‘Blood Simple’ to Albert Brooks: Why Spring of 1985 was something special

There are roughly 900,000 tribute pieces online this week about the 1985 John Hughes film “The Breakfast Club,” and I understand the motivation. If you were the right age when the film was released (I was 15 at the time), that movie felt like a lightning bolt right to the face.

Hughes treated teenagers like they were actual people with complex emotional lives worthy of respect, and while that would seem to be a logical approach to writing about any character, it certainly didn't feel average when he did it. He wrote about that secret world of teenagers with what felt like laser accuracy, and he basically created an entire industry of movies that tried to tap into that same audience.

So certainly, there is much to celebrate when looking back at that particular film, but when I went to look at a list of the films that came out in 1985, a year I don't regard as anything special, I was surprised by something. These days, when you talk about the first quarter of the year, it's a period where studios schedule films that they're dumping or burning off or unsure about. Yes, there are exceptions. Last year's “The Grand Budapest Hotel” turned out to be one of the very best films released in 2014, and anyone defending a first-quarter release loves to bring up “Silence Of The Lambs,” which opened on Valentine's Day and then went on to win Best Picture.

But in 1985, the release calendar looked different than it does today. All sorts of films came out between January and the end of March, and looking back at the list, I was transported back. I saw all of these theatrically. There were two theaters within driving distance of my house where I could get into any R-rated film because of friends or older brothers, and as a result, I was in the theaters non-stop on the weekends. I saw everything. Big films. Small films. The exploitation junk that made the rounds. It was a really exciting time for me as a film fan because I was starting to get very strong opinions about things, and I found myself disagreeing with friends, my parents, critics… my own set of criteria taking shape.

The films that were important to me that spring were the ones I went back to see over and over. That was another luxury that was afforded me by the access I had to those theaters. One of them had six screens. The other had eight. They almost never played the same films. Fourteen screens, even with the occasional double-up on opening weekend of something big, meant they had to have a lot of content. They rotated films through aggressively, but if something was selling tickets, it stayed. It was possible for a film to play for four or five months, or longer if it was warranted. There was no rush to home video. “The Terminator” was still in one of the four biggest houses at the eight-plex, and we made it a point to see the 10:00 Saturday night screening every weekend that the film was at the theater. There were other films that played five days and then vanished, like Fulci's “The House By The Cemetery,” which freaked out three of my friends so aggressively that they bailed out after about forty-five minutes.

As 1985 began, though, there was a strong wave of new films that I fell in love with or that made an impression on what was going on in movies overall. I've singled out some of the very biggest for a special stand-alone gallery, but part of what I love about movies is the context. What trailers you saw on things. What movies you saw before and after something. What movies were playing in the same theater at the same time. I made sure to see things like “Tuff Turf” and “Avenging Angel” as soon as they opened, the first possible show, just to get it out of the way. I distinctly remember seeing “Tomboy” twice in one weekend because I was, as I said, fifteen years old, and “Tomboy” starred Betsy Russell. Betsy Russell… in 1985… good lord. She was definitely part of a very particular wave of movie crushes for me. And if we're honest, we all have movie crushes. That's one of the many ways we watch films. We fall in love. We get hurt. We find solace. We share experiences. We watch films because they are emotional virtual reality at their best, and fun diversions at their worst. Our movie crushes account for the tidal rise and fall of movie stars, the way they fall in and out of fashion, and are impossible to really control. I loved being an '80s teenager, because it felt like pop culture was being handed over to us. I look at a lot of it now through a more cynical filter, the heavy hand of marketing already starting to heavily influence everything. I give Crown International credit for figuring out a fairly simple mathematical equation: Betsy Russell + even the slightest threat of nudity = ticket sold to Drew.

My first big picture of the year was “Blood Simple.” I had no idea who the Coen Bros were when I walked into that theater. I double-checked the poster before I left the lobby to make sure I knew their names. Any titles you see in bold in this article have their own entry in the attached gallery where I am able to expand on why they deserve the special attention.

There was another mall near us that had a theater that only had two screens, and I didn't know anyone who worked there. They rigorously maintained their rating restrictions, and you had to have an actual ticket-buying parent with you to see something. A nearby three-screen theater, with one of the screens upstairs from the other two, was equally stringent. There were occasions I couldn't get in alone, and had to negotiate it with my mom. My dad could only be talked into it if one of his Mike McWeeny Short List Of All-Time Bad-Asses was the star. Chuck Norris. Lee Marvin. Steve McQueen. Anybody who ever played James Bond. Clint. Burt. John Freakin' Wayne.

There were several films I saw during that first quarter of 1985 that were seen with only one goal in mind. I went to see nudity. There were films that promised nudity, and there were totally different levels of follow-through on that promise. Films like “The Perils Of Gwendolyn” with Tawny Kitaen, “Heavenly Bodies” and “Mischief,” which was easily the best of those three films. Ranked purely on “oh my god did you see that?”, it was “Perils” that took the prize.

