The Last Place You Look: "Bad Influence"

How a wild robbery scene unexpectedly and simultaneously expresses two approaches to cinematic genre.
Zach Campbell

Bad Influence (Curtis Hanson, 1990)

There are many interesting aspects of this film from 1990, not least its intertextual connections, like Rob Lowe's 1988 sex tape scandal, Soderbergh's sex, lies & videotape, and Godard's Alphaville. But there was a moment in Bad Influence that struck me for its cogent illustration of particular historical developments of genre.

The scene above comes at a point in which James Spader's character Michael (wearing a rabbit mask) has just experienced catharsis from his straitlaced world, courtesy of the actions of Alex (Rob Lowe). The pair exhibit two different experiences of violent, antisocial, or criminal behavior, which also correspond to two different modes for genre. One of these is a kind of playfulness or liberation: the newly-emancipated Spader wears a goofy mask, hopping around in the background while Alex unexpectedly, and cruelly, robs the burger joint. This moment is the tipping point where Alex's bad behavior rockets from being seductive to terrifyingly destructive. In the background, Michael is first in a different physical space than Alex. This is consonant with a different headspace, and even—if you'll permit me—a different orientation toward the world and his actions in it. This is the world of play and freedom; it's anarchic; it's the sort of unlikely, faint overlap between completely commercial Hollywood 1990s genre cinema and the worlds of Makavejev, Daises, the Marx brothers, and the crazier wing of children's cartoons.

But Alex's experience—in the foreground, more “in our face” initially—demands a different space and indeed a different aesthetic. Its code is brutal, it registers through shock and displeasure. Implicitly, there is no more playing aroundbecause, in this case, Alex and his world forgo the liberated playfulness of James Spader's leporine masquerade. (Or as Leo Fitzpatrick says in Larry Clark's highly intense, subtly generic Bully: “me and my people are what you call serious people.” The specter of harsh violence is what supposedly underlines seriousness.)

The imbrication of these two generic codes constitutes a major facet of much latter-day narrative cinema: think of Tarantino, the Saw and Hostel series, the grim grittiness of so many superhero blockbusters, some of whose protagonists, after all, still wear bright rubber suits. I suppose you could say this convergence is unconsciously “symbolized” (or simply literalized) in the scene above. My intention is not at all to suggest that Bad Influence is the first such an example. Instead this scene draws me in because of how it simultaneously expresses these two approaches to cinematic genre in such clear juxtaposition.


Part of our on-going video series, The Last Place You Look


videosThe Last Place You LookCurtis Hanson
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