Mark Romanek’s ‘Static’

❉ An appreciation of a genuine cult movie, disowned by its director.

“Many have called the film ‘quirky’ and it’s certainly unpredictable… It’s notable, though, that Static serves up a near-surreal helping of small-town America just before Lynch himself had got to Blue Velvet, let alone Twin Peaks.”

It’s always tempting to find a strange cult film all the more alluring if it’s hard to get to see it in the first place. When Static (1986) was released in the UK, I was 14, too young to see it in a cinema (and not bold enough to try). Instead I read about it in magazines such as Starburst, fascinated by the very sound of it and the look of stills from it, which featured a collection of misshapen plastic crucifixes and what looked like pint-sized aliens (but which were actually twin boy characters wearing masks).

The best part of twenty years later, I finally got to see Static when I found a VHS copy in a charity shop. It wasn’t a disappointment. More recently, I tried to get hold of it on DVD or Blu-ray and soon became aware of Static‘s curious fate.

The film concerns one Ernie Blink, an eccentric young inventor in a small Arizona town. One Christmas Eve, after two years of work, Ernie gathers his nearest and dearest to unveil his latest secret invention which he insists could change the world, meaning people will be ‘happy and not sad”. The fallout from its unveiling shapes the rest of Static‘s narrative.

Some background, then. Starring as Ernie is Keith Gordon, at the time a movie regular who popped up in the cast-lists of Jaws 2, All That Jazz, Dressed to Kill and Christine. Before long, though, he’d move into directing, with feature films including A Midnight Clear (1992), Mother Night (1996) and the long-mooted big-screen version of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (2003), plus gigs on major TV dramas including Dexter, Homeland, Fargo, Better Call Saul and The Leftovers.

Besides starring, Gordon also co-wrote the script for Static along with his friend, and the film’s director, Mark Romanek. Romanek’s had an extraordinary career but isn’t necessarily a well-known name, not least because he’s only directed two feature films since Static (namely the out-of-character Robin Williams thriller One Hour Photo (2002) and the mind-bending Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go (2010)). More recently, he directed the pilot episode of Amazon’s eye-popping futuristic drama series Tales from the Loop. Mostly, though, he’s become known as a first-rate director of music videos. One of Static‘s early scenes is sound-tracked to great effect by The The’s This is the Day, and the band’s Matt Johnson was so impressed that Romanek was swiftly enlisted to make the videos for Infected and Sweet Bird of Truth.

Throughout the 90s Romanek’s music video work was on MTV heavy rotation, from En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way and Beck’s Devil’s Haircut to Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream and Bowie’s Jump They Say and Black Tie White Noise. To top it off, in 2003 he made the elegiac video for Johnny Cash’s Hurt, often cited as one of the best music videos of all time (unless you happen to prefer Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, which was also by Romanek).

You’re still waiting to find out what Ernie Blick invented though, right? Hang on, we’ll get there.

Romanek and Gordon were both around 20 years old when they met during the making of Brian de Palma’s Home Movies (1980). Gordon was playing Denis Byrd, a fictionalised version of the young de Palma, and Romanek, a keen film buff, had found himself a job as the film’s second assistant director. The two got talking, formed a friendship and resolved to work together.

Keith Gordon.

Static, made when the pair were still in their mid-twenties, was the end result, and it’s clearly the work of young film fans. It has a freshness and strength of personality to it. Many have called the film ‘quirky’ and it’s certainly unpredictable. With its resourceful use of a tight budget and emphasis on character and dialogue, it fitted neatly into the ‘80s indie cinema heyday of Jarmusch, Cox, Wenders and Lynch, with the oddness of the latter particularly in evidence. It’s notable, though, that Static serves up a near-surreal helping of small-town America just before Lynch himself had got to Blue Velvet, let alone Twin Peaks.

One of the film’s key locations is the local diner, a cafe with a distinctive fish-shaped frontage, where Ernie has not one but two sort-of girlfriends on the go: waitress Patty (Lily Knight) and his wilder, back-in-town school friend Julia (an early role for indie icon Amanda Plummer). The diner jukebox is pumping out Christmas songs and – in a direct foreshadowing of one of Romanek’s most acclaimed achievements – Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash. Elsewhere in the town, Ernie’s quietly unhinged cousin Frank (Bob Gunton) is raising a pair of survivalist twin boys who could be prototypes for Wes Anderson’s Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum.

