I occasionally see movies that, objectively, are not very good, but which grip me utterly; I can’t seem to shake them from my mind. Often, such films are an odd mixture of amateurishness (even naïveté) and incredible intensity; it is as if the filmmaker is madly fixated on putting over his or her grand message to the world. Just how that message ends up on screen is often quite another matter. One mid 1990s movie of this sort that is worth close attention is the very strange fantasy, Powder.
The first thing that impressed me about this film is its incredible patchwork of influences. It concerns a boy nicknamed Powder (Sean Patrick Flanery) who has been kept hidden in a basement most of his life by his grandparents. He has an extreme albino condition that gives him unearthly white skin, like powder. After both grandparents die, Powder is discovered by local officials and hurled into a savage, small-town world of fear and prejudice.
You do not have to be a master cinephile to spot the traces of previous movies in this set-up alone. Down in that basement, Powder is like Jodie Foster’s Nell (1994), or Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby (1993), or the kid in Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) who has never seen the daylight. A teacher, Jessie (Mary Steenburgen), discovers that Powder knows about the world only from the books he has memorised – and that is reminiscent of the young desert-island castaways with their books in The Blue Lagoon (1980). Once Powder gets to school – the sensitive, shy, lonely, gifted kid picked on by bullies – he becomes the soul brother of Edward Scissorhands (1990). And the pea-brained, phobic, small-town community recalls the one in Samuel Fuller’s immortal The Naked Kiss (1964).
But hang on: this is no ordinary albino we are dealing with here. Powder came out of his mother’s womb after she was zapped clean dead by lightning! This X-Files-type transmutation has made Powder one amazing kid. He is – we are told by Dr Stripler (Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks) – the most intelligent person in the whole world, with an IQ rating right off the charts. Like John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Powder can also, with the mere touch of his hand, read the thoughts of people and animals, seeing into the depths of their very souls. And – here’s another X-Files touch – Powder is also, as Jeff Goldblum handily pops up as Ripley (believe it or not!) to explain, “electrolysis itself”! That means his body conducts enormous amounts of electrical energy … and that he has to be really careful whenever there’s a thunderstorm around. At that point I swam in a dim, confused memory of a dozen TV specials about UFOs and unexplained/paranormal phenomena – such as the sensational story of a poor woman struck by lightning three times in her life (so far).
If that composite identikit picture of the teenage hero has not yet boggled your mind, you may be beyond the reach of a certain kind of popular cinema. Powder is written and directed by Victor Salva; it is, in fact, his third feature, after Clownhouse (1989) and The Nature of the Beast (1995). Like many preachy, naïve filmmakers, Salva is clearly very impressed by Steven Spielberg. Like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Powder is a Christian allegory: Powder is the Saviour who offers himself up for our mortal sins and failings. At a key moment, he even spreads out his arms in a gesture of crucifixion, like Kevin Costner did on the back of a horse at the climax of Dances with Wolves (1990). You get the idea.
But even more influential here is someone more Spielbergian than Spielberg: Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the very popular Ghost (1990) with Demi Moore, and directed My Life (1993) with Michael Keaton. Rubin also scripted the intriguing supernatural fantasy Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and, lo and behold, there is an elementary electrical device called a Jacob’s Ladder in Powder. The distinguishing feature of Rubin’s work is its earnest pop mysticism-spirituality. The religious feeling in his scripts and movies is a little Christian, a little Eastern, very Hippie, extremely New Age. Rubin, like Powder, shies away from actually mentioning God or any other deity. In place of any such explicit reference, there is a constant eulogy to the material energy of the universe, and especially to dazzling white light – a very Spielbergian trait.
In Powder, energy is the thing. We are all particles of energy (so we are informed), all interconnected, never truly dying, just dispersing. There is a whole spiel about evolution – how Powder represents the next peak in our developing cycle. Ripley works quotations from Albert Einstein into this discourse concerning how, one day, humanity may finally get the evolutionary upper hand over deadly technology.
