Movie Cycles: Country Music and Country Films in the 1980s

The landslide victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the corresponding defeat of democratic candidates and causes, signaled that American society was shifting to a more conservative mood. Reacting against the cultural and political liberalism of the 1960s, Americans were turning toward more traditional values. The new conservatism was seen as a reaction to rising divorce rates, the Me generation and its cult of intimacy, and sexual promiscuity. With Reagan’s blessing, the pursuit of the good ol’ days–that may or may not have ever existed–became a potent myth. The resurgence of a patriotic mood led to the production of films that strongly reaffirmed the centrality of the nuclear family. These films expressed nostalgic yearning for traditional values in reaction to both domestic and international problems which beset American politics at the time.

Country-and-Western music, a fast-growing industry that reflected the zeitgeist, was suddenly discovered by Hollywood, and country music themes began surfacing in big-studio films. The Electric Horseman (1979), starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, featured country singer Willie Nelson on the soundtrack and in a small role. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), a biopicture of singer Loretta Lynn, became a blockbuster and Oscar-winner. The “country” motif was also reflected in a new fashion that combined cowboy boots with Ralph Lauren Western wear.

The 1980s saw the release of a large number of country-themed films. After a decade of ignoring rural America, the American cinema seemed to have rediscovered the dramatic potential of small-town settings. Horton Foote, who wrote the script for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and the play upon which The Chase was based, enriched the small-town tradition in the 1980s with impressive works for the stage (The Widow Clare), screen (The Trip to Bountiful), and television (a mini-series based on the film 1918).

Sam Shepard

It is not a coincidence that Sam Shepard flourished as a playwright and a screen persona in the late 1970s and 1980s. As a playwright, Shepard created a new kind of drama filled with violence, lyricism and an intensity. His work is marked by vividness, theatricality, and brutal honesty. A poet laureate of the inarticulate, Shepard writes by instinct, yet his work doesn’t necessarily improve when made more shapely and orderly. As a movie star, Shepard, recalled a modern Gary Cooper, the tall, solitary, reticent American on horseback. In Country (which is discussed later), Shepard plays a struggling farmer who shows vulnerability beneath the icon.

Shepard has devoted his entire theater and screen career to rural settings and characters. In Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), he plays the wealthy, mortally ill farmer who gets into a fatal triangle with Brooke Adams and Richard Gere. In Resurrection (1980), Shepard was the fanatic lover of a spiritual woman whose husband had died in a car accident.

In Fool for Love, which originated as a play and was filmed by Altman in 1983, Shepard plays a rodeo cowboy who’s traveled miles with his pickup and horses to find May (Kim Basinger), his lover and half sister with whom he’s had a tormented relationship. The drama concerns their explosive, elemental, fateful love, marked by contradictory feelings of anger and yearning. Shepard gave a scary yet touching performance, helped by Basinger as May, Randy Quaid, as May’s gentleman caller, and Harry Dean Stanton, as the father of the lovers.

Shepard’s trilogy, Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West, is a searching exploration of family dynamics, dramas about bad blood ties, betrayals, battles over unpaid land. An original playwright, he neglects plots in favor of dramatizing agonizing relationships. Shepard transplanted his dysfunctional families to the old West in Silent Tongue, a bizarre film which he directed in 1994. Silent Tongue was an unpalatable mixture of prairie melodrama, Greek tragedy, Japanese ghost tale and travel minstrel show. A hodgepodge of acting styles and influences, it was a Western as disappointing as Shepard’s directorial debut, Far North (1988), a drama about the effects of the near death of a patriarch, almost killed by a wild horse, on his Minnesota family.

In 1980s pop culture, small-town America was far from a barren land; bizarre and mischievous characters breathed new life into the heartland. In 1986 alone, the following movies celebrated the idiosyncrasies of small-towns and eccentricities of their inhabitants: Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, David Byrne’s True Stories, Evelyn Purcell’s Nobody’s Fool, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and Bruce Beresford’s Crimes of the Heart. Each of these films depicted reserves of energy and imagination hidden beneath traditional facades.

At the same time, these films depicted a moral and emotional vacuum and the lack of organized communal life, with characters pretty much left to their own devices. The new movies stressed the need of individuals to distinguish themselves from mainstream mores, but as Janet Maslin pointed out in the N.Y. Times, Main Street still existed as a set of values that demands conformity–“in those ways, Main Street will never change.”

Portland and Austin

Notwithstanding the title of My Own Private Idaho (taken from a song by the rock group, B-52s), Gus Van Sant shot several of his pictures in Portland, where he lives in a large Victorian house in the West Hills district. “Portland is how the movie is,” Van Sant told Newsweek, “Everything’s tame and sort of friendly.” After toiling in Hollywood for years, he realized his unique filmmaking voice in Portland. Van Sant is one of several artists–David Lynch, cartoonists Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Gary Larson–who delineate the eccentricities of life in the Pacific Northwest. “People in the Northwest,” Van Sant said, “tend to be more eccentric than people anywhere. This place is full of folks who disdain the things you might go to L.A. for: a big house, a lot of money, ego.”

Most American independent movies are set in New York or Los Angeles, the two cultural centers. But in the late 1970s and 1980s, a number of filmmakers explored indigenous subcultures, drawing on their first-hand familiarity with their regions’ distinctive look and feel. Several regions were put on the national cinematic map through the work of their local directors. Based in Austin, Richard Linklater has used Texas as a setting for most of his work (Slacker; Dazed and Confused). Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) has also drawn on his origins in a border Texas town. Florida is richly reflected in the work of its premier filmmaker, Victor Nunez (Ulee’s Gold).

If you want to know more about this issue, please consult my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, paperback 2001)