WWDD?: What would Dobler Do?
Teen comedies became one of the defining genres of the ‘80s. Baby boomers, those oddly puritanical libertines who became parents in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, left their offspring a legacy of sexual revolution(s) combined with complicated longings for blissed out oneness with predestined soulmates. These rather unequally yoked yearnings produced plenty of great films, ranging from The Last American Virgin to Porky’s to the mild John Hughes oeuvre, all exploring the complexities of adolescent love.
The age of Reagan was the age of the adolescent. Teenagers and their concerns took over the film industry during this era, whether those concerns included being killed off by Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in post-coital massacres or simply looking pretty in pink. Consider the fact that one of Hughes’s most popular films was essentially about Saturday morning detention. If this was the age of the adolescent—it was also an age searching desperately for a hero, a representative hero who combined both the angst and the desire for authenticity that became so much a part of the secret history of the ‘80s.
Maybe this is why Lloyd Dobler in Cameron’s Crowe’s Say Anything was, and in some ways has remained, so important. In fact, I would nominate the moment trench-coat clad Lloyd lifts his boombox into the air outside of Diane Court’s bedroom window and lets Peter Gabriel define all the otherwise inchoate longings of his kickboxing heart as one of the top iconic moments of a fairly icon-heavy decade. Devotion to this movie, and to John Cusack’s Dobler, has led to everything from tribute pages, to bands with names like the Lloyd Dobler Effect, to what can only be described as Lloyd Dobbler reenactors. Like him, a lot of us in 1989 wanted not only to fall in love, but also to find a way to express it in pure existential action (“existential” being a word too many of us seemed to have learned and overused sometime around our sophomore year in high school… I confess to possibly using it in an especially treacly love note).
Lloyd Dobler arguably became the Benjamin Braddock of the ‘80s. Not unlike Dustin Hoffman’s Braddock in The Graduate (1967), Lloyd refused to accept his father’s ready-made plans for his life. Also like Braddock, he fell deeply and messily in love. Unlike Hoffman’s morally ambiguous character, Lloyd’s rejection of the older generation’s values seems both thoughtful and exuberant. Braddock only mumbled nervously as he listened to his father tell him of the great future he had in plastics. Lloyd makes it clear to Diane’s father (John Mahoney, who is brilliant in this movie) that he “doesn’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.” If Diane’s dad missed the point, he makes it even clearer by saying he wont “sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career I just don’t want to do that.”
Say Anything comes close to a perfect film from a director who came close to pulling it off again a little over ten years later with the brilliant semi-autobiographical Almost Famous (2000). But not all brilliant movies become cultural phenomena in the manner of Say Anything. Why did we love it then, and why do so many of us love it now? Perhaps it’s because those of us who graduated from high school in the same year as Lloyd Dobler grew up in incredibly frightening times. Its easy to forget that the decade Molly Ringwald lit 16 candles was the same decade where we seemed to hover close to nuclear apocalypse, the same decade when we watched The Day After with Jason Robard’s skin coming off from radiation sickness in a world where there would be no more John Hughes movies. Those of us unlucky enough to grow up in the web of various religious fundamentalisms were even told that an ancient religious text confirmed what the evening news said: we are all going to go up in a giant nuclear bang before we managed to have sex. The Last American Virgin might also be The Last Man on Earth.
Lloyd alludes to this when he tells Diane that “maybe the world is full of food and sex and spectacle, and we’re all hurtling toward the apocalypse.” Lloyd’s longings, and his feeling that true love was the only meaningful thing to do with your life, made sense to children of the atom everywhere. And maybe the rather sudden end to the Cold War, coming the same year that Lloyd and Diane had their courtship, made sense to us somehow, too. Movies like Say Anything convinced us that there were reasons to be anxious about the adult world, but that somehow, if we were authentic and cool in an awkward way, things would work out alight. This is the charm and also the seductive danger of these movies.
The 20th anniversary DVD (also available in Blu Ray transfer) is worth owning as a document of the ‘80s. In fact, a great featurette called “I Love Say Anything” examines the phenomenon the film became and offers reasons, some silly and some serious, as to why it came to mean so much to the stumbling generation soon to be christened Generation X. It’s packed with some other great extras, including an interview with Cameron Crowe and some not-to-be-missed alternate scenes. Some of these are, in fact, alternate takes, including Cusack trying to get the boombox scene just right (one of the takes that, thankfully, ended up being trashed has Cusack sitting on the hood of his Malibu, the looking bored while the boombox played beside him!)
Lots of those who watched Say Anything in the theatres have teenagers today, and will find, I suspect, that it still works on some level with them. At the very least, they will be able to mock the use of antique technology like pay phones and tape decks. Critics will likely take the release of this anniversary edition to make the point that the ‘80s came filled with naïve representations of young love. They are right. It’s maybe not the best that so many of us Gen X’ers took what we had learned from romantic comedies like this into our adult relationships (Chuck Klosterman has specifically excoriated Say Anything on this point). The mildly stalkerish behavior of the male characters seems creepy, the female characters are portrayed as prey for admittedly well-meaning romantic heroes, and, again and again, we see the adolescent notion that the grand symbolic statement can solve all our problems, no matter how seemingly intractable. At the same time, a movie like Say Anything that makes us laugh and encourages us to be vulnerable, in a world where its hard to do either, is worth re-watching.