Outsider art can be an incredibly interesting thing. While we have dozens of different terms for offbeat cult films that inspire midnight audiences to gather in droves, many of those terms are derisive, and don’t quite capture why something works in such a unique way. Back in the day, John Rad moved from Iran to the United States in order to begin production on Dangerous Men, already giving him outsider status, and when I say “back in the day” I mean back in 1979. Rad served as writer, director, producer, composer, editor, production designer and set decorator. It took him twenty-six years to complete the movie. Twenty. Six. Years.
By the time he passed in 2007, the film had only screened in a couple of theatres, and it’s a damn shame. This was Rad’s entire life’s work. He lived and breathed this production for longer than I’ve been alive, and he isn’t around to see what’s become of it. What has become of it, you ask? Well, after three and a half years, Drafthouse Films has finally managed to acquire it, and it’s playing in theatres right now! I watched the film at Fantastic Fest along with the rest of the BMD team, and I’m going to be watching it again this Sunday*, because it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.
What makes this movie such a balls-to-the-wall experience is hard to explain briefly. A mere description of the plot can’t really do the film justice – this thing is truly weird and audacious from a formal standpoint – but the few times I’ve stumbled over myself trying to put it into words, people I know have asked me if it’s like The Room. Well, if we’re talking about the fact that it’s a singular vision, sure, but that’s like saying Steven Soderbergh’s films are like those of Robert Rodriguez. Similarly, Tommy Wiseau and John Rad don’t have all that much in common, other than the fact that they both made films that they had total control over, but interestingly enough The Room makes for a great starting point when it comes to talking about Dangerous Men, because they exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Actually, The Room exists on one end of the spectrum, and Dangerous Men is its own spectrum entirely.
First of all, The Room is unabashedly misogynistic. The rituals concocted around the film stem from an ironic endorsement of its misogyny, and Tommy Wiseau, who plays the film’s central character, is a mouthpiece for the film’s sexist viewpoints. John Rad on the other hand not only doesn’t appear in the film, but he uses it for what can loosely be described as female empowerment. I say “loosely” because it’s a film that has a very unconventional narrative structure, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Rad, born Jahangir Salehi Yeganehrad, moved to the U.S. and began production on the film right after the start of the Iranian Revolution. It culminated in the overthrowing of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and resulted in drastic changes to Iranian society, which happened to include the regressive treatment of women. One of the reasons Ayatollah Khomeini went against the Shah was because he rejected the idea of Westernization-as-progress. So in effect, Rad moving to the West to make a film about a woman fighting against the tyranny of men was, in a way, Rad’s ultimate rejection of what was taking shape in his home country.
Another major difference between The Room and Dangerous Men is its use of form. Then again, you could compare John Rad’s work to pretty much any other midnight movie auteur and you’d be making the same comparison. Most of these films gain the kind of traction they do for one very simple reason: our understanding of the language of cinema. Whether or not we’re actively thinking about it, decades of movie-watching have made us visually sophisticated. If something deviates too far from the established language, one that’s been built upon and re-enforced over the last century (because it simply works), we immediately take notice. For instance, Manos The Hands of Fate is one of the strangest movie-watching experiences imaginable, and a big reason is that the shots hold too long. The story has a particular rhythm, and the film is constantly undercutting it by lingering five, ten, sometimes even twenty seconds longer than what would’ve been most effective. It’s a film that revels in its own imagery to an almost nauseating degree, and its (mis)use of established form feels like an accident.
Misuse of established visual language isn’t always a bad thing though. The SNL Digital Short Dear Sister is a perfect example of intentionally playing around with what we expect from framing and editing standpoints. Eye-lines change, actions repeat, and part of the humor comes from our having to re-orient our perspective. Too Many Cooks uses similar tricks in a more specific way, but that’s a think-piece for another day. What does all this babble about misuse of form have to do with Dangerous Men? Nothing, and everything. Be it Manos, Dear Sister, Too Many Cooks or The Room, a big chunk of the enjoyment has to do with deviating from what we understand to be cinematic or cinematically sound, and that’s exactly why comparisons to The Room or to most other midnight movies simply won’t work.
Dangerous Men isn’t deviating from any established visual parlance. It’s creating its own.
The bizarre thing about John Rad’s mind-melter is that to explain its formal audacity, I’d have to explain its narrative – from its characters, to its structure, to its warped view of morality – because the only way any of it makes sense is when it’s woven together, and even then it may be too far outside our understanding. It’s so far outside the box that it creates a new box entirely, only the new box isn’t a box at all. A box uses dimensions of height, width and depth. Dangerous Men is from some other reality that uses dimensions we haven’t even thought of yet. If you think I’m over-selling it, just take a look at the trailer and see what you can make of it.
