Friday, September 10, 2010

ST. ELMO’S FRIDAY, PT. II: A Girl, A Bellboy, A Hotel & An Attempted Suicide

The roots of S.E.F. began in the Summer of 1980 and involved – big surprise – a boy pining for a girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. Carl Kurlander was a twenty-year-old student at Duke University who was working a summer job at the St. Elmo Hotel in Chautauqua, a bucolic resort town in the southeastern corner of New York state. Carl developed a mad crush on young Lynn Sniderman, a waitress at the hotel. “We would get grape sodas together,” Carl later recalled wistfully to an interviewer. “I’d lend her my sweaters during thunderstorms.” As such summer crushes usually go, Lynn didn’t feel the same way for the nerdy young bellhop. That fall, the heartbroken Carl returned to Duke and decided – with the encouragement of his English/Creative Writing professor, who suggested the “St. Elmo’s Fire” metaphor and title –– to compose a short story so beautifully written that Miss Sniderman would have no choice but to fall in love with him. She didn’t. A rejected Carl tried to kill himself in his dorm room by opening all the windows and freezing to death — unfortunately, he tried to do this in Durham, North Carolina.

Carl Kurlander

Cut to 1982: young Carl, heartbroken but all the wiser for it, wins a MCA-Universal Studios Scholar Award and decamps for the bright lights of Los Angeles. There he endures more punishment as the intern/lackey for Thom Mount and Bruce Berman, Universal’s then-heads of production. His many duties included the all-important film industry practice of getting food for production meetings. Someone at one of these important meetings requested a bowl of gazpacho with no croutons or sour cream and a chopped egg on the side. This man was a fledgling film director in his early 40s named Joel Schumacher.

Schumacher was a true American mutt: he was the son of a Jewish-Swedish mother and a Baptist preacher from Tennessee. After attending two prestigious fashion institutes in New York City, Schumacher also escaped to Los Angeles and became a costume designer – most notably for Woody Allen’s futuristic farce Sleeper (1973) – while nursing designs on the director’s chair. His next move up the ladder was for screenwriting, and he landed improbable writing jobs for two “urban” films of the late 70s: Car Wash (1976) and The Wiz (1978). His first directorial feature was the berserk anti-consumer fantasia The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) starring Lily Tomlin, who later complained that the openly gay Schumacher “made the whole [film] look like Necco wafers” while at the same time praising his “casually debonair handsomeness of a male model and an impeccable fashion sense.” With those backhanded compliments, Ms. Tomlin summed up the attractions/repulsions of watching a Joel Schumacher film.

Joel Schumacher, sweating profusely

Schumacher’s second directorial effort was D.C. Cab (dream cast: Mr. T, Gary Busey, "Wojo" from Barney Miller), an attempt to replant the success of Car Wash to a wacky taxi company in our nation’s capital. As the legend goes, Schumacher was filming around Georgetown University when he began to notice the new crop of university grads and how they managed to be both distinctive to their time and perennial in their struggles. “It was yuppie madness,” Schumacher told writer Susanna Gora. “Georgetown seemed to me like an entire town of these upwardly mobile young people with these university educations, and it was the period of time where you were coming out of college, and you had to already be recruited by some company and have a twenty-five year plan; you were wearing very expensive clothes, you were sort of pretending to be an adult.”

By this time, young intern Carl had eked out a spec script for Thom Mount based on his short story about the St. Elmo hotel and had acquired a literary agent. Kurland recalled to interviewer Clint Morris: “I was on the Universal lot and the production coordinator Mary Courtney Edwards invited me to see ‘dailies.’ I asked her if it would be all right, and she said sure, the director was a sweetheart. Well, the lights came up after dailies and Joel looked over at me and curtly asked who I was - I was nervous as hell and said, "I'm Carl, I got you gazpacho, no sour cream, no croutons, and chopped egg on the side a year ago." Joel laughed and had me get him a Perrier, lemon, no ice."

Hired as Schumacher’s assistant for D.C. Cab, Kurlander and the director began a running dialogue about recent college grads facing the uncertainties of the 1980s. “Joel kept telling me that it was not just ‘my generation,’” Kurlander recalled in a recent interview. “But every generation which goes through this – the ‘this’ being that these feelings in your twenties about whether you can actually become a ‘real person’ with your first job, your first apartment, your first real love.” Under Schumacher’s tutelage Kurlander wrote feverishly all during March 1984, leaving the finished pages on the wetbar of Schumacher’s office in the morning, which Schumacher would then edit/add/rewrite. “The whole script was written very quickly, but we re-wrote many things, even on the set,” Kurlander told Clint Morris. “So in the end, I consider the characters in the movie to be a product of both Joel and I and our friendship.”

When the script was completed, it was rejected almost every major studio in Hollyweird. Then it was picked up by Columbia Pictures, who was eager to cash in on the success of Universal’s The Breakfast Club, which was filming while the St. Elmo script was being conceived. Equally prescient was Columbia’s confusion over what exactly the “St. Elmo’s Fire” title meant. “The studio said, ‘We can't call it St. Elmo’s Fire. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't have anything to do with the movie’,” The film’s producer Lauren Shular Donner told writer Kenneth Plume in 2000. “We said, ‘You come up with a better title” and nobody could come up with a better title, so we stuck with it.” The first table read of the script was on October 1, 1984 in Burbank. Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez were all veterans of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (where, amusingly enough, they played high school students) and Sheedy and Rob Lowe had appeared in the college rom-com Oxford Blues, Kurlander described this first meeting of the young minds that would soon be labeled the Brat Pack as “guarded.”

