A stranger arrives in a small town, destined to perturb and eventually threaten the locals by invoking forces from the larger world. This is the kind of fable-inflected tale that recurs again and again in films that try to tap the wellsprings of American folklore. Cinema screens have seen variations on that narrative gambit that are whimsical (The Music Man), fantastical (7 Faces of Dr. Lao), socially critical (The Intruder), vengeful (High Plains Drifter), and horrifying (various Stephen King adaptations). Public Access plays its own game with this motif, commencing with a handsome young man (Ron Marquette) hitchhiking his way across the rolling hills of the Midwest. He arrives in Brewster, a sullen, sleepy town where the local newspapers report skyrocketing crime and unemployment, and the locals go about their daily lives as if in a perpetual daze.
The young man, who calls himself Whiley Pritcher, rents a room from aging kook Bob Hodges (Burt Williams), the former mayor of Brewster, and researches the town’s history at the local library, disarms people with wads of cash, flattery, and impeccable manners, and eventually buys airtime on a local public access cable channel. Taking a Sunday evening time slot, he commences his program by inviting viewers to call in, asking the question that becomes the leitmotif for his show and the film: what’s wrong with Brewster?
Public Access was the debut feature film for director Bryan Singer and his regular screenwriting partner Christopher McQuarrie. For most cinephiles, Singer seemed to arrive, as if from the head of Zeus, with The Usual Suspects a year later (also scripted by McQuarrie); from there he’s carved out a big-league career helming summer blockbusters like X-Men and Superman Returns. Public Access feels like a far cry from his mega-hits, made as it was for about $250,000, yet this feature-length calling card impressed the judges at Sundance sufficiently to share the Grand Jury Prize that year. Still it failed to gain a proper distributor, thus becoming the sort of surprise find waiting at the bottom of discount DVD bins.
Public Access is an archetypal debut film, displaying Singer and McQuarrie’s diamond-in-the-rough talents, peppered with displays of ingenuity and real cinematic verve. Public Access anticipates motifs that recur in Singer and McQuarrie’s signature follow-up: omnipresent dread, dark conspiracies, and hidden villainy, but essayed in a less hyped-up fashion. Public Access instead suggests a startlingly strong influence of David Lynch, in the glutinous mix of small town seediness and elegantly creepy parable, with a dash of Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1987) to boot.
Pritcher calls his show “Our Town”, a Thornton Wilder shout-out immediately evoking the homey and nostalgically twee, wearing a possibly ironic conservatism on its sleeve. Brewster seems to stand for the contemporary American zeitgeist: a place full of angry, asocial kids, ranting reactionaries, pompous politicians, infuriated and ostracised doomsayers, and slogans that conceal betrayal. Pritcher’s talk sessions pick at the town’s thin skin, finding at first regulation resentments and neighbourly bickering; gradually it unearths signs of deeper malfeasance.
Singer’s remarkably mobile and expressive camera seems to perform its own interrogations. Ultra-close-ups and restless tracking shots trace the suggestively sensual contours of Marquette’s face as he contends with his show’s call-in guests with mysteriously professional wit and assuredness. Inserted montages depict the spreading sparseness of Brewster’s social and economic life, as windows fill with signs announcing defeat and relocation.
Pritcher’s dress and manner when on his show, clad in a suit and glasses suited for a Young Republican circa 1960, belie his seemingly rootless existence. He begins courting Rachel (Dina Brooks), a librarian and recently graduated student who’s planning on fleeing Brewster because of her distaste for its bigotry. Rather than exposing Brewster’s hidden evils with an anarchic or anti-establishment agenda, however, Pritcher’s motives and passions prove to be altogether stranger.
The film provokes a magnetic fascination as to where it’s headed, which here is best left unspoiled. Singer and McQuarrie portray a community’s fanatical urge towards the elimination of dissent, desire for order, and wilful self-repression. The notion of free speech, which Pritcher seems to enable, is manipulated and then twisted back on itself in a particularly dark satire on the culture of conservative talkback. The film offers the stark image of a young boy whose future has been sold out yet is preserved in his ignorance, ambling along singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a town filled with dead bodies of everyone who spoke out against corruption.
McQuarrie’s script provides Singer’s visuals with a sufficiently cryptic template, and offers Marquette raw material to build a persuasive screen persona. The film never quite evolves into the sort of wondrously nightmarish stuff Lynch has made his forte, plodding instead through a resolution that doesn’t achieve the note of dark revelry it seems to aim for. Yet Public Access retains a controlled, perverse abstractness, and a glimmer of relevant, even inspired critique, that in some ways makes it just as interesting – perhaps more so – than Singer’s later, more elaborately technocratic films. In this regard, it’s a more than worthwhile debut.
Roderick Heath is a writer and film critic who lives in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, Australia. In addition to co-publishing Ferdy on Films, his own website is This Island Rod.