Sunday, 29 April 2012

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)

Dir. Michael Apted
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverley D’Angelo, Levon Helm

“I was born a coal miner’s daughter  
 In a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler; 
 We were poor, but we had love, 
 That’s the one thing that daddy made sure of; 
 He shovelled coal to make a poor man’s dollar…”
 And there, in the lyrics of a song by Loretta Lynn, is the plot of Coal Miner’s Daughter.

The film tells the story of Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), one of country music’s biggest stars. It takes the viewer from her childhood in a shack in the Kentucky coal-mining hamlet of Butcher Hollow, through to her headlining stadium tours as “the first lady of country”. There are plenty of thrills and spills along the way: married at aged 13, a mother of four by age 20, a grand-mother by 29. Her husband Doolittle (a shockingly young Tommy Lee Jones) spots her talent for singing and encourages her to learn the guitar, to perform in honky-tonks, and to write her own material. She gets her big break through sheer dogged persistence, cutting a record and then driving from radio station to radio station to get it on the air. She appears at Nashville’s famous Grand Ol’ Opry and makes friends with Patsy Cline (Beverley D’Angelo), the queen of country. She tours with Cline, and when Cline dies in a plane crash Lynn continues solo. Through all the twists and turns her volatile relationship with Doolittle provides a counterpoint.

Quite remarkably, Spacek and Jones seem to age with their characters. Spacek is unsettlingly believable as a pubescent, and then matures into a hot-tempered young woman and then a more matronly country star. She is aware of her failings all the way through. She is not an educated girl and she knows it. But she’s smart - “I may be ign’ant, but I’m not stooped” she says. Yet others may look down on her. One radio station manager tells her to “come off that dumb hillbilly act”; Doo replies “If you knew Loretta, you’d know that ain’t no act.” At first she has to be talked into each new step. The game changer is when she and Doo return to Butcher Hollow for her father’s funeral. It is then that she is able to tell Doo that she wants to be a singer, she wants it so bad. Jones too fills out from his fluorescent-haired youth into a stronger man. He has an enviable drive and determination (“that son of a gun Doolittle don’t know the meanin’ of the word ‘quit’!”) This is first seen when he bets that he can drive his jeep up a steep spoil heap. He sets his sights on Loretta, and he wins her. He then determines to make her a star, which he does. But what then? He gets her to the pinnacle, so what is left for him to drive towards. He feels like a spare part. Eventually he vacates himself from the tour and gets a job as a car mechanic, indulging in his love of vehicles. But he is always there when Loretta needs him. Even at the end of the film their relationship is still strong. He decides to surprise her by building her a new house, with a view over the trees that reminds them of Kentucky. They get to arguing about where the bedroom will be. He growls “like a big ol’ bear” and threatens to divorce her and move out to a treehouse. They laugh. He may have hit her, he may have (almost) cheated on her, but dat-gone it, they still love each other. He had always been her drive, her inspiration and her support.

It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well:
Doo (Jones) and Loretta (Spacek) go to show you never can tell

But there was one more contributing factor to her success. She wasn’t some groomed and manufactured pop commodity. She was real. She came from the poorest of backgrounds and wound up a star, giving hope to thousands. In the title song she says “I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter / I remember well the well where I drew water…” Because she draws upon her own real-life experiences – from her impoverished but loving upbringing to her start singing in honky-tonks, up to her struggles to keep her man – there is a truth in her lyrics that appeals to people. They have lived through the same experiences and can relate to her lyrics. There is a personal connection between audience and star. And that is what gives her her success. Butcher Hollow is indeed the well where she drew water…

I think the biggest question to ask of any biographical film is: does it stand up on its own as a film even when you know nothing about the character being portrayed? This is a very good question to ask of Coal Miner’s Daughter. While I had heard of Loretta Lynn I couldn’t name any of her hits. I did know peripherally of Patsy Cline, but country music really isn’t my bag. And, yes: the plot does hold up. There was nothing that required specialist knowledge, there were no in-jokes or references that I could spot, and the story was pretty much universal: poor girl struggles up from nothing to become a star. And this wasn’t just history. At the time the film came out Loretta Lynn was only 45. She sat in the audience at the Academy Awards to see Spacek win the Best Actress Oscar for playing her (bizarrely, at the same time the boxer Jake LaMotta was also sat in the audience to see Rober DeNiro’s portrayal of him win the Best Actor Oscar too).

In the film when Loretta Lynn has to sing, that’s Sissy Spacek singing, live. When Patsy Cline has to sing, that’s Beverley D’Angelo singing. Strangely there is one genuine musician in the cast – Levon Helm, formerly of The Band, who plays the coal miner of the title, Loretta’s father Ted Webb. Helm himself died less than a fortnight ago at the time of writing.

