“I’ve been to plenty of cities, and they ain’t nothin’ but trouble.”
—Trouble In Mind
Alan Rudolph’s 1986 film Trouble In Mind is set in a retro-dystopian, new-wave-meets-noir metropolis called Rain City—an alternate-reality Seattle of mist and mystery, intersecting destinies and paramilitary oppression. Like quite a few of its underappreciated director’s best films (Welcome To L.A., Choose Me, The Moderns), it holds to the credo that every city is a dream. It lures its inhabitants and keeps them captive in the promise of a fantasy. And Rain City is the perfect city of loneliness, which can be as much of a romantic fantasy as true love. Its architecture is alienated, half museum of nostalgia, half dark tomorrow land. It is very like a real urban center in its extreme stratification of past and future—the cycle of neglect and new construction that defines the life of American cities exaggerated into an iconographic purgatory. The famous flying-saucer-on-a-kebab Space Needle towers in the distance behind the small, smoke-filled diner called Wanda’s Café.
The characters of this time-warped urban poem are both archetypal and contradictory. The men are stubborn; the women are adaptable: Hawk, a formidable man in black with a limp, both ex-cop and ex-con; Coop, a working man turned hoodlum who flees to Rain City after stealing a cash box from a lumber yard and there devolves into a vampiric, MTV-styled figure of desperation; Georgia, Coop’s girl, whose naïveté allows her to survive in the wasteland of the city; and Wanda, the proprietor of Wanda’s Café, a woman with a dark past and an accent. Plot has never been Rudolph’s strong suit. His great movies (Trouble In Mind is one of many) luxuriate in character dilemmas, transferences, and reversals: an expat artist hired to make forgeries in The Moderns; a sympathetic murderer stalking her ex-husband in Remember My Name; the sadness of a witty Jazz Age maven in Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle. Trouble In Mind is swimming with this stuff.
It is a fluid narrative, not so much a story as a multi-level interchange of character arcs. Rudolph, a protégé of Robert Altman, took the disorderly, off-center qualities of the New Hollywood director’s style—the zooms, the chaotic soundtracks, the detours—and unified them into a mood. In Trouble In Mind, everything from the nameless slapstick background characters to the woozy, saxophone-led Mark Isham score to the uniformed militias patrolling the streets contributes to the impression of a reality that is more poetic than our own. It’s almost transcendental—a world where criminals really are poets and art connoisseurs, as seen in the characters of Hilly Blue, a crime boss played by Divine out of drag, and Solo, a cyberpunk-looking wordsmith-thief played by Joe Morton. It elevates urges into existential states: to have, to get by, to get on, or (in the case of Kris Kristofferson’s Hawk) to get laid. Despite their outré fashion sense and bizarre haircuts, the people of Rain City are unsophisticated and ordinary. It’s the city they inhabit that’s expressive.
I think of this movie all the time. Along with Rudolph’s even more ambitious The Moderns, it has become my base reference for exercises in intoxicating style. The associative cuts, the shots composed around mirrors and windows, the wet streets, the zooms of Toyomichi Kurita’s camerawork—they all lend Trouble In Mind the logic and flow of music or verse. There is an attentiveness not just to sound but also to the sound of speech—say, in the way that Geneviève Bujold’s Quebecois vowels round out the toughness of her character, Wanda. The radical physical transformation that Keith Carradine undergoes as Coop at once makes his descent into materialism vividly literal and multifaceted. There are too many outrageous experiments in stylization to name here. This is, after all, a movie that climaxes with a shoot-out in a mansion full of art.
But that isn’t to say that Trouble In Mind—which is really one of the great slept-on American movies of the ’80s—is purely artificial. In mainlining a kind of romantic ennui, Rudolph’s postmodern script and direction find an emotional truth. Perhaps a social one, too. An art historian named Henri Focillon once wrote that every moment in history was really an encounter between the past and the future—an idea made literal in the artwork that is Rain City, which crosses the real and the imaginary, classic Hollywood glamour and music video couture, the sentimental appeal of jukeboxes and diner counters and ominous hints of fascism. For the people of Rain City, there is no such thing as the present—only a hazy interchange of what was and what might be. Amazingly, it’s something Rudolph and his team accomplished with a limited number of sets and real-world locations. It ranks up there with the great urban fantasies, from Sunrise to The Lovers On The Bridge, in presenting a vision of the city as an extension of the soul—a parallel world, built from the fears and desires of our own. Which is sort of an idealistic way of defining movies, isn’t it?