Dabney Coleman vs. Video Games

When praising our current Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s adventure pic Cloak & Dagger, there’s plenty of flashy details that distract from the novelty of the casting. The film’s cultural relic function as a desperate attempt to rescue Atari from the video game crash of 1983, its incongruous clash of boys’ adventurism spirit & cruel depictions of 80s action-violence, and its whimsical flights of escapist fantasy all overwhelm minor concerns with the details of its casting. The cast is such an afterthought, in fact, that no one thought twice about featuring Henry Thomas in the lead role, despite his face being on every cartridge of the E.T. video game that helped nearly bankrupt the company the year before. Thomas’s association with “the worst video game of all time” isn’t even the strangest novelty in the film’s casting. That honor belongs to That Guy! character actor Dabney Coleman, who’s cast in dual roles (!!) as the boy’s father & imaginary friend. As Henry Thomas’s dad, Coleman is a straight-laced family man widower doing his best to keep his home in order. As his imaginary friend Jack Flack, he’s a James Bond-type world adventurer, prepared at a moment’s notice to take out an entire warring country using only his American fists. Both roles are used in the film to teach Thomas a lesson about the dangers of escapist fantasy – the dad in stern talks about what true heroism looks like in the real world and Jack Flack in placing the boy in danger through his reality-detached fearlessness. As if this dual-role lesson about the fantasy-life dangers of video games & RPGs weren’t enough of a novelty alone, Coleman’s casting feels like a bizarre choice because of its echoing of a role he played exactly one year earlier, in what’s likely the most beloved alarmist anti-video game screed of all time.

Dabney Coleman’s role in the 1983 Cold War thriller WarGames feels like a perfect synthesis of his two roles in Cloak & Dagger. With his hair dyed unnaturally black like Jack Flack’s, Coleman plays a no-nonsense military man who both has no time for the fantasies of teenage gaming culture and lives the unreal international espionage lifestyle that’s exaggerated for comic effect in Flack. Coleman’s performance in WarGames is such a perfect midpoint between his two characters in Cloak & Dagger that the film feels more like an audition reel than it does like inspirational source material. He’s even called on to give Matthew Broderick’s teen protagonist a stern fatherly talking to about the dangers of video game fantasy, despite not being the boy’s father. In Cloak & Dagger, he’s right to warn his son about losing touch with reality in his roleplay gaming fantasies, but misses the larger point of how RPG’s & video games could be useful as a bonding tool with the lonely, grieving boy. In WarGames he’s right to update military procedure with computer programming automation, but misses the larger point of how video gameplay & gamesmanship logic are useful in war strategy – particularly in stalemate conflicts like The Cold War. As often happens with character actors, all three roles between these two films feel like different variations on the same archetype, and it’s funny that both of these Beware the Video Game movies thought to cast Coleman as their browbeating fuddy-duddies. As Cloak & Dagger is the more eccentric, over-the-top work, it plays almost like a parody of his grounded (even if archetypal) performance in WarGames. Both films’ paralleled arrival (along with their accompanying Atari game tie-ins) at the exact time the video game industry crashed only make comparing the two films all the more appealing; Colema’s casting in both projects is the perfect excuse to oblige.

