Border Radio and beyond, or: Allison Anders, we hardly knew ye

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      With abundant thanks to Neptoon Records’ Rob Frith.

      For many fans of the 1987 cult quasi-documentary Border Radio, the film’s deepest charms all have to do with the cast and locations.

      It’s just plain fun to watch, say, Flesh Eaters frontman Chris D.—a fine, if underused, actor, who can also be seen getting kicked in the nuts by Kevin Costner in No Way Out, or shot in the head in his tiny scene in Lethal Weapon—burning an acoustic guitar on the beach in Mexico, where he’s hiding out from L.A. music industry thugs.

      Or, you know, take the scene where Luanna Anders—playing the wife of said musician, investigating his disappearance—is drunkenly hit on by an authentically tanked John Doe, slurring his lines, mostly improvised anyways, and stumbling around the room after her. It ain’t method acting you’re seeing, folks, but it’s pretty entertaining, especially if, say, you’re a fan of X.   

      And then there’s Dave Alvin. Besides scoring the film, he pops up playing—big stretch—a guitarist.

      If you watch his big scene in the movie—mentioned in my Flesh Eaters article—with the DVD cast commentary on, you’ll be treated to him recoiling in horror from seeing his own hairstyle back in the day.

      “I’m outta here, man,” he grumbles. “I didn’t know I had a goddamn mullet!”

      John Doe jokes back: “You were the first one, man. You started a terrible hair trend, but you were the first!”

      Dave Alvin invents the mullet, from Border Radio

      That’s all pretty fun. (The commentary adds a lot.) So are seeing locations like the Hong Kong Café—a Chinese restaurant where punk bands used to play—or Los Angeles music scene icons like Texacala Jones (of Tex and the Horseheads) talking about music, or catching a glimpse of Green on Red—a band Chris D. produced, during his days with Slash Records—onstage.

      There’s plenty of Flesh Eaters music played, too, including the bone-crunching rocker “The Wedding Dice,” which Chris D. tells me will be on the set for their Rickshaw appearance on Thursday (January 25). I’m personally quite grateful for the chance to re-evaluate the film, which I haven’t seen to completion in years.

      More than that, though, I’m eager to re-evaluate co-director Allison Anders.

      She’s not someone I’ve paid a lot of attention to, to be honest. I enjoyed Gas Food Lodging well enough, and was aware of her connections with Quentin Tarantino—whom she dated, engaged in music geekery with, and collaborated with on the anthology film Four Rooms—but in researching this article, I learned a whole lot that suddenly makes her seem much more intriguing.

      For instance, I had no idea that she had worked with Wim Wenders for years, early in her film career—including serving as production assistant on Paris, Texas.

      I didn’t realize that she and Kurt Voss (who, along with Dean Lent, are credited as Border Radio’s directors) had directed two other films together, Things Behind the Sun (featuring Fear the Walking Dead’s Kim Dickens and fucking J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr (!), and 2012’s Strutter (featuring Ariel Pink and the Gun Club’s Terry Graham). These films, I’m told, make a sort of music-themed trilogy with Border Radio. As soon as I figure out how to see them without doing anything illegal I’m going to…

      With the help of Neptoon Records’ Rob Frith—who met Anders when she was in town to film TV—I ended up connected with her for a quick email interview.

      Georgia Straight: What was your background in the LA punk scene? Prior to getting involved in Border Radio, did you go to shows, have favourite bands? Any particularly memorable gigs or encounters?

      Allison Anders: I went to my first punk show the Bags opening for the Dickies at the Whiskey A Go Go in 1978 and continued to go to as much as I could. I loved those bands, and X, loved Gun Club (saw the earliest shows too, even before Terry and Rob joined the band) loved the Flesh Eaters, the Blasters, Los Lobos, the Go Gos, Redd Kross, and Monitor (my daughter and I sang on their first record).

      How did you connect with Kurt Voss?

      Kurt and I met in 1981 before going to UCLA and became a couple, so yeah, we were living together going to film school when we made Border Radio.

