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The Year in Film: Brains Over Budget

In 1986, big movie themes came in small packages

John Goodman, sings, film, True Stories

John Goodman sings in a scene from the film 'True Stories' in 1986.

Warner Brothers/Getty

David Byrne wrote a terrific piece of film criticism this year. In his introduction to the published script of his movie True Stories, Byrne explains that the gimmicky plot — a series of overlapping vignettes and musical numbers set in a small Texas town and narrated by a wide-eyed stranger (Byrne) — is a trick to get you to open the door and let the real movie in. Byrne wants to show you how the trick is done at the same time he’s showing you the trick. He continues:

Most movies show you something and tell you how you’re supposed to feel about it. They’re edited in a way that tells you what you’re supposed to be looking at before you decide that’s what you want to be looking at. It’s a trick, and when it doesn’t work, it’s really offensive, because you know someone’s trying to trick you, and they think you can’t tell.

We live in a trickster’s era, communications-wise, and Byrne puts his finger on what makes the average movie so condescending: you aren’t supposed to bring anything to the party. In The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg moves in tight on Whoopi Goldberg’s quivering, tear-stained face while the violins saw on your heartstrings, and your choice is either to cry for this maltreated saint or to walk out. A different kind of filmmaker would have more faith in the material itself instead of presuming the audience won’t connect with it unless it’s spelled out in Sesame Street detail. You could still cry if the spirit moved you, but the spirit would have to move you, not the director’s crude devices. It’s the difference between expressive and coercive filmmaking.

And it’s the difference, right now, between mainstream and non-mainstream films. Major studios have incorporated the high-pressure tactics of advertising into the movies themselves; the idea is to make you ignore your own instincts while you watch and finally add your voice to the sum of all voices. The best movies of 1986 reject these tactics, sometimes ferociously. And it looks like there’s a larger audience for them than anyone could have predicted.

Of course, the audience for these non-mainstream movies is nowhere near as large as it was for the year’s biggest money-maker, Top Gun, the ultimate piece of Madison Avenue filmmaking, from the boys who brought you Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop. But many producers (and even a few small studios) have sensed that a part of the audience is growing weary of established formulas and showing signs that it’s hungry for a different take on familiar themes. Most non-mainstream movies resemble each other only in what they don’t do. They don’t let marketing surveys dictate their content, and they don’t aim to please every single ticket buyer, down to the 15-year-old with the two-minute attention span. (He’s part of the group the studios aim their big guns at — he has the time to see a movie over and over again and will buy the records and merchandise.) If the kid gets bored, he can leave and tell his friends to stay away, but the film will still make money — as long as it’s good and it didn’t cost $20 million.

In 1986, more alert moviemakers have recognized the commercial merits of giving an audience not what it ”wants to see” but what a gifted artist wants to make. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get money for an offbeat movie (even companies with a reputation for taking chances prefer sure hits to flops, and the more successful they get, the more successful they’ll want to be). But there are more places a non-mainstream filmmaker can peddle his script these days, and more chancy projects are going into production. The key to this is low budgets: when a couple of executives look at a day’s worth of screwy footage and ask, ”What the hell does he think he’s doing?” they’re not talking about a Heaven’s Gate, at $44 million, but a considerably cheaper film, like True Stories. They can make back a $5 million investment with a solid run in a few major cities.

True Stories is a superb place to start, since Byrne’s philosophy from the earliest days with his band, Talking Heads, has been to make boring things dramatic instead of dramatic things boring. His aesthetic is built on revelation — on those moments when you see something ordinary as if for the first time and you’re transported. Dipping into the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid, Byrne discovered stories that represent people’s bizarre — and, as far as he’s concerned, healthy — accommodation to whatever life has thrown at them: a lonely guy who advertises on TV for a bride; a husband and wife who love and sleep beside each other but haven’t exchanged a word in years; a rich woman who has decided never to get out of bed.

When Byrne, as narrator, wanders through this Texas town and chats with its inhabitants, he’s like a happily stoned performance-art critic who simply digs people’s nutty acts. (He’s an avant-garde version of Mister Rogers, who sits around in sneakers and cardigans and sings, ”Everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine/Your body’s fancy, and so is mine.”) In Byrne’s vision, you can be as eccentric as you like and still fit into the larger community; there’s a place for everyone in cinematographer Ed Lachman’s magical shots of the flat Texas plain, on which humans stand out with stark clarity — like a stage tableau, except the stage goes on forever. Byrne views the evolution of American culture with wonder instead of fear: malls might open up on the outskirts of town and Main Streets close down; computers and video might change the economy, people’s tastes and our whole conception of leisure time; but people still stumble toward self-realization and salvation in the same way they ever did.

