“The script was original, it had this carny/circus thing which I’ve always associated with Hollywood. Let’s face it, it’s a freakshow out here, it’s a circus, we’re all on the merry-go-round. And this cartoonish, kind of weird sensibility this film had, it was almost like a weird childhood memory of these local television shows I remember watching as a kid…”–Bill Paxton on why he was attracted to the script of The Dark Backward
DIRECTED BY: Adam Rifkin
PLOT: Marty Malt is a garbageman and aspiring stand-up comic with no talent and no confidence. One day, a third arm begins to spontaneously grow out of his back. Although his act hasn’t improved, the gimmick is enough so that greasy agent Jackie Chrome takes interest in him and his accordion-playing, garbage-eating buddy Gus.
- The Dark Backward was the first script written by Adam Rifkin, who was only 19 years old at the time. He would direct the film six years later at age 25.
- The title was selected by opening the complete works of Shakespeare to a random page (the quote comes from “The Tempest,” Act I, Scene II: “How is it/That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else/In the dark backward and abysm of time?”
- James Caan reportedly agreed to appear in the film only after an insistent Rifkin called him at the Playboy Mansion.
- Judd Nelson auditioned for the role by performing Marty Malt’s comedy routines, in disguise, at open-mike nights in Los Angeles.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Probably, one of the many images of Marty’s third arm, whether he displays it to the audience by mechanically spinning around after delivering another lame joke, or as doctor James Caan examines the embryonic fingers sprouting from the his back. Individual viewers’ mileage may vary, however; you may be indelibly grossed out by the orgy with three morbidly obese women, or by Gus’ nauseating midnight snack of rotting chicken.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The premise alone—the world’s worst stand-up comic becomes a success after he sprouts a third arm from his back—immediately qualifies as weird. For better and worse, director Rifkin doesn’t shy away from going whole hog into grotesquerie, churning out a first feature that looks like a technically polished version of an early John Waters film.
Clip from The Dark Backward
COMMENTS: If a therapist laid The Dark Backward down on a couch and psychoanalyzed it, he would come away convinced that the movie suffered simultaneously from low self confidence and a persecution complex. As Marty Malt, nerdy Judd Nelson slinks his way through the movie as if he’s always worried the captain of his high school football team is about to jump out of the shadows and punch him in the shoulder. The movie posits a social dystopia where his paranoia is justified: everyone in this movie exists for no other purpose than to put Marty down, or get his hopes up and betray him. The apathetic audiences who file their nails while he delivers his jokes are actually the least of the indignities he suffers. It’s expected that his agent (Wayne Newton) will have little interest in his real welfare, but even outside show business, the world of The Dark Backward isn’t indifferent to Marty so much as actively abusive. Nature itself conspires to turn him into a freak. His doctor (James Caan) has a bedside manner that would suit Dr. Mengele, mocking and laughing at his patient when he shows him the growing lump in his back, calling him a “weasel” and advising him to shut up. His mother is a nagging nightmare who laughs at his ambitions, refuses to let him kiss her on the cheek, gives him a guilt trip for deliberately growing a third arm out of his back, and changes the channel when he appears on TV. Worst of all is his best buddy Gus (Bill Paxton), an unctuous cockroach who pretends to support him but who transparently manipulates Marty to squeeze whatever he can out of him.
Like Jonathan Pryce’s sad bureaucrat in Brazil, Marty needs something in his life to give him a respite from cruel reality, and the script offers him a real life, flesh and blood waitress girlfriend, Rosarita (Lara Flynn Boyle), instead of a mere fantasy woman like Pryce. The problem is, although Rosarita is a looker, she’s no prize. She never genuinely smiles; she’s cold, frigid, and almost lobotomized. She pays only token attention to Marty when he practices his routines. She’s disinterested and disloyal, and when she leaves him over his third limb, his pining for her is pathetic rather than poignant.
That lack of any hint of kindness in Marty’s life is what sucks the life out of the film. It’s difficult to properly calibrate the level of cruelty in a black comedy, but The Dark Backward is just too dark. Its universe is so callous that specific, supposedly climactic acts of betrayal and tragedy are dulled. Marty’s life can’t get any worse, so he has little to lose, and he’s hard to root for because watching him hunch and sweat his way across the screen is painful. Although many parts of the film are repulsive—Gus licking a corpse, eating rotting chicken, and a drunken orgy with three morbidly obese women—it’s the oppressive and unrelieved abuse of Marty that makes the film insufferable for most people.
Released in 1991, it was inevitable that Rifkin’s movie would be compared to David Lynch, but savvier viewers will notice that the real inspiration is John Waters (Gus, with his garbage-eating and perverse fetish for fat women, could have been at least a semifinalist in Pink Flamingos “filthiest person alive” contest). The nihilistic comedy, the obsession with ugliness, the bright polyester leisure suit fashions, and the inclusion of real life freaks and geeks all come from Waters’ bemused despair rather than Lynch’s mysticism. But whereas Waters deliberately used nonprofessional actors and crummy cinematography to highlight the surreal ugliness of his world, Rifkin weaves his bleak fable with Hollywood gloss and professional acting. Further, where Waters was eager to transgress all the way—allowing his characters to rape, torture and maim each other rather than merely being pissy—Rifkin pulls his punches and restricts the viciousness to the psychosocial. That technique removes a lot of Waters’ transcendentally repulsive shock and awe, and blunts the underground charm.
