Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Last Neighborhood in America

Which artist can lay the bigger claim to the movie Talk Radio? Oliver Stone, who directed and co-wrote it, or Eric Bogosian, who wrote the original play, co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the film?

Maybe neither. Maybe the real artistry of the film was buried with Alan Berg, the Denver talk radio host who was gunned down in his driveway by white supremacists some four years before the movie was made. Berg’s story was later crafted into a book, “Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg”, by Stephen Singular. Since much of that book was conscripted into the film, Singular likely deserves some credit as well.

I’ve been a Talk Radio nut since I first saw it on late night cable when I was in high school, which was the ideal venue in which to view it. The story is told in a way that seeing it at home alone, by accident, in the darkest hours of the eve can only add to the disembodied, hollow radio vibe Stone & Bogosian aimed to emulate.

One thing is for certain – no other combination of talent could’ve created a movie on this subject half this compelling. (Many have tried both before and since.) Take Stone out of the equation and you lose the fluid camera work and the buildup of paranoia & claustrophobia. Take away Bogosian and you lose Barry Champlain and the best goddamn lead for whom you could ask.

For those in the unknown, the movie details the sordid antics of late-night Dallas radio host Barry Champlain (Bogosian). He’s an obnoxious guy, who pokes and prods at his callers with equal amounts of contempt and enjoyment. Eh, maybe not so much the latter – he always seems to be in a pretty bad mood. One night he is killed as he leaves the station to go home. Then the end credits roll.

The movie is everything that happens around the above - the details of the finer points of Champlain’s mundane life. He’s Barry when he’s on the air. When he’s not, he’s as confused and frightened as his callers – so much so that when his show goes national, he begs his ex-wife Ellen (Ellen Greene) to fly to Dallas and “be with him” for the first broadcast. Jeez…what a weenie. Even his boss (an insanely effective Alec Baldwin; a precursor to his Glengarry Glen Ross role) puts him in his place several times. One of Baldwin’s great bits of dialogue: “What you are is a fuckin’ suit salesman with a big mouth!”

The movie reveals much about guys like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. What’s probably most noteworthy is how timely it remains, despite being made 17 years ago. (Someone even had the foresight to keep the topical politics of the day out of the dialogue.) Talk radio hasn’t changed all that much: It’s still a guy, his microphone, his callers & guests, all bandying about tawdry, unsolvable issues for a few hours. It is rare that a movie becomes the definitive take on its subject matter, but Talk Radio achieves the distinction.

Such was my fascination with the film that when given the opportunity to engage in on-air gab myself, I accepted. A talk radio producer once told me that people who call in to talk radio shows are basically stupid – after a year and half on The Chris Duel Show, as Sir Celluloid the movie guru, I heard little that would lead me to believe otherwise. (Note: This opinion is not necessarily shared by Chris Duel, his show, or any employees of KTSA, the station which airs the program.) It is not an easy task to wade through the swamp of bloated ignorance that is talk radio today. Why hosts do not regularly goad their callers to the point of gunning them down in their driveways mystifies me.

The last time I saw Talk Radio was a year ago with Jeanne at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin - the bonus was having Bogosian in attendance. Unfortunately, much of Austin didn’t share our enthusiasm. There were maybe 50 or 60 people at the screening, tops. Come on A-Town - you cats are supposed to be the cool ones! Maybe the movie is a tad angry for you hippie freaks. Still, Bogosian and Linklater did immortalize your city in subUrbia

Surprisingly, Bogosian himself was fairly enthusiastic after the screening. He seemed happy to field as many inane questions as people were willing to throw his way (as if he were Barry once again), concerning a movie whose shadow he’s probably sick of living in by now. I hate typing that, as he’s an immensely talented personality, but it’s a shame very few have made good use of his acting talents since Talk Radio. Sure, he’s been in many films, but never commanding the sort of screen time he can clearly handle. (No, Under Siege 2 does not count.)

He was also pimping his latest novel "Wasted Beauty", a copy of which I bought and he happily signed, with my favorite Champlain quote: “There’s nothing more boring than people who love you.”

For more information on Eric Bogosian, check out his website.

For more information on Oliver Stone, contact your local FBI agent.