No Looking Back: Edward Burns and the Boss

No Looking Back is likely one of the strongest works in Edward Burns’ canon, yet it remains grossly underseen and was a massive box office failure. (Burns later said his friends nicknamed the film Nobody Saw It. After its poor commercial reception he did not write anything for two years.) Edward Burns is strong writer and director, and I highly recommend all of his works. While I may have a bias because I am a major Bruce Springsteen fan, I am particularly intrigued with No Looking Back‘s intertextual relationship to his work. Not only does the film include three Springsteen songs, it can also be read as a modern visual representation of “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.”

The film focuses on blue-collar characters with escapist fantasies, unfulfilled hopes, and fragile, unrequited love. Charlie (played by Edward Burns) returns to his Long Island home to reengage with his ex-girlfriend. Burns constructs a dismal, dark and flat milieu drawn out of typical Springsteenian iconography. The isolated and cloudy town is filled with garbage in the streets, decrepit buildings, gas stations, scrubby bars, old cars, and a seaside town adjacent to an aging boardwalk. Burns breathes to life Springsteen’s lyrics:

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young

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The female lead, Claudia, works at a dirty greasy spoon diner, but longs to escape the town and her low-class job. However, she feels bound to her fiancee. (Played by another famous New Jersey musican, Bon Jovi.)  Charlie, like the “Born to Run” narrator, wills Claudia to leave the town and move on with her life by romantically escaping with him.

We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
and we’ll walk in the sun

Evoking these lyrics, Charlie dreams of running to travel someplace warm, like Florida. As in Springsteen’s song, the dreams of a sun-filled paradise directly juxtaposes their dismal small-town home.

However, Burns presents a unique twist to the song- these characters are not so young anymore. Both Charlie and Claudia have reached a crossrods in their lives. Society views them as too young to indulge in “childish” escapist daydreams. Rather, they should settle down into the adult aspirations of a nuclear family. The pair reflect the various small-town characters which populate Springsteen’s landscape. To quote “Badlands,” both Charlie and Claudia “spend their life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” Too afraid to make a move, they remain complacent and static.

The lines:

The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight
In an everlasting kiss

are evoked in one of the most unabashedly romantic sequences in the film. Charlie and Claudia share a passionate kiss on the beach shores, the bright sun filling the frame and illuminating their embrace. Wendy and her lover come to life in this angelic portrait of love.

Springsteen’s music makes its first diegetic appearance during a scene at the laundromat. “One Step Up” from the Tunnel of Love album plays softly on the radio. Charlie remarks on the song, and Claudia confirms: “You know I love all his stuff.”

Springsteen’s lyrics narrate her inner turmoil as the song abandons the quiet radio to overlay Claudia contemplating her relationship with Charlie. At this point, she begins negotiating her devotion to her fiancee and the unresolved feelings for Charlie.

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I’m the same old story same old act
One step up and two steps back

As in these lyrics, Claudia has been trapped in the monotony and repetition of her life. She works a the diner day in and day out and returns home to someone she is only with out of expectation rather than devotion. The step she longs to take- leaving her hometown- is forever on the horizion but one she fears to reach. Although Springsteen retains a male point-of view:

When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back

the lyrics are transferred onto Claudia. Now that Charlie is back in her life, she questions the view of her self and circumstances. She has always longed to be so much more than a housewive and a waitress.

The next two sequences features two Springsteen songs concurrently, “I’m on Fire” and “Valentine’s Day.” The pulsating sexuality of “I’m on Fire” subtextually conveys the lingering attraction they still share. The song plays as the two prepare for their date. They change and determine the merit of their looks in front of the mirror. This is not a simple or casual reunion of an ex-couple. “I’m on Fire” presents the seductive promise of their reunion, preluding their reconnection in the motel room.

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“Valentine’s Day” plays as their date continues.

One hand’s tremblin’ over my heart
It’s pounding baby like it’s gonna bust right on through
And it ain’t gonna stop till I’m alone again with you

The lyrics continue to subtextually convey the underlaying passion of their reunion and the electric chemstiry they share.

Ironically, the lyrics:

A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light

play as the characters discuss their aborted child. Edward Burns shares that he wants to be a father again, but Claudia reveals that she can no longer have children.The pair share a dance as the song continues. The simplicity of this sweet and romantic song conveys the power of their relationship, it is the beautiful center in their claustophobic small-town life. The song closes as their dance fades into a kiss in a motel room:

So hold me close honey say you’re forever mine
And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine

No Looking Back reverts the male agency of Springsteen’s narrators to its female character. We can imagine Charlie singing the lines in “Thunder Road,”

All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks

promising Claudia paradise if only she will follow him. However, in No Looking Back, the Mary character leaves on her own. The film’s closing shot focuses on Claudia as she drives the car herself, leaving her small-town alone and on her own terms. This uniquely reverts the White Knight tropes in Springsteen’s work. Edward Burns, in one of his best films, manages to both mobilize and dismantle Springsteenian themes.

