‘I don’t do realistic films. I don’t believe they exist … by definition, movies are a lie on reality.’
- Alan Rudolph
Satirical movie pitches thread their way through Robert Altman’s The Player, like Hollywood punctuation. One of them features film-maker Alan Rudolph, who attempts to describe his latest project – a comedy thriller about a bad guy US senator who develops clairvoyant abilities – to executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins). “So it’s kind of a psychic political thriller comedy with a heart”, says Mill. “Not unlike Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate”, deadpans Rudolph. The senator starts to read people’s minds, “and when he gets to the President, it’s completely blank. There’s nothing there.” Wouldn’t you just love to see that movie?
It’s an in-joke for those familiar with one of American independent cinema’s mavericks. Rudolph’s films often mix genres, and defy easy categorisation. This might explain why his back catalogue is so hard to track down. An Alan Rudolph DVD is the cinematic equivalent of a Perigord Black Truffle; you can find one if you look hard enough, though expect to pay upwards of £25 for the privilege. You’ll also have to settle for a subtitled copy, ordered from Europe (the DVD, not the truffle).
Rudolph’s golden period was the mid-80’s until the late 90’s but the LA born director actually began his career in the early 70’s, with a pair of low-budget, long-vanished horror films (Premonition and Nightmare Circus). Altman’s mentorship – Rudolph was assistant director on The Long Goodbye, and Nashville, and wrote the script for Buffalo Bill and The Indians – was clearly crucial in helping him decide what kind of films he really wanted to make. Certainly, there are similarities between the pair: both share a love of actors and ensemble casts. But whereas Altman is concerned with the broader canvas, Rudolph is more interested in details; his films are hermetically contained, and sometimes take place in fictional cities (Seattle becomes ‘Rain City’; St Paul becomes ‘Empire.’) The most significant difference between these distinctive American voices is that whilst Altman errs towards irony, Rudolph is an unashamed romantic.
Welcome to LA, his first proper directing effort, was produced by Altman, and established a familiar Rudolph trope – the tension that exists between loneliness and longing. Many of his characters ache for romantic connection, yet haunted by difficult personal histories, they simultaneously fear it. Remember My Name came next, the story of a vengeful women (an exhilaratingly deranged Geraldine Chaplin) released from prison after serving time for murder, and looking to take back the husband who abandoned her.
There were some unhappy dalliances with the mainstream: rock comedy Roadie (1980) passed me by, but given it was designed as a vehicle for Meatloaf, I can’t say I’m overly concerned. Endangered Species (1982), a conspiracy thriller about cattle mutilation (jokingly dubbed ‘Altered Steaks’ by one critic) isn’t bad, though Rudolph was locked out of the editing room, a victim of studio interference.
He hit his stride with Choose Me (1984), probably the most sophisticated demonstration of his dreamy spirit. Structured as a farcical roundelay, Choose Me pivots around a radio ‘sexologist’, Dr Nancy Love (Genevieve Bujold), who offers romantic advice to callers on a late night talk show. Keith Carradine played enigmatic drifter Mickey, dancing around bruised café owner and ex-call girl, Eve (Lesley Ann-Warren in one of the great, lost performances of the 80’s).
Rudolph writes spare, blueprint scripts, which are nurtured during production; plotlines are less important than character and mood. He can convey a lifetime of disappointment with a simple glance, and Choose Me has many such moments. Driven by some of the wildest kissing scenes ever filmed, the spark between Mickey and Eve is what gives the film its combustible edge. The ambiguous ‘happy-ever-after’ is another Rudolph hallmark: Choose Me ends with the pair eloping under cover of night but there’s doubt in their eyes
Carradine reunited with Rudolph and Bujold for neo-noir Trouble in Mind. If made in the 1940’s, this could have starred Bogart and Bacall but it was an arch affair with Marianne Faithful huskily crooning the theme song. A low-key Kris Kristofferson starred as disgraced ex-cop Hawk – another character trying to rebuild his life after prison – enmeshed in a love-triangle with Carradine’s glam-rock gangster Coop (Google that crazy hairstyle), and the sweetly innocent Georgia (Lori Singer). The film’s numerous highlights include a scene where Hawk discovers the body of a local hoodlum, floating in a water-filled limousine (it featured in the opening credits of the BBC’s ‘Film 86’, I recall).
Trouble co-starred drag queen Divine, in his only ‘all-male’ role, excellent as art collecting gangster Hilly Blue. Actors have always been happy to take a pay cut to work with Rudolph, because he provides opportunities to play complex, contradictory characters. After the success of Top Gun, Kelly McGillis presumably could have done anything, but decided to take a starring role in the afterlife fantasy Made in Heaven (she gives a raw, moving performance.) Rudolph’s approach to casting has always been exhaustive, extending to the smallest of roles: Ellen Barkin and Debra Winger made guest appearances in the same film (Winger, in heavy make-up, unrecognisable as a man), whilst musicians Tom Petty, Ric Ocasek and Neil Young all made cameos. Young was also a convincing bad guy in detective rom-com Love at Large (1990), opening up a potential acting career he never pursued.
The Moderns (1988) was a long-planned meditation on the nature of art, set in 1920’s Paris, and focusing on the so-called ‘lost generation.’ Carradine returned, cast as Nick Hart, an expatriate American living amongst some of the great minds of the age (Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Alice B.Toklas included). Hart becomes involved in a plot by wealthy art patron Nathalie de Ville (Chaplin, again) to forge three paintings. This leads to a series of run-ins with dangerous magnate Bertram Stone (John Lone), who happens to be married to Hart’s ex-wife Rachel (Linda Fiorentino). Rudolph presents Paris as a self-consciously artificial place, a deliberate decision in a film about the differences between originals and imitations. Composer Mark Isham has scored nine Rudolph films, and for The Moderns, he created a smooth mix of orchestra and smoky jazz; it’s music with the texture of memory, conjuring up a world where old glories and failures are always impinging upon the present.
