1. Valley Girl – Ben’s Take

Film Poster for the movie 'Valley Girl'

The alien, misshapen proportions of their faces are matched only by that of their acting

And so we start with this, Nicolas Cage’s first credited lead role in a theatrical movie (he had previously been in 1981 TV Pilot, The Best Of Times (also Crispin Glover’s first ever appearance), but we have been unable to track down a copy for love nor money, no matter who we try to pimp Adam out to.

Valley Girl is a 1983 romantic comedy starring Nicolas Cage and a whole host of people you will never hear from ever again. The film cut a more effective swathe through its young cast’s careers than Michael Myers. Although it enjoyed some measure of financial and critical success at the time of its release, it really can’t be called a ‘good’ film. That said, here at the Institute of Advanced Cage Studies (or, as our less charitable friends call it, the Nerdcave), we believe it is an incredibly important film in the Cage oeuvre. It is here that you can trace the very beginnings of the Cage method.

The film opens with a shaky aerial shot of our location, the San Fernando Valley and then a montage of our 4 main female characters on a shopping trip. It is at this point that the film is trying so hard to place itself at the centre of the early 80’s ‘Valley Girl’ phenomenon that it’s easy to imagine this film being dated within seconds of its release. Denim vests, jelly bracelets and sweaters with keyboard prints on them, it’s not so much a bouncy, fun montage of girls having fun as it is a jauntily edited highlight reel of a war crime. This film is almost aggressively 80’s.

After this we meet our four female leads, Julie, Loryn, Stacey and Samantha and it is here when the film hits one of its major snags. Every time the girls have a scene together, they become so subsumed in their Valley Girl accents that the dialogue becomes a raw, high-pitched burst of incomprehensible sound. I know they were speaking to each other, and they seemed to be able to communicate with each other, but it was a little like attempting to eavesdrop on a colony of highly evolved insects who rub their forelegs together. From what I can decipher, our shockingly unlikable female lead, Julie, is unhappy with her current boyfriend, much-beloved valley hunk Tommy, and decides to dump him, primarily because she’s bored of him. Luckily they run into him on the escalator and we are treated to quite possibly the world’s most unconvincing breakup scene.

It is here that one of the film’s most obvious and disconcerting characteristics makes itself obvious: This film feels like it was directed and performed by a group of people who have had the concept of human emotion explained to them via semaphore. At no point does anyone involved sound like an actual, real live person. If you were to show this film to Donald Sutherland he would begin screaming and start searching your back garden, shotgun in hand, for the pods these people no doubt emerged from. It would be easy to chalk this up to plain bad acting, but there’s just something about everyone’s performance that feels deliberate. Every moment someone is up on the screen, they’re committed. This is what they want to do and by God, this is the performance they wanted to turn in. The end result is disconcerting, like they’ve created some kind of superstructure built entirely from wooden acting across the whole film and are now operating at some higher frequency of reality. Much like Cage’s later performances would go on to do, this film causes us to redefine what is truly ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ by virtue of its strange leaden inauthenticity.

But I digress, the breakup scene itself starts promisingly, with some strange angles and wobbly camerawork that I at first thought were an attempt to introduce an element of Cinéma vérité to proceedings until I realised that no, it was just shitty camerawork. Julie complains that Tommy hasn’t called her in two days before informing him ‘It’s, like, I’m totally not in love with you anymore Tommy, I mean it’s so boring.’ (reminder, she is our heroine) and gives him back his ID bracelet, whereupon he responds ‘Not too cool Julie, like I won’t be bummed out’ (spoiler alert: he will be).

After a few brief scenes in which we’re introduced to Cage’s character, Randy and his cohort, Fred, as well as Julie’s unreasonably reasonable hippy parents, the film starts to fall into the familiar Romeo and Juliet tropes that it is trying so hard to ape. The two star-crossed lovers, Randy and Julie (subtle guys, subtle), first meet at a party at a friend of Julie’s. This party again takes the opportunity to hammer us over the head with how incredibly 80’s this whole film is, with partiers chowing down on sushi and fondue. The two of them meet eyes across a room, they talk, sparks begin to fly, yadda yadda yadda, then Julie’s now-ex Tommy assaults Randy and has them both thrown out of the party.

I wondered at first why there might be such friction between Randy and Fred and the rest of the Valley Girl clique they found themselves among, it seemed forced conflict at best, until I realised that I was looking at the film through contemporary eyes. You see, there is actually a marked difference: The partygoers wear pastel pinks and snowsuits, while Randy and Fred wear red shirts and vest. The partygoers enjoy dated, saccharine pop songs of the era, while Randy and Fred enjoy dated, saccharine power ballads. It’s like what happens when Klansmen fight pedophiles. There are subtle delineations at work, but to anyone not fully conversant with what’s happening, they just know it’s horrible and they want it off their TV screens.

