Thursday, March 09, 2006

UNION CITY - brings new meaning to the term "art movie"

UNION CITY is a bizarre little (by which I mean comparatively short) film-noir made by the artist Markus Reichert and released back in 1980. Today it is notable for the surreal, tense atmosphere achieved on zero budget and the screen debut of Debbie Harry. On the release of a shiny new DVD edition, I am here to plead its case for viewing outside the cultish band of noir-film-makers and David Lynch fans.

The movie features Dennis Lipscomb as Harlan, a paranoid, repressed accountant, living in Jersey, with his beautiful wife, played by Debbie Harry. Lipscomb becomes obsessed with the mystery man who keeps stealing the milk bottles from outside his house and concocts elaborate plans to entrap said thief. Meanwhile, his neglected wife starts pleasuring herself, not to mention carrying on with the super, played by Everett McGill. The plots sounds absurd, but somehow Reichert manages to maintain a serious tone to the piece. This is partly thanks to his use of small sets and odd camera angles. It always feels like the camera has been squeezed into a small corner, and that the viewer is a voyueur. The creeping sense of claustrophobia lends credibility to Liscomb's inceasing paranoia. Kudos to cameraman, Edward Lachman, who made this possible. In this low budget flick we have a small taste of the kind of work we'd later see in movies such as The Virgin Suicides, Far From Heaven, and the marvellous new Robert Altman movie, A Prairie Home Companion. In addition, praise is due to the score by Chris Stein.

I should make it clear that, even after being cleaned up, the DVD print does look pretty dated, and one suspects that this is just because the production values on the original shoot were constrained by lack of hard cash. In addition, the acting performances, dialogue and substance of the film are highly stylised: this is an art movie in a true sense of the term, and closer to, say, Eraserhead than Blue Velvet. I have to say that technical defects and obvious absurdity aside, the film does suck you in. You want to know who is stealing the milk, you want to know what Lipscomb will do, you want to know if Debbie Harry will finally break out of her stultifying marriage. Why? Like I said, the tone of the piece is right. But secondly, artifice aside, UNION CITY is one of the most honest portraits of a bad marriage that I have seen on screen. It resonates. And that makes it, for me, a successful film.

UNION CITY is available on a newly cleaned-up DVD complete with Debbie Harry's original screen test and previously unseen deleted scenes.

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