ST. ELMO'S FIRE
ZERO STARS/**** Image A- Sound C+ Extras C
starring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore
screenplay by Joel Schumacher & Carl Kurlander
directed by Joel Schumacher
ABOUT LAST NIGHT...
½*/**** Image C- Sound C Extras C
starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi, Elizabeth Perkins
screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky & Dennis DeClue, based on the play Sexual Perversity in Chicago by David Mamet
directed by Edward Zwick
by Walter Chaw The Brat Pack as a phenomenon is something that largely, blissfully escaped this child of the Eighties--just a touch too young, just a tad too disinterested. When Sixteen Candles came out, I was embarrassed by the Asian caricature enough to avoid talking about it (ditto The Goonies and Temple of Doom--though not, oddly enough, The Karate Kid); when St. Elmo's Fire came out, I was busy sneaking into consecutive showings of Back to the Future. I remember a party where The Breakfast Club was playing in the background, and a girl I had a crush on exclaiming how much she loved it. Later, they played A Nightmare on Elm Street, and whoever's mother it was at whoever's house it was broke up the festivities not long after the body-bag in the hall. (I don't know that I ever saw either movie in its entirety until I was well into my twenties.) Ferris Bueller was my connection to John Hughes, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Marty McFly were my thing--not a Molly Ringwald in sight. The closest I came to assimilation was Red Dawn, which, while awful, is also awesome in a deadening, testosterone-sick way. Looking back, the moment the '80s matured for me was Near Dark, The Evil Dead, Predator, and David Cronenberg's The Fly and not, as it was for many people in my peer group, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. I remember hosting a sweltering screening of Broadcast News in my bedroom with a couple dozen pals, a considerably less well-attended showing of Angel Heart a few weeks later, and a private viewing of Pump Up the Volume with a girl I really liked and to whom I crystallized my theory of how it was always better watch a movie in the theatre...but not tonight. It was a hot evening. All my memories of movies in the '80s are accompanied by suffocating heat. The decade in my memory is one long summer.
And the first time I saw St. Elmo's Fire was this week, upon its release on Blu-ray. Mind, I thought that I'd seen it, but had confused it with any number of films that are exactly like it (About Last Night..., for instance, but we'll get to that in a minute) and, weirdly, had somehow conflated my familiarity with its theme, John Parr's "Man in Motion," with a first-hand knowledge of--and cozy affection for--the film itself. You can imagine the shock of coming to this piece of shit believing I was insulated from its offenses only to find myself completely spread out before it like a giant exposed nerve. Imagine coming, without forewarning or insulation, to Demi Moore and Rob Lowe's boggle-eyed performances herein as, respectively, a coked-up party-whore and a Rick Springfield-wannabe who wears a saxophone like a necklace in surprisingly the least egregious of a hundred zillion egregious wardrobe choices. Every scene in the picture is crammed to the rafters with tchotchkes like that creepy Eighties-chink's curio shop in Gremlins--it's as if someone hired Stevie Nicks to add a little flair. The film is so visually busy that between its hilarious costumes (designed by multiple-offender Susan Becker) and blinding production design, the real miracle of the piece is that there's still room to be distracted and dismayed by the acting and dialogue. Actually, the real surprise is that of all the Brat Pack power on display (in addition to Moore and Lowe, you have Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, and--what's this, a Jenny Wright sighting?), the star of the show appears to be Andrew McCarthy, who, playing a suitor of Sheedy's character, embarks on a trilogy of films in which he plays opposite an inanimate object (Mannequin, Weekend at Bernie's). I suspect McCarthy tasked to pretend that Sheedy is a real live girl is the only way to make McCarthy seem like a real live boy.
McCarthy's struggling writer Kevin is down on love and marriage because he has an unrequited crush on Leslie (Sheedy), the dead-eyed live-in girlfriend of newly-minted Neo-Con Alec (Nelson). Alec is a serial cheater who blames his wandering dick on Leslie's unwillingness to marry him, of course. Sax-player bad boy with a wife and kid Billy (Lowe) isn't ready to stop living his frathouse glory days and embrace staid responsibility, so naturally virgin Wendy (Mare Winningham) hopes to have her cherry busted by this Wyld Stallion. Billy, meanwhile, tries to rape best friend Jules (Moore) when Jules just needs to tell someone her secret, which is that although she's no longer screwing her boss, she is running up lots of debt. What I'm saying is that St. Elmo's Fire is fascinating because it's absolutely desperate to be relevant and thus forcefully injects awkward conversations about Republicans, cocaine, and credit cards. It's not zeitgeist to script yourself into consequence; St. Elmo's Fire is a movie made in 1985 that doesn't understand one single thing about 1985, and as such in 2009 becomes a satire of the vacuousness of an entire decade that's gotten a bad, some would say unfair, rap for it. By the way, there's also a subplot devoted to Estevez's Kirby Keger, a Wilder-ian social climber with scary aggression problems and a no-kidding criminal compulsion to stalk wax-effigy Dale Biberman (Andie MacDowell, just obscenely awful) everywhere, threaten to kill people, and walk around soaking wet and glowering, somehow all the while flying under the radar of "normal" folks' perceptions of decorum.
