Trouble In Mind

by craigmmcdonald

The books of others rarely inspire my own writing.

Most often, I’m more moved by music.

Very rarely, a film gets me there. When that happens, it’s usually tied to a director and a body of work.

There’s this particular director, and a film he made deep in the heart of Morning in America, that’s been on my mind lately. That film (and its successor, The Moderns, about 1920s Paris), left fingerprints all over my own crime fiction.

The mid-to-late 1980s: A time of skinny ties and suits without socks; a burgeoning sense of deconstruction and post-modernism; meta-fiction looms in the wings. The work is the thing and thing knows exactly what it is. Knowing winks and self-referentialism are fast becoming hip.

Back then, most crime fiction wasn’t hip. You had your Ellroy; you had your James Crumley…and no deep bench behind those two scribes.

In 1985, director Alan Rudolph released, Trouble in Mind. I saw it the way most others probably did at the time — a blink-and-you-missed-it three-day run in some campus art house theatre. But I was captivated; made do in the years after with a discarded rental of Trouble on full-screen VHS.

Kris Kristofferson anchors the film as “Hawk,” an ex-cop just sprung from prison for the fatal shooting of a “Rain City” crime boss years back.

“Rain City” stands in as a vaguely fascist, pre-Starbucks Seattle, every bit as drenched in neon-kissed rain as you would hope. A place where WASPs threaten and scream at one another in disarming volleys of Korean from time to time; where policeman and soldiers roam the streets and parade around with weapons.

Hawk, whose hobby is building highly-detailed scale models of Rain City landmarks, quickly settles into former habits and old haunts, chiefly a café run by his old friend Wanda (played by Geneviève Bujold, a Rudolph stalwart).

Wanda’s Café is Rain City’s version of Rick’s Place. Wanda was once under the thumb of a local crime boss — the man Kris/Hawk ventilated with a single shot between the eyes in a room filled with witnesses.

Soon enough, Hawk is courting a luminously innocent Lori Singer, a new mother badly married to a scrambling, scuffling Keith Carradine.

Casting a shadow over the city is an über fey reinvention of The Maltese Falcon’s Caspar Gutman — the kind of part Sydney Greenstreet might have played in post-Code Hollywood. Rain City’s new crime lord is Hilly Blue, portrayed by the late-Divine in a rare turn in pants.

A new, 25th anniversary edition of Trouble In Mind has recently been released on DVD, and just in time according to its director, who rues the last print of the film was in a pretty sorry state. For the first time in a quarter century, initiates can explore a film that despite its rarity has achieved a brand of stubborn cult status.

It had been a few years since I’d revisited my grainy, cropped VHS version of Trouble. The DVD extends the frame and draws out details that videotape obscured. Things, overall, are brighter than I remember, and maybe not for the better, but there it is.

Nevertheless, Trouble in Mind, set to a moody Mark Isham score, still walks a tricky line between pastiche, noir and the loopy logic of dreams. The film’s misty, dark world anticipates the same flavor of twisty terrain David Lynch would explore a few years later, a kind of (kissing) city cousin to Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Rain City deftly and swiftly asserts its own reality and cultural mash-up: one where 1960s-era American cars proliferate; where skinny ties, fedoras, trench coats and sharkskin sport jackets are concomitantly in fashion.

Rudolph says in supplemental materials that Rain City was conceptualized “as a place where past and future meet, but not in the present.”

It is classic film noir’s stylistic flourishes, Rudolph has argued repeatedly, that gave vintage crime films a patina of hyper-reality. By the terms of that proposition, Trouble In Mind’s nth-degree attention to detail qualifies the film as a significant, if under-known, neo-noir.

I’m the first to admit Rudolph’s films can be an acquired taste that eludes many samplers — too stylized and self-aware to suit every palate.

Yet I think Trouble has reached beyond its initial art-house run to assert enduring influences on the works of others. Like Hawk, briefly depicted working out with a heavy bag, Trouble in Mind punches above its weight.

10 Comments to “Trouble In Mind”

  1. Good movie, from what I remember. I think Joe Morton was in it and was found drowned inside a parked car? And Divine was amazingly menacing. You should also check out “Choose Me,” with Bujold, Keith Carradine, and Leslie Ann Warren.

  2. I’m betting Craig has seen it, but I’m not sure. Have you seen The Moderns, Alan? Beautiful soundtrack.

  3. A good post that reminds me it’s high time to revisit this movie – especially since I now live in Rain City, and Trouble in Mind captures Seattle’s odd, brooding vibe like no other film.

  4. Yes, Vince–I haven’t seen it in years–so do you think Seattle might be the city most truly suited to noir? After all, everyone always jokes about the nonsensical quality of all the rain in noir novels set in LA!

    • Absolutely. You have the primary benefit of the LA/SF setting – you’re on the coast and have run as far west as you can go – with the added bonus of weather that refuses to cooperate. At least the Flitcraft parable from The Maltese Falcon is set up this way.

  5. Thanks very much for this, Craig!

    It’s a really fun film and a beautiful score, there wasn’t really anything else like it then was there? I am geeky enough to have the soundtrack on vinyl tho I think it’s still in print + available. Marianne Faithfull doing her version of TROUBLE IN MIND, twice, for sure the highlight. I recall Mark Isham’s stuff as being a bit ’80s sax laden (natch! or trumpet?) but very much in keeping with the film…

    Let’s not forget the mid-80s weren’t totally barren re noir, ’84-the early ’90s saw the printing of those fantastic editions of Jim Thompson’s (as well as David Goodis and others) work on BLACK LIZARD press, which was how I was introduced to the genre. I was working in a bookstore when those editions were fresh and they just kicked my ass, still got them on my shelf today.

    Speaking of this period + Twin Peaks, the FIRE WALK WITH ME soundtrack is amazing, as is the Julie Cruise record FLOATING INTO THE NIGHT (’88?) of which probably aware….

    thanks again!

    • Nathan–yeah, thanks a lot probably to Black Lizard, the mid 80s to around 1990 were kinda a boomlet for neo noir, right? Blue Velvet, natch, and I’m remembering After Dark My Sweet, The Hot Spot, the Grifters,,,,

  6. Alan: I have seen Choose Me, but never bonded with that Rudolph film like I did Trouble and The Moderns. I watched it again (after many years) about a year ago, and found it to be just a little to of its time for me.

    Nathan: I, too, have the Trouble soundtrack on vinyl (and CD). Love both the Julee Cruise albums (which I believe Lynch produced). Also worth checking out is the Lynch-produced Jimmy Scott album of standards, All the Way. (Scott had a turn Fire Walk With Me). MF’s cover of Kristofferson’s El Gavilan over the close scenes/credits is also amazing.

    The Moderns’ by Isham soundtrack is exquisite.

  7. I remember very little about this picture aside from the kidnapping and the child’s mother in a frantic state.

    I watched this at the time I was working my way through one of Roger Ebert’s yearly compendiums and picking out all the four and three star flicks.

    A picture in a similar vein of style and mood is STORMY MONDAY which – I just saw – also stars the great and mighty Colonel Sharpe.

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