St. Elmo’s Fire + Diner

Double feature:  This double feature is more an endorsement of the connective tissue linking “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Diner” than of the two films themselves.

Taken in isolation, these two films are sitcom-y group bildungsromans; taken together, they provide a compellingly consistent representation of middle-aged male filmmakers in the 1980s, reminiscing on the transition into adulthood.  In both films, this stage of development is confusingly, but perhaps accurately, depicted as simultaneously irrevocable and fluid, binary and gradual.

Through the filter of double nostalgia – the filmmakers’ longing for their own youths, and the film characters’ prospective wistfulness for the moments they are living through – both films serve up a queasy mixture of adolescent callowness and over-the-hill cynicism.  Their fetishization of youth (21-year olds longing for their 20-year old selves) and over-freighting of life’s transitions (“adulthood” in these films is invariably spelled with a capital “A”) unintentionally dulls our sympathy and flattens any emotional resonance.

In light of this, the purest moments in both films aren’t the pointed contrasts between “youth” and “adulthood,” but rather rural interludes that contrast the characters’ time-bound urban strivings with the timeless peace of the country.

As true products of the decade of their creation, both films have something to say about worldly ambition, and both lavish attention on saxophone solos.  Both feature freak-out scenes, regular hangout establishments, mid-Atlantic cities, and the labored wringing of drama from a mixed company of average talents and above-average looks.

If one of the films feels more hollow than the other, it must be because its filmmakers plumbed images of youth culture, rather than their actual youths, for their material.

For a marathon: Add “Kicking and Screaming” and/or “Reality Bites” to the bill to see what a healthy infusion of irony, and a distancing layer of self-awareness, do to the telling of a similar story.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “Roger’s Wife” and “inazakira” at Flickr)

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