Revisited by Jessica MachadoRevisited

Re-watching St. Elmo's Fire,

so you don't have to

StElmosFireBy Jessica Machado

ver since I saw Reality Bites as an adult, I’ve feared rewatching movies or TV shows I adored as a teenager. (A struggling musician who smolder-squints and can’t talk about his feelings is no longer a turn on, sorry.) I was convinced that anything my younger, more-naive, less-discrimating self ever liked wouldn’t hold up to my current standards. Not that my current standards are high-brow (pour on the Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, please), but that Youthful Me romanticized things I was dying to experience—love, sex, my twenties—that, now, at 35, I have already discovered weren’t all madcap benders and cuddly morning afters.

But then, there have been other times when I’ve revisited a piece of art (even of the lower-case-a variety), and Older Me has clued in to truths that feel more resonant now than they did the first time I took it in. Or sometimes, the Hollywoodification of regular life is just the right amount of camp and glitz and it mesmerizes. Which brings me to my recent re-viewing of St. Elmo’s Fire.

I first saw the twentysomething “coming of age” Brat Pack’d drama when I was in high school, nearly a decade after its release, and here’s what I remember thinking: Rob Lowe is the most beautiful man on the planet. I can’t believe that nerd girl got to sleep with Rob Lowe. Demi Moore’s character may be a coke whore, but she looks like fun.

Here were my thoughts as I viewed the film through an added 20 years of cynicism: Rob Lowe’s character, Billy, is very pretty, too pretty, lacking any sense of subtlety and a beacon of herpes—the only thing he’s ever faithful to is his sax, which he keeps strapped to his person in case the bridge of an ’80s pop song comes along and needs a solo. Is Andrew McCarthy good at playing stoic and ambiguously gay, or a terrible actor that doesn’t understand nuance? How the hell did that dorky chick in the Laura Ashley pilgrim pantaloons get to hang out with all these fashionably aloof people doing blow? I totally get why Rob Lowe had sex with her now (so he can both punish himself for and feel better about what a douche he is) but the rest of the clan—how did they not even suggest she wear a skirt that hits above the knee? Also, Demi Moore is a fabulous coke whore who makes coke-whoring look like fun.  

Just in case that wasn’t clear, Demi was and still is the star of this film. Demi’s Jules (Jules! How fantastically flashy!) is Madonna when Madonna was a young, crazy, dance-clubby New York party girl in giant pink bows and lace-undergarment layers, blowing kisses at the crack addicts who whistled at her during her 6 a.m. walk of no shame. She talks about fucking Arabian drug lords and her mysterious boss in a voice that sounds like she’s been smoking Capris since she was 8. She is a secret depressive pathological liar, but even when it all comes to the surface, she still looks ’80s chic in a long, white men’s shirt, rocking her knees to her chest, in a bare room, curtains blowing to, yes, a sax solo. Demi embodies the glamour of rock bottom that you only find in the movies, and even though my rough mornings and sluggish years never looked so beautiful in their vulnerability, she sold me.

Maybe because The Demi of Now is practically a grown-up version of that character—doing whip-its, going to sleazy L.A. bars and trying to nail her daughter’s 23-year-old friends. I feel safe in that predictability; I absolutely would’ve expected both Demi and Jules to end up that way. And maybe that’s why this movie doesn’t offend me in its “we all eventually have to grow up” sentiment. Because you don’t really expect that these characters will. You know Billy wound up getting busted in a drug-filled underage, videotaped orgy and Jules married rich, divorced sad, had a boy toy or two and probably went to rehab a handful of times.

At the end of the movie (spoiler!), the group wanders past “their bar” and the movie’s namesake, St. Elmo’s Fire, and pauses for a moment to stare with moderate disinterest at all the drunken college shenanigans going on inside. They decide to keep on walking. Their time there has passed, or so we are to believe. This scene would’ve annoyed me if the group of friends then vowed to focus on their careers and settle down, but they didn’t. They talked about meeting for brunch next weekend instead. A meal reserved for hangover chat, runny eggs and vitamin-enhanced booze. This is the kind of realistic semi-grown-up thinking that I am familiar with. At 25, you start to realize you may evolve with age, maybe even feel some nudge toward responsibility, but you aren’t going to change who you are. Not too much. It is also the beginning of the end of making promises you know you can’t keep. Surely, Billy was back at St. Elmo’s, trying to score coeds by midweek.

Overall rewatchability: 7

Jessica Machado is an assistant editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, among other publications.