Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Bad Influence: vice, versa and virtue





Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you and what I see is me
And do I take you by the hand
And lead you through the land
And help me understand the best I can

— Roger Waters, “Echoes”


  • I’d like to thank Glenn Heath for suggesting Bad Influence (1990) as January’s Film of the Month. Until now it’s been a forgotten noir hinged on the back end of the ‘80s, a decade rife with sleepy, sleazy thrillers patiently awaiting our discovery — preferably through groggy eyes at 3am on cable. It’s also a vital part of director Curtis Hanson’s ignored oeuvre, a gaggle of seemingly disparate mainstream pictures most critics wouldn’t own up to admiring. Fortunately, if just for the sake of this brief reflection, I’m not in the same league as ‘most critics.’

        Set in that mythical movie world where beautiful twenty-somethings undergo dizzying rites of passage, unaffected by the mundane concerns of food, rent and insurance premiums, Bad Influence follows James Spader, a corporate overachiever with dubious morals en route to his dark side. Beau hunk Rob Lowe is the guide, sinister yin to Spader’s complacent yang, a nasty parasite feeding on his host’s good nature. In time, their Faustian association provides Spader with a few depraved perks: severance from an impending (and likely suffocating) marriage to a tidy socialite, shameless sex with undemanding dollbabes, and a rapid ascension up the corporate ladder. The price is high, as backs are stabbed and bridges burned while Spader goes topsy-turvy.

        But the end result is maturity at the cost of Lowe’s decadent self-centeredness. It’s a violent journey to self awareness, prompted by the conflict and merger of opposites. These are recurring themes in Hanson’s work: the grieving housewife forced from lethargy by a psychotic in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992); the intellectual husband impotent against tough criminals in The River Wild (1994), his weakness overcome by a strong, motherly wife; the clean, naïve cop evolving through corruption in L.A. Confidential (1997); academic dreamers chasing rainbows in Wonder Boys (2000); the singer hacking away at his oppressive roots in 8 Mile (2002); the battling sisters in In Her Shoes (2005) finding peace in a dimension beyond careers and sex, a retirement community.

        Overlooked (if not slighted) by cinephiles, Curtis Hanson remains faithful to the basic narrative conventions of old Hollywood. Indeed, had he been born forty years earlier, it’s easy imagining him churning out working class melodramas at Warners. Although Bad Influence is slick and sensational, it’s also lined with sharp digs at mainstream values. When Spader begins to lose the trappings of his life — coworkers bail on him, friends and fiancée evaporate, along with his clothing and furniture — truth and self preservation become paramount.

  • 10 comments:

    Fox said...

    Set in that mythical movie world where beautiful twenty-somethings undergo dizzying rites of passage, unaffected by the mundane concerns of food, rent and insurance premiums...

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but we don't even learn anything about Rob Lowe's character's background in this movie. He just appears.

    I remembering thinking about the things you bring up: doesn't he have a job? where does he get his money? where is his house?

    When James Spader comes home and finds Lowe sitting all 80's-cool in a barstool dipping donuts in a glass of milk it's an image of total inconsequence. It really does make you wonder whether this guy has ever paid a bill in his life.

    GHJ - said...

    It seems Alex doesn't have a background, because he exists purely in the moment, as one other Club member suggested. His sexual aura and menace turns on the people around him, making them blind to his debauchery, until he steals your life away.

    Fox said...

    I wasn't a fan of Lowe's performance, but as "sexual aura" goes, the casting of him was perfect.

    Physically he is the ideal specimen for that. In fact, his looks are so strong that when he stands next to Spader you automatically start feeling homoeroticism (maybe I'm reading too much into that... If Marilyn Ferdinand reads this, I'm in trouble! :) ).

    Even when we see him having sex, Lowe is stationary. He's like an object for the women in bed with him.

    Flickhead said...

    I think Hanson's working less with characters than with metaphors here and in his other films.

    weepingsam said...

    I think it's an open question whether Alex even exists. The film plays with the idea - Pismo's remark about the cops not believing he exists - that's really what the plot turns on, too: Michael having to prove Alex really exists and did these things, not Michael... The models for the story - Faust, and the evil doppelganger (like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde) - suggest it as well. What's interesting is, the film doesn't really resolve it - there really isn't anything in the film that makes it clear that Michael and Alex are the same guy (like Fight Club), or clearly aren't (like in Strangers on a Train, say). The moment that does seem to resolve it - the confrontation at the end - ends with Alex's body disappearing, and without anyone actually looking at the video tape. There's more to this - I want to try to work it up into a full post - but it's another striking way the film manipulates information, revealing and withholding...

    Flickhead said...

    Another intriguing moment: by the time Spader's secretary tells him she's leaving to work in another department, her wardrobe has completely changed and resembles the clothing worn by his ex-fiancée.

    StinkyLulu said...

    I, like weepingsam, thought the film toyed with the idea of whether or not Alex actually exists.

    (Indeed, I think that's the question posed in the framing of the final scene, with Alex's corpse gone from view and the video camera presumably containing the only evidence of Alex's existence.)

    Flickhead said...

    Does Pismo exist? Or does he represent another facet of Michael?

    weepingsam said...

    Yes, Pismo is an interesting case as well. He first appears on the TV screen, through the camera; he's then doubled by the screen and himself; he's virtually Michael's double; he's paranoid, and never goes out, and no one seems to see him except Michael and Alex; he turns up at Michael's place saying he has the fear - prompting, if I remember right, Alex's questions to Michael... if Alex is like Michael's desires made flesh, Pismo is like his fear made flesh...

    Peter Rinaldi said...

    Yes. Pismo, in a way, is the most interesting, and perhaps most developed character in the movie. He has a past he is running away from and is in need of help from Michael, and Christian Clemenson gives a nuanced performance that hints at his characters depth. What do you think was the intention of the filmmakers (I hesitate to say "Hanson" because this could be completely a script thing) in having Pismo get involved as much as he is in the last act? In any other movie like this, his character is just used as a sounding board for the protagonist; someone for him to tell his thoughts to, out loud. Here, Pismo is the one who tries to get Alex's fingerprints, and he is the one who tapes the all important confession.