The Cult of Isolation | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

The Cult of Isolation 

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* Echo Park
Directed by Robert Dornhelm
Written by Michael Ventura
With Susan Dey, Tom Hulce, and Michael Bowen

*** Uforia
Directed and written by John Binder
With Cindy Williams, Harry Dean Stanton, and Fred Ward

It makes sense, I suppose, that cult movies are almost always about loneliness—joining the other lonely people in a cult movie audience, while it may not be a perfect substitute for human society, is at least a step in the right direction. The archetypal cult film is about a small group of unhappy outsiders—three, for some reason, seems to be the perfect number—who find they can share each other's eccentricities. They form a little unit that's too small to count as a society, yet too large to be described as a romance; it's something in between, like a loosely knit family where the bonds of affection don't extend to a genuine, perhaps too threatening intimacy, but where the characters can be alone together, just like the spectators in a movie theater. These films, both on the screen and in the audience, provide a kind of impersonal intimacy, offering the warmth of a shared experience while protecting a sense of ultimate isolation and anonymity.

There are two main types of cult movie: those that exalt isolation, turning the characters' outsider status into something noble, heroic, and wise (this is the zany, nonconformist vein, exemplified by A Thousand Clowns), and those that romanticize isolation, portraying loneliness as a refined emotional state, the spiritual refuge of the excessively sensitive (the Byronic tradition, represented by Philippe De Broca's King of Hearts). Many cult films (and perhaps the most successful ones, like Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude) combine the two strains; they find ways to be both bright and defeatist, to justify loneliness as social protest and glamorize it as the most deliciously morbid of philosophical postures.

Echo Park, directed by Robert Dornhelm, sits squarely in the romantic tradition, which isn't surprising given the film's odd pedigree. Though filmed in Los Angeles, with an American cast and an American screenwriter (Michael Ventura, longtime film critic of the LA Weekly), Echo Park is actually an Old World product: Dornhelm is Viennese, and the film was produced with financial help from the Austrian state film commission. A strange, largely undramatized sense of doom hangs over the project—we know from the start that the characters will never realize their tiny dreams—and the film's unfocused moodiness occasionally triggers random memories of the noir vision of Austrian expatriates like Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang. Not that Dornhelm goes as far as either of those two filmmakers in suggesting the ultimate futility of human endeavor; his fatalism is of the wistful, sentimental kind, played out more in terms of pathos than tragedy.

Echo Park is an amiably shabby Los Angeles neighborhood that has traditionally played host to young hopefuls looking for their break in show business; Dornhelm's film focuses on three typical residents, who come to share decidedly separate rooms in a ramshackle Queen Anne house, white paint flaking from its clapboards under the desert sun. One is a ruffled young pizza delivery man (Tom Hulce, of Amadeus) with a sweet disposition and a crooked smile—he is "really" a songwriter who spends his time polishing a single lyric, dreading the day when he'll have to show it to a professional and risk rejection. Another, apparently there to fulfill the state subsidy's demands for "Austrian content," is a beefy, naive bodybuilder (Michael Bowen), who has deserted his Austrian Heimat for LA in hopes of following in the footsteps of Austria's favorite son, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The third, and the hypotenuse of what quickly becomes a romantic triangle, is a pretty but emotionally scarred single mother (Susan Dey, of TV's The Partridge Family an aeon or two ago); she dreams of becoming a movie star, but when the only performing work she can find is with a dial-a-stripper service, she seems happy enough. the plot is put in motion when Dey impulsively decides to sleep with Bowen, ignoring the puppy-dog profusions of deep and lasting love and respect radiated by the gentle Hulce. Dey, it seems, still suffers from that chic disease of the middle 70s, Fear of Commitment.

But Echo Park is only incidentally a narrative film: as Dornhelm directs it, it has no discernible forward movement, but remains (deliberately, I think) essentially a series of repetitions of a single master scene—one character tearfully confesses his/her sense of hurt and disappointment, while another offers consolation and the occasional moral homily. The characters take turns playing the parts in this eternal dialogue, until eventually all the possible permutations have been worked out and the cycle is complete. In order to motivate the repetitions, Ventura's script churns out an endless parade of conflicts—will Dey's son accept Hulce as a father figure? Will Dey's sleazy boss try to get in her pants? Will Bowen find backing for the bizarre exercise system he's invented?—few of which are allowed to develop beyond their initial statement, and none of which are resolved. Though there's a lot happening, the lack of follow-through leaves the film feeling oddly frozen, suspended for 90 minutes at the same, emotional point. But perhaps this sense of suspension is just what Dornhelm and Ventura have in mind. They've crated a film that continually offers solace while never going so far as to suggest the possibility of change and escape. Echo Park is a movie made to wallow in—which is about as good a definition of the cult film as you'll find.

