Friday, 8 April 2016

Miracle Mile (1988) - "50 minutes and counting..."

First screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 1988 and given a US theatrical release in 1989, Steve De Jarnatt's cult apocalyptic flick Miracle Mile was one of the last entries into the canon of Cold War-era nuclear paranoia films, but the screenplay had been kicking about in Hollywood for at least a decade prior.  Nestled in this film's production history is a wonderful tale about the triumph of persistence and a hidden gem surviving many hard years in the wilderness before finally getting the break and recognition it so richly deserved.  De Jarnatt, then fresh from the American Film Institute, penned an early version of the script for Warner Bros with the intention of directing it himself, but was met with an ambivalent response.  Warner Brothers saw potential in the project, but envisioned it as a big budget production and were reluctant to entrust it in the hands of such a green director.  In the end they took the script but not De Jarnatt, and nary a peep was heard from the project for quite some time.  The script lay dormant with Warner Brothers for three years, after which De Jarnatt was able to buy it back and get to work on fine tuning it.  His efforts to shop it elsewhere around Hollywood didn't go anywhere, however, with studios being widely turned off by the script's unflinchingly bleak conclusion, which De Jarnatt was insistent on keeping.  Before salvation finally came in the form of funding from John Daly of Hemdale Films (apparently bolstered by actor Anthony Edward's personal enthusiasm for the getting the picture made), word has it that the script was even considered as the potential basis for the Twilight Zone's big screen outing (which eventually saw the light of day as Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983), but that ending once again proved to be a major sticking point.  De Jarnatt's unwillingness to swap it out for a more optimistic outcome ultimately lead to the abandonment of the idea and to the Twilight Zone feature pursuing a different (and decidedly ill-fated) direction altogether.

Actually, it's not hard to envision De Jarnatt's story as part of the Twilight Zone canon - it has the taut, nightmarish quality of the very best episodes of the classic Rod Serling series, wherein one can never be entirely certain of the reality of the situation in which the characters find themselves, and the exploration of the fragility of a civilisation gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear was a topic that similarly interested Serling when he wrote "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and, more obviously, "The Shelter", which also dealt with the prospect of imminent nuclear attack.  Overall, Miracle Mile is a first-rate example of what I personally like to categorise as a "panic movie" - that is, a film dedicated primarily to the horrors and spectacle of a society coming apart at the seams in the face of impending catastrophe, as the codes and demands of civilised culture lose all meaning and humans are forced to fall back en masse upon their basic fight-or-flight impulses for protection (from each other, chiefly).  The film's opening sequence, which takes place at the La Brea Tar Pits in the titular Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles, gives us a brief run-down on the evolution of life on planet Earth, reminding us that, once humankind had arrived on the scene, it took "tens of thousands of years for civilisation as we know it to reach the modern era", and deftly foreshadowing the film's central concern that, given the right kind of stimuli, we might discover just how close in spirit we really are to our primordial ancestors who dined on woolly mammoth stew all those years ago.

Pessimistic though it may be, Miracle Mile is also an immensely quirky, at times even vaguely surreal film with darkly comic sensibilities, and for this reason it never approaches anywhere near the level of bleakness as, say, the BBC TV film Threads (1984), preferring always to keep the horror of the situation framed within the context of absurdity.  It follows Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) a thirty-year-old trombonist who happens to be lurking outside an all-night diner on Fairfax Avenue at just the right time (4:00 in the morning, to be precise) to answer a mysterious telephone call made to a nearby payphone.  The caller on the other end, who identifies as "Chip", is frantic, apparently having meant to get through to his father, and ends up divulging to Harry that he is calling from a missile silo in North Dakota, and that the world only has about seventy minutes left to go before it can expect to be flattened by nuclear warfare.  He asks Harry to pass on a message to his father, telling him that, "I'm sorry about that summer.  He'll know what I mean," one of several mysteries that goes unanswered throughout the course of the film. Suddenly, the sounds of gunfire are heard, and a different voice takes over the call, ordering Harry to forget everything he's just heard and to go back to sleep.

Harry, of course, can make good on neither command.  He's not really sure whether what he's just heard was a genuine warning or somebody's particularly deranged idea of a practical joke, and he's even more nonplussed as to what he's supposed to do with the information he's just received.  In the end, he can only stagger back inside the diner and attempt to shoulder the burden of responsibility with the motley assortment of patrons who have gathered there on this particular morning. Some are predictably incredulous, others are just about rattled enough by the prospect of impending nuclear explosion to be willing to give Harry the benefit of the doubt, and the first signs that the ensuing panic might, in itself, get particularly ugly come when diner cook Fred (Robert DoQui) leaps upon the counter and threatens Harry at gunpoint to be honest about everything that he knows.  Meanwhile, a mysterious businesswoman named Landa (Denise Crosby), who initially came into the diner to drink coffee while leafing through the Cliff Notes for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, attempts to contact a few personal friends in Washington, only to discover that four out of five of them are presently relocating to the extreme Southern Hemisphere.  She suggests that they follow suit and set off immediately to reach an aircraft headed for Antarctica before the streets of LA become jammed with panicked motorists attempting to flee the US.  Fred, who appears to have had a shopping trolley filled with canned food ready to go in the event of such an emergency, offers use of the diner's delivery van, and so staff and patrons alike all pile in and go.  Following this ragtag group of individuals in their efforts to board a plane to Antarctica in just over an hour seems as if it would make for a perfectly engaging story within itself, only Harry decides that he cannot go with them and resolves to jump from the van as it goes over an on-ramp.  And that is the last we see of Landa, Fred and their motley band of would-be nuclear warfare survivors.  Alas, this is not their story.

