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Apocalypse then

All right, that’s an exaggeration. But if you’ve seen ‘Super 8,’ you have a sense of the weirdness of 1979

Director Francis Ford Coppolla appeared briefly in 'Apocalypse Now.' Director Francis Ford Coppolla appeared briefly in "Apocalypse Now." (American Zoetrope / Miramax Films)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011

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When was the last time a big summer movie had as strong a sense of place and time as “Super 8’’ does? The place is a blue-collar Ohio town, the time 1979. What’s odd is that the town, although imaginary, feels so real - and the time, although real, feels so imaginary. Actually, imaginary isn’t really the right word. It feels so weird.

From the swollen bulginess of the cars to the sound of the Knack singing “My Sharona,’’ J.J. Abrams’s film gives a vivid sense of that year’s abundant oddity. Granted, space aliens on Air Force trains might seem unusual (space aliens? Air Force trains?). But such unusualness seems almost at home in the bizarre climate that was 1979.

That bizarreness is usually thought of in terms of news headlines. There was plenty to go around that year: a near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, lengthy gas lines during the late spring and early summer, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise’’ speech, the shah of Iran becoming a geopolitical Flying Dutchman.

What was going on culturally seems that much weirder. There was a sense of drift and things coming apart, of slightly dank bewilderment and exhaustion. “The . . . world is running out of gas,’’ Rabbit Angstrom thinks to himself at the beginning of “Rabbit Is Rich,’’ which John Updike sets in the summer of 1979. He could be speaking for a lot of people at the time.

In at least one spectacular instance, culture bizarreness collided with news bizarreness. Twelve days before the accident at Three Mile Island, “The China Syndrome’’ opened. A nuclear meltdown, a character in the movie says, could devastate “an area the size of Pennsylvania.’’ Guess what state Three Mile Island is in? Publicity doesn’t come any bigger - or creepier.

Usually, though, the cultural weirdness stayed within its own realm. Consider just the few weeks preceding and following the release of “The China Syndrome.’’

On Feb. 25, Marlon Brando turned up on ABC for a seven-minute cameo in “Roots: The Next Generation’’ playing American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell. Brando, on network television? Sheer shock earned him an Emmy for the performance.

On March 1, Broadway saw the opening of its first and, as yet, only hit musical about cannibalism, “Sweeney Todd.’’ Richard Rodgers would have turned over in his grave, except that he didn’t die until Dec. 30.

On March 10, James Brown played the Grand Ole Opry. (Ferlin Husky did not play the Apollo.)

On April 9, worlds collided at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as none other than John Wayne presented the best picture Oscar to “The Deer Hunter.’’ The scene could have been even stranger; the Duke might have had to utter the title of a Vietnam movie far more vexatious (to him, at least), “Coming Home.’’ Wayne, too, would die in 1979, on June 11.

It was another Vietnam movie that dominated moviegoers’ imaginations, “Apocalypse Now.’’ Four years in the making, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic had survived a hurricane, the replacement of Harvey Keitel in the lead role by Martin Sheen, Sheen’s suffering a heart attack, and its original budget nearly tripling. Interest ran so high - and the production had gone on so long - that Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, had time to write a book about its making and publish it before the movie had even come out. And there was Brando again, his head now shaved, reciting T. S. Eliot and shot in deep shadow to conceal how fat he had grown.

Looking back, “Apocalypse Now’’ is the great cultural moment of 1979: an epic that broke the spirit of a master filmmaker but also demonstrated a kind of ambition - and achievement - that Hollywood hasn’t seen since.

What may be the most expressive evocation of 1979’s strangeness didn’t have such a high profile. Philip Guston’s canvases can be seen as a kind of talisman of that year. Their recurring motifs - bare light bulbs, cigar-smoking Klansmen, thick-nailed boot soles, staring eyeballs - conjure up the scruffiness and confusion of that time.

Guston’s painting is doubly appropriate. For our chronological purposes, it’s slightly off-kilter, as was so much that year. His landmark retrospective, which would do so much to declare the return to respectability of representation, opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in May 1980. What’s a few months here or there, right? More important, his painting marked a cusp in the art world: the exalted stance of abstract expressionism and imperial imperative of abstraction (Guston having been a prime exponent of both) giving way to a looser, funkier, warier sensibility, with a new openness to different stances, approaches, and techniques.

Pop Art had marked a rejection of abstract expressionism, of course - but in the very fact of its straddling high and low it could be said to have things both ways. Guston was different. Forget his having been a comrade of Pollock and de Kooning and the rest. The deadpan hilarity of his images simply underscored the ferocious seriousness of his intent. This was a man going for broke, and rolling up his sleeves to do so.

