RIC MEYERS: Backward Crime
Way back in the late 1980s, a few film producers thought it was interesting that “comedians,” like the late Andy Kaufman, amused themselves rather than entertained their audiences. After all, if people would pay actual money to be goaded and/or irritated, that might create a much simpler genre of filmmaking. This sentiment set the stage for 1991’s The Dark Backward, a cult curiosity (rather than a cult classic) that a small percentage of viewers who prize the bizarre clutch to their breasts.
This week, in “celebration” of its fifteenth anniversary screening last year, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a Special Edition DVD, perhaps hoping that the Shakespearean quote that serves as its title, or its muttered reputation of being in the same general category as Tim Burton, David Lynch, or Terry Gilliam movies, will entice a new generation to give it a try.
To his credit, writer/director Adam Rifkin would probably be extremely flattered that this dismal little film is mentioned within the same stratosphere as even the worst of the aforementioned directors’ efforts. On the DVD’s special features, he repeatedly contends that the film was only financed because then-hot Judd Nelson was attached and the budget was so small. He figures that the production company probably didn’t even read the script.
Upon consideration, he’s probably right, because if they had, they would have joined the dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of others who eschewed it. The truly amazing thing about its creation is that Rifkin had the innocence of the naïve, and managed to get backing for a film he was allowed to both write and direct, yet this is what he chose to do with that freedom.
It’s not surprising that Nelson would latch onto the leading role of miserable, geeky, garbage man Marty Malt as a way of breaking his identification as a “brat packer,” but it’s wondrous that his participation lured the likes of Bill Paxton (energetically/hysterically playing what the director termed a “human cockroach”), Lara Flynn Boyle, Wayne Newton, Rob Lowe, and James Caan to also pitch in intemperate performances.
The plot is simplicity itself: a socially-inept idiot’s dreams of becoming a stand-up comic are given hope when a third arm grows out of his back — allowing his strident, insane, compost-chewing, corpse-molesting, fellow trashman to put together a joke/accordion nightclub act. Sadly, the film cannot even claim to be “original.” How to Get Ahead in Advertising took on the same sort of alienation (this time with a separate cranium growing out of the protagonist’s shoulder) to much better effect a full two years earlier.
Staggeringly, the extras on this “challenging” DVD are quirky, to say the most, and amateurish, to say the least. The cast and crew make excuses or rationalizations on the audio commentary, a 15th anniversary Q&A reveals that Judd Nelson doesn’t seem to understand what a microphone does, and the deleted scenes add garish insult to self-indulgent injury. The outtakes are interesting, however, because, like the film, they are diametrically opposed to most other movies. The latter usually contain much mirth as the actors laugh over screwed-up lines and unscripted behavior. The Dark Backward “bloopers” are largely indistinguishable from the rest of the film, with hardly a chuckle.
The rest of the extras are fascinating testaments to the filmmaker’s self-conscious, self-reverential approach. The “making of” piece is titled “Blump’s Squeezable Documentary,” and a rap music video is called “Catch My Dreams Clip Compilation.” Some amusement at the team’s chutzpah comes with a series of shorts they made to promote the film at Cannes. But finally, the only historically notable contribution of the film arrives in an extra not mentioned in the packaging: a hyper-violent animation made for the flick obviously created as a “Tom & Jerry cartoon directed by Sam Peckinpah,” which looks as if it could have helped inspire The Simpsons’ Itchy & Scratchy…but probably didn’t.
All of it is introduced by the writer/director in aggressively slipshod videoed bits that waft clouds of faux bravura and flop sweat. In short (although it may be a bit too late for that now), The Dark Backward is a proud example of cinema for people who like slowing down for a car wreck on the highway. It’s even filmed in the same flashing blue and red colors.
After burrowing through that, it’s good to get back to car wrecks of a different kind – both before and behind the camera. At about the same time (the early 90s), across the world (in Hong Kong), the golden age of new wave Asian action cinema was leaping to a close, thanks to mob infiltration and Japanese economic collapse. The clash of art and commerce was mirrored by the production of Crime Story, which Dragon Dynasty has released as a Special Collector’s Edition, with its now expected eye-opening extras.
Everyone involved should have known that the combination of realistic action director Kirk Wong and superstar Jackie Chan would lead to “issues,” and indeed it did. The final product is a consistently entertaining combination of a cinema verite, true-crime thriller, and a stunt-packed, self-absorbed Jackie kung-fu adventure, but it’s hard not to wonder how much better it would have turned out had the originally attached stars Jet Li or Tony Leung had not been replaced with Chan.
The interviews with the director, as well as scriptwriter Teddy Chan (no relation), are fascinating, in that both admit to the long-suspected rumors of how Jackie’s participation, and second-guessing, changed the entire direction of the film. It’s interesting to watch a clearly uncomfortable Wong’s shifting eyes and body language as he slowly reveals that the film he labored on for years was taken away by Chan – an artistic injury that the noted filmmaker has still not gotten over or put to rest.
It didn’t help that the production studio, Golden Harvest, published the original concepts with their publicity materials – unveiling a plot that sounded nothing like the story in the finished film. In fact, the movie retains one of the most telling moments in Jackie screen history – when the star, playing a tormented cop, literally dodges the attentions of his female co-star, who he later edited out of the film almost completely. These affectionate deleted scenes are returned to the DVD as part of the extras.
The complete package is another worthy reexamination of a HK semi-classic, which only suffers from Dragon Dynasty’s now customary repetition of the same, redundant, film sequences to break up their interview footage. It’s another shining example of how the DVD format can illuminate a film experience, in that the “crime” of Crime Story is not just the film’s subject matter, but the tragic, lasting, tale of ego that occured behind the scenes as well.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.