Monday, April 18, 2011


Coming straight off the Amtrak train from Washington D.C. (that's right, i didn't even go home first to drop my shit off) i was able to make the last 2 nights of the Bette Gordon retrospective @ anthology film archives. What stood out the most to me from her body of work were her road movies.  First was her experimental film; 'United States Of America'. Although there is no (clear) dialogue between the characters, its pretty straight forward. The film follows a couple (Bette Gordon and her early collaborator; James Benning) on a road trip from the perspective of someone sitting in the back seat of their car. Watching this movie, i could see where Richard Linklater may have got some inspiration for his very similar first film; 'Its Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books', which is another road movie where the director (Linklater) films himself on a cross country trip by way of train, making pit stops here & there to visit friends and wander aimlessly. If you can get past (what some may consider) the boredom and banality of 'United States of America' like; the long shots of the open road, the couple pulling off on the side of the road to switch drivers, the windshield wipers, the changing of the radio, etc, you'll soon realize that 'United States Of America' almost stands as kind of a time capsule of the 70's. In fact, the use of the radio is the main element that drives this home. Filmed in 1974 or '75, the radio switches in and out of different news stories and songs that capture the spirit of the 70's (specifically the news stories regarding the Vietnam war, and the use of Minnie Ripperton's 'loving you', which is a song that seems to follow them through their trip no matter what part of the country they're in). Gordon's experimental films of the 70's are quite different from her more narrative/straight forward work of the 80's up through the present day, but with 'United States Of America', you can see where some of the seeds were planted for the next road movie of hers that i saw; 'Luminous Motion'...

The back seat perspective of Gordon's 'United States Of America', almost makes it a prequel to 'Luminous Motion' (a movie that i saw for the first time on saturday night and instantly became a fan of). The film follows main character; Phillip, a smart 10 year old boy fascinated by science, on the road (or on the run depending on how you look at it) with his alcoholic/con-artist/prostitute mom, played by Deborah Kara Unger. At the introduction of the screening on saturday night, Bette Gordon commented that she was always fascinated by the "mother & son" relationship, and with 'Luminous Motion', she also wanted to make her own version of 'bonnie & clyde'. Even though i categorized this film as a "road movie", about less than a third of the film actually takes place in a car or even on the road for that matter. At one point in the middle of the film, it looks like Phillip and his mom are finally gonna settle down, but after a gruesome incident, they're back on the run. As the the story progresses, not only does the film start to get more and more dark (Phillip kills someone, his mom sinks in to a deep depression and wont get out of bed, etc), we start to piece together why he and his mom ended up on the road in the first place. We learn that his mother is actually a bit more complex than just the "alcoholic/con-artist/prostitute" that i labeled her earlier. And finally, we learn that Phillip doesn't have the best grip on reality. Through out the film, Phillip is both haunted & helped by the ghost of his mom's ex-boyfriend who Kasey may or may not have killed with a drill gun earlier in the film. He's also haunted by the presence of his father, who may or may not be real as well. Due to Deborah Kara Unger's usual soft spoken & sensual acting (also found in her performances in 'the game' and cronenberg's 'crash'), you cant help but sense some incestuous undertones between her and Phillip (from him rubbing lotion on her back and painting her toenails, to the scene where he spies on her having sex), which further drive home the point i made earlier about the film becoming more and more complicated and dark as it goes on. Of everything I've seen so far, this is easily my favorite film by Gordon (i still have yet to see 'Variety' though). The tone and atmosphere of the movie are reminiscent of everything from Wim Wenders to Alex Cox's 'repoman'. 'Luminous Motion' falls under many categories. Its a coming of age tale, part comedy comedy/part family drama and it even has elements of science fiction. This is one of the many forgotten about independent gems of the 90's that, thanks to anthology film archives, got its 2nd wind this past weekend. I enjoyed this movie so much, right after i saw it, i went around the corner to kim's video and bought the DVD. I think part of the reason that i enjoyed 'Luminous Motion' so much was because it had a similar vibe to other coming of age movies i love like; 'Parents' and 'The Reflecting Skin'. All of those movies combine elements of dark humor, the horror of childhood (which is actually a line from 'the reflecting skin') and family drama from the perspective of a child. Also, all three films focus on a child discovering things about adults (specifically their parents) that frighten them.

Luminous Motion
The Reflecting Skin

While 'United States Of America' & 'Luminous Motion' have quite a few elements in common with one another, Bette Gordon's most recent film; 'Handsome Harry', doesn't really connect with her previous road movies. In fact, the only thing 'Handsome Harry' has in common with the other 2  is that they all take place on the road. 'Handsome Harry' almost feels like the sequel to 'Young Torless'. Both are movies that deal with bullying and harassing gone too far within the military. In 'Young Torless', there's a scene towards the end, when the main character has the chance to help a fellow military student who's been harassed to point where its become sadistic, but he turns his back on him, and allows his fellow classmates to gang up on him and literally string him up. 'Handsome Harry' essentially picks up where that movie left off many years later. In 'Handsome Harry', a middle-aged electrician takes to the road to find his old navy buddies who he committed a hate crime with 30 years earlier against their gay navy mate. This film plays out like a cross between 'Broken Flowers' (a middle-aged man on a road trip trying to track down people from his past) and an episode of 'Law & Order: SVU' (the hate crime aspect of the film). As Harry tracks down each navy buddy, he learns that they have all been suffering or paying for their sin one way or another. One, played by John Savage, not only has sexual problems, but his son turned out to be gay. Another, has a paralyzed wife who was hit by a drunk driver, and he's had to take care of her ever since. And another one of his old navy buddies is dying from what i guess we're led to believe is some kind of cancer. What i liked most about the film was that even though i could see where the plot was going, i didn't expect the film to end the way it did (i mean that in a good way). The acting, which featured a stand-out performance from John Savage, almost seemed like stage acting, rather than film acting. And along with 'Young Torless', 'Handsome Harry' stirs up elements of Dennis Quaid's performance in 'Far From Heaven' (the repressed, masculine closet homosexual struggling with his sexuality).


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