At 1:15, you have one of the film’s first head-scratching moments. A jarring zoom-out that takes us from a close-up of the protagonist, to a wide shot of him, his girlfriend and their two assailants. While the shot in itself isn’t tough to understand, it’s when and where and how this shot takes place that makes my head spin, especially in hindsight. John Rad’s outsider understanding of narrative is predicated on the purest of instinct, and Dangerous Men feels like 26 years of decisions where not a single one was given a second thought. Rad simply does, with no regard for how we’ve come to understand storytelling these past few millennia. “Protagonist” isn’t so much a human device for the purpose of perspective as it is a title passed around between characters depending on what sort of action Rad wants in the given moment. That bizarre and seemingly unmotivated zoom-out? It’s the first passing of the torch.
Characters come and go as they please, or rather as Rad pleases, as the story shifts from a struggle between duty and romance, to a rape-revenge drama without actual rape, to a gang-centric action movie with car crashes and helicopters. All these might sounds like jarring tonal shifts, but there’s a weird, almost lucid consistency to how the whole things feels, like a kind of uncanny magical realism where nothing is out of the ordinary except the people. The film conflates malicious action with malicious intent, and even goes so far as to hold those with the potential for malice accountable, doling out its vigilante justice in the form of a scorned woman who’s taken it upon herself to protect the women of the world by exacting revenge on all men… because a man killed the man she loved.
It probably makes no sense to read it like this. Trust me, it makes even less sense having to type it out, but what matters here is that it made sense to Rad, and he rolled with it completely. There’s no denying the fact that an extensive and seasoned cinematic vocabulary can lead to some incredible work (just ask the likes of Tarantino and Scorsese), but there’s something to be said about coming at cinema, or at any art form, from a place of creative purity that seems untouched by external influence. Like the autobiographical documentary Tarnation, or the music of Daniel Johnston, or the landscapes of Joseph Yoakum.
What makes Dangerous Men an even more uncanny experience is its resemblance to the conventional. On the surface, it looks and feels like everything we’re familiar with, but there’s something very, very off about it at every turn. A morally grey anti-heroine stands atop a mountain of morally black and white men, and she’s forgotten as soon as Rad fixates on his next cinematic concept – the big bad villain – but this archetype has mere shades of the ones that we’re used to. Black Pepper is the film’s elusive blonde baddie, living in a guarded fortress and armed to the teeth, yet he’s only an “antagonist” as we understand it from having watched antagonists for decades. I couldn’t possibly tell you what Pepper’s transgressions are, moral, legal or otherwise, but Rad’s narrative demands someone or something to take the film in a new direction.
Dangerous Men is a film where a minor character that should’ve never been heard from again (after his only scene that actually intersects with the main plot), keeps wiggling his way back into the movie just so he can talk to his penis. Why? Because John Rad said so. It’s a film where authority figures don’t give a damn - in fact they care so little that they uniformly read from their scripts as the camera is rolling. Why? Because John Rad said so. It’s a film that goes through three different main characters with their own arcs and stories, only to have the film’s climax involve characters we’ve just met. Why? Because John Rad said so. It’s a film that consumed the last three decades of a man’s life, one that he lived and breathed until the year before he died, to the extent that he added in a stunt scene just to destroy his daughter’s car after they had a real-life falling out. Why? You guessed it. Because John Rad said so.
That last bit, to me, is the real mark of where he was coming from. Dangerous Men is a product of twenty years of principal photography and another six of everything else. It’s the result of a man being completely consumed by his vision, to the point that his reality, starting with the revolution in his home country and extending to his personal relationships, became inseparable from the reality of the film – but this isn’t The Matrix or Inception. It’s not a movie about the nature of reality, but that’s something that’s ultimately called into question regardless. It’s also the kind of movie where biker gangs hang out at Applebee’s and enjoy the beach, but they also really like murdering people. And if that somehow doesn’t sell you on it, maybe the addictive synth soundtrack will. Yes, it was composed entirely by John Rad.
*If you’re in the New York area, come join me for the 10pm show at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers this Sunday, November 15th. Hurry, there are only 17 tickets left!
Dangerous Men is playing at select North American theatres between now and January 15th. Some screenings will be presented in 35mm, and the film is even available to pre-order for digital download on December 11th.