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This film paces itself, and while never snappy, it uses its time wisely. While a melancholy mood prevales, we still are affected in many ways by the different characters we are introduced to.
The story is quite simple: A young man, not quite over the death of his parents, uses his skills as an inventor to come up with a device that may or may not monitor images of heaven. Through the interaction of several eccentric yet not exaggerated characters, they (and we) learn lessons about hope, desperation, and acceptance.
The film's use of desert landscape adds a lot to the feeling of loneliness (instead of film economics), the careful selection of songs for the soundtrack actually ties in with each scene--from songs by The The to Elvis! Keith Gordon obviously had a hand in that part, as with his choice of songs for his next film The Chocolate War. Goes to show you don't have to look for trendiness or a hit soundtrack to sell, which can date a film and make it lose its power over the years. Static was made in 1985 and hasn't lost an ounce of effectiveness.
There are so many little nuances that will have you hooked, from Ernie's collection of defective crucifixes to Ernie asking Julia why she kissed him: "'Cause you're a strange boy ...I wish I was more like you," it's brilliant. I've seen this film many times and it still has the power to hit me emotionally without fail every single time. I always have a really good cry when I see Amanda Plummer's last smile as she's driving.
Admittedly, films are a form of escapism and all don't have to be made exclusively for intellectual reasons, but when you want a story to touch you without trying to impress you with flavor-of-the-month stars and no "serious" documentary all ready to go for air on the Bravo network, this is the film to seek out. Static is a flawless example of what an independent film is all about.
After all these years, this is the one film that I cherish most and everyone I've suggested it to has admitted it stays in their minds. Without any dialogue to sum it up, the film's final lingering shot along with Amanda Plummer's thoughtful expression says so much more about feelings than any other film ever could!
An afterthought (2017): The fact that Romanek has disowned this film, calling it a "piece of juvenalia" as his first effort, makes me want to say he's being a pompous ass. One Hour Photo, while a decent enough film, was not as affecting as Static. Plus, giving away the ending of One Hour Photo right at the BEGINNING ruins the suspense, since we already know how it will turn out. Him wanting to call that his legitimate first feature is a huge mistake -- STATIC is much more important and meaningful.
The story and directing is very captivating, as I soon found myself intently watching every second of the film to see what was going to happen next. Keith Gordon (who co-wrote the script with Romanek) was dead-on in his portrayal of Ernie Blick, an out-of-place young man in small town America with an obsession over his new 'invention'. It also took "Static" to turn me into an Amanda Plummer fan.
The movie's soundtrack alone is entertaining. No wonder Romanek went on to a career in music videos as he obviously has a wide knowledge of music. I mean, what can you say about a soundtrack that effectively includes songs from both The The and Elvis?
I can't help but believe that "Static" is one of the roots of today's massive independent film movement. All of the key elements to current popular indies can be found in "Static": limited budget, dark humor, a disturbed main character, psychologically-driven drama. The film's ending is original and surprising even by the standards of the modern 'twist-in-the-end' craze. What made me appreciate "Static" that much more is that it still didn't sit you down and spell everything out for you at the end with a narrated flashback montage (like too many movies do). Instead, it's up to you to figure all out yourself.
If you are a fan of today's popular independent films - especially Pi, Memento, or Donnie Darko - then please do yourself a favor and take a timewarp back to '85 to find out where these films originated from. See "Static".
Visually, it belongs to the white walls, new wave, ambient American minimalist wave of "Sex, Lies, And Videos", "Bodies, Rest And Motion", "Parents", or the cult Hal Hartley films. The cherry on the cake has to be its soundtrack, complete with sublime atmospheric synthethizer waves by Japan.
The story : something magical happened in a small community ...except noone "gets" it, and a fairly disturbed young man can't get to communicate his sublime vision, and share his surreal "invention". What he has come up with is mind boggling... and noone else recognizes it. Past the suspenseful first half, the film veers into another, more tragic, direction ("Sugarland Express" ?), as he takes on the world. Weird, wacky, wonderful.
