By James David Patrick
A merely adequate double bill keeps you awake and engaged, whereas the best double bills create opposing and complementary forces that allow for a dialogue between films. In his New York Times feature, “In Praise of the Double Feature,” J. Hoberman states “the double feature created the art of programming.” Home moviewatchers fancy themselves festival programmers every time they plan a multi-movie lineup or invite friends over for a movie marathon. Picking any two random movies from your shelf requires no nuance or consideration. That’s not programming. Good doubles (or triples!) hold our interest throughout and leave us wanting more – no matter how much movie we endure. But what’s the difference between adequacy and excellence? Let’s dive deeper.
While there’s scholastic value in comparing The Thing From Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), for example, it requires no creative matchmaking to associate an original with its remake. Likewise, it’s not viewer-friendly to program tonal stasis. Since we’ve made the 1990s the topic at hand, consider the following coupling: Malice (1993) and Pacific Heights (1992) – dark, effective ‘90s thrillers with similar narrative backbones. Monotony sets in after more than three hours of income properties gone horribly wrong. The juxtaposition of seemingly disparate films, however, teaches us something about how we watch movies. The greatest doubles allow viewers to discover new threads of connectivity that might not have been otherwise apparent.
For the sake of worthy conversations and DVD Netflix-aided double-bill home viewing, I’ve come up with eight pairs of films from the 1990s that might seem incompatible. These movies are curious yins to misshapen yangs. Some connections will be more obvious, while others might benefit from – dare I say – discussion with other humans. And don’t just take my word for it – look to find your own mysterious connections and then plan some of your own wild and crazy double features.
As I brainstormed dysfunctional 1990s doubles, my list grew to untenable proportions (24 and counting!). I’ve presented merely eight of my Netflix DVD-friendly suggestions here – and I’ll discuss the rest on my blog at thirtyhertzrumble.com in the near future. In the meantime, tweet me your magic double features from the 1990s at @007hertzrumble. Let’s start a revolution and rediscover movies we thought we knew.
1. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999) + Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage, 1997)
Assassin ennui. These aren’t just eccentric cinematic assassins, Jarmusch and Armitage present two singular perspectives on being human and living by a moral code. Martin Blank (John Cusack) and Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker) are outsiders that crave human connection. Compare Blank’s one-sided Alan Arkin therapy sessions with Ghost Dog’s visits to the French ice cream man in the park. Though the films find dissimilar resolutions, each character comes to certain realizations about the fragility and purposefulness of life.
Asphalt daydreams, concrete nightmares. In Quick Change, a gang of bank robbers (Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Randy Quaid) gets stuck within labyrinthine New York City, unable to escape with their loot. The much darker Judgment Night depicts a group of friends that get lost on their way to a boxing match, witness a murder, and can’t escape the clutches of the city. While Quick Change coaxes out the malaise beneath its anti-heroes, Judgment Night places innocents (Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding, Stephen Dorff, and Jeremy Piven) into an urban nightmare stalked by maniacal Denis Leary. Watch Quick Change first so you can wail “Flores para los Muertos… LOS MUERTOS” during both.
Workaday schleps gone rogue. Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) toils away in the soul-sucking employ of a company that makes rectal probes before he learns he’s suffering from a terminal illness called a “brain cloud.” He jumps at the chance to throw himself into adventure and a volcano for the good of a tribe called the Waponi-Wu (and the capitalistic whims of Samual Graynamore). In Croupier, struggling writer Jack (Clive Owen) takes a job as a croupier to pay the bills. Joe’s pre-diagnosis world and Jack’s casino highlight the same sense of existential emptiness. Joe learns to believe in fate and love and powers beyond human comprehension. Jack, however, stumbles into redemption of a different kind. Both stories meditate on fate and chance in uncommon and thought-provoking ways.
