"For he on honeydew hath fed / And drunk the milk of paradise"
Thirty years ago, this approximate August weekend, XANADU was unleashed upon America. In those decades since, it's become a one-stop resource for anyone who wants to get a cheap laugh or put you in a cultural place and time with the intention of causing embarassment. Want to score sarcasm points about the excesses of disco, or of films cashing in on fads just as they're dying out, or of stunt casting, or cocaine in the '70's, or camp, or whatever cultural fish is in the barrel you're pointing your shotgun at? Drop the word XANADU.
Well if you're in my presence, if you drop that word, you'd better drop the attitude as well.
Because despite the numerous flaws, outdated arrival, and general garishness of the presentation, I really love this movie. I don't love it in the giddy deranged manner in which, say, I champion THE APPLE or TEEN WITCH; I embrace it wholly without irony. I think it is because of the time it came out, the age that I was, and the emotional place I was in.
At 11 years old in 1980, I was already rather focused. I loved movies, I loved pop music of all types (although I was a bit slow on the punk and new wave front), and I loved pretty girls. Unlike most boys who have to go through a stereotypical wimmen-hayters phase, almost as soon as I knew what "dating" was, I couldn't wait to spend all of my free time in the company of someone who looked, dressed, and smelled nice and liked me back. It amazes me that even today, so few people can grasp the idea that boys can be heterosexual and yet fascinated by all the trappings of femininity -- that to a degree, we are also secretly dreaming of a Princess Charming who will find us and take us to a Happily Ever After. In popular culture, the only work that immediately comes to mind that correctly demonstrates this interest is THE VIRGIN SUICIDES.
I also was an only child, and always longed for siblings, but most specifically, I wanted an older sister. This mindset was likely shaped by too many family sit-coms, but I yearned for someone who would do things like reveal the secrets about girls I would need to know as I got older, put in a good word for me when I got to the formative age, run her boyfriends past me for "approval" and so forth. For a too-brief-for-my-liking period, I almost had that when my father had an on-again/off-again relationship with a woman with two sons and two daughters, all older than me, and I became attached to the younger sister. (The eldest was already married and moved out on her own) 1980 was a year when things were essentially good in that relationship.
But again, I was still 11; too young for discos, R-rated movies (or at least the ones my father wasn't also interested in) and any real girl action. And I still had to spend the bulk of my time with my mother, who was, to put it in undramatic terms, making sure my sense of humility far exceeded my sense of self-satisfaction, and in a somewhat hostile grade school environment that was reinforcing my debateable self-worth. I was already doubting if I would ever be able to make a girl like me "that way."
So when XANADU came around, it was an almost full embodiment of what a fairy tale would be if you were tailor making it for me. A young man of an artistic temperament that feels like he doesn't fit in with the world at large gets to meet a beautiful muse who believes in him and wants to help him thrive, and also meets a generous older fellow who understands him and sympathizes, thus putting up his vast wealth to help him achieve something that would seem out of reach. As the story unfolds, Kira alternates as both a dominant romantic influence, and, when celestial obligation forbids further involvement, the supportive older sister figure. So their affair is always rather chaste, but for my youthful purposes, their moments of skating, talking, even leaving our three-dimensional plane and entering the boundless realm of animation (done by Don Bluth, who had supervised my then-favorite Disney film THE RESCUERS), was all that I needed and wanted from the concept of romance. The trappings and details look silly now, but in 1980, I loved rollerskating and Electric Light Orchestra, so to have all that in the fantasy worked for me. And it didn't hurt that there was also a rich guy on the scene to have my back.
However, even at 11 I knew this movie needed some work. A muse living over thousands of years only now actually falls in love with the artist? And the big lunkhead in turn honestly thinks he can argue his point of view with a deity? Frigga, please! As this dopey development took place I imagined it would have been much more dramatically plausible if the story suggested that this sort of thing always happened to her in her spirtual travels. That would have provided poignancy, because she would know the closer the goal came, the sooner she would have to go, like a Qiana-clad Mary Poppins. Years later, one of the details I loved about WEIRD SCIENCE was that it made virtual girl Lisa smart enough to realize that her ultimate function was to create her own obsolescence. As for Sonny Malone, well, if that had been me (then and now), I would've acknowledged that I could not ultimately stay with her, but begged for that one last night to share the triumph of the club, because it would be as much her victory as mine and thus she should be allowed to experience it too. These small changes would have still allowed for the inclusion of that awesome single-take performance of "Suspended in Time" amidst it all.
But then, I was always accustomed to accepting bad news and trying to make do with it; perhaps the studio flacks putting together this fluffy fantasy were less in practice with that.
And today? Well, I'm smart enough to know that this world is a snarkier place, and most cannot or will not embrace the wide-eyed if misguided utopianism of XANADU, so I smile and nod when people make their catty remarks about the film. But as St. John the Cusack proclaimed in the Book of Say Anything, optimism is a revolutionary act, so I will still openly champion the big heart that I see within the movie. I have been lucky enough to emcee multiple screenings of the film for new and smiling audiences, and meet some of the people involved in the spectacle, and they all appreciate my stance of neo-sincerity.
But I don't know where I fit in the story now. I'm too old to be the naive dreamer, and I'm not experienced or prosperous enough to be the benefactor either. And I still have to wonder if I'm going to be found by that divine creature...