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Dir. Percy Adlon (1987)
The results are always interesting when a European director wrestles with classic Americana (Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas comes to mind, of course), and in Bagdad Cafe, the German director Percy Adlon finds a ton of inspiration in the wide-open, dusty spaces of the Mojave Desert. The film begins with a defiantly odd opening—a huband and wife (the zaftig, fabulous Marianne Sagebrecht) fight in German, stuck somewhere in the desert on the way to Las Vegas. She leaves their car, suitcase in hand, uptight and lacquered in her Marlene Deitrich eyebrows and red red lipstick, and takes refuge in a dilapidated roadside truck-stop cafe and motel.
And ever so slowly, Jasmin's arrival (and ability to clean and do magic tricks) changes the lives of these desert denizens: CCH Pounder (Avatar), who's the sharp-tongued owner Brenda, and a free-spirited Jack Palance (his role in this film was the start of a comeback...perhaps leading to his Oscar-winning role in City Slickers) as former Hollywood set-painter Rudi Cox, scarf around his head and snakeskin cowboy boots on his feet. Eventually, the failing Bagdad Cafe turns into a destination, with its own hopping cabaret night. (And there is a "real" Bagdad Cafe that you can go to.)
The genuine strangeness and imagination of Bagdad Cafe feels like a cinematic gift. The word quirky is overused these days, but this is a film that you can't anticipate, and it goes down its own low-key, slow motion path, with an eye for the beauty of the desert, rendered in eye-popping colors, and the kind of gorgeous character actor moments that are in short supply. Ultimately, it's a sweet-hearted film about friendship, and that's why it's had a long, strange life as a work of art (including a short-lived TV sitcom with Whoopi Goldberg in the CCH Pounder role).
Watch the film now for free on Hulu: