Monday, May 13, 2013
LESS THAN ZERO
(November 1987, U.S.)
For me, LESS THAN ZERO represents one of those films you need to distance yourself from for years, perhaps even decades before you can re-evaluate it with a truly fresh perspective and a new insight to how it once and may still affect your life and your memories. To reflect on the year 1987 may greatly depend on who you were back then, what you were doing and where. In terms of pop culture and the party scene, there are those who may have been part of the outrageously-big hair and mullet movement who liked their drugs hard and their glam-metal as cheesy as they could get it (for those people, I recommend ROCK OF AGES on Broadway!). For myself, as a junior in college in the cold city of Buffalo, New York, I was drinking my fair share of beer and hard alcohol, obsessing over the new music by all the ex-members of Pink Floyd and trying desperately to finally loose my virginity! So in other words, whether or not you can personally relate to the particular culture of life-in-the fast-lane, drug addicted, filthy rich, spoiled-rotten, narcissistic youths of 1980s Beverly Hills is besides the point because if you look a lot deeper into LESS THAN ZERO, somewhere, somehow, there is likely something that will touch you.
When I first saw this film back in 1988 (as a rental), it's safe to say I interpretted it's story and it's meaning as simply just a glorious, visual snapshot of this particular time of the era I was living in. To look at it now, with the eyes and experience of a 46 year-old man, it not only serves to take me back in time, but also reminds me of a story element of youth in general that I don't consider dated, even by the standards of 1987. As the film slowly fades in, we see the American flag - the one and only symbol of our hopes, dreams and aspirations - flapping in the breeze accompanied by the voice of the principal of a Beverly Hills high school wishing the graduating class of 1987 all the health, hopes and prosperity they deserve. One of the first reactions we hear in the background from one of the seniors is, "Money!", to which many others enthusiastically repeat. That immediately tells you of the kind of Beverly Hills kids we're dealing with here. But like I said, even if you're not from Beverly Hills and you weren't raised rich and spoiled, there are strong ingredients of friendship and relationships that anyone can appreciate. Consider the friends you had by the end of your senior year in high school and those final months you spent with them during the summer before you all (presumably) went away to different colleges. Consider what that very first school break must have been like in your freshman year when you returned home and things just weren't the same anymore. Clay Easton (played by the very underrated Andrew McCarthy) returns home to Beverly Hills from the East to find that his high school girlfriend, Blair (played by Jami Gertz), has become addicted to drugs and has been having sex with his high school best friend, Julian Wells (played by Robert Downey, Jr. in one of his best early roles). Julian has become a real fucked-up drug addict and has been cut off by his family for stealing to support his habit. He's also being hassled by his dealer (and pimp!), Rip (played by James Spader in also a great early role), for a debt of $50,000 that he owes to him.
Clay, Blair and Julian are three people who were once the best of close friends. It's seems so incredibly ironic (and tragic) that in the time of less than six months, all of their history and their meaning toghether has abruptly dissipated. One can't help but ask how something like that happens. On the other hand, one can't help but consider that it happens all the time! It happened to me, under my own set of circumstances, though it really just involved myself and one other person. People meet, they form bonds, sometimes they even make promises and then the inevitable happens - separation, new people, new experiences and new outlooks, not only on life itself but for the people who may have once met everything to you. Sure, change is good, but to what extent?
I never read Bret Easton Ellis' original 1985 novel, not all of it anyway. I tried to once, not fully realizing how different it was from the film version. Like many people, I found the lives of these characters in the book very disturbing and savage and eventually my interest in finishing it just faded. The film clearly takes some incredible liberties with the story and perhaps that may have been necessary. Remember, this was 1987 and it was still operating at the tail end of the "Brat Pack" era, so the glitz, the glamour, the neon, the hot party scenes and, of course, Andrew McCarthy didn't hurt the box office receipts. It's also safe to presume that to have adapted a more faithfull version of Ellis's novel would have been considered too controversial and too disturbing for audiences to embrace...at least back then, anyway. Today we're all a lot sicker!
The film had more of a personal effect on me than one might imagine. In 1990, I began writing the words of my own novel that I will gladly admit was greatly influenced by the darkness of LESS THAN ZERO. Years later I would develop my own novel into a screeplay. It's about high school friendship in the 1980s, it's about love, it's about passion, it's about betrayal and it's about consequences. What kind of consequences? Well, you all likely know that Julian tragically dies at the end of this film. For my own story, I was determined that one of the major characters would die, as well. Because in any tragic story, someone HAS to die in the end. The screenplay I wrote is still unsold and still undiscovered. Can anybody out there hook me up with the right person???
Finally, I have to say, upon watching LESS THAN ZERO in the year 2013, that in a today's world of the 21st Century, where having "friends" means a number that exceeds three digits on Facebook, I feel blessed to have very specific, very selected REAL friends in my life that I've known for twenty years or more. They've been there for me, I've been there for them and we're all still here...real people...real friendships...(hopefully) no matter what!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Clay Easton: "I remember Julian's mother died when we were five...and it was awful. Julian didn't cry, though, nothin'. He just sat by the telephone because his mom used to call him everyday when she was away on business. And nobody could get Julian away from the telephone. Mr. Wells, he called all our parents but nothin' worked. So one day, Mr. Wells, he sent Julian a telegram like it was from his mother saying that she had died and gone to Heaven. And I remember, uh, Julian showing it to me and he carried it around for a year...and he was okay. He was a tough little kid. I don't know, I did...everything that I...could do."
Blair: "Oh, I'm gonna miss him so much."
Clay: "Well, I'm going away tomorrow and I want you to come with me. Okay?"
Blair: "Yes, I wanna go with you. I do. I want to."