Crazy? Maybe… For a glorious moment in 1990s independent cinema, Parker Posey represented the peak of chic. While some films merely showcased her effervescent personality, others used that effervescent personality as a front for a cascade of darkness. Posey stars as a girl called Jackie-O. Though obviously obsessed with the Kennedys, that obsession pales next to her obsession with her brother. Mental instability drives the drama and awkward, inappropriate laughter becomes the viewer’s release. Benny and Joon, however, treats mental illness with a lighter touch – albeit with a surprising edge – that grounds the film when it could have easily flown away on the wings of caustic clichés. A mentally ill young girl (a wonderful Mary Stuart Masterson) falls in love with a spirited young eccentric who may or may not be all that “sane” himself. Johnny Depp’s nimble performance taps into the spirits of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The film looks at love between marginalized people and doesn’t shy away from embracing the sadness within these characters. The pairing of these two films dives into a discussion of the treatment of mental illness on screen – good, bad, and the grey areas in between.
The burden of solitude. Follow me down this rabbit hole. Consider each movie with a broad focus that ignores genre. Liman’s Swingers is a coming-of-age story. Trent (the vociferous Vince Vaughn) and Mike (Jon Favreau) try to break into the acting business, woo some ladies and attempt maturity – if they can overcome their burdensome insecurities. Soavi’s titular Cemetery Man, Francesco (Rupert Everett), has become so immersed in his job of eliminating the zombies that rise from the grave that he’s unable to relate to the living. His only true friend, Gnaghi, carries a single-word vocabulary (Gna!). Watch these movies together and consider the art of human interaction, our need for connection and the fools we become when it all falls apart. I especially love the contrast between Trent and Gnaghi. Maybe they’re not necessarily all that different.
Bizarre love triangles. Nuptial-fearing Nicolas Cage takes Sarah Jessica Parker to Vegas to get married – but scheming James Caan spots the lovely bride-to-be in the casino and aims to split up the happy couple by fleecing him in a rigged poker game. In the tonally nimble The Grifters, Frears has crafted a neo-noir Oedipal story. John Cusack’s Roy hates his mother – the cold, manipulative Lilly (Angelica Huston) – but operates his smalltime con career on a joyless parallel path. While Lilly displays maternal instincts that approximate protectiveness, she also sees him as a rival and kisses him in ways that no mother should. Into this dynamic strolls blonde sexpot Myra (Annette Bening). Lilly sees through her “girlfriend” façade; naive Roy doesn’t. Honeymoon in Vegas boasts flying Elvises and Nic Cage in rhinestones and The Grifters sadly doesn’t, but the movies hurtle toward curiously carbon-copy gender-reversed confrontations.
7. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard, 1990) + Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997)
The lies that bind! In Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet riff, two minor characters and childhood friends of the Danish prince take center stage. Only they don’t really remember Hamlet, so they have to fib their way through the movie, unaware of their scripted fate in the narrative. The “so clever it hurts” premise provides the playground for standout comedic performances from Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss. So what’s a high school reunion got to do with this? The blissfully ditzy party girls Romy and Michele (Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow) descend upon their ten-year high school reunion pretending to be the inventors of Post-It Notes. The lies might originate from different insecurities, but the prognosis for each charade remains the same.
Parents are human. What do a gritty Texas border mystery and an Albert Brooks comedy about going home again have in common? The discovery and ultimate understanding of misunderstood parental units. John Sayles’s Western-noir masterpiece of character explores the generational divide, race, class and the hidden stories that remain untold. Albert Brooks does all the same things, mostly. In Mother, Albert Brooks plays a novelist moving back in with his mother in order to improve their relationship. Like the best of Brooks, Mother is predictably droll, but Debbie Reynolds returns Brooks’ verbal barbs with equal and opposite sexagenarian manic-pixie force.
James David Patrick is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a movie-watching problem. He has a degree in Film Studies from Emory University that gives him license to discuss Russian Shakespeare adaptations at cocktail parties. You’ll find him crate diving at local record shops. James blogs about movies, music, and ‘80s nostalgia at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. Follow him on Twitter @007hertzrumble, Instagram, and Facebook.