Friday, September 3, 2010

INTRODUCING: St. Elmo's Friday

This year marks the 25th anniversary of St. Elmo's Fire, my favorite bad movie of all time. It's a film that went on to influence – for better or for worse – the late-80s crop of TV “dramedies” and serio-comic soap operas like thirtysomething and later young-angst ensembles like Dawson’s Creek (which actually referenced it in its reunion episode), Friends and Melrose Place. A quarter of a century later, St. Elmo's Fire (heretofore referred to as S.E.F.) has wormed its way into our cultural DNA. Last year, ABC-TV announced it is preparing a reboot for an upcoming series. In the current 80s action-movie parody MacGruber, Kristen Wiig plays a singer winkingly named "Vicki St. Elmo."

It would be easy – too easy – to simply rail on this film for being a no-beef filler by-product of the excremental 1980s. (Yes, they really were that bad—but only in retrospect.) The Beast feels the time is now for a deep re-assessment. So, for every Friday for the next three months, we will be climbing inside S.E.F.'s hollowed-out corpse in a multi-part series we've dubbed Tract-Housing in Maryland: The Annotated St. Elmo's Fire. In our first installment, we'll examine the cultural milieu that birthed this curio-of-its-time. Enjoy!

I wish I could remember who first proposed this theory, but it is one worth repeating: A decade’s prevailing mindset really doesn’t begin until its middle. In terms of defining a particular decade in pop culture, one does not start at the beginning but instead jumps ahead six years. So, for example, if you want to find out what the 1970s were like in film, fashion and TV, you go to 1975, etc.

Intriguing thought, this, when one thinks of the movies. Look at the quintessential American films of the 1970s that came out in 1975: Dog Day Afternoon, Three Days of the Condor, Shampoo, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Cooley High, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Death Race 2000, Night Moves, Rollerball, Smile, Tommy, White Line Fever, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Nashville.

Ditto 1995: Toy Story, Apollo 13, Se7en, Babe, The American President, Braveheart, The Brothers McMullen, The City of Lost Children, Clueless, Dead Man, Leaving Las Vegas, Mighty Aphrodite, Get Shorty, Heat, The Indian in the Cupboard, Dead Man Walking, Devil in a Blue Dress, Richard III, Strange Days, Tommy Boy, 12 Monkeys, Unzipped and Welcome to the Dollhouse.

In the middle there somewhere, was 1985.

It was a pivotal year in retro-culture couture*: writer Alan Moore set his seminal Watchmen graphic novel in 1985, as did Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer. The year was Ground Zero for both silliness and apocalyptic paranoia, which pretty much sums up life in the 1980s as a whole. Consumerism had achieved a sleek, laminated, Polo-shirted and perfumed perfection. It was suddenly okay again to flaunt wealth, be greedy, insensitive, intolerant, a raging toolshed. An entire generation of future Gordon Gekkos was learning how to beat up on those less fortunate. It was hip to show outright hostility for those in uncomfortable and vulnerable social positions: the homeless, single moms, AIDS victims, the insane and the infirm, po’ folks of all races and stripes.

