Archive for November 1984

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

November 23, 1984

In some alternate universe, Peter Weller is the biggest star in Hollywood. This is due to two unquestionably cool sci-fi characters he played in the ’80s: RoboCop and Buckaroo Banzai. Both speak with a flat affect and are the best there is at what they do. Both are saviors forged in the dork tower of science. Both exude intelligence and flickers of kindness. (“Don’t be mean,” Buckaroo chides a nightclub crowd. “We don’t have to be mean.”) RoboCop, however, spawned two sequels and myriad other media followups, whereas The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension famously promised a sequel (Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League) that never materialized.

I’ve often wondered if a sequel really would’ve been a good idea. (The screenwriter, Earl Mac Rauch, and director, W.D. Richter, collaborated on a three-issue comic book, Buckaroo Banzai in Return of the Screw, in 2007. More comics, as I write this, are slated to follow.) Part of me would’ve loved to see that World Crime League movie, but the mere idea of it sparks the imagination in a way that an actual sequel never could. In a way, it’s good that Buckaroo Banzai never got franchised, never popped out a part two or three or four, getting worse with each new film. The way it is now, aside from the comics and the internet worship, the film stands alone, pristine in its own goofy-ass way.

The thing about Buckaroo Banzai is that, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it requires a precise mood — you really have to be in a Banzai or a Brazil frame of mind, and when you need these films, you really need them; no other films will do. Try watching them without the specific yen to revisit them, and they come off cluttered and strained. They tend to accumulate charm and depth in one’s memory — they become bigger in memory than they are when you’re actually watching them. Banzai and Brazil, two kinda-sorta-futuristic fantasias that absolutely could only have been made in the ’80s, always surprise you scene for scene no matter how many times you’ve seen them before, because aside from their quotable dialogue they’re too diffuse, too jammed with ideas and events, to be recollected with any sharpness. They’re very consciously midnight movies, made to be assimilated by a sleep-addled or sleep-deprived mind, weaving themselves into your mental movie database as vivid blurs. You attend these parties for the atmosphere and the company, not for the narrative.

Buckaroo and his eccentric team are here pitted against the Red Lectroids, a band of evil aliens from the 8th dimension, which exists between the quarks and atoms of solid matter. A Lectroid has invaded the mind of scientist Emilio Lizardo (a gleefully hammy John Lithgow), who had tried and failed to cross into the 8th dimension before Buckaroo finally succeeded. Orson Welles is name-checked, and the U.S. president here (Ronald Lacey) is made up to look like him. Buckaroo’s team picks up a despondent young woman named Penny Priddy, played by Ellen Barkin, an actress noted for radiating sexuality without trying to. Barkin is somewhat adrift in this sexless boys’ club, where Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers retire to a side room to confer — no girls allowed.

Part of the weirdness of the film is that, confronted with all manners of extraterrestrial wackiness, hardly anyone even seems surprised, much less awed. Aside from Penny, there aren’t many civilians in the movie; everyone has dealt with high mystical scientific phenomena before. Buckaroo Banzai coasts on its hip deadpan (the movie’s best-known line, and its possible epigram, is Buckaroo’s “No matter where you go … there you are”); it’s as if Jim Jarmusch had made a sci-fi comedy. (Lewis Smith, as Team Banzai member Perfect Tommy, bears some resemblance to Jarmusch.) The damn thing is immaculately cast, making it a gallery of actors who were willing to hop on for this blithely surreal ride. Jeff Goldblum has the ideal Jeff Goldblum role as a neurosurgeon who wants desperately to dress like a cowboy and be called New Jersey, and he natters on cheerfully in his highly imitable distracted manner — it’s great fun to watch him put the pieces together in regards to the connection between all the Johns and Grover’s Mill. The gruff triumvirate of Christopher Lloyd (“John Bigbootay! Tay!”), Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya turn up as Lectroids.