Part of what made popular culture so appealing to pop artists was the endlessly fertile ground it offered for incongruity and ridiculousness and the unexpected. Popular culture thrives on those qualities. It depends on them almost as much as it does on cash flow. (Cash flow was an issue in 1979. After years of growth, sales of recorded music were down 10 percent.)

Incongruity, ridiculousness, the unexpected? Go back 15 years: Four Liverpudlians with funny haircuts reinvent American popular music. Go figure. That’s an example where incongruity, ridiculousness, and the unexpected panned out (really, really panned out). Think of all the times when they didn’t, like the Knack, promoted by their record label, Capitol, as, yes, the next Beatles. “My Sharona’’ was the biggest single of 1979. By the spring of 1980, people were wearing Nuke the Knack T-shirts.

So 1979 had its standard share of the incongruous and ridiculous and unexpected. Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer not only dueted, they hit No. 1 on the charts, with “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).’’ The movie “10’’ made Dudley Moore - at 44, and barely 5 feet tall - a male romantic lead. Steven Spielberg had his biggest bomb, “1941.’’ When the Chicago White Sox held a Disco Demolition Night between games of a twi-night doubleheader, fans rioted and the second game had to be called off.

But so much of the weirdness had to do with deeper structural issues, cusps comparable to the one represented by Guston’s painting. Popular music was undergoing a radical transformation. Punk was rapidly evolving into new wave. Eight days after the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious overdosed, in February, Talking Heads appeared on “Saturday Night Live,’’ and soon had their first Top 30 hit, covering Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.’’

Having dominated the charts for the second half of the ’70s, disco had begun to implode. The beer-drinker backlash represented by the White Sox fans was the least of it. The very fact that disco could still generate so much resentment spoke to its continuing prominence. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,’’ the ultimate disco anthem, hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in January. Chic’s “Le Freak’’ - the genre’s most expert distillation? - finished a four-week run at No. 1 in February. No, the real change was coming from within and nearby.

Another Chic song, “Good Times,’’ was sampled (what’s that?) on a single called “Rapper’s Delight’’ (come again?) by a group known as the Sugar Hill Gang (who are they?). Not that anyone knew it at the time, but this would probably prove the single most significant event in popular music since those Liverpudlians didn’t get their hair cut.

The emergence of rap and hip-hop wouldn’t be felt fully for several years. Dance music was evolving in more immediate ways in 1979. Summer, an even bigger disco diva than Gaynor, wasn’t just dueting with Streisand. She was demonstrating that disco could rock out. Four years before Eddie Van Halen’s celebrated guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,’’ there was Jeff “Skunk’’ Baxter’s on Summer’s “Hot Stuff.’’ In its white-boy nastiness you could hear a rapprochement, however shaky, however intermittent, between rock and dance music. Those Giorgio Moroder synthesizers kicking off “Hot Stuff’’ might as well be playing “Taps.’’

Jackson, too, pointed to disco’s decline. He released “Off the Wall,’’ his first solo LP as an adult, in August. Songs like “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,’’ “Rock With You,’’ and the title track were wondrously danceable, but they definitely weren’t disco. This being 1979, the album did have its weird touches: those fluorescent-lit white socks Jackson wore on the back cover and that “The Force has got a lot of power’’ intro to “Don’t Stop.’’ But the true extent of his weirdness - a weirdness way beyond 1979 standards - would only reveal itself later.

Jackson’s “Force’’ reference alludes to “Star Wars,’’ of course. In 1979, “The Empire Strikes Back’’ was in production, and Spielberg was filming “Raiders of the Lost Ark.’’ Their industrial-entertainment complex had already begun to redefine Hollywood moviemaking, thanks to the immense box-office success of “Jaws,’’ “Star Wars,’’ and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’’ But the cultural forces that earlier in the decade had created a Silver Age in American film lingered. “M*A*S*H’’ and the first two “Godfather’’ pictures and “Chinatown’’ and “Taxi Driver’’ lay in the past. But “Apocalypse Now’’ was very much in the present - with “Raging Bull’’ in the future.

However unintentionally, “Super 8’’ conveys this sense of Hollywood balanced between commercial ascendancy and heroic subversion. Spielberg is an executive producer of the film, and in so many ways Abrams has made an homage to him (it doesn’t take much of an effort to hear the title as “Super E.T.’’). Yet the movie also revels in the conventions of the Silver Age’s favorite genre, the paranoid thriller. Combining seemingly irreconcilable elements, “Super 8’’ pays further tribute to the time of its setting. Orderliness, for all its appeal, is also a form of limitation - not to mention altogether alien to the bruised, baffled sensibility of a malaise-marbled year. “Disorder was its own point,’’ Joan Didion writes in “The White Album.’’ That came out in 1979, too.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

'Super 8''Super 8'
3.0 Stars  Set in 1979, the movie's a honey-colored evocation of Steven Spielberg's most iconic period, when the director looked at small-town America from the deck of a visiting spaceship.

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