*To give you an idea of the cultural zeitgeist (or lack thereof) at work in 1985: VH1 launches and quickly becomes haven for older boomer-types who were getting seizures from MTV’s quick-cut editing…Hair metal…MacGyver...Pound Puppies...“The Super Bowl Shuffle”...Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time”...Moonlighting…Prince's "Raspberry Beret"...David Lee Roth’s “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”...Transformers...GI Joe...Go Bots...Laser Tag...D.C. Follies...Calvin Klein’s Obsession...Bob Ross’ The Joy of trucks...The Toxic Avenger...Bowie/Jagger gay it up in the “Dancing in the Street” video...Sour Patch kids...Sally Field’s “You like me! You really like me!” Oscar speech...Nintendo releases Super Mario Bros., the highest selling game of the year, and trots out a limited test release of the NES video game console...Nokia trots out its revolutionary Mobira Talkman, which is an early version of a cellphone that looks like one of those WWII military field phones and weights just under 12 pounds...Virginia Supreme Court passes ruling that states homosexuals are "unfit and improper" to be parents....debut of Windows 1.0! It actually lets you run more than one DOS program at a time!...debut of annoying Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip...Ashton Kutcher turns 7...Unknown comedienne named Roseanne Barr debuts her "domestic goddess" shtick on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson...Live Aid and Farm Aid (the first, not-sucky ones) occur...filmmaker Terry Zwigoff begins an open-ended documentary about his friend, underground cartoonist Robert Crumb...Prequel to “We Are the World 25” is conceived, carried to term and birthed by Quincy Jones and a then-alive Michael Jackson...Mike Tyson makes non-criminal professional debut in Albany, NY...Amadeus wins 1984 Best Picture – marking the last time a film with two unattractive leading actors could ever reach so high…Wrestlemania, featuring the oiled pecs of one Terry “The Hulk” Bollea (Brooke Hogan still swimming around in his ball sac), debuts at Madison Square Garden...The Soviet Union publishes its annual list of banned music that includes the Village People ("Violence"), Julio Iglesias ("Neofacism"), Talking Heads ("The Myth of Soviet Danger"), Donna Summer ("Eroticism") and some band called "the Stodges"...New Coke (which I preferred to Old Coke) fizzles after 3 months on the market – becoming the Edsel/Heaven’s Gate/Pink Lady and Jeff/EuroDisney of the lifestyle-beverage industry…Mark Zuckerberg turns 01...Future Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey turns nine....The Ramones vs. Reagan: “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” single not released in US but in UK...Madonna: starts dating Sean Penn; releases Desperately Seeking Susan; goes on first “Virgin” tour – basically, hasn’t made a fool of herself Rock Hudson announces his career has been infected with AIDS; rising young comedian Sam Kinison immediately dreams up tasteless comedy routine...Michael Jackson pays $47,500,000 for the publishing rights to the entire Beatles song catalogue – thus ensuring his own downfall...Steve Jobs celebrates his 30th birthday by throwing a huge party and about 30 tantrums...“relatively” inexpensive laser printers (Apple LaserWriter = $6995) and computers (Commodore Amiga 1000 = $1595) hit the market, thus creating the late 80s/early 90s scourge of “desktop publishing” (a.k.a., “loitering at your keyboard”)...Investigators exhume the bones of one "Wolfgang Gerhard" from a grave in Embu, Brazil and discover the remains of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef "The Angel of Death" Mengele, who as it turns out looks nothing like Gregory Peck...Blockbuster Video opens its first video-rental store in Dallas, TX.

So, within this sane and normalized historical period*, St. Elmo’s Fire* appears. S.E.F. (released June 28, 1985, one month after my 17th birthday) is for all time: the neuromancers of the future wasteland will come across it stuck inside a DVD player in the ruins of some planned suburban community and can see, simultaneously, the heights-depths of a particular time in American life. It has nothing to do with real American life, of course. It is a movie of nothing but mirrored-reflections of how American life should be in the minds of seven upper-class, upwardly mobile yuppified strivers. Many of us were taken in by its glossy lifestyle blow job, it’s Absolut vodka ad-promises that everything will simply just work out, that there was a structure intact we could all rely upon with only minimal effort to try to sustain it ourselves. (“Yes, you can do coke and be a financial Master-of-the-Universe!”) Indeed, its director – the quasi-legendary-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Joel Schumacher -- was a window dresser for the Henri Bendel fashion boutique before he got into films.
*St. Elmo's Around the Globe: O Primeiro Ano do Resto das Nossas Vidas (Brazil/Portugal); El fuego de San Telmo (Spain); El primer año del resto de nuestras vidas (Argentina); Haverrim (Israel); Kliken fra St. Elmo (Denmark); Le feu de St. Elmo (Canada); Ognie swietego Elma (Poland); Die Leidenschaft brennt tief (West Germany); To baraki tou Saint Elmo (Greece); Treffit Elmossa (Finland)

