At one point in Miracle Mile, the first book-length work from Walter Chaw, the Film Freak Central critic writes about how his father’s death shifted his perspective on things. Now, he tells us, “I demand that movies show me more about myself. I wonder about tidy endings—they make me angry. I don’t believe them.” Most cinephiles can point to a critic who left a lasting influence on them, whose words helped chart a course through the vast and mystifying expanse of a century-and-change of world cinema. When I started to realize that movies were more than a way to kill time and would indeed become a large part of my life, I was reading a lot of Chaw. In his reviews, that quality of the demand—of actively searching for what a film has to give—is one of his defining traits.
His most visible reviews, the ones that get quoted and relinked, are often the ones in which those demands aren’t met. When he brutally eviscerates movies, it’s not for their failure to entertain, but for the wretchedness of their ideologies, as when he recently savaged Transformers: Dark of the Moon as “good, all-American, Patriot Act and Internet-smut fun that will send your handsome white sons off to die in war, armed to the teeth with all the metal-fetish, extreme xenophobia, and sexual frustration this film can pump into them.”
But even without the acid, he carries the conviction that movies aren’t just singular pieces of art, but also reflections of their milieu, and that when we look at them, we’re looking at the desires and neuroses and primal fears lurking in our social psyche. His writing rarely leans on the insular jargon of academia, but probably taught me more clearly than most professors that the zeitgeist is a thing and context matters.
Context is what Chaw provides for us in Miracle Mile as he examines the titular 1988 film written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, part romance and part apocalyptic disaster thriller—categories that encompass both the film and the personal story that Chaw interweaves with his analysis. His in-depth investigation of the film isn’t an attempt to elevate it out from cult status into the canon, but something more complex. Like Jonathan Lethem’s monograph on They Live, which Chaw cites as a direct inspiration, the book couches the film in the cultural context of the hedonistic paranoia of Reagan’s America—the America in which Chaw grew up and almost killed himself. It’s analysis is immersed in an aura of personal reflection and memory.
The book takes us through scene by scene as Chaw meticulously unpacks the various elements of the film, from the late-’80s costume design to the Tangerine Dream soundtrack to the casting of Anthony Edwards as the lead (with the revelation that the script was originally written for Gene Hackman). His detailed analysis explodes outward through other works containing parallels and resonances with the film; They Live and its “themes of stripping away illusion and waking the sleeping” are only the starting points for a grand tour that jumps from Videodrome to North by Northwest, from The Twilight Zone to Gravity’s Rainbow, from Remington Steele to the Oresteia. Chaw powers through scenes and topics with such passion and urgency that there’s the feeling that he’s always getting ahead of himself, planting reminders such as “We’ll talk about this more when we fuck Dr. Joyce Brothers.”
A simple thing like the use of the first person plural is such a crucial choice. That “we” communicates the hope for a shared audience experience, that the film Chaw sees is one that we can too, if we try. That hope is reinforced by the interplay of voices in the text, not just in the myriad other films and books that Chaw brings into the discussion, but in his own conversations with De Jarnatt. The writer-director offers production details and commentary throughout, and the discussion often proves illuminating. Chaw, of course, isn’t reluctant to bring up problematic aspects of the film, and De Jarnatt responds frankly, with nostalgia tinged by regret.
Chaw reflects that sentiment back to us; as the film he’s exploring plunges into chaos and hurtles toward its annihilatory conclusion, he puts more and more of himself onto the page. He discusses his suicide attempt in the summer of 1989, and the way that Miracle Mile was both an emblem of and redemption from that attempt. He navigates these confessional passages with a deft hand. While he starts off the book downplaying the quality of his writing in comparison to Jonathan Lethem’s, his prose has its own kind of power to encapsulate the truth that none of us ever watches the same film because we each bring something different to the screen. When I first saw Miracle Mile, I understood the film’s aims well enough, but I perhaps caught a whiff of schlock; I felt distanced from it. With this book, Chaw does as any good critic should: He helps close that distance.
And for all the breadth and depth of his analysis, the moments when Chaw cuts to the core are what linger. In an encounter with David Cronenberg, he mentions that he memorized every moment, “every performance and cue,” of The Fly. When he’s asked why he did such a thing, he replies with a sentiment that seems maudlin, but in the right hands is what makes films worth watching and books worth reading. He tells him, simply and honestly, that “it taught me about love.”
Walter Chaw’s Miracle Mile was released on July 23 by Film Freak Central. To purchase it, click here.