Monday, 30 January 2012

Chinatown (1974)

Dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez

“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown....”

Chinatown. Chinatown is a real place in the Los Angeles of 1937 where Roman Polanski’s noir thriller is set. Private detective J.J. (Jake) Gittes (Jack Nicholson) was once a cop in Chinatown. “Doing what?” he is asked. “As little as possible” he replies. In Chinatown people speak different languages; there are currents beneath the surface that outsiders cannot hope to fathom. Someone might think that their actions were for the best, but the ramifications could be quite different to their intent. Gittes tried to help someone once, tried to ensure that she would not get hurt. But his actions ensured that she was. In Chinatown it is best to not get involved. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’? Sometimes you’re better off not knowing.”

Chinatown’ is more than a geographical location. In the film it stands for the futility of valiant action. By taking a stand and trying to get to the bottom of a mystery Gittes causes more damage. Yet again, the person he tries to protect gets hurt. The fact that it actually happens in Chinatown is just a neat irony. The bad guys win, the innocent are the victims, and Gittes is left with nothing. What can he do? “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown....”

In Chinatown Robert Towne’s screenplay sees layer after layer being revealed. Gittes is hired by a woman to prove that her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is cheating on her. Gittes follows him and photographs him with another woman. The pictures are splashed across the following day’s newspapers – Mulwray is big news because he is Chief Engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The city is in the middle of a drought. The farmers outside the city limits are seeing their livelihoods dry up. Yet Mulwray refuses to support a proposed dam, supposedly the answer to the city’s water needs.

Two things happen in quick succession. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) appears; to Gittes’s amazement she is not the woman whop hired him to snoop on Hollis. Then Hollis himself is dragged from a reservoir, drowned. But the autopsy reveals that his lungs were full of salt water, not fresh. He did not drown in that reservoir.

Gittes is eager to find out who played him for a patsy. He discovers that water from the reservoirs is being dumped into the sea, creating a shortage. He discovers that the parched farmlands of the Northwest Valley are being bought up en masse by just a few individuals. He discovers that these individuals are all residents of a care home for the elderly and know nothing about it; the care home is, however, supported by the Albacore Club. The Albacore is headed by Noah Cross, Mulwray’s former business partner. Together they once owned all the water supplied to L.A. before Mulwray donated it to the city. Possibly more important, however, is that he is the father of Evelyn, Mulwray’s wife, a woman to whom Gittes is becoming more and more drawn. It transpires that Cross is not just looking to cream off the contracts for construction of the dam, he is looking to use the water to irrigate the ‘worthless’ farmland he has bought up and get the city to expand into the area, making it worth its weight in gold. “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water”. Horrifically it turns out that money is but one of his goals. There is little for him to buy that he cannot already afford. Gittes asks him what he wants. “The future, Mr Gittes! The future!” He wants to leave a legacy – and this requires tracking down the young woman Mulwray was photographed with. And Evelyn seems to know more about her than she is letting on…

The stars of Chinatown: Jack Nicholson,
Faye Dunaway, and Faye Dunaway's hats

The viewer sees the entire investigation through Gittes’s eyes. The camera follows Jack Nicholson every step of the way; no scene occurs where Gittes is not present. We discover what is going on at the same time as Gittes. In this it is homage to the first-person narration of Raymond Chandler novels. The hard-boiled crime fiction of a morally-compromised individual seeking to unravel the truth about dark deeds was known as a genre as noir. If you want to spot a film noir check to see whether it starred Humphrey Bogart, such as The Maltese Falcon or Key Largo. Both of which, interestingly, were directed by John Huston, who here plays Noah Cross. In many cases noir tales tended to centre on L.A. private eyes. In Chinatown the protagonist has to be a private eye. He has to be acting for himself and not be beholden to the city authorities (can we see signs of America’s belief in private enterprise and distrust of authority here?). It is claimed that Cross owns the police – whether he does or not is unclear. He certainly has sway in the Department of Water and Power even while Mulwray is still chief engineer. Mulwray waits on the shore for the water to be discharged out to sea with a despairing look on his face. He has figured out what is going on, he just cannot stop it. Though my interpretation is that this is not what causes Mulwray’s death. Cross can get away with what he does because he is rich and because he has attained respectability. “I’m old”, he explains to Gittes; “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” And the protagonist has to be in L.A.

L.A. causes the problems – it did in real life. Los Angeles is built on desert. There was nowhere near enough water to support the over-populated metropolis it had become by the early 20th century. So it stole it. It took the water from the Owens Valley farmland to the east and piped it straight to the city, leaving the farmers to watch their land become brown and barren. The creation of another dam and more reservoirs would allow the city to expand again, gobbling up the Northwest Valley. L.A. is as amoral as the systems it allows to flourish. For L.A. to grow Gittes has to lose.

Watching it I was struck by how certain themes were familiar: the private eye with a bad experience in a distinct Los Angeles neighbourhood, a shady conspiracy to buy out land and make a profit from the city’s growth. Then I remembered where I had seen this before. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There Judge Doom is trying to take over Toontown in the name of ‘Cloverleaf’ in order to start constructing L.A.’s infamous freeways. Of course, in the later film he was unsuccessful, but it struck me that Roger Rabbit and Chinatown shared many of the same themes and plot points. Though Chinatown does feature fewer weasels (except for a cameo by a knife-wielding Polanski himself: “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty-cat…”).

What have I learnt about California?
Los Angeles has to grow. But it is built on desert, and so it needs water to survive. And it is not above using dirty tactics to help itself to that water. Should I ever go there I will remember the farmers of Owens Valley. The authorities, as we have seen in numerous other examples (L.A. Confidential springs immediately to mind), are corruptible. There are wheels within wheels, and just when you think you know what is going on, you don’t. That is as true outside Chinatown as within.