I saw two films fairly close to each other. As I remember it, in one long weekend, but I'm not sure that's correct. I know I saw both of them at the same theater, though, and with the same friend. “The Falcon And The Snowman” and “Witness” were both strong, smart dramas with fantastic performances. And when my friends and I saw these films, you know what we didn't do? We didn't start talking about the Oscars. We talked about the performances, about what these filmmakers did with these sober, smart screenplays.

At this point, Disney had not surrendered to the home video market yet. If you wanted to see a Disney film, you had to see it in the theater during the re-release, whenever that happened. They would show bits and pieces on TV during all their various Disney TV specials, and they would tease it out for years, and then, BOOM! Suddenly “Fantasia” is back in theaters.

Now, as everyone writes about “The Breakfast Club,” let's be clear… there were several movies in that same three-month stretch that I think are equally clear-eyed and honest and interesting in terms of how they portrayed young people. I'm quite fond of “Heaven Help Us” and “The Sure Thing” as well.

There were movies I saw in that spring that bounced right off me. They were afternoons spent sitting there avoiding homework, not caring what movie we saw as long as it was different. Kurt Russell in “The Mean Season.” I remember the poster and I remember his haircut in the film. I know I saw it, but I don't have any of it stored in my memory banks. “Turk 182” is the same thing. I remember images. I remember the soundtrack being in the discount record bins forever. I don't really remember the film beyond knowing I saw it. It's sort of strange what sticks and what doesn't.

One of my favorite films from one of the directors who I would argue most strongly defines the '80s came out this year. John Landis may not have hit a commercial home run with “Into The Night,” but I think it's one of his best movies.

There were a few movies that I think were actually aimed directly at me, demographically speaking. Movies that should have spoken to me, but that didn't, and that I'm not sure would have worked for anyone. “The Last Dragon” was one of those. I was more than happy to go see a kung-fu movie with a big Motown soundtrack. Throw in magic powers? Fine! I'm in again. And Vanity from “Purple Rain”? Yes. Here is my $7 already. And yet… nope. I thought Disney was going through an embarrassing phase at that time, and their dinosaur-themed “E.T.” ripoff was not a good movie. It was just… not. The thing didn't work. There's no sense of wonder. It never feels live. It's just doesn't work.

Woody Allen put a film out that surprised me, and that remains one of my favorite things he's ever done. “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” is, like “Groundhog Day,” a near-perfect way of handling fantasy in a real world setting.

Now, the way I remember it, I came out of the 2:00 screening of “Purple Rose,” and I was sort of reeling. I thought it was one of those great clever uses of the medium that needed to be seen in a theater, like “Sherlock Jr.”, in order to be really understood as a piece of hyper-clever art. And my buddy Chris, who was the usher in charge of everything at the theater for that entire Saturday afternoon, told me I should stick around. He said there was a sneak preview of something that I'd want to see, and I should stay.

He let me in early. I got my favorite seat. And I saw Peter Bogdanovich's “Mask.”

By this point, there weren't many films I needed my parents to help me get in to see, and they were fine with that. But I wanted to see at least a few films with each of them because they were, after all, the people who I grew up watching films next to. I think of how I'm sharing art with my kids, and I feel a real kinship to my parents, who always had books and movies and music around the house. They showed me how to find things that would interest me, and they turned me loose. That was, all things considered, pretty dope of them, if I do say so.

I remember seeing “Missing In Action II: The Beginning” with my dad. It was at one of the theaters I couldn't have gotten into, but the point was spending the time with him, and I think we both agreed that the sequel was working really really hard. It's a pretty heavy duty drama for Norris, and not really a upbeat action film all the way through. There is ass-kicking, though. It is Norris, after all. But there's sorrow first.

There was a film I saw three or four times over the course of two weeks, in part and as a whole, because I thought the filmmaking had this really cool twitchy energy, and it almost felt like an anthropologist was sent to capture a star right at the moment she realizes she's a star. You can almost see Madonna figuring it out in front of the camera in “Desperately Seeking Susan.”

As always, there were franchise pictures being churned out. “Friday The 13th Part V,” which is a very weird misstep for the series, “Porky's Revenge,” just another of the same basic type of good-natured gross-out that they've done before, and the far more tame and accessible sequel, “Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment.”

There was one last film that came out, in just that first stretch of 1985, keep in mind, ending at the end of March, that I thought was pretty special, and it's a film I've seen at least a dozen times since then, because like all Albert Brooks comedies, “Lost In America” rewards repeat viewings.

It would be lovely if we treated every quarter on the calendar like that, releasing all sorts of things and all sorts of genres and big films and small films. The only thing missing here is a giant blockbuster sucking all the oxygen out of the room. It's interesting what happens when you take those out of the picture, isn't it?