Let’s get to our first tantalizing images of what would come to be called “the quintessential Brat Pack film.”

Movie Poster.* A sepia-toned perp line of smug and lily-white college kids staring glumly out from the bench in front of the fictional St. Elmo’s Bar in D.C.’s Georgetown, feet splayed out in front of them like some half-assed Abercrombie & Fitch kickline. The shot is one of those harbingers of “instant nostalgia”: what you see hasn’t even happened yet, and we’re already looking back at it.
*The movie poster was a “happy accident.’ Our seven heroes were all just sitting on a bench and kicking back between scenes when producer Lauren Schuler Donner said, “Shoot that!” Note Emilio sitting next to Demi: they will later hook up on-set and become each other’s “first loves”

St. Elmo’s Fire Original Theatrical Trailer (1985)

Since the first few moments of the trailer contains one of the most famous movie instrumentals of all time – David Foster’s quasi-classical “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire”* – it is pertinent to pause and acknowledge the cultural distinctions of soundtracks to movies of the 1980s. Music played as important role (if not more important) than the actual script. Smack dab in the middle of the decade, “Mall Music” was at its apex, a pleasantly nonthreatening cocoon of repetition, a pulsating and debased quasi-American Graffiti soundtrack (but without the silk-gloved curatorial care of that record) that assaulted one’s ears as you walked through the brain-frying neon signs and caramel candy-smelling world of the American mall experience. (Roger Ebert once referred to malls as “hypnotic temples of consumer spending.”) The music of the 80s was the music of consumerism, selling you a bill of goods without you even knowing it. So, cruising to the mall all jammed into your friend’s tiny Honda Civic, you’d be stuffed with vapid ballads: “Careless Whisper” into "I Want To Know What Love Is" into “One More Night” into “Say You, Say Me.” You’d hate it, but what was the alternative? Bob Seger and Led Zeppelin oldies? NPR? If your cheap-o red plastic radio couldn’t get XRT from Chicago, you were fucked—and stuck with a mall intercom that spooned “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Sussudio” and “We Built This City” up your arse until you were forced to buy clothes and CDs and perfumes and video games to relieve the massive pressure on your cranial/intestinal walls. According to a YouTube comment by ‘nickystartup’: “The only thing worse than 80s music was the movies they shilled for.”

Is it any wonder that most malls were in a wallet-toss from or outright connected to a local cinema? Is it any wonder that 1985 was the zenith of movie soundtracks*? There was: Simple Minds’ “Don't You (Forget About Me)” (The Breakfast Club), Huey Lewis & the News’ “The Power of Love” (Back to the Future), Madonna’s “Crazy for You” (Vision Quest), Cyndi Lauper's "The Goonies R Good Enough" (The Goonies), Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives” and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” (White Nights), Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” (The Ballad of Billie Jean), DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” (Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon) and, of course, John Parr’s monumental “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion).”
*I once knew a guy who lived two doors down from me in my college dorm who was a total asshole for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the wind would come through my room and slam my door shut, and he would appear instantly at my door to admonish me in the most uptight-yuppie-wannabe attitude I have ever experienced. Apparently, he was a noise pollution freakazoid. A real tightass just waiting to be let onto the corporate job market so he could fuck people over and declare himself a “player.” Other times, I’d be playing my stereo at an agreeable level and I’d feel a presence behind me, turn around, and see that he walked into my room without knocking and was standing over me with his arms folded, dressing me down yet again for my noise infractions. Yet, at the same time, he would blast his stereo with the door open at least twice a day; the music he played was so strange that when I went to complain about his aural hypocrisies, I caught a glimpse of his CD collection and realized why: ALL 80s movie soundtracks! And not even good ones! Halloween II?! Best Defense?! Red Dawn?! Rhinestone?? Blue Thunder? Christine?! Crocodile Dundee?! Howard the Duck?! It was the most classless, arid, emotionally frigid CD collection I have ever seen, the soundtrack to a man who has no soul, music for standing in your crisp white dress shirt power tie and power suspenders, staring out at the magenta sunset cradling a square tumbler of cognac, utterly and completely alone. I have since dubbed this chap “80’s Guy” because the whole decade was all there in one nasty little package. It also explains my being allergic to film soundtracks to this day.

In fact, the week in June that S.E.F. premiered, "Heaven" by Bryan Adams was the Number One song in the nation and even that was reheated food from a movie made two years previous: the unintentionally hilarious proto-cougar flick A Night in Heaven (“Will One Forbidden Night Change Both Their Lives Forever?”). Even songs that weren’t “movies” per se had attendant MTV videos that played like miniature movies with cinematic grandeur imprinted in their DNA (oops, sorry, VMA). It was a thoroughly insidious web of consumption: the videos were cut from the movies, which made you want to see the movie, which made you want to buy the soundtrack album, which made you want to maybe buy some of the clothes worn by the movie characters/rock stars. It was relentless and seductive and an utter drain on your teenage wallet. We didn’t figure out we had been taken until years later, in our Introduction to Marxism 101 classes. And oh were we pissed…

TUNE IN NEXT FRIDAY: We’ll get to the film, WE PROMISE.

No comments:

Post a Comment