IN A MOVIE INDUSTRY dominated by the dreams of gullible children, ravenous teenagers, and wearily sentimental grown-ups, Alan Rudolph’s arty, lowdown visions of American life look refreshing and original: his best movies, like the current Trouble in Mind, have the sweetness and verve of poems written by a college freshman. They’re works that conjure grandly lyrical images out of half-lived experience, that seduce us with a suspect notion of cool—cynical one-liners, cigarette smoke, and the blues. His first picture, Welcome to L.A. (1977), was a painful introduction to his rather special sensibility; produced by Robert Altman (for whom Rudolph had been assistant director on several pictures and co-screenwriter of Buffalo Bill and the Indians), this multi-character study of alienated Californians was like a somnolent nightmare parody of Altman.
His second, Remember My Name (1978), was better—an atmospheric revenge melodrama about a woman (Geraldine Chaplin) released from prison who returns to torment her ex-husband. There wasn’t much to it, but the simple plot was elegantly and satisfyingly worked out, and the film had an evocative blues score sung by the late Alberta Hunter.
And something in Chaplin’s unsettling, childlike face seemed to stir the director. The camera kept gazing at her big dark eyes, fascinated by their clouded look of disappointed innocence.
In Rudolph’s recent movies that wounded look is on every face, and by distributing it evenly among his actors in the 1984 romantic comedy Choose Me (Keith Carradine, Genevieve Bujold, Lesley Ann Warren, and Rae Dawn Chong) and Trouble in Mind (Kris Kristofferson, Lori Singer, Carradine and Bujold again, and even Divine), Rudolph manages to turn his fancy conceits of looking for love in a corrupt world into charming, rueful comedies of alienation.
Choose Me is a moody trifle that gets by without much action, on its piano-bar ambience and low-key eccentricity. Its characters, circling in a smoky hangout called Eve’s Lounge, are all romantic losers who haven’t learned their lesson yet, and its plot is just a succession of love triangles whose points keep shifting. Everyone looks dreamy-eved and self-absorbed from having gone around the block too many times. It’s a crowded block, but Rudolph’s people, farcically, are always just missing each other.
Rudolph’s unique form requires, as farce does, a delicate structure for situations that are broad and basic. Trouble in Mind is a very ambitious movie, stuffed with plot and characters—yet it feels as weightless and airy as Choose Me. It’s not simply the cartoon names (Hawk, Wanda, Coop, Hilly Blue, and a baby called Spike are among the characters in this movie) or the shaggy, slapstick action sequences: the insubstantiality of Trouble in Mind is mostly a product of the skewed relationships Rudolph establishes among actors, characters, setting, and story. The world he creates is boldly and sharply drawn but elusive, a shade off the real, like a traced photograph. Seattle, where the film was shot, is called Rain City here, and we’re never quite sure if this is just a poetic nickname or is meant to designate a different, imaginary location. Rudolph’s images of Rain City have the clarity and shine of a Richard Estes painting, a photo-realist urban landscape that trembles like a mirage: the slick streets, the weathered buildings, even the battered counter of the local greasy spoon, Wanda’s Café (this movie’s downscale version of Eve’s), are all too vivid, too well defined to be real.
As if to call attention to the scrupulous artificiality of his setting, Rudolph provides his hero, the ex-con Hawk (Kristofferson), with a detailed model of the buildings and streets around Wanda’s. Hawk, it seems, made the miniature in the prison shop to help preserve his memories of his old life: now he keeps it next to the window of his room above the café, and when he looks at the messy scenes outside he compares everything with the fastidious, depopulated construction in his room. What he sees from his window—crime, lousy marriages, and an omnipresent militia—does not, however, produce quite as sharp a contrast to the orderly miniature as Rudolph seems to have intended. To our eyes, this chaos looks carefully engineered: Rain City seems, if anything, a rather tidy little film noir world, a composition with every drop in place. And the people in this landscape aren’t so much characters as elements of the graphic design, art-directed to the eyeballs.
Each person makes such a strong, immediate visual impression that there’s barely any room for development. Hawk’s forties-style wardrobe of black overcoat and black slouch hat defines him as a man of mystery and old-movie integrity; Georgia (Singer), who’s on Hawk’s mind, is sweet and guileless, and her blonde hair looks like a cascade of cool, fresh water. Her callow husband, Coop (Carradine), is initially just a desperate young man stealing money for his family, and he reminds us of Bowie, the Depression-era outlaw that Carradine played in Altman’s Thieves Like Us; his corruption by big-city crime is indicated by a succession of wild outfits, heavy-metal makeup, and ungodly pompadours. We recognize these figures— along with the bloated epicene crook Hilly Blue (Divine) and the tough broad Wanda (Bujold)—from hundreds of movies, before they even open their mouths. They almost don’t have to speak: they’re as expressive visually, as stylized and hyperbolic, as the heroes and heroines and villains of silent movies. Singer, the blonde angel, has one scene—in which she abandons and then tries to recover her infant son—that could have been written for Lillian Gish or Janet Gaynor in the twenties.
