Badham: Bird on a Wire (1990)

With so much nostalgia currently circulating around the 1990s, it’s easy to forget that the 1990s were themselves a highly nostalgic period. As Baby Boomers were coming of age and settling into the established family and professional structures that they had originally repudiated, a whole new wave of films were released that seemed designed to assuage them of their ongoing relevance and edginess. To a great extent, the glossy cinematic sheen of the early 90s was driven by these films, which often took on a frankly nostalgic and reactionary attitude – stylistically and thematically – as in the films of Charles Shyer, Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron. As someone who grew up in the 90s, it’s strange to think how much of my own nostalgia for the period is simply a second-degree nostalgia, filtered through the fixation with the 1960s, and the Baby Boomer heyday, evident in these films.

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Of course, not all of these films were complacently nostalgic, and not all of them were content to cordon off the 60s as an object of pastoral elegy. Some of the most interesting of them were genuinely torn about their affiliations to the 60s and their affiliations to the 90s – and John Badham’s Bird on a Wire, starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, is one of the most compelling of these almost-period pieces. Set initially in Detroit, Bird on a Wire is about a pair of 60s lovers and leftists – Rick Jarman (Gibson) and Marianne Graves (Goldie Hawn) – who meet up in 1990 for the first time in about twenty years at a gas station in the middle of the night. For two decades, Marianne has believed that Rick was dead, but it turns out he’s been in witness protection, during which time she’s managed to become a highly successful corporate lawyer. As might be expected, the shock of meeting quickly gives way to the shock of how each of them has compromised what they initially stood for without completely selling out either. While Rick’s secret life has stemmed from his association with leftist politics, the very fact of witness protection suggests a collusion with the government that is anathema to Marianne’s anti-establishment roots. Similarly, while Marianne may have ruptured the glass ceiling, her collusion with corporate America surprises Rick as well.

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That sense of comic misrecognition gives the first part of the film an incredible energy and volatility, but this isn’t just a chance meeting – Rick only runs into Marianne in the first place while himself on the run from a neoconservative conspiracy between the FBI and the criminals that they were supposed to be protecting him from. What ensues is more or less a sustained chase film, as Rick and Marianne band together to elude their pursuers, first in Detroit and then across the rest of the Midwest, culminating with a spectacular stand-off in a state-of-the-art zoo. Along the way, they find themselves continually revisiting their relationship and calibrating their 60s and 90s selves, while trying to figure out just how much they have mythologised their baby boomer heyday (“You know what they say about the 60s, right? If you can remember them, you weren’t there”). Along the way, Badham quotes a whole variety of 60s counter-cultural films, but especially the wandering road movies made around the time of Easy Rider, as Rick and Marianne set off to discover – or rediscover – America and bear witness to the tail-end of the 60s as it unfolds before them.

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At the same time, however, this isn’t simply a nostalgic replication of the 60s road movie. In fact, it is questionable whether this really counts as a road movie at all, since the couple’s trajectory never loses the manic intensity of their initial escape from Detroit, leaving very little space for the contemplative moments and down times that seems to characterise the 60s road movie at its most refined. Instead, this is more like a sustained chase, with each new incursion into the American heartland producing an even more preposterous escape technology – we see cars, ferries, helicopters, motorcycles, biplanes – and every attempt to withdraw from Detroit just making the city feel more and more omniscient. As so many critics noted, for example, there is a “bridging” sequence between city and country, in which Rick and Marianne take part in a motorcycle chase in the “Chinatown” district of Racine, Wisconsin, that is presented as so implausibly sprawling and massive – bigger even than that of San Francisco – that it seems as if Badham isn’t especially interested in even pretending to remove us from the 90s cityscape in any kind of extended or meaningful way.

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At the same time, however, the 90s cityscape doesn’t simply make its omniscience felt through the implausibility of Badham’s location sequences. Just as the film is too hyperactive to really qualify as a road film – I often found myself wondering if it was a latent influence on Gibson’s own Apocalypto, which is pretty much a single-chase film – so the sense of space and place is too hyperreal for Frank and Marianne to feel as if they can regain their 60s heyday in any kind of meaningful way. Nowhere is that clearer than in the soundscape of the film, which is full of electronic remixes and reimaginations of Baby Boomer classics, including “Aquarius,” (which opens the film) “Blowin’ in the Wind” and, of course, Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire.” Above and beyond that, however, the bedsitter confessionalism and acoustic intimacy of the 60s is cluttered with different fields and planes of noise – it is an utterly cacophonous film – in what often feels like an incipient music video as much as fully-formed narrative film. It’s appropriate, then, that Badham only fully embraces a music video aesthetic during the flashback sequences, as if to convey the utter impossibility of traversing the hyperreal, synthesised 60s nostalgia-image through which Frank and Marianne have framed their memories of each other during the last two decades.

