Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Salvation! (1987)

Nearly two decades before they would go on to menace each other in the tense first act of Cronenberg's A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen and Stephen McHattie could be found menacing each other in the somewhat less tense Salvation!, a long forgotten satire of televangelism from the deepest bowels of the MTV generation. Needless to say, it failed to rocket either of them to superstardom.

Stuck in an extra crappy section of Staten Island, Viggo plays a motorcycle riding thug and recently laid off factory worker. He trudges home to his vacuous, proselytizing wife (played by LA punk rocker and real life Mrs. Viggo*, Exene Cervenka) and her preening sister. In her few moments of lucidity while being mesmerized by televangelism, she insists that the 'family' will be perfectly fine.
And he sayeth "Five Dollar Footlong" Amen.

McHattie, whose recent performance in Pontypool has revealed him as one of cinema's most shamefully underutilized assets, plays the shady cathode-ray preacher with a penchant for booze and pornography. His fire and brimstone tirades are easily the film's strongest feature, which is a good thing considering how much of the runtime they fill. Most of the first 'act' is simply him on TV juxtaposed with Viggo's dysfunctional family bickering. It's as though the movie had a narrator that got religion right before shooting and decided to run with it.
[Insert 'Married with Children' and/or Ghostbusters 2 joke here]

It's almost always a bad omen for a movie's pacing when it feels the need to punctuate itself with title cards. (Things that are acceptable: "Tuesday", "Berlin, 1943", "28 Days Later", and anything from The Shining.) Salvation! is broken up into sections with names like 'dream' and 'nightmare', but the chapter names do little to alleviate the mental whiplash induced by such radical shifts in plot and tone. After the first section, wherein Viggo hollers at his wife, loses his job, and hollers at his wife some more, the film shifts to the seedy reverend, who practices his next sermon before being interrupted by Viggo's hot sister-in-law, who is stuck in the rain with a non-functioning car. She quickly seduces him, despite his suspicion that it is a blackmail scheme. Then the movie devolves into an erotic music video. Eventually, as the reverend fantasizes about a bizarre, semi-wholesome life with the little tart, she starts lip syncing to the soundtrack and it becomes explicitly a music video.
A really messed up music video, too.

Viggo finally shows up to shake the cobwebs off the daydreaming film's narrative; he's got some sort of extortion scheme underway, though he might just be jealous of McHattie getting action with his wife's very covetable sister. Things almost coalesce into a semi-coherent cat & mouse thriller, only it turns out that Viggo's plan is to force his wife into the reverend's show and take half the profits. (It's a lot like my elaborate ruse to kidnap and torture Ted Danson so that he and my dad could be squash partners.) Despite its painfully obvious brilliance, the scheme is ultimately thwarted by McHattie's second escape through a bathroom window onto his giant, neon lawn-cross. Too bad they weren't prepared for him to try the exact same thing again.
The reverend successfully escapes, only to get picked up as a hitchhiker by the very woman Viggo was attempting to foist on him.

*Title card: "Salvation"*

The 'plan' is successful and everybody is all friendly and in cahoots now! What the hell was the last forty-five minutes for? Why didn't they just send her to talk to him in the first place? Why is the movie essentially starting the plot over with less than 15 minutes left? What trick could it possibly have up its sleeve to wrap up all the loose ends that only just now appeared? (Spoiler alert: it has no trick.)
Rather than answer those questions, the third act is cool with being a confusing blur. Making sense is for square movies, Salvation! just wants to get itself over with so it can go back to smoking weed and spinning Joy Division albums. So it has Viggo and his cronies pick up groupies for the good reverend. Then they all play poker. Some fat-cat at a pool party suggests the reverend has a future in politics. The team argues over how to stay organized while raiding viewer donations from the mail bag. "Postcards on the floor; envelopes on the desk!" All while his new co-host picks up the religious monologue slack.
The reverend and Viggo's now ex-wife ultimately squeeze him and their other co-conspirators out of the scheme, but cannot agree on how to split up their profits. She suddenly reverses her characterization and cunningly suggests giving the disputed monies to a homeless shelter. (So her almost instantaneous corruption also made her smart?) He changes the subject by proclaiming "showtime". There is one more brief televised sermon, a Christian rock music video, and the movie ends.
That's it. McHattie gives one last speech, perfectly mimicking a fraying televangelist while saying absolutely nothing of real relevance to the gossamer wisps of storyline floating around. Also, in the context of a spiritual experience, he mentions having 'intercourse' with his new sidekick; an out of place line that rips itself away from the surrounding speech to make you momentarily wonder if perhaps the movie is smarter than you are giving it credit for. At least until you see the midget devil in the final scene.
With the glaring exception of an ending, Salvation! contains within itself all the individual components of a movie, but they never unite into anything even remotely resembling a plot. There are characters. Those characters speak dialog and have dramatic conflicts. Those conflicts even elicit faint implications of character growth. The problem is that the film has absolutely no idea how much time to spend on a particular scene, or how that scene should flow into and impact the scenes that follow. As Homer Simpson once said, "It's just a bunch of stuff that happened." Crucial moments are glossed over or skipped entirely, while endless minutes are spent on Viggo riding his motorcycle across Staten Island. (The least friendly place in America!) The third act might as well just be the cliff notes of an entirely different movie.
Lay the blame at the feet of writer/director Beth B, who apparently is far more at home in the world of music videos than feature films. It looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, but it certainly doesn't flow like a movie. On the bright side, Ms. B's MTV skill-set gives the film interesting (but thoroughly dated) production design and music. New Order practically scored the thing, with the gaps filled in by a variety of mid-'80s post-punk. (Most of it written by either Arthur Baker or the director herself.) Clearly the best track is "You Can't Blackmail Jesus", an alt-country gospel sung by McHattie himself. That alone makes the movie better than Valentines Day or The Rats.
During nighttime scenes at the reverend's mansion (probably %50 of the film) the lighting alternates between electric blues and violets, and would probably be impressive looking outside the confines of a two decade old VHS tape. Otherwise it just looks like electric Smurfs are being tossed violently at the camera in every shot. Like every other aspect of the film, the cinematography can only hint at the theoretical existence of an awesome film that came very close to being made.
Salvation! certainly did one thing right (besides McHattie's phantom country music career) and that was creating a perfect storm of cinematic irrelevance. Certainly the post-punks and proto-goths of the middle 1980s were itching to knock the self righteous would-be censors of the 'religious right' down a couple of pegs, and the film's portrayal of a hypocritical televangelist who pockets his flock's money while watching porn seems to have at least shocked and appalled most of the people who have bothered to post "user reviews" of it online. The problem was that reality came along and stole the film's thunder. In the wake of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals, the idea of a corrupt preacher of the cathode ray tube became passé. By 1990 people practically expected them to drop like flies out of grace, and today the fallen televangelist character has long passed beyond cliché into archetype. It's awfully hard to knock someone down a peg when they've already gotten drunk, passed out, and fallen completely off the pegboard (or wherever else these metaphorical pegs may be inserted). So after going out of its way to make numerous and powerful enemies, the film's satire ends up getting undercut by current events. Combine that with the fact that it's an incoherent mess, and you've got a powerful recipe for being stuck on VHS well into the 21st century and beyond.
I'm sure it's scant consolation to Beth B's abortive career in feature length narrative cinema, but her combination of unwieldyconventional filmmaking, a quality '80s soundtrack, and a cast that was literally decades ahead of its time has rendered the film irresistible to weirdos like me who buy VHS tapes off of eBay purely because they are covered by a veil of obscurity as intriguing as it is absolute.
*They once made a baby and have long since split up.

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