Needless to say, Powder is an astonishing wish-fulfillment fantasy, straining so hard to touch the heavens – with its overwrought orchestral music (by Jerry Goldsmith, no less!) and blinding beams of light – that it completely falls to bits. It is one weird movie, truly akin to a piece of naïve art. The story lurches all over the place: skipping or condensing certain key plot areas, concentrating obsessively on others. Not the least of its oddities is Goldblum himself, a sublimely daffy duck. With his out-of-body hand gestures, postures and vocal intonations, Jeff is something of an alien or evolutionary freak himself. Only he could have embroidered and delivered the deathless line of dialogue to which I’ve already alluded: “He is ... [pause] … electrolysis. Drink that in!”
But what really, finally, motivates all the wish-fulfillment fantasy in Powder? I do not think it is the ozone layer, or the Bosnian war, or urban crime, or any of the usual macro news topics that get us worried and desperately dreaming of a Better World Tomorrow. What drives this movie is, I believe, something altogether more intimate and personal. So let me cast my line out here: Powder is a crypto-gay film. I do not mean by this that the director has secretly worked some gay message or allegory into his movie; nor am I saying that the film inadvertently reveals the sexual orientation of its maker – that’s not important here. What I am saying is that, for whatever reason, there is an intense, subterranean, truly cryptic gay fantasy at work in Powder.
Let us look at the evidence. There are key female characters in the film – Jessie, plus the teenage girlfriend, Lindsey (Missy Crider), that Powder very briefly has – but they are so pale and vapid in dramatic terms that they count for almost nothing. The scenes with them are few, brief, too condensed. In short, there is no conviction invested in them, as characters or as women. They (and the situations in which they are prominent) play like obligatory movie clichés, handled perfunctorily – a stolen teenage kiss, or the vague ministrations of a nurturing mother-figure.
What the film does get very intense about, however, are the emotional exchanges between men. There is a very charged scene where Ripley touches Powder on his hands and face, and the young man cries in a great release. And let us not too quickly forget – although I am sure a lot of viewers will blot it out as soon as they see it – the entirely unmotivated scene where Powder finds himself captivated by the sight of a sports jock at a wash basin, taking his top off. That seems like an explicitly gay moment – but the film seems to erase it, and its implications, as soon as it appears.
Why does this cryptic gay fantasy matter? What is its charge? The explanation for this lies in the film’s veritable obsession with the fraught relation between fathers and sons – a topic that seems extremely close to the director’s heart. There are no less than three father-son pairs, and they are based on exactly the same relationship model. In all cases, the father rejects the son – in one case with extreme emotional violence, in another case with extreme physical violence.
We see Powder’s own father, Greg (Phil Hayes), present at his birth. Seeing this little monstrosity with his albino skin, the father repeats angrily, “He’s not my son!” – and that’s the last we ever see or hear of this Bad Dad. Another teenage character, John Box (Bradford Tatum), is an aggro, homophobic jock. Powder sees into his soul and knows that the violent taunts he uses are exactly the same as those his father used on him as a prelude to violent beatings (a touch of William Friedkin’s Cruising  here). In both these cases, Powder gets so worked up, so expressionistic, that death, thunderstorms and fatal bolts of lightning simply must be present.
The third instance of the father-son theme is only slightly more on-the-ground. It concerns a cop, Doug Barnum (Lance Henriksen, who appeared in Salva’s previous film), and the son from whom he’s estranged. When Powder is able to be the medium, or perhaps the angel, for Barnum’s dying wife, she is able to tell her husband that she cannot leave this world without him and their son making up. Then we get – virtually out of the blue – an intense father-son reunion embrace, a gesture that, supposedly, instantly wipes out a lifetime of pain and rejection.
Taking all this in, I am led to think that the identity of the young men in this movie – sexual identity included – is in a state of wild flux, and that their damnation or redemption as individuals is totally dependent on the approval or disapproval shown by their fathers. And it is that kind of primal oscillation in the male psyche between being something and being nothing that creates, as a heady spin-off, the gay fantasy – an intense, desiring identification with other men.
That’s the type of only half-conscious projection going on in Powder, and it’s pretty fascinating for what it is. Drink that in!
MORE Salva: Jeepers Creepers
© Adrian Martin February 1996