PRINT January 1993


ALAN RUDOLPH'S TERRAIN is the shadowland of the psyche, the place where our pathologies find a home—where our obsessions, paranoias, fears, and fetishes ferment and fertilize one another. On the surface, Rudolph's movies can look like simple melodramas, but the story lines are merely the skeletons on which the flesh of his movies hangs—supports for the primary drama, which is played out between the characters and within them. Whether the subject matter is urban disaffection, love and marriage, or an act of revenge, the main event is the inner turmoil through which his characters pass.

On one level, Choose Me—certainly Rudolph’s best-known and arguably his best film—is a sexy urban fable in which the lives of a group of strangers collide and intertwine in a big city bar. Mickey (Keith Carradine), who has just escaped from a mental institution, drifts into town and acts as a catalyst on the lives of two women: Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), the owner of the bar, and Dr. Nancy Love (Genevieve Bujold), a radio show host who counsels the lovelorn and eventually becomes Eve’s roommate. Intimate strangers, the characters in the film drift in and out of amorous and secretive affairs and relationships with one another: Eve is unaware that her roommate is Dr. Love, whom she frequently calls for advice; Dr. Love doesn't realize that Eve is one of her “patients”; Eve doesn't know that one of the men she is seeing is married, or indeed, that he is married to Pearl, a poet who frequents her bar; Mickey asks both Dr. Love and Eve to marry him, but neither knows that he has asked the other. The links between the characters are always as singular and intense as they are seemingly tenuous—the product of a particular mix of fate and serendipity.

But there is a style, even a stylized quality, to the movie that seems antithetical to the fiction played out on the screen. Overlaying this hard-boiled romance there is something of the formal quality of a Greek drama. Just as the Greek chorus dances, sings, and moves in a dignified procession across the stage, interpreting, through the poetry of motion, the words and mood of the play, in Choose Me a group of prostitutes, pimps, and johns sway to the music of Teddy Pendergrass. Outside the bar, they dance in slow, slinky fashion, highlighting the separation and the contradictions between sex and love, reality and fantasy, and the beauty and sleaziness with which all of our lives are touched. The lyrics mirror the narrative and dialogue of the movie: “Choose me baby,” whisper the female voices backing Teddy Pendergrass. “You’re my choice tonight,” the music sighs, creating the moody existential atmosphere that has become Rudolph’s signature.

There is something about Rudolph’s language—a certain non-verisimilar, almost artificial quality—that can make the words seem suspended in quotation marks; at times it is as if his characters are inhabiting lines almost as the players in a Greek drama might don masks in order to enact fated passages on their life journeys. At key points in the movies, the stylized narrative self-consciously recalls particular scenes from ’30s and ’40s films: an exchange in which Mickey asks Eve to marry him could be between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Here, all the longing for love and the raw, hungry need for company to relieve the anguish of loneliness are echoed as the music punctuates the dialogue with a steamy whispered sigh (“Choose me baby, choose me baby, choose me baby”):

Eve: I thought I was through with getting involved with men who are trouble. Falling in love on a look.

Mickey: You have perfection about you . . . [music] Your eyes have music. Your heart’s the best part of your body. And when you move, every man, woman, and child is forced to watch.

Eve: You really can make it up, Mickey. . . .

Mickey: I’m an expert. I make everything up. I’m a pathological liar, that’s why they locked me up in a mental home. I make everything up except this.

[The music breathes “C’mon choose me baby”]

Eve: Why am I so privileged?

Mickey: Because your name reminds me of a time when I was a lot happier. And I came here looking for some of that time, and there you were under the blinking sign. And now I got a strange feeling that it’s all part of some plan, so why fight it? I want you, Eve. Sure, there might be someone who might fit the bill for either one of us. But we’re here now and they’re not. And there isn’t as much time as there used to be. So I just wanna go home to Vegas, pick up a few things for the future. Yours and mine. I wanna marry you, Eve . . . .

Eve: Most marriages don’t last, you know. Probably because they start out like this.

Mickey: Is that a yes? [They kiss and the music whispers on.]

The denouement of the movie is the unmasking of the players. Eve and Mickey sit in a bus, having just married. There is a close-up of their two faces smiling happily. The smiles change to uncertainty, then to shock, fear, resignation, questioning, pensiveness, and back again to fake smiles. Unmasked, their faces become screens upon which the full force of their actions flickers. Their future, full of uncertainty, is a journey into unknown terrain—soul country. and the simple tale of Choose Me becomes a study of fate, or of humanity in conflict with the gods.

Placed under a microscope, even normal behavior can appear psychotic—or at the very least confusing—and in Alan Rudolph’s films the fine line between sanity and madness is often muddied; characters appear to act irrationally, out of step with standardized behavior. But as R. D. Laing has suggested, “our ’normal,’ adjusted state is too often the abdication of ecstasy,” and Rudolph’s films make the ordinary strange, opening us to the texture of experience. So while a sense of place (Minnesota in Equinox, Los Angeles in Choose Me, Seattle in Trouble in Mind) is a vital component in any Rudolph movie, his cities may at times seem like fantastic aberrations of America. Again, emotional reality takes precedence over plot, and mood becomes more significant than consistency of story line, for the reality that Rudolph’s movies explore is the reality of the human condition: “our place in the mystery.” In this sense his towns are the ultimate expression of America. Anywhere, America. Soul City, USA.

Rudolph challenges his audiences to connect with his films imaginatively. If most movies are collaborations on the production level, Rudolph’s films ask, or rather demand, that his audience jump into the creative fray. If one inevitably comes away from his films with more questions than answers, it is because the endings are deliberately provisional, for these movies are openings, not closures, on life.

Rosetta Brooks is a writer living in Yucca Valley, California.

Rosetta Brooks: A friend recently asked me to describe your films, and I said that they take a left-handed look at people but that they are right-side-brainer films because they refuse to express dull, conventional ideas; instead they explore the nuances of meaning in an act or a look between two people. They evoke emotions through sensory images.

Alan Rudolph: That reminds me of a time in Toronto when I hadn’t been able to scare up an interview at the film festival where Choose Me was being shown. Finally this guy agreed to interview me at lunchtime. He comes into this huge restaurant, and there’s not a person in the place except me and the waiters. The restaurant was all windows, and I noticed that there were a lot of people on the street. Anyway, this guy’s trying to ask questions while he’s struggling with his tape recorder. “Do you know why your films are so weird? They’re strange, just not like reality?” Right at that moment a bartender shouted, “There he is!” and all the waiters ran to the window and the Pope goes by in his Popemobile followed by ten buses with guys in suits. So I said, “There’s my answer. You think I’m strange? You know if you follow people around—anybody, I don’t care who it is—their lives will turn out to be more like my films than what you take for reality.”

RB: Your movies, or at least the ones you’ve written and directed yourself, are primarily about people; they’re about the shadowland of the psyche. I’m thinking of Choose Me, but also Trouble in Mind, Welcome to LA, and of course the new movie, Equinox.

AR: That’s pretty true of my movies. One thing I was given—one of the cards I was dealt—is that I’m a good reader of people. I can pick out someone on a street corner doing some small, seemingly inconsequential thing and get a perfect score on their whole life. That’s what I want my movies to do. That’s what I do in my characterizations. My movies bypass all that stuff you already know the hypnotic, entertaining emptiness most movies give you. The Hollywood formula manipulates and controls the characters by emphasizing events rather than the human side. The “successful” Hollywood movies try to balance the human side and the event side; they’re the ones critics call “human,” but basically they shy away from the human aspect. What Hollywood casters won’t do (just as Dan Rather won’t) is say, “Wait a second, don’t look to me to get answers: everything’s chaos.” I’m no crusader, and I’m certainly not an intellectual or a theoretician, but I do know that my films—because I know how they approach me and the way I create them—require the delicate part of our nature that makes us look beyond what we already understand.

RB: So how did Choose Me approach you?

AR: Choose Me is what I call one of my little hip-pocket movies—an urban fable. It’s the kind of movie I could make every day, because everybody involved in that movie was moving up a notch in the world except for me. The cameraman had never shot a film before, the editor had never edited. I find that those people are the ones to work with before they’ve acquired bad habits.

