THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: TANNER ‘88 (1988)

Even with questionable projects like Quintet and A Perfect Couple finding their ways into theaters in 1979 only to find his fortunes crater in 1980 with the underperforming Popeye and the mostly never-released HealtH, it would still appear that, on paper at least, Robert Altman’s sojourn away from the multiplexes from 1988 to 1992 was the absolute bottom of his long and illustrious career. For during this period he worked exclusively on projects envisioned for the small screen. Some of these were good as was the case with his adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,and some of these were the direct opposite of good as was the case with Basements, his adaptation of twin Harold Pinter pieces, “The Dumb Waiter” and “The Room.” But even on wobbly legs that could only be glimpsed in the living rooms across America, from this stretch of time also sprung Tanner ‘88, Altman’s absolute crowning achievement of the 1980’s and one of the greatest and most significant works of his entire career. If Altman’s Nashville is the greatest film about America, Tanner ‘88 is the greatest work about American politics.

Written by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and directed by Altman (and advised by future Clinton advisor, Sydney Blumenthal), Tanner ‘88 was a wildly creative and incalculably influential eleven-episode miniseries that spans the course of six hours and was broadcast on HBO between February 15th and August 22nd in 1988. Fluctuating between the real-time cable news drama of the very real Democratic presidential primary of that year and the bustling, fictional world of Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), liberal idealist and one-time Michigan congressman now thrust into the maelstrom of a presidential campaign, Tanner ‘88 dissected American politics with skilled precision, blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction as Tanner and his dysfunctional campaign intermixed with real pols and press all the way up to the Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen-coronated convention in Atlanta.

By running a clear-intentioned but befuddled antique of a candidate in Jack Tanner, Altman was able to get in there to document American politics on the cusp of a new age of information; 24 hour cable news working overtime to numb the minds of many voters, causing them to tune out due to over-saturation. In doing so, Altman sends up the technical bugs that plague on-the-fly productions that occur in politics and live television such as roving optical titles that sometimes shuffled between multiple names before landing on the correct person who’s doing a shoot interview and miscommunications galore despite sitting atop a bank of telephones. Tanner ‘88’s shot-on-video foundation (lensed by longtime Altman camera operator, Jean Lepine) has all the artistic greyscale of a Gregory Dark porn from the same period but it doesn’t damage Tanner ‘88 in the slightest. Instead, it appropriately gives the piece an immediacy, underlying its theme of authenticity and emboldening its independent spirit while still retaining Altman’s busy and impeccable onscreen choreography.

As my old man was the executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party in 1976 and worked for many governors and twice as many gubernatorial campaigns so a whole lot of Tanner ‘88 registers with me as authentic, most especially Pamala Reed’s TJ Cavanaugh, erstwhile campaign manager of the Tanner operation. I have known so many folks just like her; hardened political professionals who have to constantly see one election cycle in the future to stay employed. Likewise, famous are stories like the New Hampshire couple in the opening episode; people who politicians chase for photo ops as the kind of salt of the earth individuals with whom one wants to be photographed around the kitchen table but, in reality, are political starfuckers who collect autographs and Polaroids of the various candidates who drift through their kitchen.

In terms of 1988, Jack Tanner predicts Bill Clinton by about four years. Hell, if not for Clinton’s more folksy backstory and a lasting marriage, there’s not much that separates Jack from the 42nd President. In some ways, Tanner is to Clinton what Monty Python’s Brian is to Jesus Christ. Only a single presidential cycle separates them but that cycle makes the world of difference. For Tanner is a candidate for the wrong era. Clinton would have been much more politically cynical about cutting a commercial that was surreptitiously shot from under a glass coffee table or taking advantage of a private pain for political advantage. What Tanner ‘88 gets to the heart of is how decent and flawed people with true convictions and a desire to act on behalf of the public good can be completely shut out by the decision-making process where it counts because of a media environment that feels like a foreign land where one can’t quite see all the cannibals and the want to crack through the facade of “making great television” is an absolute fool’s errand.

What Altman couldn’t have known is the funhouse mirror Tanner ‘88 creates in both his career and in American politics. Already disillusioned with eight straight years of Reagan which, to folks like Altman, was a more refined and dangerous and disingenuous Richard Nixon for the worn-out Boomer generation, he looks at a landscape rendered unrecognizable by the the ever blurring line that separates celebrity and politics and how the poisonous tabloid luridness seeped into our national bones. By pinpointing this moment in time in 1988 with the inevitable election of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush (which was like building an extra room onto the previous eight years), Altman both recalls the political seeds in 1975’s Nashville but also sets up his penultimate effort, Tanner on Tanner, where America finds herself staring down the next four years of another Bush administration in the absolute death throes of a media landscape that took root in 1988.

The best way to absorb Tanner ‘88 is via the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release (also featured on their streaming channel) the production of which coincided with the production of Altman’s Tanner on Tanner. In the Criterion set, each episode is bumpered with then-new introductions by the characters in the Tanner universe as they ruminated on the campaign’s failure and the sorry state of American politics that had gone rapidly downhill since the congressman’s ill-fated run during those halcyon days of the wheezing and waning Reagan administration. Now, almost 20 years after Tanner on Tanner, what seems recognizable in the world of campaigning is mostly bittersweet and nostalgic as more primitive forms of campaigning and decorum have been smashed to bits by social media and candidates fully immersed in demagoguery.

Also, framing Tanner ‘88 in the hindsight of 2004 creates a nifty, if tragic, historical window as we were then looking to avoid sliding into a second term of the ruinous George W. Bush administration. But in ‘04, as was the case in ‘88, we failed in our dodge and had to sit through four miserable years before Americans saw their hopes rise and lives flourish for eight more. In 2021, almost twenty years after the retrospection of 2004, Joe Biden, a supporting name on the crowded 1988 trail but never seen in Tanner ‘88, is now the very real President of the United States that are truly no longer all that united seeing that a good 15% of the population thinks his presidency is, in fact, a creation of the media.

Tanner ‘88 was highly influential on Steven Soderbergh’s K Street, a similar premium-channel series from 2004 in which a fictionally constructed world of political advisors collided with our very real political system. That show achieved about a week’s worth of heavy ink for the scripted part of the show, notably strategist James Carville’s feeding a line to Gov. Howard Dean, bleeding itself into an actual primary debate among the Democratic candidates which landed in Dean’s favor. I recalled this moment while watching a scene in Tanner ‘88 in which the then-recently dispatched Bruce Babbitt advises Tanner as they walk along the shores of the Potomac. Babbitt, a popular but boring governor of Arizona who was one of the first to drop out of the race in 1988, seems to understand the uphill battle ahead for bland but effective policy-makers like himself. His breakdown of the message to politicians? “I’m going to talk to you straight about our future and how Americans can get together and start solving problems instead of living in this kind of silver screen age of unreality.”

