Border Radio: Where Punk Lived

Essays — Jan 15, 2007

"You can’t expect other people to create drama for your life—they’re too busy creating it for themselves,” a punk groupie says at the conclusion of Border Radio. And the four reckless characters at the center of the film certainly manage to create plenty of drama for themselves. In the process, they paint a compelling picture of the Los Angeles punk-rock scene of the 1980s: what it was like on the inside—and what it was like inside the musicians’ heads.

Border Radio (1987) was the first feature by three UCLA film students: Allison Anders, Kurt Voss, and Dean Lent. The subsequent work of both Anders and Voss would resonate with echoes from Border Radio and its musical milieu. Anders’s Gas Food Lodging (1992), Mi vida loca (1993), Grace of My Heart (1996), Sugar Town (1999), and Things Behind the Sun (2001) all draw to some degree from music and pop culture. (She quotes her mentor Wim Wenders’s remark about making The Scarlet Letter: “There were no jukeboxes. I lost interest.”) Voss, who co-wrote and codirected Sugar Town, also wrote and directed Down & Out with the Dolls (2001), a fictional feature about an all-girl band; and in 2006, he was completing Ghost on the Highway, a documentary about Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the late vocalist for the key L.A. punk group the Gun Club.

The three filmmakers met at UCLA in the early eighties, after Anders and Voss had worked as production assistants on Wenders’s Paris, Texas. By that time, Anders and Voss, then a couple, were habitués of the L.A. club milieu; they favored the hard sound of such punk acts as X, the Blasters, the Flesh Eaters, the Gun Club, and Tex & the Horseheads. The neophyte writer-directors, who by 1983 had made a couple of short student films, formulated the idea of building an original script around a group of figures in the L.A. punk demimonde.

Border Radio—which takes its title, and no little script inspiration, from a Blasters song (sung on the soundtrack by Rank & File’s Tony Kinman)—was conceived as a straight film noir. Vestiges of that origin can be seen in the finished film. Its lead character bears the name Jeff Bailey, also the name of Robert Mitchum’s doomed character in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out of the Past; its Mexican locations also reflect a key setting in that bleak picture. One sequence features a pedal-boat ride around the same Echo Park lagoon where Jack Nicholson’s J. J. Gittes does some surveillance in Roman Polanski’s 1974 neonoir Chinatown; Chinatown itself—a hotbed of L.A. punk action in the late seventies and early eighties—features prominently in another scene. Certainly, Border Radio’s heist-based plot and the multiple betrayals its central foursome inflict upon each other are the stuff of purest noir. But the film diverges from its source in its largely sunlit cinematography and its explosions of punk humor; Anders, Voss, and Lent also abandoned plans to kill off the film’s lead female character.

In casting their feature, the filmmakers turned to some able performers who were close at hand. The female lead was taken by Anders’s sister Luanna; her daughter was portrayed by Anders’s daughter Devon. Chris, Jeff’s spoiled, untrustworthy friend and roadie, was played by UCLA theater student Chris Shearer.

The directors considered another student for the lead role of the tormented musician, Jeff, but Anders, in an inspired stroke, suggested Chris D. (né Desjardins), whose brooding, feral presence animated the Flesh Eaters. After being approached at a West L.A. club gig and initially expressing surprise at the filmmakers’ desire to cast him, the singer and songwriter signed on, and he helped recruit the other musicians in Border Radio. (A cineaste whose criticism often appeared in the local punk rag Slash, Desjardins would later write an authoritative book on Japanese yakuza films and write and direct the independent vampire film I Pass for Human. He is currently a programmer at the Los Angeles Cinematheque.)

John Doe, bassist-vocalist for the celebrated L.A. punk unit X, and Dave Alvin, guitarist and songwriter for the top local roots act the Blasters, had both played with Chris D. in an edition of the Flesh Eaters. Doe—taking the first in a long list of film and TV roles—was cast as the duplicitous, drunken rocker Dean; Alvin makes an entertaining cameo appearance, essentially as himself, and wrote and performed the film’s score.Texacala Jones, frontwoman for the chaotic Tex & the Horseheads, does a hilarious turn as Devon’s addled babysitter. Iris Berry, later a member of the raucous all-female group the Ringling Sisters, portrays the self-absorbed groupie whose observations frame the film.

