by Zack Smith
For those born to a post-Star Wars world, the Escapism Film Festival’s transformation into a revival house for SF/fantasy films has been a stroll down memory lane, with the likes of Flash Gordon, Enemy Mine and The Last Unicorn available on the big screen at past shows. This year’s lineup of 17 films, all but one of which were released in the 1980s, speaks to cable TV and home video’s influence on a generation—both for better and for ill.
There are plenty of well-known hits at this year’s Escapism, held as always at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, but what’s most notable is just how many were part of the first generation of movies to build their reputation through VHS and cable packages. Indeed, surprise hits at the last two Escapism festivals were Return to Oz and The Legend of Billie Jean, two basic-cable mainstays that flopped on their initial theatrical releases.
There will no doubt be plenty of moviegoers who show up to this year’s Escapism to catch such pop-cultural titans as The Road Warrior, Beetlejuice, Airplane!/The Naked Gun and Stand By Me (the opening cover of the title song on the soundtrack is enough to get my eyes tearing up; River Phoenix walking away at the end is like a swift tug to the nose hairs).
But the majority of the films this year are ones seen more widely on a television screen than on the silver screen. Fletch might rank as one of Chevy Chase’s best movies, but repeat video viewings are what has helped such lines as “You using the whole fist, doc?” maintain their quotability (1999 Onion headline: “Area Insurance Salesman Celebrates 14th Year of Quoting Fletch). Likewise, Bill Murray’s 1988 A Christmas Carol update Scrooged has earned enough of a following from basic cable airings that AMC aired it four nights in a row last November.
Or there’s 1986’s Short Circuit, starring Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy and a robot. Today, what stands out more is the cheesy plot and the offensiveness of Fisher Stevens as a heavily accented Indian scientist. But when I see Short Circuit on the list, the first thing I remember is how my brother loved to rent it from the Video Bar on Lake Boone Trail in Raleigh, and how he grew up to work on robots, and is now doing a graduate program in computer science at N.C. State. Even if he doesn’t recall the adventures of Robot Number 5 with any great vividness, there’s still that sense of association with the past for me.
Despite the fun of the nostalgia, the films at Escapism also put on display the roots of many of the problems with modern cinema. Add the word “remake” to almost any Google search for an Escapism title, and you’ll get a recent hit.
Last month, plans were announced for a Beetlejuice remake written by the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; a month before that, the director of Alvin and the Chipmunks was signed to deliver a Short Circuit remake by 2013. A few months before that, the director of Horrible Bosses was signed to do a new WarGames (appropriate, as his breakthrough was the video game documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). Last year, plans were announced for a remake of Gremlins, in 3-D, of course.
Xanadu has already had a successful “remake,” albeit in the form of a self-mocking musical. The films that haven’t been remade have at least been the subject of attempts, ranging from a Mad Max reboot to plans for a new Fletch by everyone from Kevin Smith to Zack Braff. There’s a new Muppet movie coming up next month. If you liked it then, you’ll like it now.
Some of these films stand up as great pieces of storytelling, while others are more indicative of a need to hold on to the memories of the past—a past that, in inverse of that old cliché, is both remembered and seemingly doomed to repeat itself.
While films such as The Road Warrior and Stand By Me obviously have long shelf lives, I wonder how the likes of Short Circuit will look to a generation 20 years from now without the benefit of nostalgia — or indeed, what new films will have arisen to take their place in that generation’s zeitgeist. Come to think of it, will they be remakes of these films?
But overthinking isn’t what a festival called “Escapism” needs. For this weekend, at least, I’ll sit in the dark and enjoy the memories with everyone else, and take comfort in the fact that at last my parents can’t stop me from seeing Gremlins.
The Escapism Film Festival runs Friday, Oct. 7, through Sunday, Oct. 9, at the Carolina Theatre. Tickets are $8.
Here’s the weekend lineup. Click here for show times.
The Great Muppet Caper
Pink Floyd: The Wall
The Road Warrior
Stand By Me
Young Sherlock Holmes