I think about that quote a lot these days.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: MOTORPSYCHO! (1965)

Far from the swampy sin bucket of Lorna and the dusty Peyton Place of Mudhoney roars Motorpsycho!, Russ Meyer’s boldest sketch yet of what would become the Meyer template. Yet despite being one of the earliest entries in the biker film craze that would roll through drive-ins for the remainder of the decade and becoming a financial hit, Motorpsycho! is one of Meyer’s most under-appreciated works of his entire career. This is no doubt due to the fact that it lurks in the giant shadow of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the film which was made as a distaff inverse of Motorpsycho! and released almost immediately afterwards. But by tinkering with the mix of sex and violence, Meyer finds a way to expand the boundaries of the roughie while introducing his prototype of ass-kicking females, embodied here by the fantastic Haji.

Metaphorically, Motorpsycho! is about wild animals scavenging about in the California desert. Cory Maddox (Alex Rocco) is a veterinarian who operates a mobile clinic with his wife, Gail, (Lane Carroll, the ill-fated heroine from George Romero’s The Crazies) servicing those who care to live in the outer reaches of nowhere. During a routine visit to a client, they innocently run afoul of Brahmin (Steve Oliver) and his micro-gang of ne’er-do-wells consisting of Slick (Timothy Scott) and Dante (Jospeh Cellini) who, in turn, beat and rape Gail while Corey is away on a call. Soon after, the gang stumbles across Harry Bonner (Coleman Francis) and his wife Ruby (Haji), a pair of bickering, Louisiana-bred souls broken down on the side of the rode en route to California. The Bonners are shot and left for dead but Ruby survives and is found by an enraged and vengeful Cory. The two then have to fight their way through the terrain to get their blood-soaked revenge on the gang what done them wrong!

Perhaps for the first time in his career, Russ, taking on cinematographer duties along with a co-writing story credit (along with Hal Hopper!), intermingles violence and sex in a more immediate way in Motorpsycho!. While his other films more or less stuck to the conventions of the roughie, violence in sex are more interchangeable here. Aside from the expertly lit, late-night bedroom moment in which Gail is waiting for Cory to get done with the books (a favorite scenario for Meyer), there is no respite from the violence that permeates the film and, quite interestingly, Motorpsycho! has its share of décolletage and thread-bursting cleavage, but no actual nudity. Sex, too, is mostly toned down as Cory does not stray from his traumatized wife and, instead, treats Ruby as a partner in vengeance and not as an object of his desire. Match cuts are dynamically utilized to produce the full impact of any onscreen action and hysterically physical double entendres are employed to get the scandalous point across. I mean, when you see it, you’re likely to agree that Meyer stumbled upon one hell of a way to hilariously fake a blowjob scene while losing very little sexual value in the bargain.

And, curiously, Meyer also takes a more sympathetic tone with sexual assault as he doesn’t sexualize the violence itself as he had in his previous films, opting not to have the victim’s blouses conveniently ripped open during unprovoked attacks. Furthermore, Meyer gives voice to assault survivors by appearing as an arch-pig of a police officer who takes a purposefully nasty tone that is both not intended to endear his character to the audience and to illustrate that Russ Meyer liked cops about as much as Alfred Hitchcock did.

And, as is the case with most of Meyer’s narrative films, his unique and surreal sense of space is also a delight. Intersections in the middle of the desert feel as familiar to the characters as if they were cruising around in a neighborhood. And as the film reaches its conclusion, the roads begin to give way to wild rocks and jagged paths, making Brahmin’s descent into violent madness play out against a backdrop that resembles something out of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer while also laying claim to being one of the very first films to actually address the mental health of the young men returning from Vietnam.

And with no hyperbole intended, I would posit that Russ Meyer could shoot the desert as well as Sergio Leone or John Ford. From his majestic master shots to his artful utilization of horizon lines, Meyer got so much visual gold out of such a barren landscape that it’s no wonder that a pop urban piece like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls feels like a hyperactive child who can’t sit still. His eye for composition and visual propulsion may have even surpassed his love of tits, but only by a metric so minuscule that only Baby Jesus could discern it.

If I were to ascribe one word to this film, it would be “satisfying.” The violence is raw, the humor is abundant, the dialogue is delicious and delivered at a rapid pace, and the photography and tempo are both masterful. What it lacks in joyous sex, it more than makes up for with its action sequences and its elevation of Meyer’s shapely female protagonists into the tough, ass-kicking figures that would complete his prototype for 90% of his remaining work. Also, kudos to Meyer for conceiving and brilliantly pulling a war-inspired climax in which the lead motorcycle thug is blown to pieces by a bundle of dynamite. While Russ Meyer’s next effort would begin with an explicit voice-over welcoming the audience to violence, Motorpsycho! had already let most people into the party a little early and encouraged them to swing from the chandeliers and have a ball.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE TOBE HOOPER FILES: EGGSHELLS (1969)

Opening on a flock of birds gathered in a great tree against the orange Texas sky right before they launch themselves out and flutter away, Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells announces itself is a movie about transitions. From the leaving of the nest to the building of the nest and everything in between which even includes, according to my wife’s observation during a recent late-night screening, a bird-like mating ritual played out with colorful balloons, Eggshells experimentally flits from one episode to the next, weaving a somewhat familiar but uniquely envisioned, impressionistic tapestry of a transitional generation navigating an America in similar flux.

While the film is a free-floating examination of four different couples on either side of the line of unionized domesticity, the crux of the story concerns Mahlon (Mahlon Forman), a young girl who has left her dusty Texas home to the University of Texas in Austin. There, she engages and moves in with David (David Noll), Amy (Amy Lester), Toes (Kim Henkel), and Ron (Ron Barnhart), a group of hippies who live together in a house that becomes possessed by a spirit which enters the house and resides in the basement.

This being 1969 and an independent movie beholden to no oversight, Hooper, working as director, co-producer, writer, special effects supervisor, and camera operator/cinematographer, employs a great deal of cinematic masturbation to get his story across. This is not a complaint, mind you, as most all of it is very clever and some of it pretty awe-inspiring. But the film is very experimental and surreal, ditching traditional narrative for sensory engaging visuals which helps it work wonders in retrospect. If Hooper would have been more concrete and straightforward in some of what he’s trying to say here, it may come off now as quaint or, worse, stupid. But by keeping it experimental at heart and execution, the film challenges the audience to work for it just a little bit and he keeps just enough of it opaque so it will be forever mysterious and charming.

