Brian Hansen’s “Speed of Light”: “A red pop-culture nightmare scar across America’s post-Kennedy consciousness”

By on February 20, 2018

One reason our full episodes section over on Night Flight Plus continues to be so popular with our subscribers is because it’s one of the few places online where you can see short films that originally aired on “Night Flight” in the 1980s.

For example, this nearly three-hour full episode from June 30th, 1984, features Brian Hansen’s Speed of Light (1980), a strange, surreal 40-minute 16mm short about a neurotic blonde-bewigged mother and her young Oreo-munching daughter on a harrowing road trip across Central Texas in a beautiful red T-bird convertible.

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Speed of Light — using Apollo mission footage later seen in For All Mankind (1989) — was Hansen’s graduate thesis film at the University of Texas at Austin’s Radio-Television-Film department (UT RTF).

It stars Sally Norvell, who memorably played “Nurse Bibs” in German auteur Wim Wenders’s film Paris, Texas.

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Night Flight asked the film’s screenwriter, Paul Cullum, to tell us a little about Hansen and Speed of Light:

“This was the late ’70s, so it was the punk rock moment. Brian was one of those misfits who was drawn out by the times – a zoology undergraduate getting his master’s in Russian Constructivism who jumped to film. That whole Devo/Popular Science side of punk – that was Brian.”

“He had a proto-electronic noise trio called Radio Free Europe in the Chrome/Cabaret Voltaire vein – some of which is in the film. A lot of the cast and crew members were in bands or around the Raul’s scene, the repurposed mariachi club across from the University that was the epicenter of the new music scene – including Sally Norvell, our lead actress, who later had a band in L.A. with Kid Congo Powers of Gun Club and recorded with Gogol Bordello and others.”

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“The film was set in the early ’60s, that pre-hippie/Kennedy era moment when the National Interstate System (funded by Congress to evacuate the cities in the event of nuclear war) allowed these two Americas, the traditionalists and the pathfinders, to clash in unexpected ways – something we were intuiting from this new aggressive energy we saw flooding the culture.”

“We filmed over several weekends in the small towns surrounding Austin – Coupland, Taylor – and enlisted locals as we would find them, where the same dynamic played out during production: the Sheriff in the film was actually set to close us down when we got permission to shoot in a family cemetery from the wrong side of a family feud, and our genius line producer talked him into playing himself in the last scene.”

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Read more about Brian Hansen’s The Speed of Light below.

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In 1988, Louis Black — editor-in-chief/co-founder of The Austin Chronicle – described in an article (“Married to the Memory: Filmmaker Jonathan Demme Honors Brian Hansen“) how filmmaker Jonathan Demme had first come to Austin, Texas in the Spring of 1981.

Black — who was working at CinemaTexas, the university’s graduate-student run film society — arranged for Demme to see “a good half-dozen locally-produced short films,” including Brian Hansen’s Speed of Light, which Black described as “a red pop-culture nightmare scar across America’s post-Kennedy consciousness.”

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Demme enjoyed the films so much that he arranged for a special screening of all six of them that autumn at the Center for Collective Cinema in New York City, billed as “Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas: Six “New” Films from Austin.”

Demme and Hansen became friends, and over the next eight years, Demme would continue to encourage Hansen’s filmmaking career.

He arranged screenings of Speed of Light, showing it to prominent filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci (who called it “a cinema symphony in red”). He also helped Hansen and Cullum shop around a screenplay to independent film companies.

A snippet of Speed of Light can even be glimpsed on a TV in the background of one scene in Demme’s Something Wild (1986).

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In late December of 1987, Hansen was in the midst of pre-production with Cullum on what was to be his first major feature, Forward Lateral, and in a few weeks was going to move down to New Orleans to begin pre-production.

Sadly, Hansen fell ill with bacterial meningitis. He slipped into a coma and died on December 27, 1987.

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There have been many tributes to Hansen over the years, including his longtime friend Kirk Hunter’s short film Big Shadow.

The blog Aluminum People is dedicated to the memories of Hansen and fellow UT filmmaker David Boone (who died in 2001).

Jonathan Demme dedicated his feature Married to the Mob and its soundtrack to Hansen, and also helped establish a scholarship in Hansen’s name at UT RTF.

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Paul Cullum:

“Brian was my best friend, so it’s hard to be objective, but I think he was kind of a visionary. I remember talking with David Byrne (whose Manhattan loft he was staying in at the time of his death) about some conceptual sculpture Brian was formulating, and how neither of us could ever really get our heads around it. I think if he’d lived, he would have registered on the culture in interesting ways.”

Cullum became an award-winning L.A.-based writer/journalist, as well as the managing editor for Film Threat and an Arthur magazine columnist.

He’s also a singer-songwriter whose songs have appeared in several films in addition to being recorded by the Golden Palominos (featuring Jack Bruce), among others.

Check out Night Flight’s nearly three-hour full episode from June 30th, 1984 which also features our “Take Off to Sex,” a “Heavy Metal Half Hour,” and much more. It’s streaming now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.