Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks sunshine on your shoulder makes you happy, but an arm growing out of your spinal cord might make you cry.
"I'm reminded tonight of something that happened to me the other day. I
went to the post office to get some stamps. I waited my usual three hours on
line. And just as I was getting to the window, an announcement was made that if
anybody just needed stamps to move into a different line. So I moved into the
different line, and this giant boot came down from the ceiling and stamped me on
the head. Oooh, do I have a headache."
This film does have a fan base, and I can understand it. Writer/Director Adam Rifkin creates a seedy, gimmicky circus world that is either going to draw in or repel the viewer. I just wish he had more of a story to tell.
Facts of the Case
Marty Malt (Judd Nelson, New Jack City) wants to be a stand-up comic. The problem is, he's not funny. He's not even funny in an unfunny way. He's just pathetic.
He lives in a town where the sun never really shines and everything seems to be owned by a company called Blump, which makes disgusting processed food such as Weaselroni. His only real friend is Gus (Bill Paxton, Big Love), a manic accordion player with a thing for morbidly obese women. Marty is also having a passionless romance with Rosarita (Lara Flynn Boyle, Twin Peaks), a counter girl at the local greasy spoon.
One day, Marty discovers a lump on his back. He visits Dr. Scurvy (James Caan, Brian's Song), who puts a Band-Aid on it. The lump continues to grow, soon developing into a hand, and then an arm. Marty is now a bona fide freak.
While this disgusts Rosarita, Gus sees it as an opportunity and contacts a smarmy theatrical agent, Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton, 80 Steps to Jonah). Chrome gets Marty (now billed as Desi, the Three-Armed Wonder Comic, and accompanied by Gus on the accordion) bookings into local clubs and even a spot on a local TV kiddie program.
But fame remains elusive until Dirk Delta (Rob Lowe, The West Wing), talent agent for a popular late-night TV show, catches the act. When he offers them a spot on the show, it looks like Marty, Gus, and Jackie are on their way up—but then, tragedy strikes.
The Dark Backward is the kind of film that inspires a long, hot, post-viewing shower. Everything in the movie, from the sets to the characters, is grimy and grotesque. Marty is a pinched-thin mass of grease and sweat; Gus literally eats anything—and in one scene, stumbles upon the corpse of a nude woman and licks it. The streets are filled with garbage and people's homes are cluttered with dirty laundry, old newspapers, and junk. There is a green tinge to everything, as if this world is illuminated with fluorescent lights.
Beyond its look, though, there's really not a lot to hold on to in The Dark Backward. The theme of fame-as-a-freak-show is hardly new, and wrapping that idea in a gross package was done before, and better, by John Waters in Female Trouble. Nelson's Marty is so bland and hapless that it's hard to feel anything for him, and the rest of the characters, as written and directed, are just cartoons.
Nelson and Paxton do very well with the material. Nelson, in particular, gives a courageously geeky performance in a role that is the antithesis of the cute-boy hipsters he had been playing in films such as The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, From the Hip, and The Billionaire Boys Club. The closest that he comes to "cool" is wearing an oversize suit that looks like it was donated by David Byrne after the Stop Making Sense tour.
Unfortunately, the film just doesn't come together in a satisfying way. While it takes a jaundiced view of show business as an outlet for gimmicks rather than talent, the film itself relies on gimmicks to make its points. Writer/director Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City) was 19 when he wrote this script and 25 when he directed it (he had directed three other little-seen films in the interim). The film is a young man's notion of a great idea without a strong narrative to support it. This could have worked well as a short film, but it is stretched to the breaking point at 104 minutes.
We get a ton of extras on this disc, and in a nice touch, most have introductions by Rifkin, who also does a three-minute intro to the film. These extras are shot at Rifkin's home with what appears to be a camcorder. Rifkin frequently talks to the cameraman ("Does this look good here?"), making it clear that these are home movies.
First up is a feature-length commentary with Rifkin, Nelson, Paxton, and producer Brad Wyman. Rifkin describes The Dark Backward as a "labor of love," and he's obviously correct. Virtually the entire creative team has gotten together for this release, and the commentaries and interviews have a "class reunion" feel to them. While the years—and the industry—have been less-than kind to Nelson, Paxton has been quite successful, and it's endearing to see his continued affection for this odd, obscure project. As far as the commentary itself, it's fun and filled with anecdotes but has a few too many instances of people talking over each other.
Blump's Squeezable Documentary gives the history of the making of The Dark Backward. In addition to Rifkin, Paxton, Nelson, and Wyman, Wayne Newton and Editor Peter Schink also weigh in with observations and recollections.
There was a 15th anniversary screening in Hollywood last year with Rifkin, Paxton, Nelson, and Wyman in attendance. After the screening, they sat for a Q&A with the audience, and that session is included on the disc.
As might be expected, with four people providing close to three hours of commentary and anecdotes, there is quite a bit of overlap here.
The six minutes of outtakes are pretty much what you'd expect, actors flubbing lines, making "outrageous" jokes, and the like. The deleted scenes are mainly extensions of existing scenes and, typically, wouldn't have added much if they'd been included.
An interesting addition is a series of short promotional films that Rifkin, Wyman, and Nelson made to take to Cannes to find backing. These include bits of Nelson doing Marty's wretched stand-up routine. We get the full-length version of a cartoon shown briefly on a black-and-white TV in the film. The cartoon is derivative of the "Itchy and Scratchy" adventures on The Simpsons, and we learn that the animator went on to work on that popular program. "Catch My Dreams," a hip-hop song "inspired" by Rifkin and film, features clips from the movie. If you're a completist, you'll be distressed to learn that the trailer for The Dark Backward is not included, but there are previews for other, unrelated films.
The transfer is very nice, its crispness and clarity belying the film's low-budget origins. The stereo track offers a good presentation of not only the dialogue, but the background noise that is so important for setting the mood of this film.
If you are already a fan of this film, you will be over the moon about this release. Big props to Sony. A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed their release of 20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition and found they did a spectacular job for a film that was not a wildly popular title. They have done the same thing here. While I'm not crazy about the film, Sony's presentation is beyond reproach.
Sony is commended by the court for its excellent treatment of non-mainstream films. Marty Malt is to remain in a holding cell until he learns how to tell a joke.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by director Adam Rifkin (3:00)
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