Right from the outset, Hooper aims to show Texas as a place that’s engaged and Austin as a place that’s progressive, inserting a shot of the clock tower where Charles Whitman created much wreckage to reclaim it for the good. If the aim of the Allman Brothers was to show the relaxed and integrated virtues of The New South, Hooper wanted to do something similar for Texas through cinema. In an montage featuring the student war march which is mostly smiles and handshakes with the cops, Hooper preaches an infectious brand of optimistic peace and continues to leak goodwill throughout the rest of the film even if the film subtly deals with the natural tension that occurs with major shifts in life.

What’s kind of astonishing is that although this film only tangentially touches the paranormal as to render that portion of the film forgettable, the movie’s aesthetic is 100% the same as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper’s sophomore film that would come five years later. As in that film, Hooper’s ability to articulate the seasonal specificity of that part of the country is utter magic. The heat waves, the thick humidity, and the dusty, dead clumps of vegetation at the feet of still-brilliant green trees are instantly familiar to the region and Hooper’s love for old architecture and victorian-style homes, always hinting at something “else” hidden within, are also palpable.

Hooper likewise captures a natural mood and cadence between his characters that feels so true that it’s almost heartwarming, achieving a kind of southwest Cassavetes vibe in his moments in which the players naturally bounce off of one another with he kind of halting and overlapping thoughts that occur during normal conversation. This also means that Eggshells bears direct resemblance, and was no doubt an influence of sorts, on Slacker, Richard Linklater’s 1990 ode to college town denizens, as the ever shifting points of view and overlapping narrative style shrinks Linklater’s portrait of the whole town of Austin down to the residents of one house where Amy and David hold court while shiftless roommates like Toes and Ron seem to exist in different phases of maturation.

But what of the spirit mentioned before and what does it mean? With what’s given in the narrative coupled with Hooper’s well-done and economical in-camera special effects, it seems to guide the characters into a certain kind of enlightenment like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a filmwhich most definitely was an influence on a young Tobe Hooper. And, for certain, the road forward to which it points is a wonderful one even if there is a natural resistance in taking it. The ending suggests that time is up for these folks as we’re headed into a new frontier so they move into spiritual form to influence the next generation. But as the yin to Poltergeist’s yang, Eggshells is the canary in the coal mine as it subtlety warns these free-minded characters who are beginning a new life of pseudo-conformity to avoid getting too comfortable. For a complete submerging of those ideals that makes them unique just might come back to haunt them later.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE JACK HILL FILES: PIT STOP (1969)

After toiling on more Roger Corman-produced stitch jobs in which he directed additional footage that was subsequently pasted onto existing projects, writer/director Jack Hill set his sights on the exploitation-friendly world of stock car racing with the 1967-shot, 1969-released Pit Stop (originally titled The Winner). Dressed in juvenile delinquent clothing and featuring the delivered-on promise of insane figure-8 track racing, the film explores much deeper themes of competition, sportsmanship, greed, and disillusionment and contains what is probably Sid Haig’s greatest and most nuanced performance of his life. And in a brief career of highly entertaining and smart genre films, Pit Stop gives the rest of Jack Hill’s oeuvre a run for its money.

Any simpler and the plot of Pit Stop would unfold itself. Hot shot Palmdale drag racer Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) falls in with local L.A. car-enthusiast stakehorse Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy) who introduces him to the world of figure-8 racing where he tangles with charismatic Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig) and others as he climbs the professional ladder.

From that description, you couldn’t drag me to the theater to see Pit Stop even if you were paying and throwing in five pre-rolls in the bargain. When one’s favorite film regarding car culture is David Cronenberg’s Crash, you know that there is little interest to be had in checkered flags or intake manifolds. But the standard story of the novice who works his way up through the ranks is bejeweled by the attention to detail, the smart casting choices, the strongly drawn characters, and the punchy, no-nonsense dialogue all of which breathe such a life into the film and makes it all impossible to resist. I mean, “Is there any place left in this world where there aren’t any old beer cans?” is a line that is so poetic that it makes you forget you’re watching that was something that was supposed to play on a double bill in a drive-in.

In terms of the looks of the picture, Hill balances crisp and clean dramatic compositions with a great deal of documentary-style, on-the-ground footage of the figure-8 racing which is such a disorienting spectacle of twisted metal and dust that it becomes clear that keeping your bearings while racing on one of these tracks is of the most utmost importance. With the aid of cinematographer Austin McKinney, Hill is also able to pull off a lot of great filler moments like the montage of Rick working among the wrecks in the junkyard. What could be standard is elevated to high art in creative shots showing Rick scouring the yard for pieces while bouncing off hardtops and hoods as if he’s skipping over a bunch of crowded stones in a riverbed or when he climbs a mountain of junk silhouetted against a setting California sun. But magic is most especially generated in a sequence that documents an off-track gathering of dune buggies and ATV’s as they crawl through the high desert, defying gravity as they emerge from the natural, yawning divots in the sand-packed landscape all of which is set to a pulsating, rocking good score by The Daily Flash and John Fridge.

The performances by Brian Donlevy and Richard Davolos are both very good, but special mention has to be given to Sid Haig and Ellen Burstyn (here credited as Ellen McRae). Going from arrogant cock-of-the-walk to sympathetic minor-hero, Haig brings equal amount of swagger, energy, and heavy-lidded pathos to a role that could have been forgettable in a lesser actor’s hands. As Ellen McLeod, the wife, business partner, and assistant mechanic of racer Ed McLeod, Burstyn’s balance of frustrated spouse and professional functionary is done with deft, sympathetic execution that adds multiple dimensions to an otherwise rote and throwaway role. And Beverly Washburn, back from Jack Hill’s remarkable Spider Baby, is both soulful and bubbly as a button-cute, pixie-cut hanger-on.

As stated before, Pit Stop would hardly be memorable if it was all about the text. What makes it soar is the brooding and sobering subtext some of which is found early on in the junk man’s speech to Rick about how the racer makes the short money and generally ends up in a wrecked body while the lion’s share of the dough goes into the pocket of the promoter/manager. This is the kind of wisdom that can be extrapolated to virtually any vocation in which one’s body is used as a kind of currency for the wealthier folks pulling the strings above. And in fact Brian Donlevy’s Grant Willard is a true snake and one who makes no bones about it. He’s a man who has a piece of so much action on the race track that he can pit driver against driver in the hopes that one of his cars wins and that the crashes in the intersection on his track are gruesome enough to generate crowds. Racers like Rick and Hawk are just chattel.

