TCM Underground: Dudes (1987) and Border Radio (1987)

Dudes (1987)

As thoroughly as I’ve enjoyed writing these reviews for the weekly offerings of TCM Underground, the whole time I’ve been waiting for a double feature as batshit, off-the-wall crazy as this week’s.  This week’s double feature encapsulates everything I adore about TCM Underground:  It introduces me to a pair of works I’ve never heard of, made by people who I’m familiar with.  And it was nice to have a focus on women directors, too.

Dudes was directed by Penelope Spheeris, from a script by Randall Jahnson (who also wrote The Doors as well as Mask of Zorro, an underrated piece of comfort food action).  Spheeris had at this point already directed the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and would later direct one of the finest comedies of all time, Wayne’s World.  In between successes, she did a few things here and there, like Suburbia for Roger Corman, but one of the most bizarre things she ever did was this.  Dudes is, and I can’t stress this enough, a bizarre, bizarre film, tonally all over the place and completely messy in execution, but goddamn is it ever a fun ride.

I hear words like “strange” or “weird” used to describe eccentric or independent movies to the point of cliche.  Like, sure, it’s not particularly mainstream, but is it really weird?  Dudes, though, is a delightfully odd film that’s not quite a comedy, not quite a western, not quite a revenge film and not quite a ghost story.  It is all of that, wrapped up and packaged as a buddy movie and a road movie and… I don’t know how, but it works.

Three friends, punks from New York City, on their way to Los Angeles for the biggest move of their lives, are attacked by a gang of rednecks and when one of them is killed, they must turn to violence to avenge their friend’s death.

Jon Cryer, Daniel Roebuck and Flea play the three friends Grant, Biscuit and Milo.  The terrifying, murderous redneck known as Missoula is played with proper menace by Lee Ving of the band Fear.  The cast is essential to the film working and everyone does a great job, even if the script itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from time to time.  The actors ground the ridiculousness well.  Daniel Roebuck in particular is somehow possessed by the spirit of long-dead Native Americans, massacred by the United States Army in a surprisingly deep, emotional scene.  This is never really explained more than that.  He ends up wearing a Native American-inspired get-up, sort of embodying the brave warrior spirit, and let’s just face it, it’s pretty fucking racist.  Not insultingly so, but definitely kind of cringey.  But Daniel Roebuck does a lot with this to make the impact significantly less offensive.  If any number of people had been cast instead, it could have been a disaster.  Meanwhile, Jon Cryer sort of goes the cowboy route, occasionally seeing the ghost of a galloping cowboy alongside the road, even chasing him down at one point to find out who he is, only to see him vanish.

The two friends find that the journey of revenge actually gives their lives purpose.  For the first time, they feel like they have something worthy to do.  That thing happens to be the bloody act of murder, but we’re watching a movie about punk rock revenge with a Cowboys and Indians, western motif–having the moral of the film not be in poor taste would seem like a betrayal.  Grant and Biscuit do learn a lot about themselves in the process, and the satiation of their bloodlust is only secondary to their self-discovery.

Dudes is a deeply flawed picture, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

Border Radio (1987)

Border Radio, on the other hand, I feel like you really, really need to be a punk fan to enjoy this movie.  It stars Chris D. of the punk band the Flesh Eaters and John Doe of X.

It was written and directed, in part, by Allison Anders, who also wrote and directed the film Mi Vida Loca, which is an incredible, can’t-be-missed movie about life in LA as a young Latina.

Border Radio was written and directed by three different people, which is just fucking mind-boggling to me, considering how painfully, painfully dull it was.  Border Radio was released by the Criterion collection on DVD, so a part of me wants to say, hey, I just didn’t get this movie and it clearly has some sort of deeper cultural significance that goes beyond me, but another part of me wanted to fall asleep about twenty minutes into the flick when it became clear that there wasn’t a whole lot going on in it.

The plot follows Jeff (Chris D.) who, in the film’s opening, evades three guys looking for him.  He vanishes into Mexico.  The opening scenes combine pseudo-documentary film with a low-budget creativity in a really enthralling way and I was excited to be watching another punk film set in the outlaw badlands of a crumbling American Southwest, but it quickly becomes one of those movies where the filmmakers are clearly more in love with a well-lit shot of a car driving than anyone else is because it goes on for literal minutes–and the movie is filled with moments like that, where every shot, it feels like, was a keeper and that helped float the movie’s run time.  It takes about the halfway-point in the movie to discover that Jeff and his friends robbed a club and that’s why Jeff is hiding in Mexico.  That the Criterion release apparently has 9 deleted scenes is astounding to me; you’d swear by looking at it they used every frame of film available without any editing or trimming of fat anywhere.

I think given the sensibilities of each film, it may have been beneficial for both to have switched directors.  Border Radio depends largely on dialogue to tell its story and unfortunately the actors just aren’t capable of keeping the banter interesting.  John Doe probably does the best, and that’s why he’s had a further career as an actor, even popping up in things like Boogie Nights, but in order to pull a movie like this off, you need a director like Penelope Spheeris.  Spheeris could have done Border Radio very well, I feel like.  She could have blurred the lines between reality and fiction more effectively, she could have really made something making good use of its black and white 16mm DIY cinematography.

Dudes, however, I think may have been a better movie–even though I really did enjoy it already, as-is–with a cast of genuine punk rockers (I mean, there was Flea, but you know what I mean) and with a real grittiness to it.  With a movie like that, it’s okay that the writing isn’t great and the acting sucks, because you have enough action to propel it forward.  When things start to get boring, just start letting the bullets fly.

One of the other directors credited on Border Radio is Kurt Voss, who I remember from way back when, when my mom used to manage a video store when I was a kid.  Low-budget, direct-to-video studios would send video stores like the one my mom managed screener tapes in the hopes that these video stores would buy a shitload of tapes in anticipation of getting high rentals.  I’ve seen a handful of his movies, most notably Baja, and they’re not bad.  It’s clear that both he and Allison Anders learned something from making Border Radio and moved on to both make better things.

Next Week: Join me next week for a Paul Bartel double feature, with both Private Parts (not the Howard Stern picture, the 1972 one) and Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills (1989)