Hollywood blockbusters are often dismissed as nothing but roller-coaster rides, mainly because they never fail to spawn theme-park attractions as a “horizontal” diversification strategy to maximize profits.
An edgy and more thorough dissection of the blockbuster mechanisms is to be found in the work of underground filmmaker and film buff Damon Packard: for instance, it is by riding a “spectacular machine” in Universal Studios that the restless protagonist of magnum opus Reflections of Evil (2002) finds a way out of a present-day-Los-Angeles Purgatorio looking like Hell on Earth (for the record, the roller-coaster in question is Schindler's List ride).
The text that follows is a partial treatment for Packard's current film project: a pop-culture-obsessed, nostalgic attempt to reach a time “when there still was a chance of happiness”, as Beckett's Krapp would say.
Westwood Village – Present Day (2013)
Two jaded, bitter, angry, disgruntled, cynical men in their mid-40's walk through Westwood Village (UCLA neighboring college town): they are reminiscing the past, the glory days of the 1980's. The discussion shifts back and forth on various topics, about how hopeless, hapless and hideous everything is in the present day. The clash of cognitive dissonance in the masses, and the deterioration of health and happiness. People sick and weak, their minds turned to mush from electronic pollution.
One of the men walks in a distorted gate, suffering from premature arthritis. He wheezes and moans in occasional pain and pulls out an inhaler, puffing every few minutes.
LAPD units make up every other car cruising by on the streets like sharks swimming about looking for prey, and echo their conversation.
The talk veers into how Westwood was like ground zero of the last heyday of exciting times for the world of cinema; how that all came to a crashing end by the close of the 80's, when things shifted into a darker, more restrictive timeline - a period that creatively moved backwards as technology leaped forward. The late 80's/early 90's: suddenly a period of gang shootings, riots, rap music, police presence and yuppie fear thrillers at the cinema. Essentially, an epoch in time that froze up to the present day.
After the depressing discussion, the two friends part. One pretends to go for his car as he watches the other pull away and get pulled over by a bored cop in the distance. We then reveal our man is actually HOMELESS, as he makes his way to a sleeping box tucked behind the (former) MANN VILLAGE THEATER. He is blasted by the blaring light of a police cruiser and harassed by some cops. In a psychotic state of fed-up anger the man pulls out a black TOY GUN forcing the cops to SHOOT him down in a dramatic/bloody suicidal last stand.
All the while the kids eating at Inn & Out Burger across the street blankly stare with glazed expressions (Hip Hop music blaring from the cars).
The man that got shot wakes up in a Mann Theater uniform in the back alley of the MANN VILLAGE, still the same person, same age in the same place, back in 1985. Here he re-lives his teen adventures working for the MANN, with his co-workers and friends of the time.
Westwood Village - 1985
We are introduced to our motley crew:
Dave Dixon; a 400 pound black guy who is always ripping his stained polyester Mann Theater uniform every time he bends over or moves the wrong way.
Kieth De La Cruz; trench-coat wearing, chain-smoking outcast cool-kid who drives a 280-ZX and listens to nothing but British pop new wave (Tears for Fears, Psychedelic Furs, Pet Shop Boys, Human League, etc.) - once part of the posh scene, but starting hanging out with the movie geeks.
Michelle Morgan; the girl who works in the box office at The Village who looks much like a young Michelle Pfeiffer. This mirrors the fact that LADYHAWKE has just opened at the Village and drunk Rutger Hauer is galavanting around Westwood with his friends. Rutger is in town for both the movie opening and summer carnival at UCLA. Throughout the night he stops to tease and flirt with Michelle in the box office, followed by Nicholas Cage and Crispin Glover, who also galavant the lively atmosphere of Westwood.
Drain Brain; A guru-like ex-hippie holdout who hangs out at the local Pizza joint (Lamonica's) and dispenses spiritual wisdom to our young heroes. Very advanced for his time, Drain Brain is the Terence McKenna of 80's Westwood and calls himself “The Magic Man”. Ultimately, we learn much of his wisdom comes in the form of song lyrics from the rock group HEART.
Burt; the crazy projectionist with a black cloud over his head and chip on his shoulder. A hyper-talking pessimist, everything goes wrong for Burt as he SNAPS in anger and frustration at the slightest irritation. Every day he wears the same navy blue polyester track suit saturated with body odor. Our main protagonist spends hours hanging out in the booth with Burt.
Nic Cage and Glover walk around randomly freaking people out on the street while the music of Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Pat Benatar, Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, The B-52's, Madonna, Flock of Seagulls, Mister Mister and The Eurythmics fill the air. All the hairspray girls driving around in their white VW Rabbit Convertibles, the izod preppies in their pink alligator shirts. The neon-lit streets glow with excitement and life. RICK DEES is the voice on the airwaves, much like WOLFMAN JACK was to an earlier generation.
Our main protagonist, whom we shall call Devin, joins his co-workers at the National in theater clean-up. They endlessly torment the projectionist (Frank, an old union guy with a high pitch voice) in between showtimes.
During shows of PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, for the LARGE MARGE sequence, Dave Dixon walks into the back of the theater to provide additional screaming on cue just to freak out the audience. Popcorn flies through the air. The two lesbian assistant managers Kim and Deb sneak off to make out in between shows. All manner of pranksterism and chaos goes on here. Embezzlement and scams are rampant: ticket re-selling, inventory fudging, everyone is dipping their hand in the cookie jar.
Devin is working the door. For a brief moment one of the GQ co-workers asks him if he might want to join them on a weekend of fun with girls. Then, the guy changes his mind realizing Devin isn't quite cool or good looking enough.
Dave Dixon stumbles out onto the pedestrian-heavy sidewalk acting drunk and disorderly screaming “I'M DRUNK! WHAT ARE YOU ALL STARING AT?!?”, just to mess with the college girls
There is a small movie poster shop next to the Village. The place is called “A TOUCH OF HOLLYWOOD” and it is run by a guy named EVAN, who is buddies with DEVIN. Evan and Devin are talking about new movie releases & favorite directors and swapping filmmaking stories, when a disgruntled, chain-smoking JOHN CARPENTER wanders in and bursts their bubble with depressing stories about how HORRIBLE it is making movies.
Although it is night, the streets shimmer from a misty rain. Out in front of THE MANN PLAZA, there is a large coterie of Dungeons & Dragons geeks - tarps and wool blankets laid out - playing board games. They are camped out overnight to see the first show of RETURN TO OZ the following day. It is the last night of THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, and looking around Devin notices there are wolves running around loose on the streets of Westwood. He suddenly realizes this Westwood is an odd dream-like representation of the mid-80's Westwood: things are not entirely real and seem to be existing in a neon-glow Purple-Rain-music-video reality.
DRAIN BRAIN reveals information to Devin in the form of song lyric riddles.
“Darkness on the edge. Shadows where I stand. I search for the time on a watch with no hands”.
When DEVIN catches sight of MICHELLE at the Village, he is instantly reminded of his obsessive infatuation with her at the time (even to the point of losing 80 pounds in two months on the Matthew Modine Vision Quest crash-diet). Unfortunately, RUTGER HAUER seduces her with his celebrity status and robs Devin's opportunity. Rutger Hauer whisks her off to the UCLA carnival.
Meanwhile BURT - the crazy projectionist at the NATIONAL who endlessly rants about how terrible his life is - is setting up the 70mm SHOWSCAN Projector for a private screening for Steven Spielberg, Amy Irving, Douglas Trumball, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter and George Lucas. Devin has to be a part of this and meet his heroes: he wants to try and get Spielberg up to the booth to watch his latest Super8 film THE AFTERLIFE. Little does he know this film holds the key to his very existence...
Devin ultimately realizes he is in a self-created dream-world afterlife, a world where all the fantasy films of the time provide clues and are a key to his existence. Like the camped out kids playing RPG games, each course along the journey is a clue, every movie scene he walks in upon a message, every song lyric he hears a guide. The course of events are non-linear like a dream. Upon each step of this role-playing game of life, Devin finds himself intermittently slipping back into the PRESENT DAY - trapped in a purgatory, hanging out with two of his disgruntled malcontent friends: dopey JOHN BEKOLAI and angry STEVE CATTANI.
Riding as a passenger in their cars (a perennial passenger in life along for the ride), he is subjected to the inane torments of braindead BEKOLAI as he endlessly complains about health problems and inability to find female companionship. He creeps out girls as he stares them down on the streets and shouts at them from his car. He's like a Caveman in heat. His primal desire for female flesh is the only thing Bekolai is capable of making any decision about, as the end of each of his sentences is “I don't know” over and over.
CATTANI, a high-strung hateful person only interested in KINGS hockey, his entire life shaped around KINGS games leading to a meltdown anytime the Kings lose. Cattani drives around listening to TOM LEYKIS on the radio - a spew of misogynist hatred. Devin is trapped amongst this sad insanity 24-7 for what seem to be endless months and years before finally finding his way back to 1985 Westwood.
Now he must carefully tread this mid-80's fantasy world and find his way to the other side without stepping back to the present. The true AFTERLIFE where eternal peace and pleasure awaits.