Catchfire (1990)


Anyone who has ever flipped through a book about late 20th century art will be familiar with Jenny Holzer’s text based work using LED screens and projectors. It is only those who haven’t who might actually believe Jodie Foster’s character in Catchfire, Anne Benton, as the person behind that work. Many of Holzer’s pieces are used throughout the film (she is even listed in the credits), but their meaning and cultural relevance is totally disregarded by director Dennis Hopper. He isn’t concerned with the obvious themes of power and feminism one might expect from a movie that is essentially about Jenny Holzer being kidnapped. Instead, Catchfire is a celebration of how romantic and sexy Stockholm Syndrome can be if you just give in to your captor and go with it!

The plot begins with Anne Benton/Jenny Holzer witnessing a mob assassination, and then going into hiding to avoid being targeted, herself. After eluding both the mobsters and police, she changes her name and moves to a new city, taking a job at an advertising agency. Now is the time for her  conceptual artist survival skills to kick in, so she pulls out her famous line “Protect me from what I want” and slaps it on a lipstick ad campaign as the tagline. Well done!


Hopper not only directs, but also plays Anne/Jenny’s kidnapper, Milo. Though initially planning to kill her, he quickly becomes infatuated with her and her work, even purchasing a piece from her gallery. Realizing that he has fallen in love, he abducts her and forces her into a sexual relationship. Resisting  this idea for two or three days, she then discovers that she loves him, too, even though they sometimes fight about what art really is: “Art is Charlie Parker and Hieronymus Bach, or whatever his name is,” Milo says.

All of this is presented as perfectly natural, although the heavy-handed acting and implausibility of the plot often make the film seem like a comedy. At any moment, the viewer might expect Anne to finally reveal her behavior as either an escape plan, or an elaborate performance art piece about male oppression of women. This never happens, and a final shot during the end credits shows Hopper ridiculously serenading Jodie Foster with a saxophone on a boat, a scene I am almost positive he did not intend to be seen by the general public.


In fact, Hopper was so unhappy with his work on Catchfire that he disowned it, even crediting himself as Alan Smithee (the pseudonym of choice for disgraced filmmakers). Vestron Pictures later re-cut and released it against his wishes, under the title Backtrack (both titles are just as arbitrary) keeping Hopper’s name, which prompted a lawsuit.

Everyone involved in the film must have really, really liked  Dennis Hopper (or they didn’t read the whole script) as the cast includes quite a few well-known actors, and Dick Clark was the producer. Vincent Price, Charlie Sheen, John Turturro and Dean Stockwell all have major roles. Bob Dylan even makes an appearance as an artist who carves abstract wooden relief-paintings with a chainsaw (they are actually the work of artist Charles Arnoldi). And Catherine Keener has a cameo in a scene shot in Taos, New Mexico, which means it’s time to pull out the Georgia O’Keeffe book—“She’s the one who paints those flowers that look like genitalia, right?”



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