Category Archives: The 1980s

Die Sendung mit der Maus

I just found this German cartoon online. I hadn’t seen it since I was about eight years old, and I had completely forgotten about it.

I’m pretty sure that that tiny purple elephant is the cutest thing anyone ever animated. Not just the shape and size of it, also the way it trots about and the way it makes that forced, airy trumpeting sound.

Calendary Literature – February – Street of your Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen – Part I

Today is Women’s Day and I wanted to mark it by bringing this post which I originally intended for my “Calendary Literature” this past February. So now I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and make it a “Calendary” and a Women’s Day post. However, I don’t have the time to finish the post tonight, so I’ll divide it into two parts and post part II ASAP.

My post shall be about a prominent Danish woman and artist, Tove Ditlevsen.

Tove Ditlevsen was a Danish writer, born in 1917. She was born in one of the poor quarters of Copenhagen, the daughter of working class parents, but managed to grow up to become an immensely popular writer and editor of a correspondance column, offering advice especially to women. Her oeuvre tends to be frowned upon by scholars and she has a reputation of being a bit of a trivial writer whose writing appeals mostly to young, insecure girls. Suffering from depressions, Tove Ditlevsen sadly ended her life in March 1976, with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was followed to her grave by hundreds of devoted fans.

While I think it would be wrong not to recognise that Ditlevsen put her heart and soul in everything she ever wrote, I have to agree that some of her works have a banality to them. Her poems in particular often come dangerously close to sounding like verses in school girls’ autograph books. Her short stories have great character depictions and a lovely prose, but their form has a tendency towards the schematic and predictable that distracts from the pleasure of reading them somewhat.

As a writer of novels, however, Ditlevsen shone. In her novels, Ditlevsen’s language escapes the tendency towards trite rhymes and metres that her poetry tends to suffer from. The extended and complex nature of the novel form seems to make Ditlevsen lose track of the schematic, predictable way of thinking that is to be found in her compact short stories.  And thus I think that her most famous novel, Street of Your Childhood (1943) is grossly underrated within Scandinavian literature. A few aspects of Esther’s adult life differ significantly from Tove’s, but the novel is widely known and accepted to be highly autobiographical, although the main character is named Esther instead of Tove . Like Tove, Esther is a poor working-class girl from Copenhagen, growing up from late childhood, through teenage and into early adulthood in the 1920s-30s. A central theme in the book is the idea that the main character is unable to escape the social burden of her poor upbringing. The close relationship between Tove and Esther was also emphasized in a 1986 movie adaptation of the movie. You can see the trailer here, and you may be amused to see a very young Sofie Gråbøl – Sarah Lund from The Killing – as Esther:

But it would be wrong to dismiss the novel as merely a study of Ditlevsen’s troubled mind. Nor would it be right to characterise the novel as simply a social-realistic testimony to the plight of the working class in early 20th century Denmark. The beauty of Ditlevsen’s novel is that it is hard to label with just one genre. Social commentary blends beautiful with an almost psychoanalytic introspection which in turn blends with a detached and sometimes almost laconic character study of Esther. Finally, the childhood street as a metaphor works wonderfully as a metaphor and binds the different passages of the novel together in a lyrcial way that almost brings to mind the sweeping interludes of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Street of your Childhood leaves you with a poignant insight into an important historic period, but also with a main character that has crept under your skin.

In part II of this post, which I will post as soon as possible, I will provide a few examples of this (translated into English) – so stay tuned!

And happy Women’s Day.

The Feast of the Epiphany

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, known to me as The Day James Joyce’s The Dead Takes Place.

If you have yet to read this short story to end all short stories, do it now! And watch John Huston’s movie adaptation, too.

“This western courtship is beginning to bore me!” – Harem (1986)

The other night I watched a mini-series from 1986 called Harem.

"The loss of innocence". I imagine their working title for that tagline was "The western hymen".