      My favourite among your films that I've seen remains Gas Food Lodging, though I haven't seen it in years, and there's a lot I have NOT seen. Do you have a favourite of your own features? Where does Border Radio fit for you now, looking back?

      Hard to answer—with the exception of Four Rooms, they're all my children, three of which I co-parented with Kurt Voss. They all hold different things for me.  I LOVE how Border Radio looks, Dean Lent's black and white cinematography is astounding to me everytime I see it.

      Border Radio seems indebted to Wim Wenders and, in particular, to The State of Things, and maybe a bit, tonally, to Jim Jarmusch (who shot Stranger Than Paradise, of course, on leftover film from The State of Things). I gather you were a PA on Paris, Texas, and had a long correspondence with Wenders—so is the Wenders' influence creditable to you?

      We were making Border Radio at the same time as Stranger Than Paradise so no, we were not influenced by that film. We loved it, and when I teach American Indies at UCSB, I often do a double bill of those two films cause they are so perfectly east coast/west coast in their approach and aesthetic. Yes I studied under Wim on Paris, Texas, and in fact the correspondence began with a mix tape I sent to him of 60s girl group music, so yes—we continue to talk music. In fact, he bought me my very first iPod because he felt like I of all people should have one.

      We each Kurt, Dean and I had our own influences on Border Radio. Mine was Wim, certainly, Kurt I would say more Herzog; Dean, Kubrick; and for Chris D, film noir. Originally it was supposed to be a noir film, but we realized after cutting a few scenes we'd shot—that shit is HARD! Ha. So we turned it into this shaggy dog comedy of sorts. But the beauty for me is Chris D played the noir aspect to the end—that was what he signed up for and by god that's what he was going to deliver, that was the movie he was in, no matter if we'd abandoned that idea.  I love that—it really works for the film too that Chris made that choice.

      Wim also helped us out with some short ends and posters which he suggested we sell to get our film out of the lab and we did (found myself regretting that recently and wishing I still had one of those!) 

      How did Border Radio end up on Criterion? It seems an impressive feat for a film this "indie", even one with a cult following. Is there a story there? 

      Yes, but I can't recall all the details. Chris D. made the contact with Susan Arosteguy and there was to be a sub label on Criterion, but they decided not to go on with it and we lucked out and got on Criterion!

      You later got together with Quentin Tarantino, right? Was Border Radio at all a part of that? Was he fan? Are you still in touch?

      Quentin and I met in 1992 at Sundance, when we were there with our movies, but he still had his Border Radio ticket stub. He'd seen it in the movie theater.

      Rob Frith told me there was an amusing story involving a song that you and Quentin shared—something to do with an obscure European garage band and a mistaken cover taken from a Dave Clark 5 single (or something like that!) that you found at Neptoon...!  Could you recount that story?

      Oh my god—it would be too long to explain but I took that record out today to make sure that I get it to him. He will just die. Ha.

      What bands do you listen to these days? 

      I'm afraid I'm pretty stuck in the past. But I do give new bands a chance. I like Thee Oh-Sees, I like Angel Olsen, and I love Harry Styles, and none of that is a conflict for me, haha. I love American Primitive musicians and my cousin Mark Fosson (on Drag City) is one of the best you'll ever hear. But I rediscover daily music from every era. Recent fixes are Ian Thomas who I discovered in Vancouver and bought vinyl at Neptoon, I love Aztec Camera, Edwyn Collins, listening to them a lot lately.

      You currently shoot TV in Vancouver, right? What are you working on here? How do you find working in Vancouver? 

      I work in Vancouver from time to time, recently for episodes of Riverdale, and enjoy the city tremendously!  Shout out to Forage and Guu Original Thurlow and Neptoon Records!

      Thanks so much to Allison Anders for taking time to answer my questions. Border Radio screens Wednesday (January 24) at the Vancity Theatre with Chris D. in attendance, with a Q&A moderated by author Kier-la Janisse (House of Psychotic Women); Chris D will front the Flesh Eaters on Thursday (January 25) at the Rickshaw, featuring an all star lineup of Dave Alvin, John Doe, DJ Bonebrake, Bill Bateman, and Steve Berlin.