*1985 NEWS ON THE MARCH! (A Subjective CNN-esque scroll): President Ronald Reagan re-elected by 49 states after trouncing Sen. Walter Mondale like he was a youth-hostel bathmat...subway vigilante Bernard “Bernie” Goetz convicted...journalist Terry Anderson kidnapped in Beirut by Hezbollah – the latest in a jolly round of hostage musical chairs that delights and amuses the American public during a tense and grueling Oscar season...19-year-old Canadian paraplegic Rick Hansen sets out on his 40,000 km, 26 month “Man in Motion” tour and raises $26 million for spinal-cord research [SPOILER ALERT: THIS WILL BE PERTINENT TO OUR STORY LATER]...Waco/Ruby Ridge prototype occurs when Philly police drop a C4/Tovex cocktail into the headquarters of radical black nationalist organization M.O.V.E., killing eleven and wiping out an entire city block...In Lafayette, Louisiana, a deviant Catholic priest named Gilbert Gauthe pleads guilty to 11 counts of child sex abuse, a previously unheard of aberration that, according to investigator Father Tom Doyle, could be a "billion dollar liability"for the Catholic Church; the Vatican responds: "Yeah, we'll get right on that"...bombing of El Descanso club in Madrid by henchmen led by The Joker...The Unabomber sends a few lethal gag gifts to various fun-loving college professors...Konstantin Chernenko, leader of the U.S.S.R., dies, which was a popular pastime amongst Soviet leaders of the 1980s; an enterprising young scamp from the mailroom – Mikhail “Gorby” Gorbachev – becomes the general secretary of the Soviet communist party and will engage the world in glasnost (“tie-loosening”)...As an April Fools' Day joke, Sports Illustrated publishes "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch," written by George Plimpton, about a fictional baseball player who grew up in a Tibetan monastery and could throw a 168mph fastball...a woman named Patricia Frustaci, stoned on fertility drugs, gives birth to 7 babies, the largest recorded multiple birth in history (four survive); this is considered so freakish by the public that no TV series are planned around the destroyed and damaged family...a new drug called MDMA (a.k.a, “Ecstasy”) is banned in by the FDA in the United States – and completely disappears from the earth for all time...bubbly New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe becomes the first civilian to fly on the space shuttle – ehhhhh, almost…something called “” becomes the first registered online domain in history; no one notices...Those terrorists are some very busy sex-deprived boys: worldwide terrorist attacks kill 107 people and maim 428; bombs go off in Athens, Frankfurt, Madrid, Paris and Rome. The terrorists smartly space out their atrocities so that the public has time to forget about them – and thus don’t see them as any kind of worldwide “threat” (Ha ha ha! Perish the thought!)...shrill, panicky British scientists report the opening of an enormous hole in the earth's ozone layer over Antarctica and are summarily ignored...Hurricane Juan strikes off the coast of Louisiana, causing more than a billion dollars in damage; local residents couldn’t imagine anything worse happening...The FBI brings RICO charges against the suspected heads of the 5 Mafia families in New York City, aided by a pugnacious young attorney/asskicker/media whore named Rudolph W. Giuliani...In L.A., skeevy serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez is captured and turns out to be even creepier in person...bored Palestinian terrorists hijack the cruise liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean and shoot crippled Jewish-American Leon Klinghoffer in the head and dump his body overboard; in related news: The Love Boat reaches its 13th season...Another airline-disaster disaster: 13-year-old Samantha Smith, who wrote a letter to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov about her worries over nuclear war between Russia and the U.S., is killed in the crash of Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 (Andropov cleared of all involvement by dying) guys finally find the wreck of the ol’ Titanic (James Cameron turns 31)...white supremacist/drifter David Lewis Rice butchers civil rights attorney Charles Goldmark and his entire family on Christmas Eve...terrorists from Abu Nidal launch well-coordinated, well-thought-out and meticulously planned military style assaults on two peaceful, unassuming ticket booths in the Rome and Vienna airports...American naturalist Dian Fossey is found murdered in Rwanda – not the last time we’d be hearing from those dudes...Humphrey the Dumbass Whale gets lost in the Sacramento River.

