Backtrack (1990), review of a criminally underrated film.

I’ll admit, the tagline sucks.  It becomes apparent why.

Rated: 3.5 / 5

 

Introduction

backtrack (verb):
1. To go back over the course by which one has come.
2. To return to a previous point or subject.
3. To reverse one’s position or policy.

— The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

This is one of those films not many know about, and if they do know about it they’re probably only aware of the theatrical cut.  Upon my first viewing, that’s the version I saw.  Sometimes the film goes by the alternative title Catch Fire, other times it goes by the intended title Backtrack.  Either way, it’s most likely the theatrical cut (TC).  The Director’s Cut (DC), on the other hand, can be found and can be viewed.  But as far as I can tell, it’s only available on VHS.  It has never gotten a DVD release, let alone a Blu-Ray release.  So I had to settle for lesser video quality, which is a shame because it becomes impossible to make out some text that, while not mandatory to see, would certainly improve the viewing experience.  Also hurts that it’s not available in widescreen unless it’s the TC version.

To make a long story short, the DC is far superior to the TC.  This is a criminally underrated film, underrated because of the ravished treatment it got by studio interference which made it more shallow than intended (to the point where Dennis Hopper demanded his name be removed from it as director).  Also underrated because it is misunderstood, primarily because of the TC treatment, also because few have seen the DC version, and because those who do watch it tend to view it more as a guilty pleasure than anything else (though I will admit, that’s how I initially viewed it until giving it a closer look).

Jenny Holzer reference.

 

Director’s Cut Review

This film is a cry for something different.  A film that is aware of how stale films in general have gotten, which is something more relevant today than back when this was made.  Granted I’m only speaking from my current experience, but I do recall there being plenty of 70s and 80s films that generally had bleak endings and/or formulaic plots and atmosphere/progression that seem to come straight out of an assembly line; the independent film wave of the 90s. had yet to hit, but it was just around the corner after this film’s release.  The statement is made early on with one of the LED art signs which states:

I AM CRAZY BORED AND FAMILIAR WITH THE ENDING

And another sign which states:

I WALK IN AND OUT OF THE CRACKS OF MY SKULL WHEN THERE IS NOTHING

Blatant, literal, with very little wiggle room for interpretation.  This is the art style of one of our main protagonists Anne Benton (played by Jodie Foster).  She specializes in LED light art for politics, personal relationships, cliches, and for statements on the excessives of average people.  LED lights appeal to her because they are familiar, they are everywhere, and people are drawn to them.  Normally they are used for advertisements, for shallow consumption; but she aims to use them for artistic merit.

 

A reference to another artist, Georgia O’Keefe.

But in so making her art so literal, the abstract is sacrificed (to the point where other artists, including one played by Bob Dylan, look down on it).  While her art is easy to understand, her wants/needs/desires are not.  She isn’t truly happy, and she subconsciously wants something different, but she can’t figure this out for herself because she is so literal.

Oh yeah, Bob Dylan is in this.

Opposite of Anne is Milo (played by Dennis Hopper), a hitman for the mafia who also has a taste for the abstract art.  His hobby, when he’s not collecting art, is playing the saxophone.  He knows what he likes, he knows what he desires, but he has difficulty in expressing it clearly.  Thus he plays the sax very poorly, but becomes drawn to Anne’s art style because she can express things so clearly.

backtrack 1
PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT

The film becomes a sort of “opposite’s attract” love story, with a dose of Stockholm syndrome thrown in for good measure.  The plot is about artist Anne witnessing a mob murder, then being chased by the mob, the police, and the mob hitman Milo.  Milo eventually tracks her down, but decides to keep her as his own rather than kill her.  Over time, they both fall in love with each other, and attempt to flee the mob and the police together.  There are a few ways to interpret this, one of which is the happy union of the literal and the abstract.  Of having art daring to try something different, something many may find controversial.  Of having two art forms together that shouldn’t be together, that just don’t match up.  But the thing about art is that it is subjective.  Some will enjoy various forms more than others.  And sometimes the strangest combinations can work.  In the case of the film, the idea that Stockholm syndrome can work; in that regard, I state that this film was ahead of it’s time before Beauty and the Beast made that shit popular.  And come on, not everything can turn out like The Collector (1965).

There is also a reference to D.H. Lawrence in this film, which is ironic not because he expressed similar themes about relationships in his works, but also because his works were also subject to censorship and misrepresentation.  It’s as if the controversy surrounding this film only helps to make its point, though it would be nice if the DC was around in some modern streaming service or on DVD/Blu-Ray so others to appreciate it.

“Passion’s a hard thing to conceal.”