Tell you the truth, 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. It's virtually impossible to enumerate every single instance this movie steps wrong, but start with the space-alien behaviour of everyone involved and proceed to the grossly sentimental epilogue that has the gall to say that in spite of every incomprehensible minute that preceded it, all is well and St. Elmo's Fire was your run-of-the-mill, comprehensible coming-of-age melodrama. Consider the moment when Billy, in an epiphany of humility, declares he's abandoning his baby with its crack-whore mommy because it's the noble thing to do, then asks poor Wendy, dressed like a cornflower show-pony in a pink cardigan, if she would be so kind as to honour him with a going-away present. Yes, he's referring to her virginity. Yes, she fucks him. Yes, because it's 1985, we have to watch. Or consider the moment when Kirby gets his wish and sexually assaults eternally-dumbstruck Dale, followed fast not by police action or retributive violence, but by a bloom to Dale's corpse-like cheeks and the warm promise that somewhere down the road, Kirby will finally meet the right girl to rape, murder, and bury beneath his favourite bar. 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.
David Mamet is someone oft-accused of having talent and sensitivity--well, talent. My issue with Mamet has always been related to his turns behind the camera: I like the films made from his screenplays (The Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross) quite well, thank you. Then there's Ed Zwick's atrocious About Last Night..., an altogether different animal that sees someone else adapting Mamet, transmogrifying his smash play Sexual Perversity in Chicago into some weird romcom with semi-explicit sex, dirty talk, and an introduction to Elizabeth Perkins that stands as the one positive thing to come out of this trainwreck. An opening dialogue feels like the only remnant of Mamet's circular, aggressive patter, and it works because despite it being a conversation between Jim Belushi and Rob Lowe, there's a certain modesty to it. The problem is that Lowe's Danny is established as a wide-eyed sexual apprentice of sorts at the feet of blow-hard pussy-Rasputin Bernie (Belushi) when, as soon as the film veers into more comfortable Brat Pack territory (namely, after this introduction), Danny is revealed as a ravenous pick-up artist trading on his little-girl good looks in that typical '80s Rob Lowe performance that would be expertly exploited by Curtis Hanson's Bad Influence at the end of the decade. Released within a year of St. Elmo's Fire, About Last Night... washes out as another film where Demi Moore's character fucks her boss and hangs out in Bennigan's-like bars; where there's a break-up scene involving the sorting of vinyl; where Demi has to fend off a rape; and where there's some kind of freaky stalker situation. The picture also boasts a ton of terrible music choices, at least three poignant montages used as emotional shorthand, and a finale that suggests that every Brat Pack film--no matter the amount of rank atrocity housed within--has to struggle to not end like Flashdance.
Backtracking a bit, the Brat Pack Problem is, I feel, crystallized in the empty brown abyss of MacDowell's bovine eyes. It's clear that she's here because she represents something to the moment and not because it makes any flicker of sense to cast her as a fucking doctor. Every line is difficult for her, every motivation a mystery; the sad, animal helplessness of her is poignant in retrospect. All these weightless cut-outs are desperate for gravity. Spot it in the flop-sweat inspired by the awkward dialogues revolving around politics and economics, or the swollen moments of posing in zeitgeist-y postures of Me-Generation professions squeezed off at their ends by the ritualized division of record collections. Sexual Perversity in Chicago in this Brat Pack context is a barbiturated fuckdoll, rouged up and slutted up--but with glasses, am I right? The rhythmic syncopation of Mamet's dialogue is washed out completely to favour Lowe and Moore's husky, throaty, drama-class whispers. It takes a lot in order for Jim Belushi to be the best actor in something.
