Never quarantine the Past

Two new podcasts – Unspooled and 80s All Over – revisit classic American films

By Brian Stout

Rather than trafficking in nostalgia, these podcasts are taking a fresh look at the AFI Top 100 Films list and 1980s cinema.

Is Citizen Kane still the best movie ever made? The current AFI Top 100 Movies List has it in the top slot. One exciting recent podcast series is taking a critical view of the somewhat sacred ranking, and another is taking a comprehensive look at the 1980s.

On Unspooled, film critic Amy Nicholson and comedian/actor Paul Scheer take on the list one film at a time. The pairing works. Nicholson is a highly respected writer and critic with extensive film history knowledge and a modern approach, which Scheer is a successful comedian/actor and lifelong film fan who has admittedly not seen several films on the list. They provide a potent combination of historical context, production notes, bad reviews, and 21st century insights, culminating in a decision about whether or not the film should remain on the list. The podcast has also spawned a lively Facebook group.

Starting with Citizen Kane and randomly roaming from film to film after that, Nicholson and Scheer have discussed half of the list at this point, and their spirited conversations are available through the usual podcast outlets.

A cursory look at the list reveals a collection of mostly white, mostly male, mostly great films. It’s also very heavy on 1970s films. And white guys fighting The System. And westerns. And yes, that makes sense to a degree. It was a remarkable decade and sheer numbers suggests a male-heavy list. Also, what’s more American than a western?

But where are the women? Where are the directors of color? Horror movies? Science fiction? LGBTQ films? It’s easy to be highly critical of the selections and to point to their lack of diversity, and to say the list is an outcome of a number of factors, and that only adds relevance to the argument for re-evaluation. The list has already been updated once, and the past 30 years in particular have been marked by an increase in the diversity of voices, so it’s ripe for revision again. This century has produced many formidable potential additions, such as There Will Be Blood, Moonlight, Children of Men, Brokeback Mountain, Zero Dark Thirty, and Mad Max Fury Road to name only a few. And I’d still like to see A League of Their Own make the cut. And that there are zero films directed by women and that Spike Lee and M. Night Shyamalan are the only directors of color on the list simply must be addressed.

That’s where Amy and Paul come in.

Here are notes on three of the most intriguing episodes.

Taxi Driver. The pair discuss the film’s similarities to The Searchers and whether or not Travis is a poser. The characters Robert DeNiro and John Wayne play in their respective films are driven to save young girls who may or may not want saving. They also both harbor tenuous feelings about minorities. Scorsese is an avowed fan of John Ford’s classic, so the connection makes sense on the surface. Even more interestingly, though, is the argument about Travis’ background. On the surface, the film suggests that Travis is a veteran whose psychopathy is likely a result of the war. He wears Army gear, but never mentions a specific branch of service. His knowledge of weapons appears to suggest a civilian. He goes for the .44 Magnum, same as Dirty Harry. But his mental illness may be the most important piece to unraveling his motivation. Nicholson has made no bones about her dislike for Scorsese’s work, and she provides some interesting insights and counterpoints on the master filmmaker and one of his most widely heralded films.

A cursory look at the AFI Top 100 list reveals a collection of mostly white, mostly male, mostly great films.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The most intriguing aspect of this film is that both Nicholson’s and Scheer’s sympathies were with Nurse Ratched, who is ranked number five on the AFI Best Villains list. One of the high points of the “fight the system” movies of the 1970s, the film focuses on Jack Nicholson’s character’s efforts to disrupt the treatment within an inpatient mental health facility. A closer look shows Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy’s supposedly heroic efforts to help the other patients undermining some sincere attempts to treat and care for people who need care. The movie goes out of its way to show that fighting the system results in a person being silenced. They decided that the film belongs on the list, but this is a great example of how even great films have problematic elements.

A Clockwork Orange. Stanley Kubrick’s controversial classic launched a spirited debate about how the horrific actions of the lead character are framed in the film and how their portrayal makes the audience complicit and may be a way of Kubrick freeing himself from judgement for making his despicable lead character look cool. One of the most intriguing points that is made is that much of the violence Alex commits is seen at a distance, but the violence inflicted upon him is seen up close and personal, manipulating the audience to feel empathy for a criminal. The first blood drawn in the film is Alex’s. He calls himself the humble narrator throughout, and the voices of the victims are silenced throughout the film. It is an intriguing set of observations on a film that’s held court as an esteemed cult classic for decades. 

The 80s All Over podcast is an even more ambitious undertaking: revisiting all the major releases of the 1980s month by month. As children of the 1980s and noted film writers, Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg bring a combination of personal experience and spirited banter to all of it, covering the hidden gems, the blockbusters, and the schlock and trash that graced the screens throughout the decade. It’s a good idea to listen with a notes app open, regardless of preferences, because no one has seen all of these films except McWeeny and Weinberg, and you’ll wind up with a list of titles to track down, and likely have an itch to revisit some of your own favorites from the era.

The best place to start is the summer of 1984 episodes, where they reminisce about watching The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Sixteen Candles, among others. They dive into their stories of how these movies affected them then and now, and analyze and they’re not afraid to call out some of the gauche characterizations of marginalized groups and the casual attitude about victimization of women in these films that are often remembered as essentially harmless.

Both McWeeny and Weinberg praise The Karate Kid for its ending, in light of how many contemporary films draw out endings and run times. Ghostbusters is canon for virtually every child of the 1980s, and they relay some very interesting details about the movie’s troubled production. They also talk about how Temple of Doom and Gremlins pushed the limits of the PG rating and provided a flashpoint for creating the PG-13 rating.

Sixteen Candles is a classic in many ways, but it also features an appalling characterization of a foreign exchange student and a plot point where the popular, cool crush object provides the geeky boy with keys to a Rolls Royce and his drunk girlfriend. These unsettling elements are at odds with an essentially sweet story about a teenage girl coming of age. 

Lists are easy targets. They rarely satisfy and mostly spark conversations about what’s missing. Rather than just nitpicking choices, Unspooled remains fixed upon evaluating the somewhat sacred AFI Top 100 List, attempting to address the redundancies to make room for more modern choices. 80s All Over is a more personal account, a decade-long slice of two lifetimes of moviegoing. Both offer dynamic, challenging, and entertaining evaluations of American film, which really is best understood through the convergence of personal taste and cinema history.