From Tarzana to Miracle Mile: the under-the-radar films of Steve De Jarnatt

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by Vern

In advance of our in-store signing, screening and Q&A with Steve De Jarnatt this Thursday at 7 pm, local writer Vern takes a look at the Miracle Mile director’s remarkable career

The terror starts with a pay phone ringing. Up until that point, Miracle Mile seems like a cute romantic comedy. Primed for rediscovery in an extras-packed new Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber, writer/director Steve De Jarnatt’s unique 1988 thriller follows Harry (Anthony Edwards), an affable geek and self-proclaimed “king of the Glenn Miller impersonators” who falls in love-at-first-sight with Julie (Mare Winningham). They meet at the La Brea Tar Pits museum, hit it off and spend the afternoon together, having such a good time that they plan to meet up again at midnight after her waitressing shift at Johnie’s Coffee Shop. But a power outage causes Harry to show up late (long story), after Julie’s already given up and gone home. And that’s when he answers the pay phone and the guy calling the wrong number from the missile silo tells him about the nuclear war that’s underway.

So it ends up being pretty stressful as far as first dates go. When Harry tells the people inside the diner what he’s learned, a plan is hatched to drive to a certain building, take a helicopter to the airport and get the hell away from the west coast. But he’s not going without Julie. So there’s a whole lot of nerve-wracking circling around this one Los Angeles neighborhood as mistakes and complications pile up. Harry gets to Julie and can barely wake her up because she took a valium. He’ll have to hold off on telling her about World War III, or how he accidentally blew up the gas station on his way to her and is wanted as a cop killer.

As the missiles get closer, word spreads, making it harder to leave. At first only he and that panicked voice on the phone knew about it. Now all the sudden he’s standing on top of somebody’s car surveying a sea of gridlock, fire and looters.

So it’s a heart-on-its-sleeve love story and an unnerving thriller. They keep ending up at the diner, which has an ominously rotating digital clock out front, and one scene is staged in the clock section of a department store. You find yourself yelling “Get the hell out of there!” as time keeps ticking away and they seem no closer to leaving.

But it’s also a tribute to the people and landscape of the city. De Jarnatt excels at character oddness, and though he populates his movie with a diverse group of Los Angelenos (the diner alone has a pair of street sweepers, a wannabe stewardess [“Well actually, it’s my sister’s outfit”], a female impersonator and a take-charge investor with a brick phone and powerful connections), he doesn’t saddle them with too much George Romero style inter-conflict. Mostly they accept one another. When bodybuilder/helicopter pilot Brian Thompson goes to get his partner and it’s a man, he asks “Any problems?”

“No. No problems,” Harry says.

And though Mykelti Williamson‘s thief Wilson is (as De Jarnatt admits on one of the new disc’s two commentary tracks) somewhat of a racial stereotype, the movie offers him more empathy than any other character. He just wanted to go get his sister.

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A similar range of oddballs fill De Jarnatt’s more pulpy previous film, Cherry 2000, which takes place after an apocalypse and is also available in a new edition from Kino-Lorber. Again it’s about a lovesick nerd, this time a post-apocalyptic yuppie from Anaheim named Sam Treadwell (David Andrews) who embarks on a perilous journey to replace the body of his broken robot wife (Pamela Gidley). Last time I watched it I realized it was coincidentally the story of The Sure Thing, but with the “sure thing” replaced by a rare model of sexbot and Daphne Zuniga replaced by Melanie Griffith as a badass red-haired bounty hunter named E.

I have no idea what E sees in Sam, but it’s fun to watch them do weird car stunts, brave a Western style town called Gloryhole, and battle Tim Thomerson and his gang of marauders who dress like tourists, complete with bucket hats and sunblock on their noses.

These, regrettably, are De Jarnatt’s only two feature films as a director. Raised in Longview, Washington, he first transplanted to L.A. to attend Occidental College (though he returned to our state to study at The Evergreen State College for a year and a half). He came up with Miracle Mile in the late ’70s and spent most of the ’80s trying to get it made, along the way turning down many high profile directing gigs and offers to turn his script into a Twilight Zone movie directed by someone else. By the time he finally got it made it was nine years old and a legendary as one of the great unproduced screenplays. He’d had to buy it back using the money he’d earned writing Strange Brew, and then found financing himself.

Most of his work has ended up being in television. Before the two features he directed an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (where he worked with Melanie Griffith and composer Basil Pouledoris before Cherry 2000), and after them he wrote the X-Files episode about invisible zoo animals and the Aeon Flux where she assassinates God. Throughout the ’90s and early ’00s he directed for TV shows ranging from ER to Lizzie McGuire.

