Decoder (1984)

It’s 1984 and Big Brother is definitely listening.

Counter-cultural oddball William S. Burroughs’ psychedelic novels have generally been considered impossible to adapt.  Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few attempts.  The best known is, of course, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which is more of a film about Burroughs’ novel.  But perhaps the most successful was a film which didn’t actually try to adapt any of his specific works, but tried to catch the spirit of Burroughs.

And yet, rather than being psychedelic, Decoder was pure punk rebellion with a generous side of paranoia.

A young audiophile, F.M., discovers that the local hamburger chain has been manipulating its customers with the Muzak played in the restaurant:  it has a secret mind control track buried under the music.  He soon learns that he can change the behavior of the customers by replacing the Muzak tape with one he creates himself.

But the sinister powers that be are on his track and have sent out a burned-out assassin named Jaeger to deal with him…

When you talk about Cult film, this is about as culty as it gets.  Created on a sub-minimal budget, with the modern world standing in for the future, as in Godard’s Alphaville, Decoder mixes an acid trip splash of primary colors, truly strange details like the roomful of frogs F.M.’s girlfriend keeps (one wonders whether Jeunet et Caro ever saw this film), a handful of genuine counter cultural figures (including Burroughs himself), abrupt and often non-sequitur editing, and an insistent punk and industrial music soundtrack featuring a number of German punk and post-punk bands.

It is one of those films one experiences as much as watches, with a constant assault on the viewer, whether of garish color, jangling editing, intense music and sound.  A quick summary may make it sound a far clearer than it is, as the film takes its time introducing its major themes.  One suspects that the conclusion, where F.M. sets off a revolution with his tapes is exactly what many of those involved in this film dreamed they might achieve.

Despite its amateur cast, elliptical narrative and near-total obscurity (not to mention scarce VHS and DVD copies), Decoder has somehow survived, thanks one suspects to word of mouth among those who’ve seen it.

And no wonder.  This is a strange film, presented in unexpected and often jarring ways.  It is compulsive, compelling, brash, and thoroughly out-to-lunch.  And, unlike a lot of arty films, it actually has a strong plot and characters.

Heck, that’s enough to get ME to watch it.

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