I’ve been watching Dennis Hopper’s more obscure and straight-to-DVD movies now for a number of few years; all in the name of ‘research’ you understand. I’ve seen some real clunkers (Space Truckers, Tycus) but I’ve also discovered some incredible work that has been added to the long list of my favorite films of all time (The American Friend, The Blackout).
When it came to selecting Hopper’s movies, I used to play a game on Amazon in which I would find the cheapest and most obscure DVD and hit the purchase button. Whilst playing this quite financially wasteful game (the DVD’s were cheap, but the postage often wasn’t) I chanced upon a mid-1990s curio entitled Search and Destroy (1995). I knew absolutely nothing of it but was intrigued by the “Presented by Martin Scorsese” tag. A Dennis Hopper film with Scorsese’s involvement? Why was nobody talking about this? Surely it needed a look. Based on a stage play by screenwriter and playwright Howard Korder, it remains the only feature film directed by the American artist, David Salle.
The film stars Griffin Dunne (who had also played the same role in the stage version) as lifelong failure Martin Mirkheim, and Illeana Douglas as Marie, a secretary to the egotistical televangelist and author, Dr Luther Waxling (Dennis Hopper), and a budding screenwriter of schlock horror movies. The film comes peppered with an array of destabilizing cameo appearances; Christopher Walken as the enigmatic businessman, Kim Ulander, Ethan Hawke as Dr. Waxling`s smarmy assistant Roger, John Turturro as the suave two-bit crook, Ron, and Rosanna Arquette as Mirkheim`s long-suffering wife. Scorsese himself even turns up as a tax accountant intent on ruining Mirkheim.
Search and Destroy‘s genre is hard to define, in fact almost impossible. It could be read as a romantic comedy, a road movie, a crime caper, a satire of Hollywood schmoozing, or a gangster film. It is at once hilarious, sad, thrilling, boring, and bewildering. When I implored friends to watch the film they all came back with more or less the same response: it was either the best thing they’d seen in ages, or they scolded me for wasting their time. To this day I can barely decipher my own feelings towards it. Genius or garbage? I’m still on the fence with one foot hanging over on the side of genius.
“A Screwball Tragedy”
And yet this is why I feel it’s important to offer a re-evaluation of Search and Destroy. It’s faded beyond obscurity that not even trusty YouTube has an uploaded version. There are countless copies available on DVD all with various cover art (including some images pulled from the actors’ other movies). That they all come from European distributors indicates that the film was better received on the continent. The by-line calls the film “A Screwball Tragedy” and whilst that does it some justice what does such a definition even mean? The term has cropped up a few times, mostly relating to anti-folk artist Adam Green’s freeform film The Wrong Ferarri (2010), which was shot on Green’s iPhone whilst he toured in Europe with Macaulay Culkin. More recently, actor Oscar Isaac classified Inside Llewyn Davis as “a screwball tragedy,” and this relates well to Search and Destroy. The idea that the protagonist is in continuous and quite hilarious freefall is at once tragic and humorous, with glimmers of redemption offered but rarely accepted. Like Llewyn, Mirkhiem and Marie’s grand schemes fall apart quickly in tragic/comic circumstances.
“You can’t have an adventure without a gun!”
A simplistic narrative of Search and Destroy reads as follows. Martin Mirkheim (Dunne) is a failed entrepreneur trying to pay a huge tax. He spends his days in a funk of twitchy and exasperated nervousness. Taking inspiration from his mentor, New Age philosopher Dr. Luther Waxling (Hopper), Mirkheim attempts one last shot at redemption – to adapt Waxling’s inspirational novel Daniel Strong (think Celestine Prophecy) into a film. Mirkheim visits Waxling’s television studio. Waxling immediately sees Mirkheim for what he is and ejects him from the premises. Mirkheim meets Waxling’s assistant Marie (Douglas) who appears to be the only one who believes in his vision of adapting the book. In search of financial backing, Mirkheim and Marie travel to New York to find Kim Ulander (Walken), a wealthy acquaintance of Mirkheim’s with underground connections. Ulander hooks Mirkheim up with Ron (Turturro), a two-bit crook with an extravagant taste in stylish suits. They try to pull off a drug deal but it falls apart when Ulander brings a gun to the deal. When Ron suggests credit card fraud as a means to acquire some quick cash, Ulander pulls his weapon and shoots him dead. Ulander loses the plot and goes on the run, taking Mirkheim and Marie as his hostages. The two eventually stand up to Ulander, killing him with a lead pipe. A year later, Dr. Waxling watches a horrifically violent science fiction b-movie. Sitting next to him is Mirkheim and Marie, both recovered from their ordeal with Kim. The horror film, titled Dead World, finishes and the credit reel starts to roll with Marie named as the writer and director of the film, and Mirkheim the producer. Waxling is grossed-out and perplexed but admits he’s impressed. Mirkheim produces from his jacket pocket an envelope containing $100,000 for the worldwide rights to Daniel Strong.
