VHS Revival revisits the ’80s cult classic that never was
Miracle Mile is a curious little movie, and I mean that in the most positive sense. It begins like a John Hughes romantic comedy, a couple of misfits drawn to a fated meeting overlooking a tar pit at a prehistoric museum. Their union is odd but comfortable, their personalities quirky yet insular, and as we see the movie’s title appear on the back of a passing tram we realise we’re in for a somewhat idiosyncratic journey, Tangerine Dream adding their own inimitable touch to proceedings with a typically surreal soundtrack of ethereal elegance. Still, we are distinctly unprepared for the extent of the movie’s anomalous symptoms, for what begins as a whirlwind romance descends into something rather more cataclysmic, and before long we are plummeting down the nuclear rabbit hole as offbeat romance becomes blackly comic thriller, something closer to Martin Scorsese’s oft overlooked After Hours.
Miracle Mile is famous for its troubled production. The movie would spend years in Hollywood purgatory, and was listed as one of America’s ten best unmade screenplays until director Steve De Jarnatt decided to pony up the dough and buy it back for $25,000, turning Warner Brothers down when they offered to purchase a rewrite for almost twenty times that much. De Jarnatt had a vision that went against Hollywood’s big-name, high production ethos, and wisely stuck to his guns. The studio didn’t feel the screenplay was reaching its full potential, the stark contrast of romance and impending doom not sitting right with them. The movie would star Top Gun‘s Anthony Edwards, who would later explain, “…that was a script that everybody wanted to make, but they wanted him to change the ending. It was this great adventure, but they wanted it to have a happy ending. But he stuck it out, and luckily he stuck it out long enough that I was old enough to play the part.”
Commercially, the studio was right. Without their backing and Jarnatt’s unwillingness to bend to convention, Miracle Mile bombed at the box office before slipping into relative obscurity, but creatively they did us all a favour. This is wonderful filmmaking: quirky, thematically challenging and devastatingly unsentimental. It is also touching and laced with wit, a unique balancing act that is testament to the director’s unyielding vision. Miracle Mile is art first and foremost, enlivened by colourful visuals and offering a cute, often damning window into the mindset of not just American society, but of the human race as a species. It’s just a shame we didn’t see more of the director’s inimitable approach to filmmaking. This was one talent that Hollywood’s marketing machine swallowed whole.
Julie Peters: Hell, I’ll write an article about all this for “Esquire.” Someone’ll probably make a TV movie out of it.
The plot begins innocently enough, a three-day whirlwind romance resulting in Julie (Mare Winningham) being stood up by new squeeze Harry (Anthony Edwards) after a pigeon latches onto his cigarette butt and causes an electrical fire which cuts the power to the alarm clock in his hotel room. Harry arrives at the proposed rendezvous three hours late. By then it is the early hours of the morning and Harry uses a pay phone to leave a message on Julie’s answering machine. When the phone immediately calls back, he naturally rushes to answer.Instead of Julie’s voice, Harry is confronted by an hysterical man looking for his father. He has apparently dialled the wrong number through sheer panic and is desperate to apologise to his pops before it is too late. Supposedly stationed at a classified outpost in Nevada, the man claims that the US government have instigated all out nuclear war and that retaliation is expected within the hour. The man is then interrupted before he can elaborate and is apparently shot to death.
As twists go, this is one of the most unexpected—the Hitchcockian equivalent of having your lead die with much of the movie left to run. Only the red herring here is the film’s sweetly saccharine tone and a familiar set-up that quickly spirals into the realms of chaos and uncertainty. We are then introduced to a cast of late night cafe dwellers, an eclectic bunch whose varied responses to our protagonist’s ostensible ravings offer us very little comfort as we soar headlong through the second act, one which reveals a tenuous and often selfish society focused on personal survival.
This is Reagan’s America—a government which outwardly promotes ‘a return to family values’ while the ever-expanding reach of globalisation champions greed and personal glory. It is the era of Wall Street decadence, of the government’s notoriously duplicitous ‘War on Drugs’ and an ever widening gap of financial disparity. It is violence in the streets. It is a generation bred on prescription drugs and psychiatry and the emergence of weapons powerful enough to destroy the planet. It is the first stirrings of global warming. It is progress and deterioration. It is a frenzied and delicately poised society racing towards a technological revolution with unforeseen consequences.
Miracle Mile takes a considerably darker turn from thereon in, but an odd undercurrent of comedy keeps the audience on its toes, particularly when Harry kidnaps a car stereo thief named Wilson (Mykelti Williamson) and the two of them contrive to douse a pair of cops in petrol and watch on helplessly as they go up in flames. Later, when that same thief attempts to carry his dying wife up a downwards moving escalator, feelings of futility becomes inescapable. All of their best efforts seem doomed to irony.
Wilson: I had to do that back there, man, I had to, you understand, huh? I had stolen stuff in my trunk, I had tickets, I had warrants, man. I had to squirt them but THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO SHOOT!
The beauty of Miracle Mile is that you don’t find out exactly what is going on until the very end. When you finally do, you may be disappointed, but it is exactly the movie’s muddled tone and refusal to follow any kind of convention that keeps you guessing, forging a plot of relentless tension and engrossing drama with a conclusion that is far more relevant than the majority of Cold War cinema, refusing to take sides and stripping humanity to its bare bones. The movie is more about the journey, and the ways in which its characters shuffle the cards they have been dealt. There is no moral crusade or emotional manipulation. You are presented with events and experience them almost firsthand. You stumble aimlessly as its characters do.
Their transitions, as well as being sudden, are quite extreme. Harry begins as a lovable nerd whose biggest goal is to meet the woman of his dreams, and Julie is similarly perplexed by her lack of a love life, turning to prescription drugs and flip cynicism while her beau finds solace in delusions of Grand Mastery, occasionally lighting up a local brass band with impromptu jazz solos. The two of them know how it is to be condemned by fate, a fact that is punctuated when they pay a thousand dollars for a tank of restaurant lobsters as a means to set them free. The two have learned to laugh to keep from crying. They have become comfortable with life’s futility, or at least they assume they have.
When that futility becomes more literal, Harry is spurned into action, limply heroic as he wanders the city streets waving a pistol. Suddenly he takes charge of a life that has so far meandered, and when he catches up with his love in the tower block apartment where she lives with her mother, he does his best to keep the news from her as he searches for a helicopter pilot to fly them to safety.
But as the rumours spread through the city like wildfire, society goes from civilisation to barbarism as annihilation looms large, and it becomes harder for Harry to keep the news from his belle, as citizens loot and pillage and try to grab a handful of whatever they can. Soon, guns and violence become the order of the day, the terrified and inconsolable firing upon each other at will. A wonderfully frenzied cameo by Kurt Fuller encapsulates this wanton hysteria, his character pacing up and down the roof of a skyscraper, screaming and gorging on Xanax, the personification of the hurried mess the world has gotten itself into.
Julie Peters – People are gonna help each other, aren’t they? Rebuilding things?
I think it’s the insects’ turn – Harry Washello
Made at the tail-end of the Cold War, this is less an allegory on the pitfalls of nuclear armament, more a study of the human condition, of the tenuous nature of civility and the futility of all that we deem important. In the end, we will fight for our lives and the lives of those we love, but beyond that our race treads a very delicate line, and though centuries of evolution have established an outward sense of decorum, the destruction of mankind seems but a petty quarrel away.