Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Track 29

Track 29 (1988)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Written by Dennis Potter
Starring Theresa Russell, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lloyd

Well, huh. Longtime readers will remember our longstanding love affair with director Nicolas Roeg from THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, EUREKA, PERFORMANCE, and the many, many references I have made over the years to DON’T LOOK NOW. Obviously, this is not an artists for all tastes, or even most tastes. Recall that in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH there is a scene where two unknown men in business suits show up at a nondescript apartment door, put on sparkly gold helmets, and then throw a bodybuilding gay man out of a 50th story window. Obviously, not everyone is gonna find that kind of arty nuttyness as delightful as I do, so I forgive the world for pretty much forgetting that Roeg existed post-1975, and simultaneously applaud Roeg for continuing to make movies consistently for the next three decades in obvious total defiance of the fact that there was absolutely no chance of anyone being around to appreciate them. Good hustle all around. But I’m sorry to say that 1988 may be my limit. That’s right, ladies and gents, with TRACK 29 Roeg has finally made a film which is too bizarre and obtuse even for me.

Now, as we’ve discussed before, Netflix is the father of all lies, so I knew I should be skeptical of the superficial simplicity of the plot as described by those notoriously imaginative netflix blurb writers. “In this psychological drama, a bored wife's curiosity about the son she long ago gave up for adoption coincides with the man's sudden appearance. Their meeting triggers more bizarre events as well as enmity between the woman's husband and offspring. Sound suspiciously simple, but actually it’s not entirely bullshit, only the last sentence is explicitly and demonstrably false. Not too bad by Netflix’s standards. But what that description doesn’t quite get at is just how fucking bizarre this strange dark (comedy?) is, through and through. Yes, that stuff happens, but it’s much, much weirder than you imagine.

Nothin' phallic about that.

See, it’s not just that Gary Oldman’s “Martin” character claims to be Theresa Russell’s long-lost son. He’s also possibly a ghost, or a figment of her imagination, or something. We first see him appear quite literally out of thin air, and although he sometimes interacts with other characters it’s clear he’s not quite as tangible as the description makes him seem. Fair enough, that’s part and parcel for a Roeg film, I don’t expect to be able to figure out what’s really going on. What I wasn’t prepared for is just how fucking crazy a performance everyone in the film gives. Martin doesn’t just want to reconnect with his long-lost birth mother, he wants to re-live his childhood with her, and he does that by reverting to his five-year old self, whining, pouting, shouting, and throwing foot-stamping tantrums in between slyly manipulative guilt-tripping and weird, uncomfortable sexual intimations.

Gotta give Oldman credit for going for it, this is an absolutely unhinged, fearless performance. But, uh, I’m not sure exactly what the “it” he was going for was. He’s waaaaay too creepy to be endearing or humorous, but too laughable to be exactly threatening, and too nebulous to be relatable. It seems like the strange exaggerated childlike behavior both he and Russell’s “Linda” character exhibit must have been intended as comic, but I don’t know? There definitely aren’t any real jokes in there, and there’s a disturbing undercurrent of rape and psychological trauma which pretty much guarantees we’re not gonna feel OK laughing at these characters. But if we’re not supposed to laugh, how the hell are we supposed to feel?

Who knew Sid Vicious had so many Mommy issues?

Roeg has never been much interested in character development, and I think that hurts him here a little more than any of his other films I’ve seen. I get the feeling the script (adapted by Dennis Potter from his own awesomely named play Schmeodipus) was probably (maybe?) originally kind of a psychological drama about this lady Linda dealing with the painful repercussions of being raped, and then kind of emotionally raped again by having the resulting child taken away against her will. But Russell’s performance is all over the place, its too hard to get a fix on what she’s even like normally for us to really understand what’s motivating the behavior we’re watching. At first she seems like the mature one, a stifled housewife running out of patience with her arrested-development husband (Christopher Lloyd, BACK TO THE FUTURE III) and his fixation with model trains. But then out of the blue she starts flipping out and having this childish meltdown that ends with “I’ll just die if I don’t have a baby!” and he starts to look like the sane one (she was married to Roeg at the time, not sure if that had anything to do with the movie's perspective). Also she has braces and is attempting some kind of Southern lisp, so, uh.** Hubby’s obviously an asshole, but it’s not hard to see why he’s a little tired of her if she’s pulling this shit on a regular basis. (Plus he’s right, those model trains are pretty fuckin' fly. I bet some production designer had the happiest job of their career.) Neither one of them is especially endearing or relatable, and both have glaring social and mental problems which seem completely inexplicable. It feels like we’re not supposed to be particularly sympathetic to either of these people, but the movie is too vague about their problems for us to really find much satisfaction in condemning them, either. So I just don’t know what we’re supposed to take from all this, much less what it all means. And truth be told, I don’t think Roeg really cares exactly what’s really happening here, he’s more interested in just going along for the ride as the nutcases bring out the crazy in each other.