Destabilising the Audience
As narratives go, this all seems relatively straightforward; in fact, the narrative is hardly unusual. Plot devices move the narrative forward at an even pace. There are no flashback sequences to explain future developments; the film is very linear. However, the film is punctured by so many off-kilter performances, cameos, and enough bizarre interactions that the film becomes an experiment in destabilising its audience towards ignoring the narrative flow altogether. It becomes instead a series of sketches, relating back to its origins to the stage and ‘acts’ in which it was originally played out.
For example, Dennis Hopper’s performance is typical of the era in which he was infamous for appearing as crackling baddies in films such as Speed, Super Mario Bros, Boiling Point, and Waterworld. Much like the Hopper caricature of the time, Waxling is egotistical, and prone to explosions of volatile anger and stinging putdowns (“Just because it happened to you does not make it interesting”). Yet it is also Hopper’s most dynamic role for this era, the moments of subtlety and eccentricity perfectly outweigh the moments of chaos.
Subtlety is not something that can be pinned on Turturro’s character, the charming crook, Ron. When we first meet him he is getting fitted for a new suit that Liberace himself would possibly find distasteful and blabbing on about how much he loves his hometown of New York City. Everything about Ron is exaggerated, from his dress sense, mannerisms, and his odd lisping speech. Ron is the light relief
Walken’s character Kim Ulander, on the other hand, is utterly menacing. When we first spot him he is lingering alone at a house party in the background trying to listen in on guests’ conversations. He is, of course, instantly recognisable as Walken, yet his distance from the main action in the frame (in this case Mirkhiem’s) means that we’re not really listening to the conversation or watching the action. Instead, we’re wondering why Walken has been placed in what looks like a extras role. As nobody at the party seems to know who Ulander is, he’s accused of being a drug pusher and is asked to leave. When Mirkheim and Marie find him in New York they expect a crime godfather; instead, Ulander works as a financial market analyst. To celebrate his association with Mirkheim and Marie, he takes them to a Chinese karaoke restaurant where he treats the pair and the restaurant’s clientele, to a breezy jazz rendition of the cowboy standard “Red River Valley” accompanied by Walken’s remarkable tap dancing.
The Troublesome Two
Walken nearly steals the film, plummeting it into a showcase for his wacky mannerisms. Thankfully, Douglas and Dunne provide key performances that enlighten the narrative, rising above the zaniness of all those cameos to showcase their own quirks. Mirkheim is an extension of Dunne’s twitchy, bug-eyed, and exasperated character in Scorsese’s After Hours (1985). He is man frustrated by everybody else’s lack of understanding of him and his vision. Douglas provides a performance that balances naiveté and vulnerability with an independent and somewhat aggressive backbone — especially when she pounds Ulander to death with a lead pipe in order to save Mirkheim’s life. Her often timid exterior is at odds with the gory details she dreams up which become part of her horror-genre screenplays (“he smears his brains all over her breasts” is a choice line from Dead World). Together they form a sweet pair — the innocents among the vile. The pair never once stop believing in themselves and what they can achieve, despite the setbacks.
Pop Art Moviemaking
Films that come up for reassessment are often never perfect in the first place; the oddities are often the very thing that make them cult offerings at best. Search and Destroy is no exception to this rule. The faults are limitless, yet so is the guile. A film like this could barely exist today without reasoning away some of its oddities. Its irksome qualities would be ironed out in post-production or not included at all. Mirkhiem and Marie’s use of the schlock sci-fi horror movie Dead World in order to fund the more high-brow and philosophical adventure story of Daniel Strong is almost a metaphor for Search and Destroy as a whole. The film mixes perfectly corny low-brow and what one might perceive as serious high-art aesthetics. In a sense, Search and Destroy should be considered a master class in pop art moviemaking.