What is with all the nostalgia for the films and pop culture of the 1980s and the Reagan era, I wonder?
Why has that “totally awesome” decade become lodged in our national psyche as a good thing? Why are its silly movies being parceled out again now like significant cultural artifacts?
It's partly to do with age. Reagan children now run the major film companies and they enjoy seeing what used to light them up years ago. But there's even more to it. The kind of big adventure movies that brought people together back then aren't being green-lighted now.
Nowadays films casts, writers, and scripts are increasingly being scrutinized and even reviewed online before the films are even released (see what happened to Marvel's recent Eternals, which was “review bombed” online by outraged “fans” who criticized its “woke” color-blind casting online before the film even opened).
Given how policed the blockbusters of our own era are, is it any wonder film companies are taking us back to the future? There's a moment in the latest Ghostbusters film (how many have there been now?) where one of the crew from the original 1980s films appears.
Onscreen, he sees the famous old Ghostbusters Ecto-1 car and tenderly strokes its shark's fins, as though it were a priceless artifact from antiquity, which for the makers and consumers of this film I suppose it is.
But I don't believe in the soothing dream of the 1980s because I lived through and I have the receipts. Being gay back then was to be daily acquainted with the darker side of that awesome decade.
As mainstream culture danced to the unforgettable new pop tunes often written and performed by the eras gifted gay artists, those same artists were usually getting fleeced by punishing recording contracts and being forced to stay in the closet, and some of the best ones were already contending in silence with a pandemic that most people talked about only in whispers, where they did throw it out as a homophobic insult.
For people like me, the 80s were flashy on the surface (people started wearing clothes that had the label attached and might as well have had the price still attached too) but ruinous underneath era. Reagan's refusal to help, discuss, or even say the word AIDS until over 40,000 of his fellow Americans had died of it has its own cruel echo in Trump's refusal to take the Coronavirus pandemic seriously because it hurt his polling numbers.
The Reagan age certainly looked like a boom time but increasingly it was actually just a lousy corporate money grab. It had two distinct moments, 80-85 and 85-90, when the bill for all the chimeric good times was finally presented to the morning-after in American public.
The truth is Reagan actually presided over the dismantling of the unions and the filleting of the wages of the middle classes, who somehow fell for his studied folksiness. He was, for many, America's dad or grandad, but the gays knew better.
When the most famous gay actor in the world, Rock Hudson, called up old friend Nancy Reagan to get on to an experimental treatment program to fight AIDS, she didn't even bother to respond to his calls. The velvet glove of public compassion concealed the iron fist of private conservative judgment.
So when people speak of the '80s as a happier time, I mostly remember the decade's unapologetic cruelties. I remember how gay men, many of them barely out of their teens, died by the tens of thousands in sterile hospital rooms where nurses in hazmat suits and scrubs would often refuse to even touch them.
Bodies were thrown into black refuse bags. The lucky ones died with their lovers beside them, if they were not immediately thrown out of the ward because they were not legally wed, so no legal relation, but more often they often these young men died alone without supportive family or even friends to watch over their lonely passing.
In an interview, the actress Tilda Swinton remarked this week that she attended 43 funerals in one year in London at the height of the AIDS crisis. She left the city soon after that for the Scottish highlands and she hasn't been able to spend more than a fleeting night in the city ever since. Too many ghosts, too much trauma, she suggested.
The rawness of that reaction is very familiar to queer people and to all those who knew and loved them, as Swinton did, in that era. Reading about her experience I felt for her, and I understood a little of her path, though I hadn't shared it. I understood her screen career a little better too because it seems to me that most of her famous roles have been working out of an age-old question - how do you become - or remain – good?
I think the first step on that long path is learning how to tell the truth. But just like they did in the 1980s, I think Reagan's children, the ones now reliving their youth through the recycled big-screen blockbusters, will always remain content to whistle right past other people's graveyards.