|by David Cornelius
Following “Elephant Parts,” Michael Nesmith turned his eyes toward the movies. Over the next seven years, the phrase “Michael Nesmith Presents” would introduce four feature films. None of them were immediate successes in the box office sense. However, thanks to a booming video market that allowed for such things to happen, three of them went on to become cult classics - one of them even becoming such a major underground hit that it practically defines what it takes to be a cult favorite.
We begin with “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann” (1982), which Nesmith not only co-produced, but also co-wrote. His partner in scripting was William Dear, his “Elephant Parts” collaborator who made this is big feature debut. (He would later go on to helm such titles as “Harry and the Hendersons,” “If Looks Could Kill,” and the Disney remake of “Angels In the Outfield.” Yikes. On the plus side, he also directed the highly memorable mummy episode of the 1980s anthology series “Amazing Stories.”) Nesmith would also provide the musical score and even appear in a bit part.
The key to understanding the film can be found right there in the title. It’s not the “adventures,” but merely “the adventure” - singular, not plural - of our leading man; it’s an off-kilter approach to a title that suggests that we’re in for something slightly different. What we get is a solid time travel B movie in which motorcycle racer Swann (the great, underrated Fred Ward) gets accidentally zapped back into the 1870s. This being the desert, Swann doesn’t even realize he’s been zapped - everything looks the same when it’s all sand and tumbleweed. Even when he stumbles across a worn-down mission, he’s convinced that it’s 1982. In fact, he spends the entire movie, right up to the big finale, certain that this is all modern day goings-on, and those around him are merely folks with a penchant for living the old fashioned lifestyle.
Which makes Swann a bit of a dumbass, to be sure, but in a likable way. It’s a fun way of balancing out the characters; usually, in a time travel story, the Guy From Our Time uses his knowledge of Modern Things to help beat the Guys From the Past Who Don’t Know Any Better. Here, however, things are turned around: it’s the bad guys that are the smart ones. The head baddie, deliciously played by a gold-toothed Peter Coyote (who, let’s face it, hasn’t played nearly enough cowboy bad guys in his career), doesn’t look at Swann’s motorcycle and become some primitive ape man, like we’d expect. No, he’s a smart guy, understanding that this is simply the latest technology. He calls it “the machine,” and he becomes desperate to own it.
The best thing about the film, in fact, are the bad guys. Coyote’s devilish posturing is a sheer joy, while Richard Masur and Tracey Walter add plenty of fun as Coyote’s greasy henchmen (one even gets his nose shot clean off, providing a wonderfully odd image for the rest of the film). These three give us everything we want in cowboy villainy.
That’s good, as the film tends to stumble in too many other places. There’s a budding romance between Swann and a take-charge heroine (Belinda Bauer) that drags. The modern day bits, in which scientists race to retrieve Swann, feels dropped in as filler, padding for the running time. And a predictable twist at the end comes off as too obligatory, the kind of wink you’d expect to find in a time travel story, whether it earns one or not.
That said, “Timerider” pulls itself off as an enjoyable slice of 80s dumb fun, an actioner as corny and as entertaining as its own title. It would also stand as Nesmith’s last go at scriptwriting until the 1997 TV special “Hey Hey It’s the Monkees.” He would instead back off, acting as producer for three more films, wisely allowing other artists to tell their stories as best they saw fit.
Such artistic freedom allowed the gradual success of Nesmith’s follow-up production, the Alex Cox punk masterpiece “Repo Man” (1984). A cult hit upon its release that has grown in popularity ever since, “Repo Man” has gone on to become one of those movies, like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Evil Dead II,” that are so indispensable that you can’t make a list of essential cult classics without it.
For those who have not yet seen it (and I use the word “yet” because really, you should be watching it now), the film stars Emilio Estevez as Otto, inhabitant of a lost, not-too-distant-future dystopia who lands work as, well, as a repo man. The plot, as much as there is one, is driven by the search for a wanted 1964 Chevy Malibu with a big money reward - the catch being that there’s something in the trunk that burns people in a flash, and that there are UFO experts and mysterious government types on the hunt as well.
The plot’s not really the point, though. “Repo Man” exists merely to shake the joint up. Just as punk rock broke the rules of pop music, “Repo Man” breaks the rules of pop Hollywood. And just as punk rock reflected the angst of teen life in the post-hippie years, Cox, who wrote and directed, infuses punk sensibilities into his film. His movie is a scream against the stagnant rut of the early 80s, which found too many rebels and not enough causes, suburban boredom fueling teens to become disenfranchised with the world their ex-hippie parents have built.
And so we get the consumer age gone mad. Otto eats from a can of food labeled, generic-style, “food.” His parents’ lives involve staring blankly at the evangelist on the television (“God wants your money,” he declares). Characters are named Bud, Miller, and Lite, as if branded themselves. Nothing seems to mean anything anymore. What better job in such an age, than stealing property? In an age of take, take, take, the guy that takes back is the ultimate rebel.
If “Repo Man” cries out for anything, it’s for a return to a world where people have ethics, pride, and hard rules by which to live. Otto spends the movie listening to the ramblings of his coworkers, none of which are more visionary than Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), who teaches Otto the Repo Code, then laments, “Not many people got a code to live by anymore.” The repo men here are samurai, men of honor in a world without any.
