'80s Muddah, '90s Fadduh
The Karate Kid, Columbia Pictures, 1984
by Masha Tupitsyn
Thinking a lot about precarity and magic in ’80s American movies lately. Rewatched this scene from The Karate Kid (1984) late last night because I was this boy and because I loved him for so many years. Because I looked like him. Because, like Pinocchio, he failed to be a “real” boy. Because it scared me so much. Because it’s supposed to be a light fable but is very dark. Because Halloween is an allegory here, not a party. Because he wears a red polka dot shower curtain costume that doesn’t “hide” him at all. It makes him stick out even more. Because all the skeletons look the same in their true costumes. Because of the way the music changes, melds; horror score laid over the punk song blazing underneath. That terrible musical note that appears when the cars crash into each other and he slips through the cracks, falling into something much worse. Because the scene transitons from the relative “safety” of the school/students to that dark empty lot (forest).
Death catching up with Daniel. He can barely run. He won’t make it across. He’s already injured from the first beating. He won’t be able to climb over the fence. He is one and they are five. What happens to Daniel in this film is not bullying, it’s torture. It’s death. And the only thing that saves him (this delicate, feminine, working class boy) from death is magic. There is nothing else, and does that even exist? Salvation is a fairytale.
The ’80s always jump cuts to magic to save itself from death. Like the wormhole in Donnie Darko, a movie set in the ’80s. This is why none of us were precarious, or expendable—as protagonists, as nation—in the ’80s. Why we had nine lives. Because there was always another world to escape to. An after-life. What happens when California cannot be the dream for certain faces and bodies? What happens when your color is all wrong? When all you’ve got is a mother? What happens when you’re too poor for the California we’ve invented for the screen?
The ’80s was obsessed with boys—a nation—raised without fathers. It punished Daniel for only having a mother. It said you will die without a father. Stars Wars said you will die without a father. E.T. said you will die of loneliness without a father. Then years later, Fight Club came telling us: we died without the Father. The pain/beatings cease only when Daniel finds a father who exploits him in different way by putting him to work. His body will still never work—–it’s too late; he’s too soft. But the father can be his symbolic armor. His passport in the world issued to him by an “unreadable” father that doesn’t have real papers himself.
Piece crossposted with Love Dog.