Girls on Film: Rediscovering the '80s Gem 'Fire with Fire'

Girls on Film: Rediscovering the '80s Gem 'Fire with Fire'

Aug 02, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Fire with Fire still

Little Things Resonate

… or: How I Discovered the Link Between Fire with Fire, Gore Vidal and Social Responsibility

Fire with Fire finally hit DVD this week, a forgotten ‘80s film that never made its way to disc until a Bruce Willis film with the same name geared up for release. (Coincidence? Probably not.) The Virginia Madsen/Craig Sheffer romance debuted 26 years ago, grabbing the third box-office spot behind Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer and the week’s big robotic release, Short Circuit. It was a time when moviegoers were delighting in a third Police Academy, and Molly Ringwald’s Pretty in Pink was still in the top 10 after 11 weeks. Fire with Fire managed to stay in the top five once more, as Tom Cruise’s epic Top Gun debuted, before disappearing from the charts and into absolute cinematic obscurity.

For the masses, a love story between a beautiful photographer bored at boarding school and a moral bad boy miserable at prison camp was no match for John Hughes’ stranglehold on teen romance. For me, it was epic. Madsen’s towheaded Lisa was the creative, talented girl I wanted to grow up to be, and Sheffer’s Joe was the bad boy safe to be wild for (he was only in trouble for being a protective son). I couldn’t fathom why everyone preferred Ringwald and the Brat Pack. Even today, the dance scene in Fire with Fire makes me smile with nostalgic bliss just as much as Footloose’s prom, and Lisa and Joe’s first dance still invokes romantic exhilaration. Wednesday, I finally started to understand why.

I’ve often joked that I had some pretty terrible film tastes as a kid. It was the only way to explain why my tastes so wildly diverged from other young moviegoers, that while flicks like Back to the Future reigned supreme for most, I was rewatching flicks like Grease 2, Fire with Fire and Nobody’s Fool religiously. I enjoyed the classic ‘80s flicks too, but my true, refined love was directed elsewhere. While others raved about The Breakfast Club, I was rewatching Some Kind of Wonderful. While others praised Andie Walsh’s creative fashion sense, I preferred Lynne Stone’s Velcro threads in Girls Just Want to Have Fun.

I once thought it was simply lust that ruled my film impulses, that actors like Sheffer, Caulfield and Koteas made me a blind and forgiving fan, but they all had a stronger common thread – women I could appreciate or relate to in my own idiosyncratic way. Each film contained a blonde actress (or close to it) my young, once fair-haired self could gravitate to. They boasted aspects I admired, regardless of the film’s greater whole (good or bad). When years passed and I could no longer remember the details of the plot, fragments of the blonde heroines remained clear as day – Lisa’s creative reproductions of Ophelia, the many examples of Lynne’s fearlessness and creativity, Watt’s cool and unique life…

Fire with Fire still

Essentially, it is no different than the ever-referenced argument that it’s important for people to see themselves in their entertainment in positive ways.  Naturally, I watched Sixteen Candles once and then avoided it for films like Girls. The film’s two blondes were a needy, attention-demanding bride and drunk, loathsome popular girl. I remember loving Goonies every time I watched it, but the nostalgic pull and obsessive rewatching was reserved for films with dynamic female characters that resonated (Heathers). I subconsciously revisited films with cool women who often vaguely resembled me, or how I hoped I would grow up, or who offered wild vicarious experiences.

As I thought about this, and analyzed my undying attraction to Fire with Fire, Gore Vidal died. I wanted to do nothing else but play hooky, reread Myra Breckinridge, and maybe watch Igby Goes Down or hunt down a copy of With Honors. I jokingly wondered to myself if I could work him into this week’s column. I smiled, shook my head, and then opened up Myra to just get a little taste of the wordplay that inspired me read not just for entertainment, but for the craft. “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess,” gave me chills just like the first time I’d cracked the book’s spine. I reread the brief, yet electric, first three chapters. I could practically recite Myra’s explanation about the novel starting in the middle as it journeys into “my interior. No, to our interior. For we are, at least in the act of this creation, as one…”

If tasked with the job of properly summarizing the book right now, I could not. Yet I clearly remember the first paragraphs of the first and third chapters, so much so that reading the words simultaneously jettisons me back to the feelings of the first discovery, and every subsequent reading. Rereading them now I realized that yes, it is possible to include Gore, rest his blissfully opinionated soul, in this week’s Girls on Film because it’s all about resonance.

Myra Breckinridge book coverUnless we have photographic memories or spend much of our time studying a film, the work usually exists for us as segments – lines, scenes, fleeting moments and feelings that we remember. After we categorize, contextualize and critique, we don’t remember the sum, but rather the parts, which gradually fade until only small slivers remain. These slivers could be a scene, a piece of dialogue, or maybe just the feeling that the film evoked.  These slivers don’t rely on cohesiveness or logic – they’re at the whim of your memory, and how moments connect with the psyche.

Yet we speak of impact logically and contextually. Certainly, the habit has its place. No one can understand the ongoing crisis of women in cinema, for example, if they don’t investigate the whole – not merely that one female director who’s successful, or that one film that portrays its characters equally, but rather how the form works in its entirety, the habits it can’t shake. Context is the backbone to social responsibility. The greater environment exemplifies the specific need.

Nevertheless, we remember in slivers, and those cinematic slivers have the uncanny ability to forget the questionable and remember the relatable and empowering, the scenes and feelings that hit closest to home. It isn’t always the overall message or talent that resonates, but the pieces that hit our own frame of reference or subconscious attraction. This is the twist that allows us to appreciate, yet forget, a great film, and to fall hard for a terrible, crappy or even problematic piece of cinema. It’s not always about what is said, but what we get out of it.

The littlest effort can lead to a cinematic connection. This isn’t to say that every little thing is of great importance, nor does it suggest that the littlest effort is all that’s needed to instigate notable change. If anything, the world of slivers shows how relevant (and financially viable!) diversity is. Every effort to change up the appearance, gender, race, interests, personalities, jobs, relationships and environments of a cinematic world (or television, for that matter) will help a piece resonate to a larger audience, whether the piece is silly shlock or full of filmic wonder.

It might seem like no big thing, but letting a woman have a personality, a friend, or even a Bechdel-passing conversation, even in the most macho of films, even for just a moment, might just be the magic that fuels a lifetime of appreciation. Letting a male character be female, a white character be black, a young character be older – it could be the choice that makes the film stand the test of time.

Categories: Features, At Home, Editorials
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Carmen Ejogo