It’s only at the end do we see that Rick understood that brutal truth all along and just didn’t care. For in Pit Stop, winning is an ugly thing that is awarded only when one gives up their soul and spirit just for the simple pleasure of being first. For every ten audience members that would gasp when this inevitability plays out in the film’s final two minutes, there is probably one who fully understands why the movie plays it this way and nods in agreement as Rick and Grant drive off from the wreckage they’ve left behind.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: MUDHONEY (1965)

Fresh off the dizzying success of Lorna, Russ Meyer’s first foray into 35mm narrative filmmaking that cost somewhere around $60K and grossed $1 million, the filmmaker packed up two of the film’s stars and stretched the sparsely cast morality play across a wider area, cloaking it in the skin of Streets Paved With Gold, a novel by R. Friday Locke who, along with W.E. Sprague, adapted the novel into screenplay form. These ingredients created Mudhoney, a bountiful main-course of hedonistic pleasure, wobbly morality, and small-town religious corruption that is even more delicious than Lorna even, as the poster screamed, it “leaves a taste of evil!”

From the outset, Mudhoney feels a lot like Lorna. Not five minutes into the film and we watch Hal Hopper drunkenly break into his own house where he then beats and rapes his wife. And there will be a stranger that descends into this hillbilly Peyton Place who will put conventional mores to the test. But where Lorna was designed as a showcase for Lorna Maitland, Mudhoney is louder, hornier, meaner, and an altogether more satisfying experience.

Mudhoney is the tale of two houses ravaged by the Depression in the dusty town of Spooner, Missouri. On one end is the house of ill-repute run by Maggie Marie (Princess Livingston, an absolute treasure). A romping, stomping edifice of carnal desires and contraband moonshine, Maggie Marie holds court with her two daughters, the deaf/mute Eula (Rena Horton) and oversexed Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland), and a coveralls-clad handyman named Injoys (Sam Hannah). It’s a joint where you’re just as likely to get soaked by an exaggerated spit-take full of corn liquor or have your eardrums blown out by all the shrieking and hollering than you are to get laid.

On the other edge sits the the lonely Wade farm. Run by the good-hearted and decent Luke Wade (Stuart Lancaster), he is assisted by his niece Hannah Brinshaw (Antoinette Cristiani) who is married to the cruel and sadistic Sidney Brinshaw (Hopper). In the middle of these two houses comes ex-con Calif McKinley (John Furlong), an upright and square-jawed drifter who takes an emotional wrong turn on his way to California and ends up in the thick of things in Spooner.

If the film has an uncharacteristic curiosity, it’s that Meyer is not yet comfortable with a Lorna-type female lead carrying such a heavy narrative bulk. Instead, the females in Mudhoney rotate in an orbit around Calif and Sidney, taking turns standing up for themselves and, in the case of Maggie Marie, being the big baller shot caller. But, despite Lorna Maitland’s return and the photogenic Rena Horton, Mudhoney attempts to spread the wealth between the two and ends up lacking a central female character to drive the show, ceding a lot of ground to Antoinette Cristiani who serves as a much more traditional and conventional function in the film.

Mudhoney allows Meyer to stretch his legs a little with the length and the pace. While Fanny Hill takes an unjustifiable chunk of time to reach its conclusion, the vast majority of Meyer’s films up to Mudhoney ran not much longer than 70 minutes on the average. At 92 minutes, Mudhoney feels downright epic in scope, rolling out slowly without ever feeling slack and constantly in a state of construction. Pivotal characters drop in late in the drama and contribute additional action and texture, allowing for more cross cutting that builds with intensity as the film moves to its delirious and violent climax. Why, one could be forgiven if they forget that, by the time the credits roll, this was just a baroque roughie at heart that somehow becomes much more Tennessee Williams than Titty Tuesday.

Mudhoney is an absolute gem of a picture but it proved to be a little bigger production than what Meyer was comfortable with at the time. Mudhoney sports an opening credit sequence packed with more names that are not Russ Meyer than in any non-studio Russ Meyer picture (or Fanny Hill, natch). So upscaled is this production that Lorna Maitland is no longer too much for one man as, in Mudhoney, according to the one-sheet poster, she’s too much for a whole ass TOWN.

Despite handing lensing duties to Lorna-camera operator Walter Schenk, Mudhoney 100% looks like a Russ Meyer picture. With its shimmering, high-contrast black and white photography and the judiciously constructed camera set-ups meant to exaggerate the already exaggerated bosoms of Lorna Maitland and Lee Ballard, it’s not hard to see why Meyer brought Schenk back to shoot Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the following year.

The film’s resolution aims to be a little neater than Lorna’s in terms of its moral through-lines but it refuses to reduce itself to anything simplistic or cheaply unearned. While the wicked are more punished in this than in Lorna, there is still a lot of collateral damage both physical and emotional. For instead of using the Man of God as a Greek chorus, Franklin Bolger’s shady rural reverend is injected right into the middle of the combustible pile of the backwards town, casting dark shadows in every direction and giving unearned, righteous shade and cover to the malignant Sidney. And the relationship between them is what makes Mudhoney a more crucial and longer-lasting blow to small-minded society than even Lorna. Where that film’s dramatic tension came from sniggering gossip and a casual affair all of which occurred in a vacuum, Mudhoney’s poison comes first from a place of poverty and desperation brought on by the times, or, as Luke Wade puts it, the hate in the heart that grows in a man’s belly.

“The whole town has been cheated,” he says. “Cheated by the times. They’s full of hate and they’re liable to listen to anybody who will give them something solid to use that hate on.”

Despite its grindhouse origins and lurid appeal, the work of Russ Meyer also stood as a full-bodied and colorful testament to the old adage that while times may change, people don’t.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL FILES: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

David Robert Mitchell returns to the Detroit suburbs that were cruised by the young hopefuls that made up the cast of his charming debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover. But where a hot summer day lazily rolled through twilight and into a magical nightscape in that film, the tree-lined streets are now rusted with the yellow and orange brushes of autumn and they are inhabited by something quite sinister in It Follows, Mitchell’s second feature. Far from succumbing to a case of the sophomore slump, Mitchell elevates his universe of latchkey kids to edge-of-fall mystery hounds where the inevitable and natural slide into adulthood is an equal thing of beautiful mystery and abject terror.