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But there’s a missing link in all this, and it’s Tarzana, the 30 minute short that got De Jarnatt noticed by Hollywood when it played film festivals in 1978. After years of admiring the director’s sparse catalog on various home video formats over the years it’s a thrill to be able to see this offbeat mystery which is not on video, but will be having a rare showing in Scarecrow Video’s cozy screening room this Thursday, July 30th at 7 pm, with De Jarnatt in attendance.

Tarzana introduces De Jarnatt’s fascination with California that continues in Cherry 2000 and Miracle Mile, but this time it’s in a noir context. The story takes place during the reign of King Elvis, only specified as “some time in November, between three and dawn,” but it meticulously re-creates the black and white cinematography and dissolve-heavy editing style of an earlier era.

Like Miracle Mile, the story begins with a payphone ringing. This time it’s answered by a hooker (Edie Adams) and intended for private eye Milt Lassitor (Michael C. Gwynne), who’s “snuggled up in a Thunderbird coma” on a dirty mattress surrounded by playing cards, cigarette packs, an empty bottle and a pair of drumsticks. She wakes him by scratching her fingernails across the textured glass window on his office door.

An old war buddy (Timothy Carey) tips Milt off to a young woman named Thelma (Ann Dusenberry) who’s stuck in a U.S. Customs holding cell with “a big, ugly Polynesian fella” (Carel Struycken). Thelma showed up on a cargo ship from New Guinea with no money, passport or English, and can’t be released until she’s claimed by her dad, who she has a a photo of, and who might be a local man of God. Milt takes the case and we see him in montage canvassing every cowboy, Rabbi or snake handler he comes across. Of course Milt’s about to find a conspiracy, and a couple dead bodies. He wobbles through calmly and casually, and sets things straight. Maybe the Thunderbird helps get his mind in the right place, or maybe it’s his habit of slipping into the backroom at the bar to “blow up a storm” with a jazz quintet. Gwynne plays in real life, and once held the world record for continuous drumming.

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Tarzana delivers on the usual pleasures of a detective story. In particular I enjoy the hard boiled narration, with lines like “I was saving myself the price of breakfast. Dried brains on a wall usually put the damper on my appetite.” Gwynne, who also had a past as a nationally known radio personality, has the perfect voice for it. And it’s full of interesting faces, not the least of which are Carey (who gets across a healthy serving of weirdo in his brief screen time) and Eddie Constantine from Alphaville, who shows up as a police inspector.

But it’s the odd little bits of personality that make it special. There’s Milt’s habit of lighting cigarettes on people, or his method of making two pay phone calls at the same time, one on each ear. He’s a funny character. After getting information from a guy chewing with his mouth open and looking at girly magazines while manning the booth at the religious television station, Milt says “Thank you very much, I admire your programs!”

And I love the relationship he has with the cab driver (Jason Ronard). Instead of paying him, Milt bluntly says, “You owe me” and gets out. And before giving the driver important instructions at a time of danger he feels the need to say “I wanna thank you, man, for your transportation and your philosophy, it’s important to me.”

De Jarnatt wasn’t the only one getting his start with this film. It was the first role for Struycken, now best known as Lurch in the Addams Family movies and the giant in Twin Peaks, and Dusenberry, who would become familiar from Jaws 2, Cutter’s Way and Basic Training. The 2nd assistant director was Larry Charles of Seinfeld and Borat fame, and one of the gaffers was Steve Starkey, producer of most of Robert Zemeckis’s movies.

If you’re in the Seattle area, stop by Scarecrow on Thursday to pick up the great new editions of Miracle Mile (in its correct aspect ratio for the first time) and Cherry 2000, get them signed by Mr. De Jarnatt, watch Tarzana and experience a Q&A hosted by local film critic Richard Jameson. I’m hoping he’ll ask about the shopping carts that keep popping up in all De Jarnatt’s work, especially Tarzana (there’s even one sitting in the jazz club!)

Seeing this rare short subject adds a new bonus chapter to the legend of Steve De Jarnatt. I’m sure I’m not the only Miracle Mile fan who’s tried to seek out everything he’s done. His works in television – as a writer, director and producer – are aplenty. But how could someone direct a movie that great and yet so little else for the big screen? The answer, I’d guess, is patience and an unwavering belief in his vision. Rather than taking whatever jobs for hire were available he tenaciously pursued the movie he believed in most, and made sure it came out right. And that was enough.

But come see Tarzana if you need an extra dose.

Vern is the author of Steven Seagal: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer! Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics, both from Titan Books. He reviews movies at outlawvern.com. Not to brag.

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