INTERVIEW: Richard Crouse on the Flashback Film Fest and the influence of 80s films

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(photo: Sonia Recchia / via Wikipedia)

As is everything in the universe, there has to be a foundation for things and geek culture is no different. In fact, stories like The Terminator, War Games, or Back to the Future are all required films to watch if one has any hope of labeling himself a true nerd of the word; at least in my opinion. These films of the 1980’s rest at the foot of a mountain of storylines that nerds of today can appreciate and study.

Film critic, author and pop culture expert Richard Crouse knows these films well. One of the organizers behind the Cineplex Odeon’s Flashback Film Festival here in Toronto, Richard has helped to compile a list of 80’s films that should be on every aspiring geek’s list to watch. He and I briefly chatted about these titles and it struck me as a pretty geeky collection of films.

I had to ask Richard if he considered himself a geek.

“Well, yeah, absolutely,” he affirmed. “Listen, you don’t spend as much time as I do in a dark room watching things and processing it without that entering your life! I’ve written a number of books that are quite specific in their scope. The book I wrote about Ken Russell took me three years to write, about his movie The Devils; I spent a year and a half on a book about Elvis Costello and there’s a certain level of geekdom that goes along with learning details so carefully! The Ken Russell book took me to the centre of that movie and that required a heavy level of geekdom too!”


This is the ninth year of the Flashback Film Festival. Running from February 2nd to the 8th at various theatres around the city of Toronto, this celebration of retro films is a chance for geeks of today to watch them, as Richard puts it, “as the director intended”.

“When projected properly, the film transforms itself,” Richard says about the 1984 Dune, one of the great films chosen for the festival. “It was critically reviled, but it is a good film. For me, it’s about exposing people to things they may not have seen.”

Dune, based on the science fiction masterpiece by Frank Herbert is an epic proportioned classic that every sci-fi nerd should see. Its sweeping landscape and alien scenery, brilliant casting including performances by 80’s greats like Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting and Jurgen Prochnow; it’s a hallmark film of geekculture that draws nerds under its mesmerizing spell.

Which is, of course, the whole aim of the Flashback Film Festival. But with so many pivotal Geek films on the list, it’s also a testament to the level of storytelling those stories possess that created the culture that we have today. The geeks of today owe a lot to these 80’s films; they are compelling and necessary for that culture to thrive.

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“And you know, the audience that goes to the Flashback Film Festival seems to respond to them.” Richard tells me. There are clearly favourites on this list that draw in the film aficionados. For Richard, he’s a Coen Brothers fan.

Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, are films that stand out for me. I’ve seen it a few times on the big screen, but it’s one of those films that if I’m flicking around stations and it’s on, I’ll get sucked into. It’s a totally different experience to see it that way and I love the cultural cache it’s acquired over the years. Other than Star Wars, it’s the only film I can think of that has its own religion!’

“Dudism.” I offer.

“Dudism.” Richard agrees. “There are 220,000 of them somewhere out there. In New York, there was a store I used to shop at, called “The Little Lebowski”. It’s gone now but it was a store that sold The Big Lebowski merchandise. There are not that many movies that have reached that level of fandom. I think it’s because it’s a wild movie. The story really doesn’t matter; it’s about the characters, the process, and once you get into its weird little rhythms, it seduces you.”

Richard went on to describe his feelings about the other Coen Brothers film on the list, Raising Arizona.

“I love that movie. Seeing Nick Cage actually do something that he’s well known for now; to see these almost Kabuki theatre performances, that he does now – to see it in its early stages in movies like Raising Arizona, is something that’s really exciting. Holly Hunter is great and I think this film shows the Coen Brothers at their best in terms of dark humour. It’s an odd little gem, but it never gets quirky. I like odd; I don’t like quirky.”

“’Her womb was a barren desert in which my seed could find no purchase.’” Richard and I both recited from Raising Arizona. “One of the best movie lines of all time,” we both laughed.

I asked Richard about the importance of these films for establishing the geek culture that we have today.

“I would say if we’re talking 80’s, and the onslaught of home video and renting movies – I think that had about as much to do with it as the dates that the movies came out. We live in a world where there are the “greatest collections of … “at our fingertips – never before in history have we had catalogues of films, music available to us 24 hours a day. And I think that there’s a direct line between people wanting to have access to all of that stuff anytime they wanted and that turned people into “SuperFans”. I think having all these great catalogues to dive deeper than ever before into great films and to be able to study them. You know, films like Dune, Gremlins, The Terminator, were at the forefront of VHS and were probably at the start of that movement. They could learn every line and enjoy them the way that we do today.”

Films like Wargames may be outdated by today’s standards – after all, to today’s technological generation, the idea of a computer tapping into another computer miles away is an old hat concept. But there are aspects to films like this that can reach a current audience through achieving a cult status, or with timeless themes like being an outsider.

“There’s no secret to people who feel disaffected or alienated from society are drawn to that film. You know, maybe it’s the same with Wargames; or maybe it’s the same with films that show characters who don’t play by the same rules as everybody else. There’s a reason to why people are drawn to those characters in real life, when you don’t feel like you’re playing by the same rules as everyone else.”

These films are essential viewing to geeks, that’s for sure. But more importantly, these are films that everyone should see for timeless themes, classic story structures and to understand character archetypes better. For the most part, these are pioneering films that “did it first”. They need to be seen and appreciated on the big screen.

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In closing, I asked Richard for any tips and advice for festival goers.

“Listen – ticket prices are great. $8.99 for one, $7.99 if you buy three or more tickets. $75 to see all of the fifteen films. Depending on your time, it’s a great buy and very economical. But you know, just go and enjoy. These films were big studio films – for the most part – and were meant to be consumed on the big screen. Let your eyeballs dance over Dune, or marvel over Drunken Master in its 40th anniversary. I haven’t seen that movie on the big screen in over 30 years, easily. So, you know, sit back, enjoy and luxuriate over what these movies were supposed to look like.”

Though my inclination is to see this collection of films as a prime educational experience for geeks to learn more about their heritage, I have to also agree with Richard that to go an simply enjoy the films is probably the better way to appreciate them. The Superfan will memorize every line and nuance in his or her love of the film, which is a highly-developed level of geekdom. But as my parents used to chide me for reciting every line in Star Trek seconds before the actors would utter them, I can also see that it’s a dimension of appreciation that’s probably best left at home.

The Flashback Film Festival runs in Toronto between February 2 and February 8. Show details can be found here. Make sure you and your fellow 80’s film-lovin’ geeks don’t miss this essential film-viewing experience.

… And if you have to Superfan the lines, mouth them silently.

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.