Sunday, April 26, 2009
Bagdad Cafe (1987) A Film by Percy Adlon
German director Percy Adlon's American debut is a strange effort, a film that has largely been forgotten but remains adored in small alcoves of film culture. That it did indeed wisp away into the kind of nowhere that the film is set in is more of a justification of its uneven retelling of ancient myths, a subject that has been more interestingly explored in countless other arthouse films, than a testament to its flaws. While Bagdad Cafe is almost arrhythmic and awkward as a whole, it does contain some preciously offbeat characters and scenarios. Adlon does not necessarily assemble a situation in direct reference to a particular ancient tale, but rather modernizes the general notion of a hero that arrives supernaturally to bring about change.
He sets his film in the middle of the desert, somewhere vaguely in the American West, and treats it as a place that is in an anxious standstill, desperate for a change. At the Bagdad Cafe, where the frizzy-haired African American owner Brenda (CCH Pounder) scuffles uncomfortably through the premises sneering at her children and husband and the dilettante Italian chef lounges around without any incentive to reverse the broken coffeemaker situation, one can smell the unease. So from the boonies, lead by an illusory pair of lights in the sky, comes a plump, orderly German woman named Jasmin (Marianne Sägebrecht), fresh off a fight with her husband that left her stranded without a car. She sharply contrasts the disheveled look of both the employees and the regulars, a foreign Goddess in a tightly wound dress (a modern day robe) who brings with her a camouflaged distaste for American sloppiness.
Her arrival immediately sparks suspicion in Brenda and eventually, when Jasmin begins spending time with her children, jealousy. Brenda believes she is in the middle of a cat and mouse game between the two, but Jasmin's intentions are clearly all good. Brenda even prompts the arrival of the sheriff who comes to inspect Jasmin's unusually tidy habits only to find her completely harmless. She acts as a typically stubborn figure for most of the film, but finally upon discovering she may be the only one left with bad vibes towards Jasmin (Jasmin even works up a tender relationship with an ex-Hollywood set painter (Jack Palance), who roams the film as a laughably kind-hearted and nervous cowboy), she rethinks her position. One afternoon, she snaps at Jasmin while she's playing with her kids and immediately, feeling guilty of evil, returns through her motel room door and apologizes. This relationship reversal comes too abruptly, and what follows - a gradual give and take of lifestyles until an equilibrium is reached - feels rushed and unrealistic. Jasmin loosens up her clothing and Brenda allows her son to play on the piano during work hours, an activity that had previously ticked her off greatly. The Bagdad Cafe, previously a haven for sweaty drifters, turns into an entertainment escape, with Jasmin's magic tricks as the main act.
Bagdad Cafe's strengths are ironically sometimes also the source of its weaknesses; Adlon's wickedly wry humor rides a thin line between amateurishness and intended drollery. Frequently it is an uncertainty whether one is supposed to laugh or take something seriously. Adlon also seems to get a kick out of graceless edits, so that when he is establishing a visual gag, he'll cut away clumsily to a brief shot of a truck passing in the street, silence the music, and then return as if nothing happened. Much of the film is reminiscent of 2004's Napoleon Dynamite however, both in its similar setting and its modern breed of "awkward" black comedy, so the balance between humor and disguised poignancy is understandable. While Bagdad Cafe is indeed forgettable, it stands as a unique departure from most decidedly small filmmaking projects, and is sometimes enjoyable just for its clumsiness.