The eighties could be looked upon as the era in which Hollywood composers did their best to murder cinema. Perhaps the preponderance of soundtracks assembled, Frankenstein-fashion, from fragments of the dead, was a sensible response to the mush promulgated by studio and indie musicians alike. Any romantic comedy of the decade is likely to sound like mellow porn. Thrillers thrum with synth scores dragged up as electro-orchestras, cheapness made audible. Once-greats like John Barry and Maurice Jarre pour soupy orchestrations over their films until they're submerged. Marvin Hamlisch and Bill Conti find regular work.
So Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind (1985) scores one miracle right off the bat: the dreamy jazz score provided by the underrated Mark Isham is languid without being soporific, romantic without being in the least schmaltzy, and of its time without being crap. The vocal presence of Marianne Faithfull gives it the final stamp of greatness.
And in fact, the film lives up to its score.
An Altmanesque whirlwind of characters (Rudolph scripted and assistant-directed for Altman, who in turn produced a couple of his disciple's features), folded into a noir pulp story, set in a vaguely futuristic eighties Seattle ("Rain City") the movie deftly dodges countless opportunities to be embarrassing. It's simply down to good taste: as Keith Carradine's petty criminal on the rise devolves from long hair and beard (Rudolph's own look) to pompadour and eye-makeup, the film knows he looks ridiculous. Almost every other neo-noir regards macho posturing and preening as cool and dignified and deep: this movie sees all such activities as ridiculous.
Contrasted with Carradine's plunge into cartoon gangsterdom is the parallel narrative of Kris Kristofferson, an ex-cop just out of jail for murdering a depraved gangster, trying to pick up the pieces of his life at Wanda's Early Morning Cafe. His ex, Wanda, played by regular Rudolph muse Genevieve Bujold provides detached philosophic asides as Kristofferson falls for waitress Lori Singer, who happens to be Carradine's partner. If he really cares for her, he'll have to save her chump gangster beau from crime lord Hilly Blue, played by John Waters icon Divine "in his first all-male role."
Divine, by the way, is hilarious. Rudolph's take on gangsters as murderous imbeciles feels dead-on accurate and is entertaining to boot: the menace comes from the fact that these guys are so inept they could kill you at any moment without even intending it. Divine's mob boss has the trappings of culture, a violinist preceding him with live musical accompaniment at all times, but his henchmen are a grunting mute and a bewigged moron. Carradine is out of his depth and his partner, stylishly-attired Joe Morton, isn't half as smart as he thinks he is either. The climactic shoot-out appears to have been patterned on the free-for-all pie-fight in Blake Edwards' The Great Race.
Rudolph is quite distinct from his mentor: "People think A.R. stands for Alan Rudolph but really it stands for A Romantic," and his tales embrace their "movieness" more. Plus, his ensemble casts tend to orbit around old-fashioned central storylines. So what Trouble in Mind really amounts to is an indie Casablanca. And it lives up to that.
"Did I ever tell you why I opened an early morning cafe? Because you can't pick a better time... to watch the sun rise."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.