Of all the celebrities that seemed to have passed away in the past week, some people probably do not know who Lenny Von Dohlen was. They may have remembered him from Twin Peaks where he played the agoraphobic Harold Smith who had met Laura Palmer when she delivered meals to his house. He also appeared in Tender Mercies and Home Alone 3, but mostly worked in small roles in movies and TV as well as in theater. During a scene of Late Night With Conan O’Brien, he was shown during a Walker, Texas Ranger parody clib where the host commented that he looked like Adrien Brody.
At 6-foot-2 with piercing blue eyes and a welcoming smile, Von Dohlen drifted under the radar as a character actor. Hollywood just really never knew what to do with him. Starting out early in his career at only 25, he appeared in the romantic comedy Electric Dreams. Von Dohlen plays Miles Harding, an absent-minded architect who lives and works in San Francisco. Unable to get his time management organized, he goes and buys a computer, the best that there is in 1984, to help him out.
At the same time, he is installing his computer to handle other appliances and electronics in his apartment, a young cellists, Madeline Robistat (Virginia Madsen) moves upstairs above him. They’re immediately friendly to each other. But one day when he is trying to download a computer mainframe, the computer overheats. Miles pours a bottle of champagne over it, not realizing the computer becomes sentinet.
And it begins to work when Miles isn’t away. Hearing Madeline upstairs practicing, it begins to play some music that she enjoys. But Madeline thinks it’s Miles downstairs performing music and becomes more interested in him. Eventually, Miles, who the computer incorrectly refers to him as “Moles,” makes himself known to Miles and wants to be called Edgar (voiced by Bud Cort). Very quickly, Miles and Madeline are doing things, such as going out to dinner and taking a trip to Alcatraz island. Then, Edgar composes some music for Madeline at his request. But Edgar soon becomes jealous and starts making things difficult for Miles.
Released on July 20, 1984, Electric Dreams was mostly forgotten. I remembered watching it on HBO in the mid-1980s but had forgotten about it until I spotted it in the video rental place in the late 1990s. It got mixed reviews and only made $2.5 at the box office against a $5.5 million budget. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert praised it. It can be seen as the first of the the movies for the MTV generation as it has a music video type of feel as well as a score by Giorgio Moroder. And that was part of its problem. Steve Barron, who directed the movie, was one of the leading music video directors of the time. However, he said there was a stimgata against music video directors turning to feature films. He wouldn’t direct another movie until 1990 on the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
In a world in which we have Alexa and Siri, you can see how Edgar is a forefather of the electronic age. With people having personal computers in their homes in the 1980s, it had become more of a computer age. In the first few minutes, Miles is in an airport looking at all the technology people are using as well as in his office building. Nowadays, almost everything is a touch away on our smart phones. We can set up cameras to monitor who comes to our homes even when we’re halfway across the world. We can order just about anything to be delivered.
While filmmakers have been making movies about robots and computers becoming more self-aware, sentinent and even violent toward people, this is the first movie I can think of in which there is a love story. This movie came after War Games where computers almost start World War III because they don’t understand the concept of no winner. Along with Dreams, in 1984, there was Runaway, written and directed by Michael Crichton, where a police department has an electronics robotic division to handle robots that malfunction and can become violent. And then, there was The Terminator in which people are fighting self-aware cyborgs in the future who have become self-aware.
But Dreams focuses more on whether or not a machine can fall in love with someone or have feelings. You can see a lot of it reflected in later movies such as Her, The Sixth Day or Blade Runner 2049 where people interact so much with computers and artificial intelligence, they seem to have a more intimate relationship. Finch focused on a robot loving a character as a father figure.
Electric Dreams isn’t a perfect movie. There’s a character, Bill (Maxwell Caulfield), who works in the symphony with Madeline and seems like he’s going to be competition with her but he seems to go away. There’s also a big set-up that seems to show a lot of Miles at his work place but then most scenes take place in his apartment or elsewhere around San Francisco. Regardless, the movie does have some joy and happiness to it for anyone who’s ever been young and in love.
The chemistry between Von Dohlan and Madsen is perfect. She later said that she had a big crush on him off set. But they never developed a relationship but remained good friends for years. Reportedly Von Dohlen was involved with playwright James Still, who wrote And Then They Came For Me, about Anne Frank and her family. His family reported that Von Dohlen passed away from a long illness. He was 63.
What do you think? Please comment.