Details (like the half-melt crucifix collection, the survivalist, his kids' alien masks) abound, creating a suitably subtle poetic atmosphere. Add to that the fascinating presence of Amanda Plummer, who adds a doubly poignant subplot (returning "home", and sympathising with the loner), and you have a true cult classic of the eighties. -Other possible recommendations : "The Reflecting Skin" , or "The Darkness Of Darkley Noon".
In Static, Keith Gordon is Ernie, a young orphaned when his parents were killed in a car accident. He is the famed inventor of this strange town (which includes a pseudo-believer/ex-Green Beret evangelist cousin). After two years of working on a highly secretive project, Ernie is ready to unveil to the town (and to the rest of the world) what he believes will change their lives forever, a television that gives real-time images from Heaven.
Everyone thinks Ernie is definitely ready for the madhouse (though I don't know how such a strange town could think he is somehow so strange that it stands out), and Ernie is confused by their reaction. Those who were invited to witness the demonstration of the project claimed they couldn't see anything, but Ernie was convinced there was something there. Ernie's friend, Julia (Amanda Plummer), who drifts into town at the right time (Ernie revealing his project), makes a great point: what is the point of the invention if people believe that Heaven exists anyway?
Static is what an indie movie should be. It's not too pretentious like your modern indie fare and gives us a generally bizarre comedy in the style of Bagdhad Cafe or Rosalie Goes Shopping or even Repo Man (and the eerie combination of Johnny Cash and obscure 80s new wave makes it even more of a sister to these movies). Movies where the events are just so strange, but since the characters are all so weird as well, their reality appears to them, a normal existence. And, best of all, the filmmakers stayed true to their intentions and didn't try to make everyone feel so gushy with the typical Hollywood Happy Ending.
If you really love bizarre 80s movies (though, the story is not so coherent to be considered too bizarre, or too avante garde), then you won't go wrong with Static.
What makes his story so heartbreaking, and this is taking aside the climax (or the resolution of it) which takes a turn into a WTF moment that I'm still not sure how to process as good or bad for the film, is that this character has genuine talent, after all he spent two years making a specialized antenna with a TV set. But it's all due to trauma that no one around him - certainly not bug-f*ck crazy cousin Bob Gunton (Warden Norton from Shawshank Redemption, a fantastically nutty performance if one-note), or even his very understanding and warm girlfriend Julie (who has an odd moment at the very start of the film where she quits a new-wave band for... what reason, I guess to go back to Ernie, but it seems so sudden as to not really be necessary, despite being well-shot and musically interesting).
It's at its most compelling as a study of this guy who has never fully processed his loss... or maybe he has, and is using this invention as a way of finding his way of getting back. Or, with this invention that projects on TV heaven, it's the Herzogian line: these are not just my dreams, they are yours as well. Is heaven a place on Earth, or just a bunch of white noise? It's an odd little marvel, imperfect but charming because of them (like that whole sequence on the bus, which is so absurd it's hard not to laugh, even if it's difficult to not see the old ladies as anything but genteel types, why not one old lady on the bus who is like 'oh gimme a break'?) If you want to find something truly obscure but sweetly deranged with a backbeat of Elvis and Brian Eno, look no further - as if most of us are looking for those things anyway. That it should have received a DVD release already is a major understatement, if only due to the at least known quantity of Keith Gordon and Amanda Plummer, or Romanek, who (somewhat) sadly remains the more under-appreciated filmmakers from the music-video pack that came from the 90's (i.e. Fincher, Jonze, Gondry, etc).
An inventor (Gordon) loses his parents in a car-crash, and then spends the next two years working on a device that would show direct images from Heaven. Realizing that he is the only one who can see images of Heaven on the screen (while others see only static), he flips his lid and decides to "hijack" a bus, with its elderly passengers being willing participants in the sham. The bus explodes after a cop shoots at it (duh), killing the inventor and everyone else in it. His girlfriend, the beautiful and stunning and sexy Amanda Plummer, under shock, goes to his flat to take a look at his invention one final time; but again she sees nothing on the screen. However, the last scene shows her leaving the town, with a wide grin on her face. Did she see Gordon i.e. Heaven on the screen, after all?