Can we go there?
Los Angeles really exists. So does its Chinatown. The Chinatown referred to is the earlier version around Alameda Street that was demolished to make way for Union Station. For filming in the 1970s they had to use the newer incarnation of Chinatown; shooting took place on Ord and Spring Streets.

Other sites used for filming really did date from the era depicted. Some are public sites in the L.A. area such as City Hall, Echo Park Lake, Point Fermin Park (where the water is released into the sea) and the Stone Canyon Reservoir (where Mulwray’s body is found) – the latter can be viewed, film fans, from the actual Mulholland Drive. The dry riverbed is Big Tujunga Creek in Sunland. The Mulwrays’ mansion is 1315 South El Molino Drive in South Pasadena. The El Macondo Apartments where Gittes photographs Mulwray and Katherine is Mi Casa, 1400-1414 Havenhurst Drive, just south of Sunset Boulevard. Katherine is later tracked down to 1972 Canyon Drive in Hollywood (Alicia Silverstone later lived in the same building in the film Blast from the Past). Cross’s powerbase is out on Santa Catalina Island. Gittes lands by the Avalon Casino, and has lunch with Noah at El Rancho Escondido. 

Overall Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sideways (2004)

Dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

I accompanied this film with a Californian white zinfandel – very sweet with floral notes. Thank heavens I hadn’t chosen a merlot. Miles hates merlots. In fact, in the year following the release of Sideways sales of merlots in the western USA dipped by 2%, while his favoured pinot noirs increased by 16%.

This would appeal to Miles, played here by Paul Giamatti. The idea that he, a divorced, depressed, continually-rejected novelist who feels cut off from the mainstream of society, could influence a society's tastes in wine would definitely appeal. He is a snob. He peppers his conversation with French phrases and Bukowski quotes, he enjoys the New York Times crossword, drives a red vintage Saab (as opposed to all the other black modern models that overtake him on the freeway), and he loves his wine. Wine-tasting is the one area where he can show off a genuine superiority over the mass of humanity, detecting minute hints of “asparagus and nutty Edam cheese” in a glass of wine where most people’ could detect stawberries and nothing else. Even with wines he decries certain wineries. He describes Frass Canyon as “a joke” whose wine tastes “like the back of a fucking L.A. school bus” – this is the one with coach tours piling through and branded baseball caps, as opposed to the ones down winding tracks where they are the only customers. So when his old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), now a recognisable actor, is getting married Miles takes him up to the vineyards of Santa Barbara County for a week of wine-tasting, good food, and the odd game of golf.

Message in a bottle:
Miles tutors Jack in what to look for in a wine

Except Jack is very different individual. He just wants to “party”. He wants to find a girl who also likes to party and have one last fling before he gets married. And if he can cheer Miles up along the way and stop him moping over his ex-wife (who, it emerges, has now remarried and is pregnant), all for the good: “That’s going to be my best man gift to you this week. I’m gonna get you laid”. But his own needs come first. Whenever Miles comes close to scuppering Jack’s chances – such as by revealing that he will be getting married in a few days time – Jack bullies or cajoles Miles into playing along. “There are some things that I have to do that you don’t understand”, he tells Miles. “You understand literature, movies, wine… but you don’t understand my plight.” Jack’s plight is that he is horny and he is not sure whether he is doing the right thing in committing to one woman for ever.

And so we see this odd couple hooking up with two local women. Jack falls head over heels in lust – and then (or so he convinces himself) in love – with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at one of the wineries. Miles is set up for the purposes of this double-date with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at his favourite restaurant with whom he has always been friendly. And Maya is perfect for him – she is kind, she takes an interest, she knows just as much about wine as he does. While Jack and Stephanie are off enjoying gymnastic sex we get to see Miles opening up for the first time. The subject? Wine. Specifically, his love for pinot noir.
“It's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's, uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and, uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet…”
He might as well be describing himself, blossoming under Maya’s attention. Notably, unlike his best friend, Maya, the horticulture student, takes the time to read the manuscript of his novel. And her reaction to it shows how much she feels for him. “There are so many beautiful and painful things about it. Did you really go through all that? Must have been awful.” The film ends with Miles returning to her apartment, knocking on her door. What happens next is never shown, but we have to hope that they get together. She brings him back to how he was “before the tailspin”, as Jack puts it. Gets him to be more carefree, living for the moment. At one point he relates to Jack about how, with his ex-wife, they drank a ’92 Opus 1 with smoked salmon and artichokes – but they didn’t care! A brilliant line! And when he leaves Jack’s wedding Miles goes to a burger bar, where he drinks his 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a plastic beaker. Giamatti manages to portray this outwardly unpleasant but inwardly crumbling character perfectly. He manages to make emotions of loss, desperation and, finally, happiness ripple over his face like wind across the vines. 

What have I learnt about California?
They produce a lot of great wine. All I’ve ever had from there are Gallo equivalents, so I must search out some better vintages – particularly pinot noirs. The scenes showing their rows and rows of vines makes the area look quite exceptionally beautiful, and the number of wineries where you can get tastings really helps to sell the Santa Ynez Valley wine country as a tourism destination. Plus, the famous California liberalism seems to be in full flow out here. Okay, it was filmed in 2004, but there were certain moments that really made me sit up in shock: they’re not wearing seatbelts! They’re driving after drinking! She’s smoking indoors!

Can we go there?
Yes. And the helpful folks over in Santa Barbara County have even put together a self-guided tour to enable you to follow in Miles and Jack's rather drunken footsteps. Key elements are to start off in Buellton where one can stay at the Windmill (really the Days Inn) and walk down to dinner at The Hitching Post II restaurant. Or, indeed, AJ Spurs for those who like their waitresses plump and grateful. The double-date dinner takes place at Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant in Los Olivos. Wineries visited include Alma Rosa in Buellton (the first they visit), Kalyra in Santa Ynez (where Stephanie works), Foxen Vineyard in Santa Maria, Firestone in Los Olivos (where they skip out of a wine talk) and Fess Parker, which stands in for ‘Frass Canyon’. One oddity seen in the film is the nearby city of Solvang, founded by Danish migrants in 1911. It has eye-catching half-timbered house, a horse-drawn tram, a Hans Christian Anderson museum and a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue.  

