Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hardware (1990)

I never really appreciated Hardware (1990) until very recently. I saw it in its original theatrical run when I was fourteen, but that run was clouded by the film's losing bout with the MPAA. Magazines like Fangoria and Gorezone championed the film, and by this point, most of its writers and genre film fans were sick of the censor's scissors. The Hardware that I saw in theatres was a trimmed version, cut for an "R" rating. The Hardware release was an outlet for horror-film-fan angst and it became a soapbox for every fan to rip on the MPAA. Substantive discussion about the film was neglected or hidden, although the film had its fans and those who thought it sucked. The film's director, Richard Stanley, would follow Hardware with his more daring, lesser-known, Dust Devil (1992), and then, for lack of a better word, disappear. Hardware had a subsequent VHS release of its theatrical version and was MIA on DVD (in a proper version, that is) until 2009 when Severin Films released a two-disc set of Stanley's director's cut. Today, the MPAA is more a formality than an actual force; according to his IMDB credits, Stanley has some feature-length projects cooking; and I can safely say that I've never really seen this film. As per my usual viewing habits, when my Severin disc(s) arrived, I popped it into its player and left it in, watching it several times over successive nights.Jill (Stacey Travis) is a real artist, living alone and working on Christmas Eve. Her sometimes boyfriend, Mo (Dylan McDermott), comes into town and wants to stay. He brings her a gift. He showers. The two fuck and go to sleep. Jill wakes up, works on her art piece, smokes some dope, and goes back to sleep. Mo gets a phone call and leaves the apartment. Jill wakes up to find Mo gone, and the gift that Mo brought Jill tries to kill her. Yes, this is a skeletal plot description, but I believe that it adequately describes the dramatic action. The flesh of Hardware is all the good stuff: sex, politics, art, religion, love, and violence. I always wondered what relationships in a post-apocalyptic society would be like and I suppose Hardware serves as a primer. [Incidental joke, Hardware is set in a post-apocalyptic society.] Post-apocalyp-tia would more than likely equal shitty living for most. In a harrowing image, as Mo and his friend, Shades (John Lynch) trek to Jill's apartment, Stanley shows in the foreground a baby tied to its parent who is either sleeping, incapacitated, or dead in the street: it's a perverse rendering of the concept of the latchkey kid. Radio DJ, Angry Bob (Iggy Pop), provides commentary over the proceedings and delivers one of the film's most memorable lines: "There is no fucking good news! So let's rock!" Shades is trying to convince Mo to go and scavenge in New York City to strike it rich, the dream of any American prospector; but Mo prefers his job in the "corps." It's steady work and steady pay for Mo with its only downside being away from Jill for long periods of time. Humorously, the combat isn't an issue for Mo, as Angry Bob relays over the radio that minor skirmishes and battles have very high death tolls. Jill lives isolated in her apartment, secured like a bunker, and does contract work with welfare support as her income. She doesn't necessarily like being alone all the time, but it's so fucked up outside there is really nowhere to go. Motorhead frontman, Lemmy, plays a cabbie, and he reminisces to Mo and Shades about the good ole days: at one point, you could go downtown with just some brass knuckles, a piece of pipe or a piece of wood or something--now, you need a gun. Fucking savages. Stanley's visual style throughout Hardware is amazing, but his introductory footage during the first third of Hardware is masterful: Stanley's images don't need his literate script as they are powerful enough on their own. Stanley does not falter on his characterization. Jill is one of the best female characters to emerge from a genre film in a very long time. She is a real artist, and by that, I am not referring to the quality of her art but to her personality. Anyone that has ever lived with or intimately known a real artist knows that they are intolerable people. More often than not, they are described as "egomaniacal" or "egocentric," as they are more self-centered than the normal self-centered person. Often consumed and obsessed by the creative process, their way of life revolves around it, shutting off the entire world around them, including the ones who love them. Jill is in this class and she deeply loves Mo. She is understandably angry that he is gone a lot, but ironically, her loneliness fuels her art. In a very adept touch, Stanley has Jill create a large web-like metal collage that is missing its center piece. Jill is taking inspiration for her work from a spider who is building a web in a nook in her apartment. She is feeding and caring for the arachnid, and the sensitivity that Jill is showing to the creature can only mean that natural life is rare in this society. In a very subtle yet powerful scene later in Hardware, the spider meets its fate. Its killer is a very satisfying and playful joke on Jill's art and this society. Poor Mo tells Jill that he's going to be around a lot more, and she doesn't believe him. However, the viewer gets the idea that it's true: he stops at the top of a flight of stairs and starts coughing like a sixty-year-old smoker. The discrepancy between Mo's life and Jill's is powerfully rendered in their shower sequence: Mo is so filthy that it looks as if he has dirt permanently ingrained into his skin. Jill has pale, pearl-white, and unblemished skin. You have to love the shot of Mo's metallic, prosthetic hand caressing Jill's bottom: a wonderful composition of metal and flesh: Stanley's main motif. Looming over Christmas Eve and hovering over the entire story in Hardware is the background story about the government on the verge of passing the "Population Control" Bill. The film's dialogue never gives any real depth into the Bill, yet Stanley weaves it into his dramatic action adeptly. Jill's collage and her relationship with Mo center around this historic bill, as having a child would change the dynamics of their relationship. One wonders how it would affect sexual relationships. Jill's neighbor, Lincoln (William Hootkins), is a lecherous pervert who takes to spying on Jill with his camera. He's a wholly repulsive person. When he and Jill have an encounter later in the film, I loved it when Jill said to him, "Okay, you can stop talking now." I think she was speaking for the whole audience. Still, Lincoln's character is a product of this society. His inclusion is eerily reminiscent of Rinse Dream's seminal (pun intended) Cafe Flesh (1982) about a post-apocalyptic society where is sex is reduced to voyeurism. Lincoln also becomes a de facto poster child for the advocates of the "Population Control" Bill. Travis shines in her scene with Lincoln. The second act of Hardware dominates most discussion of the film. The gift that Mo brought Jill for Christmas tries to kill in her in her small apartment, and plenty of praise has been heaped upon Stanley for creating some excellent claustrophobic horror. I need not repeat it. I've said so much at this point in the review and I haven't even remarked upon Stanley's effective use of religious iconography, Mo's psychedelic sequence in the third act, or the dreamy desert imagery with the "Zone Tripper." I could easily bang out another twelve-hundred words on these three, but I won't. The most important thing to mention is that Hardware is beyond an excellent, low-budget film; and the Severin disc set is well worth seeking out for those who like alternative cinema. Repeat viewings only strengthen the film, and Severin's package presents the film in a beautiful print with a wealth of supplements. Essential.


