Embracing the Melodrama Part II #78: American Anthem (dir by Albert Magnoli)


“He’s thrown a tripus!  Steve Tevere has thrown a tripus!  The most outstanding dismount tonight, or any night!” 

— Really Excited Announcer In American Anthem (1986)

Way back in March, I dvr’d a movie called American Anthem off of Encore.  I did this for two reasons.  First off, the film was described as having something to do with gymnastics and that’s always been my favorite part of the Summer Olympics.  Secondly, any film from the 1980s that has the word “American” in the title is sure to be fun or, at the very least, achingly sincere.

When I finally got around to watching American Anthem, I wasn’t expecting much.  The film turned out to be largely what I expected it would be: the story of gymnasts hoping to qualify for the Olympics and find some personal redemption along the way.  All of the stock characters were present.  We had Steve Tevere (Mitch Gaylord), the brooding rebel who had to decide between pursuing his Olympic dreams or working in a garage for the rest of his life.  We had Steve’s girlfriend, Julie (Janet Jones), who had to learn to be humble before she could be great.  We had Kirk (Stacy Maloney), Steve’s best friend and fellow gymnast.  We had kinda bitchy Becky Cameron (Maria Anz), who was Julie’s friend and rival.  And then there was Arthur (Andrew White), Julie’s crippled, musician cousin.  And let’s not forget Tracy Prescott (Jenny Ester), the 12 year-old gymnast with the impressive afro.  And, of course, there was Coach Sarnoff (Michael Pataki) who was tough, compassionate, and Russian.  The majority of the cast was made up of real-life gymnasts and, with the exception of the genuinely charismatic Stacy Maloney, they all gave performances that suggested that they should stick with gymnastics.

And yet, despite all of that, I absolutely loved American Anthem.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  For the most part, I loved it for all the wrong reasons.  My love for the film is not the type of love that would lead to me being quoted on the back of a Blu-ray case.  American Anthem is a thoroughly bad film but it’s also compulsively watchable.  From the minute that I started watching it, I became obsessed with American Anthem‘s bizarre ineptness.  Since that first night in March, I’ve rewatched American Anthem a few dozen times.  I’ve lost track of how many times that I have grimaced at the cutesy music that Sarnoff tried to force Julie to use for her floor routine.  I can imitate Becky’s squeal of pain when she’s tries to compete with an injured knee.  Whenever Julie and the girls start to chant, “Kirk!  Kirk!  Kirk!,” I chant with them.  And don’t even get me started on how much I love hearing, “He’s thrown a tripus!”

American Anthem is pure style.  This is one of the few films that I’ve seen that has absolutely no subtext.  There is literally nothing going on beneath the surface.  It’s almost as if somebody dared director Albert Magnoli to make a film that was just one big montage.  This is one of those films where the camera is always moving, the colors are always bright, and the soundtrack is always soaring.  Hardly anyone in the film can actually act but oh my God, everyone looks so good (in a 1986 sort of way, of course).

The other “great” thing about American Anthem is that there’s not a single cliché that the film doesn’t include and, as a result, you really don’t have to pay that much attention to the film to understand what’s going on.  To its credit, this film doesn’t even pretend to be anything other than a collection of clichés.  It’s almost as if the characters themselves realize that they are in a film and understand that they have no choice but to conform to what the audience has been conditioned to expect.

(Hmmm…I guess American Anthem does have a subtext.  And kind of a disturbing one at that!)

For instance, within minutes of meeting and despite having no chemistry, Steve and Julie are in love.  Why?  Because the only reason that they are in the film is to fall in love.  It has to be done.

Steve fights with his father (John Aprea) and we’re never quite sure why, beyond the fact that all brooding rebels fight with their fathers.  When his father shows up to watch his son compete, the triumphant music soars and it no longer matters that he’s been portrayed as being an abusive rageaholic up until that moment.

All of the characters tell us that Coach Sarnoff is the best, despite the fact that we don’t actually see any evidence of that fact.  But Sarnoff has to be the best because nobody ever makes a movie about athletes training under a merely adequate coach.

When Becky suddenly shows up at the final competition with a bandaged knee, it doesn’t matter that we don’t actually see her get injured beforehand or, for that matter, hear anything about it.  All that matters is that, in films like this, someone has to compete with an injury.  Becky is simply playing her part.

American Anthem.  It’s not a particularly good film but it sure is watchable.  And, as I’ve come to realize while writing this review, it’s a bit of an existential nightmare as well!

I don’t think I’m ever going to erase it from my DVR.


Neon Dream #4: Hong Kong Express – 浪漫的夢想

I am not sure whether my recent discovery of vaporwave was a coincidence or not. When people check out my Last.fm profile, I always return the serve, and I happened to be listening to a lot of other music that will be featured in this series when I got a new visitor. This person’s profile was filled with really odd artist names, mostly consisting of katakana followed by a seemingly random English word in all caps. Click click.

This was vaporwave, as it turned out, and vaporwave was pretty odd. I guess the genre emerged beginning in 2011 as electronic and dance artists, partly in jest and partly as a sort of social commentary, began to resurrect trash audio from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The background sounds of shopping malls and elevator shafts twisted in conformity to dance beats and reemerged packaged with bad 90s digital imagery. The artist titles are a nod to those used in Asian markets to sell western hits without having to pay royalties. The genre title, too, was a hoax, referring to vaporware–products which are heavily marketed but never actually released or cancelled. (Remember when Duke Nukem Forever gained so much fame after 14 years “in development” that Gearbox slapped together a garbage FPS under the title?) Some of the early artists in the scene suggested that their music was not intended to be enjoyed for any intrinsically pleasing qualities. Rather, they were taking music that was trashy in spirit and making it trashy in sound, degrading it to a state where its shallow capitalist origins could shine while, as a possibly unintended consequence, infusing it with actual conceptual value.

The earlier artists I sampled were, as you might expect from the description, entertaining but not particularly pleasant to listen to. In 2014, a label called Dream Catalogue launched and helped to really redirect the genre. Taking the same technical approach of restructuring muzak, smooth jazz, funk, lounge, new age, and R&B into electronic and dance tracks, Dream Catalogue artists showed a generally keener eye towards making the music aesthetically pleasing in its own right. The result was a sound that’s simultaneously modern and nostalgic, and a collection of albums that show a lot more individual character and vision.

Hong Kong Express, the Dream Catalogue founder’s personal project, presents a consistent vision of dreamy nighttime travels in a modern city. In describing his first release, 浪漫的夢想, the label’s website concludes that “This dream, ultimately, is a mysterious and romantic trip through the neon haze of a night in Hong Kong – a journey of subway carriages and fast cars, a love both lost and found, and a connection between souls.” I can definitely hear that. The pitched, echoing pop and jazz samples generate the sense that you aren’t fully taking in your surroundings. You drift through a landscape of glowing billboards and signs, recognizing the products subliminally while reflecting on the light itself, becoming lost in a vibrant capitalist world. What could be more appropriate for the theme of this series?

Check out the rest of the Dream Catalogue catalogue on Bandcamp.

In Praise of Mad Max: Fury Road’s Crazy Guitar Guy

Mad Max: Fury Road opened this weekend and, taking in 45 million at the box office and maintaining an amazing 98% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, it has thrilled both critics and audiences.  From George Miller’s breakneck direction to Charlize Theron’s performance as a one-armed warrior queen, there is much to praise about Mad Max: Fury Road.   For many, though, the best part of the film is the “crazy guitar guy.”

iotaIf you have seen Max Max: Fury Road, you know exactly who I am talking about.  He is the red jumpsuit-wearing, masked man who plays a mean guitar and wields a flamethrower at the same time.  When the War Boys chase Furiousa and Max across the desert, he is a passenger on a massive truck.  On the back of the truck, drummers pound away.  On the front of truck, he dangles above a stack of speakers and amplifiers while playing a double-neck guitar that is also a flame thrower.  Though he is known to many as simply being the crazy guitar guy, his character has a name.  He is Coma, the Doof Warrior.  In just one weekend, he has become a cult hero.



The Doof Warrior is played by Australian musician and theatrical actor, iOTA (born Sean Hape).  In an interview with Yahoo Movies, iOTA describes the Doof Warrior as being “a post-apocalyptic drummer boy.”  From the drummer boys who played and often died on Civil War battlegrounds to the modern-day soldiers who blasted Rock the Casbah during the Invasion of Iraq, music and war have always gone together.  The Doof Warrior’s heavy metal riffs are the perfect battle music for Mad Max‘s hyper-masculine War Boys.

Why, in a film full of crazy characters and exciting moments, has the Doof Warrior become so popular?  The most obvious answer is that he looks cool and he has a flamethrower.  However, another reason is that we know nothing about him.  For all the attention that he has received, the Doof Warrior is only onscreen for a handful of minutes and he has no dialogue.  Miller and iOTA worked out an elaborate backstory for the Doof Warrior but none of it is revealed in the movie.  Much like Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back (and before the character was ruined with Attack of the Clones), the Doof Warrior remains an enigma who can be whatever we want or need him to be.

Iota3Beyond that, the Doof Warrior is living the fantasy of everyone who has ever played air guitar or spent hours debating whether James Hetfield or Kirk Hammett is the better guitarist.  Anyone who has ever taken a guitar lesson has fantasized about watching an audience go mad while listening to his music.  The War Boys may be going to war but the Doof Warrior is playing the greatest concert of his life.  No wonder that, even when he is in the middle of a battle, the Doof Warrior never stops playing.

So, before his legacy is tarnished by bad fanfic and tumblr overexposure, let us take a minute to raise a glass to the coolest character in the coolest film of the year, the one and only Doof Warrior.