Overall Rating: 4/5

Week 5: California

"All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey,
 I went for a walk on a winter's day;
 I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
 California dreamin' on such a winter's day..."
 - 'California Dreamin'',
 The Mamas & the Papas

It's cold outside so let's head to sunnier climes: we'll stick some Pet Sounds on the stereo, get the top down, and motor on to Big Sur to see the surf dudes take on the breakers on the Pacific coast. Yes, we're heading off to California, so be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, be aware that L.A. is a great big freeway, and ensure you avoid having to ask for assistance by pre-programming the sat-nav with accurate directions for getting to San Jose...

California is a big state, with a big population, and as the home of Hollywood it is a sort of default Americana. Sure, New York sparkles on screen, but chances are most other films were made in California just because that is where the sound stages, production crews and actors are based. But what I want to do is find three films that are not just default California, but three films that could not be set anywhere else. But the state has so much to offer: the hills and trams of Bullitt, the urban sprawl of L.A. Story and malls of Clueless, the campuses of The Graduate, the Spanish missions of Vertigo, the desolation of Zabriskie Point or the foggy coastline of The Birds. I could quite easily have filled an entire month with 'Californian' movies. But here is the three I have whittled it down to:

  • Sideways (2004)
  • Chinatown (1974)
  • Boyz n the Hood (1991)

I hope this gives me a wide enough range of experiences. Mind you, at the moment I have not actually managed to track down a copy of Boyz n the Hood. If I can't get hold of one soon I may have to substitute in a film that I already have a copy of, such as Heat or Anchorman...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Rosalie Goes Shopping (1990)

Dir. Percy Adlon
Starring: Marianne Sägebrecht, Brad Davis, Judge Reinhold, Alex Winter

A large German lady wafts around her light-soaked dream house in a floating negligee. She turns. There’s someone at the door: a post man in shorts. She walks towards him…

When Rebecca heard that I was going to watch a German movie titled Rosalie Goes Shopping she couldn’t stop giggling. She imagined that I had actually hired a porno by mistake. And for the first couple of minutes I have to admit I had no idea where the film was heading… Thankfully the film was not pornographic (the one bed scene takes place under the covers), but even after having watched the entire thing I am still not exactly sure where it was heading.

Rosalie Greenspace (Marianne Sägebrecht) is a Bavarian lady living in Stuttgart - that’s Stuttgart, Arkansas - with her American husband Ray (Brad Davis) and their seven children. He is a crop duster pilot with failing eyesight, she is a homemaker who juggles the bills. Literally. She is a compulsive shopper who is walking a tightrope of debt. She makes payments on multiple credit cards which she then reports stolen, she bounces cheques, she forges her childrens’ signatures to withdraw money from their bank accounts, she tampers with her husband’s pay-cheques. She is forced to do worse and worse things to keep up the interest payments. Much as Ray tries to ignore his failing eyesight until, inevitably, he crashes, so she looks to be heading for a crash from ignoring her financial situation.

Except she doesn’t. She gets away with it. The more audacious her moves, the better her results. The breakthrough is buying her daughter an $11,500 home PC (it looks like a piece of junk – the film was made in 1989 remember). But with this, and her knowledge of human nature, Rosalie is able to guess everyone’s passwords and transfer money about willy-nilly. Eventually she bluffs her way into a $2 million line of credit with a bank in Little Rock and starts to build up a fleet of airplanes. Erm. And that’s it. The bank president (John William Galt) becomes infatuated her, her local priest (‘80s legend Judge Reinhold) is agog at her exploits, her family forgive her and she never faces the consequences of her actions. The only time she feels guilt is when she doesn’t go shopping, meaning that there are no groceries for dinner. She treats confession to her priest the same as easy credit. She has learnt nothing from what she has done, but she apologises and she is forgiven. Simple!

This is what $11,500 buys you in 1990!

There are a few good barbs thrown into the script which seem particularly apposite in these credit-crunch times. Rosalie comments that the banks always screw everyone over legally, and now she is subjecting them to a taste of their own medicine. With these things it is better to be bigger and bolder: “When you’re $100,000 in debt it’s your problem. When you’re $1,000,000 in debt… it’s the banks”. You can afford to be in debt as long as you can pay off the interest – and that it what the banks want. If a businessman cannot pay his debts he is declared bankrupt and goes on to another well-paying job; if a normal citizen cannot pay their debts they get sent to jail. After buying Ray a new airplane she turns to camera and comments that they are no more or less in debt than everyone else. So yes – good points. The banks do rig the system. The richer one is the more leeway one is given. We are all living on borrowed credit. But can I recommend the film? No I cannot. It’s terrible.

Storyline? Poor. Script? Poor. Acting? Poor - and it does have some recognisable stars in it in the shapes of Judge Reinhold and Alex Winter (Bill S. Preston Esquire from the Bill and Ted movies). Soundtrack? Terrible! Maybe the German sense of humour does not translate over, because someone obviously thought it was good enough to back. Possibly the one plus point to watching it is to see the cutting edge of late ‘80s computer technology – apparently one can become a master hacker with a modem and a PC that looks to have the processing powers and graphics of a Walkman. But in general I thought the film was, like Rosalie, short on credit and pretty bankrupt.

What have I learnt about Arkansas?
It has skyscrapers! Little Rock has big glassy skyscrapers! Stuttgart down the road however is much more rural with giant rice silos: Stuttgart is the ‘rice and duck capital of the world’ apparently (one wonders if the Chinese know). Rosalie’s mother describes it as ‘ugly’ and she isn’t far wrong. But family – and credit – is the important thing that makes life worth living.