Amanda Plummer.

The trouble with Static is that it’s now nigh-on impossible to see. Beyond the VHS release, it’s never been available to buy, rent or stream and it doesn’t get screened on TV. The reason seems to be that Mark Romanek himself feels embarrassed by it, regarding it as substandard juvenilia and keeping it firmly unavailable. He’s even gone so far as to disown it, saying he regards One Hour Photo as his film debut proper.

Now, more than most films, Static works best when seen without foreknowledge, but seeing it is easier said than done and you can’t get far in discussing it without mentioning Ernie’s invention. To that end – squint now, spoiler-phobes – it transpires that he’s built a special TV set which can tune in to Heaven.

Lily Knight.

Yes, you read that right. The trouble is, although he’s adamant that it’s working, no-one else who looks at the screen sees anything but the titular static. His great creation – which would, let’s face it, change everything – is a dud. Thereafter, the film focusses on Ernie hijacking a bus taking a handful of sweet old dears towards Albuquerque, though his hijacking technique is so awkward, apologetic and good-natured that it seems to owe a debt to the Monty Python “Fly this plane to Luton” sketch. Ernie’s intention is to use the hijack to alert the world’s media to his invention, but in the event – squint again, spoiler-phobes – a trigger-happy cop accidentally shoots the bus’s fuel tank, blowing Ernie and the elderly passengers to high heaven.

Bob Gunton as Frank (left), Reathel Bean as Fred Savins (right).

You may perhaps appreciate Romanek’s misgivings here – what’s been a low-key character-driven piece throughout concludes with a rather abrupt conflagration – but then, anything you might hold up as one of Static‘s failings could also be regarded as a strength. As endings go, it comes out of nowhere. There are no big emotional outpourings from the other characters upon Ernie’s demise, not even his two special lady friends – but then, what’s more predictable than a lot of tearful hand-wringing? Instead the characters seem numb, which in many ways seems more true to life. There’s a whole film to be made about the thorny love triangle between Ernie, Patty and Julia, but here it’s hardly dealt with, simply presented as a matter of fact.

Keith Gordon.

A key motivating factor for Ernie’s actions is that his parents both died in a car crash two years before – he’s clearly been ‘inventing’ his device as a way of dealing with his grief – but that’s never spelt out and the one mention of the accident is tossed away almost as an aside. Static never quite takes the obvious path, but that’s what makes it so different, so appealing.

Bluntly, Romanek seems to be judging his own work far too harshly and thereby failing to appreciate its very considerable merits. It’s a wonderful film, often striking, even beautiful, in what it has to say and the way in which it says it, with moments of true, rare power.. It has a languid, uncluttered, unhurried pace, but in its own highly idiosyncratic fashion it offers a great deal of insight into grief and belief, alongside a neat sense of humour. It deserves to be widely available and it’s a crying shame that it isn’t. You don’t have to watch Static too closely to see something really remarkable.

❉ ‘Static’ received its theatrical premiere in October 1985 at Chicago International Film Festival. Director: Mark Romanek. Cast includes Keith Gordon, Amanda Plummer, Bob Gunton, Barton Heyman, Lily Knight, Jane Hoffman. Run time: 89 mins.

 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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  1. Andy, you are dead right about this film. I saw it in an arthouse cinema when it came out, and have an off-air vhs from its showing on Channel 4 a few years later – plus a uk release poster, which is pretty poor! Suffice to say I agree that it has many endearing and striking moments as you say, and the juvenilia tag is so undeserved. It’s a very memorable film which I cherish

  2. I saw this film first on Channel 4 and it made an immediate impact. Coincidentally, a mutual love of this little known film was a defining point in embarking on a relationship in the mid 90s.

  3. The subconscious, psychedelic nature of Static is comparable to Lynch’s Eraserhead. No wonder the two directors often get compared. I am always sad to see a masterpiece disowned by its master. Give it to me, I will put it out on Blu-ray immediately for the world to see.

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