Even the plot and the dialogue of Rudolph’s movie have this antique, emblematic quality: for better or worse, Trouble in Mind is a totally consistent vision. For all the frenzied complications, the story is a basic tough-guy romance, the one in which a cynic redeems his past failures through a dangerous act of sacrifice inspired by the love of a good woman, the chance to recapture some past idealism, and so forth. (In this case Hawk saves Georgia’s wayward husband from the wrath of Hilly Blue.) This is the sort of thing that, forty years ago, might have been a vehicle for Bogart, and the dialogue is in the gaudy Raymond Chandler style of street-corner aphorisms: “You gotta be nice to your friends . . . without ‘em you’re a total stranger” (Hawk); “Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die" (Hilly); “It’s a good thing love is blind, or else it’d see too much” (Wanda). On the page Rudolph’s notions would seem second-hand, but they have startling life and conviction on the screen. His immersion in discarded movie styles and ideas takes them far beyond pastiche— he almost redeems them.
RUDOLPH’S GLITTERING re-creation of movie archetypes shouldn’t work at all, not even once—yet with Choose Me and Trouble in Mind he has actually brought it off twice in a row, and part of the fun of watching these pictures is in first resisting and then yielding to their unusual sense of style. Rudolph once described what he does as “emotional science fiction,” a phrase that (characteristically) means very little while suggesting a lot. These two movies (and, to a lesser degree, Remember My Name) draw us into the meticulously created fantasy world of an alien sensibility. Just as Spielberg, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., can leave us awestruck at the beauty of a child’s imagination, Rudolph at his best can perform wonders with the terrain of the adolescent mind — creating a landscape for the panicky, bigger-than-life images of adulthood dreamed by those who aren’t quite there yet. He has a sensitive teenager’s feeling for solitude, the attractive dangers of experience, the inevitability of stark, absolute choices, and the necessity of showing a tough front to the world. Adolescents figure that the most sustaining, and sexiest, attitude for an adult is one of languorous disappointment, a cool, careless ease that invites—without advertising it— the most heroic, all-out efforts to arouse the sleeping passions. Rudolph has made himself the geographer of the territory just past innocence, a few miles down the road from Spielbergland, and his movies, no less than E.T and Close Encounters, are models constructed from the memory of a particular state of mind, in this case a neighborhood that’s run-down but still accessible. The mind of a yearning, self-conscious eighteenyear-old, filled with exaggerated, halfaccurate images of life’s sorrows, is a pretty embarrassing place to be, but we’ve all been there. In Trouble in Mind Rudolph gets us back to that place so fast—the dark, romantic opening scenes of Hawk’s release from prison and reunion with hard-bitten Wanda, as Marianne Faithfull croaks a weary blues song on the soundtrack, tell us exactly where we are—that we laugh, nervously, at our easy attraction to the bogus, funky mood.
Rudolph seems to be working from so deep inside this adolescent consciousness that he doesn’t care if we laugh. Still, if he weren’t such a graceful, confident director, his notions as a writer would probably look plain silly, and we’d be laughing in derision, not recognition. As overconceived as Trouble in Mind and Choose Me are, they’re not static. He keeps the camera moving, and edits to a drawling, bluesy rhythm that allows us to linger, not on ideas but on faces. And he lets those faces carry the movies. They all seem to be of a certain type, experienced but oddly ageless, with eyes that shoot flashes of youthful hope, intimations of past selves, from mature, been-there countenances. Keith Carradine, who still suggests both the cheerful, touching kid he played in McCabe and Mrs. Miller fifteen years ago and the blasé stud he created in Nashville, is the perfect Rudolph actor, jaded and juvenile at once. Rudolph’s favorite actresses—Bujold, Chaplin, and especially Lesley Ann Warren (who was also in the rowdy, hilarious 1985 countryand-western fable Songwriter, directed by Rudolph from a Bud Shrake script)— share, despite their distinct styles, a quality of tenacious girlishness. They have the look of women who know they’ve been used badly but aren’t used up—who seem to have seen it all without having given up hope of finally seeing something good.
Alan Rudolph makes movies as if he’d seen it all too, and were determined to prove that he can use his experience (and his artifice) to make the world look again as it did when we were eighteen and feverishly hopeful. He has had arty failures like Welcome to L.A., a couple of misbegotten commercial projects (Roadie and Endangered Species), and one very good picture (Songwriter) that remains almost unseen because of spotty distribution—a pretty full range of hard Hollywood experience. But he has also seen, first-hand, the miraculous freshness that Altman brought to American movies in the seventies, and he remembers the passionate clarity of silent pictures, film noir, blues songs, a few poems and paintings. He constructs his films from these elements, as if to recharge a worn-out present with vivid, personal fantasies of an innocent past. This isn’t an approach that’s likely to produce great movies— compared with more densely layered examinations of movie innocence and movie experience like Altman’s The Long Good-bye and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Rudolph’s work is shallow and naive—but he goes all the way with his approach, and that’s a rare quality in American movies these days. Although Trouble in Mind and Choose Me have the solipsism of adolescence as well as the enthusiasm, Rudolph’s identification with the hard-lovin’ losers in his movies allows him to implicate himself, goodnaturedly, in the big joke that he keeps springing on them: they’re all drifting in their private worlds, humming the blues to themselves, and it’s a lovely, funny surprise for them when they drop the air of mystery and find out they haven’t been fooling anyone. They can relax a little, they’re clichés, they’re transparent: everybody knows the trouble they’ve seen.