Can we go there?
Yeah, I knew the promise of the rice and duck capital of the world would get your juices flowing! Stuttgart is located in Arkansas County, 45 miles south-east of glitzy big city Little Rock (with its skyscrapers and busy airport). There one will be able to see the towering Riceland silos featured in the film – Riceland Foods is the world’s biggest rice miller in the world and is responsible for a third of U.S. rice production. Rice fields do indeed surround the area. And the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie still exists to enthrall any passing German tourists. And it does have a municipal airport, though it looks larger than the one where the Greenspaces live. Apparently Dick Chaney used to fly down from Washington regularly in Air Force 2 to go duck hunting nearby. Judge Reinhold’s church where Rosalie goes for confession is the closed St. Elizabeth Catholic Church further north in DeValls Bluff, Prairie County.

Overall Rating: 0/5

Monday, 23 January 2012

Sling Blade (1996)

Dir. Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Dwight Yoakam, Natalie Canerday

Is it possible to admire a film but be left extremely uncomfortable about it? Because that is how Sling Blade left me feeling.

For starters, it is one man’s film: Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton wrote the script, directed the movie, and put in a stellar performance as Karl Childers. Karl is a man with learning difficulties newly released from the state hospital. As a boy he had witnessed what he took to be a sexual assault upon his abusive mother. Taking a long-handled brush-clearer called a Kaiser blade (“Some folks call it a sling blade”, he explains; “I call it a Kaiser blade”) he had struck the man, killing him; realising that his mother was a willing participant he had then killed her too. Thornton attempts to capture this character through awkward mannerisms and facial expressions, vocal tics and a hesitancy when dealing with people (he stands on the Wheatleys’ porch without knocking, and sits passively while Doyle is thrown out after his party). He does a good job. As someone who has spent a lot of time around people with learning difficulties I especially thought that one of the truest aspects was habitual use of certain stock phrases. He uses the Kaiser blade phrase above twice, and also says twice of the Bible that he “can’t understand all of it, but I reckon I understood a good deal of it”. He also re-uses phrases or jokes he has heard others say, hurting Vaughan (John Ritter) when he describes him as “not funny ‘ha-ha’, funny queer”. A few characteristics are extraneous however – does Karl really have to walk around the entire time with his trousers at half-mast?

Karl (an almost unrecognisable Billy Bob Thornton) ponders
the big question - should he have mustard on his potaters?

But the fact of the matter is that Karl has not been prepared for the outside world. He has been institutionalised by his incarceration. Upon his release he attempts to return to hospital, saying that he doesn’t much care for being a free man. He is turned away. No preparation is made for what he will do once he is released; that is not the hospital’s responsibility. All that matters to them is that they consider him to be ‘well’. As a child he was kept in a shed by his parents; after he killed his mother he was incarcerated in a mental hospital. Karl had never had any greater perspective than the four walls around him. When asked to describe the outside world all he can say is that it is “too big”. He is confronted with choices and free will where he has never had them before. Faced with the entire range of choices at the Frostee Cream Karl only wants “French fried potaters”. French fries, biscuits, and maybe a little mustard – these are as far as his expressed desires go. But he learns the meaning of choice. When he killed his mother it was an instinctive reaction; when he kills Doyle it was because he chose to do it and planned to do it, making sure that those he cared about were out of the way first. He kills Doyle because he sees it as the best way to protect the people who, in turn, care for him.

It upset me that Karl ends up once again back in hospital. Having killed once he eventually kills again. The story has the element of a Shakespearean tragedy. I was hoping that Karl would be able to rehabilitate into society thanks to the charity shown him. The hospital administrator Jerry Woolridge at the hospital (James Hampton) gives Karl a room for the night and fixes him up with a job; Bill Cox (Rick Dial) employs him even knowing his history; local boy Frank (Lucas Black) befriends Karl, and his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday) lets him stay in her garage; Vaughan tries to set him up on a date. The latter three all attend his baptism. With Sling Blade’s languid pacing this would not have made a very enthralling film. I understand that dramatic necessity. Its implications for the treatment of other people with learning difficulties are unpleasant however – maybe they can never change their spots. When asked if he would ever kill again Karl only says that he doesn’t reckon that he has any reason to. When he is given a reason, he once again kills.

But this is maybe not an inherent part of Karl; more likely it is an inherent part of the world. A child trapped in a man’s body, he is continually presented with ‘adult themes and situations’. Mostly these revolve around Linda’s no-good boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam). Doyle is rude, prejudiced, dominating, drunken and inconsiderate. Due to his presence a lot of strong phrases get used: ‘I hate him’, ‘I’ll kill you’. How is a simple mind meant to process these ideas without any context? From the first it looks as though Karl’s murder of Doyle is pre-ordained. It is simply his fate to do so.

And people recognise this. My most uncomfortable thought is that people not only see this coming, but they plan for it. We can maybe say that Frank might not realise the implications of Karl leaving him his books and explaining that “Doesn’t matter where I was to be. We’ll always be friends”, but surely Vaughan must realise what is going to occur when Karl asks him to collect the Wheatleys and have them stay the night at his, leaving his earnings for them. Okay, Doyle, while drunk, does threaten to kill Linda should she leave him, but the first person to talk about killing is Frank, of Doyle. “I’d like to kill that sonofabitch. I hate him”, he says. “My daddy would kill him if he were still here and somebody was mean to mama”. And this is worse because Frank is looking for a proper father figure, either in Vaughan or in Karl. Karl remembers his own father (Robert Duvall, for the third time in four weeks) and how he mistreated him and caused the death of his brother. Karl wants to protect Frank like he was unable to protect his own brother. But Doyle never shows the out-and-out malice that Karl's parents seemed to. He only shoves Linda once she has shoved him first. When Frank starts throwing bottles at him, Doyle cowers on the floor. When Karl arrives to kill him, Doyle is seemingly resigned to his fate. From this reading Karl is used as a patsy to remove someone who is always talked up as being meaner than he actually is. Noticeably we see no sign that Frank comes to visit his friend in the hospital.

