Saturday, July 2, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #11- BORDER RADIO (1987)

Man... I feel like a dick with the review I'm about to give this. 


I think if I objectively look at this (maybe even subjectively, I don't know), I can point out how it's not very cohesive or hold up too well over time.  But I've been where Alison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lint were at in the mid 80's: people in a particular place and time and milieu (in this case it was the west coast alternative-cum-punk scene, or maybe it's the other way around, just before hair metal fucked everything up), and wanting to get it down on film.  There's a rawness and a sense that 'hey, let's make a goddamn movie that WE want to see!)  At least that's what I suspect was the idea - and to give some kind of gritty noirish feeling amid the aimlessness of the events.  So set in the world that Repo Man was swimming in or even the kids from Suburbia might wander through, but a touch of Jarmusch or Wenders.  And... I wish it worked better!

So on a personal level I find it difficult to be harsh on it, knowing that its heart is pure and that it's a warped little calling card at best at a time when such films could get a few people to see it in an art-house and that'd be just fine. But... well, it is what it is, right?  A basic enough premise but with some promise - a few dumbass punk rockers (or rockabilly, a crossbreed you could say) steal some money and the main guy behind the group runs off to Mexico - Chris D as Jeff Bailey, who I believe was a figure in the west coast punk scene, or he looks that way, like Henry Rollins balding cousin.  The rest of the film finds his wife Luana (played by I think Anders' sister or relative Luana) tries to find out where he's at and more importantly why.

Here's the key problem I have with this: if it were a short, even 30 minutes, it would be pretty fantastic.  I actually am smitten with this time and setting; Suburbia and Repo Man are set in a similarly scuzzy world where people don't give a fuck and yet there's the air of responsibility and the outside world that hangs over heads (in Repo Man it was just 'fuck normal' and Suburbia it was more 'hey, it's a Roger Corman production, don't forget the violence and sex every 15 minutes or so).  But those films also had stronger performances and a better core to work with despite how aimless they seemed. 

But here the whole search is stupid; Luana could go down it seems to Mexico any time she wants to get her dead-beat husband (also a father to their kid, played by real life Anders daughter), and the resolution to the whole situation happens too gradually and without much logic.  Oh, and there's a "documentary" being done on these people - interviewed I think by the directors - as if their story is supposed to be like fodder for a documentary that is just... why



This isn't to say Border Radio is a complete waste of time.  Actually for certain stretches it's entertaining.  The two band mates of Jeff's, Chris and Dave (also named after themselves), are characters unto themselves, with Chris like a proto Randall from Clerks and Dave probably the most realistic kind of character in the movie as far as real life goes: mostly drunk, a total scumbag, but likely talented though still blackballed by the local clubs for being a, well, jerk like he seems to be.  In fact a lot of the acting here isn't too bad, and Anders as the sort of anchor to much of the absurdity in the episodes pulls off what she's asked to do.

In some ways Border Radio portends the "mumblecore" movies more than any other 1980's indie.  As episodic as Stranger Than Paradise was, it had a formal ambition to its making and execution that made it stand out from the pack.  With 'Radio', I doubted there was a firm script, certain people show up briefly who seem like they were plucked off the street (i.e. a Mexican at the trailer park, a punk rock girl who is "babysitting" Jeff/Lu's daughter at a key point), which may explain the fucked up logic at times of the characters or events as they go on in the story.  Or at the least, the characters, except maybe for Luana, are not sympathetic much at all (actually Luana seems to be questionable at one point near the end too, and yet it's at a point where logically I'd given up on the story), and this takes away from being engaged with things.  In little moments, like when Chris goes down to Mexico finally to confront Jeff in a series of scenes, it's successful and genuinely interesting.  In the bigger picture it falls flat and is too scattershot to ever revisit.

For all of the criticisms I can levy on it, I have not a shred of ill will towards it.  I'm really happy this exists and that people can watch it, on the Criterion collection and Hulu no less (though it's strange that the copy that's available, that I saw anyway, was not restored like other titles, scratchy print like it was taken off of a dusty negative).  I didn't mention my favorite part of the movie which is the soundtrack, also original music by David Allen of the Blasters: it's a joy to listen to music that is rock and roll to a pure point: punk, rockabilly, Mexican mariachi work, slower stuff, it all works and I was glad to hear it.  If only it was put to a story that was actually compelling or made more sense.

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