Take a Drink: for cultural misunderstandings
Take a Drink: whenever CCH Pounder blows her top
Take a Drink: every time Phyllis (the daughter) shows up
Take a Drink: for the yellow thermos
Take a Drink: for any type of coffee
Take a Drink: whenever Jack Palance does something weird
Do a Shot: for… racism? Did that really just happen?
Do a Shot: holy shit, for those paintings
By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
An interesting cross-section of contemporary European independent directors seem to be fascinated with the archetypes and aura of the American West. I reviewed Frenchman Erick Zonca’s quite good Western-set drama Julia, and we have a review of the upcoming Danish Kristian Levring’s Mads Mikkelsen-starring full-blown Western, The Salvation. The film that may have kicked off this trend of Europeans mythologizing “the American other” was Percy Adlon’s 1988 Sundancey English language debut, Bagdad Cafe.
“Sundancey”, perfectly encapsulated
We open with a German tourist (Marianne Sagebrecht) being ditched by her husband in the Mojave desert. She accidentally grabs his suitcase from the trunk, then hikes down the road to a dilapidated truck stop/cafe/motel called the Bagdad, run by a stressed out woman (CCH Pounder) who recently kicked her own lazy husband to the curb. I’ll give you two guesses as to whether these two eccentric, headstrong women can find common ground, team up with the goofy cast of supporting characters living in the motel, and turn the Bagdad into a thriving business. Like I said… Sundancey.
Sure, the plot’s a rather simplistic, cheesy “Why can’t we be friends, and fart rainbows maybe?” type of deal, but precisely for that reason it’s hard to hate. The cast is clearly having of fun, and imbue their characters with an easy to root for innate decency, even when they’re screaming a lot (lookin’ at you, Ms. Pounder). Sagebrecht is a bit of a cipher, but a well-meaning one, Pounder commands the screen as always with her hard-nosed, hard-shelled persona, but when she melts, so do you, and Jack Palance is unlike you’ve ever seen him- a friendly, pervy, hippy drifter.
City Slicker‘s Jack Palance, folks.
A last shout out to Adlon’s unique sense of framing. Particularly in the beginning, he uses a lot of canted, almost Dutch angles which become particularly interesting when you notice how he moves objects in and out of them. It’s impressively precise, almost balletic.
Other stylistic tics, like the frantic cutting and color shifting aren’t so successful. They’re very 80s/90s MTV-feeling, and have aged about as well.
Bagdad Cafe is all quirk, no substance. It’s easy to like these characters, but it’s impossible to relate to the, because human beings simply don’t act like this. It’s cartoonish, which makes the small moments of drama fall utterly flat.
An American would never make this film, because an American has actual met Americans other places than their TV set. It’s rather amusing seeing what an earnest, but ill-informed foreigner thinks of us, but kind of annoying, too. Adlon apparently doesn’t know any teenagers, either, because young Phyllis is just bizarre- jive talkin’ (“Ma, you got any bread?”) and weirdly, borderline inappropriately sexualized. And you can rest assured that he doesn’t know any black people, because he betrays his friendly, but uncomfortably regressive fascination with them in a few eyebrow-raising scenes of the “Ooooh, can I touch your hair?” variety.
Bagdad Cafe is a generally likable, and certainly strange proto-indie flick from a definite outsider perspective of American life and culture.