Maybe I am just over-analysing this. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is quite convincing, and it is painful to see him slide into committing an action which he knows is wrong. It is even more painful if you start to suspect that possibly he is being set up to do this by those he cares for and trusts. My personal reaction to the film was that I’d much rather never think of it again.

What have I learnt about Arkansas?
The state mental health services are distinctly lacking. There is no One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-style abuse, but there is a lack of care about what happens to its patients once they qualify for release. There is no formal support there. However, there is human charity out there, as shown by Jerry Wooldridge, the Wheatleys and Bill Cox. Yet even Karl’s friends refer to him as being “retarded”. And they are not being intentionally rude most of the time – that is the only way they can describe his situation. As a minority he is always going to stand out and attract comments – much as Vaughan does for being gay in a small town.

Can we go there?
As far as I can tell, Karl’s hometown of Millsburg, Arkansas, does not exist. Sling Blade was filmed in Arkansas though, in Benton, Saline County, 24 miles south of Little Rock on Interstate 30. The Benton Chamber of Commerce have produced a leaflet identifying the film’s locations. Vaughan and Karl have lunch at Gary’s Whopper Burger. Karl plays American football with Frank at the C. W. Lewis Stadium belonging to Benton High School. The Wheatley’s house is indeed “a lil’ ol’ white house on the corner of Vine Street and some other street”. The ‘other street’ is Main Street, and the house number is 522. And the state mental hospital scenes were shot at the Arkansas Health Center (formerly the Benton Farm Colony of the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases). Bill’s lawnmower repair shop has been torn down to make way for a bank however. I have to admit though, I’m not entirely sure why one would want to be hunting out these locations; small town Arkansas certainly doesn’t seem particularly picturesque.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 22 January 2012

True Grit (1969)

Dir. Henry Hathaway
Starring: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall

What is ‘true grit’? And who has it? Those are the questions that were posed in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit and the subsequent two films based on it. Last year I watched the 2010 Coen Brothers version; this year for the sake of my United States of Cinema challenge I am watching Henry Hathaway’s 1969 original.

I remember whilst watching the remake that there was only one answer that hit me as to who actually has grit: Mattie Ross. The teenager has come to Fort Smith to settle matters after the death of her father and to hire a U.S. Marshal to travel with her into Indian Territory to bring back the murderer for trial. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in that movie was a revelation, outdoing Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon with her determined cussedness to see justice done, whatever the circumstances.

Her predecessor in the role was Kim Darby. She set the template for gutsy wilfulness. In the 1969 version Mattie combines a certain naivety about the more squalid aspects of life with a steadfast belief in getting her way. The very first scene shows her organising her father’s affairs and providing him with spending money like an officious (but efficient) company secretary. Arriving in Fort Smith the young woman from near Dardanelle, Yell County, is treated to aspects of life she has never previously experienced such as a multiple hanging. She holds an almost religious faith in the powers of Lawyer Daggett. However she is still able to out horse-trade the local ostler however. Of course, her perspicacity and forthrightness can verge on rudeness, as when she calls out the value of the dumplings at her boarding house dinner. Her supreme moment though is when Cogburn and La Boeuf prevent her from boarding the ferry across the Arkansas River into Indian Territory. Instead she urges her mount, Little Blackie, into the water and together they swim across to the other shore. They even arrive there before the ferry. The only surprise is that she does not then demand her ten cents back from the ferryman! But after that Cogburn allows her to accompany them – she has impressed him with her determination.

The relationship between Mattie and her two elder companions is possibly one of the most interesting aspects of the film. This is a triangle where the three end points are constantly moving in relation to each other. The first point is the handsome young Texas Ranger La Boeuf (played, to my utter surprise, by musician Glen Campbell). His cowboy comes without rhinestones fortunately; there is, however, a load of compromising on the road to his horizon. He at first tries the charmer act on Mattie. He even admits that he was thinking of “stealin’ a kiss” from her. However his aims are diametrically opposed to hers. He wants to find Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer – but he wants to bring him to justice in Texas for the murder of a Texas senator, something that will win him a reward, renown, and the eye of a young woman of good family. Mattie is insistent that Chaney be brought to justice in Arkansas for her father’s murder instead. La Boeuf does not want her accompanying him on the journey across the river at all. He eventually comes to accept her, and it is interesting to see how he and Rooster play up to her, telling tales of bravado to out-do the other. He comes good in the end, showing his own grit when Mattie needs rescuing. Cogburn has to admit that the ‘Texican’ saved his neck twice.

One-eyed Rooster Cogburn is a hackneyed shoot-first-ask-questions later relic of the western frontier soaked in liquor, a man whose glory days have long-since passed. He describes himself as “a fat old man”. But he can still jump. There’s life in the old geezer yet and he enjoys proving it – he gets results, and when he can stay on his horse he can show any newcomers a thing or two. The same could be said of Western legend John Wayne, who finally won an Oscar for his performance here. I would not say that it is a flawless characterisation. He goes from ornery and lucid to ornery and dead-drunk in about two glugs of a whisky bottle. His drunkenness does not build up gradually the more he drinks; nor does he move in a permanent alcoholic fug as Jeff Bridges’ 2010 version seems to. But that quibble aside Wayne / Cogburn is there to remind people that he’s still got it. No wonder La Boeuf’s braggadocio gets on his wick. “If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies who ain’t drunk water from a hoofprint”, he exclaims, “I think I’ll… I’ll shake their hand or buy ‘em a Daniel Webster cigar!” He mocks the Texan’s Sharps carbine – too big, too loud, too showy, only useful if they were attacked by elephants. Used to shoot a turkey it damn near takes half the bird away with it. He also mocks his shooting. ‘The horse-killer from El Paso’, he calls him, implying to Mattie that La Boeuf probably fell asleep at the dug-out ambush site. There is a game of one-upmanship constantly going on, as both he and La Boeuf try and ‘out-man’ each other before Mattie. His feelings towards the girl are clearly paternal. He talks about how he never got on with his son, but when she swims across the river his look is one of pure pride. “By God”, he says, “she reminds me of me.” And the feeling is returned – she says that she would like him to be buried alongside her in the family plot. And his grit is shown in the climactic scene when he charges four outlaws on horseback, the reins between his teeth, blazing away with a gun in each hand.