Anyway, the last thing I did was write the script. I called up Keith Carradine, who was working on Broadway at the time, and said: If I write you a good part, will you be in a movie without much pay? He said sure. Then I called two other actresses I’d worked with before. One couldn’t do it and the other one said she wanted to read the script first. So she had to turn it down because there was no script. Then I cast Genevieve Bujold and Lesley Ann Warren, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in their roles. At this point I had no idea what the script was going to be, but I had one hook: a guy escapes from a mental institution, and you don’t know whether he’s telling the truth or not. I don’t know where this came from, but it stuck. About two months before shooting took place, I’m driving in Los Angeles and I turned on the baseball station. Normally, I never listen to AM radio, but this day the Dodgers were rained out, and I found myself listening to a Doctor Tony somebody-or-other. I hear people pouring their guts out to this woman between commercials: “Yes? You can’t cope with life? OK, we’ll get right back to you after this message from. . . .” So that’s where the Dr. Nancy Love [telephone advice for the lovelorn] idea came from. So Keith was there, and other than that, I only knew I had to use the song by Teddy Pendergrass. I wrote the script in a week.

I think that’s part of the joy of that film. I think part of the reason that it might work is that the first elements I developed were the tone, emotions, and mood. The details didn’t matter. The actors became the experts on their roles. It was a movie produced in the spirit of true creative expression where everyone contributed to their maximum. Few movies are produced that way, but I believe it’s one of my functions to inspire and hopefully protect the actors in the context of the story. And that’s it.

RB: I read a quote by you somewhere in which you said just that, but you added another ingredient—truth: “For me actors are the most important element in moviemaking. Their brilliance is what makes film shine. A director’s main function is to inspire and protect the actors. Another function is to tell the truth and run.” Why run?

AR: [laughs] In Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, which I wrote, someone says, “Truth is whatever gets the most applause.” But really, I think filmmakers can point to honesty as an issue. Then, hopefully, you’ve got to deal with your own version of it. Truth is rather negotiable, it seems to me, because too many people feel that truth and fact are twins. There’s a line in Love at Large where Tom Berenger’s character tells Anne Archer’s that her boyfriend’s got another life. Anne says: “Oh, it can’t be true.” And he says: “Well how true it is I can’t tell you, but I know it to be a fact.” When Keith and I were in Chicago at a screening of Choose Me, one guy would come in and say “The best part of the movie is when Genevieve went through your briefcase and we realize that the guy’s telling the truth.” Then the next person comes in and says, “The best part of the movie is when you realize this guy’s a liar.”

RB: Well, I guess as often as not, truth turns out to be that which most people believe, or at least that which somebody in power has convinced the majority to believe. Maybe that’s what democracy is about—a scary thought.

AR: Well, I was born at a time when this was truly a nation of sheep. But then the shepherd seemed benevolent, leading us in some kind of direction that made sense. But what happened in the ’80s in this country was that Reagan—who isn’t really a person, he’s like most of America, a symbol—hypnotized the crowds with his charm while his boys were picking our pockets.

Now it used to be that American films would be the ones screaming the loudest against something like that (at least since the ’60s). Look at the so-called ’70s: movies like Altman’s Nashville said “Wait a moment, you can’t do that.” So I think that some of the real culprits in America are the filmmakers who have had the power to do something to resist, to expose, and instead they’ve joined in the pickpocketing.

Just about every segment of our culture that we used to be able to rely on to be protectors of the dream has caved in collectively. I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re ashamed of this country. So, this time around, we’ve got to be clear about what we’re voting for in this election. This time, it’s not about material things, it’s about the spirit—the American spirit.

RB: The spirit is an essential concern in your new movie, Equinox, isn’t it? I think of the film as a collection of people, each going on a personal journey of discovery; a journey into the psyche without benefit of safety belts. All the time I was watching it, I kept on thinking of a Cid Corman poem that says, “Don’t tell me/Who I am/Let me guess.”

AR: I like that. Equinox is also what I would call one of my hip-pocket movies. I write them so easily and I love the journey they take me on. After having made a few variations, I can now see that my films draw upon things that are almost involuntary or subconscious. There are links between all of them that I only recognize after I’ve made them. But I feel like I’m in transition. I’m beginning to realize that Equinox is about as far as that road will take me. Like Welcome, Choose Me, and Trouble in Mind, it’s a film that requires audience participation. It tries to draw upon the audience’s unconsciousness. The audience actually creates what it is. It’s a fable. In fact we did everything but “Once upon a time . . .” at the beginning of the film.