John Binder's Uforia, filmed in 1981 but only now leaving Universal's shelves, begins like a prototypical cult comedy of nonconformism, introducing us to its cast of lovable eccentrics: Sheldon (Fred Ward) is a drifter whose only major possession is the beat-up convertible he uses to cruise the American southwest; he's modeled his life (and his looks) on the outlaw image of Waylon Jennings, and harbors vague, barely conscious hopes of becoming a country and western performer. Passing through one of those desert towns that seems to consist only of fast-food franchises and vacant lots, he encounters Arlene (Cindy Williams), a timid checkout girl whose born-again Christianity includes a passionate belief in the divine provenance of UFO's. Sheldon seduces the unhappy girl, bringing her back to life with a shot of tequila and some good lovin', and moves into her trailer-park home. He's able to stick around town because of Brother Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), an old acquaintance Sheldon finds running a revivalist scam in a tent on the city's outskirts. Doing odd, shady jobs for Bud (getting "healed" in the tent show, running hot cars in from Las Vegas), Sheldon makes enough money to preserve his independence. Though he's falling in love with Arlene, he's got to keep the escape hatch open.

Uforia begins slowly and with an enjoyable casualness, gathers random observations about its characters before the action proper kicks in. By the time the story does start, Binder has moved, subtly and stealthily, beyond the rather broad caricatures he began with. The cultish eccentricities they display at the start turn out to be only superficial identities, adopted in defense of deeper uncertainties and fears; as the characters' more average attributes appear—vulnerability, aimlessness, shyness—they become much more vivid and appealing.

Arlene awakes from a trouble sleep (Sheldon is away in Vegas) convinced that she's been sent a vision: a gigantic flying saucer will land in the mountains just outside town, there to gather up the faithful and take them to their celestial reward. When she tells Sheldon of her convictions, he's convinced she's finally lost it, but her unwavering conviction eventually brings him around—if not to the point of sharing her beliefs, at least to the point where he's willing to defend her against the reporters who want to make her an object of ridicule. Brother Bud, meanwhile, recognizes a meal ticket in her messianic zeal: he takes an option on the plot of ground where the ship is supposed to land, moves his tent, and opens an outer-space version of his standard revue (the gospel singers wear little silver antennae).

Binder suggests that the spaceship dream is Arlene's unconscious way of settling her relationship with Sheldon: it's either going to drive them apart or bring them together, and luckily (partly because Arlene's passionate belief awakens Sheldon's respect for her, partly because he likes sharing the notoriety her beliefs have brought her), it's the latter. But the saucer isn't simply a bland symbol of cosmic benevolence: it also brings out the greed and cruelty that lie beneath Brother Bud's roguish, easygoing manner. Its' a nice reversal of the cult movie's usual redemptive zeal, which usually finds all the negative characters swept up in the wave of good feeling generated by the heroes. Bud is a positive character who sours, and this unexpected development, however simple it may appear on paper, adds a crucial bit of texture and complexity.

Binder isn't an experienced director (as a screenwriter, he contributed to the scripts of Honeysuckle Rose and North Dallas Forty, and in a previous incarnation he was the coproducer of Woodstock). He has trouble making smooth transitions between the different levels of his story, and his camera placement is never very expressive. But he has a light, sure touch with actors, nudging them away from the condescension that comes almost automatically with this kind of "little people" part (though Williams, with her ingrained sitcom mannerisms, remains a bit too far outside her character). He's got a little of Jonathan Demme's democratic spirit, too, in the way he brings forward the supporting characters and suggests that they have had some interesting stories of their own to tell (Robert Gray as one of Bud's assistants, a true believer who persists in spite of his boss's admitted humbuggery; Harry Carey Jr. and Peggy McKay as an upright retired couple whose claims of seeing a saucer set off Arlene's fantasy). Uforia is a good movie, but I wonder if it isn't a little too good to capture the cult audience. Binder allows his characters to deepen and change in ways the cultists probably won't like: at the end, they've come out of their loneliness, and found something more risky and more satisfying.

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