Friday, April 30, 2010

Jeff Lieberman's Blue Sunshine (1976)

Jeff Lieberman's Blue Sunshine (1976) merits a lot of praise: its script, written by Liberman, is literate and genuine with its dialogue easy and real and its drama engrossing and well-paced; the performances by the actors are all professional, competent, and well-done; and as for entertainment, few films so unabashedly deliver. To use overused adjectives (of which I am abashedly guilty), Blue Sunshine is a unique film from a unique film maker.

Beautiful Wendy (Ann Cooper) is babysitting the next-door neighbor's children and reading them a story. She's slightly on edge and easily prone to getting a headache. Wendy split from her husband, Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard), whose face litters the street from posters and from the television: Ed's running for Congress. One of the children who Wendy is babysitting takes a cue from the Rapunzel fairy tale to which she is listening and tugs Wendy's hair. Quite a handful comes out of Wendy's head from the little child's fingers.

John O'Malley (Bill Cameron) is a beat cop looking to promote to detective. His wife Barbara is seeking consolation from a neighbor: John has been absent from the home a lot, and when he returns, he has often been drinking. Guess what? He has been losing his hair too.
At a party, Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King) is cooling out with his lady, Alicia (Deborah Winters). Actor Brion James is at the party, also, and pretends to be a bird and caws and flaps his arms like wings. James's bird performance is not the weirdest thing to happen at the party. This is: Frannie (Richard Crystal), presumably the host, comes downstairs and happily thanks everyone for coming. He decides to sing a song and as he is really getting in a groove, Frannie grabs one of his guest's dates and gives her a friendly tussle. Her date is a little jealous and grabs Frannie's hair. Pop goes the weasel and off comes Frannie's wig. He is totally bald and his eyes bulge to the size of golf balls. He rushes out the door, and save three female party guests, everyone leaves to search for Frannie in town. Jerry, alone, searches the immediate surroundings for Frannie. To reveal anymore of Blue Sunshine would be a sin, but Jerry keeps searching throughout the film for answers stemming from this night.Hair: every one wants it, cannot keep it, and does not know why they are losing it. While paranoia and conspiracies were major themes of 1970s American cinema, Blue Sunshine is centered around a quasi-conspiracy and its lead, Zalman King's Jerry Zipkin is not fueled by paranoia: there are real people out to get him, and as he investigates and as the intricate mystery unfolds, the root of the hair problem (rim shot) lies with a circle of friends who all attended Stanford University ten years prior. Most conspiracies are ludicrous and incredulous, and Lieberman with his script, instead of shading over this aspect, indulges it in Blue Sunshine. His narrative is so well-paced with the drama so absorbing that when clues to the quasi-conspiracy are revealed, they do not take the viewer out of the action. Yes, the revelations are ridiculous, but these diverse characters do not think so, especially Jerry. Liberman creates such an intimacy and familiarity with his characters that they drive the narrative. One of the best crafted relationships is between Jerry and his friend, Dr. David Blume (Robert Walden). Despite the fact that after an absence of years the two reunite over a gunshot wound and discuss the efficacy of tranquilizers on psychotic human subjects, these two appear as close friends. Super-cute Alicia is Jerry's accomplice, and in a pivotal moment during the wonderfully over-the-top final act, it appears as if she has had too much to drink at the bar and is a little tipsy: a little human touch to the script that is quite endearing. Another well-done and quirky sequence involves Jerry, who by this point in the film is desperate for information, and his first meeting with beautiful Wendy. Considering the ludicrous nature of the subject matter, subtlety and tact would be Jerry's best method for questioning Wendy. Nope. Jerry stumbles embarrassingly over his words and scares Wendy tremendously. This scene really accentuates how desperate Jerry is but also shows a lot of humility from his character. Like every one else, with perhaps the exception of Big Number Thirty Two, Wayne Mulligan (Ray Young), these are down-to-earth, familiar characters caught up in totally absurd circumstances.Zalman King really gets into his role as Jerry Zipkin. At times, it would seem that he is overacting but more often than not, it just appears this actor is a really big fan of James Dean and Marlon Brando and following suit. Cooper as Wendy and Winters as Alicia are terrific. Cooper has a fantastic sequence following Jerry's exit from her apartment (It's also one of Lieberman's best and most exciting set-pieces). Like Cooper, Winters shines from the beginning, and as her character develops, she gives a depth to her character instead of simply becoming a plot device. Walden and Young, as Blume and Mulligan, respectively, round out a very good cast of actors.Certainly, Blue Sunshine is appropriate for the drive-in, yet there's so much quirky fun that it is fun even in the digital format. (There is an excellent special edition DVD from Synapse, and it's also part of an Elvira two-feature DVD which makes a for a late-nite, VHS experience.) Nearly all of Lieberman's cinema takes outlandish premises with a real focus on character and depth: Squirm (1978), Just Before Dawn (1981), Remote Control (1988), and Satan's Little Helper (2004). The premises are not taken seriously, but the films certainly are. Likewise, as with Blue Sunshine, so much fun is to be had, let your hair go loose and enjoy.


Jeff Allard said...

Blue Sunshine is one of my all-time favorites! I keep meaning to do a write-up to send into Kindertrauma because seeing this on The Movie Channel back in '79 or '80 totally sent me over the edge. I was about nine or ten at the time and the scene with the babysitter losing her hair, losing her shit, and then chasing the kids around her apartment with a knife was about the freakiest thing I'd ever seen.

Seeing the film years later, I was able to better appreciate the film's quirkiness and social satire. For me, it's one of the unsung highpoints of '70s horror. I wish Lieberman was more prolific but Blue Sunshine was enough to make me a fan for life.

Hans A. said...

Thnx so much, Jeff, for sharing your thoughts! I, too, wish that Lieberman was more prolific but he's got a fairly incredible filmography. Blue Sunshine is one that I can watch over and over. Always welcomed when you take time to visit and share your thoughts, Jeff, and thanks again.