Last weekend, the cinemas of America were bursting with several fine films — Captain America and Harry Potter in the multiplexes, The Guard, The Future, Tabloid, Project Nim at the art houses — yet the big hit was The Smurfs, a CGI-enhanced big-screen version of the intolerable, one-joke cartoon series from the 1980s. The film has been a punch line for months, but when the receipts were tallied up, The Smurfs came within a hair of beating the weekend’s top grosser, Cowboys & Aliens, co-starring no less than James Bond and Han Solo.
Suddenly, the previous big question surrounding The Smurfs (“How the hell did that get made?”) has been replaced by a bigger one (“How the hell did that make so much money?”) and sadly, both questions have the same answer: the ’80s nostalgia factor. It is not a phenomenon confined to the singular occurrence of The Smurfs; my own visit to multiplex this weekend confirmed the existence, via trailers and posters, of similarly unnecessary and unwelcome remakes of artifacts like Conan the Barbarian, Footloose, and Fright Night.
Why are these films being made? Because the people who make movies (and even, increasingly, decide what movies are made) are getting younger and younger — young enough to have been children and teenagers in the 1980s, and to have fond memories of a show like The Smurfs and a film like Footloose, and if it was good then, it would be even better now, yes? They certainly hope so, as do the movie-going consumers who remember those ‘80s films and shows with equal fondness, and now have children of their own to entertain. “We’re going to see The Smurfs!” they decide, and pack up the family mini-van. “I loved it when I was your age!” And off they go, $35 million worth of them.
What is never a concern — either for the studio executive who greenlights a Smurfs or Conan, or the grown-up ‘80s kid who queues up for them — is whether those projects were actually any good, which of course they weren’t; they’re bathed in the golden glow of childhood memory, their recall of the quality of said entertainment drenched in the absolute certainty of youth. “I remember loving Footloose,” reasons the film producer on one side of the ticket booth and the consumer on the other, though neither of them were driving at the time of its release, to say nothing of making informed cinematic judgments, “so it must have been great.” But it wasn’t. It wasn’t then, and it certainly isn’t now.
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Hollywood right now — and with Washington, DC. For as ticket buyers across America shelled out their hard-earned twelve or so dollars ($3 more for 3-D!) to watch Smurfs gallivant across New York City, with the voices of C-list celebrities spewing D-grade puns from their CG-animated maws, a group of nihilist thugs were holding the country hostage to the whims of their particular ‘80s nostalgia. They did not wax rhapsodic for little blue cartoon creatures or muscle-bound barbarians; they capitulated before the memory of the man who said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” and did their level best to burn said government right down to the ground.
The specter of Reagan’s brilliance and the genius of his fiscal conservatism hovers over the Tea Party (and, by extension, the Republican Party that quivers in their shadow) as surely and as unquestionably as the memory of the utter awesomeness of Transformers cartoons and Top Gun informs the output of major studios; the assumptions are equally ill-informed and rose-colored, though obviously the former can do a hell of a lot more damage. I was eight years old when I thought The Cannonball Run was the greatest movie of all time, and thus not of an age to know any better; most the Congressional Republicans who worship at the altar of Reagan were old enough to understand the damage that Reaganomics would do to the country but not care, because those who bore the brunt of that damage were poor and sad and different (“The secret message behind the election of Ronald Reagan on November 4th was that some people belong in this country, and some people don’t; that some people are worthy, and some are worthless; that certain opinions are sanctified, and some are evil; and that, with the blessing of God, God’s messengers will separate the one from the other.”—Greil Marcus, January 1981).
So this summer, those junior Alex P. Keatons turned a budgetary formality into a national crisis, one in which the same poor and unfortunate (and, bonus, old people) that Reagan had in his sights were immediately targeted, because they are the beneficiaries of government programs, and government is the problem. And the notion of expanding the tax burden of the comically-richest Americans (this is Scrooge McDuck territory — or, to better extend the ‘80s metaphor, Silver Spoons) is anathema to them, even though Reagan’s initial (and, don’t forget, somewhat retracted) slashing of those top tax rates, along with his military spending bender, resulted in the kind of ballooning deficits and debt that are supposed to be at issue — a tripling of the national debt (the largest peacetime increase in history), along with the conversion of deficit-related interest costs into the fastest-rising element of the budget. U-S-A, U-S-A.
Of course, for all of his talk of the power of the free market and the obsolescence of government, whether Reagan would have actually favored defaulting on the national debt is pure absurdity — he was an ideologue, but not a moron. Such a distinction does not hold for his Tea Party groupies. The current crop of ’80s film remakes promise to go bigger, louder, brasher; computer-generated kicks in three dimensions, offering thrills far beyond that earthbound Conan of your youth. Meanwhile, across the land, Americans brace for the impact of 3-D Reaganomics.