Then there’s Peter Weller, who, I am informed by Wikipedia, patterned his performance on “Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Adam Ant.” Probably only Adam Ant shows up in the final result, but that’s okay. Weller provides a stable, unflappable anchor for the proceedings, and the movie seems to take off from his post-New Wave demeanor. Buckaroo Banzai is like decades of escapist pulp filtered through the skeptic’s shrug of the mid-’80s. Yet of Weller’s two Reagan-era heroes, Buckaroo Banzai is by far the least ironic. Go figure.

The Times of Harvey Milk

November 1, 1984

The money shot comes about half an hour before the end of The Times of Harvey Milk. In response to the shocking murders of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, the grieving masses of Milk’s district march down Castro Street holding candles. 50,000 people, marching quietly. “Harvey would’ve loved it,” says an associate in the film.

The sight is breathtaking and sadly ironic; it took Milk’s death to bring so many together. Later, Dan White, Milk’s fellow supervisor, who killed Milk and Moscone, was brought to trial and found guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder. This time, the masses were not so calm; the resulting White Night Riots caused over a million dollars’ worth of damage. Milk would not have loved this, and he would’ve been the first to try to quiet the rage.

“Harvey Milk” is an almost comically bland name, calling forth an image of a dorky man sipping a glass of harmless white stuff. Milk seemed to live his life in opposition to his name. He was a firebrand, though not so radical as to alienate the hetero whitebreads whose support his movement needed; he was a skilled politician, opening a rhetorical umbrella under which oppressed people of all types — blacks, Asians, women, the elderly, the disabled — could assemble and be acknowledged. The Times of Harvey Milk, which won 1984’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, includes plenty of footage of Milk at work, and if he wasn’t 100% sincere in his rhetoric, he sure stayed on-message pretty well. There’s no reason to believe he wasn’t sincere, though the movie touches lightly, if at all, on Milk’s flaws (a temper, a certain rigidity).

You need to see the movie (and, perhaps, read Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street) to understand the true impact Milk had, not only locally but nationwide; you need to see the people who knew him and the people who never met him speaking fondly of his example and his achievements. I liked what I saw of Harvey Milk, but the movie itself, a typical early-’80s bit of talking-heads hagiography, hasn’t aged very well. Aesthetically, it’s not much, except for the pleasure of its narration, read by Harvey Fierstein in his familiar theatrical growl. The subject commands more respect and affection than does the movie itself.

Partly, the film falls victim to the inevitable structure of a story of an assassination: roughly halfway through the 88-minute running time, Milk is abruptly removed from the picture, and the remainder is about the aftermath and about Dan White. (A later documentary, The Brandon Teena Story, had the same problem.) We may rebel against this structure, feeling that Milk deserves more screen time than his opaque assassin. Why did White do it? The consensus is that he was unhinged and dangerously depressed — he’d resigned from his job, then wanted to change his mind, but Moscone wouldn’t have it. (Mike Weiss’ 1984 book Double Play does a thorough job of analyzing White’s motives, which went beyond his lawyer’s infamously ridiculous “Twinkie defense.”) So White killed Moscone, then went to Milk’s office and killed him too, because he felt Milk and Moscone were in cahoots to ruin White’s career.

The problem with a movie about Harvey Milk is that it has to end with all this conjecture about the man who snuffed him out. What the movie doesn’t tell you (but the extra features on the 2-disc DVD do) is that White, after serving five years of his seven-year sentence and being paroled in 1984, killed himself in 1985. So justice was served in a rough way; White had to live with himself, and he couldn’t. Audiences for the film in 1984, though, were left with the knowledge that White was free out there somewhere. The movie ends with Milk’s “hope” speech, but again, the structure works against that as well.

Reviewing the movie on eFilmCritic in 2005, Aaron West supposed it was “maybe not as relevant today as it was in 1984.” Things, of course, have changed even since 2005; as I write this, California’s gays are still reeling from the passage of the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. Watching Milk in action in this movie, I kept wondering if Prop 8 would’ve had a chance in hell if Milk were still alive. He’d have drawn people together, appealed to their sense of fairness, and reached out beyond the gay community to everyone who might otherwise have pulled the lever for Prop 8. It’s all well and good to keep hope alive, but — as Milk himself says in the film — you can’t live on hope alone.


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