Now, I had no knowledge of this series prior to watching it, but honestly, any series from the 80s titled “Harem”? Is bound to be awesome, so I thought. And I was not disappointed. A fantastic blend of pulp fiction romance, cheesy orientalism, over-the-top lines, stereotypes, a selection of has-beens in supporting roles, and many, albeit prudishly subdued, references to sex, the series turned out to be guilty pleasure galore, not to mention startlingly close to being a perfect television adaptation of Several Daydreams I Had as a 12-Year-Old. Same plot and setting, same simplistic character depiction, same lack of details about anything remotely complicated or multifacetted. Just the way I like it.

In the story, we meet Jessica (Nancy Travis), a lively, yet somewhat naïve young lady in the beginning of the 20th century in England. Her father is English, but her late mother was American and we get more than a few hints that this accounts for Jessica’s liveliness, because every Englishman and -woman in this series sounds like a Victorian-era neurotic old school marm at a girls’ school. Including Jessica’s fiancé Charles, with whom she is nonetheless smitten when we first meet her. He’s a diplomat of sorts and as he has to go to Damascus on business for several months, she decides to go with him so that they may be wed in Syria instead of having to wait until he returns to tie the knot.

Once there, her lively willfulness moves her to go on an expedition to Palmyra, where I’ve totally been, too. Unlike me, however, she has scarcely arrived at the site before she is kidnapped by what appears to be a tribe of bedouins. One of them, Tarik Pasha (Art Malik), speaks English fluently, yet is dashingly handsome in that so-not-a-stiff-Englishman kind of way. This will be important later!

Jessica is sold off by the would-be bedouins to the harem of the Sultan of the Ottoman Kingdom, played by none other than Omar Sharif. Once there, Jessica finds that the harem is filled with erotically provocative young ladies, eunuch waiters, and the Sultan’s very, very evil wife, the Kadin (Ava Gardner) who has made it her life mission to be jealous of any woman her husband might desire, which is pretty stupid if you ask me, considering that she lives in her husband’s friggin’ harem. If it’s come to a point where your husband has established a whole institution of sexual slavery in order not to have sex with you, it’s probably best to just accept the facts and move on.

Apart from being apalled by the Kadin’s creative ways of secretly killing off her husband’s harem girls, Jessica takes the whole having-been-sold-as-a-sex-slave quite easily. But then that may be because she knows deep down that she hasn’t yet learned to enjoy her body and not be afraid of what happens between a man and a woman. Luckily, the Sultan’s old favourite mistress, Usta (Cherie Lunghi), is there to open her eyes to these things, and we are treated to a series of more than slightly homoerotic scenes in which Usta gives Jessica a massage or teaches her not to be ashamed of her own nakedness. Those Eastern women are so wise about these things. So in touch with their bodies.

By way of her American willfulness and intelligence, Jessica graudally becomes the Sultan’s favourite, even though she still won’t sleep with him, because she wants him to “court her in the western way” as opposed to the eastern way,  which essentially means to not be treated like a victim of trafficking, Jessica informs us. Around the same time, Jessica is reunited with sexy bedouin Tarik Pasha who turns out to be a revolutionary, fighting against the tyrannic sultanate. Will Jesscia join him? Or will she be reunited with Charles who is faithfully using his every diplomatic skill in order to retrieve her from the harem? Or will she cave in and have sensual, sensual sex with the sultan, western courtship be damned (“This western courtship is beginning to bore me!” as a lustful Sultan says in one scene)? Watch it yourselves to find out! I won’t spoil it for you.

Anyway, the introduction titles of the series are a pretty good indicator for the mood of the story:

At its peak, the Ottoman Empire stretched from Algeria to Arabia and into Europe. It was equal in power and size to the Roman Empire. When finally the strength of the empire began to falter and the Sultan’s authority challenged, there was much internal struggling plagued with violence and bloodshed.

It was also at this time that there were reports of foreign women being kidnapped and sold into the Sultan’s Harem. Suddenly forced into a kind of life and culture they never knew existed, their safety always in question – these western women were forced to live on eastern terms.”