Dr.LargePackage said...

Fantastic review, Hans. As a wasteland physician, I can tell you that there is an illness running through the internet, and the only prescription is more of your reviews, Hans. Having the right prescription is large and in charge.

Aylmer said...

I too saw HARDWARE on it's first theatrical run, and I too was underwhelmed by it. I'm looking forward to seeing this through more mature eyes. I've been putting off getting the Severin disc, but you've just inspired me to hunt it down.

Aaron said...

I knew about it beforehand, but I first watched HARDWARE last year as a recommendation from J.D. of RADIATOR HEAVEN and absolutely loved it (the same can be said for DUST DEVIL, but I think I'm more fond of this one). The aesthetic, the soundtrack (especially the recurring PiL song), the robot!, the surreal moments and unusual cinematography in the final act, etc. Such a great film. My only major complaint is that Richard Stanley wasn't the most prolific director.

Hans A. said...

@Aylmer@Aaron--Thanks for commenting, guys!

@Dr.LP--First, thanks! Second, congrats on your M.D. Proud is not even the beginning of how I feel about you right now.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Big fan of this one, it feels so claustrophobic! The sets are so dark, so small, this due to the fact that they shot most of the film in a small cramped set they built, but it works, because it goes with the mood of the film, the post apocalyptic right smack in the middle of chaos that the film has.

I caught some similarities with Blade Runner, especially in that sequence where Mo is hanging from the window, it reminded in look and feel of those scenes with Harrison Ford hanging from the building at the end of Blade Runner.

And the scenes with Jill escaping the robotic limbs of the killer robot, brought to mind the last moments of The Terminator as well.

Richard Stanley's best movie I think, it so sad he's never done anything else. I guess he is so unorthodox that studios run away from him. I did enjoy seeing those short films he made when he was younger, that Severin dvd is packed with so many extras! It even has some of his more recent short films.

Hans A. said...

@Francisco--Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I'm glad you enjoy the film!