Overload was such a real danger, not as obvious as shrapnel or blunt like a 2,000-foot drop, maybe it couldn’t kill you or smash you, but it could bend your aerial for you and land you on your hip. Levels of information were levels of dread, once it’s out it won’t go back in, you can’t just blink it away or run the film backward out of consciousness.
51; Michael Herr, Dispatches
Big Bad Love is about a writer, Leon Barlow (Arliss Howard), who has been traumatized by his experiences during the Vietnam War. In the film’s present time, the war is only suggested: we see its residual traces in the scars on Barlow’s back, his chain-smoking, or his brief recall of how his buddy Monroe (Paul Le Mat) saved his life in country.
At the same time, however, the war is inescapable. As Michael Herr suggests, the levels of information that soldiers experienced were often more dangerous than the physical dangers. In writing Dispatches, he demonstrated that straightforward journalism could not represent his or his soldier-subjects’ experiences. Similarly, Howard rejects traditional narrative structure, instead representing Barlow’s difficulty in distinguishing reality from his memories and visions. Such overlaps are both confusing and informative, as when Barlow thinks he sees his father inside a beer cooler, or, while he’s writing, his mind drifts to a white, ivy-framed door closing on his son and daughter.
Despite such lapses, Barlow approaches daily life like a soldier: he concentrates on what’s in front of him, forgetting all else. When he is with Monroe, he is only with Monroe, forgetting that his children are supposed to visit him for the weekend. When he finally sees his children, he only thinks about them and is reluctant to let his wife have them back.
Unable to move forward, Barlow resents those who can. When Monroe comes to tell his old friend that he is going to marry Velma (Rosanna Arquette), Barlow is in a funk. His stories have been repeatedly rejected, he feels alienated from his own wife, Marilyn (Debra Winger), and his kids. Barlow throws his manual typewriter at Monroe, who stands in astonishment and then walks back to his truck. Barlow sits back down and mumbles, “Incoming, brother,” to himself, and maybe to Monroe. He can only speak to Monroe in the vernacular they shared in Vietnam. Once Monroe transgresses these limits, he becomes a hostile force.
It’s telling that Barlow throws his typewriter, as writing is crucial for him, both as self-defense and potential route back to life in the world. Throughout the film, he revises the opening lines of a story he’s writing, about a man who is capable of doing anything at all, but without a clear idea of what he wants. At the same time, he writes to make connections: after heaving the typewriter at Monroe, Barlow writes an epithalamion for him and Velma. And after Monroe suffers brain damage due to an accident, Velma asks Barlow to write about Monroe’s previous life, so that people can remember him for who he was, instead of what he has now become.
Repeatedly, and perhaps too obviously, the film insists that art brings people together. For years, Barlow has been painting a landscape on an old railroad car that sits in his backyard. As he is about to finish, a locomotive drives down the tracks and hitches itself gently to the boxcar, then pulls it off-screen. Barlow stands before the now empty space with brush in hand, motionless. The track he once considered inoperative has come to life because his art speaks to a community of people.
By film’s end, he’s come to a realization, and rewrites those troubling opening lines to describe a man who is not capable of doing everything, but has a clear idea of what he wants, a man much like himself. That Marilyn reads this revision in voiceover, rather than Barlow, implies that his coming to terms with the present, through his art, brings him closer to the people in his life.
Big Bad Love underlines as well Barlow’s concerns about what it means to be a man. His great-great grandfather served in the Civil War, his father in World War II. It is not solely their war experiences that alienate them from their families, but also their inability to communicate about these experiences. And indeed, Barlow is silent throughout much of the film, incapable of talking with his family except when he spins fantastic fictions.
His own son Alan (Zachary Moody) mimics Barlow’s behaviors. After silently watching his father’s neglectfulness for years, Alan’s resentment surfaces when his sister Alisha (Olivia Kersey) dies. Although she has been sickly and could have died at any time, Alan sees his father’s neglect as somehow responsible for his sister’s death and refuses to speak to him. After Alisha’s funeral, Barlow attempts to speak with his son, who is initially evasive. When Alan finally faces his father, he does not say a word but raises the umbrella he is holding and points it at him like a gun, opening it with such energy that it turns inside out. Alan has learned that men act; they do not speak about what is troubling them.
Because neither Barlow nor Monroe can speak about his anger, both displace their rage onto a man who has flashed Marilyn and Velma down at the supermarket. Stories about the flasher repeatedly prompt questions, from male listeners, about his penis size. Rather than wondering why a man would do this, how women are affected by the experience, and so on, the men feel threatened by the flasher, reducing the story to a “competition.” Barlow and Monroe’s frequent allusions to the flasher suggest that they are envious, too. His penis becomes a reified symbol of self-confident masculinity, against which the war veterans measure themselves, always coming up short.
Big Bad Love is, in the end, about Barlow’s discovery that he can communicate through his art. Alan also breaks through in his own way, leaving a note on Barlow’s door to ask where his father has been, suggesting that he wants to meet with him again. In this gesture, the film suggests that Alan might be able to transcend the inherited misery that generations of men in his family have passed down to him by finally speaking with his father, through his own form of “art.”