RB: Of all your “hip-pocket” movies, Equinox is perhaps the most ambiguous and yet, oddly, at the same time the clearest.

AR: It’s a gritty movie about improbable things. The same sense of contradiction was felt in Mortal Thoughts, which is basically an anti–love story. Mortal Thoughts is very violent on one level because it’s about what our society has really done to married couples. We have this attitude of “I love you, I love you, I love you, so let’s get married and then we won’t have to deal with it anymore.” So the movie is a love story about people who hate each other, and it’s disguised as a kind of thriller. Equinox is an obvious fairy tale that is sort of light and hopeful but dealing with dark things. After a really incredible screening of the film in Chicago, where it was received exactly as I’d intended, I realized that I’d simply held up a mirror on society. This is as close as I’ve come to doing that. Even though it’s fictional, it’s the same as all the films I write and direct: people trying to connect in a crazy world. But this film is also about an uncaring society, about people lying to themselves, about people whose fantasy lives become as important as their real, daily lives.

RB: There are definitely links between your movies. Sometimes your characters seem to be extensions of one another from one movie to the next. Let’s gossip about them for a moment, because I felt like Beverly in Equinox was a (necessarily) more evolved version of Geraldine Chaplin’s character in Welcome to L.A. At the beginning of Welcome to L.A. we see Chaplin sitting in the back of a cab, staring directly into the camera and out at us. She’s making statements into questions. Something like (I’m paraphrasing here): “People deceive themselves here, don’t they? That’s how they fall in love, isn’t it? It’s how you wait that’s important, isn’t it?” And in Equinox, Beverly stares out at us and talks about herself in the third person.

AR: Yes. Geraldine’s character exemplified how limited our emotional experience in life can be. In other words, Geraldine was an aberration of normal life. She was more of a commentary on the madness; it’s just that she got to the madness before everyone else did. Beverly’s problem, on the other hand, is that her fantasy is as controlled as her reality. So she is held hostage by her inability to take her own advice. But she also gets to move up a notch because, by the end of the movie, she recognizes the truth. At least as it applies to her.

RB: I loved the ending of Equinox, too. For me, it recalled the ending of Trouble in Mind, where Kris Kristofferson’s character drives off into and almost becomes part of the spectacular, celestial Washington State landscape. From what, to what? And in this film, Matthew Modine’s character stands on a cliff in the Grand Canyon, and we watch as the camera spirals around him, getting higher and higher until the view almost swallows up the man, but finally-returns Modine back into a more accessible perspective with respect to the landscape. Both endings were provisional endings. They allowed the viewers to imagine their own endings for these characters.

AR: Well, at a film festival in France that included Trouble in Mind, their number-one critic stayed behind to interview me. She said, “The film was so good up until the end, and then it turned into a typical American movie with the happy ending where the guy gets the girl and then he goes away. For that reason I gave it a bad review. It was such a sellout.” “Yeah?” I said, “It’s either that or he’s dead.” She was shocked. So I said “Well, maybe he was going on his last journey. At one point in the movie he’s talking about how, when it’s time to go, he’s going to follow his destiny. Maybe that’s what he’s doing.” And it’s curious, I’m getting a similar response from people about Equinox. People are saying, “Jeez, the ending’s so tragic—him standing there on the mountain, lost.” But wait. How else could it have ended? Him calling Beverly? That costs a quarter.

Every character in Equinox, bar one, has a goal. Some don’t realize it, some are at a crossroads, some make the wrong choice. But everyone is looking for something, whether they are aware of it or not. And I mean, here’s this guy [Modine] at the end, who’s the character in the movie least capable of figuring out why his life is taking place without him in it. And yet he’s the one with the revelation at the end. To me, when he stands on that rock he is finally facing his true twin: himself. I thought it would put people in the most hopeful frame of mind—that it would show that we can get through anything.

RB: One of the characters even addresses that issue right at the end of the movie, when she says, “Your whole life is about searching for one thing and all that other stuff just falls away.” That’s the imaginative strength of your movies for me. People are multipersonas; they’re not immutable stereotypes.All your major characters are a blend of goodness and badness, innocence and experience. I think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s comment that he didn’t want his demons taken away because that might take his angels away too.

