MOVIE OBJECTS (23)

By: Joshua Glenn
June 6, 2020

One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about significant objects spotted in movies. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.

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CASSETTE TAPE | BREATHLESS | d. JIM McBRIDE | 1983

A few minutes into Breathless, Jim McBride’s remake of Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), in which Jean-Paul Belmondo portrays a sexy sociopath obsessed with violent American movies like Gun Crazy, Jesse Lujack (Richard Gere) steals a Porsche and hightails it to L.A. from Vegas. He hopes to collect some pelf, then persuade a young Frenchwoman (Valérie Kaprisky) with whom he’s smitten to take it on the lam to Mexico.

“We got some music here?” Jesse asks, rhetorically. He scrutinizes three cassette tapes found in the car, and laughs in disbelief at their lameness. “Hey, you’re pretty,” he says, throwing the first one out the window. “Disco, Manilow,” he sneers, tossing the others after it. Cassette-hitting-highway noises have been added to the soundtrack. “I know what we need,” he says, DJ-ing a rockabilly radio show which seems to be playing constantly in his head. He pulls a Jerry Lee Lewis cassette out of his pocket. “The Killer!” Cue Lewis’s immortal version of “Breathless.” The Porsche — the same make as the one in which James Dean died — zooms into the sunset.

Breathless is a flawed movie, almost unwatchable today — though there was a time when it played constantly on late-night cable channels for socially isolated masturbators. True, Quentin Tarantino says it’s one of the coolest movies ever; the Silver Surfer poster in Reservoir Dogs references Jesse’s Surfer obsession (and, it must be added, misprision). Alas, his endorsement only highlights just how earnest, which is to say insufficiently Tarantino-esque, McBride’s Breathless is.

Even in the corny rockabilly get-ups his character favors, Gere’s sex appeal is undeniable. But he’s no Belmondo. Overcompensating, McBride gives us an opening shot of Gere strutting around while Mink DeVille (the model for the character’s goofy look?) croons “Bad Boy.” “He’s the last man on earth any woman needs… and every woman wants,” according to the poster’s tagline. But not even every woman in the movie wants him: Immune to Jesse’s charms, Lisa Persky, perfectly cast as a wised-up stamp-and-coin salesgirl, turns him in to the LAPD. Other than its final shot and credits, scored to X’s “Breathless” cover, and its documentation of Los Angeles’s street art, it’s unmemorable.

Except for the cassette business! I saw this movie at age 16 or 17. I was an extremist about music, then; if I didn’t love it, it was the worst possible garbage. My tastes would become eclectic, later. And I’m aware, now, that the “death to disco” meme — I was only vaguely aware of it, at the time — was a racist and homophobic one. I don’t ask you to agree with Jesse’s taste in music, nor to find him a sympathetic character. But I can vividly recall how thrilled I was when he tossed those tapes out of the speeding Porsche, and plugged the Killer into the tapedeck. I may have cheered. Fuck Barry Manilow.

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MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | Whitney Bowers on DUCT TAPE (NOW AND THEN) | Kio Stark on CANDLE (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) | Tom Roston on CALCULATOR WATCH (BREAKFAST CLUB) | Miranda Mellis on LIMOUSINE (MELANCHOLIA) | Carolina A. Miranda on HAUNTED ACCORDION (THE WIND JOURNEYS) | Vanessa Berry on FIBREGLASS MARLIN (LOVE SERENADE) | June Thomas on CERAMIC DUCKS (A TASTE OF HONEY) | Madeline Ashby on LETTERS OF TRANSIT (CASABLANCA) | Dave Walker on ETTINAUER 226-XL (REAL LIFE) | Jonathan Lethem on SINGLE-JACK HAMMER (EARTH ABIDES) | Guy Trebay on STAMPS (CHARADE) | Annie Nocenti on PASSPORT (THE PASSENGER) | Tony Arcabascio on SHEEPSKIN COAT (BEAT STREET) | Alix Lambert on TYPEWRITER (MARY AND MAX) | John Sellers on WHITEBOARD (A QUIET PLACE) | Carlo Rotella on POWDERING CONE (REIGN OF TERROR) | Laura Miller on SEVERED EAR (BLUE VELVET) | Josh Glenn on CASSETTE TAPE (BREATHLESS) | Vicente Lozano on NOTEBOOK (WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME?) | Jeff Malmberg on SPAGHETTI SAUCE (THE GODFATHER).

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.

FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.

FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.

FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Alison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.

ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

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