Rhinestone Cowboys:
Glen Campbell joins John Wayne and Kim Darby
These three carry the movie. A few villains get screen time, but their villainy hardly seems up to scratch. Quincy (Jeremy Slate) appears a nasty piece of work, stabbing poor Moon (Dennis Hopper, playing much the same part as in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a young man who has fallen in with the wrong crowd but who wants to do the right thing in the end), but Moon points out that up until that point they had never had a cross word. Furthermore the gang’s leader, ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall, who after his silent turn in To Kill a Mockingbird finally gets some lines) is hardly a fearsome opponent, resorting to setting a guard over the captured Mattie rather than disposing of her. I can’t even remember what he was wanted for. Even double murderer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) cuts a rather pitiful figure. Shot by Mattie, he is astonished: “I didn’t think you’d do it” he mutters, before starting to bewail his fate. “Everything happens to me – now I’m shot by a child!”

It is nice to see much of this take place against a real location backdrop. Three horses galloping across a wide plain, a braided stream hemmed in by a rocky valley where the dug-out hut is located, the snow-capped peaks of lofty mountains cresting along the horizon. Fort Smith is remarkably well-kept for a frontier town on the very edge of Indian Territory however. When Mattie first arrives there, with her hat and gamine haircut, walking through the bright green parks of glorious Technicolor, the mountains behind, I expected her to burst into a verse of “The hills are alive with the sound of music!”  The bombastic Elmer Bernstein score doesn’t help. At first I was happy to hear all that classic Western brass blaring away; by the time Mattie is captured the constant whomp-whomp-whomping away on the kettle drum, seemingly regardless of whatever was occurring on screen, just served to rob the film of any tension or atmosphere. Whereas the soundtrack in, say, 3:10 to Yuma, fitted so perfectly to the action on screen that it was barely noticeable, here it became a real distraction by the end.

The 1969 version is a fine film, where the heroism of all three main characters finds full expression… but given the option I think I prefer the 2010 remake. Jeff Bridges is not as obviously charismatic as John Wayne, but he gives a more sustained performance as a ruined man in his cups. Wayne just looks too good to ever be discounted as a has-been. The Coen brothers’ version is earthier and darker – both in terms of colour palette and in atmosphere. Rather than 1969’s wide open meadows and awe-inspiring mountains 2010’s has claustrophobic woods where the hostile territory of the Indian nation presents an all-surrounding threat. Frankly in 1969 I never felt afraid for the characters. Without that sense of peril it was hard to be urging them on. In isolation however, the original film has plenty to recommend it.

What have I learnt about Arkansas?
There is not that much of the film that is set in Arkansas actually – I misremembered its setting. The Ross family live ina  little spot of paradise near Dardanelle, Yell County, in Arkansas, and a business trip to the ‘big city’ of Fort Smith is an event. Fort Smith is a frontier town however and across the river is the start of Indian territory – what we now know as ‘Oklahoma’. Over half the film therefore actually takes place in Oklahoma. But Arkansas in this case would be the last civilised land. There may be spots of civilisation over the river like McAlester’s store, but these are few and far between. It is only in Arkansas that the government’s writ runs. And even there people don’t seem to think much of the Texans to the south-west.

Can we go there?
No viewer can have failed to notice the majestic snow-capped mountains in the background of many scenes. That sort of mountains just don’t exist in Arkansas or Oklahoma. Straight away that tells you that you are looking at the Rockies, and a filming location somewhere far to the west of where the film is set. And indeed, location filming principally took place around Ouray, Colorado, ‘the Switzerland of America’. The courthouse scene in Fort Smith was filmed at the historic Ouray County Courthouse. The gang’s cave hideout and the rattlesnake pit are still present on private property up Camp Bird Road outside Ouray apparently. The Ross’s Arkansas homestead is west of town up Last Dollar Road and is also privately owned. You can find the site of Rooster’s charge at Ned Pepper’s gang near the top of Owl Creek Pass, outside Ridgway though. The riverside dug-out scene was shot by Hot Creek, just south of Mammoth Lakes, California, however.

Or you might just want to see where the film was supposed to be shot instead. Dardanelle, Mattie’s home town, is situated on the Arkansas River, roughly half-way between Little Rock and Fort Smith, Arkansas’s two largest cities. Fort Smith still has traces of its frontier past, with a historic downtown district that includes the only former brothel on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Judge Parker’s courthouse still stands; known as ‘the Hanging Judge’ Parker sentenced 160 people to death in just 21 years’ service here. Rooster would be proud to know that Fort Smith is to be the home of the National U.S. Marshals Museum. The route taken in the movie then crosses into Oklahoma and heads south-west past McAlester’s Store – now the city of McAlester. But we won't be reaching Oklahoma until September!

Overall Rating: 3/5

Friday, 20 January 2012

Week 4: Arkansas

"You can tell your ma
 I moved to Arkansas;
 You can tell your dog to bite my leg..."
 - 'Achy Breaky Heart',
 Billy Ray Cyrus

Arkansas - some how to British eyes it has become the butt of a million jokes, the most backwoods of a whole host of backwoods states. Other than its weird pronunciation - that we only ever got right once Billy Ray hit the charts - what is it famous for? 