Let’s get back on track here (heheh).  Anne’s LED signs have an affect on Milo.  Signs with messages such as:

LACK OF CHARISMA CAN BE FATAL

EVEN YOUR FAMILY CAN BETRAY YOU

MEET DREAMS YOU CAN’T RESIST

CALM IS MORE CONDUCTIVE TO CREATIVITY THAN IS ANXIETY

PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT

The art inspires him, makes him want to change his life.  But being a hitman who has difficulty in expressing himself, that’s kind of difficult to do (obviously).  And on top of that, he becomes self-aware at how much he sucks (or more appropriately, blows) at playing the sax.  So he opts for kidnapping her, after being influenced to do so in a manner she mentions in an audio recording he gets a hold of, where she says:

“I don’t know if I can be with people I don’t know, if I’m fit for it anymore.  I’m cut off and I’m losing my connection.  I do have this fantasy.  There’s a man in the dark.  I can see his face.  He’s got a scarf around my neck and I know I’m gonna die.  And nothing else makes any difference.  I realize now that I’m selfish and I’ve always been selfish, and that’s fine.  […]  This time I actually believe I’m safe.  No one knows where I am, and eventually this will all be forgotten, and I’ll be forgotten too.”

So when he comes to kidnap her, he does so in the method she envisions.  He handcuffs her and wraps a scarf around her neck.  He then gives her the choice of being killed by him, or by living, but belonging to him.  She takes the second choice.  Thus Milo is fulfilling a desire within her, while also fulfilling his own desire.  Yet she is against this at first (understandably), and does not warm up to Milo at all for a long period of time.

backtrack 1

But as the film progresses from there, she eventually begins to accept her internal desires, and begins to accept Milo.  The literal and the abstract begin to intermix, and both become more accepting of each other’s views; though they get in an argument over the validity of the way each view art, and how meaningful their lives are whether together or as individuals; it is more-or-less reconciled soon after, as if the film doesn’t really give a shit about that typical moment in romance films where the inevitable temporal break-up happens before the inevitable reconciliation.  The film is attempting to be different after all, and could be said to be somewhat satirizing other films of that type of genre.

Which brings me to the other meaning to be had outside of abstract vs. literal art styles.  As stated earlier, it is a film that cries out to be different because it’s bored with the average Hollywood fluff that comes out regularly.  So the film itself opts to be different, not just with the progression of the plot and subject matter (Stockholm syndrome works), but also changing genres at various intervals.  It goes from being a thriller, to a slow-burn character study, to a teen romance (I’ll expand on that in a moment), to an action shoot-em-up, and having a happy ending in spite of the odds and how it seems to go against what had been built up during the first half (at least on an initial watch; it does fit together when looking at it from a critical stand-point, barring leaps in logic).  It attempts to make it so that either it gives you an ending you don’t expect, or an ending you’re not bored with even if it is expected.

Which brings me to the overall theme of the film, relating to the title Backtrack.  In one sense, it’s about backtracking to what made us enjoy films in the first place at an earlier age at an earlier time.  Particularly that of the 70s, and anything pre-Hay’s Code mid-1930s, and in the modern context, much of what has come since 2012 (personally, I think films have largely lost there edge at some point between 2006-2012, depending on how strict you are about film quality and allowing studios/directors to take chances with respectable budgets).  Just let the film-makers run wild and do what they want how they want, and come what may.  A cry for freedom, for independent film-making.  While the film’s cries may not have been heard, given that it bombed in theaters and was re-edited to make the theme convoluted, if not entirely absent, they were cries shared by others which lead to the indie film movement of the 90s.

The alternative way to look at the term backtrack is with how the characters go from being mature to immature during the 2nd act, primarily during the 2nd sexual encounter between Milo and Anne.  They go from being mature adults, who have been conditioned to lock away all childish thoughts and impulses over the years, to regressing back into a child-like state.  It’s like how college kids (or even teenage kids) who are in one of their first relationships would interact.  How they laugh and giggle, and how they become more care-free about the world (even though the dangers of reality creep in off and on with the mafia goons catching up to them).  They even bicker like teenagers at one or two points.  The backtrack refers to going back from adulthood to childhood.  Because children are more easily pleased, more easily entertained, than adults.  They possess something that is missing from adults which can make them more closed off and isolated.  They don’t have those walls built around them which are slowly but surely built as they age, especially in schools.  It’s something that was preached in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.  To backtrack is to tear it down.  Embrace what allowed you to embrace the joys found in childhood.  It is what can allow you to not be alone, to not become isolated.  But this doesn’t work if it’s one-sided.  Others can only be as accepting if they are just as free of this thought-control.  In order for that to happen, the current life must die in order for the new life to arise, like a phoenix.  The film represents this with the native american ceremony, the burning of the pilgrim, who represents people in general.