Like The Myth of the American Sleepover before it, It Follows takes place in a world where the adults are just kind of around; they numbly day-drink and gossip across a formica table while the kids watch bad horror films or play Old Maid on the porch, sipping a cocktail mixed from their folks’ stolen booze and generic soda. The lack of parental supervision is exemplified by a week-old sandwich and juice that sits and festers in the room of our traumatized heroine as she hunkers down and tries to figure out how to survive. Claire Sloma, who portrayed incoming freshman Maggie in The Myth of the American Sleepover, pops up in a tiny moment as she shares a cigarette with the hot boy from across the street making It Follows the dark flip of Sleepover as it explores, with no small amount of horror, the dark journey of maturation.

When the film begins, we’re plopped into a homage of nostalgia porn as Detroit, Michigan does an amazing Pasadena-as-Haddonfield and we almost immediately witness a troubled teen named Annie, clad in a ridiculous ensemble of 80’s sleepwear and heels, flee a house right out of A Nightmare on Elm Street as she is fearfully running from… something. While this is unfolding in front of our eyes, it’s almost impossible to hear Disasterpeace’s minimalist, synth-driven, propulsive soundtrack and not recall the musical scores of John Carpenter or Charles Bernstein. Annie drives to the shores of Lake Michigan where she doesn’t last past dawn and ends up a perfectly posed beach corpse having befallen a terrible and malignant force nobody but she and a handful of others can see.

The opening meditation on the last swim of the season for Jay (Maika Monroe) our protagonist is a loaded metaphor as the kids all seem in that nebulous time where one by one, they lose their virginity and move toward adulthood, an inevitable horror they will never outrun. Jay is dating Hugh (Jake Weary) a boy from another school with whom she’s considering going all the way for the first time. And in clocking the rites of passage, fucking in a car among the urban decay of Detroit is what passes for parking in this day and age as Mitchell is deliberately expands his geographical universe as a metaphor for maturation; your neighborhood may be your world but there are a lot of scary things in that neighborhood on the other side of town. The further one travels away from the neighborhood, the more twisted and immoral and confusing things become.

“Imagine how cool that would be to have your whole life ahead of you,” says a 21 year old Hugh, speaking like he’s on the other side of the divide and, in this world, he is. For he will later deflower Jay and will pass the curse on to her; sexual activity being the stark tipping point between victim and innocent. Once the rules of the game are set up, the film mostly becomes an exercise in pure cinema in which more is shown and not told, leaving the audience to puzzle out how the differing embodiments of the lurking figure factor into the terror and the psyche of its victims. Simple, yet effective, stylistic choices right out of the John Carpenter playbook such as its drab suburban setting evoking a new kind of neighborhood folk tale where bold, center-framed compositions rule the day and negative space is utilized to an astonishing level.

And the more I examine It Follows, the more my eye catches the forever friend-zoned Paul (Kier Gilchrist) and can’t be sure if he’s not something of a sub-villain in the piece. Operating from a place where his motivations are kinda suspect and maybe a little less selflessly heroic, his nitwit idea utilized during the Scooby Doo’d climax in a derelict pool backfires so spectacularly and with such a quickness that, in the film’s beautifully clever denouement, Jay is correct in fucking him right into Troublesville.

Aside from the excellent performances from the young cast, much should be said about Mitchell’s attention to the kind of detail that barely even registers as detail. Check out the subtleties within the frame that don’t call attention to the fact that there is also a class struggle that is occurring in this nightmare scenario. Chain-linked fences and above-ground pools where the bottoms have become besotted with leaves and the standard, half-moon window cutouts on the garages clash with the rolling lushness of Hugh’s neighborhood. An uptight rich bro who lies in a neatly trimmed house that backs up to a bucolic soccer field, it becomes more than aware that Hugh has picked Jay to pass along this curse because, to him, she’s south side trash. Later, we’ll see a character travel below his station and to the outer boundaries of town where two prostitutes stand among the landscape that looks like a war zone. No matter how old we are, we seem to want to always drop our troubles onto poorer people.

It Follows is very smart about what it’s doing. Folding the natural angst into a horror framework is as old as movies itself so rare is the one that finds a way to explore its themes as cleanly and carefully as this. It’s a top to bottom examination of the invisible line into adulthood everyone must cross where boundless pleasures certainly await but that also comes equipped with a countdown clock; an emblematic place in everyone’s life where, as one character says, the city begins and the suburbs ends.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: BEYOND THERAPY (1987)

Beyond Therapy is bad. And I don’t mean that it’s a weaker Robert Altman effort or that it’s bad of kind. I mean to say that it’s a bad movie that I could scarcely dislike more even if it had been written and directed by Henry Jaglom, a major/minor talent I love and cherish as much as I do getting paper cuts on my balls. Whatever pleasant vibes may radiate off of the film’s innocuous and airy promotional artwork that hints at a comedy of manners among a star-studded cast is a goddamn pack of rotten lies.

The last in Altman’s feature adaptations of stage plays, Beyond Therapy is a story about, I think, sexual fluidity, self-acceptance, and the (disproven) utter worthlessness of therapy. I say “I think” not because I don’t know; it’s just that Altman’s busy style and overlapping dialogue does a grave disservice to the film and it barely registers as anything other than a cacophonous vortex of shouting, goofy accents, performative emoting, and Julie Hagerty.

Disguising itself as a polyamorous and pansexual Woody Allen comedy, Robert Altman’s Beyond Therapy avoids amusing like the plague in favor of buying unfunny by the barrel and spraying the whole movie with it. Adapted from co-writer Christopher Durang’s off-Broadway play, Beyond Therapy concerns itself with Bruce (Jeff Goldblum) a bisexual who meets Prudence (Julie Hagerty) after she answers a magazine ad Bruce has placed much to the chagrin of his live-in boyfriend, Bob (Christopher Guest) and his mother (Geneviève Page). Most of this chaos plays out in a French restaurant in which mirrored deceptions and partner swapping seems to be happening on the margins and also in the offices of Charlotte (Glenda Jackson) and Stuart (Tom Conti), two therapists who treat Bruce and Prudence, respectively, and, coincidentally, sneak off to have sex with each other at twenty after the hour.