I love that. It’s like they’re basically saying: “Back in history, a whole bunch of complicated politics and stuff went down. But we won’t bore you with that. Instead, here’s a story we made up based losely on research about sexy young sex slaves! Interracial sex slaves! Wooo!”

The trick is of course not to take any of this seriously. And as long as you don’t do that, it’s a delightful series, full of cheesy goodness, and an excellent guilty pleasure. Omar Sharif is wonderfully ham-like, Ava Gardner is deliciously over-dramatic. Art Malik is a generic, yet satisfying fairy tale prince, while Nancy Travis is probably the weakest link in the romance. Not quite wide-eyed enough to speak to my mothering instincts, and not quite willful enough to be feisty, she just ends up being kind of bland. And Cherie Lunghi reminds me an awful lot of Jane Seymour, but I guess that’s not a problem if you’re ok with Jane Seymour (but I am not).

“A city girl. Out of her element.” – On Romancing the Stone, Temple of Doom, and Unlikely Action Heroines

Kathleen Turner turned 56 this past weekend, and so here’s a belated  Kathleen Turner-related entry to celebrate that event. I really like Kathleen Turner. Robert Zemeckis’s Romancing the Stone was actually my favourite movie when I was about 11. There exists “Friends Books” out there, (you know, the kind you had in middle school where you had to fill our your “favourite this-and-that”), where I have listed RtS as the best movie known to me, in all seriousness. I watched it again a few months ago for the first time in 16 years, and while it’s not likely to even be in my top 30 these days, I’m happy to report that I still thought it was a pretty decent flick, and a lot of this has to do with Kathleen Turner, who is wonderful as Joan Wilder.

What I particularly like about her performance is the way she plays the unlikely/reluctant action heroine so well. Audrey M. Brown from Best Action Heroines did a great post on Willie Scott from Temple of Doom and about how she is a misunderstood character. Willie Scott reacts the way we all would react if dropped in the middle of an adventure, argues Ms Brown, and goes on to say that Willie is “our advocate, our stand-in, and that makes the movie even more fun to watch, because we can picture ourselves in her  shoes”.

I think that Ms Brown makes some excellent points in her article, and I particularly like the fact that she points out that Kate Capshaw tends to be blamed for mishaps that were obviously Steven Spielberg’s or George Lucas’s babies. I think I’m guilty of doing that myself, to some extent, and I regret that – it’s not fair, and Kate Capshaw certainly did her best with a difficult part. As for the idea that Willie Scott is a good character and works as a kind of advocate for myself as a viewer, however, I am going to have to respectfully disagree with Best Action Heroes. The thing is, if I’m going to identify with a character in an action movie, I need to be able to feel that the character has something at stake, something that truly drives her throughout the story, and I think this was the thing I missed most about Willie Scott. The way Willie Scott was written, she merely tagged along with Indy on his adventure on his quest and apart from a half-assed idea of maybe getting married to the maharaja, Willie had nothing emotionally invested in the journey. And this is why I have little tolerance for her screaming and her whining throughout the movie. I’d feel for Willie if I thought that she was forced to overcome the obstacles before her in order to achieve some goal, but as it is, there is no goal for her, and her presence is reduced to the situation-based comedy of her squeamishness.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

I realised this as I was re-watched Romancing the Stone, because this is exactly what works so beautifully in this movie, compared to Temple of Doom. Joan Wilder doesn’t whine a whole lot less than Willie Scott in the movie, and a lot of their shtick is similar: Their wardrobe is unpractical and inappropriate in the wilderness of the jungle, they go on involuntary river rafting rides, they get wet/muddy etc. But unlike Kate Capshaw, Kathleen Turner was given a character arc, a strong motivation, to carry her through these slap-stick moments, and Turner seems well aware of this. Joan Wilder embarks on her journey out of her won volition; because she desperately wants to save her sister who is in grave danger by the hands of criminals who have killed her husband. Every threat to her life that Joan experiences on her adventure is a reminder of the perils that her own sister may be living through. As a result, Joan has a certain appealing determination despite being freaked out by her surroundings and is much less prone towards hysteria than Willie Scott. My favourite moment is the one that’s featured in the trailer at 00:34, where Zolo suddenly pulls a gun at her, and Joan, incredulous, goes “…What??” – a much funnier reaction than the high-pitched screaming Willie does in similar situations.