Strangely enough, S.E.F. did not come out of the gate the time-capsule classic it now is. It opened in last place of the Top 5 Movies of that week. The biggest grossing movie of 1985, Back To the Future, opened one week later. Our poor S.E.F. was sort of lost in the maw, becoming more of a word-of-mouth type thing and eventually grossed $38 million dollars. By today's juiced-up standards, the film could be considered a flop.

Believe it or not, some of the first reviews came before the film even went into production. A majority of Hollywood studios who read the initial script from Schumacher and Carl Kurlander turned it down flat -- one studio exec even remarked that the seven main characters "were the most loathsome human beings he had ever read on the page.” When Schumacher and crew showed up at Washington D.C.'s venerable Georgetown University to ask permission from the school's administrators to film in their hallowed institution, the Jesuit fathers refused, citing the depiction of premarital sex in the script. Schumacher thought he had an ace up his sleeve: they allowed The Exorcist to film there not ten years before. “Excuse me father," Schumacher told one of them, "but isn’t this an institution where a prepubescent child masturbates with a crucifix and says, ‘Your mother sucks cocks in hell’?” The priest didn't miss a beat: “Yes, Mr. Schumacher, but in The Exorcist, god wins over the devil, which does not seem to be the case in your movie.”

It didn't get much better even after the film was released. Here's a smattering of anti-applause:

Schumacher wants to make a movie for young people about young people struggling, but he's completely out to lunch, giving us pretty 22-year-olds who live in luxury apartments and publish essays on the front page of a major metropolitan newspaper. Everyone struggles. Everyone triumphs. The music swells. No one cares. Pete Croato,

Barely has there been a group of more smug and obnoxious characters in a single film.
Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

[Rob] Lowe and [Demi] Moore, members of Hollywood's 'Brat Pack,' are survivors of last summer's awful movie about yuppie singles, St. Elmo's Fire. [About Last Night...] is the movie St. Elmo's Fire should have been. Last summer's movie made them look stupid and shallow. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

What happened in the making of this movie so that it ended up as the total mess it is?
IMDB User Comment by 'EagleGrafix'

A perfect time capsule of (a) everything that was bad about the 1980s and (b) everything that was bad about movies in the 1980s, it didn’t have the wit or insight to make a comment on those things, except for the usual “cocaine bad (probably).” Instead, we’re led to believe that such abominations as Rob Lowe playing saxophone in a sleeveless shirt and an unending series of increasingly thin and glittery ties are something to be strived (stroven?) for. Will Pfiefer,

Co-writer and director Joel Schumacher keeps things moving, skipping adroitly from one narrative thread to another. Well he should, since it's unlikely any of the subplots could have stood on their own, and very few penetrate deeper into the human condition than the average magazine advertisement. TV Guide

How's this for High Concept: swipe the skeleton of Barry Levinson's Diner, but instead of working-class Joes fill it with sallow, toxic children of privilege stabbing each other's backs for two hours while bawling about the pain of post-graduate life. Savor the Reagan-era disconnect: the more selfish, spiteful and infantile our heroes act, the more darn lovable they're supposed to be.
Amazon user comment by 'Michael from Silver Spring, MD'

Note the price...