Beyond Therapy feels like it’s being helpful as this kind of subject matter (in America, at least) was something that, in 1987, was still mostly assigned to very serious dramas and was considered pretty provocative but, alas, it’s ultimately too confused to work retrospectively. I mean, the idea that Jeff Goldblum’s fluidity somehow throws the world off of its sexual axis is borderline insulting, even for a farce such as this. In fact, this is a film in which the whole idea of bisexuality is a foreign one; as if it resides in a world governed by its extremes. If it’s trying to state the fact that most everyone lies somewhere between the polar extremes on the sexual spectrum (which in 1987 would have been classified more as an “argument”), it’s not doing it in a particularly good or charming way. And where the film ends on a positive and healthy note where everyone more or less celebrates their most honest and open sexual desires replete with straight and gay couplings (and at least one ménage a trois), Altman wheezes his way to the finish line feeling far too out of shape to even attempt to get into the mix, let alone direct it.

One of the problems with Beyond Therapy is the film’s frenetic pace which flattens out any real enjoyment of it. The cramped set of the French restaurant overstuffed with peripheral characters feels so constricted that Altman’s usually graceful choreography is off by two beats as visual gags don’t register and anything that might come off as clever is completely crushed and has the life choked out of it. Altman loved the French and it’s not difficult to understand why given their undying love for him and his work. But his comedies with French twists feel cold in a way that, if you’re not on Altman’s specific wavelength about the French and French culture, it’ll all seem like inside baseball and hard to gauge. What I do know is that much of it is not funny. And, on the whole, Beyond Therapy feels more like a French farce about sexually neurotic New Yorkers than it does an American film dealing with sexual hang-ups. I guess that tracks since this film was shot in Paris masquerading as New York.

This is a situation in which I think 90% of the cast is wonderful, just not when they’re occupying the same screen space with this material. Jeff Goldblum is very good as he delivers his usual dexterous brand of frazzle but Christopher Guest is utterly wonderful, providing the prototype for Zack Galifianakis’s twin brother Seth from Between Two Ferns. Julie Hagerty, on the other hand, is a ball of nervous energy who, despite being incredible in Lost in America and Airplane, is forced to play a character who is mostly shrill, unappealing, and doesn’t get enough water thrown on her during the course of the film. Glenda Jackson is great but she’s lost in the material which does her a great disservice, and Tom Conti is mildly amusing as the malapropism-prone therapist who actually revels in his tendency to ejaculate prematurely and who feels that sex that lasts longer than five minutes is unnatural.

If not for his bit in the opera-omnibus Aria (which, frankly, is just ok), 1987 would have represented Altman’s career nadir. He retreated back into the world of television and would not be seen in the cinemas again for another five years. Of course, he would continue to deliver masterworks on the small screen and his comeback in the multiplexes would prove to be one of the most confounding, against-the-odds stories in Hollywood history. But those triumphs should be shared for another day and should get no closer than five thousand yards of Beyond Therapy, a film only preferable to A Perfect Couple due to the sense that, at the conclusion of the former, everyone is moving in a healthier direction and is doing so with a complete lack of live performances from Keepin’ ‘Em Off the Streets.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

PIRANHA (1978) – D. JOE DANTE

A quick note on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It changed everything. Literally. Star Wars may have really moved the furniture around two years later but Jaws did something to American culture that was so unique and so strong, our annual pining for summer releases is a residual effect that has bored into our filmgoing DNA. And, as it turned out, there really was no big trick to turning summer films into machines that printed money. You just had to pump a decent budget into what was once seen as drive-in fare and, poof, you’d spun literal gold.

And this is not to take anything away from Spielberg’s masterpiece as Jaws is truly a brilliantly made film adapted from Peter Benchley’s piece of pure upmarket junk. But this kind of mass embrace of what was once kind of niche spelled trouble for folks like producer/director Roger Corman who had created a whole personality out of cheap action pictures and low-budget horror flicks. If this kind of stuff somehow rose out of the drive-ins and grindhouses and was embraced by the masses, it would crowd Corman out of the market.

Fortuitously for Corman, the success of Jaws created something that was right in his wheelhouse; namely: the Jaws-rip off. Jaws was basically manna from heaven for cheap exploitation directors both in America and every other country that had a film industry. Even Universal waded into the waters of the numbered sequel, then a still-novel notion that was only four years old, to rip itself off in 1978 with the enjoyable Jaws 2.

So, of course, Roger Corman had to mine the material to stake a claim in a territory he had homesteaded and, in fact, he mined the material a few times. But the first and most successful of his Jaws-inspired productions was 1978’s Piranha. Directed by one-time Corman editor Joe Dante who, along with Allan Arkush, had previously co-directed Hollywood Boulevard for Corman, Piranha was not only a major financial success for Corman’s New World Pictures, it’s easily the best of the pictures inspired by Spielberg’s original.

What makes Dante’s film feel fresh instead of point-by-point retread (looking at you, William Girdler’s Grizzly) is that it announces its willingness to let the audience in its self-awareness from the beginning. After pulling off a clever Citizen Kane reference, Dante and screenwriter John Sayles invite the audience to throw rotten fruit at the stupidity of the characters in the film’s pre-credit sequence. Decent questions like “Who will ever know we were here?” and “What if this is some kind of sewage treatment facility?” don’t get satisfactory answers before both characters are in waters that we’re sure are filled with piranha (pronounced piraña by more than one character in the film) because, well, it’s the title of the movie. Dumb on the characters’ part? You bet. Are Dante and Sayles cognizant of how ridiculous it is? For certain.

The other remarkable thing about Piranha is just how much movie is packed into 93 minutes. Weird creatures, gore, nudity, boat explosions, water skiing, mean-spirited yet satisfying devouring of children and lake enthusiasts, car chases, Pino Donnagio’s lush score that sounds like a bunch of unused cues from Carrie, and a jailbreak are just a few of the delicious attractions packed into the casing that threatens to burst at the seams. And all of this is before we even get to the cast. While Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies are very good and play well off of each other in the lead roles, it’s Corman regulars Dick Miller and Paul Bartel who bring the house down as, respectively, a sleazy developer and a dictatorial camp counselor, while Belinda Balaski, who still continues to pop up in Dante’s projects, absolutely shines in a sympathetic role. Veterans Keenan Wynn, Kevin McCarthy, Barbara Steele, and Richard Deacon round out the majority of the supporting cast and are all incredibly game, treating the material with a delicate balance of the straight faced and the tongue-in-cheek.

