up grappling with a monstrous clown. IT is saturated with pop culture references, from the cinema screening Batman and Lethal Weapon II through to references to New Kids on the Block and Michael Jackson. The fashion and the style reinforce this sense of time, right down to the mullets worn by the bullies. The AIDS crisis even gets a mention. IT is very much anchored in a time as much as a place, comparisons reinforced by the overlap of actor Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things.

One of the more interesting aspects of this late eighties nostalgia in both Atomic Blonde and IT is the way in which it frames this nostalgia as the end of an era. Atomic Blonde is built around both the end of the Cold War that defined the geopolitical order since the end of the Second World War, and the literal demolition of the Berlin Wall that was erected in the early sixties. IT finds a bunch of children standing up to a nameless evil that has haunted a small town for a long time, trying to put a definitive end to the cycle of violence once and for all.

In this context, it’s worth reflecting that the end of the eighties did represent a major shift in established world order. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only major world superpower; Francis Fukuyama called it “the end of history”, while Charles Krauthammer more modestly described it as “the unipolar moment.” The nineties were a decade in which the United States was never really challenged, whether politically or socially or economically. The Cold War was over. The economy was strong. The western world was relatively stable.

Interestingly, Atomic Blonde and IT approach the end of the eighties in a very different way. Atomic Blonde seems genuinely terrified of what lurks waiting in the darkness beyond the boundaries of the rigidly-defined Cold War, perhaps anticipating the sense of existential ennui that would dominate the nineties. Without a clearly defined enemy, pop culture would become more overtly introspective. In the nineties, film and television frequently explored questions about the nature of existence and the meaning of life as the millennium drew to a close. Prosperity brought a spiritual crisis.

In contrast, IT suggests that the nineties might be a time of prosperity and hope for the inhabitants of Derry, with the children having vanquished the monster that fed upon the city’s fear and preyed upon its children. The creature always went into a period of hibernation between feedings, but the kids in IT seem hopeful that it might be gone for good, that they have dispelled a dark cloud hanging over Derry since its inception. As such, the children approach the nineties with a cautious sense of hope and optimism.

Of course, the cruelest punchline in IT comes at the very end. It is not much of a twist, to be fair. The source material is predicated on the reveal that the children did not actually definitively defeat the creature during their first encounter, and are forced to confront that nameless evil once again as adults. Although the publicity materials haven’t pushed this reveal to the fore, the production team have been quite explicit in their desire to make a follow-up film that will see the children returning to Derry as adults to complete their task. The film even ends of the promise that it is “Chapter One.”

As such, both Atomic Blonde and IT seem to implicitly trace a modern day evil back to the end of the eighties. IT allows for a period of relative piece and prosperity in the nineties, but both films suggest that horrific events in the late eighties unleashed an anarchy upon the world that upset the established order of things. This seems quite pointed, given that the twenty-first century has seen a retreat from the global peace and prosperity of the nineties, particularly in recent years.

Atomic Blonde is perhaps most pointed on this, suggesting that the inevitable consequence of the collapse of the Berlin Wall was the end of the global order that had existed since the end of the Second World War. This feels particularly pointed in an era where the President of the United States has advocated a foreign policy that borders on isolationism and retreating from America’s place as a global leader. Donald Trump has repeatedly signalled a disinterest in NATO and a lack of concern about the Holocaust, a firm rejection of post-war American values.

In some respects, though, IT offers the more interesting analysis. One of the more interesting aspects of this adaptation of IT is that the movie’s nostalgia is somewhat recursive. The film is an adaptation of a late eighties novel by Stephen King. King’s novel alternated between flashbacks to the fifties and present-day scenes set in the eighties. By virtue of an advancing timeline, the sequel to IT will presumably set its present-day scenes in the twenty-first century, meaning that its flashbacks are set in the eighties, when the novel was written.

Indirectly, IT becomes a piece of modern nostalgia for eighties nostalgia for fifties nostalgia. Although IT is populated with pop culture markers that suggest the eighties, the town of Derry is presented as a very stereotypical small town. There might be a video game arcade, but there is also a sense of mid-twentieth century community. Mike Hanlon works at an abattoir, delivering cuts of meat to local butchers on his bikes. Most of the adults in the town, such as Beverly Marsh’s father, seem to work blue collar jobs. The town even has a romanticised old-timey Independence Day parade.

More than that, IT feels very much like an eighties horror film. The structure of the film owes a lot to eighties horror films like Nightmare on Elm Street, with a bunch of inquisitive kids discovering untold horrors buried in the past of their seemingly idyllic community, while a bunch of adults are powerless to help them. (At one point, the cinema in town is even screening Nightmare on Elm Street V as a tribute to that school of socially-pointed horror film.) It hits upon the same sense of something sinister lurking under a romanticised exterior seen in films like Blue Velvet.

It is worth acknowledging that these eighties small-town films were very pointedly set against the backdrop of Reaganism. Many of these horror films could be read as anxieties about the sweeping and pervasive influence of Reaganism, the unchecked union of raw capitalism and wistful nostalgia evoked by the promise of “Morning in America.” Both Atomic Blonde and IT unfold in the wake of the Reagan presidency, although Atomic Blonde opens with the iconic clip of Reagan appealing to “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Given the film that follows, Reagan seems to herald the apocalypse.

Perhaps this is the anxiety towards which Atomic Blonde and IT are hinting, the worry that the modern political and social climate mark a zombified return to (and are a simple extrapolation of) eighties values embodied by Ronald Reagan. This goes beyond superficial comparisons between the movie star and the reality television host who swept the White House, or even the fact that Trump appears to have spoken to the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”

In some respects, Ronald Reagan could be seen as the forefather of the so-called “Tea Party” movement that became a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign. Although Richard Nixon welcomed evangelicals into the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan embraced them wholeheartedly. This is to say nothing of Trump’s avowed support of Reagan’s economic policies. Reagan’s racially coded embrace of the “welfare queen” serves a similar purpose to Donald Trump’s more overt demonisation of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

However, perhaps the most telling link between the two is a sense of nostalgia. Reagan consciously appealed to a strong sense of nostalgia among white Americans for the perceived wholesomeness of the fifties, rejecting the turmoil of the sixties and the seventies for that social group. That nostalgia permeated his campaign’s messaging and ideology. Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again” evoked that fifties nostalgia itself, but also spoke nostalgically to that eighties nostalgia for the fifties. Nostalgia will eat itself.

IT captures this sense of recursion, an exercise in eighties nostalgia based on a novel exploring fifties nostalgia. More to the point, the eighties setting of IT taps into many of the horror genre’s fears about Reaganism and repurposes them (slightly) for the Trump era. Pennywise has dominated the marketting for IT, and understandably so, but the movie and the novel touch upon a more subtle and unsettling horror. As the children become aware of the monster preying on this small town, they begin to notice how oblivious all the adults are to this horrible thing.

In the opening scene, an old woman on porch is completely oblivious to the murder of Georgie Denbrough not twenty metres from the front of her house. At one point, two adults very slowly drive by the scene of bullies stabbing Ben Hanscom with a knife. At another point, Beverly Marsh’s father walks into a bathroom covered in blood completely oblivious to the carnage; his boots squidgy on the blood, and other children can see the blood, so the film makes it clear that the adult is the problem here, not the child.

As with a lot of Stephen king’s work, IT is primarily a story about things simmering beneath the surface; not only does the creature take forms specific to each child’s fear, it also lurks in the sewer as if haunting the town’s subconscious. Both the novel and the film repeatedly suggest that the children are dealing with less supernatural forms of abuse. Beverly Marsh is assaulted by her father. Eddie Kaspbrak is kept inside by his domineering mother, who seems afraid of something in the outside world, even if she can’t put her finger on it.

This sense of fundamental rot is reinforced by short snippets of a public access television show that seems to play around the clock on every television in the town. Like Derry itself, this children’s television show seems wholesome on the outside, but hides a rotten core. The programme exists the enforce and maintain the creature’s perverse influence within the community, urging children to go play in the sewer and even driving some supporting characters to truly horrific actions. It evokes the way that eighties horror movies like They Live explored the overwhelming culture of the time.

Evoking films like Nightmare on Elm Street, IT suggests that the real horrors unfolding are enabled by a culture of indifference that is fed by an older and disengaged generation. The adults in Derry would rather live in a fantasy world built on the idea that things do not change and that everything is perfect rather than confront the reality that something is rotten at the heart of their community. In many respects, this ties back into the core nostalgia dominating certain strands of American thought, the belief that things can be perfect so long as the suffering of others is ignored.

Conservative white Americans reject the notion of identity politics for minority groups, while engaging in those same politics themselves. Facing rising levels of unemployment in industrial communities, communities embrace candidates who promise to bring back jobs that simply no longer exist. Rather than confront changing reality, these communities demonise outsiders and blame globalisation, instead of trying to confront real problems within their community. They target immigrants for deportation, rather than fight to raise the minimum wage.

In some respects, the current political climate evokes the horror of the Reagan era. Reagan-era horrors frequently suggested that people were willing to allow others to suffer in order to preserve the illusion of happiness, that they could look past pain and violence inflicted on others so long as they could believe that the world looked the way that they wanted it to. The real horror in these stories is a lack of empathy for other human beings, an unwillingness to look past the superficial trappings of an individual’s own circumstances, perhaps the ultimate grotesque end point of the “me first” generation.

In some ways, this taps into the broader worry that modern society has become disconnected and disengaged, the fear that the world does not make sense and that there is no longer a single cohesive version of reality. Atomic Blonde suggests that madness lies on the other side of the Berlin Wall. IT focuses on a Lovecraftian weirdness lurking just beneath the surface of a town where an entire population is willfully blind to the horrors occurring (literally) right under their noses. Atomic Blonde seems to suggest this order broke down at the end of the eighties, while IT suggests it has been waiting and lurking since then.

Atomic Blonde and IT suggest that the modern world is still haunted by the end of the eighties, that the current political climate is an extension of those same tensions that rippled through eighties popular culture.

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6 Responses

  1. I’m scared by this article… because there is no way I can really deny this. Once again, you prove how amazing you are.

  2. History is written by the victors, and if an “end” to Reaganism exists, we are still in the middle of it, too far away to define its edge.

  3. This was an incredibly insightful (and, as Jorge Lopez Colon observed, scary) article. I posted a link on Facebook.

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