Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Border Radio - 1987

"Border Radio" - 1987
Dir. by Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss - 1 hr. 27 min.

Criterion DVD cover art

by Clayton Hollifield

Dammit, you know a movie's obscure when you can't find a trailer for it.  I mean, "Border Radio" has a Criterion edition, and even the Criterion page for this film doesn't have a trailer.  Even trailers have their own trailers now.  That DVD cover art is pretty much the only visual flair I could find related to "Border Radio."  So, without shelling out for the Criterion DVD, information about this film is pretty scant.  It appears to be a student film by Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss, or at least came out of their meeting at UCLA.  "Border Radio" comes off a bit like a student film (and a lot like what indie films would look like in the 90s): not a ton of visual flair, heavy on the personal relationships, shot wherever anyone had access to (as opposed to using "locations"), and using friends and family as cast.  "Border Radio" has the added bonus of heavily featuring musicians as much of the cast, which makes for one of the more interesting facets of the film.

Jeff Bailey (Chris D.), plans to flee to Mexico along with Dean (John Doe), but a gang of thugs interfere with their plans after hearing an answering machine message intended for Jeff.  Jeff gets away unscathed, but Dean takes a beating waiting for Jeff in a desert drive-in movie theatre.  Unfortunately, no one clues in Jeff's wife, Lu (Luanna Anders) about this, and she's left in the dark in Los Angeles with her and Jeff's kid, running interference with Jeff's record label (he's just released a new album, but his going M.I.A. is wreaking havoc with the promotion for it), and trying to figure out where Jeff has gone, and why.  Jeff's band's roadie, Chris (Chris Shearer), stays in LA, and takes advantage of the situation (and Jeff's wife).  Eventually, Lu has to get to the bottom of the situation (she's a rock journalist, but that's not enough to support much of anything), and starts poking around until the truth begins to be revealed.

I have a real soft spot for this kind of movie, in the same way that punk rock has an eternal appeal: it's motivating to see just how little stands between a person and making a movie (or some songs).  Whether it's good or not is beside the point (and this film isn't without merit), this kind of film-making is essentially creative problem-solving.  If you were to look around you, get a few friends' help, make a list of all the places that you could shoot footage at, and figure out how much money you could cobble together for a camera and film, could you then come up with a story that would use all of those elements, would look okay, and could keep people's attention for an hour and a half?  Sure, you or I probably will never have the opportunity to make a big-budget, special effects-driven spectacle like a "Transformers" movie, but that doesn't mean that you can't make a movie.  Sometimes, it's no more difficult than assessing your resources, and spending a couple of long weekends shooting some footage with your friends.

Having said that, "Border Radio" apparently took four years to finish (I'm unclear on whether the filming took that long, or if that included editing time or what).  The resulting film is decent.  It's very low-key, the cast is comprised largely of non-actors, the story takes a while to unfold.  The directors make good use of the scenery - both the rural desert scenes and the ones that are in Mexico look really good in black and white.  Part of what I like about "Border Radio" is that it also functions as a snap-shot of the mid-80s LA underground rock scene, and it feels very real and accurate.  Movies don't always get this sort of stuff right (and it helps that the filmmakers were immersed in the scene at the time), and there's not always much incentive to get it right.  But this is a gritty story about a band that gets shafted by a club, and tries to take revenge.  It wouldn't make any sense if you were watching a glossy band, or if this movie was populated with rock stars.  And there is one great moment in the movie, where a groupie (Iris Berry) is talking about how the LA scene has changed for the worse.  The best line of the movie comes when she's looking forward to something meaningful happening again a few years in the future, and hoping that she's not too old to be a part of it.  The interviewer asks her how old she is, and she says she's twenty.

The story here was good enough to get me to the end of the film.  It's not a great film, but it holds together.  It's the sort of movie that's more interesting than a good film; if you're a fan of any of the musicians that are involved here, or maybe you've seen Allison Anders' later films, or if, like me, you're a fan of shaggy indie films, you'll enjoy "Border Radio" on some level.  If nothing else, I found a couple of bands on the soundtrack that I'm interested in tracking down some work by.  I doubt that I'll watch this one again, but that's true of the bulk of the movies that I watch.  I still enjoyed it as a movie enough, and also enjoyed seeing one way that people could make a movie without having all of the resources in the world.

2.5 / 5 - TV

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