(Alan Rudolph, USA, 1992)


That’s very superficial, but true.



In his engaging book A Cinema Without Walls (Rutgers University Press, 1991), Timothy Corrigan provides an evocative account of the odd atmosphere that pervades so many contemporary movies.


According to Corrigan, films are perpetually distracted these days, unable to concentrate on old-fashioned niceties like plot or character, because they are too busy zapping between heightened moments of consciousness, tabloid-style perceptions of social disintegration, and a storehouse of media-fed memories.


In a nutshell: postmodernism, defined not just as a propensity for pop culture quotation or pastiche (that was already part of modernism), but en entirely strange “mental set” that is floating, curious about minutiae, uncertain about its ethical stance, in permanent suspension. (1) Corrigan pegs the postmodern as “the state of having it both ways, of participating without confinement, of active commitment without a central presence, of narcissism without subjectivity, of appropriation as relinquishment”. (2)


Whether or not director Alan Rudolph (Choose Me [1984], Trouble in Mind [1985]) has read the chapter devoted to him (as a “cult movie” purveyor) in Corrigan’s book, many of his films conform uncannily to this postmodern model. Equinox is an effortlessly stylish but often deliberately unreadable mish-mash of elements: by turns an attempt at art film mysticism, an ironic take on classic Hollywood genres, and a gesture of anguished concern at the state of the world. It came and went quickly through its small commercial window, yet again confirming the director’s firm belief: “My work seems to lack the success gene and popularity chromosome”. (3)


Rudolph has borrowed from his friend and mentor Robert Altman the device of a mysterious, psychological osmosis between characters – in this case, identical twins (played by Matthew Modine) separated at birth. They are the disconnected halves of a single personality: Henry the timid nerd, Freddy the cultivated gangster. As in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991), the film tracks the complementary journeys of these lost souls.


Rudolph drifts away from the central narrative structure as often as possible, as is his wont. He populates the film with zany characters (incarnated by Lara Flynn Boyle, Fred Ward, Lori Singer, Marisa Tomei … ) forever locked in their own heads and talking at cross purposes. Scenes suddenly launch into excessive, unmotivated parodies of The Honeymooners (already name-checked in his previous Mortal Thoughts [1991]), soap opera, or classic crime films. The spectacle of senseless violence (mid-‘60s Godard touch), a grotesque yuppie materialism, homelessness, and acute social despair punctuates proceedings as if it were, at times, an indifferent piece of Muzak – or a cruel piece of slapstick.


There’s a weird, fruity, camp depiction (as in Mortal Thoughts) of America’s ethnic/multicultural proletarian class, not without a hint of smug superiority or bourgeois panic on Rudolph’s part – although it is must be admitted that his brand of satire tends generally to be all-inclusive and almost Balzacian in its social scope (a point well made by critic-filmmaker Dan Sallitt in a great 1985 study of the director). (4)


Corrigan’s description of Choose Me goes double for Equinox:


The spectator … remains oddly inscribed … [in] a perspective that refuses to anchor itself in any secure sense of an authentic or naturalised reality – whether that reality be fiction or fact. […] [The spectator’s] work must take place across the spectacularly artificial sets and carnivalesque narrative … which disolocate an audience especially from Hollywood’s public fantasy and relocate it in the free play of a sort of hyperrealism. Dramatised through its false depths and dense surfaces, which at once attract and arrest vision, [the film] engages its audience through a billboard perspective that aims to collapse the distinction between private and public space, the illusory and the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. (5)


Rudoph himself puts it this way: “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”. (6)


Equinox is, ultimately, more maddening than it is enlightening. Rudolph may not be entirely in control of what he is doing here – and losing control, at least to some extent, would seem part of his quasi-aleatory, shifting-pieces game-plan – but at least he is devoted to finding a form for his own perplexity. He displays, as always, his own brand of stylistic assurance amidst all the generated chaos: people spinning about in shallow frames as the camera flits and flicks with a precise pictorial intention; dapplings of an unconventional, atmospheric score by Norwegian jazzman Terje Rypdal.


In the process, Rudolph indelibly captures a certain feeling of ungroundedness, a quiet hysteria, which is so much part of contemporary culture – whether or not you choose to call that cultural moment postmodern.


MORE Rudolph: Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, Remember My Name



1. My 1987 rumination (along a similar track to Corrigan’s) on postmodern culture, “PM, Phone Home”, appears in Golden Eighties, Volume 2: Pop, Postmodernism, The Body and Sexuality 1982-1987 (2019), which is the Level 7 PDF reward of my Patreon campaign. back


2. Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls, p. 93. back


3. Neil McGlone, “Alan Rudolph Interviews”, There’s No Place Like Home blog, 11 December 2013. back


4. Dan Sallitt, “Alan Rudolph, 1985”, Thanks for the Use of the Hall blog, 19 August 2016. back


5. Corrigan, pp. 93-94. back


6. Rosetta Brooks, “Soul City: An Interview with Alan Rudoplph”, Artforum (January 1993). back

© Adrian Martin August 1994 (with updates)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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