So after much kerfuffle where Randy and Fred are thrown out of the party, Randy sneaks back in and hides in the shower while various people use the bathroom (most people would think this is not just weird and creepy, but an altogether inefficient way to meet girls. Personally though I see it as a reaffirmation of Cage’s outsider ethos). Eventually Randy and Julie reunite and Randy, Fred, Julie and her friend Stacey all ditch the party. Fred promises the girls that ‘you’ll see things you’ve only read in books’ which, bad phrasing aside, turns out to be neon signs and black people.

Yes, there are several ‘Julie is having her worldview expanded’ montages throughout the film and all of them involve them driving past neon signs while a power ballad plays in the background. During the montage Randy also displays his hood bona fides by yelling ‘DON’T WORRY BUB!’ at some police as they pass and knowing black people by name. He also frequently makes a noise that can only be described as a more jubilant version of the noise you make when stubbing your toe against a door frame at 3am.

After much driving around they eventually stop at what I can only assume passes as this film’s version of a rock club. They go in and, after passing a man who, mid-conversation, pours a drink over his own head as if it was the most natural thing in the world, Randy and Fred, in their matching outfits, sit down in front of the band, wearing matching outfits, and lecture Julie and Stacey on the soul-sucking emptiness of their conformity.

Amazingly, being told that you’re a terrible, soulless person seems to render Julie totally unable to resist Randy’s charms (in the world of Pickup Artistry, this is called a ‘neg’), and they quickly commence to smooching. Their passion proves so powerful that Fred and Stacey are caught up in their sexy, sexy wake and Fred gets a little tonsil action of his own after chasing Stacey round and round the car while she screams for him to stop (a lot of people didn’t really ‘get’ feminism in the 80’s).

And so Randy and Julie gradually fall in luuurrvvve via a series of montages of neon signs, and the two of them looking at, and pointing to, neon signs. I’m wondering if perhaps the two are bonding over a mutual appreciation of the fine quality craftsmanship of neon signs but, if so, this is a question best left to the sages as it is never actually addressed during the movie. All is not well in paradise, however, we’re fast reaching the end of the second act and the need to introduce some kind of hastily introduced and unconvincing speed bump to the relationship.

Tommy meets with Julie’s friends and convinces them that Randy is no good for Julie as he is secretly still in love with her and wants her back (we know this as he says ‘I still love her and I know what’s best for her’. We got a real cunning one here.) and, during a slumber party at Samantha’s house where they eat cookies and try on her mother’s slutty lingerie they stage possibly the worst intervention ever. They inform her that if she continues to date Randy, she won’t get to be CLASS REP! And won’t get invited to PARTIES! I guess that we must be at the equivalent point in Romeo and Juliet to where Tybalt kills Mercutio in a duel.

Shockingly, this convinces Julie that she should break up with Randy which leads to the best Cage freakout moment of the film. Having just been rather cruelly dumped he turns back whilst walking down the driveway to yell ‘Fuck off, for sure, like, totally!’. After this masterful balancing of emotion and equivocation, Randy dives head-first into cliché in order to show just how incredibly heartbroken he is. Within seconds he is drinking what seems to be a rather nice red wine from a brown paper bag, giggling, muttering and staggering his way back into the rock club from earlier in the film. It’s a little like seeing Rocky cut loose on an opponent after his big training montage, we are finally seeing Cage come into the full Cageness of his potential. Whilst in the club he hooks up with an ex-girlfriend and, within seconds, is being dragged into the club bathrooms for some illicit toilet sex.

Now I have to interject here, at this point the film would have us believe that both characters are at their lowest points, but I’m inclined to think this would make a much happier ending than what we get. Julie is essentially a horrible, selfish, cruel and vapid woman. She breaks up with two guys during the film for essentially shallow and self-serving reasons (one because she’s bored, the other because her friends won’t invite her to parties anymore) and, in both cases, picks apart perfectly innocent remarks and behaviour in order to justify her own actions to herself. She is now back with Tommy and, quite frankly, they deserve each other. Tommy was earlier seen borderline date-raping Julie’s friend Loryn before stopping and telling her that it’s her fault for taking advantage of him while he’s broken up over Julie. Randy, meanwhile, is well off out of it and is now hooking up with his ex (also called Samantha) who seems much more upfront and honest, more appreciative of his company and, to get coarse for a moment, is a lot hotter too. The film should end here and we’d be good.

