The Dark Backward [DVD]
Director : Adam Rifkin
Screenplay : Adam Rifkin
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Judd Nelson (Marty Malt), Bill Paxton (Gus), Wayne Newton (Jackie Chrome), Lara Flynn Boyle (Rosarita), James Caan (Doctor Scurvy), Rob Lowe (Dirk Delta), King Moody (Twinkie Doodle), Claudia Christian (Kitty), Danny Dayton (Syd), Carrie Lynn (Nicolette)
So there's this guy, right? And he's a comedian. Except, he's a really, really terrible comedian. He's a nebbish guy--bad posture, greasy hair, Coke-bottle glasses, suits that are too big for him, and he sweats all the time. And when he gets up to tell jokes, he tells them in a monotone voice that suggests he has no real faith in the jokes, which are, of course, awful and not funny.
But then, see, he starts to have this growth in the middle of his back. At first it's like a big bug bite, but then it starts to turn into this huge, painful lump, and then it sprouts--get this--fingers! Pretty soon, it's developed into you--you guessed it--a third arm. So, now we have this terrible comedian with a third arm growing out of the middle of his back, which makes him a freak. His jokes haven't gotten any better, but now people want to see him and put him on television because he has a hook, something that makes him different.
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Adam Rifkin's offbeat black comedy The Dark Backward, a film so astoundingly strange that you might think it fell to the earth fully formed from another dimension. It's hard not to respect Rifkin's moxie, especially if you know that he originally wrote the screenplay when he was just 19 and directed it as his first feature film when he was in his early 20s. Only someone that young and that untested could not only come up with such a bizarro scenario, but see it through unscathed by logic, mainstream conformity, or any pretense toward pleasing anyone other than the most cultish of audiences.
What is even more amazing is the cast Rifkin was able to assemble to bring this twisted fairy tale to life. Judd Nelson stars as Marty Malt, the meek comedian-nerd with a third arm, and he invests the character with such a lowly, unassuming presence that you wonder if he had his spine surgically removed for the role. Starring opposite him is Bill Paxton as Gus, proving that his memorable ranting in Weird Science (1985), Aliens (1986), and Near Dark (1987) were just warm-ups for this performance--such terms as “over the top” fall notably short. Gus is Marty's obnoxious, accordion-playing best friend and most vocal supporter who is aptly described by Rifkin as a “human cockroach.” In one of the film's very first scenes, Gus comes across a naked dead body in a landfill, and rather than report the discovery or even display even a hint of disturbance, he licks the corpse and moves on.
Rifkin fills out the supporting cast with an oddball assortment of recognizable faces, including James Caan as Doctor Scurvey, the clearly incompetent physician whose advice to Marty is that he ignore the ever-growing lump on his back and it'll “go away.” Rob Lowe, clearly in pursuit of self-mocking roles (he followed this up with his self-effacing turn as the villain in Wayne's World), shows up briefly as a television talent scout with terrible teeth. However, the most inspired bit of casting is Wayne Newton as Jackie Chrome, a garish talent agent with an array of painted-on moustaches who rejects Marty's unique “comic stylings” until he finds out about the extra appendage.
For all its kookiness, The Dark Backward is a rather sharp parody of show business and the price of fame. The material's grim tone would seem to suggest that it was borne out of the toxic grudge of someone who had been hashing it out in Hollywood's dark underbelly for decades, but Rifkin was a nobody with virtually zero experience in Tinsletown when he wrote and directed it. His vision of Los Angeles as a dank, garbage-strewn backalley from hell is a fitting visual metaphor for anyone who has ever been chewed up and spit out by the entertainment industry (Rifkin, as it turns out, has been quite successful writing scripts for others and directing the occasional pet project).
The idea that Marty has the potential to become famous only when he inexplicably grows a third arm resonates even more now than it did then with our celebrity culture that feeds on the outlandish, bizarre, and ridiculous. Talent means little in a world obsessed with sensationalism, which is precisely what Marty's third arm provides. The irony is that Marty never gets any better as a comedian, and his display of his novel physical condition is as lame as his punchlines--at the end of each joke, he simply opens up his arms and does a slow revolution. Rifkin also stabs at corporate culture via the omnipresence of a mega-corporation called Blump's, which apparently manufactures every product, from deodorant to squeezable bacon to lemon suppositories, and also runs the garbage company that employs Marty and Gus.
Visually, The Dark Backward is never anything less than interesting, even if its primary colors are various shades of junk. The story takes place in a world that is recognizably our own, but only if all the world's landfills have been overstuffed and trash has started to take over. Its settings are primarily back alleys, a greasy diner where Marty's sometimes girlfriend (Lara Flynn Boyle) works, and various cramped offices that look like they've never been graced by sunlight. The film induces a certain amount of claustrophobia that works in tandem with the characters: they're trapped in miserable lives from which fame (or at least infamy) promises to liberate them. That Rifkin manages to coax some real humor out of these doldrums is itself an achievement, and it's not surprising that the film, which saw limited theatrical release, has developed an intense cult following in the ensuing years.
|The Dark Backward Special Edition DVD|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 21, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Fans have been waiting a long, long time to see this oddball film on DVD, and the anamorphic widescreen transfer doesn't disappoint. Although a relatively low-budget production, The Dark Backward has a unique and memorable visual style that translates well in the transfer. The film is exceedingly dark throughout--there are rarely any scenes that take place outside in daylight. The transfer does a good job of maintaining black levels and shadow detail, even in the murkiest moments. However, it is also a colorful film, with Rifkin making use of colored lights to give each scene a reddish, bluish, or greenish tinge. The image is slightly soft at times, but there is still a good amount of detail (which isn't necessarily a good thing when it comes to the nasty grime all over Bill Paxton's body or the rotten plate of chicken he digs into at one point). The Dolby Digital stereo surround soundtrack is perfectly adequate. Dialogue is always clear, and the quirky musical score sounds good, albeit not with the expansiveness that a 5.1 remix would have afforded.|
|Those who have waited just to have The Dark Backward on DVD will be doubly delighted that Sony has given the disc a hefty chunk of supplements that should please even the most cultish fans. Before watching the film, you can start with a rambling video introduction by writer/director Adam Rifkin in which he ruminates about the film's creation from inside his garage before devolving into a discussion with his cameraman about how best to shoot the intro. While watching the film, you can listen to a rollicking audio commentary by Rifkin, stars Judd Nelson and Bill Paxton, and producer Brad Wyman, all of whom clearly enjoyed reminiscing about the film together. All four of them also appear in 40 minutes of video footage of a Q&A session following a 15th anniversary screening of the film at the Arc Light Cinema in Hollywood. They are also on hand for the half-hour retrospective featurette “Blump's Squeezable Documentary,” which also includes an interview with the indomitable Wayne Newton. The 15 minutes of deleted scenes comprise quite a hodge-podge, most of it being trims from existing footage in the film, although some of them are entire scenes (according to Rifkin's intro, the initial cut of the film was three and a half hours long!). There are also about six minutes of random outtakes that were transferred from a rough video source. One really cool supplement is a series of four promotional short videos made in 1988 and used at Cannes Film Festival to drum up financing (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). The “Catch My Dreams” clip compilation is actually a music video for a hip-hop song inspired by the film. And, finally, the disc includes the complete 20-second bit of animation involving a murderous version of “Tom and Jerry” that appears on Marty's mom's TV in the film, except here in color.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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