Well, Bill Clinton was state Governor before he became President... And a friend of mine once broke a road-trip in Little Rock and was really impressed by the college-y bar scene there, an endorsement that ever since has made me think that there was somehow more to plain ol' Arkansas that met the eye. Maybe it is really one of America's hidden gems...?

Hoping to find out, here are Week 4's three Arkansanian (?) films:
  • True Grit (1969)
  • Sling Blade (1996)
  • Rosalie Goes Shopping (1990)

I was originally going to watch the 2010 Coen Brothers version of True Grit alongside the 1969 original, but a) I watched it less than six months ago, b) I've already got plenty of Coen Brothers movies lined up, and c) it was pointed out to me that half the film occurs in what is today Oklahoma. And so in comes Rosalie Goes Shopping, a film of which I have never before heard, to replace it.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Raising Arizona (1987)

Dir. Joel Cohen
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, Trey Wilson, John Goodman

There once was an actor called Nicolas Cage. He played larger-than-life antiheroes in indie films such as Wild at Heart, Red Rock West and Honeymoon in Vegas. He was very good. He graduated to blockbusters, turning in pretty decent performances in The Rock and Face/Off. But then he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas. And since then he has been turning out some awful films. I admit, I’ve not seen guff such as The Family Man, Ghost Rider, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Season of the Witch or – worst of all – an ill-advised version of The Wicker Man set in Canada. However I have had the misfortune to see him in Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. And that would be that. Except that he was great in 2010’s Kick Ass and got really good write-ups in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Raising Arizona relies heavily on the viewer finding Nicolas Cage’s character H.I. “Hi” McDunnough sympathetic, amusing and charismatic. Thankfully the film dates from 1987, right in Cage’s purple patch. He turns in a great performance – goofy, physical, charming. I was certainly rooting for him.

The plot of Raising Arizona is pretty basic: Person A has a Macguffin, Persons B, C, D & E want the Macguffin. What gives the film heart, though, is the nature of the Macguffin. In this case it is a baby. Serial convenience-store stick-up merchant Hi goes straight after leaving prison for the umpteenth time, having fallen in love with the police officer who always takes his mugshots. This police officer is Ed, played by Holly Hunter. They marry, settle down into their desert trailer home and are happy. But there is one thing missing – a baby. Ed finds out that she is infertile, and Hi’s criminal past precludes them from adoption. It looks like theirs will be a childless marriage. Until, that is, they hear the news about the ‘Arizona Quints’ – the five babies of local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson). Figuring that they would be doing him and his wife a favour, they kidnap one of the babies (“probably” Nathan Jr.). After that the police and the FBI are the least of their worries.

Hi there Hi! Nic Cage on a good day

All the characters are drawn larger than life, from Hi and Ed right down to the one-scene wonder FBI agents. Bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) is a burly ogre of a man with a surprisingly soft voice, the ‘Lone Biker of the Apocalypse’. Hi’s escaped prison buddies are played with panache by a wonderful John Goodman as Gale and William Forsythe as his dumb-as-a-plank brother Evelle. Hi’s boss and his wife (Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand) are just ghastly. Really, genuinely, terrible, terrible people. I feel ill just thinking about their hobby. And where I expected Nathan Arizona to be a clichéd local big-man and an undeserving father I was completely wrong-footed – he loves his children and his wife, and he is the source of good advice. This all comes complete with an Arizona sunset backdrop, a soundtrack that swerves from old time banjos and yodels to Vangelis-alike synths to Beethoven’s 9th, and enough broad slapstick to keep a 10-year-old interested.

What have I learnt about Arizona?
The police are very trigger-happy… and seem to have unlimited ammunition. In fact it seems to be no problem getting hold of guns, whether you are a just-escaped convict or a convenience store clerk. Also, it rains more than I would have suspected in the ‘Valley of the Sun’.

Can we go there?
Yes you can. The film was shot entirely on location in the ‘Valley of the Sun’ (the Phoenix, Arizona wider metropolitan area). It is specifically set in Tempe, Arizona, just south-east across the Salt River from Phoenix. The McDunnough’s home was actually filmed slightly further north in Scottsdale however, as Camelback Mountain can be seen in the background. If you go up there pop by Cavalliere's Reata Pass western bar and restaurant - it doubled as the hayseed bank in La Grange that Gale and Evelle hold up. Hi and Ed’s  meal with Glen and Dot took place further away though - east of Tempe out in the Sonoran Desert near Apache Junction, in the rather wonderfully-named Lost Dutchman State Park, at the foot of the (also rather wonderfully-named) Superstition Mountains.

Overall Rating: 3/5

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Dir. James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Peter Fonda

What a difference fifty years make.

In 1957, the same year as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was released, another Western set in 1880s Arizona got great reviews – an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story by the name of 3:10 to Yuma. Fifty years later a remake by James Mangold opened in cinemas, and it is fascinating to compare this film with the earlier Gunfight

The plot centres on two very different characters: rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and outlaw leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Down on his luck and with his land parched by drought Dan offers to form part of a deputised posse escorting the captured Wade, leader of a gang of ruthless robbers, to meet the prison train which will ferry him to prison and execution at Yuma. He does this for the salary of $200, which will help to pay off some of the debt he owes to local bigwig Hollander who wants his land for construction of the railroad. However, the remainder of Wade’s gang, now led by the cold-blooded but ferociously loyal Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) are still out there, and it is only a matter of time before they catch up with the outnumbered escort party to free their leader.

What this stew serves up is a tense and dramatic flight through Arizona from Bisbee to Contention City. And all the way through the camera focuses on these two different men – the desolate gaze of the one-legged rancher making one last throw of the dice and the sardonic calmness of the criminal who knows that help is coming.