Objectively speaking, WarGames is likely a superior film to Cloak & Dagger, but I’m not sure that quality craftsmanship is what I’m looking for in an 80s relic about how video game fantasy can put real lives at risk. A pre-fame Matthew Broderick & Ally Sheedy star as teen brats who hope to hack into a video game company’s unreleased titles, but instead mistakingly access a military supercomputer that nearly instigates WWIII. It’s the same video game fantasy leading to life-threatening danger premise of Cloak & Dagger, except in this case the danger is global instead of purely personal. As the teens play with real-life nuclear weapons as if they were toys, the tension between harmless bedroom fun & dead-serious war room retaliation says a lot about the automation, abstraction, and depersonalization of war (which has only gotten more intense in the last 35 years). At the same time, that abstraction & depersonalization makes its actual stakes feel almost too distanced to fully hit home, as opposed to the more hands-on dangers of video game fantasy in Cloak & Dagger. The conflict of a hacked, haywire computer nearly triggering nuclear war is truer to life than a boy’s imaginary friend landing him in a deadly game of international espionage, but there’s still something more affecting about watching a grown man pull a knife on an E.T.-era Henry Thomas or threaten to shoot out the child’s kneecaps “just to watch him bleed.” WarGames’s video game alarmism is also cleverer than Cloak & Dagger’s in the way it makes the video game itself a deranged character threatening death & destruction; in Cloak & Dagger the cartridge everyone is after is more or less a MacGuffin. Clever or not, I still find myself more drawn to the over-the-top, cartoonish antics of Cloak & Dagger (especially when they clash with brutal child-threatening violence), and the difference between the two films’ aesthetics is perfectly summarized by Coleman’s cartoonish performance of Jack Flack therein.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see the similarities between WarGames and Cloak & Dagger: two alarmist thrillers about the dangers of video games that arrived just when their subject’s industry was crashing, but were developed as Atari games anyway. Dabney Coleman’s casting as three characters across these two movies only helps further illustrate both the already apparent parallels between them and the difference in their respective tones. WarGames, as the more tonally sober war thriller, won out in the long run in both respect & notoriety, but the much sillier Cloak & Dagger deserves even more respect for its willingness to go for the jugular in ways you might not expect – especially considering how silly Coleman is in the Jack Flack persona.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the hyperviolent children’s action-adventure Cloak & Dagger (1984), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our comparison to another alarmist 80s roleplay gaming thriller Mazes & Monsters, and last week’s look at the death of Atari.

-Brandon Ledet

The Sick, Sad Art of the Rear Window Romcom

One of the more immediately bizarre aspects of April’s Movie of the Month, the deliriously silly Mark Waters romcom Head Over Heels, is that it’s a low-key reimagining of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Although Rear Window does have its own sly, delicate sense of humor operating under its murder mystery thriller beats, it’s hardly the light-hearted romantic romp Waters later fused with Zoolander-style fashion world parody in Head Over Heels. A blood pressure-raising thriller plot about a shameless voyeur spying on his neighbors​ through his apartment window and possibly witnessing a murder isn’t the first place you’d expect to find inspiration for a by the books romantic comedy, but Waters amplified & broadened the once subtle humor of the Hitchcock classic to do just that. The strangest thing about that choice is that he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to get there. Rear Window had been hammered into the shape of a generic romcom before, one that was even more faithful to its almighty genre tropes.

When describing Head Over Heels in our initial conversation about the film, Boomer explained, “It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life.” I’m not sure he knew exactly how accurate he was when he wrote that. The 1997 Meg Ryan romcom Addicted to Love shares far more with Head Over Heels’s basic DNA than I could have imagined any film could, considering how uniquely ridiculous the Mark Waters picture feels as a novelty. Not only does Addicted to Love feature Ryan, the Queen of the 90s Romcom, getting wrapped up in a Rear Window-inspired plot, but the film itself is named after a Robert Palmer song, while Head Over Heels was titled after a track by The Go Go’s. As Boomer also pointed out in that initial Head Over Heels conversation, the art of “romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music” has somewhat died off since Meg Ryan’s heyday, so it’s amusing to me that both of these Rear Window romcoms would be titled that way.

It’s worth noting that, unlike with Head Over Heels, the Addicted to Love version of the Rear Window romcom involves no investigation of a possible murder. Matthew Broderick stars as a small town yokel/brilliant astronomer whose heart is broken when the love of his life (Kelly Preston) moves to NYC and falls for another man. Broderick, in his devastated state, sets up shop in the abandoned warehouse across the street from this couple and becomes a full time voyeur, spying on their relationship through the window, waiting for an opportunity to win back his love. One night, he witnesses a break-in and the masked criminal in the apartment catches him spying. After scarily barging into his hidey-hole, they’re quickly revealed to be a no nonsense, biker chick Meg Ryan, who is seeking to exact revenge on the ex-fiancee that just happens to be Broderick’s old love’s new beau. Through various tools of the astronomy trade, the miserable pair of vengeful saps start to spy on their ex-lovers as a team, occasionally venturing past simple voyeurism into revenge-in-action. And, wouldn’t you know it, the more time they spend together the less they care about what their exes are up to. It’s a match made in miserable wretch Heaven.