AR: Yes. But you know, people don’t seem to want films that deal in the arena of the unconscious. I mean Equinox is about contradiction, duality, and yet why is that not as tangible, digestible, and entertaining as a movie like, say, Under Siege? There’s nothing in my movie you can’t track. You may not personally understand why this woman is dancing with a pillow or talking in the third person, yet there isn’t a person around who hasn’t had such a moment.

RB: Are you suggesting that Hollywood and you don’t see eye to eye?

AR: [laughs] Hollywood likes my eye, they just don’t like what I see. What Hollywood does to its most talented offspring is pay them a lot of money to behave like artists as long as they don’t produce any art. Most people fall for that. You know Hollywood, which is a reflection of society, loves originality, but it is also totally afraid of it.

RB: Well, art has a difficult time finding its place anywhere in our society. I’ve been thinking recently that art has to be selfish in order to communicate. The creator of the artwork has to be taken somewhere in the act of creation, while the viewer must selfishly seize what that art can give up.

AR: I believe the whole process of art is evolutionary. People often say that they like my writing. But to me, writing is just like a choice of wallpapers. Like the choice of music for a film, the choice of words is just a part of the process of evolution. My scripts don’t describe anything, they just put people in situations and then move them on by giving them a dialogue—some of which is good and some of which gets better when the actors embellish it. There’s a very good quote about screenwriters: “A screenwriter is the first draft of a human being.”

But for me, screenwriting is just like signing a check, in a way. All it is is your signature. But if someone says sign a check for $50,000, you’re going to be a little more selective. You’re going to write something, which you are then going to make and spend the rest of your life justifying. So all you have to do is set the standard.

RB: Right. And art, in a way, is about setting the standards, then pushing them to the edge, to their limits.

AR: I think we did that with my movie The Moderns, and it infuriated most of the art world who saw it. I’m always completely written off by the New York critics scene, but I think people were especially furious about that movie, because it turns everything inside out: it’s about counterfeit society and about the myths of Paris in the ’20s. Most people think of the ’20s as the heyday of Modern art. But that’s just when the tourists arrived in Paris and started to spread the word about it. So the film takes all that on. It got disastrous reviews out of New York. We went out for dinner afterwards and people were angry. Usually I have one rule: don’t go where you’re not wanted. But this night I was enjoying it because the more angry they got about the subject, the more I figured we’d tampered with their myth. In other words, we took their myth and replaced it with ours.

RB: You said that Equinox was the turn of the page for you; that you were in a period of transition, of change. What are you working on at the moment?

AR: A number of things. I may be working with Robert Altman again. I just love this guy. He’s dangerous, ready to take risks. . . . Anyway, we might do something about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin. But in the meantime, I’m working with another writer, Randy-Sue Coburn, on Tom Robbins’ latest novel Skinny Legs and All. Tom’s another great friend, a brilliant artist. And after four years of negotiations, Carolyn Pfeiffer and I have finally been given the rights to Man Ray’s autobiography. And we’ll be getting cooperation from Man Ray’s estate, which consists of four brothers-in-law in their 60s from Brooklyn. There’s a good incident on a tape I’ve been listening to of Man Ray lecturing at UCLA in the late ’60s. He was very funny—everything you’d expect. But he was also a little edgy, not bitter but cantankerous, because I think he felt he was never really given his due. And in answer to a question he said rather testily (I’m paraphrasing here): “Don’t ever ask me to interpret my paintings. I can tell you where I was when I painted it; I can tell you what I used; I can tell you what I saw, what I was thinking; but other than that I don't know anything.” That’s how. I feel.

These projects could last me for the next four or five years. And none them is one of my little movies. But to some degree, it’s as if I had a virus in a jar that nobody wants unleashed. Ms. Parker’s gone the rounds, but I won’t even expose the rest to the illogic of Hollywood.

But I’m very excited about these changes in my work. I feel like I have to surrender to what’s happening to me. I don’t know what that is. It’s like the tide on the move. But my work is very centered, so meeting you here and talking about it today affects the whole wave of things. Suddenly tomorrow will be different, and I’m always eager about that.