I think we've all been here.

Unfortunately, the ride the nutcases take him on is only sporadically one which really avails itself to his talents. I think it’s hugely problematic that this one was adapted from a stage play, because the result is that the main action gets trapped in a mundane 80’s living room talking a bunch of nonsense for way too long, and Roeg doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to indulge his superpower of expressionistic montage. He’s the best there is at conveying intense emotions when he can get symbolic and crank up the visuals, but there’s not much to be done with these two people weirdly baby-talking each other on some suburban couch. He has better luck with Lloyd’s side story, which ends up involving a gathering of miniature train fanatics who perform “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” with a fervor which borders on a frenzied evangelical revival. But what the fuck that has to do with anything in the main plot I surely do not know. Obviously I guess it must mean something, since it’s the origin of the movie’s aggressively generic title (what, was this a sequel to MOVIE 43?). I’m assuming it’s a symbol or something, but I guess maybe they just couldn’t get the rights to “SCHMOEDIPUS” and stuck TRACK 29 in there as a filler and only at the last minute after the posters had already been struck realized they’d forgotten to go back and think up a real title and then just ran with it. But I don’t know, that could have been it, too. I’m not a mindreader for fuck’s sake.

Fundamentally, the problem here is that the film never seems to coalesce around a consistent tone or style, instead it swings wildly from one idea to another, sometimes negating previous choices and never quite building to anything. It’s a psychedelic headtrip that only really turns trippy a handful of times, and is also a psychological drama with characters who are incomprehensible cyphers, and also a comedy with no punchlines. Makes it a little frustrating, obviously. Still, there’s something there, amid the alternating outlandishness and tedium. Not exactly a good movie, but something. An odd unease permeates the whole thing, a subtle intimation of dread which anchors the absurdity and gives it a kind of diffuse focus. We may not be 100% sure what’s happening, but we know it’s not gonna end well. That sharpens the film’s otherwise lackadaisical meanderings and forces you to engage with it more earnestly, try to parse out some meaning and identify what the threat is and where it’s coming from. Even when the film starts meandering, it's too visceral and erratic to entirely lose your attention, and on the occasions when its firing on all cylinders -for example, the surreal but harrowing rape flashback at a carnival- its potency is undeniable. It’s not a particularly pleasant experience, but I gotta admit it’s a unique one, and moreover a unique one with fitful bursts of real power. Not Roeg’s strongest work, but it’s still a reminder that even in the later years of his career he was an enormously gifted filmmaker, with plenty of ability yet to frustrate, baffle, and mesmerize.

By the way, that handsome gentleman on the poster in the background produced the movie and scored it. Not his most memorable work, but you gotta respect that he went out of his way to help these weird movies.

I’ll close with the words Roger Ebert used to close his own review of the film in 1988, as nothing that I could possibly write could come close to this sort of perfection:

“Look at it this way: Most of the time we go to the movies hoping to be amused, and often we are disappointed. “Track 29” does not offer amusement, but it promises confusion, frustration, weirdness and the bizarre. You probably won’t like it. But it won’t disappoint you.”

*If that even happened; there is definitely dialogue that suggests that perhaps it didn’t and Linda is just a fucking nutcase who has made up an elaborate fantasy for herself. But if that’s the case, who the fuck even knows what’s going on here.

** Speaking of Russell’s ill-advised accent, part of the problem here may be that this whole thing is somewhat lost in translation; it was written as an English story by an Englishman, and its essential British-ness makes an uneasy bedfellow with the Wilmington, North Carolina setting. Particularly since I have a feeling that neither English Roeg and Potter nor Californian Russell has an overwhelmingly strong understanding of Southern Culture. The movie seems to delight in goofy Southern stereotypes, but they’re all of the blandest, most generic variety. I don’t think anyone who actually lived in the South would ever mock it in this particular way, so it feels both clumsy and tone-deaf. Lloyd doesn’t even both with an accent and Oldman says he grew up in England, so I don’t know what the point of transplanting the story to the US was.

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