Monday, October 22, 2007

Border Radio

Radio knows no borders. So the thing about "border radio" is the way in which radio's transmissions bleed over borders: snippets of Spanish-language stations are picked up in Southern California, while US programming likewise fades in and out of the airwaves in Northern Mexico. The border becomes an indeterminate zone in which diverse cultural influences mix and hybridize.

Border Radio posterSo in Allison Anders, Dean Lent, and Kurt Voss's Border Radio, the border itself never appears, though characters slip over and back from time to time while the soundtrack features LA Punk and Mexican pop, as well as mixed genre bands such as the Chicano rock/Tex-Mex stalwarts Los Lobos. So although the movie is very much a document of a particular time and place--the LA punk scene of the early 1980s--it's also characterized by constant slippage and indeterminacy. One of its intertitles reads "2 or 6 months later," as though the possible four-month difference were of little import. The film constantly shifts between genres: it's part noir, part road movie, part documentary, part Western. And the narrative is set up as its lead character slips over the border to Mexico, abandons his car in the middle of nowhere, and sets up in a trailer park to brood over his life, his wife, his friends, and the direction of his career.

Jeff Bailey is a musician, but his name is taken from the Private Eye played by Robert Mitchum in the noir classic Out of the Past and indeed the film opens with a plot of crime and cross-border escape: Bailey is driven south when three heavies turn up at his apartment looking for money and some mysterious books that he's allegedly stolen from a nightclub that he feels owes him. But later the whole issue of the books turns out to be some kind of mistake, and we discover that he's patched up his differences with the club's owner.

Border Radio stillStill he stays in Mexico, hanging out with other ex-pat refugees as well as gnarled locals, playing songs to a china Elvis and a clay devil on top of an abandoned car, burning his guitar on the beach, and generally taking some time out from his day to day existence back home.

And back in LA, in another slippage that shows the porousness of personal identity, Bailey's wife has taken up with his best friend and band's roadie, a guy called Chris who has clearly long wanted to takes Jeff's place. Chris gets his chance now that Jeff himself has vacated his professional and familial roles, choosing rather to enter the border zone.

So Mexico is again a place of escape, but here it is not a site of refuge or even reinvention, but rather a place to lose oneself, to lose the self. It's both an extension of and a reaction against the LA underground: an extension in that it's yet another alternative to the mainstream, a reaction in that it's a resistance to the commodification and fixity even of that subcultural alternative now plagued by the demands of record promotion, commercial remixes, and increasingly dubious assertions of authenticity. It's not that there's anything particularly authentic about Mexico, or rather about the border zone in which Mexico and the US overlap and contaminate each other. By contrast, it's the very bleeding across borders, the way in which radio transmissions fade in and out, that resists and undoes authenticity and fixity alike.

In the film's final chapter ("2 or 6 months later), we catch up on the characters' fates some time after Bailey has returned to the US. He and his wife have separated: she's writing a book. The best friend has been to Europe. And Jeff himself is strumming his guitar while sitting at the base of the famous Hollywood sign, but it's not so much that he's sold out as that we see, up close, the graffiti scrawled on the sign and its precarious perch in the Southern California scrub. Mass culture, too, has its lines of flight, its indeterminate border zones that are neither here nor there, neither American nor Mexican. For all the payola and prestige needed to get a song on the radio, you can never quite control where it goes from there.

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