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Miracle Mile

A very long time ago, back in the Reagan Administration when I was a pimply high school nerd, my friend Andrew Chilton and I were comparing notes on movies we’d seen recently we recommended to each other. I raved about David Byrne’s absurdist slice-of-life True Stories; Andrew told me to go see Miracle Mile. But Andrew’s recommendation was shaky: his tastes and mine didn’t always line up well, and the best he could summon for this was that it was a messy film with lots of problems but which was really interesting. And since I was already backlogged for as far as the eye could see on great masterpieces I intended to watch, I let this slide. But his recommendation haunted me at the periphery of my memory for almost 30 years, and I finally got around to taking Andrew at his word.

I have to choose my words carefully here, because if I tell you this is a flawed movie that is nevertheless really interesting, I’m just going to make the same mistake and you won’t click the fold and keep reading. So… let me just say that Miracle Mile is a movie that might just save the world.

Whaddya think? Wanna keep reading?

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In 1983, recent film school grad Steve De Jarnatt wrote the script for Warner Brothers, with the expectation/hope/pipe dream he would get to direct it for them. The thing was a clever mashup of different genre tropes—it starts out as a “meet cute” romance between a traveling jazz musician and the manic pixie dream girl of his dreams. Their whirlwind love-at-first-sight courtship is set to culminate in an epic date on the eve of his departure from LA. Will they get married? Will one of them run away from their current life to stay with the other? What grand gesture will come from the time pressure?

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And then the story makes an abrupt left turn in a way that radically increases the stakes of that impending deadline: while looking for his girl, the musician answers a wrong number from a frantic missile silo operator trying to warn his dad to evacuate LA before the incoming nuclear strike destroys it. Assuming this anonymous voice on the end of a payphone line is telling the truth, they’ve all got less than 2 hours before The End.

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What unfolds from then on out, in more or less real time, is something of a distorted funhouse mirror of a classic American Road Movie, as our jazzy hero weaves his way through the various and sundry odd characters who happen to be awake in the middle of the night as he tries to a) find and rescue his girl and b) get them both to a place of safety before the apocalypse hits. Along the way, there’s a palpable sense that he’s causing more harm than good, since his Chicken Little-y warnings about the impending nuclear holocaust trigger all manner of violent havoc—and it’s not at all clear until the end whether his warnings are genuine.

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In other words, there’s a lot going on here—and word got around Hollywood that this young De Jarnatt fella had written a corker. But that reputation actually worked against him, because the management at Warner Brothers figured this wasn’t a script worth squandering on an inexperienced newbie. They wanted to give the script to a more established director and back it up with a healthy budget.

And so the thing wallowed in proverbial Development Hell for several years, until De Jarnatt got fed up and bought it back. But whereas Warner Brothers had seen promise in the script, De Jarnatt found only skepticism at the other studios. He eventually found an indie producer willing to put up a few million dollars on spec—enough to get it made on a shoestring, without having to make any uncomfortable compromises with a big studio’s corporate agenda.

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De Jarnatt’s quixotic insistence on doing it his way helped preserve one distinctive aspect of his vision. To best appreciate it, though, let’s take a moment to check out a different movie altogether—Martin Scorsese’s 1985 comedy After Hours. This has a substantially similar flavor to Miracle Mile: a boy and a girl meet and experience an instant attraction; their attempt to hook up for a date spins out into a series of vignettes involving the wacky people who are up late at night. What’s different is a question of tone.

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Although After Hours is pitched as a comedy, and its scenario does not presume that this particular night is any different than any other, the whole thing has a grim, apocalyptic atmosphere. Rosanna Arquette is introduced as just a pretty, kooky girl but she gradually unveils new layers of psychosis; Griffin Dunne is introduced as a generic office drone Everyman but gradually reveals his inner jerk. The weirdos he meets are all threatening in some way, and his prickly manner incites every awkward encounter to be worse than it already is.

It’s as if Scorsese set out to make an After-School Special warning corporate America about the dangers of visiting Greenwich Village.

Conversely, for a film that is explicitly about the End of the World, however, Miracle Mile has a much sunnier disposition.

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Cast as the film’s two central lovebirds, Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham are not as conventionally attractive as Griffin Dunne or Rosanna Arquette, but as we noted above the leads of After Hours soon revealed themselves to be superficially attractive damaged goods. Meanwhile, De Jarnatt makes no effort to depict his protagonists as “ordinary” people—they’re a bundle of affectations and quirks. If this movie were remade today, you’d need to cast the likes of Michael Cera and Zoe Deschanel to capture the same nerdy vibe.

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These are our heroes and we are meant to love them for their idiosyncrasies.

And then the people they encounter in the wee hours before the nuclear dawn are a host of freaks. Much more than almost any other movie of the 1980s, this cast looks like America: black and white, young and old, high-powered yuppies and the homeless, straight, gay, and transgendered…

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While watching this, I was already marveling at the film’s bracing acceptance of its freaks and geeks when Danny De La Paz appears in his one-scene role as a gender-ambiguous barfly. S/he may be a gay man in drag, or a man transitioning to a woman, or some other possibility. The film doesn’t clarify, nor need it. It just isn’t relevant. De La Paz’s character is just a person, and his/her sexual identity doesn’t pertain to any of the proceedings, any more than, say, Robert DoQui’s paranoid diner owner, or Denise Crosby’s lady spy.