Byrne’s posture strikes some as a reverse form of condescension toward the ”little people.” I don’t think it is, although he certainly errs on the side of generosity. He wanted to make a happy, cleansing movie about the extraordinary impulses of ”ordinary” Americans, and he has made it very well. If, finally, we miss the occasional bitter edge or off note, Byrne has still captured onscreen what’s marvelous about Eighties grass-roots American culture in ways no one else has even attempted.

True Stories is Byrne’s first feature, and already he knows how to build a universe on film from the ground up. So does David Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man), whose Blue Velvet looks to be the best movie of 1986. It was backed by Dino De Laurentiis’s studio, so, strictly speaking, it’s not a non-mainstream movie, but it is widely believed that De Laurentiis only agreed to finance Blue Velvet on the condition that Lynch adapt Dune. (The resulting film was a good example of a director with unique sensibilities trying to make a movie based on someone else’s criteria and pleasing no one.)

Blue Velvet is the story of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a young man who finds a severed ear in a vacant lot and is drawn into a mystery that would put the Hardy Boys in Bellevue. He grows obsessed with a world he’s never seen yet has always harbored inside him — a world where lovemaking and brutality get all tangled up. Lynch isn’t exploring sexual deviation; he’s poking at the dark corners of normal sexuality, and his idea of normalcy is wickedly subversive. As Jeffrey goes from watcher to participant to potential victim, Blue Velvet emerges as an irrational whodunit, a distillation of adolescent sexual anxieties. The subject is so intense it seems to warp the edges of the film frame; the images are gamy, rank. And yet this is a cheerful movie, overall. Something innate and unspeakable has been dredged up and picked apart.

For that reason, it’s hard to imagine a less repressed movie: Blue Velvet is about facing up to the bogeyman and blowing him away. Lynch never tells you what you’re supposed to be looking at; most of what he shows you, in fact, you have no idea how to take. Only later can you piece it all together, as you would a vivid and unsettling dream. For once, an ad quote — ”The movie conversation piece of 1986” — is on the money. Blue Velvet demands that you talk about it; otherwise, it sits in your head and festers.

Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which will be released this month, will also provoke discussion: this is one of the ugliest and most traumatic war films ever made — perhaps the strongest on the subject of Vietnam. Until this year, Stone was known for directing or writing coarse, macho thrillers like Midnight Express, The Hand, Scarface and Year of the Dragon. But in March, he released Salvador, an enthralling film about a gonzo journalist (James Woods) scrambling over bodies in Central America — an amoral parasite who gets caught up in the plight of besieged peasants. Salvador and Platoon are like a sinner’s penance. No action filmmaker has gone against the political grain this way in years.

Stone, a decorated Vietnam vet, doesn’t buy the once-again fashionable idea that our presence there was moral and right but our methods wrong. So he has recreated the jungle-fever mindscape that led to the My Lai massacre and scores of buried American atrocities. The enemy, says Stone, was and is us: in times of extreme stress, our morals can explode under us like land mines. The film’s centerpiece, in which American soldiers enter a Vietnamese village and, in the course of interrogating villagers about a weapons stash, commit senseless murder, is indescribably harrowing. Stone, by plunging us into the carnage without any relief, captures the fear, disorientation and crazed high of battle — he makes us understand what’s possible when we’ve seen people we know cut to pieces and have no idea where the next bullet is going to come from.

In this regressive, let’s-go-back-and-win-the-Vietnam-War era, it’s hard to imagine most audiences knowing how to respond to Stone’s attempt to set the record straight. Every frame fights against the notion of a towering hero, a John Wayne or Stallone; in order to appreciate real heroism, Stone seems to say, you’ve first got to understand what it feels like to have a gun in your hand, license to pull the trigger and a reason to want a lot of people dead. Platoon is the wild card this Christmas. Success or flop, it’s going to blow everything else off the screen.

David Byrne, David Lynch and Oliver Stone are known quantities; the most encouraging news this year for penniless independents — and nonwhite audiences —is Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. The ”she” of the title is Nola Darling, a hot number courted by three intense egotists. Unable to make up her mind, and not averse to seeing all three, she keeps them performing for her, each making a fervent pitch to sleep only with him. According to black men I’ve talked to, the film speaks most directly to the attitudes of black males who tend to boast about having more than one woman — Nola’s failure to be monogamous is a frustrating turning of the tables.