And when you think about it, don’t we all have our own innate desires that may be considered abnormal, or even taboo?  Some women want to be dominated by a macho man who can take charge.  Some men want to have a woman in a slave-like role.  Many want to have someone who can change their life for the better, even if it is done in extreme manners that usually only work out well in your head.  Some things that teenagers daydream about.   And in the end, all children enjoy seeing a happy ending.

It is a way of life Anne didn’t consciously realize she wanted.  She finds a piece of pottery under the dirt at this theater house in New Mexico, something she doesn’t understand yet, something she wasn’t actively looking for.  Then later on in the movie, she finds a matching set of pottery in an entirely different location (this may have implications within the literal context of the film, but I’m not sure myself).  Thus she realizes she has found something she didn’t even know she was looking for, which is fixing something she didn’t realize was broken.

One last thing before ending the analysis.  There comes a point in this movie where Jodie Foster’s character finds and cares for a lamb.  I shit you not.  And this came before she did the film Silence of the Lambs.  Good God, how can one not watch this portion of the movie without making jokes or puns?  But anyway, the film makes some symbolism of this by showing a statue of some woman with a lamb at the mob boss’ house, the mob boss being Vincent Price (someone make a Vincent Price as Hannibal Lector meme please, I’m begging ya’).

 

Issues With The Movie

Now as great as this all sounds, the film isn’t without its issues (putting aside TC and DC differences).  The helicopter action scene is mediocre at best.  There’s a moment where Milo leaves his sax behind before driving away from the cabin to run from the mafia, yet he has the sax back during the end credits (maybe he bought a new one).  Dennis Hopper may not have been the best choice to play Milo; he’s not terrible, but he seems a little too off and awkward even for his character.  And the ending is a bit far-fetched, but one could argue the reason those mob bosses put themselves in such a vulnerable state is because Vincent Price basically wanted them all to do, along with Milo, and coerced them into confronting Milo on their own.  This isn’t explicitly stated at all, but one could reach that conclusion with the dirty cop twist.  Still, would’ve been nice to have seen that conversation.

Some argue that the film falls apart and becomes stupid during the second half without how the dialogue and character interaction get, but I chalk that up to the whole Backtrack theme.  Of course the dialogue becomes more childish and less intelligent.  They’re backtracking!  As to whether that will be to your tastes, that’s up to you.

 

TC vs. DC

The music is different and far worse in the TC.  Both versions contain scenes that aren’t in the other, though the DC is the overall lengthier film.  Ultimately, the TC tries to make the film out to be some off-kilter action/thriller/romance flick, but it comes off as more awkward than the DC intended, and that’s saying a lot.  At first it sets up the feel that Anne isn’t in to Milo at all, to the point where he rapes her during their first encounter, that she berates him (as opposed to just messing with him in a lighthearted manner) during the second encounter.  Then next thing you know, she’s laughing with him and enjoying herself with him.  It comes out of the blue as opposed to the more gradual development seen in the DC.  Granted, it’s still a strange thing to see, the whole Stockholm thing working out, but at least the DC makes a better effort at it.  And they make it seem like Milo is an expert sax player in the TC, which contradicts that abstract-literal art theme which the TC pretty much tosses aside.  Lastly, they downplay (if not altogether remove) any hint that the movie is attempting to subvert expectations, to be a satire of mainstream film, or at the very least something that attempts to do something different just for the sake of doing something different, making that one of the main messages.  It does so by removing some of the LED light art which spells this out for the viewer.

backtrack 1
‘insert Vincent Price Hanibal impression here’

Take a look at how this scene differs greatly between the TC and DC versions of the film.  It’s amazing how much a difference in editing/pacing/music can change a scene.

 

Overall

Highly recommended movie, so long as it’s the DC version you’re watching.  It’s different and fun.  It’s something wants to be taken seriously, and yet doesn’t want to take things so seriously.  It’s an intentional fun contradiction.  A film made by an adult for adults who want to release a bit of their inner-child, while Joe Pesci is screaming fuck fucker motherfucker and motherfucking every other second he’s on the screen.  Plus you get to see Jodie Foster naked, which is incredible because I didn’t think that was possible.

 

 

PS: It is worth mentioning that the character Anne Benton is inspired off the real-life artist Jenny Holzer, who has been doing similar art styles since the 70s, and is still around today doing her own kind of art as far as I know.  Even the line, PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT is something that made her famous.  Seems as if she had an admirer in Dennis Hopper.

 

PPS: Jodie Foster probably did Silence of the Lambs after this just to spite the film, because she didn’t enjoy working on it.

 

Other recommendations for more on this film:

http://www.stockholmfilmfestival.se/en/festival/1991/film/backtrack

http://regrettablesincerity.com/?p=7151

https://mikestakeonthemovies.com/2018/07/13/backtrack-1990/

https://projectorhasbeendrinking.blogspot.com/2015/09/protect-me-from-what-i-want.html

https://dcpfilm.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/catchfire-hopper-1990/

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