While Joe Dante would never become a household name like Steven Spielberg, he would go on to create an impressive body of work throughout the 80’s and 90’s that is mostly ripe for reassessment. Beyond his cinematic achievements, he has proven to be an indispensable curator and tireless champion for a kind of cinema that is in a sundowning decline. With his Trailers From Hell website to his Movies That Made Me podcast, Dante emerges as a figure whose film knowledge and enthusiasm for same is pitched somewhere between the enthralling academia of Martin Scorsese and the beautiful junkyard of Quentin Tarantino. As the old gives way to the new and genre cinema goes through inevitable changes and the type of film that guys like Dante truly adored, it’s nice to know that there are things out there like Piranha that serve as landmarks to a glorious time in modern film history, even if those times are becoming longer in the rear view mirror with each passing day.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: LORNA (1964)

Where Russ Meyer’s previous features had generally begun with soft, laconic shots of nature that were coupled with a booming bowl full of earnest, corn-filled narration, Lorna’s mobile, ghost train opening shot promises to transport us to a place we’ve never been before. And, for sure, we eventually roll up to a man clad in black (credited as “The Man of God”) who stands in the middle of the road and immediately breaks the fourth wall, warning us of sin and judgement. The nudie cuties, it seems, were just the soft preliminaries. For when we’re eventually waved on by our ominous stranger and begin moving further down the road of iniquity, we’ve fully graduated into the real world of Russ Meyer. Welcome to Lorna, a film in which the titular character was promised as being “TOO MUCH FOR ONE MAN!” on its promotional one-sheet.

Envisioned and quickly written by Meyer and James Griffith (who also plays the ominous Man in Black), Lorna was Meyer’s first attempt at a true narrative where he would be calling all the shots. Fanny Hill, Meyer’s debut outside the confines of the nudie cutie, was such a miserable experience that he traded in that film’s costume-laden period decor for the starkness of Nowheresville, America. And where Fanny Hill had a mid-size cast that mostly had little to do, Meyer strips Lorna down to a world populated by ten people.

Lorna was the first in a long string of tongue-in-cheek morality plays constructed by Meyer in order so soft-peddle his cantilevered beauties. However, Lorna really plays it smart with those moral angles. The film begins as a standard roughie in the row houses of the backwater California town of Locke where Luther (Hal Hopper) and Jonah (Doc Scortt) stalk a drunken women named Ruthie (Althea Currier) to her house. There, their twisted sexuality is put on full display as Ruthie is beaten and raped by Luther while Jonah leers through a window. Down the river apiece, Lorna (Lorna Maitland) is a deadpan saint to her well-meaning but weak sauce husband, Jim (James Rucker) who is studying to becomes a CPA while working down at the salt mines with Luther and Jonah, the former forever chiding Jim about Lorna and her supposed infidelities which barely conceal his lustful coveting of her.

In truth, Lorna and Jim are fundamentally decent folks who, for no greater sin than being normal, flawed humans, get more misery heaped upon them than they probably deserve. Jim might be a wet mop whose cocksmanship isn’t anything to write home about, but he really isn’t a bad guy and he truly loves and cares for Lorna. And Lorna isn’t a bad woman, either. Treated like a thing on a pedestal, which she doesn’t necessarily object to, Lorna argues that perhaps this attitude can be taken a bit too far and that there is a decent-size chasm between being respected and being handled like a porcelain doll. And being stuck in a fishing shack with absolutely nothing to do all day and nobody around for miles, it’s not hard to fault Lorna when, after another disappointing night in bed with Jim, she goes out to onto the dock and more or less wishes upon a star to be whisked away toward a more exciting life, shown in a dazzling montage of neon burlesque over a much happier, undulating Lorna Maitland.

When an escaped convict stumbles his way through the marshes and eventually happens upon Lorna, he sexually assaults her which leads to a kind of physical deliverance for her. This is sort of a narrative blunder where the arcane convention of the “struggling woman who gives in to the passion” is taken to the outer limits of taste and decorum. While a certain contingency of more seasoned generations recognizes this kind of coded filmic language when they see it and mostly give it a pass, it’s hard to fault the reactions to those for whom the origins of this convention have been buried under layers and layers of film history, especially to those who aren’t familiar with the context of the roughie. But in Lorna, however ill-advised it seems in retrospect, I’m not totally convinced that this device isn’t executed for the benefit of Lorna’s character as she both takes control over the situation (thereby drawing a contrast to the earlier character of Ruthie), and achieves a long-needed sense of sexual release with the convict.

Whatever complications are apparent in the tact of sexualizing rape, Lorna mostly gets away with it due to the uncommon skill of Meyer as a filmmaker and his knack for throwing his characters into a blender and upending any preconceived notions about them. For like in a very sly play, everything in Lorna gets turned upside down in its second half, proving the liquidity inherent in quick-shifting morality. While it’s loaded to make it look like the ones who are punished are the ones who upend their marriage vows, Lorna actually dies for everyone’s sins. Would her relationship with the convict been different if Jim would have shown her the kind of care for her and their one year anniversary as he should have? And what does one make of Luther’s tearful breakdown at the end of the film as he finds some sort of redemption (if not complete absolution) when, not 70 minutes earlier, we watched him beat a woman senseless? As articulated in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, “It’s a strange world.”

But above all, Lorna was a way for Meyer to strut his stuff as director, producer, co-writer, editor, and photographer. Forever innovative, Meyer finds a clever way to reduce the strip teases of Europe in the Raw down to the restless Lorna, hot and bothered while her husband toils away at his studies in the another room, writhing around in their bed while bathed by chiaroscuro lighting. And Lorna, if nothing else, is economical. Lorna’s flashbacks are presented by heat waves over static shots of a running brook and Dutch angles of the church in which they’re married. Meyer also gets a lot of story by employing nothing more than a POV camera as a prison break is pulled off on a Saturday afternoon by grabbing a few pickup shots here and there and throwing an alarm sound effect over them. And if this were mere sexploitation, the beauty in the carefully designed and thought-out match cuts wouldn’t roll over the audience like a pleasant breeze. Nor would the hotted up climax, replete with axes and hooks, work like absolute gangbusters if not for Meyer’s skill as an editor.

In terms of casting, Lorna Maitland creates quite the mold as the first of Meyer’s superstars, defining the Meyer female outside of the nudie cuties as strong, highly libidinous, and yearning for her own identity. Special mention, too, should go to Hal Hopper who is just terrific as Luther and also co-wrote the film’s catchy theme song. If I were to find out that Hopper was a slobbering, high-wire nut job in real life (he wasn’t), I would not hesitate to believe it to be true as he literally embodies the kind of ghastly creep one spends most of their life avoiding.