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As a result, Bird on a Wire is not exactly nostalgic, but more obsessed with its own inability to surmount its own drive towards simulation and nostalgia. That makes it picaresque at moments and cybergothic at others, creating a unique combination of pathos and futurism – a plaintive futurism – that, paired with the peripatetic narrative structure, produces an anarchic, carnivalesque and somewhat manic atmosphere that’s only bolstered by the wave of Columbian, Hispanic and Caribbean immigrant culture that always seems on the verge of overtaking Badham’s mise-en-scenes. At the same time, that carnival atmosphere is progressively co-opted by all the looming postmodern spaces that crowd the film, which act as a fuel to the picaresque momentum, but also blur into a more amorphous space of control, as the action moves in and out of them but never settles in one place or situation for too long. There’s a real deftness to the way Badham dodges and weaves through these spaces, never attempting to orient us with respect to them but also preventing any single one of them becoming too disorienting on its own terms either, as if evoking postmodern play as both prison and escape route, just as the film as a whole positions the high postmodernism of the 90s as the logical conclusion of the incipient postmodernism of the duo’s 60s heyday, with all the ambivalence, uncertainty and misrecognition that that entails.

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At a more literal level, these postmodern spaces of play also speak both to a betrayal of Baby Boomer ideals and as a testament to the utter financial supremacy of Baby Boomers at this point in time. Nowhere is that clearer than in one of the film’s most spectacular sequences – a chase across the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Detroit (actually the Four Seasons in Vancouver, where most of the urban sequences were shot), in which we proceed from Marianne’s penthouse suite to the roof, the buffet and then the carpark, as the duo are simultaneously frustrated and exhilarated by their progressive alienation from all the amenities the establishment has to offer. In the way in which the sequence collapses an ostensible typology of hotel architecture into a more alarmingly freefall sense of space, it often recalls the various postmodern treatments of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles that were common in big-budget Hollywood films around this time, not least because of the way in which the Four Seasons chain, like the Westin chain, deliberately matched the architecture of each hotel to the postmodern peculiarities of its location, rather than opting for a single, modernist “house style” in the vein of, say, the Ritz-Carlton.

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Writing in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson observed that the kinds of architectural style present in the Bonaventure – and other hotels constructed along similar lines – was quintessentially postmodern. While he gives multiple reasons for this speculation, most of them revolve around the way in which the hotel’s amorphous sense of space plays as physical forerunner to a new kind of hyperspace – what we might now call cyberspace or digital space – that defies the capacity of any one single body or sensory apparatus to navigate and comprehend it. In Bird on a Wire, that connection is made quite directly, as Marianne and Rick’s escape from the Four Seasons leads to an increasingly fetishistic and paranoid attention to computer monitors, floppy disks and mass surveillance, along with such associated technologies as credit card machines. Just before they’re attacked by criminals posing as hotel staff, Marianne tells Rick that the hotel “has the best security money can buy…don’t be paranoid,” but from the moment they escape more and more of the film is shot from the kinds of vantage points typical of security cameras, as if trying to elude and evade some new conspiracy of surveillance technology and postmodern space as much as the specific criminal conglomerate pursuing Rick and Marianne. The result often feels like a work of sci-fi futurism, a prophecy of the 90s shot from the 60s, or a vision of Baby Boomers fulfilling their most pessimistic prophecies about what the century might become if they didn’t intervene to radicalise it.

