Adrienne Shelly illustration by Billups Allen

As ’90s as Nirvana: The amusing nihilism of Adrienne Shelly by Billups Allen

Oct 27, 2020

Splat the Movies, Episode Seven

The ’90s Needed Her

“No reason to get out of bed.” Adrienne Shelly’s directorial debut Sudden Manhattan opens with this line. Her character Donna talks through her morning routine without much enthusiasm for the day. She descends from her apartment wearing a vintage dress and hi-top sneakers. Her hair is big. She walks outside. She sees a murder. No one believes her. She then moves on to a diner where her eggs rumble at her. That’s the world many Adrienne Shelly roles exist in: questionable relationships sailing in quiet desperation mixed with a bit of surreal action. She embodies her world with an impenetrable blankness. She’s tough and abrasive to those who mess with her, but empathetic and wholly accepting to others. As an actor, she shifts effortlessly from snobby disgust to patient sympathy.

That’s the world many Adrienne Shelly roles exist in: questionable relationships sailing in quiet desperation mixed with a bit of surreal action.

A surge of independent films in the ’90s caused a collage of comedic voices to find their way out of the garage and congregate in the art house, second run, and occasionally part-time porno theaters across the country. Heavy dialogue, blunt observational humor, and the occasional absurdity took hold of a younger audience with an ironic sense of humor. Comedy inadvertently took on new responsibilities. Bill Murray’s ironic swinging and Chevy Chase’s deadpan carousing were becoming passé. Blossoming were low-budget films with a new comic sensibility. Kevin Smith’s camera captured the everyday life of a gaggle of store clerks. Spike Lee’s sense of humor gave us pause to consider what we were laughing about. Quentin Tarantino’s ironic veneration of fading celebrity allowed some good actors to stay relevant. There was a change of sense of humor coming out of the wild, cocaine-fueled ’80s. Adrienne Shelly and director Hal Hartley were among the shock troops of the new wave of ’90s independent film. Their first two films together were Shelly’s first two acting credits. Both lead roles, she stole the show as a young person dealing with a new kind of “Why?

Shelly’s career has remained in a shroud partially because much of her substantial work languished on VHS. Indie movies of the ’90s also did not always get wide distribution. That translated into sometimes not receiving wide home video distribution. There was also not the convenience of the internet to help keep these texts alive. Many films were released on VHS towards the end of the massive need for content in video stores, but many of these dry-humored movies she appeared in didn’t made it to DVD until much later on.

Shelly embodies the nihilistic charm of the ’90s in the same indefinable way P.J. Soles documented the ’70s teenager in her early films.

In the 2010s, Hal Hartley’s films along with another of Shelly’s lead roles became available through DVD and streaming, so Shelly’s career is a bit more accessible than it used to be. Now her films are convening on the world and her body of work deserves a modern eye. She embodies the nihilistic charm of the ’90s in the same indefinable way P.J. Soles documented the ’70s teenager in her early films. Besides just walking the walk, Shelly embodies the molting characters in her scripts.

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Shot in eleven days, Shelly’s career began in high gear with her first film and first collaboration with director Hal Hartley. Hartley grew up in Long Island. His working class background and penchant for the philosophical shaped his work, often utilizing the template of a working class hero struggling with the nature of existence against a somewhat bleak existence.

In her debut film, overachiever Audry Hugo (Shelly) obsesses about the possibility of a nuclear winter and breaks up with her Reagan-era boyfriend. She has a bright future having just been accepted to Harvard, but she is fixated on the nihilistic aspects of working and global extinction. While we are getting to know Audry, a mysterious ex-con named Josh (Robert Burke) is hitchhiking to Long Island. He is returning to his hometown after a stint in the penitentiary. Josh returns to town and secures a job as an auto mechanic. His crimes are vaguely known, but the details have dissipated a bit and Audry becomes infatuated with Josh. Josh’s past is closer to her circle than they both know. While this is going on, Audry’s ex-boyfriend Emmitt (Gary Sauer) falls to pieces. His slick hair and business attire deteriorate as periodic appearances to talk her back into his life fail.

The film’s deadpan dialogue is its strong point, operating without slapstick interludes or hyperbolic characters in need of a takedown. The script works to dissect aspects of the rom com formula. Audry never allows herself to be taken in by typical melodramatic tropes. Instead of weepy exchanges with Emmitt over their failed relationship, Audry is headstrong and often has a flat answer bordering on the philosophical. When Emmet first tells her he doesn’t want to lose her, she blankly tells him: “You never had me you idiot. I don’t wanna go out with you anymore. You disgust me.” Later, trying to convince her to come back he implores her to “have a little faith, maybe” to which she replies “Which one: faith or maybe?”