Julie Christensen, Desjardins’ vocal partner in his latter-day group Divine Horsemen (and, for a time, his wife), essays a bit part as a club doorwoman. Seen in walk-ons are such local rockers as Tony Kinman, Flesh Eaters bassist Robyn Jameson, and punk hellion Texas Terri. The Arizona “paisley underground” transplants Green on Red and the local glam-punk outfit Billy Wisdom & the Hee Shees were captured in live performance. Those seeking punk verisimilitude could ask for nothing more.

Border Radio had a torturous, piecemeal production history worthy of John Cassavetes. Shooting took place over a four-year period, from 1983 to 1987. Begun with two thousand dollars in seed money, supplied by actor Vic Tayback, the film scraped by on money given to Voss upon his 1984 graduation from UCLA, a loan from Lent’s parents, and cash and film stock cadged here and there. Violating UCLA policy, the filmmakers cut the film at night in the school’s editing bays, where Anders’s two young daughters would sleep on the floor.

The film’s lack of a budget forced Anders, Voss, and Lent to shoot entirely on location; this enhanced the work, as far as the filmmakers were concerned, since they sought a naturalistic style and look for the feature. Lent’s Echo Park apartment doubled as Jeff’s home, while Anders and Voss’s trailer in Ensenada served as his Mexican hideout. The storied punk hangout the Hong Kong Café (whose neon sign can be seen fleetingly in Chinatown) was utilized, as were the East Side rehearsal studio Hully Gully, where virtually every local band of note honed their chops, and the music shop Rockaway Records (one of the few punk stores of the day still around).

Befitting the work of film students on their maiden directorial voyage, Border Radio evinces the heavy influence of both the French new wave of the sixties and the New German Cinema of the seventies. The confident use of improvisation—the cast is credited with “additional dialogue and scenario”—recalls such early nouvelle vague works as Breathless. The ongoing “interview” device immediately recalls Jean-Pierre Léaud’s face-to-face with “Miss 19” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin, while Shearer’s shambling comedic outbursts are reminiscent of the sudden madcap eruptions in François Truffaut’s early films. The work of the Germans is felt most in the great pictorial beauty of Lent’s black-and-white compositions; certain striking moments—a languid, 360-degree pan around Ensenada’s bay; an overhead shot of Chris’s foreign roadster wheeling in circles in a cul-de-sac—summon memories of Wenders’s and Werner Herzog’s most indelible images. (Lent would go on to work as a cinematographer on nearly thirty pictures.)

Though the styles and effects of these predecessors are on constant display, Border Radio moves beyond simple imitation, thanks to a sensibility that is uniquely of its time, spawned directly from the scene it depicts so faithfully. Though putatively a “music film,” very little music is actually on view in the picture; mere snatches of two songs are actually performed on-screen. The truest reflection of the period’s punk ethos can be found in the restlessness, anger, self-deception, and anomie of its Reagan-era protagonists.

In Border Radio, one can see what punk rock looked like, all the way to the margins of the frame: in the flyers for L.A. bands like the Alley Cats, the Gears, and the Weirdos taped in a club hallway, in the poster for Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and the calendars of L.A. repertory movie houses tacked on apartment walls, in the thrift-store togs and rock-band T-shirts (street clothes, really) worn by the players. But, more importantly, the shifting tragicomic tone of the film, the energy and attitude of its musician performers, and the uneasy rhythms of its characters’ lives present a real sense of the reality of L.A. punkdom in the day.

Put into limited theatrical release in 1987, by the company that distributed the popular surf movie Endless Summer—a film that offers a picture of a very different L.A.—Border Radio was not widely seen and later received only an elusive videocassette release through Pacific Arts (the home-video firm founded, ironically enough, by Michael Nesmith of the prefab sixties rock group the Monkees). With this Criterion Collection edition, the film can finally be seen as the overlooked landmark that it is: possibly the only dramatic film to capture the pulse of L.A. punk—not as it played, but as it felt.

Thanks to Allison Anders for her invaluable contributions.

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