There are some movies that I have a long-seeded personal connection with, and Bagdad Cafe (1987) is one of those movies. To give you an idea what this movie’s about, I’ll hand off again to Roger Ebert:
The heavyset German lady, her body and soul tightly corseted, her hair sprayed into rocklike permanence, is having a fight with her husband, right there in the Mojave Desert. They are in the middle of some kind of miserable vacation, touring America as a version of hell.
She can take no more. She grabs her suitcase and stalks away from their Mercedes, he drives away into the red, dusty sky, and she walks to a miserable truck stop and asks for a room.
An opening like that makes you stop and think, doesn’t it, about how cut-and-dried most Hollywood movies are. There would seem to be no place in today’s entertainment industry for movies about fat German ladies and homesick truck stops, and yet “Bagdad Cafe” sets us free from the production line of Hollywood’s brain-damaged “high concepts” and walks its own strange and lovely path. There is poetic justice in the fact that this movie, shot in English in America by a German, is one of the biggest box office successes in recent European history.
He ends his review:
… Percy Adlon, the director, maintains a certain bleak undercurrent of despair, of crying babies and unpaid bills and young people who have come to the ends of their ropes.
He is saying something in this movie about Europe and America, about the old and the new, about the edge of the desert as the edge of the American Dream. I am not sure exactly what it is, but that is comforting; if a director could assemble these strange characters and then know for sure what they were doing in the same movie together, he would be too confident to find the humor in their situation. The charm of “Bagdad Cafe” is that every character and every moment is unanticipated, obscurely motivated, of uncertain meaning and vibrating with life.
This is a nice, sweet little movie. Its charm and immigrant theme are reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch movies — think Mystery Train — or as a more recent example (on the charm aspect, not immigrants), perhaps Sunshine Cleaning, or, as an example further along the evolutionary chain, a Wes Anderson film (see prior posts). Don’t expect a monumental, earth-shattering high drama. But sometimes it’s nice to feel the sun-baked warmth of a good little comfort film.
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A NOTE ON the Locale: Intending to visit the filming location, a small restaurant still in business off the main highway, I first stopped on my drive along I-40 toward Barstow to download “Bell Bottom Blues”, which perfectly set the mood. Once there, I stepped inside to notice a suspect cleanliness level, with a number of the inhabitants, from an old geezer in the corner to an infant crawling about the floor — it’s as much a family home as a restaurant — looking like they hadn’t bathed in days. The cafe interior also featured the requisite level of grit. It was almost like a sun-bleached version of a scene from the movie that was shot there so long ago. I was determined to eat lunch regardless of the conditions, so I ordered a hamburger and fries that, turns out, weren’t bad. The Germans also seemed to be enjoying their lunch, as if for them this place were some landmark equivalent to Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon.
THE SOLAR COLLECTOR in the film also influenced my college days, but at last check had been decommissioned. It used to be visible for miles around, just as depicted in the film.
Jack Palance in Bagdad Cafe