Lorna was definitely a page-turner and game-changer for Meyer and laid a foundation upon which he could begin to build his very singular cinematic universe populated by decent people doing the best they can while toiling about in a judgmental, hostile, and unforgiving world littered with violence, betrayal, and poisoned passions. It also gave the world a heroine in whom a salacious promise of being too much for one man was entirely conditional on the broke-dick dude in question.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE ROBERT ALTMAN FILES: FOOL FOR LOVE (1986)

I find myself experiencing deja vu as I sit to write this because I feel like I’ve visited this viewpoint before with an old review of John Cassavetes’s Love Streams. No, I’m not talking about the similarities between that film and Robert Altman’s Fool For Love (especially their big reveals halfway through their respective stories). Instead, I’m talking specifically about having talked about the Cannon Group, Inc., a fledgling studio that was purchased on the cheap by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in 1979, thriving during the mid-eighties by cranking out utter garbage like Over the Top and any one of the ball-busting Missing In Action pictures.

But Cannon was also a studio that was hungry for prestige pictures and marquee directors and would give those vaunted filmmakers quite a bit of latitude to bring their projects to fruition. The aforementioned Cassavetes picture couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for him, Andrei Konchalovsky managed to get both Runaway Train and Shy People produced under the Cannon flag, and Robert Altman found a safe haven with the studio after MGM stuck O.C. and Stiggs on a shelf upon that film’s completion and where it would sit for two straight years before finding its way into a release pipeline.

Instead of going hog wild with Cannon’s purse strings, Altman settled on adapting Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, yet another filmed play for Altman which, O.C. and Stiggs aside, had been his cinematic bread and butter in the 80’s. After a decade of mostly wide-canvas ensemble pieces with busy soundtracks and a thousand other details with which to keep up, Altman found an almost peaceful place of reflection and freedom with those films that relied on one location and only a small handful of players.

With its limited cast and setting, Fool for Love was perfect material for Altman in 1986. Not so much because this kind of material had become his metier over the past few years but also specifically because it’s a piece that takes place in the outer reaches of the soul where past hurts and unrequited feelings can vacation and have too many drinks, creating a kind of combustible inner turmoil. For all of the ups and downs and the demons that Altman seemed to wrestle with throughout his career, Fool for Love comes off downright therapeutic to him.

Fool for Love takes its time before revealing itself. Instead of hitting the ground running with expository dialogue between the players, it favors a dreamy mood where the dusk settles on the El Royale Motel, a horseshoe bungalow monument of desolation set on the edge of nowhere that looks like it’s mere weeks from becoming overrun with a post-apocalyptic motorcycle gang to be used as a hideout. The film doesn’t want to show its hand too early so it luxuriates in a great deal of visual flourishes and sparse small-talk while its seemingly rote and simple story of a broken love-affair plays out in front of us, Sandy Rogers’s songs mixing into the soundtrack to counterbalance the visuals as if Altman is crafting a gorgeous, long-form C&W music video.

The film’s deliberate pace is a hallmark of Sam Shepard’s work. As Shepard’s cowboys are men folded into the wrong time, they always seem like they’ve been snatched out of their time and dropped into the present day, kind of like a bewildered Peckinpah anti-hero who has to take his time to get his bearings. Drifting into the El Royale in his pickup and loaded horse trailer comes Eddie (Shepard), sometime cowboy and sometime stuntman, is in search of May (Kim Basinger), a sad, broken desert flower of lost love for whom the motel serves as both a place of employment and a refugee camp. At first, she deliberately avoids him even when Altman telegraphs that these two people are connected and avoidance is all but impossible. But he soon sees her from a distance and charges back to the motel to either rescue her, reconcile his feelings, or be resolved to reality lest the world explode around him. In the end, he achieves a degree of all three.

As this is not really a two-hander, there are a couple of other characters that inhabit the world of Fool for Love. In a bit of casting that can’t help but feel like an inspiration from the Wim Wenders-directed/Shepard-penned Paris, Texas, Harry Dean Stanton portrays a rambling man at the end of his life; a drifting, rudderless soul lording over both a literal and metaphoric trash heap in his twilight years whose life work was pissing away stability in favor of instant gratification. Randy Quaid pops up in the film’s final third as the civilized “man” who, in Shepard’s world, is worth examination in contrast to the self-governing “guy” and their verbal tug-of-war explores the subject of masculinity and its contextual, shifting definition.

Of all of Altman’s 80’s efforts, Fool for Love is among one of his bravest. It uses Shepard’s familiar and warm cowboy iconography to tell a tale that feels downright European. This clash of styles is what was at the soul of Sam Shepard’s work and persona. For he was a cowboy who nonetheless mingled with rock stars, was awarded more Obies than anyone else, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his florid and haunting words that articulated the split within the soul that can put folks into emotional spaces that are neither here nor there. Here, he shows why he was so good at interpreting his own material as he almost personifies the characters he creates. Then still wrestling with all of the cover-girl baggage that kept her from being taken seriously, Kim Basinger’s May is dishtowel dirty and quarter beer gorgeous and looks like someone you’d pick up in the back of Gilley’s. Though she rounds off her g’s while leaning into her twang a little too hard, Basinger is utterly terrific and gives one of the best performances of her career as the heartsick victim of cruel circumstances.

And, not for nothing, but Fool for Love is one of Altman’s most visually gorgeous films. While the majority of it takes place at night, the opening moment’s desert sundown is both ethereally beautiful and hauntingly portentous. The inner horseshoe of the motel is bathed in soft neon amid a cold blue outer rim creating a true geography; the motel of the mind and the junkyard of the soul courtesy of cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s careful framing and clever lighting. This is a piece populated by damaged people amid a dazzling and poetic detritus heap on the edge of the galaxy, almost like a science fiction film populated with truck stop queens and urban cowboys.

As humans, we all reside in a similar, congenial off-road memory motel. And, like the location in the film, it’s one that looks perfectly functional from the front and, honestly, perhaps it is. But behind it generally sits a heap of baggage and junk we all haul around from the past, some of it half-remembered and some of it fanciful myth-making. Understanding this, Altman’s work is full of characters who will add new wounds to established scar tissue if they think the self-deception will be less painful than the truth they would have to admit, creating more and more material for the junk pile. But, word to the wise, absolutely NEVER think that heap is too cleverly hidden from view nor something that won’t explode if exposed to the the right confluence of elements. If Fool for Love understands anything outside how to doom a film’s commercial prospects by being saddled with a one-sheet that makes the film look like Tender Mercies II: Tender Mercies Gets Laid, it’s most definitely that.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain