Archive for November 1983

I Am the Cheese

November 11, 1983

A bland, amateurishly directed adaptation of one of Robert Cormier’s lesser books. Robert MacNaughton (E.T.) stars as Adam Farmer, a confused teen who can’t deal with the dark secrets of his past. The secrets involve the real identities of his parents (Don Gordon and Hope Lange) and a corrupt branch of the government. In other words, the usual paranoid, depressive Cormier fare, though done with unusually little skill in the book and even less skill in the movie. Shots of Adam on his bike going to visit his dad in Vermont get extremely tiresome. This material needed a director who could supply some lyricism, but there’s a good reason you never heard of Robert Jiras; he’s big on master shots and TV-style close-ups (head and shoulders). The whole movie is overlit and plays very much like an ABC Afterschool Special. While we wait for the climactic revelation, there’s Robert Wagner as a poker-faced shrink and Cynthia Nixon as Amy, Adam’s impulsive sweetheart. Except for MacNaughton (who might as well have “California” tattooed on his forehead) and Wagner, the actors look like authentic New Englanders, including Cormier, who appears in a couple of scenes and proves he was a much finer writer than actor. (Because he’s actually in this, though, Cormier fans will want to see it.) MacNaughton, who looks even younger here than in the previous year’s E.T., gives a mostly one-note performance and at this writing has not made a comeback like his E.T. costars Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore. Filmed in Vermont. For a generally more successful adaptation of Cormier, try Keith Gordon’s The Chocolate War. Other Cormier films: The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1999), Tenderness (2009).

Born in Flames

November 9, 1983

What if the United States went socialist after a nonviolent revolution — and people were still disenfranchised? Lizzie Borden’s debut feature Born in Flames answers the question, though the uninitiated should expect more passion than polish.

Borden, who went on to direct the excellent prostitution study Working Girls and the awful Sean Young “erotic thriller” Love Crimes, made Born in Flames over a period of five years with no script and very little money, and it shows. It’s the definition of “underground film”; even the First Run Films DVD, which I assume tried to clean up the print as much as possible, presents the film in the kind of grainy, crappy non-splendor that Robert Rodriguez spent a lot of money to duplicate in Planet Terror. The acting is sometimes flat and amateurish (the black actresses come across as much more authentic than the white actresses), and half the movie seems to be made up of speeches or fictitious TV clips (which look very late-’70s).

With the technical objections out of the way, though, I’d ask you to look at Born in Flames as a political document with a pure and rapidly beating heart, a buffet table of divergent perspectives. Borden has made a sort of scrapbook of issues that were on her mind post-Roe v. Wade and post-Nixon (the film had its timely release under the Reagan administration but was begun during the Carter era, when things were supposedly going to get better for women and minorities after years of Republican rule). In her alternative-history narrative, America (or white male America) has paid elaborate lip service to equality for all citizens, but women are still struggling for equal opportunities and wages, blacks and other minorities are still living in squalor, and if you’re a black lesbian, it still triply sucks to be you.

Various women in the story, belonging to different groups, are at odds as to what to do about the situation. There are two pirate-radio DJs, the white lesbian Isabel (Adele Bertei) and the black woman Honey (Honey); interestingly, the white lesbian is much more impatiently radical than the black woman, whose voice soothingly assures listeners that she’s going to tell them what’s going on. There’s an organization called the Women’s Army, branded as “terrorists” because they ride around on bicycles and attack would-be rapists. A noted feminist activist is killed in prison, touching a flame to the powder keg of discontent and frustration, ultimately leading to hijacking the news media and blowing up an antenna on top of the … World Trade Center. Yes, that will bring you up short a bit, but it does prove that the WTC was a resentment-attracting monument to greed and capitalism long before 2001 or even 1993.

Like many low-budget films with at-the-time nobodies, Born in Flames offers a few diversions for film geeks. Silence of the Lambs fans will recognize that film’s FBI agent Ron Vawter as a considerably more evil FBI agent here (what can I say, he had that bland FBI look about him). Eric Bogosian cashed his first cinematic paycheck in a one-line (“What the fuck??”) bit role as one of the TV-station technicians forced to interrupt the President’s address to broadcast an angry tape from the Women’s Army. Future action-flick director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days, Near Dark) appears as one of three socialist journalists trying to uncover the truth of what’s going on. The entire cast seems to be made up of New York creative/political types or friends of Borden’s or both, all willing to be found objects in Borden’s proto-riot-grrl pastiche.

Unavoidably dated today by its 1978-1983 production schedule (Borden hardly had the cash to make her socialist future look remotely futuristic, and that ended up working for her in an odd way — the point is that nothing much had changed after ten years of socialism), Born in Flames was also well ahead of its time, trading fluently in political savvy and passion that slicker vehicles like V for Vendetta can only dream of having. Approaching it with the expectation of a “professional” and less rhetorically shrill film would be like putting on a Bikini Kill CD expecting Alanis Morissette. In one important respect, the film hasn’t dated at all: the issues debated here are still very much with us, socialism or no socialism, and where is that Women’s Army when we really need ’em?