The hedonistic excesses of the 1980’s were taking on a self-parodying tarnish by the time Adam Rifkin began shooting THE DARK BACKWARD, his 1991 masterpiece of comic miserablism. An intricately detailed rendering of a shit life in a shit world, THE DARK BACKWARD is SUNSET BOULEVARD for Generation X, the journey of one sad soul consumed by the myopic pursuit of worthless dreams and the fleshy gimmick that almost got him there.
Conjured half a decade earlier from deep within his 19 year-old psyche, Rifkin’s vision takes place in a garish, nightmarish urban landscape, populated by the wretched refuse of humanity. The only beacon of hope amidst the seeping grey interiors and filth-ridden, neon-lit streets is Marty Malt, a quivering, sweaty wreck whose sole ambition is to escape his life as garbage man and have his pitiful, laughless stand-up routine noticed by agents of influence.
The luckless comic is played Judd Nelson, a limp polyester jacket hanging from his stooped, skeletal shoulders, his hair oiled rigidly in place. Having skirted around the edge of Hollywood fame since THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), Nelson delivered a truly bizarre and undeniably fearless performance; at times recalling the emaciated Christian Bale from THE MACHINIST (2004) and Crispin Glover at his stammering, offbeat best, Nelson forges a relentlessly unique performance. That THE DARK BACKWARD would all but destroy his Hollywood leading-man status is a bitter irony, given the film’s theme of starry-eyed longing.
By Marty’s side is best friend Gus, a grotesquely ebullient counterpoint to Rifkin’s achingly introspective protagonist. Given free reign to go balls-out crazy in the role was Texan character actor Bill Paxton, who had previously crafted a series scene-stealing support turns in THE TERMINATOR (1984), WEIRD SCIENCE (1985), ALIENS (1986), NEAR DARK (1987) and PASS THE AMMO (1988). And crazy he did go; his pallor a sickly mix of caked-on street grime and veiny opaqueness, Paxton creates one of cinema’s most frightening, brilliant visions of dissociative sociopathy. Whether licking the exposed nipple of a garbage-dump corpse, romping naked with three obese, Fellini-esque prostitutes or downing putrid chicken that oozes from the bone (look closely to see Paxton’s gag reflex let him down on one occasion), Gus spews from the screen as if borne from a John Waters’ nightmare. In some alternate universe, Paxton took home the Supporting Actor Oscar for his demonic comic creation.
Having endured the hardship of tanking one night a week at the local dive, Marty’s career trajectory and Rifkin’s pitch-black showbiz satire takes an unlikely upward turn when a particularly painful lump between his shoulder blades transforms into a third arm. The reveal is played by Rifkin as a kind of ‘body-horror burlesque’ sequence, with a shirtless Nelson running from wall to wall flailing his arms wildly while a bug-eyed Paxton shrieks, drawing a perverse pleasure from his friend’s sudden malformation.
Soon, his pull as a modern-day freakshow exhibit ensures Marty achieves the celebrity he craves. He is booked on the local kids TV show; his fame inspires competitors, such as ‘Mo Moskowitz and his Singing Bunyon.’ But is this the kind of fame that the young comic wants? He plays increasingly bigger rooms, working the same horrible material but filling seats as ‘Desi The Three-Armed Wonder Comic.’ Gus, taking on the role of both Marty’s self-appointed business manager and on-stage musical accompaniment, secures the services of high-flying agent Jackie Chrome (the wonderful Wayne Newton) and hitches his wagon to Marty’s pathway to stardom.
Even as his film takes some seemingly conventional turns, Rifkin remains steadfastly non-conformist. Marty dreams of a beachside reconciliation with his dream girl, Rosarita, a pasty, shrill, soulless harpy played very much against type by Lara Flynn Boyle (a bold step for the actress, who was right in the middle of her TWIN PEAKS industry heat). James Caan’s brutally unsympathetic medico Doctor Scurvy and Rob Lowe’s slime ball LA agent Dirk Delta (kick-starting a decade of similar against-type parts in films such as WAYNES WORLD and TOMMY BOY) are as idiosyncratic as the film asks of them, which equates to enormously boisterous over-acting in the service of vile characterisations.
In what amounts to a dangerously dark streak of nihilism, Rifkin finds no worth in human kind, although this is not to say that THE DARK BACKWARD is without humanity. A crucial emotionality exists between Marty and his new appendage; in one key scene, the comic lays his head upon a tear-stained pillow and The Arm appears, gently taking his sobbing body as if they were spooning. Later, as Marty pines for Rosarita throw the window of her diner, The Arm lays its hand on his shoulder. In a film of harsh coarseness and relentlessly bleak comedy, there is a genuine sweetness to this odd pairing.
Greenlit into production at a time when the film industry in particular and the definition of celebrity in general were being redefined, THE DARK BACKWARD found funding thanks to the unlikeliest of allies – the arthouse phenomenon, SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989). Steven Soderbergh’s film had become a sensation, revitalising the independent film sector and leaving in its wake cashed-up investors, among them Grey Cat Films, who would ultimately bankroll a large part of THE DARK BACKWARD; the involvement of experienced producer Cassian Elwes also helped finalise financing.
Industry labels such as ‘left field or ‘offbeat’ or ‘bizarre’ had not yet also been considered ‘risky’. Tim Burton’s BEETLEJUICE (1988) had set a new record for Warner Bros non-summer openings; the studio was in production on an equally strange project called NOTHING BUT TROUBLE (1991), written and directed by star Dan Aykroyd and featuring name players John Candy, Chevy Chase and Demi Moore. The vibrant indie scene was filled with thrilling one-off visions – Steve De Jarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE (1988); Barry Shils’ MOTORAMA (1991); Philip Ridley’s THE REFLECTING SKIN (1990). Confidence was high that THE DARK BACKWARD was at the forefront of an exciting new wave of challenging cinema.
But no one was prepared for what Adam Rifkin would ultimately deliver. US distributor, August Entertainment, admirably backed their director, even going to the extent of laying on a New York red carpet premiere that featured glistening garbage trucks delivering cast and crew to the theatre entrance. By the end of the screening, those audience members left could not face Rifkin; at a festival Q&A in 2009, Rifkin tells of how the cinema foyer parted as he and his cast left, none of the sparse crowd able to face him.
THE DARK BACKWARD is better than you because it refuses to pander; because it represents the last days of an industry when refusing to pander was still ok; and because it is the only film that features a lead character with a third arm growing from his back. It is a proudly dirty film, in the best possible sense, and wallowing in Adam Rifkin’s filmic filth proves deeply invigorating. Deal with it.