The film successfully creates a world where these characters’ eccentricities make sense in this working class Long Island town. On the world stage, the problems of this group of people are not going to make a huge difference. But throughout the film, Shelly is convinced nuclear bombs are going to start falling any minute. It’s an interesting plot point set in 1989 when the cold war is waning, but apparent damage to the planet is becoming a worldwide concern.

Trust (1990)

Trust is Hartley and Shelly’s second collaboration. Alongside Shelly, many of the same actors from The Unbelievable Truth returned in Trust. Maria (Shelly) is a high school student quarrelling with her father. After a fairly typical argument, she tells him that she’s pregnant. Shelly slaps her father and leaves the house. What she doesn’t see on her way out the door is her father is in such shock he drops dead. She goes about her business doing typical teenage stuff, including informing her boyfriend Anthony (Gary Sauer) of her pregnancy. This doesn’t go well and leads Maria down a few dark alleys.

Meanwhile, Matthew (Martin Donovan) an angry nihilist is quitting his job. Matthew is a whiz with electronics but has trouble keeping work because he doesn’t like television. Matthew is able to stand up to anyone and everyone aggressively, except his sadistic father Jim (John MacKay.) Matthew and Maria meet and find meaning in the world defending each other. Although the idea of marriage comes up, the relationship is largely platonic. It makes for a touching partnership without the obligatory love scenes and tropes.

Along the way, the two also set out to solve a mystery regarding a stolen baby. In the bleak world created in the film, this dangerous task is played for comedy. Roger Ebert, though complimentary of aspects of the film, complained that the world created in this film is uneven. But in the realm of the rules of the environment created reflect a realism in their tone and how you’d like to see people treat each other, especially when they haven’t been treated well themselves. Trust works so well as a romantic comedy because it doesn’t matter if Matthew and Maria get together or not, not does it matter whether or not it’s a good idea. The two defend each other so heroically and the film never bothers to ask you what they would be like in a real relationship. It’s another dissection of the genre.

Trust builds to a triumphantly melancholy ending. It’s very bleak in the sense that, of course, these people probably won’t be okay in the grand scheme of things at the end of this story. But neither will the perfectly matched lovers in a similar film. There is a certain hopefulness that rises among the chaos exploding from the logjam created by the rest of the film. The finale creates homage to the bittersweet partings, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Casablanca.

The Unbelievable Truth  and Trust really warrant a close read for both of Hartley and Shelly’s careers.

Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1992)

After an auspicious start with Hal Hartley, Shelly had a lead role in the 1992 film Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me. Shelly portrays Dannie, a naïve girl living in a trailer park that serves as the end of the road for a lively cast of characters. Her sister Sabra (Andrea Naschak) is a stripper and working porno actor. Sabra lords over Dannie since their parents died in a mysterious fire. A second-story man named Bud (Max Parrish) is hiding out in the trailer park. This plot unfolds patiently as anecdotes and soliloquies from the other tenants of the trailer park are seen and paint a picture of life in a small Northern California town. It’s not as crass as a John Waters movie, but exercises the same bones with black humor and loud characters. As Dannie, Shelly plays the heart of the park: the girl everyone looks out for. She cements the noisy, brash humor.

Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me is not as crass as a John Waters movie, but exercises the same bones with black humor and loud characters.

Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me is probably not for everyone. Among several high points, it can be occasionally uneven due to the variety of ensemble characters being introduced and left behind as the plot struggles to stay relevant. But there are some good laughs and performances in tow. The film also has a solid rock’n’roll soundtrack featuring The Pixies, The Cramps, and The Violent Femmes. It’s a fun movie and is another film that didn’t get a home video release outside of VHS until 2018. Here is another seminal performance of Shelly’s available only to people who kept their VCRs.

Sudden Manhattan (1996)

As a director and producer, Shelly wrote, directed, and starred in three films. Sudden Manhattan is her directorial debut. Shelly portrays Donna, a writing student who sometimes sees things that are not there. As mentioned in the beginning, she witnesses a murder and believes her eggs are trying to tell her something. She gets involved with Adam (Tim Guinee). Adam slowly ingratiates himself to her, as events in her life appear to repeat themselves. She sees another murder similar to the first one. She can’t convince anyone. She sees it again. Adam enlists acquaintances to help investigate. The film continues as the mystery unfolds. Sudden Manhattan is her most bizarre effort, one I recommend strongly if you’re into surreal plotlines intertwining. Much of the action in the film is unlikely, but it’s a fun movie if you can push logic to the side.