Which brings us to Equinox, the film Mark Isham didn’t score, Rudolph instead favouring an eclectic selection of pre-existing tracks by the likes of Serge Rachmaninov, Astor Piazzolla, and Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal. It’s also the one Rudolph film that’s easy to find on DVD. Equinox is the tale of identical twins Henry Petosa and Freddy Ace (Matthew Modine), living in the city of Empire with no knowledge of each other, separated at birth and given up for adoption. Both have taken different paths. Henry is a shy garage mechanic who lives alone and worships painfully shy Beverly, his best friend’s sister (Lara Flynn Boyle, smartly cast against type) from afar. Henry also baby-sits for his neighbor Rosie, a prostitute (Marisa Tomei). Freddy works as a driver for local gangster Mr. Paris (Fred Ward): by contrast, Freddy is assured and confident, married to a materialistic woman named Sharon (Lori Singer, again.) Morgue assistant Sonya (Tyra Ferrell) accidentally comes across a letter indicating the twins are the offspring of European nobility and owed a large sum of inheritance money. Sonya decides to play amateur detective and track them down, setting in motion a series of events, which lead to a shattering confrontation.
Equinox was released the same week as Jurassic Park, and I saw both on the same day. The Spielberg was so formulaic and lacking in surprises, I felt like I’d already seen it. By contrast, watching Equinox was akin to a magic spell; for 2 hours, I was in a state of delirium. The overarching theme is disconnection. Says Henry:
“I feel like my whole life is taking place without me in it.”
There are posters on his wall of places he wants to visit; directly opposite his apartment is a billboard for the local Lottery. Best friend Russell (Kevin J. O’Connor, another Rudolph regular) pines for pretty waitress Anna (Angel Aviles) in the restaurant he, Henry and Beverley frequent. Russell’s romantic fantasies are sad and funny. When finally given an opportunity moment to impress the girl, he freezes. An escape route is available for many of the characters but fear keeps them stuck.
Equinox is Alan Rudolph’s funniest film, filled with memorable lines and off-the-wall sight gags. As a thankyou for looking after her baby, Rosie seduces Henry. “Don’t worry Mr Petosa – the only thing you’re gonna catch from me is your breath.” This being a Rudolph film, it’s not taking place in the present but 5 minutes into the future, in a decaying city with food shortages. When Henry returns with a bag of groceries, a hungry mob pounce, fighting over the items in his shopping bag, and leaving him with nothing but a jar of Talcum powder, which he proudly brings home like an athlete’s trophy. Some of the sharpest scenes are those with Lori Singer, still best known for 80’s movie Footloose. Painting her living room whilst wearing a glamorous evening gown or frantically scrubbing numbers off a stack of stolen scratch cards, she’s delightfully ditzy; in a just universe, she would have ended up with a career like Goldie Hawn.
Now better known for playing Dr Brenner in Stranger Things, Modine has always been an intriguing actor: he has a gift for goofy (Married to the Mob) and dark (The Blackout), and incorporates both here, creating subtle differences between Henry and Freddy without resorting to caricature. There’s real chemistry between him and Flynn Boyle, which is why the finale packs such an emotional punch. Sonya has her own journey to make. Early on, she hesitates to describe herself as a writer; by the end, she’s confidently assumed the role of torch- bearer.
“The way I figure it”, she says, “your whole life is about searching for one thing. And all that other stuff just falls away.”
I’ve seen this film around 20 times, and each viewing yields new pleasures. Equinox will resonate with anybody who has ever felt lost, alone, or out of synch with the world. This is Alan Rudolph’s masterpiece.
Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) followed: A costume drama about American writers might have looked like a safe Oscar bet, yet Mrs Parker was unfairly overlooked during awards season. It’s worth watching just for the quality cast: Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Campbell Scott, Matthew Broderick, Stanley Tucci, Gwyneth Paltrow, Heather Graham, Peter Gallagher, Andrew McCarthy, Keith Carradine again, Wallace Shawn, and yes, even Jennifer Flashdance Beals. It would make a great double bill with The Moderns.
Afterglow was the last Rudolph film to get a UK release, even though he made four more – Breakfast of Champions, Trixie, Investigating Sex, and the clunkily titled Secret Lives of Dentists – before going into semi-retirement. Bruce Willis apparently used his own money to fund Champions, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘unfilmable’ novel. It’s a black comedy about a pill-popping businessman, Dwayne Hoover (Willis), undergoing an existential crisis; Hoover is convinced that a trashy science-fiction novel, written by down-at-heel writer Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney) is the voice of humanity’s creator, and proof that human life is without meaning. The film received a critical mauling, and sank without a trace. It’s not perfect, and the relentless zany tone grows a little wearying; it’s like an episode of Dallas directed by Tex Avery. However, it was a brave adaptation to attempt, and any film, which features Nick Nolte as a transsexual sales man, is certainly worth a look.
Rudolph is now 73, and after a 15 year break, is back with something new, Ray Meets Helen, an eccentric, late-in-life rom-com, which reunites him with Keith Carradine (as yet, the film doesn’t have a UK release date). Rudolph has created a unique body of work but is one of those filmmakers in danger of falling through the cracks of history (Hal Hartley is another). Only one book has been written about his contribution to cinema (out of print), and he’s never been nominated for an Oscar. Please, let’s not wait until his death to celebrate his brilliance; the Rudolph renaissance starts here.
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