Last week while binge watching the third season of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things (specifically the superlative The Sauna Test episode), I wept. I mean I actually got a lump in my throat, my eyes began to profusely water up and my lower lip began to quiver. My poor and long suffering wife looked at me with concern in her eyes as I almost choked on my glass of white wine and began to gesticulate wildly at our tiny bedroom television set, my arms flailing about wildly as the Sauvignon blanc sprayed from my nose. Words to the effect of “River Phoenix…Sneakers…Direct quote” quickly came tumbling from my drooling mouth and I’m sure my better half was convinced that I was finally having my long overdue stroke brought about not by fatty and greasy foods as long predicted but rather by what could only be coined as a “Geek Attack.”
Finally composing myself, I was able to convey in my best Geek Speak that the scene we had just watched that featured Maya Hawke stating with utter bad-assness “It’s fascinating what twenty bucks will get you at the county records office” was almost a word for word quote from the 1992 film Sneakers which featured a bevy of great acting talent such as Robert Redford, Sydney Poiter, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, Mary McDonnell and Ben Kingsley. The quote itself came from the River Phoenix character, Carl, who, upon laying out a roll of plans on a table says pretty much the same lines. “And,” I managed to cough out triumphantly as I finally gained control of my wine fit, “the line is said by Maya Hawke.” My wife looked at me sympathetically as I waited for her to put the obvious puzzle pieces together. Apparently she was going to make me say it: “Maya Hawke is the daughter of Ethan Hawke.” Crickets. “Ethan Hawke made his film debut alongside River Phoenix in the Joe Dante movie, Explorers! Coincidence that the Duffer Brothers would have her say that particular line? I don’t think so!”
I sat there smugly in front of the woman who loved me, feeling as if for all of the world that I had just found the missing evidence in the Kennedy assassination. At times like these my wife knows that about the only thing that can talk me down from such a pop cultural high are back issues of Movieline or Premiere Magazine. And lately (i.e. since the latest season of Stranger Things dropped last week on Netflix) my predilection towards obscure 70s, 80s and 90s movie references has grown larger than the Mind Flayer itself as I’ve routinely paused the going’s on in the series to earnestly explain to my put upon hetero life partner and love of my life the latest tip of the hat to Jaws and The Karate Kid. I think she appreciates my input.
One of the most charming things about the Duffer Brothers created show Stranger Things is the absolute love letter the series is to film, television, books, comics and shopping malls of the 70s-90s. It’s a validation to this former latch-key kid who happily rotted out brain cells spending copious quarters in the mall arcade or watched episodes of The Twilight Zone and worshipped John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing as if it were the Torah. While I would be hard pressed to explain the new Moto Z4 cell phone or the Smart Toilet, I could easily and happily spend the entirety of the day preaching the virtues of my old Choose Your Own Adventure books or dissect just why exactly Corey Haim was a better actor than Corey Feldman. It takes different strokes to move the world, you know?
Season Three of Strangers Things has been a smorgasbord of film references beyond the above rant about Sneakers. Some have been pretty obvious, some a little less so. George Romero got a shout-out early on when some of our heroes snuck into a mall showing of Day of the Dead. The perennial 80s movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High has more than crashed the party with Billy’s strutting like some cheesy peacock in front of an admiring female throng, all set to “Moving In Stereo” by The Cars, just like that Amy Heckerling directed classic. Phoebe Cates, one of the many breakout stars of that film, also gets a name drop throughout the season. Die Hard, Jaws, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Red Dawn also achieve screen time with either direct mentions or quotes from the movies themselves.
In an era where partisan politics and cultural upheaval seems mercilessly rampant, Stranger Things and its many pop cultural references is like a balm on my heart and sensibilities, soothing and reassuring all at once and whispering to me that it’s alright that I recall a throwaway line from some by now semi-obscure movie that was actually shot on film versus digital and is viewed now as more of a relic from a bygone era. It whispers to us that it’s alright to love this pop culture ephemera because it did and it does matter. It has value. It’s hard to see anyone getting sentimental about the Smart toilet thirty years or so from now, but I do believe we’ll still be waxing nostalgic about how cool Maya Hawke is quoting an even cooler River Phoenix. At least that’s what I’d like to believe.