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While the luckless protagonists of classic film noir scenarios tend to be men, the plots themselves are driven with near-exclusivity by women - Ann Savage in Detour (1945), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy (1950). This distaff custom is carried forward in the noir-inflected Border Radio (1987) but the tradition is given a few unexpected twists. Conceived, written and directed by a trio of UCLA film students, the project began as a straight genre exercise but morphed over the course of three arduous, cash-strapped years of shooting into a showcase for musicians prominent in the So-Cal punk subculture. Despite the prominent casting of Flesheaters frontman Chris D. and John Doe (bassist/singer for the band X) as brooding rocker nogoodniks, Border Radio's heart and soul is the good woman who has to clean up after the bad boys. As played by Luanna Anders (sister of co-writer/co-director Allison Anders), the hard-bitten, wary-eyed Lu is etched as a dreamer deferred, a proto riot grrrl biting back her anger to raise the lovechild from her union with Chris D.'s Jeff Bailey (the name cadged from Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, 1947) while her man hoofs it to Mexico with a thousand stolen dollars and a battered acoustic guitar.
Given that French film critics codified film noir in the 1950s, it is only fitting that Border Radio adopts an attitude toward its own plot of nouvelle vague insouciance. In Robert Siodmak's noir classic The Killers (1946), Burt Lancaster's betrayed Swede sweats out his karmic comeuppance alone in a darkened room but here Jeff Bailey chills on a stretch of Mexican beach, under the shade of a bamboo palapa. Likewise, Lu is far from a Breathless (1960) style destroyer; having parked their kid (co-writer/director Allison Anders' daughter Devon) with an ex-lover, Lu dutifully sets out to bring Jeff home to Los Angeles despite the likelihood that the journey is yet another lost cause.
Unlike the classic film noir titles, Border Radio is less interested in issues of loyalty, seduction, deception and fate than in a consideration of the nature of art and theft, whether in the form of homage, influence or even vision-compromising studio remixes. A scene-bridging conversation between a trio of underworld goons ("F*ck The Clash, man...all those bands just ripped off everything from Iggy and the Stooges") en route to mete out punishment anticipates the geek soliloquies of Quentin Tarantino, whose early successes changed the shape and substance of American independent cinema, making it harder for truly independent, homebrewed cinema to find an audience.
"In those days you gave a band a chance," laments one of Border Radio's minor characters. "These days all they want is professionalism. They'll boo you offstage if you're not slick enough." The rare pastiche that preserves as much as it appropriates, Border Radio provides contemporary viewers with fleeting glances of a number of long-gone Los Angeles landmarks, among them Atwater Village's Hully Gully Studios, Chinatown's Hong Kong Caf and the punk flophouse Disgraceland, then owned by Jayne Mansfield's widower, bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay. Shot guerrilla style, without permits and on portable 16mm equipment "borrowed" from the UCLA film department (and smuggled into Mexico), the film suffers from occasional self consciousness on the part of the players but the narcissistic digressions of the dramatis personae suit the caprices of characters coasting on the downward arc of their youth.
Co-writers/directors Anders and Kurt Voss had interned on the set of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), an obvious touchstone that shares with Border Radio a sense of loss and ravening regret. During the post-production, the filmmakers drafted a number of 80s era A-list celebrities, including Wenders and Daryl Hannah (Luanna Anders was then dating the "manny" who minded the children of Hannah's boyfriend, musician Jackson Browne) to lend support but seed money came from Hollywood character actor Vic Tayback, a family friend of Kurt Voss. Tayback had been one of the stars of the long-running CBS sitcom Alice (1976-1985), a spinoff of Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974).
While Allison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lent went on to further cinematic adventures (in writing, directing and cinematography, collectively and separately), and both Chris D. and John Doe enjoyed additional film roles (Doe turned in glowering cameos for Wayne Wang's Slamdance (1987) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) while Chris D. was ignominiously kicked in the nuts by Kevin Costner in Roger Donaldson's No Way Out ), Border Radio remains the star credit for leading lady Luanna Anders. (In an early draft of the script, the character of Lu was killed off but none of Anders' male costars wanted to be the murderer.) Though acting classes and a string of agent meet-and-greets followed, Anders found the prospect of marketing herself in Hollywood unappealing after the communal effort of making her first film. When the production of Gas, Food, Lodging (1992), co-directed by Allison Anders and Kurt Voss and shot by Dean Lent, decamped to Los Angeles for a week of interior shooting, Luanna was drafted as a set dresser. An association with production designer Jane Ann Stewart got her work behind-the-scenes on Bernard Rose's Candyman (1992) and the HBO anthology series Inside Out before motherhood and home life took Luanna Anders out of the industry for good. She did reunite in 2005 with her Border Radio collaborators to record an audio commentary for the film's induction into the esteemed Criterion Film Collection.
Producer: Marcus DeLeon
Director: Allison Anders, Dean Lent, Kurt Voss
Screenplay: Allison Anders, Dean Lent, Kurt Voss
Cinematography: Dean Lent
Music: Dave Alvin
Cast: Chris D. (Jeff Bailey), Chris Shearer (Chris), Dave Alvin (Dave), Devon Anders (Devon), Luanna Anders (Lu).
by Richard Harland Smith
"Border Radio: Where Punk Lived" by Chris Morris, Border Radio DVD, Criterion Collection
Telephone interview with Luanna Anders, August 18, 2010
Allison Anders interview by Bette Gordon, Bomb, No. 48, Summer 1994
Allison Anders/Kurt Voss interview by Bob Blackwelder, Splice, August 1999