I also like that the love story is intertwined with Joan’s character development. In Temple of Doom the writers take the easy way out of the Willie/Indy relation and play the sex card: Willie and Indy really don’t seem to have much of a connection apart from a somewhat vulgar sexual attraction (“Mating habits… nocturnal activities” and all that), and there is little indication that Willie will move on from her Whiny, Spoiled Night Club Singer personality after meeting Indy. In Romancing the Stone, the heroine undergoes a personal development through her relationship with the hero. Joan Wilder is a timid woman who lives vicariously through the characters she creates as a romance novelist, but meeting Jack T. Colton changes her. Not because she needs a man to help her develop, but because she simply allows herself to thrive in a romantic relationship. Both Turner’s acting and the art direction work very well to underline this: Whereas Joan at the beginning of the movie is mousy, to the point of being almost blurred, she steps into focus during he course of the movie, blossoming right before our eyes. This is propably most prominent in the salsa  dancing scene, in which Joan gives into Colombian folkloristic rhythms and her attraction to Jack, and literally lets her hair down, wearing a lovely pink top (as opposed to the beige colours we see her in early in the movie), and smiling radiantly. In the end, we’re left with the story of a woman who steps into character, rather than create characters in the confined space of fiction and fantasy, and I think that’s wonderful.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

I’m not saying that Romancing the Stone is perfect, of course. I can take or leave Michael Douglas as a romantic hero, for instance, although he does have a bit of a sexy Sawyer-from-LOST going for him in this part. I really dislike Danny DeVito, who seems to me to be playing the part of Danny DeVito in every single movie he’s ever made. And let’s just forget that Jewel of the Nile ever happened, shall we? But I still think that this early 1980s flic is the one of the sweetest depictions of an unlikely action heroine I’ve seen. And I’m not at all pleased to have found out that it’s about to be remade. What’s with all the remakes, Hollywood? Have you completely given up on the idea of originality? Oh, well. That’s for another blog entry, I guess.

At the Lighthouse Watches Strange ’80s Sci-Fi/Road Movie Hybrid And Actually Enjoys It – or – Reviewing Starman (1984)

Yes indeed, it is time for another random 1980s movie review!

But first: a few words. This is not a personal blog and I don’t intend for it to be. But I’ve mentioned The Boyfriend often enough in here that it feels wrong not to make the announcement that, well, The Boyfriend and I went our seperate ways in early December and are no longer together.

I know that these things happen every day, and I am ok, but break-ups suck. They really, truly suck, and I’ll admit that I’ve been going through a rough time this past month and a half. Last Saturday I moved into a flat of my own after having stayed at my parents’  place for a month, and my first evening in my new home was so strange. The flat felt surreally big for just one person (two rooms! And a kitchen! And a bathroom!), and the rooms felt unfamiliar. I frequently have dreams in which I suddenly find out that my home has an extra room that I just never discovered before, and then I spend the rest of the dream marvelling over the extra space and eagerly planning how I’d like to furnish the room. On that evening last week, I felt like I was living that dream, and it was both a wondrous and an intimidating experience. I walked around restlessly for a while, then I started unpacking as much as I could manage, but I was really too tired and too emotional to get much done. So finally I decided to just sit down and watch a movie that I stumbled upon, John Carpenter’s Starman from 1984. 

