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Pipe Dreams and Pipe Bombs 

Garage Days and The Anarchist Cookbook

Thursday, Jul 17 2003
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Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

From its opening dream sequence — in which wide-eyed, bleach-haired Freddy (Kick Gurry) imagines himself the mania-inducing headliner of a popular alterna-rock band, jamming before a crowd of thousands in a huge arena — through to the Sydney-set scenes that follow, there’s a fairy-tale texture to the jazzy, exuberant images in Garage Days, the third feature by the Australian writer-director Alex Proyas. The angular, art-deco buildings seem to have sprung from a pop-up storybook, as do the characters — Freddy and his posse of rock-star-aspirant friends — who inhabit them. And while it may come as a surprise to viewers familiar with Proyas’ prior efforts (the agonizingly gloomy The Crow and Dark City) that the filmmaker has traded in his standing-in-the-shadows-of-Blade-Runner atmosphere for a sunnier disposition, Garage Days maintains those films’ otherworldly feel. Although it’s Proyas’ first movie set in the present, you wouldn’t necessarily know that to look at it.

If all this makes it sound like Proyas has merely switched from one stripped gear to the next, from riffing on Ridley Scott to copying the licks of one of his own countrymen, Baz Luhrmann, that’s because it’s partly true. Except that Proyas beats Baz at his own game; he suggests what Luhrmann (or, for that matter, Charlie’s Angels director McG) might be like with a more disciplined sense of composition and editing. The scenes in Garage Days don’t really flow into one another — they’re all disjointed, TV-commercial-style vignettes — but at least they’re scenes, with recognizable beginnings, middles and ends (which is more than you can say about a lot of current movies, and a lot more than you can say about Moulin Rouge). Though he hasn’t really succeeded at it, Proyas — who co-wrote Garage Days with Michael Udesky and famed Aussie songwriter Dave Warner — has at least tried something here: a movie more about people than pyrotechnics that’s still true to his patented pyrotechnical style.

In addition to its generally pleasant air, Garage Days has a number of very funny sequences, the best of which is a dinner-with-the-parents scene that devolves into an LSD-laced, Beetle Juice–style song-and-dance number scored to Rick James’ “Super Freak.” The fresh-faced cast is a game bunch, particularly Martin Csokas (the villain from XXX) as the Oz-like (as in Wizard of) music manager sought out by Freddy and the gang. And the movie is built around a clever comic conceit: that Freddy’s band, for all its heartfelt dedication, may not actually be that talented — or talented at all. (Proyas doesn’t let us finally hear them play until the movie’s penultimate scene.)

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So what’s the problem here? Essentially that dazzling imagery and a grab bag of wry jokes, no matter how lively, can take a movie only so far when there’s no emotional ballast attached. Like Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later, Proyas returned to his native land to make Garage Days, with a modest budget and relatively unknown actors, having high-tailed it out of Hollywood after the high-profile failure of Dark City (not quite the public hanging that The Beach was for Boyle, but still nothing to write home about). The idea for both filmmakers seems to have been to get away from the corrosive Hollywood machinery by making a movie on their own terms. Except that where Boyle already had the meritorious Trainspotting under his belt (and could, presumably, get himself back into that frame of filmmaking mind), Proyas has never made a movie about real people before, a movie that didn’t rely on visual effects and action choreography to carry the brunt of its impact. And, judging by Garage Days, real people is not exactly his strong suit. This isn’t just a movie of the MTV generation (for which Proyas is something of a poster child, having directed more than 100 music videos), it’s the movie equivalent of MTV — something you can have playing in the background while vacuuming your apartment and not risk the feeling that you’re missing anything important. Though it keeps hinting at something deeper, Garage Days is wafer thin.

Not that there’s anything wrong with wafer thin — evidence Walter Hill’s triumphant Streets of Fire, which drew on our nostalgic, B-movie memories to give its not dissimilar rock & roll fantasia a resonance. But Garage Days, which wants to rub the convulsive power of raw, unadulterated rock music in the face of the Britney Spears/Clay Aiken generation, feels like a filmmaker trying to get in touch with roots he doesn’t really have. Which may be the ultimate curse of the music-video-bred filmmaker — or, perchance, the great untapped subject for an Alex Proyas movie.

 

Instead of rock stars, the youths of The Anarchist Cookbook which glibly appropriates the title of William Powell’s infamous terrorism primer — play at being revolutionaries, while the movie’s writer-director, Jordan Susman, plays at making a throwback counterculture movie, his The Strawberry Statement or Getting Straight. No matter that Susman, a graduate of the USC film school (which, speaking from personal experience, is about as countercultural as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), doesn’t seem to have an anarchic bone in his body. (I’d be surprised if he ever so much as stole a candy bar from a drugstore.) Indeed, it’s tough to tell much about Susman’s actual ideological beliefs from watching The Anarchist Cookbook; it’s so devoid of a personal imprint that either Susman doesn’t have very clearly formed opinions himself or he isn’t much good at getting them across to the audience. The first part of the movie — which follows a ragtag bunch of self-proclaimed radicals who live together and go about staging environmental-protection and animal-rights demonstrations — feels as inauthentic as the second, in which, following a Lord of the Flies–esque unraveling of these merry pranksters’ commune, our slogan-spouting hero, Puck (Devon Gummersall), sets out to rejoin the mainstream society he allegedly despises.

I suppose it’s a good thing that Susman doesn’t seem to buy into either the Weather Underground propaganda of the movie’s start or the Bush-administration agenda of its finish. But neither does he make much of the ambiguous middle ground in between. Instead, he plays both sides of an argument against the center, hoping that the rest will take care of itself (which it never does). Although Puck and his cohorts, led by John Savage as an aging ’60s rebel, are supposed to be modern-day malcontents — the ones, we’re told, who protested the World Bank and IMF in the streets of Davos and Seattle — Susman’s script makes them seem the most superficial of revolutionaries, invoking sociopolitical catch phrases both old (“selling your soul to the Man”) and new (“Music is a right, not a privilege”), quoting from Yeats and Wittgenstein and wallowing in some unbearably unoriginal clichés (like when a whip-cracking dominatrix turns out to be a member of the Texas Christian Women’s University Young Republican House).

The movie, at least, is earnest. No doubt the private investors who financed this wholly independent, Texas-made production felt their money went to a good cause, that of suggesting that the youth of today aren’t all conservative, consumerist soldiers suited up for dronelike acquiescence — or, for that matter, unthinking mouthpieces of some retro leftist political agenda. But as the ongoing case of one Sherman Martin Austin (reported about in this very publication last week) points up, such matters are not as easily distilled as Susman would like. The Anarchist Cookbook drops a few scant sparks onto a torch that, hopefully, some other filmmaker will come along and run with.

GARAGE DAYS | Directed by ALEX PROYAS | Written by DAVE WARNER, PROYAS and MICHAEL UDESKY | Produced by TOPHER DOW and PROYAS | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex

THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK | Written and directed by JORDAN SUSMAN | Produced by ROBERT LATHAM BROWN, AMY GREENSPUN and SUSMAN | Released by American World Pictures | At the Nuart

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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