The theme of voyeurism and the inability to act that runs through Rear Window makes it just about as odd of a choice for romcom inspiration as its central threat of violence. Head Over Heels dives into the spiritual darkness of this premise head first, not only keeping the witnessed murder aspect of Rear Window as a central part of its romcom plot, but also dragging its poor protagonist and her supermodel roomates through a long line of degrading encounters with adulterous lovers, horny dogs, child molesters, and human feces. I dare say that in its own moments of pitch black despair Addicted to Love manages to get even darker than that Mark Waters work, however. Matthew Broderick’s brokenhearted voyeur stops shaving and takes to chugging hard liquor. While spying on his ex, he meticulously tracks her daily routines on astronomy style charts, even documenting her smiles based on frequency and enthusiasm. Meg Ryan also gets dragged down to this desperately sad level once she finds herself squatting with Broderick in his spy nest/shit hole, at one point crawling across its unswept floorboards, pawing at cockroaches to use in a prank at her ex’s expense. She also uses Broderick’s pain against him, exclaiming, “The only way that girl is going to come back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” and going on to describe the enormity of her ex’s dick to be “like Godzilla’s tail; he can take Tokyo down with that thing,” (which is especially funny now, given Broderick’s eventual run-in with Godzilla, tail and all). And if all that weren’t enough pain & degradation already, the big dick Cassandra from across the street eventually goes on an alpha male tirade where he threatens Broderick with the line, “I will rip out your eyes and rape your skull. Excuse my French.” This is a romcom, though, don’t forget. Ryan and Broderick do eventually become romantically linked, even if their first night together involves them getting black out drunk and dressing up like each other’s exes. Yikes.

Objectively speaking, Head Over Heels is a far better film than Addicted to Love, which is fine, but not nearly as memorable or as genuinely funny. Considered strictly on its merits as a romcom adaptation of Rear Window, however, Addicted to Love is the bigger success. Head Over Heels maintains the witnessed murder aspect of the Hitchcock classic, but branches off from there to cover everything from fashion world fantasy to ZAZ-style parody humor to Farrelly Brothers gross-outs to action comedy beats surrounding a diamond heist. Addicted to Love is much more faithful to the perverse, depressive aspects of voyeurism that humored Hitchcock in Rear Window and had a sort of novelty to the way it sticks more closely to that seminal work. It even finds a striking visual palette in its voyeurism-aiding astronomy equipment. Broderick builds a camera obscura to more easily spy on his & Ryan’s exes in his squat, and the two often watch that machine’s projection as if it were a 24 hour soap opera. All of the telescopes, flow charts, and depressive bouts of alcoholism in the world couldn’t save the picture from being just one of many titles in a long line of Meg Ryan romcoms, though. It’s a fairly generic example of a Meg Ryan Picture, except for its novelty as a Rear Window-inspired romcom, but the basic absurdity of that combination can’t be overlooked and the fact that there are at least two movies that fit that description is highly amusing to me.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander, and this piece exploring the similarities in the premise and humor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

-Brandon Ledet

Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and the Erosion of the Female POV in Alexander Payne’s Filmography

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July’s Movie of the Month, the 1996 abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, was the debut feature from blistering satirist Alexander Payne. Since this initial work of relentlessly bleak humor, Payne has consistently delivered soul-crippling dramedies that typically fall somewhere between Todd Solondz & Noah Baumbach in their meticulous indulgence in human despair. What’s been less consistent, however, is the way Payne has dealt with the prominence of his female characters. Citizen Ruth dealt with a homeless addict who unwittingly finds herself the center of a national debate on abortion rights. Although Ruth, played with heartbreaking sincerity & total lack of vanity by a top-of-her-game Laura Dern, navigates a world where her legal & bodily struggles are dominated by a vast network of uncaring men, she is still the center of her own story. Citizen Ruth is the only top-billed Laura Dern performance where her protagonist actually commands the film’s POV. It also happens to be the only film from Alexander Payne that centers entirely on a woman’s POV, a perspective he’s been seemingly drifting further away from ever since.

Alexander Payne’s last three films have all included interesting, complex roles for female characters, but they’re roles that mostly color & complicate the lives of the writer-director’s male protagonists. Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska are all about men, usually middle-aged, in a moment of personal crisis. Payne-penned women merely swirl around them. The closest Payne has gotten to repeating the female-centered POV of Citizen Ruth was in his follow-up to that initial work (and his best film to date, in my opinion), Election. The 1999 MTV-produced dark comedy Election doesn’t exactly have a female protagonist, but does its best to split its POV 50/50 along the gender binary among four equally interesting characters. It’s also acidically critical of adult male power dynamics in how they deal with the women under their influence, another aspect of Payne’s early work you aren’t going to see echoed in films like Sideways.

Election derives its title from its fictional high school presidential election in which young, A-type personality Tracy Flick (played as a hilariously uptight go-getter by Reese Witherspoon) is roadblocked by bitter middle-aged teacher Jim McAllister (a full-schlep Matthew Broderick), who is annoyed to the point of cruelty by her youthful promise & his own personal failures. I remembered from watching this film as a teen that  both of these characters were dismally selfish & abusive, but it plays very differently returning to it as an adult. Tracy Flick can be annoying, sure, as many high school goody two-shoes can, but she in no way matches the grown man evil of Jim McAllister. The film begins with McAllister blaming the underage Flick for ruining the life & career of a colleague, an adult man & an unlikely father figure, who she had an affair with. This pattern repeats itself later in the film when McAllister himself has an affair & again blames the woman for the transgression. The worst you could say about Flick is that she’s demanding & self-serving (to the point where she treats Jesus like an employee in her bedtime prayers), but there’s an element of class politics in that demeanor. Flick comes from a poor, single-parent family & works hard, militantly hard, to free herself from that economic restraint, looking down on the kids who have it easier & don’t have to try as hard with as much daily persistence to succeed. McAllister, who has settled for a mediocre life in a loveless marriage, getting small thrills from participating in high school extracurriculars & beating off to high school-themed porn in his basement, hates the promise Flick works so hard to secure for her future & seeks to nip it in the bud when he hits his spiritual low point. It’s a far worse impulse than anything you could say about Flick’s naked, admittedly abrasive ambition.

Payne pits Flick & McAllister against each other in a larger narrative involving a charming idiot jock & his lesbian slacker sister (who share narration duties with the main characters), a structure that recalls the political satire vs. character study narrative arc of Citizen Ruth. This 50/50 gender split is the closest Payne’s ever come to returning to the female POV of his debut, which isn’t exactly a mark against his films’ overall quality, but does point to an interesting shift in the way he’s written stories since his early stirrings in the 90s. The only time I’ve become actively annoyed with the masculine-centered POV in a Payne film is in the middle-aged ennui of Sideways, but that was mostly a matter of personal taste. Still, I’d gladly welcome a Payne project that returned to the feminine POV of his first two films, It looks like his next project, Downsizing, will at least be a return to the 50/50 split of his sophomore work, a film that might divide its attentions between characters portrayed by Sideways‘s Paul Giamatti & Election‘s Reese Witherspoon. It could be a start, but still wouldn’t be a full return to the perspective established in Citizen Ruth. Hell, as long as Payne’s bringing back old collaborators, he might as well write another starring role for Citizen Ruth‘s Laura Dern. The world desperately needs more of her top-bill performances & Payne himself could use an excuse to write another work from a woman’s perspective, a creative starting point he seems to be drifting further away from with each project.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Alexander Payne’s abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its place along the trajectory of the modern abortion comedy, and last week’s comparison of Laura Dern’s performance with her other top-billed roles.

-Brandon Ledet