Michael Nordstrom | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Michael Nordstrom 
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Re: “What I'm Watching: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Bill Simmon covered everything so nicely, that I wondered if I should bother writing at all… glad he set you straight on the plainly apparent reasoning for Goldblum’s cowboy get-up. Somehow your comment on that bothered me more than your general points on the film’s supposed incomprehensibility or nonsensicality. In fact, it almost invalidated the latter- like, man, if you can’t even parse that one…

While I would concede that the seams and the glue sometimes show in this movie (at points quite literally),* for me that has never taken away from its very particular artfulness. From a production standpoint, its scrappy underdog nature (which you correctly cite as largely the result of extreme adversity/lack of support in the production process) was perceptible and endearing to me even as I watched it in ’84 at age 10; I found it wholly inspiring. Yes, as you assert, it hit me at a time of extreme impressionability, and I was (and am) an avid supporter of it. It was, in its way, entirely analogous to many art-currents I was becoming immersed in simultaneously: dada, punk rock, weird fiction, old adventure serials. The experience of revisiting it does speak to me in a romantic/nostalgic way of that period of my life… but I’ve seen about a thousand+ movies since, and I can say for certain that I believe the film has significant worth beyond its personal value, interesting as a key link between the past and future of its genre, and just a damn fun watch. Unlike certain things I was wildly enthusiastic about in youth, now best left behind, it embarrasses me not at all to revisit it, share it, or sing its praises.

I like that the movie juxtaposes its concepts with what, I agree, is “flat”, functional cinematography. Have I watched this movie and fantasized about how particular scenes might have been more compellingly presented? Of course. However, I feel the style harkens back to the B-westerns and sci-fi serials that are its predecessors, and moreover the predecessors of far slicker fare of the period. Movies like Raiders of The Lost Ark paid similar tributes, aesthetically and storywise, but what you have in BB is a technical tribute (intentional or not, doesn’t really matter, net result is the same) to those earlier films met with a deep aesthetic (beneath the hilariously dated 80s fashions, music, etc) that is entirely cyberpunk-futuristic and biomechanically-inclined. It was perfectly in its moment in speaking to society’s burgeoning info-and-techno-insatiability and the individual desire/need to be everywhere at once and master of all (rocker/neurosurgeon/interdimensional adventurer)… while still having to actively, painfully, comically deal with the surrounding irrationality, ignorance and decay in everyday life (Red Lectroids, the government… nightclub owners). That type of juxtaposition is not only at the heart of what makes this movie great, it also clearly places it in the Dadaist/Surrealist tradition.

The design of the alien environments carried on, in beautiful ways, the lived-in, dirty futurism first popularized in the late 70s by Star Wars and Alien. The organic, seashell-like contours of the spacecraft; the milky, insulating liquid that flows into a cabin before take-off; the hanging flight jacket seemingly made of meat. It’s a novel and notable twist that all of this, too, is shot through with levity. The Black Lectroids appear to human eyes as Rastafarians; casting an otherworldly race in the guise of an extremely Earth-bound, largely rural human religion is another simple but effective device,** deftly employed by the film, for making the extraterrestrial seem accessible and familiar. I have for years seen direct echoes and outright copies*** of Buckaroo Banzai’s concept and design innovations in other films.

How much cleverness does the film “purport” to contain? Well, one of its main conceits is that Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of The Worlds” broadcast was not a hoax- that he was brainwashed by the invading aliens to say that it was, and that those aliens have since been hiding in plain sight, living in squalorous exile inside a factory space in New Jersey. That, to me, could accurately be described as clever. As far as how this and other conceptual elements are handled within the machinations of plot and dialogue… it’s actually all pretty basic. It doesn’t try very hard to be “clever” in those areas, and I think that’s actually something to be thankful for. It’s a romp, light and breezy in its execution, and I see no indication in the film itself that anyone involved thought otherwise. This movie is anything but self-serious.

As for the supposed “incomprehensibility”, I’ve heard this criticism a few times over the years, and I truly don’t get it. I’ve seen incomprehensible films, and I would never count Buckaroo Banzai among them. Granted there is no audience avatar in this movie, no rookie-figure-coming-into-the-fold who can ease us into the fully-formed world we are dropped into. The overall focus is diffuse; things move along quickly and there are many characters and much crosstalk (I can honestly say that Buckaroo Banzai was excellent preparation for my introduction to Altman via Nashville, a few years later… Goldblum and all), but a complete story is in fact communicated to the viewer. Is the way that story is presented, with its unusual rhythms and emphases (or non-emphases), ineptitude in storytelling? I’ve never thought so; I just find it to be a markedly, pleasantly different tack than most mainstream movies, especially genre movies, tend to take. (Having said that… I will concede that the whole Peggy-Penny subplot is not well-presented.)

Man, I don’t know… I think the thing with so many movies that fall under the “cult” umbrella is that their stubbornly peculiar and particular nature seems often to require a set of peculiar, particular variables of predisposition and preparation, arrived at mostly without forethought or intention, for one to be able to enjoy them, let alone be receptive to them. I was in the right frame of mind and mood for this one to strike me like art-lightning when it did, and remain a touchstone for me; my desire to continue talking about it or sharing it derives at least partly from the hope that it might find another receptive first-time viewer, here and there, who will find the same worthwhile fun and richness in it.

And as for that “cult” umbrella (and I’ll say that while it’s sometimes-useful shorthand, it’s never been a term I love, for various reasons), I disagree with your take on the label. For sure, you can say that there exists, in terms of slavish devotion and attention, a “cult” of people into Star Wars or into LoTR, but to my mind that does not afford cult film status. My feeling is that the term represents films which stand apart from most other cinematic experiences for some combination of directorial/writerly vision, aesthetic, technical & artistic limits or advantages, etc, in such a way that they could never possibly have the wide, eminently marketable appeal of a SW or LoTR. Yet, those very same components that preclude widespread popularity are what make these films resonate so strongly with a particularly oriented, small group of people. A cult.

Oh well. You say tomato, I say blood-chilling ululations. Hey, maybe you would have enjoyed it just a wee bit more if you had taken it in at some sort of fun screening event put on by folks who were really into it, rather than just watching at ho-

Oh, wait.

Hugs n' Kisses,
Michael "Mike" Nordstrom

*At points, the constrained elements of production actually add to the film: the fx shop in charge of the Black and Red Lectroid make-ups had inadequate time and resources for the design and application of the Red Lectroid masks. Those of the Black Lectroids fit the actors’ faces perfectly and move naturally and expressively, while the Red Lectroid masks on Hedaya, Lloyd and Schiavelli are loose and slack-jawed, very mask-like. However, in its on-screen effect, these deficiencies work to neatly underscore the doltish nature of the Red Lectroids!

**A device that screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch lifted nearly wholesale from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer! Before beginning work on Banzai, Rauch had been tasked with adapting Neuromancer for the screen. The novel features a space colony of (human) Rastas. When the Neuromancer project went South, Rauch put the Lectroid spin on the space Rasta idea and threw it into Banzai.

***Most recently in Guardians of The Galaxy- the bad guy’s scout ships? Straight-up Lectroid style!

2 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Michael Nordstrom on 10/30/2014 at 1:46 PM

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