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RS 29—Surface Tensions: “L.I.E.” and “Firstborn”

RS 29—Surface Tensions: "L.I.E." and "Firstborn"

Forget about the clumsy and poorly executed chase scenes, the hideous worst-of-the-eighties synth-rock soundtrack, and the clichéd ending in which the nuclear family stands triumphant and intact inside their suburban paradise (or cage)—Michael Apted’s now largely forgotten 1984 Paramount Pictures melodrama Firstborn is, above all, a conservative Reagan-era tale. The paranoia of previous decades about the infiltration of external forces into the social fabric now took place in the realm of the picket fence and driveway. It anticipates a cycle of movies in the early 1990s, such as John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights or Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which suggested that good Americans are never safe. It may be your nanny or your tenant, or, like in Firstborn, your mother’s new boyfriend, but someone will threaten the wholesomeness of the family one way or another. If in the 1970s and early 1980s it was time for America to heal its wounds with action and violence-driven products such as the Rambo and Death Wish series and, within the horror arena, the suburb was under siege by psychologically perverse creatures that came from the outside world to contaminate and menace it (The Last House on the Left, Halloween, or A Nightmare on Elm Street, to name just a few), in the 1990s any fellow American—male or female—could come in and shred the domestic paradise of the middle class to pieces.

British-born Michael Apted had garnered a solid reputation as a documentary filmmaker with the first installments of his Up series. However, by the time he made Firstborn his career had turned towards the mainstream with such features as Coal Miner’s Daughter, a biopic of Loretta Lynn starring Sissy Spacek, and Gorky Park, a thriller set in the former U.S.S.R starring William Hurt, Lee Marvin, and Brian Dennehy. Firstborn has a simple template: Wendy (Teri Garr), a single mother of two boys (Christopher Collet and Corey Haim), longs for a man; at the same time her oldest son, Jake, has just turned sixteen and is becoming a man himself. It begins as a flat drama, and then it shifts into thriller mode with the arrival of Wendy’s new boyfriend, Sam (Peter Weller), who brings not only a sexual appetite but also a bunch of empty promises about building a family together. Read Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega’s contribution to Reverse Shot’s Stuck in the Middle symposium.

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