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That’s not to say this casual attitude to De La Paz’s sexuality isn’t noteworthy. Few Hollywood films—and fewer still Hollywood films of the 1980s—would bother to introduce a non-straight character if the filmmakers didn’t have some point they were trying to make.

But De Jarnatt isn’t here to judge.

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A similar moment occurs later in the film, as the chaos is in full swing. Anthony Edwards goes on a desperate hunt for a helicopter pilot, and finds one at an all-night gym. The massive body builder insists on running back to save one more person—and as he steps into the aerobics studio, we might be expecting him to come back with one of the leotarded ladies. Instead he returns with a slender young man, and pointedly asks, “You got a problem?”

No. No, sir, we do not.

Even today in 2015 it is hard to find filmed entertainment that doesn’t invoke homosexuality as a punchline. Movies tend to be worse offenders than TV, especially cable TV where producers are free to be less reactionary. To (mis)quote Dan Savage, it gets better—but even so, my hat is off to Steve De Jarnett and his collaborators for their ahead-of-their-time progressivism. I’m not afraid of nuclear war anymore, but other apocalypses still loom. We’ve got to learn to live together—and the path to saving the world lies in the inclusive vision implicit in Miracle Mile.

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12 Responses Miracle Mile
Posted By george : July 25, 2015 5:27 am

” a flawed movie that is nevertheless really interesting”

Exactly how I feel about MIRACLE MILE. I saw it in ’89 and never forgot the premise, even after I forgot the title and everyone who was in it. How would YOU react if you had less than 2 hours to get out of town before your city is nuked? Who could resist watching a movie with that premise? I couldn’t.

Posted By jojo : July 25, 2015 2:41 pm

One of those home video artifacts from the VHS days that went into heavy rotation on the Movieplex stations — so I could finally get people to check it out. See also: Best Seller.

Posted By Steve Burrus : July 25, 2015 4:13 pm

yeah this “Miracle Mile” is certai nly a rare Hollywood movie which just naturally has an “all-inclusive” feel to it. Can I see this on youtube possibly?

Posted By george : July 25, 2015 8:29 pm

Steve: It doesn’t seem to be on YouTube (at least not the whole movie), but it has been released on DVD. No idea if it’s still in print; I bought my copy used. You could check Amazon.

Posted By AL : July 25, 2015 10:05 pm

KINO is releasing a new restoration with many extras on JULY 28

Posted By byron hill : July 26, 2015 8:12 am

I love TCM, I almost live by it. Please no more imports, I would love to see more 1950″s horror movies on Friday or Saturday nights. Also more feel good movies on the weekends like Andy Hardy or Cary Grant movies. However silent sundays are great Thank You TCM

Posted By JoeS : July 26, 2015 8:59 am

Great comparison with AFTER HOURS and MIRACLE MILE. Both, are favorite ‘all night’ films of the era. MIRACLE MILE also has a special place in my heart since I lived IN that district when the movie was made. How often does one get to see your own neighborhood nuked on screen?

Posted By Tom S : July 27, 2015 3:45 am

It is always nice to see casual, incidental, sincere tolerance in a movie where that is not necessarily the point it is trying to make- although oddly I was wondering if Sense8 was the premium cable (or in this case, Netflix) show that could afford to be far less reactionary about such things than almost anything else going, for something relatively high budget.

I would still take True Stories, though.

Posted By Steve Burrus : July 28, 2015 12:53 am

No offesnse intended Byro n but I cannot agree with you about “no more imports [movies]“! If you are talking about such movies as Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” then I kind of think that THOSE kind of imports can [and must] continue!

Posted By george : July 28, 2015 1:52 am

I also vote to keep the classic foreign films coming. Where else but TCM are you going to see them (or silents or early talkies) on television? It makes up for my dismay when TCM schedules a piece of ’80s junk like LOOK WHO’S TALKING.

Posted By swac44 : August 4, 2015 9:56 pm

I’d also hate to see the imports go. I recently enjoyed a pair of unique Japanese detective stories from Yoshitaro Nomura, Zero Focus (1961) and The Castle of Sand (1971), that I doubt I would have been able to see anywhere else.

I remember enjoying Miracle Mile on home video when it first surfaced on VHS, hoping I can see the new digitally refurbished version from Kino soon. I’ve always liked Mare Winningham’s work, I’m looking forward to seeing her in a new film version of Chekov’s The Seagull (with Elizabeth Moss and Saoirse Ronan) due out sometime next year.

Posted By Danny De La Paz : August 23, 2016 7:15 am

My name is Danny De La Paz. I play Roger, the transvestite at the all night diner, where a key scene causing a seemingly bright quirky romcom to take a very dark turn, takes place. I very much agree with the assessment of this very effective film with which I am quite pleased to be associated. My characters “gender bending” was handled in a very matter of fact way and this only served to focus on the gravity of the situation at hand rather than distract the audience with gratuitous superficiality or cliche. Director Steve DeJarnatt deserves full credit for these specific stylistic choices that I believe make MIRACLE MILE an engaging cinematic experience today, some twenty seven years after it’s initial release. This puppy has withstood the test of time and shows no sign of slowing down.

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