There's a perceptive, brilliant essay buried somewhere in St. Elmo's Fire on the dangers of deeply, tragically stupid people like co-writer Carl Kurlander (who would follow up his triumph here with a dozen episodes of "Saved by the Bell") and double-threat Joel Schumacher trying to write the great American novel…. What St. Elmo's Fire says about the United States in the 1980s is not nearly so trenchant as what it says about bad art immemorial: that there will always be astonishingly poor taste, and people who shouldn't be succeeding in their vocations succeeding in their vocations to the great frustration of everyone with a shred of talent or sensitivity."
Walter Chaw,

“An epic suckfest.” bobbything, forum


One of my favorite assessments of St Elmo’s came from an old dogeared copy of Danny Peary’s monumental Guide for the Film Fanatic (Simon & Schuster: 1986), who got there first, reprinted here in full:

ST. ELMO’S FIRE (1985) C/110m. Seven of Hollywood’s hottest young stars were brought together for this mindless, smug film about seven shallow Georgetown grads whose friendships are tested when they start becoming serious about one another. Rob Lowe, Alley Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Mare Winningham, Andrew McCarthy, and Emilio Estevez are saddled with a script by Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander that is trite and klutzy, a beatable combination. If these seven insipid, irrelevant characters are thru to life, then all those words of disappointment we heard about the college classes of the late seventies and early eighties were correct. But why make pictures about them? Film is simply structured: the friends are always rushing to help one another at the beginning, then there is antagonism between them, then they all get together when one is in trouble. Picture would probably be better if several of the characters were eliminated—I was happy to see Lowe get on a bus, but this happens too late in the picture. What few pleasures we get are not from the characters, but from talented, sensitive actors Winningham, McCarthy, and Estevez, whose personalities are stronger than the script.

I did not see S.E.F. when it was first released. (This was back in the dark days when theater ushers barely older than you asked for your ID for R-rated films.) I had to wait till the first year of college at the University of Minnesota to see it at at Middlebrook dorm hall (10th floor) movie night. It was during fall semester, which may account for why I always equate S.E.F. as a “Autumn film": Crispy yet gauzy, like an Eddie Bauer or L.L. Bean ad. (Indeed, the neon colors of fall in Georgetown are featured quite prominently.) I actually thought I would be these hip upscale breezy people after four years of state college and that my problems, like our seven main characters, would wash away after about 5 minutes of screen time.

Four years later I was living in an unheated basement in Minneapolis, with all of my Fall ’86 First Semester of School yuppiewear either soiled beyond recognition, moth-eaten to the point of irrelevancy, or given away to Ragstock; fighting rats and foot long centipedes, sleeping next to a furnace that if exploded would have flambéd my body beyond recognition. I realized St. Elmo's was a lie. At least my room looked like a reasonable facsimile of Andrew McCarthy’s fuck pad sans coffin and fake awards.

The delicious car-wreck spectacle of S.E.F. lies not with some sort of Edward D. Wood, Jr.-bent towards cheapness and filmic ineptitude – the kind that can barely disguise itself. Quite the opposite: it represents the best Hollywood could muster at that particular time. It had all the money, all the talent, all the hot young stars – and it still couldn’t hide its own vapidity. And yet, perversely, as writer Susanna Gora notes in her Brat Pack assessment You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried, "pop culture history has proven it to be a watershed youth culture film.” Zac Crane of the Dallas Observer called S.E.F. “the TNT New Classic."


Truly this film has some sort of gravitational pull to it that stops people short from condemning it entirely. To whit:

I've been reading other people's reviews; several of them whine about how "self-absorbed" these characters are. duh. Yeah. Most movies are about self-absorbed people. Self-absorbed people are more interesting, because they don't care what other people think: self absorbed people feel deeply, they make huge mistakes, and they're generally fun to watch. Some of the greatest movies of all time are about self-absorbed people: Annie Hall (Alvy Singer), Amadeus (Mozart), Leaving Las Vegas (Nic Cage), Goodfellas (Every single mobster in the movie). Mother Theresa was completely giving, completely SELFLESS, and yet I haven't seen a great movie about her. That's not the point. I'm not saying St. Elmo's Fire is a classic. I'm just saying, calm down people. Take the movie for what it is, a stylized look into one moment in life, and don't be so preachy about what kinds of characters are 'appropriate' to focus on. IMDB user comment by 'JayMay'