But no, we need to get these two star-crossed lovers back together just in time for prom, so Randy’s friend Fred appears from nowhere to pull Randy out of his sudden depressive funk before he can get himself killed by starting a fight with some mexicans (much like its sexual politics, this film’s racial politics could use some work). In a scene that would prove to be incredibly prophetic of Cage’s entire body of work, Fred advises Randy that he needs to try ‘the wild and crazy stuff’ to win Julie back. Randy naturally interprets this to mean ‘Stalk the ever-loving shit out of Julie’ and begins dedicating songs to her on the radio, slipping photos of himself into her schoolbooks and following her and Tommy around town in a variety of disguises.

Shockingly, this fails to work so we’re left with one last, wild gamble at prom. Fred convinces Randy that he has a great idea for winning Julie back at the prom as well as exacting sweet revenge on Tommy. This plan turns out to be ‘turn up at prom and wing it from there’, the revelation of which exasperates Randy to the point where he feels the need to headbutt a curtain. However, he soon find’s a suitable replacement plan: ‘Wait until Julie and Tommy are announced Prom King and Queen, kick Tommy in the balls and take his place’. While you have to admire the stark simplicity of the plan, you have to wonder what would have happened if Julie and Tommy hadn’t been voted Prom King and Queen. Would he have leapt into the crowd to find Tommy and kick him in the balls? Or just stoved in the testes of whichever man was unfortunate enough to win? It’s a puzzler. This being a movie, however, it all works out fine, Randy and Julie flee off into the night, stealing Tommy’s rented limo and disappear off into the night, presumably in search of more neon signs.

I said earlier that I felt this was an important film in the progression of the Cage oeuvre and I stand by that assessment. You can see in this film much of the beginnings of Cage’s style of acting. Although he is much more laconic and relaxed than we usually see him, he occasionally breaks out into his trademark irrational emotional outbursts. I also believe the strange, alien acting style on display from basically every single member of the cast led to Cage developing his hyperreal style, immersing himself into his own interpretation of a character so fully that he transcends traditional notions of human behaviour. All in all I would recommend the film to all serious Cagewatchers as an important part in the evolution of Cage, although I cannot recommend it on its own merits.


How I Learned To Stop Wondering And Love The Cage

There came a point where I felt the need to tell someone at work about myself and my flatmates’ quest to watch every single Nicolas Cage movie in order. I saw the look of confusion shuffle its way awkwardly across their face, like a man at a party who’d been caught taking a dump in the punchbowl. She just couldn’t understand why I would do that, why anyone would do that, and it occured to me that some people just don’t get Nicolas Cage.

This was remarkable to me. After all, I had always thought the man’s appeal was obvious. My first significant Cage experience was Michael Bay actioner The Rock. Amidst a cast bloated with solid character actors like Ed ‘I Have Been Carved Entirely Out Of Granite’ Harris and David ‘I Have Betrayed Someone In Every Single Film I’ve Ever Been In’ Morse, as well as a goddamned bona fide Hollywood legend, Sean ‘Most Definitely Scottish’ Connery,  Nicolas Cage skittered across the film with an edgy, crackling charisma that lit up the screen. I have seen this film at least 17 times now, including on Laserdisc, which is basically just how film fans compare penis size.

Nicolas Cage flips wildly from laconic to smouldering, to charmingly befuddled to absolutely losing his shit without warning or regard towards logic. Some people would call him a bad actor, claiming his performances mirror normal human behaviour in much the same way that the Lockerbie Bombing mirrors air travel but they’re missing the point. I think to truly understand Nicolas Cage, you have to look a little deeper.

Cage has always had the air of an outsider. Unsurprising, really, considering that he discovered acting, not as a way to express himself or even make a living, but to stop the neighbourhood kids from beating him up by pretending he was his own cousin. He sees things from the perspective of the outcast, the one who never quite fits in. He sees and emulats human behaviour through a funhouse mirror, unsurprising for a man who named his son after a Superman character/ More than that, he inhabits a role so fully, so completely that it goes beyond the mere emulation of behaviour. If you were to tell me that, before every film, Nicolas Cage conducts an LSD-fuelled ritual resulting in a complete psychotic break and, for the entire duration of filming, genuinely believes himself to be that character, then I would totally believe you.

It is my thesis that Nicolas Cage is the first hyperreal actor. Rather than merely attempting to ape the behaviour of the people around him, Cage creates his own reality. He tells you how a character should react, not how he would react. In much the same way as a cartoonist reduces the complexity of the human form to a series of lines and curves, Cage’s acting is the boiling down of emotion to pure, elemental forces. He tells his stories in broad, sweeping strokes, whether it be flailing uselessly at a coathanger, drawing a single expletive into a long, mournful cry across a crowded bar, or roundhouse kicking Kathy Bates in the face. It is through these grand gestures that Cage’s performances become more than real, they become hyperreal and we begin to understand the raw, pulsing force of his work.

Plus he freaks out a lot and it’s funny as hell.

– Ben