Although the actors may be professionals, they’ve been encouraged to overact to almost obscene levels. Nelson plays Marty as so shy and awkward it’s painful to watch him; he looks constantly terrified, and the world of The Dark Backward certainly justifies his fears of humiliation. It’s tough to generate sympathy for an eternal doomed loser, and since it’s apparent early on that identifying with Marty is an emotional suicide pact, Nelson can’t generate sympathy for his character; the most he can do is maximize the cringe factor every time he’s on screen. Paxton’s Gus, with his accordion playing, his loping line deliveries and his constant jeering and geekery, plays so over-the-top that the audience has to work hard to accept him. Those who can get onto his wavelength may consider his performance a masterpiece of deliberate camp, but most viewers are going to find watching him rough going. The surprise thespian is Wayne Newton, who imbues Jackie Chrome with a perfectly believable note of unjustified overconfidence and a sleazy near-charm. Newton is a revelation, and his carefully controlled caricature is a relief compared to Nelson and Paxton’s overblown characterizations. It’s the role Newton was born to play: having dealt with many a real-life Jackie Chrome in his day, the subtle revenge he takes on the character type here is one of the film’s small delights.
If The Dark Backward fails overall, it occasionally redeems itself by being brilliant in small details. Rifkin creates a strange Los Angeles cityscape that’s neither past nor present nor future, neither wholly real nor entirely a dream. Refuse, cockroaches and vermin infest every corner of the urban sprawl, while mega-corporation Blump’s dominates the airwaves and billboards with 1950s style, white-bread advertising. Their smiling Aryan mascots plastered everywhere call to mind a commercial Big Brother, as they sell every type of twisted consumable junk from pork juice to squeezable bacon, as well as running the city’s lucrative garbage monopoly. One of Jackie Chrome’s clients is an opera singer dressed as a Viking who accompanies herself on a human xylophone made out of dwarfs. A sewer pipe coming from nowhere spouts dirty water onto the city street, along with a couple of live fish. And there’s the unexplained issue of Wayne Newton’s mustache; it seems that he draws it on his upper lip with a Sharpie every morning, and never gets it to line up quite realistically. It’s hard not to admire the consistently trashy universe Rifkin creates, which does not feel like anything we’ve seen in any other movie. There are little weird details hiding in the corner of every littered set, and unexpectedly oddball twists in each scene; catching them provides a delightful distraction from the often painful plot.
The comedy in The Dark Backward fails to lighten the oppressive tone, though there is a consistently strange form of humor running through it. Caan’s doctor has some genuinely funny moments as he diagnoses and treats Marty’s new limb (“there’s your problem!” he proclaims as he draws a circle in magic marker around the tumorlike lump emerging from Marty’s back, then treats it by gingerly placing an undersized band-aid on it). For the most part, however, the comic tone is deliberately strained and off, like one of Marty’s jokes. The would-be comic invents routines that have the general form of a joke, but fail to deliver the expected punch line, substituting an offbeat, random climax instead. Marty devises one supposed rib-tickler about a bald man who goes to a barber and when he realizes he has no hair to cut, asks the barber to slice off his ears instead so that he won’t waste a trip. In one of the clever asides that help redeem the harsh story, Marty later goes to the barbershop and sees a nearly bald man seated in the chair next to him, just out of the audiences view, and stares in horror at something that happens just off the frame. It’s uneasy, absurd quasi-comedy, just like the idea of an arm growing from a comic’s back. For better and worse, The Dark Backward is a case of style following premise; if, like Marty’s routine, your film can’t make ’em laugh, at least the freak factor will keep ’em watching.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“We have only begun to pay the price for David Lynch’s immense popularity, and for the influence he no doubt exerts over a whole generation of directorial wanna-be’s. If Adam Rifkin’s ‘Dark Backward’ is any indication, then aspiring young film makers in the Lynch mold can easily confuse the use of sickening grotesques and smug, simple-minded acting with the more interesting eccentricities that shape Mr. Lynch’s style.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“How often do you see Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, James Caan, Wayne Newton and Lara Flynn Boyle in the same film? Never again, if fate is kind… a new low in cinematic ineptitude.”–Peter Travers, Rolling Stone (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: The Dark Backward (1991)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Web Show: The Dark Backward (YouTube) – a filmed Q&A session with writer/director Rifkin, co-star Paxton, and producer Brad Wyman, incorporating numerous clips from the movie. Part 2 of the video is here.
DVD INFO: 2007 saw Sony unexpectedly release a special edition of The Dark Backward (buy), salvaging the box-office flop from the out-of-print dump. Numerous featurettes include “Blump’s Squeezable Documentary,” featuring interviews with writer/director Rifkin, producer Brad Wyman, and stars Nelson, Paxton and Newton; black and white promos made to pitch the film at Cannes; a Q&A session with Rifkin, Wyman, Nelson and Paxton from the 15th anniversary screening; 17 minutes of deleted scenes and six minutes of outtakes; “Catch My Dreams,” an original rap song relating the story and set to clips from the movie; and the animated cat and mouse cartoon that appears in the film. Rifkin, Nelson, Paxton and Wyman appear on the crowded commentary track. Rifkin also supplies a humorous introduction to the film that, frankly, is about as amusing as a Marty Malt routine.