The Passion of the Rad

An enigmatic independent auteur may have made the world’s next great midnight movie

For seven days in late September, a filmabout which practically no information was available surfaced in five Los Angeles area theaters. Titled Dangerous Men, it was described on its poster as "an unforgettable suspense-mystery-drama," yet neither the film nor its director, John S. Rad, appeared anywhere on the Internet, including the usually infallible Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), which indexes and cross-references nearly 500,000 titles and almost 2 million film artists. This in itself is something of an accomplishment, and yet it did little to prepare me for what lay in store.

Dangerous Men first popped up on my radar in an e-mail from Phil Anderson, a partner in the West LA video store Cinefile, who himself had been alerted to the film by a single TV ad broadcast during UPN's late-night Fear Factor reruns. Even several days into its run, the only information about Dangerous Men to be found online was an equally mystified review by the Ultimate Dancing Machine, published on HollywoodBitchslap.com, and a handful of user comments ranging from "pitiful but riveting" to "makes my eyes bleed, in the good way" to "incomprehensibly, mind-numbingly and adorably weird" to the measured "I just saw this . . . and it made me retarded." I quote them here because there can't be more than a dozen of us who saw the film. Cumulative sales from all five theaters for the week were reportedly $70—and I know at least one person who saw it three times. Even now, it carries with it something of the quality of a UFO sighting.

Consensus opinion seems to be that Dangerous Men was shot sometime in the late 1980s and completed in the mid-'90s—a calendar in one shot is dated December 1995, and most of the actors' credits fall off soon after that. The illustrious Mr. Rad—né Yeghanehrad, as noted parenthetically in the titles—is credited as director, "screenplay writer," editor, executive producer and all-around creator, as well as with "post-production," "location and stage design," and "original music, song and lyrics." Remarkably, this cannot be deemed overstatement, for Dangerous Men evidences one of the most eccentric, hermetic, idiosyncratic sensibilities to be found in the filmmaking canon: Background paintings leap out of frame. Key exposition is delivered away from the camera. Actors appear to repeat key speeches phonetically. Kung fu sequences employ reverse zooms, sucking the action out of the scene. Sex acts invariably involve massaging of knees and licking of navels. A biker bar prominently features an espresso machine.

At one point, the movie's Ms. 45–style vigilante kneels on the beach, lost in her thoughts, as a tender ballad declaims something about "the splendors of the moment"; as the camera pulls back, we see the lyrics of the song written in the sand—in cursive writing. The sole name cast member—the late Carlos Rivas, who played Lun Tha in the movie version of The King and I—holds a conversation on a phone that is clearly not plugged in, his script on the desk in front of him, his lines highlighted in yellow Magic Marker. A doorway in a crowded bar leads onto a deserted beach as inexplicably as the inside of John Malkovich's head leads to the New Jersey Turnpike.

There must be a hundred such moments in this 80-minute film, to say nothing of its portmanteau plot and disjunctive characters. And yet, Dangerous Men seems irrefutably governed by a kind of meta-continuity—equal parts quotidian surrealism and counterintuition. The effect, albeit on a starved budget, is not dissimilar to David Lynch's funicular emotionalism, Buñuel's epistemological sight gags, Godard's formalistic intrusions or the conceptual hysteria of something like Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. It's as if somehow, miraculously, our own present-day Ed Wood suddenly walked among us. No wonder teenage ushers at the Santa Monica 4-Plex reportedly coined the phrase "That is so John Rad."

"If I made a list of things I want to see in a movie," says Hadrian Belove, Phil Anderson's partner in Cinefile (and the guy who saw Dangerous Men three times), "it would be fairly finite: I want to see something I've never seen before. Okay, check. I don't want to know what happens next. Check. I want to see something maybe a little strange or surreal. Double check. If a film exhibits qualities that are good, then it's good. I think the Ed Wood comparison is a fair one, because I suspect this was not a cynical attempt to cash in on the exploitation market. It was truly strange and kind of weirdly beautiful and hilarious."

As it turns out, I have met John S. Rad—ata Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Tarzana. He is tall, gaunt, in his 50s or 60s, with piercing eyes, jet-black hair, a trimmed goatee and a mustache that curls up at the ends, like Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen or Picasso's Don Quixote. Or maybe he's an actor hired to advance some cryptic, byzantine hoax, in which I am a more-than-willing Judith Miller. It is the nature of Dangerous Men that everything associated with it requires intense scrutiny.

According to Mr. Rad, he was raised in Tehran, one of four children of a successful physician in the Iranian army, and later educated in London at an adjunct of Cambridge. Returning to Iran, he worked as an architect—amassing a fortune of several million dollars—before turning to filmmaking and completing 11 films in Farsi. In 1979, when the shah was deposed, Rad managed to get out, albeit without his millions, 24 hours before Khomeini came to power, relocating to Los Angeles, where his mother-in-law lived. Since then, he has made two feature films in English—Under the Skin of Night and Tough and Restless—about neither of which there appears to be any information. He claims to also be the author of more than 100 songs and 1,000 poems, is writing a memoir-cum-manifesto and, outside of his vaguely opera buffa presence, seems like a very nice man who has lived a normal life, devoted to raising his three now-grown children. He is, however, not the slightest bit fazed that his film—which is being revived for a single midnight screening this weekend at the Edwards University theater—may finally be finding its audience.

"My father told me something I never forgot: 'Impossible is impossible,'" Rad says. "I have been an architect, which I consider myself one of the best. I've done a lot of different buildings in different places in the world. And, too, I'm a filmmaker. I create differently. If it is bad, it's a bad different. If it's good, it's a good different. I don't follow anybody's technique but my own. For instance, if I am really hungry—as an architect or a filmmaker or any profession—and you come and give me all the money in the world, and you say, 'Do something like that,' even when 'that' is one of my own works? Impossible. I walk alone, as I have been walking alone all my life."

Consider the case of Douglas Sirk, another misunderstood Hollywood émigré, whose signature melodramas from the '50s were crafted with a heightened, operatic uplift, then revived as camp a decade later and now seem wondrously dreamlike. None of those responses is incorrect. And in our irony-drenched age, his daunting confidence and purity of vision carry with them a kind of disheveled dignity—oblivious to his own limitations, and to those of the world around him. The same kind of cockeyed optimism, perhaps, that would lead someone to four-wall a film in the shadow of Hollywood, without an ad campaign, then sneak into OC for one night, in the hope that his audience will find him. When musical savant Daniel Johnston and folk artist Henry Darger can command their own documentaries, why shouldn't the outsider filmmakers among us deserve our encouragement? As those much closer to the pulse of the Zeitgeist might observe: "That is so John Rad."

Dangerous Men screens at Edwards University, Irvine. Sat., 11:59 p.m.

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