I’ll Take You There (1999)

On the surface, this film might seem like the most formulaic: a romantic comedy with this title so the producers could use the inspirational Staple Singers’ song of the same name to get attention in the trailer. But this film written and directed by Shelly continues the deconstruction of the typical “woman comes in and changes a sad man’s life” narrative. Shelly appears in the film, but only briefly. The main character is portrayed by ’80s actor Ally Sheedy. Sheedy portrays Bernice, a girl whom agrees to go on a date with Lucy’s (Shelly) brother Bill (Reg Rogers). Bill has been dumped recently. He isn’t over his ex and can’t get his life together. He agrees to drinks with Bernice and lashes out at her, viciously calling her “desperate” and “ordinary.” It’s an obvious first-strike to shoo her away. Bernice is shocked. She leaves but arrives back on the scene three days later. She’s been wandering around. She hasn’t bathed. She hasn’t gone to work. Something about their encounter threw a switch. Bill and Bernice end up on a road trip together while Bernice slowly unravels.

Shelly continues the deconstruction of the typical “woman comes in and changes a sad man’s life” narrative.

In one scene, Bernice acquires an antique pistol and tells Bill if he takes her to the store he can borrow her car. While Bill broods in the driving seat, Bernice is seen in the background robbing a dress shop of all the dresses off the mannequins in the window. She walks casually out of the store with the pistol in hand and the dresses folded in her arm. The film is not Shelly’s wildest foray, since the film follows some traditional tropes of romantic comedies, but Bernice’s coming apart is a fun and unexpected ride.

Between directing her first two movies, and during the period before her third film was produced, Shelly continued to appear in small roles in indie films, short films, and some small television roles. As a working actor she appeared on episodes of Homicide (1994), HBO’s early serial program Oz (1998), and another television procedural Law & Order (2000). He also appeared in off-Broadway stage productions. She appeared in the adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s Factotum (2005) starring Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski. But her focus remained on writing, producing, and directing. Her biggest mainstream success was on the horizon in the form of her third and final movie. Sadly, she would not live to see the wide success of her third film she wrote, directed, and played a role in.

Waitress (2007)

Shelly wrote Waitress in response to her own fears of impending motherhood. Waitress is a more accessible comedy than her other films, but the film still features her unique black comedy. Keri Russell portrays Jenna, a waitress working in a diner known for selling her homemade pies. She’s a whiz at making pie; her pies often reflecting her moods and crisis. Jenna is stuffing away money in hopes of entering a pie contest that she hopes will give her independence enough to leave her husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). Earl is a manipulative abuser lashing out against his obvious lack of confidence. Again, Shelly’s characters exist and work out their problems in a petite ecosystem. Her friends are also waitresses at the same diner. Regulars stop by and flaunt their eccentricities. Lurking under the extreme Americana is abuse. This is a sharp example of Shelly’s ability to insert her brazen reality into a façade.

Waitress is Shelly’s most visible work. The film premiered at the 2007 Sundance festival and was widely released by Fox Searchlight pictures. In 2015 the film was made into a successful musical. The musical version of the film ran consistently from 2015 until the closing of theaters stopped it by the COVID crisis. Of course mainstream success is not always an indicator of the quality of an artists work, but Shelly’s infectious black comedy found a large audience for a brief moment. Waitress is a quality film deserving of the accolades it received for its writer.

Shelly's characters walked, talked, and lived like there was no tomorrow but managed to exude a bit hope along the way. Her films should remind us to do the same.

Sadly, Shelly would not know about any of this. Three months before her Sundance acceptance would arrive, Shelly was brutally murdered in a shockingly senseless incident. The details of her murder are unspeakably sad and futile. Since the details of her untimely death have been covered ad absurdum, I’m going to leave this article without addressing the details. As her work becomes more available, hopefully the world will continue to visit, revisit, and write about her unique career and how it occupied a time in film history where independent artists learned take control of their stories and make art from them. Her characters walked, talked, and lived like there was no tomorrow but managed to exude a bit hope along the way. Her films should remind us to do the same.

Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor and has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. ([email protected])

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