Archive for December 1984

Dune

December 14, 1984

Dune, the notorious 1984 flop directed by David Lynch, deserves serious reappraisal. When first released, the movie disappointed fans of the Frank Herbert novel, baffled American critics, and swiftly disappeared. About the only people who didn’t detest it (though even they were lukewarm) were admirers of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, the only other features Lynch had directed at the time.

Lynch’s fans, dutifully justifying what they consider a megabudget anomaly in an otherwise offbeat ouevre, have stuck to a party line: “Dune isn’t really a David Lynch film. He was a hired hand for producer Dino DeLaurentiis. Anyone could’ve directed it.” Not true. Dune is loaded with Lynchian oddities, which, in the context of a $40 million sci-fi epic, seem extremely odd. This isn’t just one of the weirdest sci-fi movies ever; it may well be the weirdest David Lynch film ever.

During the first half hour of Dune, you really feel sorry for Lynch, who has to shoehorn Frank Herbert’s entire mythos into a series of exposition scenes to get us up to speed. This happened, then this happened, and this is important to everything that’s going to happen …. It’s headsplitting, and Lynch resorts to corny inner monologues that only add to the movie’s surrealism. Typically, characters look serious while we hear a pensée like “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

Kyle MacLachlan, later the indelible Lynchian hero of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, made his screen debut here as Paul Atreides, who leads the people of Arrakis (Dune) out of the clutches of the evil Harkonnens, who control the valuable spice mines of Dune. The spice enables one to “fold space” (travel without moving) or receive divine visions — both of which are right up Lynch’s hallucinatory alley. The movie is as trippy and visually dense as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

If, like me, you’ve previously only seen Dune on a cropped, pan-and-scan video, you’ve only seen half of it. The widescreen version is a revelation. The compositions, by cinematographer Freddie Francis, embrace the most ravishing desert vistas this side of The English Patient. And you finally get to bask in the elaborate sets, which presumably ate most of the $40 million (pricey in its day). The money obviously went into the sets, not into the semi-cheesy special effects.

Then there’s the unmistakable hand of David Lynch. Dune is as lovably absurd (absurdist?) and strikingly perverse as any Lynch film. When the hideous Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth MacMillan in a raucous turn that anticipates Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth) has captured Paul’s mother, he informs her, “I want to spit on your head,” then goes right ahead. My favorite Lynchian shot among many in Dune is a tight close-up of Dean Stockwell’s mouth as he intones, “The tooth! The tooth!” The movie is insane; it’s textbook Lynch.

Most surreal of all, though, is the voice-channeling method of combat the heroes employ, called “the weirding way”; it’s weird, all right — it sounds like nuclear sneezing. My Closed Captioning translates it as “Chusah!” Gesundheit.

Birdy

December 2, 1984

Only in the ’80s, I think, could a quietly bizarre film about the friendship of two boys — one of whom wants to be a bird — have been financed, made, and released. Alan Parker’s Birdy, drawn from a 1978 allegorical novel by William Wharton (née Albert Du Aime), is an unusual beast even in this eclectic director’s portfolio. It’s surprisingly gentle, and offers a performance by nineteen-year-old Nicolas Cage (in only his fifth major screen role) that outshines most of what he’s done in the last decade.

Cage is Al Columbato, a Vietnam vet whose face was torn up by shrapnel. (Al also has a limp that comes and goes — realistically, I suppose, depending on the weather in the scene or whether he’s been standing too long. I doubt it’s a goof on Cage’s part — he actually had teeth pulled for the role. You don’t do that and then make technical mistakes.) He’s stateside at Fort Dix when he gets a call about his boyhood friend Birdy (Matthew Modine), who was also in the shit and came back torn up on the inside. All Birdy does is crouch in his cell at the veterans’ mental hospital, cocking his head like, well, a bird.

The narrative flips back and forth between the latter-day scenes, wherein Al tries to get some semblance of human response from Birdy (while a piggish military shrink breathes down his neck awaiting results), and flashback sequences in which the high-school-age Al and Birdy build a fast, strong friendship. At first the bond is based on money: these two Philly kids grew up in the ass end of town, and Al thinks that collecting and selling carrier pigeons (which Birdy also collects) will be like picking cash up off the ground. That doesn’t work so well for them, but Al and Birdy stay buddies anyway, developing rapport based on private jokes and their shared disdain for the hellhole they live in. Eventually, though, the boys are separated by Birdy’s increasing, almost erotic attachment to his birds, and Al’s growing impatience with same.

In other films, Alan Parker has pushed far too hard for the effects he wanted. He likes moments of violence, rage, discord. (He and scripter Oliver Stone were a perfect sadistic match on Midnight Express.) When he has a smaller story, though — like Shoot the Moon — he calms down, and in Birdy he wisely lets Cage’s and Modine’s unstable rapport do most of the heavy lifting. Modine, soon to enact perhaps the definitive Vietnam experience in Full Metal Jacket, manages to make the asexual, head-in-the-clouds Birdy appealing even as his obsession with birds and flying deepens into mania. For Cage’s part, he’s utterly open as Al, fearful but covering it (just barely) with a tough-kid, hound-dog bravado. Cage conveys this mostly with his eyes, always drawn upward in anguish (and when he’s bandaged in the hospital scenes his eyes are pretty much all he has). What happened to the actor who did such fearless work in films ranging from this to Vampire’s Kiss to Leaving Las Vegas from ’84 to ’95? And what the hell is he doing in stuff like Ghost Rider?

Parker has a tender touch here (except for that joke ending, which even I find embarrassing, and the overuse of “La Bamba,” which isn’t even right for the movie’s period), but he knows when to pull out the stops when it counts — in the blood and napalm of Vietnam, and in the celebrated sequence when Birdy dreams of flight. Birdy was also Peter Gabriel’s introduction to film scoring (though he recycled much of the music from his earlier albums; only the use of “Rhythm of the Heat” really dates the soundtrack, since it’s been used ad infinitum since this film), and it’s impossible to imagine the movie without it. With Gabriel’s help, the movie transcends the mundane, as Birdy is also driven to do. And in the quiet, desperate hospital scenes, the score comes close to heartbreaking. Birdy is a downer, all right; there’s real desolation in details like the cheerful sign reading “USA Is Proud of Its Soldiers” hanging up in a gym where legless veterans exercise. The whole film is about rising above the muck and violence of the human world. Confronted with Vietnam’s heart of darkness, where napalm incinerates people and birds alike, Birdy goes mad and withdraws from life. The question is whether Al’s extended hand of friendship is enough to draw him back in.

In short, Birdy is the kind of film that filled you with woe in high school. (Its source novel is frequently on summer-reading lists.) Even if your teen years are far behind you, though, the movie puts you right back in touch with those feelings of misery and unfocused rage at the world’s unfairness. Sound fun? If not, skip to the next thing. If so, you know what to put atop your Netflix queue.

Footloose (1984)

December 1, 1984

You know how you’ll be flickin’ around on the TV on Sunday afternoon — or better yet, sitting there passively while someone else flicks around, so that you aren’t even held responsible for the shit you end up watching — and you land on a total piece of cheese from the ’80s, and you sit there goofing on it, and after a while you kind of go, “Y’know, this isn’t actually all that bad”? Well, that happened to me with Footloose. This, I grant you, is probably one of those films you can only appreciate on a dull Sunday afternoon when you land on it randomly. But even with that in mind, I was a little surprised that I actually enjoyed it. Have you rented Footloose lately? Do you know anyone who has? No and no. Everyone’s going in for the ’80s revival, but nobody wants to see actual ’80s movies. That’s too close to home. Then you have to look in the mirror and say, “I, and everyone else in my school, actually went to see this.”

First of all, the difference between retro-’80s ’90s movies like Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, and The Wedding Singer and actual ’80s movies is that most ’80s movies had shitty music. The modern ’80s-flavored movies all have killer soundtracks drawn from the best New Wave bands. Movies like Footloose have … Deniece Williams and Kenny Loggins. Kenny Loggins’ theme from Footloose was used in Romy and Michele as a joke. I rest my case. There are exceptions: the soundtracks for Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High still hold up today, and the soundtrack for The Last American Virgin was the only good thing about it. But the new ’80s movies flatter you with false nostalgia for the cool music you should have been listening to back then, but weren’t. Real ’80s movies confront you with the stark truth of “Almost Paradise” and “Danger Zone” and “Axel F.”

Second, there was no irony in the ’80s. Footloose rehashes, without shame, the oldest of old premises of teen musicals. Take a hunky outsider (Kevin Bacon) and drop him into a narrow-minded town. Add one depressed minister’s daughter (Lori Singer) whose brother died in a car accident, so the minister (John Lithgow) had dancing and rock ‘n’ roll banned from town. (Why? The kid didn’t die from dancing or Sammy Hagar — he went off a fuckin’ bridge.) Sprinkle with what Roger Ebert calls Semi-OMV (semi-obligatory music videos) where Bacon dances to “I’m Free” and teaches Chris Penn to dance to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” Add Singer’s dickhead boyfriend, who exists solely to fuck with Bacon every couple of reels. All of this is presented seriously, not with a postmodern wink.

Which is refreshing these days, and which might explain why I enjoyed it. Footloose was the last of the early-’80s trilogy of major MTV-dance-movie hits, and I’d say it’s the best. The other two, of course, were Flashdance and Staying Alive, which critics made fun of even back in 1983. Footloose wasn’t exactly a critical fave, but it didn’t try to be hip and it had a relatively light touch, with recognizable human beings on the screen. You can’t say that about the aggressively shitheaded Staying Alive or the laughable Flashdance, the latter of which got dissed in The Full Monty (“flashy tits”) fourteen years later.

It was Chris Penn who won me over. The future Nice Guy Eddie (“I dunno who’s shot, I dunno who’s not”) steals the movie from the future Six Degrees guy (thanks to Penn, anybody from Reservoir Dogs could be linked to Bacon in two steps). At the time, Penn was still struggling to get out from under his brother Sean’s shadow — a situation he didn’t help by starring in The Wild Life, a forgotten wannabe-Fast Times (Cameron Crowe wrote both). In Footloose, Penn comes into his own as a good-hearted shitkicker who’s quick to fight but slow to dance. When girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker wants to dance at a club and Penn sits there knowing he can’t, his quiet regret makes the moment more affecting than it has a right to be. Bacon befriends Penn and teaches him rhythm, and since Bacon’s character is named Ren, I amused myself by renaming Penn’s character Stimpy. At the end, when Penn hit the dance floor and joyfully copied Travolta’s disco stance, the moment came when I laughed affectionately and said, “Y’know, this isn’t actually all that bad.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 71 other followers