Bengal’s 1980s Retrospective Part IV

After a long, long break due to finishing College and moving to Colorado, I am back with five more 80s’ movies that I have not yet seen.

In this part, I finally get around to an interesting, experimental era of animated movies, an expansion on the 70s’ push to adult content that was pioneered by the likes of Ralph Bakshi. There are no films by him here(yet) but it is interesting to see a period of cartoon making where Disney was on shakier ground before their Renaissance at the end of the decade.

You’d be perhaps surprised to learn that my two animation selections are Canadian productions rather than the expected American. But before that, I examine a film that was long in the back-burner for me to watch: Henry Fonda’s swan song feature: On Golden Pond.

On Golden Pond (1981)

Free Kittens Movie Guide: Blu-Ray Review: ON GOLDEN POND
Image from Free Kittens Movie Guide (A generational divide of another time)

Henry Fonda, one of Golden Age Hollywood’s premier stars, was dying in 1981 when making his final movie, based on the 1979 play. In a role that was meant to be allegorical for Fonda’s own real life plight, Fonda’s Norman isn’t exactly dying but he might as well be.

He is an old turning 80 year old man, going on his yearly excursion to a cabin retreat in where else, Golden Pond, located somewhere in New Hampshire.

His loving and somewhat younger wife Ethel ( Katherine Hepburn) is the one real line keeping Norman from going overboard with his dementia-addled antics and even then.

It happens that his estranged daughter Chelsea, played intentionally by Fonda’s daughter Jane, is coming to visit for his 80th birthday, bringing along her new Billy Mays-looking Fiance Bill and his son of the same name who is of course a teenage smart-aleck.

In spite of whatever human faults any one of the family may have, it is Norman’s agitating behavior, brought on by old age cynicism and/or legitimate mental decline that is the biggest buffer to creating one big happy family.

Fonda’s portrayal of Norman is especially notable in the time and place I viewed it now due to how comparable Norman’s erratic behavior and lapses of situational awareness are to Trump’s presidential opponent, Joe Biden.

Sudden bursts of anger, trying to pull off more than he can reasonably chew, often detouring or giving up on conversations. It is uncomfortably similar to one sorry excuse for a Presidential candidate.

Fonda’s performance is what carries what is ultimately a film I feel more ambivalent about than anything else. Perhaps it wasn’t meant for a person like me. Maybe it resonates once you reach Norman and Ethel’s age or nearly so.

Maybe it was for the aging generations that grew up or lived alongside both Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn that this was an extended way of saying goodbye to their contributions to cinema. It certainly was for Fonda who died shortly after the film’s premiere. Less so for Hepburn who would make a couple more films down the road until retirement and death in 2003.

It does touch upon the universal fears and concerns of aging as the much younger members of the family like Jane Fonda’s Chelsea, who is both in real life and in fiction in her early 40s and fiance Bill being a 45 year old man, made worse by Norman’s careless mention of it to him.

The biggest intentional contrast is in Billy Jr, the teenage son who is initially so disinterested in anything Norman and Ethel could possibly consider fun but becomes fond of Norman’s still sharp skill and focus when fishing on the pond, especially for an aquatic nemesis called Walter.

Even though On Golden Pond does attempt to bridge the generational gap of interest through people like Chelsea and the two Billys, it’s still a film that can feel too schmaltzy for its own good. The weight of Henry Fonda’s impending departure does create weight to some notable scenes such as one rough boating accident out on the pond and a near fatal heart attack at the end.

The heart is there but it might not be as visible to a present day audience as it was to entirely different groups of people living and soon to pass in 1981. Perhaps for the latter, On Golden Pond brought them some comfort.

The King of Comedy (1983)

The King of Comedy. 1982. Directed by Martin Scorsese | MoMA
Image from MoMa (For some, life pretty much is a dream.)

The King of Comedy, a unusual PG-rated affair for Martin Scorsese, has gained much better recognition overtime as one of the Italian-American maestro’s better films and for distinct comparisons to last year’s polarizing blockbuster, Joker.

For starters, both films feature villain protagonists with loose ,in different ways, grasps on reality and both feature Robert DeNiro. In the King of Comedy, DeNiro is the sad,deluded, dangerous loser while in Joker, he’s the very thing he loves/hates in the original source of inspiration.

Love or hate Todd Phillips & Joaquin Phoenix’s loose interpretation of perhaps the most acclaimed supervillain of all time, it did help ignite further exposure of Scorsese’s once ignored cringe comedy.

When you think Scorsese, you often think of his forays into the crime genre. Obviously, Scorsese can and has done stuff beyond that area of interest. Raging Bull aside from Rocky is considered the boxing movie from what I’ve heard.