In the world of Gunfight Evans would have been playing his part because it was the right thing to do. Here he only joins up for the promise of pay, money that could save his ranch. Hollander can torch Evans’s barn with impunity or stop up the watercourse before it crosses his fence-line, and there is nothing a law-abiding man can do to prevent him. In the world of Gunfight all the posse would have been acting out of their better natures, but here it is quite clear that the lines between the white hats and black hats are not so clear-cut. Grizzled Pinkerton agent McElroy (Peter Fonda) massacred Apache women and children. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), the representative of the railroad, is determined to press charges against Wade for his twenty-two robberies and $400,000 in damage to property; as Wade wryly comments: “Y’all notice he didn’t mention any of the lives I’ve taken?” Evans’s son William (Logan Lerman) is drawn towards the romance of the cowboy life. And in comparison Wade is not all bad, no matter how hard he tries to deny that fact. He is a cultured man, given to quoting from the Bible and sketching wildlife. He has a dangerous charm and an cool efficiency about his actions – after sizing up the attempted stagecoach robbery he quickly uses the available resources (Evans’s herd of cattle) to bring the action to a decisive close. It is he who saves the rest of the party from the Apache ambush and he who thinks of the way to cut off pursuit from the railroad camp. He uses the bare minimum of actions to bring about his ends. The contrast with bonny Charlie Prince in his swanky leather coat and his pistol twirling could not be greater. In the end, in this rough frontier, money talks louder than morals. The Contention marshals appear to guard Wade because Butterfield pays them to; when the odds no longer favour them they quit – as Butterfield does too. And meanwhile the townsfolk of Contention are far from the God-fearing peaceable folk Gunfight would have one believe populated the Old West; when Charlie promises $200 to anyone who shoots one of Wade’s guards they run to grab their rifles. Loyalties are easily bought. The man with the money calls the play. As Evans realises, when he was compensated for the loss of his leg during the war (compensation to the tune of $198.36), the government wasn’t paying him to make right his loss, they were paying him to make right their consciences. “They weren’t paying me to walk away, they were paying me so they could walk away.”

But when Dan alone remains to get Wade on that train the outlaw offers to increase his pay to $400, $1,000 even, money that could change his family’s life. But as the rains break in the distance over Bisbee Dan finds a new resolution. It is not about the money anymore, after all. It is about standing for something and acting as an example to his sons. Before he left he told his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) that he knew no one would think less of him for refusing the job, but only because no one could think less of him – “I’m tired of watching my boys go hungry. I’m tired of the way they look at me. I’m tired of the way that you don’t.” 

This sets up one hell of an explosive climax. As Evans runs Ben through town towards the station the entire city turns out to stop him. The action is fast and frenetic, like a shoot ‘em up computer game, as foes pop up from behind barrels, fire out of doorways, appear on roof tops. From the clock striking three exactly ten minutes of screen-time pass before 3:10, when the steam train to Yuma should pull into the station. Dan has made sure that the railroad representatives will take care of his family; now he just has his example to leave them. “Just you remember”, he tells his eldest son, “that your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would.”

Stealing the show:
Charlie gets the drop on McElroy
I really liked this film. The camera loves Crowe and Bale. This is important because if they weren’t so strong at the centre of the story there would otherwise be a danger that Ben Foster, last seen as the creepy stranger in 30 Days of Night, might steal the show with his flamboyant portrayal of the deadly Charlie Prince. I found it hard to tear my eyes away from any single scene, be it the stagecoach hold-up at the start, Wade’s cat-and-mouse conversations with his captors, the perfect setting at the railroad labour camp (which featured an unexpected little cameo from Luke Wilson), or the final hour in Contention as the clock ticked oh-so-slowly down towards 3:10.

What have I learnt about Arizona?
Despite the tales Hollywood has spun there were no good guys and bad guys. The folks that made the money could do whatever they wanted, and people could soon devolve to their baser natures for money or revenge. Yet there was loyalty, such as that shown by Charlie towards Ben, and there was honour, as Ben finally shows at the station. And there was a pecking order. Apaches could be massacred. Chinese could work as slaves. That was fine, because they weren’t held to have the same value as a white person; and even then the lives of whites were cheaply lost.

Can we go there?
Hell, if you made it as far as Tombstone it seems only right that you continue another few miles to Bisbee. Old Bisbee is now a successful, gay-friendly artists’ colony and tours can be made of the old Copper Queen Mine on the edge of town. You can also hike to Contention City – or what remains of it. It was abandoned not long after the film was set, and all that remains now are a few crumbling walls. It is easier to get there from Tombstone than it is from Bisbee. And finally, even though the film never shows Yuma, tourists are welcome to visit the notorious Yuma Territorial Prison the hell-hole on the Colorado River that housed inmates up until 1909 and is now a State Historical Park. In fact, on the day of writing, the Prison was housing a ‘Gathering of Gunfighters’ – maybe even the ghosts of Ben Wade’s gang. You can even get there on the train – the nearest station to Contention now is Benson, half-way between Tombstone and Tucson.

With all this great history lying around in southern Arizona it’s a real shame that the wonderful location scenes that served to add so much more flavour than Gunfight’s sound-stages were actually shot in northern New Mexico, around Santa Fe. The Bonanza Creek Ranch was used as the site of Bisbee in the film (it also appeared in The Man from Laramie, Easy Rider and Young Guns). Contention City was created from scratch at the Cerro Pelon Ranch in North Galisteo; the owner (fashion designer Tom Ford) requested that the set be left in place afterwards. The Apache ambush took place in the Diablo Canyon west of Santa Fe. The Chinese labour camp was sited at the Gilman Tunnels on State Road 485 in the Santa Fe National Forest. Another shooting location was well north of the city at the Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu which was formerly home to artist Georgia O’Keeffe. Other films shot there include City Slickers, Wild Wild West (where it stood in for Utah), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (where it stood in for Nevada) and Cowboys and Aliens (also set in Arizona).

Overall Rating: 5/5