(Penelope Spheeris, USA, 1987)


1. (January 1993)

Since the enormous success of Wayne's World (1992), many are singing the praises of maverick director Penelope Spheeris (Suburbia, 1983). But where were the crowds only five years ago, when this magnificent, passionate film played to near-empty houses for a week in the city of Melbourne?


Dudes succeeds at being what is usually a woeful contradiction in terms: a MTV movie. With its frankly improbable plot and gleeful patchwork of styles, ideas and genres, it is a pure pop film, eating up and spitting out the clichés of our contemporary entertainment landscape with astonishing speed.


The story begins with a bunch of bored, raddled punks (led by Jon Cryer as Grant) hitting the road to the desert, in search of new thrills. After an unexpectedly violent turn of events, Spheeris begins introducing strange, supernatural elements, as well as a feisty, fast-shooting heroine (Catherine Mary Stewart). By the end, the film has become both a tough revenge saga and a floridly romantic tribute to the spirit of the Native American.


Dudes is a vivid, funny film, and it is not kitsch. Spheeris continually combines fake and authentic, real and unreal, possible and impossible, to form a higher level of pop imagination. Her films are merry machines of war in a conservative, depressed world.



2. (February 1988)

Short Outline for a Long Article on Dudes (possible title: “God, Guts & Guns”)


Intro: Out with the normative, prescriptive mindset that would seize Dudes as bitsy, all over the place, an uncertain generic mix, etc. Revelation: a grand, magnificent, passionate film, playing deliberately at every moment on kinfe-edge ambivalences, and ruptures of dramatic/comic tone. No halfway mark at which wimpy, WASPy criticism can effuse that this film is just crazy, loony, wacky, etc. Dudes seriously raises Arizona, raises the dead, raises the stake of the game. It re-opens the breach though which popular cinema must pass, at pain of death.


1. Fabulously complex movie, with a thousand intricate moves and elements masterfully orchestrated. On the road from disaffected teen movie to grand lyric drama: a mindboggling journey, delirious intensification. If you can’t go with this film, it’ll just leave you behind.


2. Hetereogeneity of textures, film stocks, film styles, locations, actors: the second unashamedly, unreservedly great MTV movie, after Purple Rain (1984).


3. Semantic map: superimposition of different fictional grids, with various positions and options visibly pulled out and mashed together. City/country opposition, with city punks fake and lacklustre, country folks real and vital. Progressive detour through, and rewriting of, the redneck genre, with the hicks getting more violent, the punks becoming more human and adaptive. Then, the dazzling superimposition of the mythic grid: native Americans and white cowoby renegades (good) aligned with the punks, the desert bikers as massacring soldiers (bad). Many floating, moveable elements in-between: cops change from the brutal lawless to helpless victims.


4. In and through this map: moral questions (learning to care, post River’s Edge [1986), also featuring Daniel Roebuck); the strange and special itinerary of Grant as the hero – see final shot; the ambiguity of revenge as demented obsession, or divine mission; a slowly coalescing community of visionary nuts (cf. New World’s Angel [1984]). No one is who they at first seem to be.


5. Musical landscape, musical culture, musical mythology – stunningly broad and creative borrowings. The film’s Cowboy myth transforms inauthentic, overtly contrived musical fads and mannerisms (from MTV Wall of Voodoo hits to Cramps culture, from rockabilly to swamp) into an authentic, valid expression of Romanticism, by bending it to meet country’n’western, Ry Cooder guitar licks, rock’n’roll, heavy metal … In this as in everything, Dudes is anti Repo Man (1984), anti Straight to Hell (1987), anti True Stories (1986) – anti hipster, yet effortlessly, endlessly hip, in the veritable image of its maker (see Point 7).


6. Likewise: the film’s deepest theme concerns the transformation of fake life into real life via the melting and melding of it all into an expanded imaginary space, as hyperreal as it is imaginary. Dudes forever embraces purely cultural icons, cliché, mediations: from Hollywood Westerns to tumbleweeds, from bullhorns on cars to (at last, with dignity) Elvis impersonators – and keeps closing the gap between myth and reality, while maintaining both as separate, superimposed terms.


7. Penelope Spheeris. Auteur: very at ease with screen violence. Calm control at the heart of fragmentation; directs like the drummer who practices apart-flying with simultaneous different rhythms. Dazzling invention: exploitation of Cryer’s eyes, Roebuck’s body, side-moments of nervousness during the final crescendo. Woman in Hollywood: Spheeris gets to work in a girl (Stewart as Jessie) who rides horses, fires guns, and makes love-moves faster than the boys – but who is, still, nonetheless, secondary to them in the action (as in her previous film, Hollywood Vice Squad [1986], the filming of which is recreated without honour in Postcards from the Edge [1990]). Spheeris’ perennially fascinating management of, and engagement in, such contradictions. Punk: from pure punk nihilism (The Decline of Western Civilisation [1981], The Boys Next Door [1985]) to hybrid punk/humanism (Suburbia) to this most florid mix, a full-blown Punk Romanticism. Utopianism despite everything.


Outro: Best Film of 1988, blablabla. I saw the ghost riders in the sky, I saw Heaven over Melbourne, I saw this film.


MORE Spheeris: Black Sheep

© Adrian Martin February 1988 / January 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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