The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Mad Men
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Gaumont Treasures
Last Year at
St. Elmos Fire
ASC Close-Up
St. Elmos Fire (1985)
Blu-Ray Edition
2.40:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $28.95

While shooting D.C. Cab in Washington, D.C., director Joel Schumacher was struck by the young people he met in the community surrounding Georgetown University. Many of them seemed either paralyzed by the necessity to become instant grown-ups or aggressively eager to become part of the yuppie establishment. Schumacher saw potential for compelling drama in these 20somethings, so he and Carl Kurlander, a young man barely out of college himself, collaborated on an ensemble screenplay that became St. Elmo’s Fire. Although the script was turned down by studio executives all over town, the film went on to become a summer hit and an enduring snapshot of 1980s mores; viewed today, it is both a timeless coming-of-age story and a specific social document of its era.

The movie tells the story of seven friends just out of Georgetown who struggle to make sense of their relationships and careers after the safety net of school has been yanked from under them. Alec (Judd Nelson) is an ambitious young politician who cheats on his girlfriend, Leslie (Ally Sheedy), who does not realize Alec’s best friend, Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), is madly in love with her. Law student Kirbo (Emilio Estevez) has his own hopeless, romantic obsession with an older doctor (Andie Macdowell) as sweet-but-shy virgin Wendy (Mare Winningham) carries a torch for bad boy Billy (Rob Lowe). As the one-time big man on campus who now has a wife he does not love and a child he does not want, Billy is one of the film’s darker figures; the other is Jules (Demi Moore), a gorgeous but neurotic alcoholic and drug addict. These stories and other, peripheral subplots are expertly balanced in the screenplay, which examines what happens when friendships one thought would last forever start to disintegrate.  

Schumacher’s intent was to make a youth film that was neither a slasher flick nor a teen sex comedy, the two predominant subgenres of the early 1980s. Rather, he wanted to create a movie with the same level of care and craftsmanship one would find in a high-end drama for adults. To that end, he assembled a top-notch production team that included director of photography Stephen H. Burum, ASC, who was coming off of stunning work with Brian De Palma (Body Double) and Francis Coppola (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish). It was Burum who suggested shooting in an anamorphic format because he felt it would allow him and Schumacher to avoid wasting time on excessive coverage, a necessity given their modest budget. The result is a film comprised of elegantly choreographed long takes in which the ’scope aspect ratio keeps the multiple protagonists in the frame together, emphasizing their physical as well as emotional connections with one another. Burum’s extensive use of frames within frames adds depth to the drama, and the reliance on composition over editing provides a generous perspective on the characters; there is no editorializing via excessive close-ups or cutting, allowing the viewer to make his or her own judgments about the behavior.  

The widescreen frame also contextualizes the performers within some beautiful Georgetown locations, an approach that adds definition to the characters. Billy, for example, is diminished by his surroundings (locales that serve as reminders of his lost glory days), whereas Alec’s comfort within them shows his confidence and skill at assimilating with Reagan-era Washington. To call the colors of St. Elmo’s Fire vivid and the lighting beautiful would be a massive understatement; from the shocking red and pink walls of Jules’s apartment to the amber glow of the bar where the characters congregate, the palette is striking and varied, and Burum’s lighting provides a unique sort of nostalgia, a nostalgia for an age that is slipping away even as one watches it. The romantic, deep-focused images give the whole film a warmth we know will soon cease to envelop the characters.        

The new Blu-Ray edition of St. Elmo’s Fire preserves Burum’s images in all their depth and clarity. The wide range of the palette (particularly in terms of the film’s stunning use of rich reds and greens) is more apparent here than on the earlier DVD release, and the remastered soundtrack brings out subtleties in the ensemble dialogue while also showcasing David Foster’s famous score. The Blu-Ray contains Schumacher’s entertaining commentary track from the 2001 standard-def disc release, on which he candidly talks about the film’s origins, production and visual style. An eight-minute making-of featurette and music video for John Parr’s theme song are also carried over from the earlier DVD.  New to this Blu-Ray are an incisive, 14-minute interview with Schumacher and 15 minutes of deleted scenes. The scenes, which further flesh out the characters and offer some hilarious one-liners, are a treasure for St. Elmo’s fans — something that could be said for this excellent Blu-Ray package as a whole.

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