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Yet for all its anxiety and soul-searching, there is a part of Bird on a Wire that is designed to assuage Baby Boomers who sold out that they are still edgy and can still demonstrate the same capacity for social change if the occasion really demands it. What that occasion is, however, remains ambivalent and uneasy, since for all its nostalgia for a radical past, there is also a very deep distrust of post-60s liberation here, with one of the key comic riffs revolving around the revelation that Rick had to pose as a gay hairdresser as part of his time undercover. As might be expected, that leads to a series of very dated sequences that make it crystal clear that Rick and Marianne are only prepared to go so far in terms of who they believe deserves to pursue pleasure and self-determination. In fact, it often feels as if they may have actually regressed since the 60s, since the sexual politics of the film pretty much stop at Woodstock. Very adult and knowing about sex, but also deeply anxious and sentimental about gender, there’s a strange impotence to the way the film pairs its will to wander with these strict circumspections about the proper uses of pleasure, as Rick and Marianne strive for the open roads and horizons of possibilities of the 60s while reining their own romance into something more manageable, less vulnerable to the contingencies of their 60s heyday.

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To that end, Bird on a Wire often recalls Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, and the classic screwball comedy of remarriage more generally, with the critical difference that Rick and Marianne were never married in the first place, and came from a generation that programmatically decried marriage. Instead, their cross-country road trip plays more as a comedy of re-embodiment, an attempt to capture the intense erotic communion and corporeal immediacy of the 60s, even or especially as the most frankly sexual scenes are scored to piped-in synth music, imbuing them with a cybersexual quality that makes all the innuendo and titillation strangely impotent, just as if often feels as if Mel and Goldie are straining just a little too hard (and the recurring jokes about homosexuality and effeminacy seem to play into this as well). More than sexual love and liberation, the film is nostalgic for the 60s’ lust for life, the optimistic belief that eroticism was capable of encompassing and changing everything. As a result, the fact that things haven’t changed, and that Baby Boomers have been at least partly absorbed into the world they were resisting, means that there is something anticlimactic about sexuality and eroticism across the film as a whole, especially in the light of all the incipient digital surveillance technologies, which displace Rick and Marianne from their bodies, and their confidence in their bodies, as the film proceeds.

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It’s a stroke of inspiration, then, that sees Bird on a Wire conclude with a set-piece in a cutting-edge zoo that fuses animal corporeality and digital technologies into a thirty-minute synecdoche for the film as a whole. Surrounded by actual animals, but also housed in an entirely artificial environment, complete with a massive surveillance deck, this massive set – the largest ever constructed in Canada at this point in time – confounds all distinction between the natural and the synthetic, fusing bird and wire into a single feedback loop that Rick and Marianne turn on and off to trap and then take out their pursuers. Apparently these animals caused Badham and the rest of the cast and crew no end of drama on set but that’s not how it plays out at all in the film, where they all feel cloned or genetically modified to be completely subservient to the demands of the film and its spectacle. With each new iteration of this space driven by the combination of a new exotic species with a new surveillance technology – culminating with a rare chimpanzee firing a scope gun to save Goldie – it almost feels as if the film is segueing into its own theme park adaptation. At the same time, of course, it also looks as if the duo have stumbled onto a classical film set – there is nostalgia beneath the futurism – but it quickly becomes clear that this is a hyperreal simulation of a classical film set, more appropriate to a postmodern Universal Studios “experience” than anything resembling what we might think of as traditional cinema.

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It’s even more appropriate, then, that Bird on a Wire makes no real effort to extricate us from this space, or to return us to any more authentic or traditional cinematic experience. As soon as the set piece is over, we transition to a palpably artificial shot of Gibson and Hawn sailing off into the sunset on a luxury yacht, as Rick observes that their story would make a great film hit, and the credits abruptly begin to roll up from the bottom of the screen, as if to invert the comforting enclosure from the outside world that this last sequence has so dramatically ruptured. As far as Rick and Marianne’s relationship goes, there is no climactic return to their 60s heyday, but instead one of the most emphatic instances of the synthetic tribalism and postmodern primitivism that had and would become so popular among Baby Boomer comedies along the lines of Romancing the Stone, The War of the Roses, Six Days, Seven Nights and The Mosquito Coast. The further back into the past the duo try to push, the more futuristic the world around them seems, producing an oddly technologized primality that collapses them into their own simulations and their own worst nightmares. And, by managing to find a way to play that as comedy – desperate, manic, fractured comedy, but comedy nonetheless – Bird on a Wire effects one of the most memorable visions of the 60s from the perspective of the 90s, if only because its own memories and nostalgic excursions are so fraught with self-doubt, anxiety and ambivalence.

About Billy Stevenson (694 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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