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The Local Stigmatic: Fame is the First Sin

The Local Stigmatic is a pet project of Al Pacino’s, a one-act play he had performed in the 1960s and turned into a film during the late 80s. It was never released theatrically and finally saw the light of day in a 2007 DVD version. Written by an eloquent, young talent Heathcote Williams during the late 60s, The Local Stigmatic is a disturbing and acidly funny study of psychosis, fame, obsession and jealousy. In a way, it is a precursor to Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, which during the 1980s was already ahead of its time. Williams’ work  eerily foreshadows our modern culture’s hypnotic fascination with and envy of celebrities. The play is famous for its violent and harrowing climax, in which the lead characters deliver a severe beating on a man outside a pub.

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The film opens with Pacino’s character Graham monologuing in an epic angry tirade to his friend Ray (played by Paul Guilfoyle) about a supposedly bad tip he got for a greyhound dog race. Guilfoyle’s understated menace and Pacino’s manic energy clues the viewer in that something is very off-kilter about these men.  They share a symbiotic connection as their banter, laced with angry and dark humor, feels like a secret code that we are not wholly privy to. We watch them roam the London streets, playing mind games with passerby and spewing their unsettling doctrine to anyone who will listen. Director David F. Wheeler frequently uses dissolving cross-cuts during shot reverse shots to signify the strength and bond of their sociopathic behavior. They blur together, their two halves forming one dangerous whole.

Graham picks up a celebrity gossip paper,  taunting the newsstand seller by proclaiming “Fame is the first sin because God knows who you are,” incedientially the thesis of Williams’ piece. The pair are framed underneath an ad for The Elephant Man. Graham and Ray are the sick type to identify with the Elephant Man’s cruel taunters, getting pleasure in the abhorration and ridicule he endures. They are quick to view others as less than human, equating them to a lowly animal, much like the greyound dogs Graham loathed in his opening monologue. The Elephant Man also has concerns with the nature of fame and notoriety, Graham and Ray would likely condemn the film for lionizing a “disgusting” creature.

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Later at a pub, Graham recognizes a famous actor at the bar. The pair walk up to him and zealously stroke his ego. Pacino delivers yet another incredible monologue, filled with vigorous smiles and his trademark intense stare. Graham showers the actor with praise, buying him a drink, complimenting his films, and acting as if they were old friends. The actor, meanwhile, is so enraptured with this hungry seduction that he is blind to who they really are. He drinks in their compliments without seeing them as real live human beings., looking beyond them and not truly listening or responding to their exact words.

capture3 Graham and Ray loathe celebrities for acting this very way. In their eyes, celebrities pompously regard themselves as better than everyone else, modern day Greek gods occasionally forced to slum amongst the common folk. They turn to violence in order to reign supreme over these modern deities. The pair offer to walk the actor home, resulting in the famed terrifying climax. It is important to consider the

Graham and Ray loathe celebrities for acting this very way. In their eyes, celebrities pompously regard themselves as better than everyone else, modern day Greek gods occasionally forced to slum amongst the common folk. They turn to violence in order to reign supreme over these modern deities. The pair offer to walk the actor home, resulting in the famed terrifying climax. It is important to consider the filmic changes to this scene, as discussed by Pacino in the DVD commentary. Due to the theatrical setting of the play, the audience’s distanciation to the scene rendered a misconnection. The theatre audiences would often concentrate on the physical blocking of the fight as opposed to hearing or concentrating on Graham’s incredible monologue.

The film uses subjective POV shots, with Graham staring into the camera/the actor’s face, arresting the spectator with the victim’s tensions and fear. This submerges the film audience into the beating in a closely felt way simply not possible in theatre. The film spectator is overcome with the oppressiveness of this moment, as Pacino stares too close for comfort with the harsh sounds of Ray’s pummeling fists and kicks in the background. Through these close-ups, the viewer can also concentrate on the eloquent and poetic beauty of the monologue. Pacino’s delivery of this soliloquy is impeccable, the words trip fluidly off his tongue with dynamic and terrifying energy.

Pacino specifically made the decision to dilute the violence, removing excessive views of blood or bruises in order to concentrate on the words. However, I feel that seeing stronger visceral ramifications of the beating would render this sequence more horrifying than it already is.

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Pacino and Guilfolye are incredible as this pair of domestic terrorists. Their characters share a feral bond forged and sustained by ritualistic violence. One gets the sense that this is not the first-or last-time these characters will commit this kind of crime. I highly recommend this film if you are a fan of Al Pacino, it is possibly one of his greatest performances. Plus, it’s only 50 minutes. Heathcote Williams’ sharply written work is a dark manifesto on the toxicity of fame. He wrote this during the 1960s, and one can only imagine what his opinions would be of celebrity culture today. The film is actually available on YouTube, link below: