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Cable After Midnight – 1985’s Fandango

Originally published in Bootleg Magazine – August 2007

By Brian Tucker

Road trips encapsulate the spirit, determination and attitude of this country. For the young, striking out in a car to the unknown is a rite of passage.

There’s an abundance of films about road trips, from It Happened One Night to Road Trip to Midnight Run; it’s a staple not unlike the buddy picture. But Fandango differs in that its finale is open-ended. For the audience, we will always wonder what happened to those five characters that embarked on a road trip across Texas and threw a free wedding for their friend.

PHIL: “You are the most irresponsible person I have ever met”

GARDNER: “Well, somebody had to be.”

PHIL: “Where’s your car?”

GARDNER: “You’re drinkin’ it.”

PHIL: “You sold your car to throw a party? But you didn’t even graduate!”

Fandango centers on four young men (and one passed out in the car for the bulk of the movie) graduating from college in Austin, Texas in 1971. Phillip is an ROTC student (Judd Nelson) eager to go to Viet Nam, Waggoner (Sam Robards) has to go since he isn’t getting married, Dorman is overweight and about to become a minister (Chuck Bush) and the last, Gardner Barnes (Kevin Costner), is as free a spirit as R.P. McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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Barnes represents a different choice; non-aggressive defiance, freedom and the disinterest in growing up. In many ways, he is cinema’s definitive antihero, he isn’t Cool Hand Luke or Van Wilder. He just wants to be free, with his sights set on Canada or Mexico to avoid the war. Barnes isn’t cute or silly, he’s as real and non-brooding a non-hero rarely seen in modern cinema. He’s the life of the party who doesn’t want credit.

Barnes announces the group has to “dig up DOM” after Waggoner announces he won’t be getting married (to Barnes’ ex-girlfriend no less). DOM is something the five friends buried when they first came to college, a cinematic Rosebud of sorts. They skip their own graduation party and hit the road for one last fling, one last adventure, before bidding farewell to youth.

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Costner was at his best playing Barnes, embodying youth, abandon and the belief that there’s something better “if you’d all just come along” he offers. There’s a reason the hippies of the sixties haven’t grabbed onto this film and abused it. It doesn’t wholly represent them; a film that is too broad and doesn’t preach rejection of different ideas, rather, embraces that which each individual seeks.

The film’s characters know or end up knowing they are enjoying their last gasp, toasting to the “privileges of youth.” Barnes knows it’s the end while Phillip looks forward to “what we’ll be.” The film isn’t intellectual or rip-roaring fun. Simply, it’s a good time with something to say.

GARDNER: “Hey… how ’bout a Fandango?”

In 1984 Steven Spielberg and partners at Amblin Entertainment realized they needed to put one more film into production for the year. Having seen Kevin Reynolds student film Proof (whose story became the parachute jump section of Fandango), Spielberg asked him if he had something and could he do it for under four million dollars.

Fandango was born. The film benefits from a small budget and a first time writer-director. Sequences are shot and imbued with the sense of Spielberg’s Indy-esque style of cutting action sequences. The editing is tight and clever, the cinematography washed out yet colorful. A scene in a graveyard involving fireworks and headstones echoes the haunting fear of war overseas to which Waggoner utters, “I don’t know if I can do it.” Barnes replies, “Then don’t.”

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Released in 1985 the film found critical acclaim but not much else. It found a home on HBO and beyond, especially on video in later years. I once met someone who said it was the only movie they actually owned a copy. The film hits a specific place for some people, perhaps it’s the feeling of just wanting to run away for awhile, or like Barnes, disappear altogether. Some may identify with Barnes’ belief that there’s something lese out there, that there’s something better.

GARDNER: “Anyway, you know me; gotta roll, gotta birddog, gotta cross females and fences… and if you’d all just come with me, you’d see.”

Within two years Costner would hit big with The Untouchables and later re-team with Reynolds for Robin Hood and Waterworld. Rarely would Costner showcase his flair for lightheartedness like he did with the character of Gardner Barnes, coming closest in Tin Cup and slightly later in The Upside of Anger.

On July 18th in San Elizario, Texas, Fandango will be screened in the open air of the city square. The city square is the location of the wedding scene/dance sequence in the film.

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