If there's anything memorable in this one, it's that '80s propensity for inexplicably explicit softcore sex scenes, showcasing Demi's rack pre-ridiculous augmentation as she does the sex-bridge thing a similarly-racked Lisa Bonet would do in the infinitely-naughtier Angel Heart the following year. But no matter the amount of nudity and feigned fucking, About Last Night... isn't the slightest bit sexy or funny. It's this rather embarrassing, pained imitation of sexy and funny. The Brat Pack is about being facile little shits on top of the world headed for the painful fall of the rest of their lives--there's poetry, even familiarity, in that, and watching them when the world was their oyster has to it an air of cloying sadness. No wonder so many of these films involve professions like welding and diner-management. I think what's interesting about John Hughes movies from this period is that because they mostly deal with teenagers coming of age, that element of the painful/pathetic makes real sense. What's interesting about all the rest of it is the spectacle of watching these deluded assholes playing at eternity on purpose when all that's available for them is eternity ironically.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
St. Elmo's Fire gets a disproportionately-good transfer to Blu-ray: a full-1080p, 2.40:1 framed presentation that betrays a healthy amount of "filmic" grain while conveying a nice level of clarity and brightness. This is particularly important during the scenes in Kevin's writer's loft, packed in every cavity with dumpster-retrieved bric-a-brac. (The biggest surprise of the production design is that no one has a Nagel, though Jules does own a neon Billy Idol mural in the Nagel style.) I say "important," but it's not what I mean, of course. Blacks are fine if unremarkable, flesh tones are surprisingly lifelike given the amount of zombies in this thing, and--especially in one scene of Jules trundling along some tree-lined walk in the middle of the film--the backgrounds are rendered with a care that allows them to upstage the foreground. When Lowe spits fire, literally, in Moore's crucible of self-hate at the end of the flick, it becomes indisputable that the image is really pretty amazing. The accompanying Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is, to my ear, badly-modulated, with sound effects and score overpowering the dialogue at times--not that I wasn't grateful.
Schumacher records a feature-length yakker long on trademark smarm in which he rails against the pejorative smear of "brat pack" against such fine youngsters, who have been largely unable to find success in their later careers because of this vicious brand. He goes on to recall how Demi Moore wanted to play her character's quasi-suicide scene in the nude but that he refused because it would be too hard to shoot. Back in the day, PREMIERE alleged that this led to him berating her mercilessly, the result of which was that Jules's tears were only too authentic. You know what? It takes a lot to make me feel sorry for Demi Moore, meaning Schumacher is the same breed of monster as Michael Bay, who, with the Transformers films, somehow engendered pity for Megan Fox. "Joel Schumacher Remembers St. Elmo's Fire" (14 mins.) is a redux of the commentary; it bears mentioning that his righteousness around the film's status as a cultural "watermark" should have the caveat attached that there are high watermarks, and low ones as well.
An "Original Making-of Featurette" (8 mins., SD) is the standard dog-and-pony show with the standard dogs and ponies; a dozen "Deleted Scenes" (15 mins.) are essentially different takes of existing scenes; and John Parr's (hilarious but preferable to the movie) video for "Man in Motion" is almost as funny as that "Lost in the Shadows" video from the Lost Boys platter. It's all wrapped up by HiDef trailers for A River Runs Through It, Ghostbusters, The Da Vinci Code, Adoration, Easy Virtue, and Assassination of a High School President. Compare this to the trailer selection offered on the About Last Night... disc for insight into the different audiences these films are perceived to attract. Again paired with the Zwick flick are River, Da Vinci, and Ghostbusters, but replacing the rest are "Damages" Season One, Casino Royale, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind--suggesting the powers that be believe About Last Night... is courting an older, more mature audience than St. Elmo's Fire, allegedly the domain of kids wanting to watch a Jessica Biel flick, something about killing a high school president, and Atom Egoyan's Caché.
Onward: About Last Night... sports a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that's merely slightly better than the VHS bootleg I ruined as a teen for the softcore porn scenes, though the intact grain structure indicates the soupy, slushy, muddy image does nothing less than honour first-timer Andrew Dintenfass's cinematography. The attendant Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio isn't any more dynamic: look no farther than the perfunctory bar scenes (Rob Lowe, it bears mentioning, was always getting into trouble with girls in bars in the 1980s--oh, art, you lovable gypsy scamp), wherein most of the ambience floods out the front speakers. "Ed Zwick and Rob Lowe in Conversation" (an impressive 42 mins.) is those two guys sitting in a hotel room, reminiscing about the shoot. We learn that Zwick got into a shouting match with Belushi on the L and that Lowe dislocated his kneecap trying to haul Demi up onto his dick. Ah, Hollywood memories! Zwick also reveals that Moore never met an opportunity to strip naked she didn't like. Another "Original Making-of" (7 mins.) is exactly the sort of thing smart people skip. Originally published: October 13, 2009.