The King of Comedy being a Scorsese picture is less odd when you consider his earlier infamous foray into individual madness and delusion, Taxi Driver.

DeNiro had already played a madman with delusions of misplaced heroism and made an iconic villain in the leading role, Travis Bickle, with his overplayed, once icily frightening “You looking at me?”

Now, seven years later comes Rupert Pupkin, an initially less frightening but still very much mentally compromised fellow from New York. His delusion is somewhat more understandable and that makes it more uncomfortable: to be shoulder to shoulder in both talent and prestige with Jerry Langford, the late night King of Comedy.

Langford’s based on Johnny Carson, the real life King of Comedy, though his appearance suggests David Letterman who would rise to stardom a decade after this movie. Jerry Lewis portrays Langford in a way that is so utterly unlike how you imagine his comic persona.

None of that Professor Frink-sounding utterances from The Nutty Professor. No, Lewis is completely deadpan and like almost anyone else completely aggravated by Rupert never leaving him the hell alone, to the point of stalking and eventual kidnapping.

Rupert, while clearly wrong in the head does speak to an uneasy reality that comes from myself and other people who may find some rapport with any given celebrity.

Whenever anyone does something artistic and creative in public, we latch onto it in ways big and small. The majority just consider that creative person to be good, even inspirational to them and others.

If ever were you to meet that person, you will likely greet and if allowed shake their hand. If also allowed, you can pay them to sign a piece of their work, have a light chat, get a photo.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, right? Especially if the celebrity doesn’t mind, either.

Some celebs are rather notorious for enjoying fan attention like Willie Nelson(more on him later), who I’ve heard has gotten distracted with talking and laughing with the fans when he’s supposed to get to a gig.

Personally, the most evident example of my place in this matter was with Chris Claremont, a legendary Marvel writer who might as well be either the godfather or stepfather for the X-men. The Merry Mutants’ overall success is owed more to him than even Stan Lee.

During a Palm Beach comic convention last year, I had the chance to greet him, with permission interview him for a journalism college project I was doing and got a photo with him. By the end of that exchange, it was cordial, productive and I felt proud to meet with what I hope is an enduring figure in comic book history.

All that being said, The King of Comedy puts even that into perspective that makes me perhaps unduly concerned. Both in fiction and in real life people have taken their admiration and love for creators & artists and abused it to ill ends. Letterman himself would eventually have a crazed female stalker break into his house.

There was already disturbing precedent for what TKOC espouses as warning. John Hinckley Jr tried to murder a president over his taxi driveresque obsession over Jodie Foster in 1981. Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon over thinking he himself was Lennon the year prior. Celebrity unintentionally sparks twisted desires in those that were already mentally off.

Through Rupert’s unfailing attempts to impress Langford such as act as if he is already a friend and co-worker of him to ultimately, successfully becoming a stand up comic star by hijacking a moment on the stage, The King of Comedy questions me thus: who among us is actually free of the same mentally ill antics of people real or not like Pupkin, Chapman and Hinckley Jr?

Of course that mental illness is pre-existing. But could you become over time mentally unstable from factors internal and external? Could a normal interest become obsession to the supposedly “normal” mind? Scenarios in my own head of acting out of line with people I creatively admire haunt me.

At least I’m self aware, at least I fear that. Maybe that’s all the defense you need. Rupert is never made aware of what he is doing. That is how those aforementioned madmen did what they did and in some cases succeeded. They did become famous, can you deny that?

Barbarosa (1982)

Barbarosa (1982)
Image from IMDB (Gary Busey and Willie Nelson as Western outlaws)

You may see or have seen some movies on my retrospective series that you had never heard of up until now. It’s kinda fun going through Box Office Mojo’s list of films since 1980 in terms of financial returns and seeing which of them are worth watching.

Barbarosa may be one of the most obscure and I can’t tell you why that had to be. Westerns were no longer quite in vogue by the 80s’, just occasional ventures back to the genre with varying success like Walter Hill’s The Long Riders to Eastwood’s 1985 blockbuster Pale Rider.

Barbarosa, not unlike one of my animation picks later in this article, was a huge box office flop that flew entirely under the radar in 1982. It was given contemporary applause but only later down the road had any actual recognition come its way. You’ll find that a considerable number of films through my retrospective series have a similar legacy.

Barbarosa shows off Willie Nelson as the titular pre-civil war outlaw of the West, coming across a farm boy called Karl, having left town after killing a family rival out of self defense.

Nelson is famous for his long foray in the country genre of music, helping bring about the “outlaw” style. He’s also one of the most visible proponents of marijuana legalization in the world and has even struck something of a friendship with Snoop Dogg, the other most visible weed apologist I can think of. Dogg famously stated once that only Willie could “smoke” him under the table. That is considerable praise.

Pot smokers are often categorized as being lazier than usual due to the relaxing mellowness smoking a joint can bring. I don’t know when Willie starting toking, but look at his massive number of studio albums since the 1960s, to say nothing of his acting chops (on full display here) and being a black belt champion. He is still making music at 87.

Maybe Willie is the exception to the rule of ganja lovers but my god what an exception. Can’t forget Cheech, Chong and Bob freaking Marley.

Willie plays an outlaw who actually has pretty agreeable reason for his criminality to some extent. Barbarosa, a title rather than his real name which is never uttered, is trying to rob enough money out in the rugged South-Central West so he can get his Mexican wife Josefina (Isela Vega) out of a hacienda run by a vengeful Don Braulio Zavala (Gilbert Roland).

On his wedding day to Josefina, he accidentally kills a member of the Zavalas and shoots off the Don’s right leg. This creates a decade spanning vendetta where the Don sends out his own grown male children and descendents to hunt down and kill Barbarosa.

Barbarosa indeed has a ruthless side to offset his understandable reason for his lifestyle though it can be inferred that his lifestyle was the reason for the bloody feud in the first place. A brutal cycle without end. This mirrors Karl’s own feud with the Pahmeyer family and their aging patriarch (George Voskovec).

Overtime, Barbarosa’s lessons as a outlaw and eventual partner in crime influences Karl himself. You’re not sure how to entirely feel just about anyone, not unlike how you respond if this were a real historical event where the humanity and inhumanity of these people blur your emotional conclusion.

It’s a fine, breezy Western with great cinematography which give a much needed ruggedness to the portion of the West it takes place in. Though there is one scene to make ophidiophobes everywhere turn away like I did.

Rock and Rule (1983)

Rock and Rule – Review
Image from ICFAOTCFW (Before Spongebob’s “Goofy Goober Rock”, there was “Send Love Through.”)

Rock and Rule stands in the middle of the animation maturity spectrum. It is not all-ages or kiddie fare like Disney and Don Bluth. It is not adults only like most of Ralph Bakshi and the next and last film after this one to talk about in this portion of the retrospective.

It is an animated movie aimed at the teenage/young adult crowd, growing up on the kind of music that Rock and Rule pumps out deftly. Think about it, how many feature length animated movies nowadays that would like Rock and Rule be probable PG-13 fare?

This film released the year before the age rating’s creation and because of the unusual demographic for a cartoon it was aiming for, it was massively undermarketed, showed up in few theaters, become a humongous box office flop ($30,000 for an $8 million budget) and nearly killed the Canadian animation studio that made it, Nelvana.

Is the film deserving of the financial curb stomp it received? So far from it. I wouldn’t necessarily call it an unsung masterpiece but it certainly deserved much more attention earlier than it got.

For one, the grittiness and interesting craft of somewhat low budget but highly detailed animation that was commonplace at the time is showcased gorgeously in that teen-rated middle ground. It’s hardly inaccessible to an adult audience and kids could also get a kick out of it.

Aside from there being no anthology set-up, it’s basically Heavy Metal for a wider audience still showcasing a great number of Rock and Pop hits from the likes of Debbie Harry from Blondie, Robin Zandar from Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Earth, Wind & Fire.

What is it all about? Well, in a post-apocalyptic future (there is so many of them in the 80s’), there is only one human left and I use that term loosely. Mok is a rock artist egomaniac and entertainment kingpin that also basically runs the new civilization. Think of Mok as a combination of David Bowie, Mick Jaggar, Iggy and Ozzy. If that’s not good enough, here’s his visage.

Mok Swagger | Villains Wiki | Fandom
Image from Villains wiki (See what I’m getting at?)

What does Mok, the man who basically has everything including the world, want? Well, since his last concert didn’t go over well with his fans, he wants to summon a portal to hell so the devil and his demons can make mince meat of his ungrateful audience, of course. But how to do it?

In what is probably an extended joke at rock and roll being “of the devil” in some Christian circles, Mok is seeking a certain frequency to activate the portal. A certain voice.

That’s where Angel, the female member of an up and coming rock band fits in. She just so happens to have the beautiful voice that can open the portal. I think I need to explain who everyone else is considering Mok is the only human left.

Instead of humanity going extinct, most were transformed into various rodent humanoids. Only two variations are shown, the mostly realistic looking ones that Angel and her quasi-boyfriend Omar look like and the rest which are all have the physiques and for the most part attitudes of Disney and Looney Tunes characters.

