Monday, March 10, 2014

Independence Day (1983, Robert Mandel)

Robert Mandel's Independence Day is a film that probably would have remained off of my personal grid for awhile longer had I not been so won over by its lead actor in another film I just watched.  It's pretty hard to keep one's eyes off of Kathleen Quinlan in Lifeguard...and, this led me to seek out Independence Day, which stars Quinlan, David KeithDianne Wiest, Cliff De Young, Frances Sternhagen, and Josef Sommer.  The narrative focuses on the lives of several of Mercury, Texas' inhabitants through a short but turbulent time period, mixing some conventional drama with endearingly oddball characters and tonal shifts, resulting in a small gem, which should be better known than it is. That its title will mean that it's forever overshadowed by the completely unrelated 1996 blockbuster of the same name is unfortunate.

I was familiar with the film, but had not actively sought it out even though it's the type of piece that fits firmly in my wheelhouse: a little-remembered, early '80s, low-budget American drama with a cast of accomplished character players.

It's never been on DVD, however, and the Warner Archive, unfortunately, reports that there are currently no plans to add it to the collection, something which would help rescue the film from its current obscurity.

As soon as I re-familiarized myself with the basics of Independence Day, I thought it might be included in a couple of my longtime "go-to" cinema books--Produced and Abandoned and Danny Peary's Guide for the Film Fanatic.  I was surprised to find that there was no entry in the former, but my instincts were correct about Peary, who lists the film in the back of his book and calls it an "S" (sleeper) and "PR" (personal recommendation).

I first picked those books up when I was in high school and, and aside from my own personal tastes, I must credit them for pointing out so many of the weird, off-the-beaten-path, unfairly neglected works--often those aforementioned dramas--that I've held close to my heart for the past couple of decades.  All of this is to say that Independence Day is similar to a number of my favorite films, but it's passed me by for one reason or another all these years.  I "checked off" most of those Peary Fanatic and Cult Movies titles long ago, so it was satisfying to circle back and experience one of them for the first time now.

Independence Day is set in the small town of Mercury, Texas.  It seems like it comes from a novel or a series of novels that take place in the same town and this makes some sense since screenwriter Alice Hoffman is primarily a novelist; this, though, is a completely original screenplay rather than an adaptation.  Mercury diner waitress Mary Ann (Quinlan) holds onto her dream of attending art school in Los Angeles to study photography, while race car-obsessed Jack (Keith) has just returned to town after failing to stick in an unspecified school or program (it's almost as if his character from An Officer and a Gentleman did not kill himself after quitting officer's training and has instead come home).  They meet cute and begin a courtship whose longterm status will be tested by Mary Ann's aspirations to get out of town and Jack's to stay there and fix and race cars.  The chemistry between the actors and the quirks that Hoffman has written into their characters insures that this relationship rises above standard issue drama.

For Mercury, Mary Ann is unconventional, sexually worldly, and, as a woman, unusually outspoken and comfortable in her own skin.  For anywhere, she is an enormously talented, promising photographer (this is verified by renowned photographer / professor Burt Remsen when he visits her family's home to offer her a scholarship).  And, so I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who finds Jack incredibly lucky when Mary Ann shows interest in him, which is not to say that Hoffman does not also imbue him with appealing and surprising qualities.  He has an innocence and a gallantry about him that is very refreshing. His loyalty to his sister (Wiest) and the tenderness he shows her is quite beautiful.

In fact, what's most interesting about Mary Ann and Jack's dynamic is the way in which Hoffman has reversed the usual gender roles in the relationship: Mary Ann goes after Jack, she is more sexually experienced and more enlightened than Jack, and she won't hesitate to drop Jack if he tries to persuade her to scrap her school plans and stay in Mercury.  She's always got either a stiff drink or one of those long, brown cigarettes in her hand, while Jack drinks only Cokes. Keith and Quinlan are both so good here and I'd have loved to see them get more leading opportunities in feature films.

On the other side of town, we have the film's other primary couple: Jack's sister Nancy (Wiest) and her abusive husband Les (De Young). Mandel and Hoffman deserve credit for depicting this abuse in all its forms and not shying away from some pretty tough material, as do the actors, for playing it honestly and without flinching at the most brutal scenes.  No one can accuse De Young of being unwilling to play unrepentant sons of bitches without any sort of vanity (see: Reckless, F/X, Harry and Tonto, etc.) and Wiest gets my maximum praise for her three-dimensional characterization, which goes beyond stereotypes into some unexpected places.  The less known about this going into the film, the better.  Wiest also has some of the best scenes of the film in her one on one time with both Keith (they actually look like they could be brother and sister) and Quinlan.

Equally good in less expansive roles are Sternhagen and Sommer as Mary Ann's supportive and loving parents.  The film threatens to get a little maudlin, as Sternhagen's character is dying of cancer, but Sternhagen's strong, heartfelt performance in her key scene with Quinlan nullifies that for me.  Same goes for Sommer in his father / daughter moment with Quinlan towards the end of the film.

The late Richard Farnsworth appears in a few scenes as Jack's boss at the garage, but does not have much to do.  Longtime character player and Texan Noble Willingham plays Jack's father and Brooke Alderson, who was well-utilized by James Bridges in Urban Cowboy and Mike's Murder, appears as a fellow waitress in the family diner where Mary Ann works.  D.p. Charles Rosher Jr. doesn't have a huge filmography, but among his credits is recent Obscure One-Sheet favorite The Baby Maker.

Although both Mandel and Hoffman are northerners, this is not a film that portrays the South or southerners in a pejorative or condescending way, at least to my northern eyes.  In addition, the characters and situations are convincingly working-class, something that stands out more and more as the years go on, and working-class characters and scenarios become essentially extinct in major studio films.  Hopefully, this Independence Day will become more accessible sometime soon--Warner Archive, please--and get that second chance that so many other worthy titles have received in the DVD and Blu-ray age.

Director Robert Mandel on set.  Mandel's subsequent film F/X is a much different beast, though it shares with Independence Day excellent, well-drawn performances across the board, including that of Cliff De Young.


fate said...

I am not the only person to have seen this film?a real lost gem.thanx for letting us know it´s dvd status.

Stew Magnuson said...

It's out on DVD now!

amor said...

I love this movie. It has one of cinema's most memorable endings. Talk about finishing with a bang.

Unknown said...

There is something to be said for having a small stash of movies that you like that are not well known. It's almost like they're your own little personal movies.

Nancy Garreaud said...

Always loved this movie especially Dianne Wiest. Feels good to know others like it too. Also appreciate the thoughtful commentary. Janet Maslin of the NYT gave it a crap review - what was her problem I wonder