Strangers in Paradise (1984)

Strangers in Paradise (1984)

Film review by: Witney Seibold

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Special thanks to Marc for recommending this film.

            There is a weird obsession with 1980s pop music permeating our culture at present (to give one random example: one of the best-selling video games on the market is “Guitar Hero Rocks the ‘80s”). I’m sure much of said obsession stems from nostalgia of Gen-Xers and Gen-13ers who remember ‘80s pop from their childhoods, and sort of – ironically, mind you – accept and celebrate some of the cheesier musical trends and fashions of the era. And the irony becomes all the thicker as the ‘80s pop fan becomes younger (some of them were born during the ‘90s).

            Despite the clod of irony that surround he decade like a swarm of biting gnats, there was, at the time, an honesty and earnestness behind the trends of the 1980s. People didn’t wear big hair, snakeskin miniskirts, legwarmers, and punk ensembles because it was ironic. The youths at the time wore them because it was liberating, it was freeing, it pissed off the squares, and it wholeheartedly represented their iconoclastic status. Admittedly, the underground rebellion that came up during the ME!ME!ME!-ness of the Reagan era was not exactly as revolutionary as anything during the social upheaval of the 1960s, but I do recall an honest-to-goodness rebellious lash at yuppie culture. It’s almost any generation’s job to joyously dig a gap between yourselves and the generation that raised you, and punk rockers, synthpop lovers, and  homosexuals (gay culture came squarely into the public eye in the 1980s), were doing their darndest to complete that task.

            That 1980s honesty and earnestness is on full display in Ulli Lommel’s bizarro 1984 musical “Strangers in Paradise” (a.k.a. “The Hypnotist”). It has all the trappings of a musical cheese classic like, say “Xanadu,” or the 1980 trash masterpiece “The Apple,” but actually manages to succeed in its messages. Well, in a glitzy, dated sort of way it succeeds, but you gotta give the film credit for believing in itself. With “Xanadu,” I sensed some cynicism throughout, and it’s often difficult to discern just exactly what “The Apple” was trying to do, but “Strangers in Paradise” really believes that there was hypocrisy bubbling under ‘80s suburb culture, and the final solution laid in the music and fashion of underground punk rockers.

            Lommel plays Jonathan Sage, the world’s finest mentalist in Nazi Germany. He is approached by Hitler himself (also played by Lommel) to brainwash the young people into believing the Nazi ethos. Sage, instead, has himself cryogenically frozen, requesting to be awakened when the rough stuff has blown over.

            Fast forward to Paradise Hills, CA, 1984. A shadowy cadre of sinister parents, all living high on the hog in their hellishly alike yuppie tract houses, have been trying to brainwash their rebellious teenage kids with a supercomputer. Every kid in this particular housing project is a punk rocker, a gambler, or a homosexual. The kids ignore their parents, and go in droves to local punk shows. The parents (led by the creepy, shorts-wearing Geoffrey Barker) have shanghaied a punk band, hooked the bands’ brains up to their computer (called The Repentogram), and are attempting to turn their inner-most urges (to rock!) into bland wholesome, Christian thoughts. The brainwashings are represented by musical numbers in which fantasy punk showcases turn into country-western performances, and then back again when the brainwashing doesn’t take. The parents have had no success so far.

            Luckily (and staying in contact with his followers through a pre-e-mail form of e-mail, in the film’s one leap of sci-fi credibility that turned out to be correct), Barker gets wind of one Jonathan Sage, secretly held in cryogenic stasis. Surely Sage, with his pure 1940s values, will help in the fight to rid the world of rebellious teenagers. Sage is thawed, revived (there is a gloriously out-of-place dance number in the hospital), and introduced to the world of the 1980s. He is convinced by the parents that the world is infected with gamblers and homos, and he quickly begins using his previously unseen mental powers to “convert” the youth. He turns a wild gay boy and a punk lesbian (played by real-life German punk star Ula Hedwig of The Harlettes) into one another’s lovers. He turns a club musician into a twangy country star. The parents are pleased as punch.

            However, thanks to his Dr. Who-looking friend (co-screenwriter Thom Jones), Sage begins to have doubts about this glorious scheme to brainwash the public. Also, when Barker’s daughter (Ann Price) takes him out for a night on the town (and, it should be noted, a game of Zaxxon), he realizes just how wrong the whole endeavor is. In fact, he begins to see (literally, thanks to the magic of musicals) parallels between the cadre of parents and Fascist Germany. Yikes.

            Earlier in the film, Sage learned that he could convert people even through television airwaves, so, in the films finale, he uses his powers during a TV broadcast to turn the entire watching world into free-thinking radical punk rockers. Barker is turned into a homosexual, and all is right with the world.

            “Strangers in Paradise” was obviously made on a budget, and many of the musical numbers are lazily filmed. There were only two or three different singing voices that were lip-synced by the on-screen cast, making for a surreal disconnect between the songs (written by William Pettyjohn) and the singers. The choreography (by Sarah Elgart who would go on to choreograph for “Earth Girls are Easy” and “Lizzie McGuire”) is fun, though, and delightfully expressionistic at times; there is a dance number in which the “converted” kids dance their new inner angst in a steamy basement factory. It’s pretty glorious.

            The parallels between a single suburban group of controlling squares and the murderous habits of the Nazi party is, of course, a little harsh and massively inappropriate, but it’s likely Lommel felt that the cultural pop rift between the punks and the squares was akin to the rift between the Nazis and the rest of the world. I give him props for sticking to his guns.

             Was the rift as Hitleriffic as all that? Perhaps it felt like it to the punk kids of the 1980s. It was mostly, though, just a difference in musical taste and fashion, and had little to do with actual ethos. But give “Strangers in Paradise” its due, for stepping up, and declaring that punk rock is here to stay, that the yuppies will fall, and the world will be controlled by a wacky German hypnotist with a remote control and a love of Zaxxon.

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Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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