Lee brings a breathless huckster’s spirit to his work, but as tricky as he is, he shows you everything he’s got up his sleeve. He threw the film together in 12 days when plans for another movie fell through, and much of that time he spent begging people for money. The sell permeates the movie — Lee sells himself as a director, his characters sell themselves as lovers, and in one sequence, a parade of suitors makes pitches into the camera. Best of all is Lee’s own performance as one of the lovers, Mars Blackmon, a fast-talking street punk who’s like a broken record in heat: his big line is ”Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please.” This guy won’t stop until he’s got your attention. He really thinks he has something to say to you that no one’s ever said to you before. He does.

Spike Lee has been signed to a three-movie deal with Island Pictures, and the independent-film community is buzzing — not just because a promising black filmmaker has made it to the big leagues, but because one promising black filmmaker has forced recognition of a hunger for more black filmmakers. And the next generation won’t be limited to movies in which the black characters are thieves, cops or victims of racism.

Virtually alone, Britisher Alex Cox (Repo Man) is keeping the uncompromising spirit of punk alive in movies, even if the punks do end up dead. Sid & Nancy is a dumb-punk comedy that crawls into hell on its belly as the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and the woman he was charged with murdering, Nancy Spungen, degenerate into sick, bored-out-of-their-skulls junkies. Cox tells the story on Sid and Nancy’s terms, which means he mixes bloody realism, infantile slapstick, fantasy, banality and whacked-out romance of unfathomable proportions.

In one scene, the couple embraces in an alley as garbage falls around them in lyrical slow motion, like a lowlife-scum remake of Singin’ in the Rain; in the next they’re shown with needles in their veins. Cox never prepares you for what you’ll see next, and he gives you nothing to hold on to when you’re seeing it. He doesn’t make Sid and Nancy symbols of their generation. They’re two screwed-up kids who happened to live in a culture that exploited their self-destructive impulses for fun and profit; then, when their moment passed, it spit them out. But he also shows how their militant indifference to their own bodies caught up with them. This is as cruel and compassionate an obit as a couple of punks could want.

Sid & Nancy is the sort of movie that drives people crazy: middlebrows decry its ugliness and what they perceive as its relish of punk; the other side thinks Cox doesn’t give the scene enough credit. He is probably pleased by the controversy. He’s got a surly insurrectionist streak, and he likes to shock — getting maximum comedy out of riotous anarchy.

Then there are films that defy classification. Stephen Frears’s grungy My Beautiful Laundrette, from a script by Hanif Kureishi, arrived early in 1986 and found an unexpectedly huge audience. Set in England’s Pakistani community, this movie is a madly teeming London traffic circus, with all kinds of roads feeding into it — racial, cultural, economic, sexual. The Pakistani protagonist is trying to penetrate English society as the manager of a launderette; his male lover, a white punk, is floating in the opposite direction, bored and alienated by the culture; his father is a disillusioned left-wing hermit; his father’s brother is a thriving capitalist with an expensive white mistress. Messy, probing and alive, My Beautiful Laundrette reveals the tensions between and within cultures and lets you draw your own conclusions.

There have been many other non-mainstream successes. German director Doris Dörrie made an incisive buddy-buddy movie called Men… French director Bertrand Tavernier swoons over Dexter Gordon in a slow, syrupy but often magical tribute called Round Midnight, in which Gordon, a non-actor, proves one of the most charismatic found objects in the history of cinema. Summer, by Eric Rohmer, offers an intimate view of a lonely woman who has trouble meeting men: she’s unable to stand the insincere pleasantries that launch most friendships, but she’s also unable to make the leap of faith it takes to know someone new very well. Rohmer, who finally vindicates his protagonist’s excessive sensitivity, works in a modest, improvisational style that often meanders, but just when you’re about to give up on him, he pulls something startling out of his hat. Like Woody Allen, Rohmer stays within a relatively low budget, which allows him to make whatever kind of film he wants. That’s what comes of building a relationship with an audience over many years, and it’s a pity so few serious directors ever reach this stage.

The big studios still push on in their search for the ultimate package. There’s a story — it may be apocryphal — about a proposed sequel to a relatively recent blockbuster: After a couple of writers turned in a script, the studio told them, ”Sorry, guys, this just doesn’t make it. This is a $100 million script, and we’re looking for a $200 million script.” How, I wonder, can you tell the difference between a $100 million script and a $200 million script? Maybe the bad guy doesn’t get it good enough at the end. Maybe the hero isn’t superhuman enough. Not enough car chases. Where do the rock videos go? What kind of sequel is this? It doesn’t remake the original!

I’d be scared to make that $100 million distinction. Who knows? I might have gone for an extraterrestrial duck that smokes a cigar and tells jokes.

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