Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Robert Dornhelm | Echo Park

by Douglas Messerli

Michael Ventura (screenplay), Robert Dornhelm (director) Echo Park / 1985

Echo Park  is the kind of movie critics like to describe as "endearing," a small, off-kilter film that overall does not quite hold together, but has charming moments nonetheless. The film does have a great deal going for it: wonderful props—a rambling old house ready, so it seems, to fall down the hill at any moment, a lit-up pizza truck that looks like it's decked out for Christmas—presumably all the creation of the film's art director Bernt Capra (father of my typesetter-assistant, Pablo); a wonderful cast of characters, including Susan Dey, Tom Hulce, Michael Bowen, Shirley Jo Finney, Timothy Carey and the young Christopher Walker; an often heartfelt story; and a 1980s backdrop of the then young and down-and-out Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, along with its scraggly palms and golden sunsets. The character types, however, are just that, outsized stick-figures whose loony lifestyles make them hard to believe; you know a film is a bit over-the-top when Cheech Marin plays the film's so-called "straight" man!

May (Dey), a bartender-waitress at a dreary local pub, is having a hard time of it, trying to keep life in order while staying a step ahead of her quickly maturing son, Henry (Walker); to help raise money she determines to rent out a room in her already over-cramped half of the dilapidated house. Director Dornhelm brings out nearly every extreme character actor in Hollywood as hopeful roommates before delivering up a local pizza boy, Jonathan (Hulce) whose friendly face and clean looks gets May's attention. Next door to her is August, an Austrian body-sculptor with dreams of becoming another Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, each of these figures wants to become someone other than they are—at least by trade. May wants to be an actress, and lamely expresses that hope week after week by posting newspaper announcements: "Experienced actress available for immediate roles." Jonathan quietly and moodily writes songs. And August is torn between creating a machine to harness the energy of actors' genes in order to renovate the worn out bodies of others and seeking a career as an bit actor in television ads. Henry just wants to survive the childhood through which he is struggling.

     One comprehends that these unlikely folk are thrown together so that they can miraculously help each other achieve the impossible dreams they seek. And that's Ventura's and Dornhelm's problem: their plot is so predictable that it is hard for them to move forward without the film turning into a kind of TV sit-com about all the crazies a city like Los Angeles attracts.

     Of course, despite some initial resentments and hesitations, Jonathan and Henry (whom he rechristens "Hank") eventually bond while delivering pizzas throughout the neighborhood in his brightly lit-up truck. May gets an audition and procures a job with a substantial wrinkle—the role is as a party-going stripper! But, after a while and a few lessons from her employer, Hugo (John Paragon), she gets used the job and even somewhat enjoys it. August, the most ridiculous dreamer of them all actually gets a TV ad as a kind Hun-like dragon slayer sprayed by Viking deodorant. Jonathan even gets a bit of attention from a local band, but seems so passive that he cannot even sing his song for them ("It's not finished yet.").

    We can also expect, obviously, a few more serious setbacks. August is turned away from an Austrian consulate party where he had hoped to meet his hero, Schwarzenegger. When he is turned down in his attempt to make films advertising his new invention by Syd (Marin) the owner of the local gym where he works, he violently explodes and is arrested. And—we could see this one coming a mile off—Jonathan and Hank deliver pizzas to a party where May is already half-naked. The shock of seeing his mother actually doing what she pretends is a performance, sends the boy into the streets with Jonathan and May at the chase, the mother despairing of the damage she has done to her son.

      Yet August is sprung from jail, Hank returns to his surrogate father and real mother, and May actually gets asked to audition for a real TV ad. The whole group springs into a kind a ritualistic dance as they imagine their dreams slowly taking shape.

      Into this madhouse comes August's father, direct from Austria, having been telephoned by the police upon his son's arrest. Encountering his son in the midst of this insane gathering he raises his hand to slap August's face. Suddenly writer and director take the group's dance into the mountains of Austria with the adult characters loping through the pastures as if they were attempting to channel Maria Van Trapp in The Sound of Music. What are they trying to tell us, one must ask? Earlier in the film, May, in conversation with August, admits that when she has sex she is just "fucking," while when he has sex, he is, as he puts it, "making love." The suggestion is that in his true madness, August is the biggest dreamer of them all. Have these characters, accordingly, been transported into the lunatic state of mind that August inhabits? Or is it simply evidence that a bit of patriarchal control has been played out before them, allowing them to restore their lives?

     Echo Park is an endearing, small, off-kilter film that does not quite hold together.

     But here again, as I argue for this LA sub-genre, an outsider has found his way among a society of misfits. Or perhaps the misfits have found their way into the outsider's societal bliss.

Los Angeles, September 25, 2012

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