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by Molly Lambert
“Jules, y’know, honey this isn’t real. You know what it is? It’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journeys by it, but the joke was on them. There was no fire. There wasn’t even a St. Elmo. They made it up. They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when times got tough, just like you’re making up all of this. We’re all going through this. It’s our time at the edge.” – Rob Lowe, from the worst monologue ever
St. Elmo’s Fire
dir. Joel Schumacher, 1985
currently on hulu
The thing about screen-capping movies is that it can make almost any movie look great, just by virtue of being competent. Reduced to a series of stills, even the most mediocre movies generally look artfully composed and well lit. A glossy movie like St. Elmo’s Fire, then, looks like Gregory Crewdson photographs.
Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson, the upwardly mobile 80s couple
The people behind hulu (aka “the calabash gourd”) are geniuses for stocking the movie section with exactly the kind of trash you would watch on, say, cable television. To wit there are lots of popcorn flicks, 80s movies, the occasional classic, and bizarro drek like Toys. I’d never seen St. Elmo’s Fire. It’s ideal for hulu.
I have always found the notion of always hanging out in a favorite bar sort of sad. I think it’s because I grew up in California, where the weather doesn’t necessitate that you spend a quarter of your year trapped inside one room or another. Also we have to drive, which makes getting drunk way less fun.
oh and Rob Lowe is a top-billed saxophone player in a local band
However I know that in towns like DC and Boston (and most other cold places), having a regular spot to gather and huddle for warmth is required. This movie makes DC look gorgeous.
Judd Nelson is the OG Chuck Bass, equal parts sex and sleaze. He plays the former center of the gang, now sliding into right wing yuppification and cheating on college sweetheart Ally Sheedy. He has a natural Jewish charisma to him.
but instead of a big portrait of Charlotte Rampling it’s a Nike ad
His 80s moderne white apartment recalls Stardust Memories, a movie whose poster hangs in the other apartment where all the other bros live. As in Gossip Girl, it riffs fluffily on the themes of Woody Allen films, focusing mainly on “infidelity” and “parties.”
St. Elmo’s Fire implies at least twice that vigorously stalking a woman is a good way to win her over. Although, to be fair, it allows alky coke slut Demi Moore to escape being draped by Rob Lowe. Which makes it all the weirder when he comes to her rescue at the end of the film. Say hey to Demi on twitter.
People you definitely do not want to see during your drug-fueled mental breakdown: guys who tried to acquaintance date rape u.
Emilio Estevez’s character recalls fellow eighties psychopaths Lloyd Dobler and Judge Reinhold in Fast Times At Ridgemont High by pining scarily for a rich med school babe and then being rewarded in the movie by the woman finding it charming and not filing a restraining order or punching him in the dick.
token 80s scene of white guy lip-syncing a classic soul song
In St. Elmo’s Fire, everyone thinks Andrew McCarthy’s character is gay because he hasn’t had sex in so long. There’s also a black lady prostitute who repeatedly comes on to him. This movie has all the grey racism you’d expect from such a white movie. It’s basically White Privilege: The Movie.
No, McCarthy isn’t an icily repressed gay (as in Less Than Zero). He is that other trope, the celibate writer suffering for their art. We know he’s a writer because he smokes cigarettes and broods, and we know he’s celibate because every other line is somebody asking him when he’s going to get laid.
In this movie, unlike in Less Than Zero (where he had the fool’s errand of competing with Robert Downey Jr.), McCarthy is actually somewhat hot. His chemisty with Ally Sheedy benefits from how incredibly androgynous they both are. Their hair is cut into identical matching shags. During the sex scene, when no boobs are showing it’s impossible to tell who is who.
Ally Sheedy’s pearl necklace is the only way to tell them apart
It also touches on that classic youth novel theme, the gayness of intense homosocial relationships. Is Kevin in love with Ally Sheedy, or is he really just in love with Judd Nelson? Is it possible that he’s in love with both of them, but only as a couple, and mostly for the ideals they represent? Ideals he ultimately knows to be false? These are interesting thorny questions, and even touched on by such superficial characters they resonate.
What St. Elmo’s Fire really anticipates is the genre known disaffectionately as mumblecore. A bunch of white kids sitting around talking shit, staying up all night drinking and pouring their hearts out, and ultimately dealing with issues of love, sex, and adulthood. It’s the French New Wave via Reaganomics.
like Jules And Jim, but really, really ridiculous and in the eighties
I was also reminded of Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, which is similarly eighties and about a klatch of wealthy white east coast college students who are supertight buds for reasons that turn out to be fascinating and kind of gross.
The part about splitting records became especially touching when I realized that modern couples don’t really have to chop up their mp3 collections when they break up.
“You can’t have the Pretenders first album. That’s mine. You can have all the Billy Joel. Except The Stranger. No Springsteen is leaving this house! You can have all the Carly Simons”
Ally Sheedy’s body languages says: she’s just not that into u
St. Elmo’s Fire also shows from both sides what it’s like when one person has been secretly harboring feelings for someone forever, and when given the chance to display those feelings goes overboard, which in turn repulses the object of their affections, who had no idea they were in so deep. Real talk.
From IMDB’s St. Elmo’s Fire trivia section:
Mare Winningham played a virgin while she was pregnant.
Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson all portrayed college graduates in this 1985 film, the same year all three actors also portrayed high school students in The Breakfast Club.
Demi Moore had a drug problem, much like her character when she was cast in the film. One day, director Joel Schumacher actually demanded that she leave the set because she was really high. Moore actually had to go through rehab and promise to stay clean in order to play a character with a drug problem.
Singer John Parr wrote “St. Elmo’s Fire” for the soundtrack. During a speech he said he was “not particularly thrilled” to be working on the film and that, motivation for the song actually came from a young man who had recently become paralyzed. “The wheels” of the Man in Motion referenced in the lyrics was popularly thought to mean the wheels of Demi Moore’s jeep, but actually refers instead to those of a wheelchair.
Movies That Share DNA With St. Elmo’s Fire:
The Squid And The Whale
Wes Anderson, at his whitest
everything involving white kids talking about feelings
O to be a young white man in the U.S. in the 80s
Saints – The Breeders: (mp3)
Elmo Delmo – Stephen Malkmus: (mp3)
Baby’s On Fire – Brian Eno: (mp3)
Diamonds On Fire – Rubies: (mp3)
We gettin’ Arab Money!
Florida’s On Fire – Superchunk: (mp3)
Gazing At The Fire – Ignatz: (mp3)
I’ll Write Your Name Through The Fire – Shocking Blue: (mp3)
I’m On Fire – Dwight Twilley: (mp3)
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording
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