Blog Directory CineVerse: One downright different kind of diner

One downright different kind of diner

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

If “quirky,” “offbeat,” and “eclectic” are more your taste when it comes to movies, you’ll probably get a kick out of Bagdad Café, a 1987 independent feature and international production directed by Percy Adlon that boasts a diverse cast and a script that’s difficult to predict. Our CineVerse directive last week was to fine tooth comb this flick; a summary of our discussion follows (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find Memorable, Interesting, Surprising, Significant, Impressive, Laudable, or Eye-opening about Bagdad Cafe?

  • This is a refreshing story and production, blending cultural and racial diversity with Americana and American iconography.
    • Bagdad Café is a film that isn’t afraid to mix disparate elements like an overweight German woman (played by an actress not afraid to show nudity), a headstrong African-American small business owner, a Native American sheriff and cook, an oddball tattoo artist, blue-collar truck drivers, a boomerang-throwing drifter, a classical piano-playing black teenage father, and a roadside rundown motel and diner. Consider how the word Bagdad makes us think of the Middle East, yet it was a real ghost town in California. Throw in a haggard-visaged and crookedly smiling actor associated with tough guy roles (Jack Palance), now playing a bohemian free spirit, and you’ve got a curious but delightful concoction of unexpected components that somehow gel.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “(Director Percy Adlon) is saying something in this movie about Europe and America, about the old and the new, about the edge of the desert as the edge of the American Dream. I am not sure exactly what it is, but that is comforting; if a director could assemble these strange characters and then know for sure what they were doing in the same movie together, he would be too confident to find the humor in their situation. The charm of Bagdad Cafe is that every character and every moment is unanticipated, obscurely motivated, of uncertain meaning and vibrating with life.”
  • The narrative has a slapdash feel to it, as if the filmmakers are making it up as they go along and seeing where things go. Yet this approach serves the picture by making it unpredictable, idiosyncratic, and non-formulaic.
  • While the filmmakers aren’t necessarily showy or ostentatious in their style and visuals, the movie employs curious choices like canted camera angles (as if to suggest the disorienting and off-kilter environment or mindsets of the characters) and oversaturated/exaggerated colors, especially shots of the painted Mohave Desert.
  • The film was positively reviewed and well received enough to warrant a spinoff television series in 1990 that lasted two seasons, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Cleavon Little, and Jean Stapleton.
  • Interestingly, the story ends quite abruptly – on a beat that a viewer would expect would provide more closure or a follow-up conclusion scene.

Major themes

  • A fish out of water, or a stranger in a strange land. Jasmin, a Bavarian wife on vacation in California, decides abruptly to leave her husband and immerse herself in the tiny but colorful subculture of Bagdad.
  • The merits of making a fresh start. Jasmin teaches Brenda the value of starting anew without a husband and selflessly serving others.
  • Soul sisters: Jasmin and Brenda are about as different as possible when it comes to race, background, culture, and physical appearance. But eventually, the women bond and synergize their talents for hosting and entertaining.
  • There’s magic to be found in even the unlikeliest of places. With her sleight-of-hand tricks, showmanship, and amiable charm, Jasmin demonstrates that even a location as desolate and seemingly forgettable as Bagdad and its namesake café can conjure up enchantment and mysterious delights.
  • Like the boomerang thrown by the drifter, life can come full circle on you in good and unexpected ways. Jasmin is forced to leave but eventually returns. Brenda parts with her husband but is reunited later. Jasmin leaves her husband but gets a new one.

Similar works

  • Stranger Than Paradise
  • Two novels: The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers, and Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
  • Paris, Texas
  • Coen brothers films like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona
  • Postmark Paradise
  • Chocolat
  • Local Hero
  • Mary Poppins
  • Whatever Happened to Shirley Valentine

Other films by Percy Adlon

  • Sugarbaby
  • Salmonberries
  • Younger & Younger
  • Hawaiian Gardens
  • Mahler on the Couch

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