American Eighties Encore: Jim McBride's "Great Balls of Fire!"

In preparation for an upcoming project I have been watching a lot of Hollywood movies from the critically neglected, and sometimes rejected, Nineteen Eighties, scouring the decade for misunderstood or forgotten gems (there’re precious few traces of this search to be found in this blog, here, here, and here, but if you read German what you'll really want to check out is my collaborator Lukas Foerster’s collection of wonderfully evocative texts on the same topic in his blog).
During that much maligned time, there was no shortage of capable, even masterful auteurs, both seasoned and youngish, working smack in the middle of mainstream American cinema. Quite a few of them were prone to excessive ‘handwriting’, yet it seems to me that for every Scorsese, DePalma, Mann, or Bigelow there is a Lumet, Hill, Bridges, or Heckerling, reworking received genres with a sovereign touch but without the ambition to reinvent, deconstruct, or overheat them to the point of fever (as James Foley, director of Reckless and At Close Range, was wont to do).
The weirdest, least assimilable encounter for me was with Jim McBride, indie maverick of the New Hollywood (David Holzman’s Diary, Glen and Randa, Hot Times) who directed no more than three feature films in the Eighties. In 1983 there was Breathless, a bubble-gum-inflected remake of Godard’s A bout de souffle with Richard Gere in lieu of Belmondo, followed in 1986 by The Big Easy, a gender-bending Film noir starring Dennis Quaid as a kind of homme fatale and Ellen Barkin as his saviour, both trying in vain to keep up with a plot that unfolds largely without their knowledge, on its own terms. Towards the end of the decade, in the fateful year of 1989, McBride authored his weirdest film yet, the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire!, again starring Quaid, whose exalted performance defies any and all conventions of naturalist acting.

Laid out in a series of luridly coloured tableaux and held together by little more than the basic generic patterning of the biopic – an initiative childhood experience giving way to the protagonist’s rise and subsequent fall –, Great Balls of Fire! dashes through the 1950s like so many panels of a contemporaneous comic strip, which may incidentally be described as the aesthetic matrix not just of this film but of McBride’s oeuvre more generally. All of the film’s locales, and all its characters, seem to be situated within reach of each other, so that Elvis, when he is being drafted into military service, can just drop by Lewis’ place to proclaim, his voice thick with emotion: “Take it! Take it all!” Great Balls of Fire! inhabits a condensed allegorical space, rendering the United States of the Fifties as one big small town, and its very own culture wars as a family dispute between Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin turned Pentecostalist preacher (a delirious, and deliciously young, Alec Baldwin). What is hardest to place about this hard-to-place film is how its comic strip diegesis, by imbuing everything with a decidedly teen-age sensibility, seems to dovetail with Lewis’ rather disturbing courtship of his thirteen year old cousin Myra Gale (Winona Ryder); let alone the audible echos of a later sexual revolution that run through this beautiful mess of a movie.

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