Of course, Cox refuses to take any of this too seriously. “Repo Man” works because it’s an oddball comedy unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Its humor is so dry it could soak up an ocean (“It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.”), yet so outlandish that it refuses to understand the meaning of the word “understatement.” It’s a masterpiece, wild and angry and confusing and endlessly funny.
The term “masterpiece” can most definitely not be applied to Nesmith’s next production effort. “Square Dance” (1987), directed by Daniel Petrie and written by Alan Hines (based on his novel), is a castle of badness surrounded by a moat of unintentional hilarity. Where else will you find a young Winona Ryder, complete with bad-fakey Southern accent, teaming up with a young Rob Lowe, playing Forrest Gump?
Yup, the movie finds Ryder playing shy, likable hick Juanelle, who ditches her inexplicably cranky grandfather (Jason Robards) in order to spend the summer with her long-lost mom (Jane Alexander, playing against type as the Skankiest Skank of All), all in the process of coming of age. (It’s so “coming-of-age” that she even gets her first period. No subtleties here.) In mom’s small town, there’s a local retarded boy who luckily looks like Rob Lowe, which means we’re looking at the miscasting of the decade. It also means we have to watch Rob Lowe squeak out a mildly insulting “look at me, I’m playing a retard!” performance. Yikes.
When not insulting us with vapid clichés and cheap stock characters, the movie is boring us by crawling along at a snail’s pace. It’s this dreadful mix of the hilariously bad and the painfully slow that reminded me that I didn’t actually have to watch the entire movie for this article; I turned it off about halfway through. I pity the poor critic who sat through the whole damn thing.
To his credit, Nesmith seems to have distanced himself from this one. While he offers the movie for sale at his website, he doesn’t bother to appear on the DVD commentary - it’s the only one of his productions that he does not. A bad sign? Probably.
Things get better with his next (and final) production. I’ve never been as rabid a fan of “Tapeheads” (1988) as others, but still, when one combines John Cusack, Tim Robbins, Sam Moore, Junior Walker, Don Cornelius, Fishbone, a heavy dose of rock video satire, and a heavier dose of pure anarchy, one’s bound to come out with, well, if not a great film, than at least a immensely fun one.
Directed and co-written by Bill Fishman (the start of an odd career, which would find him helming the royal bomb “Car 54, Where Are You,” producing the 1993 western “Posse,” and reuniting with Nesmith on “Hey Hey It’s the Monkees”), “Tapeheads” is a salute to absurdity as filtered through a gonna-make-it-big storyline. Cusack and Robbins star as two young hopefuls, fired from their security guard jobs (for allowing a horde to partiers to come in and trash the place); they eventually start their own video company, Video Aces. Making It Big ensues.
The film cares less about plot than it does about its unruly attitude. “Tapeheads” overflows with a youthful energy that echoes the film’s tagline and most memorable quote: “Let’s get into trouble, baby!” And so we get a slapdash story about a presidential candidate (side note: his opponent is played by Bobcat Goldthwait!) whose kinky sex exploits (or “sexploits,” if you must) are caught on tape, with his efforts to recover said tape leading to general mayhem. Meanwhile, the Aces discover their favorite soul duo, the Swanky Modes (Moore and Walker), barely eking out a living by singing in a cheap dive; the boys conspire to bring their idols back to stardom, a plan that just might overlap with an upcoming Menudo concert.
So you can see we’re not working with mainstream fare here. Which is part of the film’s ultimate charm. Here’s a work that’s daring enough, or, at least, naïve enough, to try anything and everything, all in the name of a good time. It’s a comedy, but instead of resorting to cheap, easy laughs, it resorts to weirdo, tricky, where-the-hell-did-that-come-from laughs. (Consider the scene in which Robbins and Cusack are required to close their eyes and recite the alphabet backwards, without the vowels, while also providing the letters in International Sign Language. It’s a moment that’s so out of left field in its silliness that one can’t help but rewind and watch it again.)
Granted, the film’s go-for-anything ways keep it from being the work of genius it could have become - it’s simply too rambling for anything to truly stick. Still, it’s one hell of a good time. Any film that ends with an oversized concert featuring Sam Moore and Junior Walker is bound to leave you smiling. And any film that teams Cusack and Robbins in any way is bound to entertain. (Exhibits B-F: “The Sure Thing,” “High Fidelity,” “Bob Roberts,” “Cradle Will Rock,” “The Player.”)
Back, though, to Michael Nesmith. Since “Tapeheads,” he has yet to return to the world of moviemaking, opting instead to focus on his first love, music. This leaves him with an impressive track record as a producer: four films; three of them both good and, over time and thanks to video, successful in their own right; two of them wildly so, as far as the “cult” niche is concerned; one of them now so popular among film buffs that it is considered among the very best of cult cinema. Not bad for a guy who started out on a sitcom and spends most of his time making music.
“Timerider,” “Square Dance,” and “Tapeheads” are all available on DVD from that trusted name in overlooked video, Anchor Bay Entertainment. “Repo Man” is available on DVD from Universal, although Anchor Bay’s earlier, more deluxe special edition of the film, while no longer in print, is still easily available at various sources online. You can also find those and other Nesmith projects at his website, Video Ranch.
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originally posted: 04/14/05 14:07:42
last updated: 04/14/05 22:49:04