Movie: Backtrack (1990)

I will lay it all out on the line from the beginning: 1990’s Backtrack is a terrible movie; although, like many deeply bad films, it is interesting in that it takes risks more tasteful pictures wouldn’t attempt.  Also, half of the experience of enjoying this film is the commentary track that accompanies the film on the Kino Lorber blu-ray.

There are two versions of the picture on the disc, and I’m not sure if it accompanies the version that is truncated to 98 minutes.  That was the version Vestron Pictures removed from Dennis Hopper’s control and edited themselves, thus becoming one of those rare works credited to Alan Smithee.  Also, that one bears the alternate title of Catchfire.

I only watched the 116-minute version that bears Hopper’s director credit.  Actually, I watched it twice, once without commentary and another time with it on.

One may wonder why I twice watched a movie I said is so bad.  For one thing, a commentary track is sometimes the only reason to own a disc.  It can be like taking a college course on how to not make a movie. 

Also, I will confess I didn’t mind some of the imagery in the film because I like Jodie Foster, Hopper’s co-lead here.  And when I say like, I mean really like.  And we will see, uh…more of her here than she would normally allow to be exposed. 

If there’s one thing I feel guilty about concerning my prurient interest in what is on display, it is that she is rumored to have had a horrible time making this movie.  Even while watching it the first time, I was curious why she was OK with such elements as the cheesecake Polaroids Hopper finds with her passport when he breaks into her house.

That is related to one of the many interesting insights in the commentary provided by the husband and wife team of Alex Cox and Tod Fields.  They were uncredited for an extensive rewrite of the original script.  Some comments Fields makes regarding those photos is how no woman would keep those with her passport.  She also says no woman would just stuff lingerie into a drawer in the haphazard way Hopper finds it.  But my favorite comment she makes is when she says women only wear lingerie for men and they secretly hate it.  She follows this up with saying she married Cox because he isn’t into that kind of thing.

You may have noticed I earlier said Hopper finds these while breaking into her house.  He plays an assassin hired to snuff her because she accidentally witnessed a mob hit.  Instead, he becomes obsessed with her and gives her an offer to let her live if she submits to his will from that point on.  She actually agrees to this arrangement.

Just from this element, I was shocked Foster agreed to do this picture.  She’s had at least one stalker: John Hinckley, Jr., who tried to assassinated then-president Ronald Reagan because he thought this would impress her.

And she had to know how weird this movie was going to be even from the original pitch which, according to Cox and Fields, was “a romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with her rapist”.  If that isn’t shocking enough, Foster’s character quickly, inexplicably and thoroughly succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome. 

Everything else here pales in weirdness compared to the core of the plot, and yet there’s a great deal here that tries.  How about Foster’s art, which is all based on LED-signage?  Then there’s a scene where Foster hides in a tiny chapel on a miniature golf course that conveniently happens to be next to the police station.  According to Cox and Fields, Hopper has a weird obsession with miniature golf courses and tries to work a scene set on one in each of his pictures.  Oh, sorry, one last thing—a general store that probably doesn’t have anything for miles near it, but which has an improbable proponderance of pink Hostess Snoballs.

Actually, the weirdest thing may be the cast.  If you have ever wanted to see Bob Dylan do a cameo as a chainsaw sculptor, then I have good news.  Also appearing, though some are here in little more than cameos: Dean Stockwell, Vincent Price, John Turturro, Fred Ward, Joe Pesci, Charlie Sheen and Catherine Keener.  Alex Cox appears briefly as the ghost of D.H. Lawrence.  Hell, it’s even produced by Dick Clark, which seems pretty strange.

Apparently, Hopper used all his friends in this and offered others parts, so to settle some old debts of his.  Fields tells of Foster assessing the situation with the pithy, “Don’t you think this movie should be called Backdebt?”  Alas, Hopper still used this opportunity to abuse some others, as he outraged the producers by using largely his own properties for the production, and then charging them rental fees to use them.

I was surprised Cox and Fields talk so glowingly about Hopper.  They describe him as the perfect host, serving them wine even when he had kicked alcohol and drugs.  They also say he was eating only steak at the time which, while unhealthy, gave him a very lean, yet muscular, physique.

Just a bit more about the wealth of actors in this—for a cast of largely very reliable actors, almost every one of them turns in a dud performance.  Hopper seems to be channeling Christopher Walken, with his ridiculous gangster accent and phrasing.  I don’t believe I have ever seen Dean Stockwell turn in a less than fully convincing performance until now, and his every line reading falls flat here.  Joe Pesci turns in the best performance, which is surprising, as he chose to be uncredited.  At least we weren’t subjected to the thespian stylings of Neil Young, as he was bad enough that his scene was pulled from the movie, despite being the screenwriters’ favorite part.

Not unlike Hopper’s The Hot Spot, this is a feature that revels in its trashiness.  One of the many moments I was surprised Foster acquiesced to do is when she steps out of her car following a tire blowout, and the wind immediately whips up her skirt for a second or two.  Never thought I would see Foster do anything in a movie that even remotely reminded me of Marilyn Monroe.

Backtrack is a lousy film, but it is still a fascinating one.  There is one brief moment which sums up the experience for me.  This is when Hopper is skronking some discordant noises through a saxophone while standing in front of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.  He apparently produced exactly what he wanted, even if he is taking the viewer on a painful trip through Hell.  At least we have the commentary track from Cox and Fields to give us a taste of what it was like to be taken on that journey, but from the other side of the camera.

Dir: Dennis Hopper

Starring Dennis Hopper, Jodie Foster, and a long and confusing list of other names you’ll recognize

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray