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THE DARK BACKWARD

I really don’t like this film.  I know many of you hold it in high regard, but to me it’s the essence of pseudo-cult moviemaking: annoying, overwrought and obnoxiously self-satisfied. 

The Package
     Independent cinema in the early nineties was a feast for fans of David Lynchian weirdness, as a plethora of North American films appeared during that period that bore the unmistakable influence of ERASERHEAD and/or BLUE VELVET: SONNY BOY, MOTORAMA, BARTON FINK, THE GROCER’S WIFE, THE CABINET OF DR. RAMIREZ, JO JO AT THE GATE OF LIONS, THE REFLECTING SKIN, DR. CALIGARI, INSIDE MONKEY ZETTERLAND, HIGHWAY 61, BACKTRACK, THE MICHELLE APTS., PEEPHOLE, SUTURE, STORYVILLE and BOXING HELENA, as well as THE DARK BACKWARD, from 25-year-old writer-director Adam Rifkin.  Unfortunately, few of the Lynch wannabes mentioned above were very good, with THE DARK BACKWARD being a particularly representative example of the pratfalls common to such fare: it desperately strains for ERASERHEAD-ish surrealism, but lacks the imagination and filmmaking chops necessary to pull it off.
     THE DARK BACKWARD has nonetheless amassed a minor following in the years since its initial 1991 release, and become fairly influential (the creators of the ready-made “cult” movies THE WIDOWER and BARTLEBY have clearly seen it).  It followed Rifkin’s A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (1989), an even more ludicrous swirl of forced weirdness (set in and around a Malibu beach house whose inhabitants do things like discuss their preference for hard-boiled eggs while cradling mannequins’ torsos).  To be fair, Rifkin has made some good movies, most notably 2002’s NIGHT AT THE GOLDEN EAGLE, which thankfully forsakes the silliness of the present film. 

The Story 
     Marty Malt is a trash man in a dingy, garbage-choked world; he wants to be a stand-up comedian, but his act sucks.  One day he develops a large boil on his back.  He goes to see a doctor, who puts a band aid on it.  The boil continues to grow, though, and develops into a tiny hand.  The doctor again sticks a band aid on it, but the hand gets bigger, and before long Marty has an entire arm growing out of his back.  This helps his comedy act considerably, as his new “talent” catches the eye of a sleazeball manager, who takes Marty on the road along with his accordion playing buddy Gus.  Unfortunately Marty’s waitress girlfriend dumps him when she sees his third arm, and his stand-up routine doesn’t get any funnier.
     Then one morning Marty wakes up to find his third arm has mysteriously vanished.  Naturally this throws his lucrative existence into turmoil, with Gus and the sleazeball manager deserting him.  But Marty turns his story into a stand-up routine, and, low and behold, he’s actually funny.

The Direction
     First and foremost among writer/director Adam Rifkin’s problems is his script, which he evidently never bothered to develop much beyond its admittedly arresting premise of a stand-up comedian growing a third arm out his back.  That would seem to suggest all sorts of perverse possibilities, but none are addressed by the screenplay, which, underneath its surface gloss, is a cliché fest about the pratfalls of instant success, told through a succession of agonizingly dragged-out scenes that do little to advance a facile narrative.
     As for the filmmaking itself, you can be sure it’s very derivative of David Lynch, not to mention John Waters, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam in the way it strains for weirdness at all costs...and therein lies the problem: a good filmmaker, like any artist, makes his work look effortless, whereas this film feels labored, self conscious and vastly over-conceived from start to merciful finish.  Check out the art direction, which, ERASERHEAD-like, presents dark, nasty interiors pocked by select “quirky” details (i.e. a Felix the Cat clock in the midst of a garbage-strewn living room).  Far from the darkly comic netherworlds created by Lynch et al, this film’s universe is aggressively fake and cartoony...and, with its distracting succession of famous guest stars (Wayne Newton, James Caan, Rob Lowe), not a little Hollywoodish.  It’s the only film I know of, after all, that in the end gives a special credit to the person who did the director’s wardrobe!  


Vital Statistics 

THE DARK BACKWARD
Backward Films, Inc.

Director: Adam Rifkin
Producers: Brad Wyman, Cassian Elwes
Screenplay: Adam Rifkin
Cinematography: Joey Forsyte
Editing: Peter Schink
Cast: Judd Nelson, Bill Paxton, Wayne Newton, Lara Flynn Boyle, James Caan, Rob Lowe, King Moody, Claudia Christian, Danny Dayton, Carrie Lynn, Anna Berger, Tom Hodges
 


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