The two other band members, Dizzy and Toad, wouldn’t be out of place in A Goofy Movie while Mok’s henchmen would be sterling members of the Beagle Boys.

It might not surprise you but more so for Omar and Angel than anyone else, Rock and Rule has gained a furry following. Make of that what you will, but I felt comfortable enough viewing them outside their animal like features that amount to browner skin and mouse like noses and little else, not even tails.

It certainly helps give the movie quite an identity in that alone. It also has a great selection of music from the mentioned artists, a beautiful of-its-time animated look which is grainy and often gives the exchange of dialogue between characters a strange, dreamy feel as well in the movement of scenes from one to another.

A side effect of the limited budget? It works more than it doesn’t. It’s a film that screams to me what I was looking for in my retrospective. The kind of 80s’ production that knowingly or not at the time, would be fodder for the cult scene. The band isn’t featured here, but I think you will be burnin’ for Rock and Rule once you check it out.

Here’s a musical sample before we get to the other musical animated experience.

Heavy Metal (1981)

TAARNA HEAVY METAL 1981 Original Animation Production Cel + ...
Image from WorthPoint (Appearance aside, she’s one of the less juvenile things in this anthology.)

First of all, Blue Oyster Cult, unlike in Rock and Rule, does audibly appear here, with their awesome “Veterans of the Psychic Wars.” Second, you might be more familiar with this cult classic.

It doesn’t hurt that this is directly based on the adult sci-fi magazine that believe it or not was not about just about having elaborate set-ups to some graphic novel titillation. Some stories, both in the magazine and the movie are completely free of that stuff, like the highly regarded “B-17” segment( WWII bomber planes…with zombies!)

The framing device manages to be both super obvious yet still coming from an appropriately oddball place. An astronaut flies down to earth in a rotoscoped Corvette. He arrives at his home with a container holding a green sphere.

His precocious daughter greets him and upon opening the container, the green ball proceeds to melt the father astronaut and terrify the daughter by telling a seemingly arbitrary set of stories that supposedly relate the ball’s cosmic influence on existence. The green orb being called the Loc Nar FYI.

The stories in order involve

: a future New York City cab driver getting involved in a deadly trade-off of the Loc Nar. (involves sex and boobs)

:A nerdy teen being transported by the Loc Nar into a fantasy world where he becomes a buff, bald and supremely manly man who engages in every teen’s Conan the Barbarian-like escapist dream while being voiced by the one and only JOHN CANDY. (Involves sex and boobs)

:An awful as hell space captain (Eugene Levy), who looks like someone fused the look of Captain Marvel/Shazam with the personality of Zapp Brannigan, is on trial for a litany of crimes. He tries to get bailed out by a stoolie called Hanover Fiste ( voiced by SQUIDWARD, Roger Bumpass), but a marble sized Loc Nar transforms him into a hulk-like monster and chaos ensues. (No boobs and sex)

:The zombies on the bomber plane segment I mentioned earlier.(No boobs or sex)

: An alien cargo/disposal ship that looks like the eventual helmet of DeadMau5 hovers over the Pentagon, sucks up through a tube a alien denying scientist and hot secretary. The aliens then head back to a space station high on space cocaine( one of the aliens voiced by Harold Ramis) while the secretary quickly falls in love with the ship’s robot( John Candy again) and the two leave the ship to get married. (Boobs, off-screen sex)

:The final, lengthiest story is about Taarna, a skimpily clad but powerful warrior who goes to avenge a city that was pillaged and burnt down by a race of mutants, created by the Loc Nar crashing into a volcano and transforming some curious bystanders who were haplessly investigating.

In spite of Taarna going nude, she is never in any sexual situations( may not even care about it), is mute and kicks ass with her pternadon-like steed. A fun anthology capper with perhaps the most grandiose,epic feel of the batch of stories. It ties in with the framing device narrative which creates massive plot holes but by this point, you probably won’t care. (boobs, no sex)

So, Heavy Metal is quite an accomplishment. Yes, it’s lewd, brash and in some quite less than woke, but it’s from 1981, based on a magazine that was counter-cultural to a fault and there is something more endearing than offputting in its execution,personally.

It’s best defense is as an ambitious collection of talent in animation, voice acting and of course music. It’s a timestamp, not unlike Rock and Rule, on a bygone time in popular culture which still has some ripples to the present. If you’re not too squeamish or prudish, I highly recommend to those old enough to watch it.

I don’t know when I will get to my next set of five films to watch for the retrospective series. I have yet to move into my new home, get a new stay-at-home job due to the ongoing pandemic and well, the world is falling apart so I have reasons to get distracted. An excuse maybe, but I do have it.

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