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Return of the 80s

Arts & Culture | February 21, 2017

Content warning: sexual assault

The film Ms. 45 opens in a design studio in New York City, with color-blocked dresses hanging on the lithe model in the shot, and along the walls. The bright pinks, turquoises, and purples immediately set the time frame: the 1980s. The camera pans deeper inside the studio, and follows three female seamstresses out the door and into their metropolis. They are wearing slouchy, oversized blazers and bootcut jeans, sauntering down the street as men shout for their attention, hurling unwanted compliments and jeers.

The Film Department at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) screened Ms. 45 on Friday, February 3 as the second installment of their 2017 “On the Fringe” film series, which showcases an American cult film from the 1980s each month. Katherine Irving, Manager and Assistant Programmer of Film and Video at the MFA, said that the idea behind the series came from four people in the MFA film department, all of whom grew up in the 80s and 90s and were feeling nostalgic for the films of their childhoods. “The films are full of tangible special effects: puppets, slime, miniatures, stop motion,” Irving said. “For us, these movies are the most fun.”

While Irving and the MFA Film Department revived the 80s in this series as a result of nostalgia for their past, its resurgence means something different for younger generations. Young adults and teenagers who were not alive in the 80s romanticize its culture and art. Films like Ms. 45 came from a place of unrest and unhappiness, but younger generations see it as an aesthetic, as something to commodify, market, and post on Instagram. Fashion houses like Balmain have not just referenced but entirely borrowed styles from 80s fashion, like shoulder pads and wide, waist-cinching belts. It is difficult to walk into any popular clothing store today and not see a denim jacket prominently displayed. The trends of the 80s are returning, and people are loving it. The 2016 Netflix release of Stranger Things, a project by the Duffer Brothers, was praised by audiences and critics alike, and heralded for its nostalgia and sharp references to 80s popular culture. “Balancing style and substance is always challenging for a series like Stranger Things, but the show is perfectly calibrated,” wrote Joshua Alston of The A.V. Club. “It feels like watching a show produced during the era in which it’s set, but with the craft of today’s prestige television.”

While the films are stylistically appealing, they also touch on a number of serious issues from the past that have continued into the present day. Ms. 45 follows main character Thana (Greek for the feminine “death”), a non-speaking seamstress, who goes on a killing spree around New York after being sexually assaulted. Armed with a .45 caliber pistol stolen from her attacker, she seeks revenge against the men of New York who ogle her and assume consent from her silence. Produced during the second wave feminist movement, the feminist revenge flick attempts to reconcile two perspectives on the debate around hypersexual depictions of women in media. “Pro-sex” feminists viewed sexualized female characters as celebrating sexual liberation and autonomy, while “anti-porn” feminists insisted that these characters were products of male objectification. Irving described the way Ferrara balances these two attitudes in Ms. 45.  “On one hand, Thana is a desirable protagonist who revels in her own sexuality, using lipstick like war paint and leather pants as armor. On the other hand, Ms. 45 addresses the problem of female objectification with scenes of street harassment unfolding through Thana’s eyes,” Irving said. Though today the feminist movement is far and beyond the second wave, it remains a prominent conversation in politics, academia, and now also in commercial advertising. The question remains of how to have agency over one’s own body while being objectified by the male gaze. How is it possible to feel fully autonomous when a majority-male government continues to pass laws and sign executive orders that make reproductive rights unreachable, and sexual assault the fault of the victim?

Pretending to be part of a past era, particularly through active engagement with film, offers an escape from the current political world events. Sophomore Cody Eaton, who attended the screening of Ms. 45, explained that his engagement with current popular culture stems from a need to escape an almost constant flow of troubling news. “Engrossing myself in art is quite therapeutic and alleviates the stress of the present, even if it is a direct cultural response to said events,” he said.

The next film in the MFA series is John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing, a thriller about alien life attacking researchers in Antarctica. The alien is a shape-shifter, assimilating and impersonating anything it touches. The Thing was a box-office flop, garnering movie reviews that called it unbearable and uninspired. In 1982, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote in his review of the film, “There may be a metaphor in all this, but I doubt it.” In spite of these reviews, the film gained a cult following and affected viewers with its unsettling and thought-provoking nature. It, along with other 80s science-fiction films such as Blade Runner (1982) and They Live (1988), used themes of paranoia, isolation, and confusion to comment on anxieties of non-human impostors who pass for “one of us.” In the vein of these dystopian films, the fear of the end of ‘life as we know it’ has not yet disappeared from the American public’s psyche.

Though film may not distract audience members from their anxieties and fears surrounding the political climate, it, like most art, can supplement meaning and understanding to feelings of outrage. Every day since the election––and even before––art in various forms emerged in response to the current political climate. From Trump paintings made of menstrual blood, to the collaboration album “Our First 100 Days,” artists are using their personal experience not just in protest, but also to connect with people struggling alongside them. “[Art] ties in the emotion of countless unaccounted-for individuals that don’t have direct power over the economic or social issues that impact them personally,” Eaton said. “It allows me to feel what other people are feeling, to some extent.”

The resurgence of 80s trends, and specifically the movies in the MFA series, offer audiences a form of escapism and also reflect the sociopolitical climate of the time they were made. “The 80s were an era of political conservatism, and these films feel like a reaction to that. They represent this urgent desire to break free of conservative ideology and Hollywood conventions. The films weave together punk, futuristic, and desert imagery to create a brand new aesthetic,” said Irving. The films are political and are from an epoch that, though idealized in the minds of younger generations, was troubled in similar ways to our current time.

An overwhelming feeling after the past election and inauguration has been that the country is regressing to the policies and ideas of times past. Nonetheless, Irving and her team hope that the film series will provide audiences with what she hoped for from the start: an escape. “Frankly, we could all do with some levity and catharsis these days,” she said. “Sometimes you just need to sit in a dark room and laugh or scream.”