Criterion Sunday 362: Border Radio (1987)

This is essentially a student film by a group of UCLA filmmaking students (two of whom, including Allison Anders, went on to have careers in the industry as far as I can tell), but it’s an evocative one that harks back to the legacy of the French New Wave as much as to contemporary trends. After all, it’s a tricksily structured story about guys on the run shot in grainy black-and-white and making good use of its desolate locations. The way that it sorts of backs into its narrative makes it a little hard to follow at times — certainly I was never sure who any of the guys were, dudes drawn from the local music scene in LA (including more than one actor called Chris, as well as John Doe from the band X, and I’m going to use this parenthetical aside to note that the Wikipedia entry uses the word “cowpunk” to describe the music), but who all somewhat blended into one in my mind. However, the generic story and set-up means that this isn’t too troubling, nor is the occasionally stilted acting performance. Instead, it works at the level of atmosphere and location, with a sparky sense of new filmmakers trying stuff out and it (largely) working quite well.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Allison Anders, Dean Lent and Kurt Voss; Cinematographer Lent; Starring Chris D., Luanna Anders, Chris Shearer, John Doe; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 7 August 2020.

Things Behind the Sun (2001)

Allison Anders has had a somewhat patchy relationship with film success, though I’m not quite sure why. Her Grace of My Heart (1996) deserves far wider renown than it perhaps has, and she returned to a music-based theme with this film five years later, which tracks a journalist for a vinyl obsessives’ magazine, Owen (Gabriel Mann), as he writes a piece about an up-and-coming Florida indie rock band fronted by Sherry (Kim Dickens). For all that it occasionally moves into slightly hokey TV melodramatic territory, this is for the most part really very assured work, with a dark palette suited to its milieu of grimy bars and gig venues, and a confident storytelling appeal. That the backstory into which the journalist delves deals with rape can also be difficult to less confident filmmakers, but Anders makes this a story about a rounded and complex character who has trauma in her past, rather than about an outsider’s response to it. When Owen tries to inveigle himself into this narrative and make it about his own role and how he deals with it, the film doesn’t so much belittle him as just insist he allow some perspective — Sherry putting her hand up to his face and walking away as he tries to empathise. The acting is uniformly strong (particularly from Dickens and the ever-dependable Don Cheadle as her manager/boyfriend-of-sorts), and it has a confidence to it that rewards attention.

Things Behind the Sun film posterCREDITS
Director Allison Anders; Writers Anders and Kurt Voss; Cinematographer Terry Stacey; Starring Kim Dickens, Gabriel Mann, Don Cheadle; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 19 January 2016.