Or did she simply lose her mind, too? Or was she smiling because she had thought of a very funny joke, perhaps? Or maybe she couldn't believe her "luck" for having a movie career? Nothing would surprise me; she does play a very ditsy character, after all. In fact, Plummer is much like that other nepotistic semi-amateur, Melanie Griffith, in the sense that both are totally limited to playing dim-witted, goofy-voiced women with three brain-cells. And even that they can't do particularly well.
So was Gordon out of his gourd or did he actually see something on his device which for some reason others couldn't? To me, that isn't the most pressing question here. The real dilemma here concerns whether the writer/director has all his marbles or not: why the Hell would anyone cast Amanda Plummer as anyone's love-interest??? She is one of the most extreme examples of Hollywood nepotism gone wild, along with others such as Anjelica Huston, Laura Dern and others.
I thought it was daft from the director to get Gordon to tell Plummer that she is "the total opposite of crazy". That was intended as a compliment, not only from Gordon by the director as well (i.e. it was intended sans the irony), but what it implies instead is that she is utterly boring and common. Duh.
"Static" is a fairly original movie with solid dialogues and an unusual story-line. The basic premise had (or still has) great potential. Where it all comes tumbling down, however, is the ending with the bus exploding. With Gordon buying a bus-ticket "Static" enters "goofy-comedy" territory, and yet just as it does that, it suddenly gives us this totally bizarre, out-of-the-blue, absurd tragic event which in no way, shape, or form fits into this movie. It is quite obvious that the director had written himself into a dead end, a blind alley, a corner, clueless as to how to wrap up the proceedings. So like any amateur writer desperate to finally complete his script, he tacked on a totally preposterous, over-the-top, idiotic explosion. "Hey, an explosion kills nearly everyone, so my movie can end, right?" Yes, that is correct, Sunshine, the explosion does solve your problem, but it also RUINS your movie.
Besides, it made zero sense for any of the cops to shoot at the bus as it started moving without getting the all-clear from the sheriff, and without even having a pressing reason to do so. (Or have you perhaps ever heard of an American hijack situation involving dozens of hostages, in which the cops have the go-ahead to blindly shoot at the vehicle in question as soon as it starts moving? I haven't). Not to mention the moronic ease with which the bus explodes, as if it had been DRENCHED with highly inflammable liquids from all sides, as if it had been meticulously and intentionally prepared by the company that runs these buses to explode like a bad guy from a "Die Hard" movie.
What is it with movies and their bombastically exploding vehicles? If cars and buses really exploded as easy as they do in movies, there would be millions dead in road accidents throughout the world every month. Given that "Static" is an indie movie – the type of films that are supposed to relieve us from all the usual Hollywood cliché bull – it is doubly shameful that the writer/director resorted to such a cheap plot-device. (And he could have saved some money in that shoe-string budget of his by not having to shoot an explosion.)
Perhaps if someone neutral had proof-read the script before pre-production started, then the cretinous ending would have been re-written and we would have had a good film on our hands. As it is, "Static" is just another great premise that peters out due to a lack of imagination on the writer's part.
Gordon invites his friends and their KIDS to the grand presentation of his invention. Why anyone with more than half a brain-cell would actually risk having 3 young kids endanger his presentation – or the device itself – is beyond me. That was a stupid touch. In the end, the kids and their monster masks end up on the movie's poster. Why?
The director, Romanek, seems to be over-idealized and worshiped by many "art-crowd" film-goers apparently for the simply reason that "Static" came out early, before indie films reached their qualitative peak in the 90s, gradually being mass-produced, eventually dropping in quality, becoming just as hopeless as the Hollywood films they allegedly wanted to stray from. I think these people tend to (sub)consciously ignore the movie's obvious flaws, and to greatly exaggerate its positive sides. Romanek cast Keira Knightly in his latest movie, and had spend decades working on trashy MTV videos for the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. Not exactly the resume of a brilliant film-maker.