I'm going to have to backtrack a bit at this point, because intertwined with all this apocalyptic madness is a parallel story regarding Harry's love life, which is what led to his being outside the diner at four in the morning in the first place.  He recently ran into Julie (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar Pits, and is convinced that he is meant to spend the rest of his life with her, only their plans to meet up outside the diner at midnight were derailed by a highly inconvenient power cut (due to a pigeon setting fire to electric cables with a cigarette that Harry himself had failed to extinguish) causing Harry to sleep in and to show up only when Julie had long since given up hope and left.  Having learned from Landa that a heliport at 5900 Wilshire will be secured at 5:00 am for a rendezvous to the airport, Harry's objective now is to reach Julie, make amends and then make it safely to the heliport with her in time for departure.  It's an undeniable display of chivalry, although whether or not you see this as a genuine thread of sweetness in a picture that otherwise takes a decidedly cynical view of humanity under pressure will likely depend upon how convincing you find the chemistry between Edwards and Winningham.  Myself, I'll profess that I find the whole romantic angle to be by far the hokiest aspect of the film, feeling for the most part as if it's there purely to give Harry some form of motivation to keep moving from person to person, further spreading the seed of panic despite his best efforts and leading, all too frequently, to tragedy.  Even more contrived is a minor subplot involving Julie's grandparents, who allegedly haven't spoken for fifteen years (although, in another of the film's great unanswered mysteries, nobody can quite recall what caused them to fall out so bitterly in the first place) but who, in the face of nuclear annihilation, finally summon the will to renew their relationship, resolving to spend what little time they have devouring sandwiches in one another's company - their stoicism is certainly admirable, but the film's attempt at being momentarily heartwarming rings strangely hollow.  The most genuinely affecting moment is decidedly more morbid and involves Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), the driver of a stolen police car which has just crashed into a shopping mall, carrying the crumpled body of his sister, Charlotta (Kelly Jo Minter), up the first few steps of a malfunctioning escalator in bewildered desperation, as she manages to splutter out her final words: "Is this your blood or mine?"  Less grisly but almost as painful is when Harry, having returned to the payphone, manages to get through to Chip's father, only for the father to hang up before Harry can deliver Chip's message about being sorry for whatever it was that he did that summer.

Ultimately, Miracle Mile doesn't do tenderness half as splendidly as it does delirium and mordant cynicism, and its outlook upon the prospects for the human race, now that the chips are truly down, is probably most aptly summarised in Harry's response when asked by Julie if people will help one another to survive in the aftermath of nuclear explosion: "I think it's the insects' turn."  Or perhaps more apt still is the Australia-themed billboard sign that appears in the backdrop of several scenes, in one of the film's wittiest uses of mise-en-scène, in which a koala is shown shielding its gaze, as if in anticipation of the horrors set to unfold upon the streets before it, next to the most succinct caption imaginable.

The sustained sense of delirium is a crucial part of the film's appeal, not least because it perfectly encapsulates the frenzied, nightmarish quality of the central scenario, but also for the manner in which it taunts the viewer, at several points, into pondering if Harry's plight might indeed be nothing more than a literal nightmare he's experiencing while sleeping away the hours before his date with Julie.  Along with the odd bit of ostensible foreshadowing in the characters' dialogue (one of the patrons at the diner, for example, refers to the "nastiest dream" that he had about Landa the other night), the film's fondness for the most mind-bending and seemingly random of details, frequently involving strangely-placed animals, certainly lends itself to this interpretation.  It's not enough, for example, to have Harry crash into a palm tree - he must crash his car into a palm tree and have a family of rats drop down upon his bonnet.  A cockroach is also seen crawling across Harry's hand as he answers the call from Chip, as if anticipating that it will shortly be its time to shine.  (Animals in general - from the nicotine-addled pigeon who causes the the power failure in Harry's apartment building to the coyote seen raiding the deserted diner, to the aforementioned koala billboard - act largely as harbingers of chaos in Miracle Mile, a manifestation of wild unruliness as it seeps its way in through the cracks of this alleged civilisation).  De Jarnatt knowingly goads us into reaching for such for such an interpretation, in the recognition that, despite it being an entirely facile and all-too simple solution to Harry's problem, as the intensity of his situation escalates, it increasingly becomes his only means of getting out intact (even if Chip's alarm turned out to be false, there comes a point where Harry would have caused far too much damage for him not to have to live with the repercussions).  Indeed, it's a fairly safe bet that the abandoned Twilight Zone version of the story would have taken such a route, with the sequence of events transpiring to be a dream or a delusion of some variety (the big budget version that Warner Brothers envisioned, meanwhile, would likely have had Harry save the day - or at least get out alive - through some hokey heroic feat). 

De Jarnatt, admirably and wisely, offers no such safety net, following the horrors of the scenario he's created through to the only way that it can logically end - that is, with a return trip to the La Brea Tar Pits where the action began, and with the conclusion that humankind, being mortal, conflict-inclined and inherently chaotic, must ultimately return to the primordial stew from whence it came.

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