It's easy to watch St. Elmo's Fire from beginning to end, but that's not because it's a great or even a very good story. It's not. It's a watchable film due to some other elements that were probably unintentionally included. Whether it purports to be or not, St. Elmo's Fire is, in large part, about life under the Reagan administration...[It] is a film that precluded Seinfeld by just a few years. Check it out! Like Seinfeld, it has self-absorbed characters you really wouldn't want to know personally, and it's a show about nothing. Bonus Comment: I predict that by the year 2025, this film will be a tremendously popular camp favorite with people who are yet to be born, or are in their early infancy. By 2025, Ally, Judd, Demi, Emilio and the gang will be en route to the old actor's home. By then, kids will look at St. Elmo's Fire in much the same way that most kids of today watch movies like The Trip, or Hell's Angels `69 and think that their parents used to be Martians. Amazon user comment by 'Thomas F. Redmond from Cleveland, OH'

I'd never seen St. Elmo's Fire. After watching it, there was no reason in the world why I should have liked it. It was schmaltzy, it was contrived, and it was cheesy. Many of the lines in the film seemed to be plucked out of some new-age pontification book for the zestfully youthful urban upstart professional. This was, in the best sense of the word, a "dumb" film. And yet, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every stupid, silly, sobering minute of this film…Everyone in the movie seems to have troubles that they've brought upon themselves due to either A.) a crush and/or sex with someone that should be off limits, B.) booze, or C.) being a complete butthole and making decisions that are absurdly idiotic. Yes, St. Elmo's Fire is just like our lives, only their dialogue is scripted much more cleverly… Everyone in the movie seems to have troubles that they've brought upon themselves due to either A.) a crush and/or sex with someone that should be off limits, B.) booze, or C.) being a complete butthole and making decisions that are absurdly idiotic. Yes, St. Elmo's Fire is just like our lives, only their dialogue is scripted much more cleverly... It seemed to suck me in and kept me riveted. It was like watching a late night infomercial—insubstantial and stupid, yet eerily compelling at the same time…St. Elmo's Fire is brain dead entertainment, yet somehow it all works. Don't ask me how, don't ask me why…I'm as baffled as you are. It just does. Patrick Naugle,

I can't quite put my finger on what it is that I'm so attracted to about the movie - all I know is, I've watched it about 200 times since catching it a mostly-empty theatre sometime in 1985 (It's likely the only VHS in my collection that barely plays now because of how many times it's been played) and the mere mention of the title evokes a smile every time. Clint Morris,

Yet, possibly because most of the actors were popular teen idols in transition to adulthood, St. Elmo's Fire struck a chord for 1980s moviegoers, especially underaged fans eager for a vicarious taste of grown-up hijinks in a glamorous locale. TV Guide

In other words, I can’t recommend the movie, but I can recommend watching it -- if that makes any sense. Will Pfiefer,

Yes, Will Pfiefer from, it makes perfect sense.

TUNE IN NEXT FRIDAY: Where we get into the making of the film and, hopefully, the film itself.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matthew -

    Just wanted to say that this recap of SEF is fantastic. Also, I'm "bobbything" from those few quotes you referenced. I wrote a recap similar to this a long time ago and posted it on The Agony Booth's forum, which is now defunct. I've been searching for the review that I wrote for years and it appears that you saw it (at some point, anyway). I was wondering if you happened to save it? I guess I never saved it. I've searched high and low but, alas, neither my few external HDs contain it, nor does the internet remember it.

    I'd be eternally grateful if you still have it. You can email me at: jordan at bigbirdcreative dot com.

    Thanks so much.

    ~ Jordan (bobbything)