The plot turned out to be this: An extra-terrestrial being from a highly sophisticated alien civilisation travels to Earth, encouraged by the disc sent out with Voyager II in 1977, containing greetings from planet Earth and an invitation to come visit our planet. Having arrived, the being finds his way into a random Wisconsin house at night where he clones into an earthling, Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges), who has been dead and gone for some time, by means of exstracting DNA from a lock of Scott’s hair which he finds pasted into a photo album. Scott’s grieving young widow Jenny (Karen Allen) wakes up and witnesses the metamorphosis, deeply shocked by what she sees. But the Starman needs her help: He has to be in Arizona three days later when fellow extraterrestrials will be there to pick him up, and he doesn’t know how to get there. Overcoming her initial fear and shock, Jenny embarks on a journey across America to help the Starman get back in time, and gradually the earthling and the alien start developing feelings for each other. Their trip, however, is anything but a peaceful journey, because the Starman will perish on Earth if he misses his flight home, and the FBI are hot on Jenny’s and Starman’s trail and want to capture Starman and forcefully examine him.

Now, before you start mocking me: I am quite aware that this must sound like kind of a ridiculous set-up for a movie. And sure, the whole thing is pretty much E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for adults. Or a dramatic version of 3rd Rock from the Sun, if you will. But whether it was my melancholy state of mind that evening or something else, the movie actually worked for me.

The Dude Abides
The success of the movie, for me, mostly has to do with the actors, who do a fantastic job. I’ve loved Jeff Bridges since The Big Lebowski and he doesn’t disappoint in this early 80s movie. He was nominated for an Oscar for this part and I think it’s fully deserved. His part as the Starman can’t have been an easy one, but Bridges really nails the alien’s approach to the foreign human body that he has assumed. His movements are awkwardly jerky and bird-like and his voice strange and forced all through the movie. Yet Bridges plays the alien with a truly touching gentleness and leaves some room for his character to grow visibly more comfortable in his new body, a development he mostly explores in his interaction with Jenny’s character.

Which is in turn handled beautifully by Karen Allen. She’s been a new girl crush of mine since I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time last year. I have since seen her as Laura in Paul Newman’s version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as well, and I’m more and more convinced that she’s an underused actress. Her performance as Jenny Hayden sucks you into the story, right from the first scenes of the movie where we see Jenny watching old narrow-gauge home movies of herself and her deceased husband, an infinitely mournful expression on her face. If the Starman goes through a development in the course of the movie, Jenny’s character definitely does too, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine what a deeply unheimlich experience it must be to find oneself faced with the body of a deceased loved one, inhabitated by a strange unearthly being. But Allen gives a great, subtle performance of both this inital state of terror and Jenny’s growing trust in and attraction to the Starman, and she makes it believable. She is absolutely beautiful in the scene where the Starman asks her to “define love”:

“When someone you love… dies… shit…
“Define ‘shit'”.

The movie isn’t without humour either, which is another thing I like about it. It keeps the pathos somewhat in check.

Finally, Charles Martin Smith is great in the part of Mark Shermin, the sympathetic scientist who is fascinated with the Starman and doesn’t agree with his superiors’ xenophobic attitude towards the extra-terrestrial.

Red Plaid Jackets and Blue Space Light
The art direction of the movie also made a real impression on me. The movie title is a decidedly sci-fi one, so sitting down to watch the movie, you kind of expect it to be all about streamlined spaceships and hightech sceneries. And there is some of that, sure. The Starman brings with him these strange silver balls that allow him to work his extraterrestrial powers on earth several times throughout the movie. Apart from being a nifty plot device, the balls exude a cool, electric blue light that lends something smoothly space-like and eerily otherworldly to these scenes. Behold, for instance, the super scary scene in which Starman clones himself into Scott right before Jenny’s eyes. A most memorable sci-fi scene:

 However, part of the originality of the way the plot plays out is the fact that the movie goes very quickly from being sci-fi to becoming a classic road movie, focusing on Jenny’s and the Starman’s drive across America. This allows for images of shabby, cosy diners with solid wooden tables, rainy highways through dark green pine forests, and Jenny’s old beat-up, orange-red Mustang. The sophisticated Starman himself is clad in Scott’s old red plaid jacket and a red cap. As a result, browns, reds, and greens dominate the picture and embue it with a sense of  earthy, organic materiality. It subtly establishes Starman as a movie about the clash between our world and the other-worldly, rather than simply a sci-fi flick. And it also makes the movie into a kind of tribute to our planet and to the human race. As the Starman says, the humans are a “primitive species”. But he also says: “We [the Starman species] are very civilised, but we have lost something. You are all so much alive, all so different. (…) Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”  

The theme of the clash between the high-tech extraterrestrial and the earthly culminates aesthetically in the very moving end scene where blood-red and electric-blue mix as Jenny and the Starman bid each other farewell:

Jack Nitzsche’s score also works really well in this scene, with its beautiful, simple synthesizer theme. And I love how the dialogue here works to bring Jenny’s own earthly, personal journey to an end: She’s probably not just saying goodbye to the Starman here, but also to Scott, who had to leave her so suddenly, dying as he did in an accident:

“Tell me again how to say goodbye.”
“Kiss me. And tell me you love me. (…) I’m never going to see you again, am I?”

The final shot, lingering on Jenny Hayden’s pensive, upturned face is a much more effective and moving ending than any elaborate sci-fi spaceship take-off scene could have ever been.

“Obama is the Starman Child”
The attentive reader may have noticed that the Starman mentions a baby in the above clip, and asks Jenny to give said baby one of the silver balls. Well, you see, the Starman makes love to Jenny towards the end of the movie, and afterwards he delivers what may just be the creepiest post-coital line that I can think of: “There is something I must tell you. I gave you a baby tonight.”. The baby, he tells her, will be a boy, and it will be her dead husband’s, but it will also be The Starman’s. It will know everything he knows and it will grow up to be “a teacher”. 

It hardly takes a bible study group to pick up on the Messiah theme here. It’s kind of not very subtle. At all. There’s also a scene in which the Christ-like Starman resurrects a deer. The Starman baby has, however, apparently left a lot of fans hoping for a sequel depicting the life of this child and wondering whatever became of it. I found an interview with Karen Allen from last year, in which she reveals her idea of who or what the child is:

JW (interviewer): I asked my son what I should call this piece and he said “I don’t know ‘Obsessive Fan Meets…”
KA (Karen Allen): Jenny Hayden?
JW: Exactly.
KA: He wanted to know if I still had that silver ball I bet.
JW: The one you’re left with at the end?
KA: Yes. And what I’ve done with it? And whom I’m giving it to?
JW: Well, what should I say?
KA: Tell him I gave it to Obama. Obama is the Starman child.

Aww. Indeed he is, Karen Allen. Indeed he is. And I personally don’t feel like there ought to be a sequel for this movie. Starman works well on its own, and a sequel would make the story into too much of a pompous epic and subtract from the down-to-earth story about loss and love that Starman also has to offer.

Which is not to say that the movie is flawless.  There are, for instance, a lot of plot holes in the story. Like for instance; the Starman and his species are thousands of years ahead of us, technologically, yet they can’t coordinate for the Starman to be picked up immediately once he senses that he’s in danger on Earth? Also, I’ve tried to explain the plot to several friends during the past week, and every one of them has laughed at me when I did so, because it sounded so silly. But the great acting, the haunting art direction and a beautiful score all add up to give Starman a rare heartfelt quality, a hopeful, warm atmosphere that I found to be really comforting, watching it on that late night alone  in my new flat.

“O, the rain falls on my heavy locks/and the dew wets my skin”

In celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, I bring you one of my favourite movie moments ever (and favourite literary moments as well): The heartbreaking scene from John Huston’s The Dead, based on James Joyce’s short story, where Gretta (Anjelica Huston) listens to Bartell D’Arcy’s (Frank Patterson) off-screen performance of “The Lass of Aughrim” during the Morkan sisters’ early January dinner party: