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Hollywood, the Thirties: a washed-up former movie director, referred to as the Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss), is reduced to making pornographic short films in his about-to-be-condemned rented mansion. His stars are Harlene, a wisecracking flapper par excellence who supports herself by waitressing and her habit by actressing, and Rex, a stupid and egotistical no-talent whose sideline is grave-digging. In the midst of the day’s shooting, producer Big Mac arrives; since he is paying the bills he can’t be thrown off the set. With Mac is a woman he introduces as his “fiancée – maybe”, Miss Cathy Cake. Mac, as usual, has brought Harlene’s paycheck in the form of a packet of white powder. This time, she overdoses, and while Mac (Bob Hoskins) and Rex (Stephen Davies) are away disposing of the body, Cathy Cake undertakes to seduce the supposedly impotent (owing to the failure of his career, and his massive intake of alcohol) Boy Wonder.

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This intricately structured film, written and directed by John Byrum, is both an allegorical representation of the film industry and an extended metaphor in which each character is an archetype, portraying the various ways in which individuals relate to Art with a capital A.

Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) represents the artist of real but abused talent. Despite her junk habit she is a professional – out of her dress and ready to start work the minute she arrives; listening intently as the Boy Wonder explains the purpose of a shot; getting it on the first take – even Big Mac recognizes that she is a “good little worker.”

Harlene’s affair with the Boy Wonder is part of their shared past. Refusing to believe that he can’t or won’t resume it, she gently tries to arouse him, which he tolerates up to a point but finally, patience exhausted, dumps her from his lap onto the floor. Her expression at that moment is worth the price of admission.

She is also a clown. When the wind-up camera grinds to a halt, destroying an intense scene, she rips her slip open and makes a ridiculous face to distract the director from his exasperation at having to rewind. Of the two women Harlene is by far the more sympathetic character: loving, generous, supportive, naïve, spontaneous, a little dumb. Her honesty, her humor and openness, her already anachronistic flapper attire and giddy ways, are all endearing. Although worldly-wise on the surface, she is essentially an innocent with the fabled heart of gold.

Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), on the other hand, is dangerous and weird, a pasty-faced caricature of innocence, a bisque doll who plays the lady while casting sidelong glances at Rex’s crotch.

Cathy’s coy ways disguise her twisted motivations and insidious intent. Although she aspires to be an actress, she realizes her total lack of talent and creativity, admitting that her liaison with Big Mac is a stratagem designed to bring her the opportunities that her own efforts cannot. But this ambition to be in the movies can be furthered at the same time as her new goal: once she learns that the Boy Wonder is theoretically incapable of sexual relations, she sets out to get him into bed. She proposes to meet the challenge of reawakening his desire if he, in exchange, will put her in front of the camera and take on the much more daunting challenge of teaching her “to be great.” The longest sequence of the film consists of her amazing relentless campaign to this end.

Cathy has already demonstrated plenty of what may be termed psychic vampirism: she wanted to go watch Harlene shoot up; when the director was arguing with Big Mac she watched them as if a spectator at a tennis match. She breaks the Boy Wonder down by digging at his feelings for Harlene, his doubts about himself as a creative artist, his agoraphobia, and every other weak spot she can detect in him. Just when all this psychological probing gets to be too much, Cathy switches tactics and displays a dazzling array of manipulative and exploitive ploys. The ultimate irony of Cathy Cake is that she is indeed a superb and inspired actress – everywhere but in front of the camera.

Eventually Cathy succeeds in gaining the Boy Wonder’s confidence, and his body, along with causing a painful misunderstanding, and a lot of trouble for them both on Big Mac’s return. Even in the heat of passion she is true to her vampire nature – when the Boy Wonder wants to nuzzle and kiss, she pushes his head back in order to observe his face in the flushed and vulnerable erotic state. Her quintessential line, repeated several times throughout the film, is, “I want to see it all.” Her zombie-like appearance during the first scene was exactly right: she is an example of intelligence and curiosity with no ruling consciousness; out of control, like some monstrous child. Cathy’s outstanding trait is this half-voyeuristic, half-vampiristic need to feed on the pain of others. Archetypally, she is the Fan: this quality of being an emotion junkie is what going to the movies is all about.

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Ostensibly, Echo Park is about the difficulties of living and working in LA, as experienced by aspiring showbiz types. In a city where every dog groomer or cop is really an actor or a writer, with their minds on something else, a lot of things are done differently than in someplace normal. Also, of course, the movie is about how your family is the people you find.

May (Susan Dey) and her son live in a rickety old house that’s been divided into apartments. So much of this is familiar to anyone who has been forced by economic necessity to find a housemate to share the rent. Who can forget the sinking sensation when you open the door to the first of a dismal parade of interviewees?

Eventually, Jonathan (Tom Hulce) shows up. May says, “I thought you were somebody else.” He says, “Even I think I’m somebody else sometimes.”

Michael Ventura wrote this movie, and that’s why it’s so good. It really is, though of course not everything is due to the genius of the script. Hulce, for instance. It pains me to bring in this cliché but he has quirky charm and to spare. Plus, he gets to do his maniacal laugh. This is a very funny movie with as much physical humor as great dialogue. Without being corny, it has a lot of heart. For instance, the easy way in which Jonathan befriends the boy Henry, by giving him a new name: Hank. What eight-year-old could resist?

May, unfortunately, has issues. She tells her girlfriend that Jonathan is “not the kind of guy I do it with. He’s nice.” The kind of guy she does it with is August (pronounced ow-goost) the body sculptor from Austria who already lives in the adjoining apartment.

Jonathan moves in with May and her son. August helps carry Jonathan’s stuff inside. At night, they’re all out on the steps, and May and August are playing footsie. To have sex, she brings him to her place. He mauls her around like a rag doll and my question is, after all that booze, why isn’t she throwing up? Meanwhile, poor Jonathan has to listen to this raucous carnival of carnality.

Jobwise, Jonathan ( who is actually a writer) drives a ridiculous pizza-mobile. His boss is cadaverously fearsome Vinnie, as portrayed by Timothy Carey. Although I always think he’s Harry Dean Stanton. Separated at birth? Check it out:


August has invented a device that taps the energy created by people working out at the gym, and stores it in batteries. He has kind of an orgone-ish theory of body building, A proponent of the “holy act of masturbation,” he discusses his philosophy unrestrainedly.

May finally gets an audition, which turns out to be for strip-o-gram dancers. Convincing herself that it will be a steppingstone to Hollywood recognition, she takes the job, and I’m not going to tell you any more than that. Except that my favorite scene is her audition, when the strip-o-gram entrepreneur (John Paragon) teaches her how to strip. It’s one of those immortal movie moments.

Related: Michael Ventura: An Appreciation
by Pat Hartman, first published in Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics

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Under the credits, it’s a day in the life of a street kid – sleeping, eating, panhandling, running away with something he stole.

Michael Pitt is Toby, self-described as not as homeless, but “moving around right now.” Steve Buscemi is Les, self-described as a “licensed professional photojournalist,” or what most people would call a paparazzo. He accepts Toby as an unpaid gofer in return for a place to crash. Toby can not only fix things, but take notes and elbow rival paparazzi out of the way. He makes himself nearly indispensable.

The photographer and his assistant go to a wickedly satirical benefit for STD sufferers, where Toby meets a soap opera casting director, and things are set in motion for his apotheosis. They visit Les’s parents, who are archetypal “get a real job” old folks at home, only nastier than some. You see why Les became how he is. In fact, you see a lot of things. It’s funny, how much can be illuminated by “black humor.”

There are plenty of synopses of Delirious available online, including writer/director Tom DiCillo’s own. He’s an independent who has not only made other films of his own, but filled such noteworthy roles as cinematographer for Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.

Delirious was shot in only 25 days and has won a bunch of awards, and some viewers find it funnier than others. Stephen Holden, for instance says,

…you leave the movie feeling as though you have gazed into a closed circle of hell where everybody feeds off everyone else until there is nothing left.

Toby gets famous overnight, acting the part of a homeless serial killer (who, presumably, only kills really scummy bad guys.) In one scene he dallies in a sylvan setting with a lovely young thing who says, “You’ve taught me so much about being homeless….” which is a priceless line.

The beating heart of this film is the relationship between the two men. They are mentor and protégé, master and novice, benefactor and charity-seeker, but they are also friends. The big irony is, when Toby first moves in, Les keeps wanting reassurance that his house guest isn’t gay. And he isn’t. But by the end, Les is feeling, thinking, and acting like a jealous lover. His elaborate, handcrafted revenge plot is pure hysterical over-wrought stagy queen – only he doesn’t know it.

In an interview conducted by Paulington James Christensen III, DiCillo said this about Les:

I just wanted to make this about a guy who is so isolated as a human being. He is so twisted, so crippled by what his life had done to him.

In an interview with Gary Goldstein, he said:

I love characters that have desperate qualities about them, but then other things that make them human…. I wanted people to see that Les was damaged–and that every one of us, in our own way, has some form of that damage.

Don’t miss the short scene after the end credits.


RECOMMENDED: great satirical videos about marketing, etc. – start at #2

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