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Stumbles its way into significance, much like the movement it is a part of
Had Border Radio not been released on the prestigious Criterion Collection label, I doubt many people, even the most hardened cinephiles, would be aware of its existence. It's less a cogent film and more a peculiar oddity from an era that was brewing in American film, which was the do it yourself (DIY) movement that basically involved a slew of young directors seeing films and becoming inspired enough to make their own works with the technology readily available to them. Being that home video has begun and VHS camcorders were becoming more common and affordable, unknowns turned acclaimed directors like Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Jim Jarmusch took their inspiration from certain films, and even films made by one another, and used it as the gas to fuel their latest projects.
One of the few female directors from that time period, Allison Anders, who seems to get lost in the shuffle to her more successful male counterparts, helped kick off the DIY movement more or less with Border Radio, a perplexing eighty-minute film that functions less like a film and more like a rambling musing on rock and roll, punk-culture, and the aimless and desolate landscape of a border community. This particular film concerns a trio of of Southern Californian musicians, who hold up a nightclub they performed at for $1,000 for a presumably unpaid show before hightailing to Mexico just as soon as they arrived. They are also in search of Jeff (Chris D.), a rocker who goes missing around the same time, resulting in a search for him by, not only the criminals, but Jeff's ex-wife.
This plot is a lot easier to understand on paper than practice; Border Radio is about as disjointed as a film can be, essentially playing hopscotch with the idea of a conventional and linear narrative. Distracting us from the occasionally plodding and unclear characters and story is the abundance of natural beauty that directors Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss convey quite nicely through black and white, Super 16mm filmstock. The result is a film that feels like a shoddy home movie, only adding to the kind of yesteryear punk style that would make an older, wiser Richard Kern crack a faint grin, especially after the masterpieces he created after working with Sonic Youth.
Border Radio is a tricky film to understand in that it's unconventionality and lack of a cohesive narrative bleed through it like an unattended to flesh wound. It's never really that funny, never completely interesting, and always seems to leave you at arm's length with all its characters and their situations. Having said all of that, its coldness is a key element in punk filmmaking, at least the kind I've seen. It's a film with an attitude and unwillingness to compromise its style for anything in the way of substance - sort of like the DIY films of the 1990's, which sort of just stumbled their way into being considered smart, observant comedies thanks to those who went out of their way to rent them at the videostore countless times. With Border Radio, there's no mean-spirited comedy, no melodrama, and no real menace or spice to its recipe; it's too busy living a cold and unashamed life to divulge into anything of that magnitude.
Directed by: Allison Anders, Dena Lent, and Kurt Voss.
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