Slouching Towards Yuppiedom: Damon Packard’s “Fatal Pulse”
Fatal Pulse (2018) pays venomous tribute to early ‘90s Hollywood. Its alternate title, Untitled Yuppie Thriller, is all too fitting. Director Damon Packard cast James Spader lookalike Mike Hickey as his anti-hero, Trent. Despite his nerdy appearance, Trent helps Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle take the U.S. further down the tubes, ordering Rhonda Shear (the host of USA Network’s cult movie show, Up All Night [1989–1998]) to work as a hitwoman for the government and telling cops that he wrote the laws they’re enforcing. Fatal Pulse starts off with the joke that Trent is one of the most powerful men in the country, but he can’t get his brother-in-law Tobo (John Bekolay) off his couch, where he watches TV broadcasts consisting entirely of commercials.
Tobo, wearing a terrible wig, also has a side gig as a serial killer, bringing up memories of The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Trent, on the other hand, is involved in the Illuminati (the film interpolates a video of an exotic dancer performing for Freemasons, which has found a home on Conspiracy Theory YouTube.) As Trent wanders L.A., he meets celebrities like Sade, Rush (actors playing the band members lip-sync Geddy Lee’s dismal rapping on their 1991 song “Roll the Bones”), Janet Jackson, and William Friedkin (Steve Cattani, deliciously pompous), who commands a dinner party, bloviating about the death of auteur filmmaking that New Hollywood represented. Meanwhile, the Illuminati bring about an alternate universe in which New Jack City (1991) touched off an actual uprising in L.A.
Trent and Cheney discuss the concept of sampling briefly. The film contrasts Public Enemy’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” played in its entirety during a chase scene, with Vanilla Ice’s far more popular “Ice Ice Baby.” Public Enemy’s track created an abrasive collage from brief samples of 12 songs, a practice that would soon become far too expensive and legally unwieldy, while Vanilla Ice’s infamously lifted the bassline of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Fatal Pulse credits the success of Vanilla Ice’s hit to Dick Cheney, the CIA, and the Illuminati. “Everything now is just a cheap reproduction of what came before . . . we’re sampling reality,” Trent says. But if Fatal Pulse takes place in a world where the movies and music of the ‘90s are a grab bag, it finds meaning and purpose in its choices. For instance, erotic thrillers have become almost respectable lately, in part because they represent the last time Hollywood recognized that it had a libido. But in Fatal Pulse, they represent an upper-middle-class white male smugness that gets challenged in its final third.
Fatal Pulse might seem like a get-off-my-lawn lecture if it wasn’t so witty and trippy. It returns to 1991 not out of nostalgia, but because Packard views the early ‘90s as the last moment before a total corporate takeover of American culture. Trent laughs at a businessman’s talk of wiping out the retail music industry (after buying five CDs at Tower Records) — but it came true. More than the demise of chain stores, the death of music (and video) as physical media that people can own and manipulate has altered our relationship to them. Set before the Internet would change music and film consumption, Fatal Pulse shows Trent presiding over the rise of multiplexes, demise of single-screen theaters, and decline of the commercial viability of New Hollywood cinema. Packard has explored similar stories riffing on film history in the past. His brilliant The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary (2003) edits himself and other actors into a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of The Phantom Menace (1999), turning it into a mockery of George Lucas and his brand of mega-budget, CGI-driven filmmaking.
Shot over a four-year period, as Packard raised money on Kickstarter and worked out his narrative, Fatal Pulse isn’t as messy as one might expect from its protracted production history. The lighting, which relies on exaggerated colors that make Suspiria (1977) look restrained, is consistent throughout. As excessive as it is, it’s carefully paced (more so than David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake , which is a more upscale cousin.) The chase scenes show off Packard’s editing skill (he makes a living as an occasional editor). For a film whose story ventures into high weirdness, it’s as slick as it could get on a small budget. It feels close to the absurdism of Eric Andre or Tim and Eric.
For all its goofiness, Fatal Pulse keeps hinting at something serious. The murders committed by Tobo are cartoonish, but something far more disturbing occurs when the film reaches its on-screen intermission: a studio head beats a woman while talking on the phone. The film evokes the paranoia of conspiracy theories in its depiction of female celebrities as manipulated puppets, but its worldview, in which women achieve stardom by serving powerful men behind the scenes, rings true. (Obviously, the #MeToo movement’s revelations about sexual abuse in the film industry took place during production.) A friend suggested that Fatal Pulse insists upon its distance from the Hollywood corruption it depicts, while Under the Silver Lake implies the impossibility of filmmaking, including itself, without the male gaze. But if Packard has obvious affection for ‘90s pop culture, he’s interested in the period because it was still possible for radical artists like Public Enemy to reach a wide audience. His use of sci-fi ideas about alternate futures comes across as a stoner epiphany actualized, but also suggests a path that American cinema and history could’ve gone down, where the ’90s wave of movies by African-American directors led to political change. Instead, that period consolidated capitalism’s tendency towards monopoly in a way that has only grown more overbearing. One example: a film this inspired is only getting its New York theatrical premiere more than a year after appearing on Amazon Prime in 2018.
Damon Packard’s Fatal Pulse screens at Spectacle on November 16.