The film Cherry 2000 puts forth the bold, startling statement that it is better for a man to be a female superhero’s sidekick than to be in love with a submissive “female” sex robot. I came into the movie unsure if this was the case. Whenever confronted with the necessity of choosing one as better or more important than the other I, like most people, had no strong feelings either way. “To each their own,” I thought. Well, no longer! Cherry 2000 has me completely convinced. I’m saying it loud and proud…it is MUCH better to be the sidekick of a female superhero!
Putting aside, for a moment, the profundity of this important ideological conviction, there is another subtler argument that Cherry 2000 champions and it is that mediocrity can be wonderful. I should say what I mean by the word “mediocrity.” After one parses out the subjective judgment of taste, the word mediocrity, when applied to art, describes narrative conventions, clichéd themes, and formal techniques that are used in an unsurprising, unexceptional manner. Most serious film critics, still persuaded by the ideals of Modernism, find mediocrity offensive (…though admittedly less so in recent years). The more refined critics may accept that mediocrity can be a valuable aesthetic tool in the hands of a deliberate, discriminating, self-aware artist. Steve De Jarnett, the self-aware artist who directed Cherry 2000, describes the movie as “not very good.” No matter. Unlike the professional critic, the liberated movie consumer need not establish or give weight to an author’s opinions or intentions, ironic or otherwise. Steve De Jarnett is in fact only half correct. His film may not be very good, but it is also not very bad. Between the two one can find greatness.
To appreciate this one must first understand what it is that makes Cherry 2000 mediocre to begin with. This can be difficult for a contemporary viewer, especially one who was not yet born or was very young when the film was released. Contemporary mass media has been exploiting the “80s aesthetic” for quite some time, isolating it from specific historical context and, in marketing spasms, imbuing it with a novelty derived from what one might call the “meta-mediocrity” of social commodification. Whether that last bit makes sense or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that, when we view movies from the past, we always judge them under the influence of contemporary aesthetic standards that can eclipse the historical aesthetic standards within which the movie was conceived and presented. So, for example, when watching Cherry 2000 in 2014 we may forgive or even find nostalgic joy in its obviously derivative setpieces, characters, costume and set designs stolen from 80s science fiction “classics” like Blade Runner or The Road Warrior. After all, that’s what makes an 80s sci-fi B-movie an 80s sci-fi B-movie, right? The cheesiness and familiarity is appealing. It’s got camp factor. However, at the time of its release to video in 1988, these kind of clichés were about as interesting as yet another knock-off of “American Idol” (considering the rapidly declining popularity of reality television). The retrofuturist aesthetic on display in Cherry 2000 had been creeping its way into popular culture since the 1970s. By 1988 it had gone through David Bowie, the artist Kenny Scharff and film director Terry Gilliam, only to end up in countless music videos, television commercials, and television shows the likes of “Max Headroom” (who was also the official spokesperson for New Coke and, if I remember correctly, New Cherry Coke.) The usefulness of Cherry 2000’s retrofuturist art design as a satirical critique of 80s society – one that represents the 80s as a dystopic realization of 50s style conformity and consumerism - had already reached a zenith of appropriation into popular culture before the movie was ever made. It no longer mattered. The visual style of Cherry 2000 is a combination of this tired, toothless retrofuturist satire and the kind of overly-lit, over-saturated, neon splashed “Miami Vice” style hyper-realism that was ubiquitous at the time. This particular kind of hyper-realism has been “revived” and fetishized in contemporary film, most notably inNicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (with direct references to Miracle Mile, the other movie directed by Steve De Jarnett,) and it currently has the already fading mystique of market-generated nostalgia, but in 1988 the entirety of Cherry 2000’s “look” was as familiar and mediocre as auto-tuned pop stars are today.
I do not emphasize this mediocrity to disparage the movie or the nostalgic appreciation anyone might have for it. On the contrary, I would like viewers to have a deeper appreciation for what it has to offer beyond “80s fun,” good explosions, a bit of Melanie Griffith’s tit, sentimental love stories, and Lawrence Fishburne talking about oral sex. I would like viewers of Cherry 2000 to consider the movie itself as the embodiment of a cultural wasteland, as barren and featureless as the lawless, wreckage-strewn desert in which the story takes place. In this context, considered within the overall, overwhelming mediocrity of the film, certain moments of action, repeated objects, signs, jokes, and images stand out and appear as dislocated, surreal, and emotionally jarring as the sand-drowned Las Vegas architecture in the movie’s climax. Like clues at a crime scene, they are invested with meaning because of their difference from the mediocrity that contains them. It is in the piecing together of these meaningful signs, symbols in the dust of a trash culture movie, that one can recognize the extent to which Cherry 2000 transcends the mediocrity it embodies and realizes its greatness.
The director revealed during a 2011 interview that he relied heavily upon symbolism in Miracle Mile, the film he made directly after Cherry 2000, including the repeated use of shopping carts. He even made sure that shopping carts appeared, cryptically, in the various different posters produced for that film. The lead actor in Miracle Mile participated in the interview and, when the subject of symbolism came up, he gently ribbed the director for his obsessive, deliberate attention to symbolism throughout the filming process. He certainly also relied upon symbolism in Cherry 2000 to the extreme extent that it becomes the language with which a parallel narrative is revealed: the argument at the heart of the film.
That brings me back to the ideological conviction for which Cherry 2000 overtly argues: it is better for a man to be the sidekick of a female superhero than to be in love with a submissive sex doll. This is the “point” of the movie understood literally and metaphorically at the most superficial, mediocre level. It is as obvious a statement as one can imagine. Completely banal. It is against the emptiness of this dogma, this intellectual mediocrity, that Cherry 2000 makes a more nuanced argument, almost entirely through the accumulation of symbolism and jarring metaphorical images, about how men and women may positively support each other’s empowerment within a cultural system that uses gender relations to take away our power and bury us in a desert of meaningless mediocrity. I’m not going to spell the whole argument out for you as it appears in the movie, of course, but there are a lot of phallic symbols and toaster ovens involved…as well as a badass Mustang. If everyone could put the pieces of the puzzle together - the secret of Cherry 2000, so to speak - we might be able to finally move on as a culture past post-apocalyptic fantasy and the recycling of politics, mores, racism, gender relations, exploitation, conformity, mediocrity, and consumer greed better left in the 1980s or 1950s.
That is my hope. In the mean time, make copies of Cherry 2000 and give them to friends. Let’s start the revolution!
"Miracle Mile" Q&A with Anthony Edwards and Steve De Jarnatt, http://vimeo.com/31573820