What have I learnt about Kentucky?
I said earlier that in my head Kentucky and Tennessee tend to become a little conflated. Coal Miner’s Daughter states in its credits that it is filmed in both states, and there is a criss-crossing between the two. Kentucky has country music, but the pinnacle of country is the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. The two states have (or had) a chain of small local radio stations devoted to country music scattered all over them. To my ears there is a subtle distinction between the polished up glitzy stadium country played in Nashville and the older folk music of the hills. Compare Lynn’s box-ticking You’re Lookin’ At Country with a song she sings much earlier in the film, a ballad called The Titanic… or indeed the harmonies of the funeral crowd singing Amazing Grace.

In terms of visuals, the opening scenes of Kentucky in the ‘40s show it as a tough land. “If you’re born in Kentucky you’ve got three choices: coal mine, moonshine, or move it on down the line…” Men blackened with coal dust climbing from the mines, long walks up hillsides studded with bare trees, snowflakes drifting to the ground. This is coal country. People are poor but family-oriented. And marriage at 13, while regrettable, is not illegal (as I say, this is the ‘40s we are talking about). Maybe I was wrong with my earlier assumption that Kentucky is wealthy.

Can we go there?
The movie was shot on location wholly in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Even the bits set in Washington state.

Chief among locations has, of course, to be Butcher Hollow. This is part of the larger settlement of Van Lear in Johnson County, eastern Kentucky. (It’s obviously a musical part of the world; her younger sister is better known as the singer Crystal Gayle and yet another country musician, Dwight Yoakam – who appeared as the abusive Doyle in Sling Blade – was born in nearby Pikeville). The Consolidated Coal Company founded Van Lear in the early 1900s, and the mines were in operation up until the 1940s. The town still hosts a Coal Miners’ Museum and a period general store, now known as Webb’s Store. It is owned by Herman Webb, Loretta’s brother, who runs tours up to their childhood home in Butcher Hollow.

And the real-life locations were used in the film. That deep valley looking down onto the train tracks? That is Van Lear. Likewise the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, was used for filming, as was the Loretta Lynn ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. Tours of the ranch take place, where visitors can see ‘Loretta’s Plantation Home, Butcher Holler Home Place & Simulated Coal Mine’. That Butcher Holler Home Place is the cabin constructed for the film to stand in for her actual childhood home. There is also an 18,000 sq ft Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum. Other Tennessee locations include Franklin: Loretta and Doo spent their wedding night at a long-out-of-action motor court nearby, and the WSM radio tower and WAGG radio station were visited on the Lynn’s road trip.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Friday, 27 April 2012

Week 18:Kentucky

"Spread your wings for New Orleans
 Kentucky bluebird,
 Fly away..."
 - 'Message to Michael',
 Dionne Warwick

As our train rolls off down the track my first thought was that Kentucky has a lot of similarities with its southern neighbour Tennessee. You know: country music an' all.

But then I started to think. And actually, Kentucky has lots of unique identifiers. There's the cuisine - the wings mentioned above could well be hot wings. The famous Kentucky Fried Chicken (made to the Colonel's secret recipe) originates here, and we can wash it down with bourbon. They have - rather annoyingly for a United fan at present - their blue moon of Kentucky, their bluegrass music and their actual blue grass: poa pratensis. This Kentucky bluegrass shimmers across the landscape, cropped by thoroughbred horses. So there are estates stocked with the finest mounts in the Western hemisphere and the solid presence of Fort Knox (home to at least part of the U.S. gold reserves): this could well be a very wealthy state. Not what I first imagined at all.

Before we spread our wings for New Orleans there's the minor issue of three films to watch. This week I shall be checking out:

  • Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
  • The Insider (1999)
  • Racing Stripes (2005)

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie

South-east Kansas, 1928, and passions are bubbling up waiting to explode like the oil from a gusher.

Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty in his first film role) is the high school American football and basketball captain. He is also the only son of Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle), head of the local oil company that has made the townsfolk rich. Fellow classmate Deanie (Wilma Dean Loomis to give her full name), played by the luminously doe-eyed Natalie Wood, is his girl. But their love for each other battles with more… earthy passions. They have reached a stage in their relationship where, as the film’s posters stated “suddenly the kissing isn’t a kid’s game anymore, suddenly it’s wide-eyed, scary and dangerous”. Each of them struggle to reign in their raging hormones. But in 1920s Kansas, to whom can they turn for advice on all matters sexual? Only their parents. Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) warns her to not give in to her desire: “Boys don’t respect a girl they can go all the way with; they want a nice girl for a wife”. At the same time Bud’s father is fretting that if Deanie should become pregnant by his son the pair would have to wed, derailing all his plans for Bud to graduate from Yale and come back to a management position when his oil company inevitably gets acquired by a big east coast concern. His solution to Bud’s dilemma is that he should instead find himself a different sort of girl, with whom he can indulge himself.

Wealth and morals intertwine in this tale. Bud and Deanie do genuinely seem besotted with each other, but they come from (slightly) different backgrounds. Ace refers to Deanie as being “poor”. In actual fact she is from a nice middle-class shop-owning family who own thousands of dollars of shares in the oil company. They get invited to black-tie New Year’s Eve balls and she clearly has enough money for frequent changes of dress. They are just poor compared to the Stampers. Ace is looking to start a dynasty. In comparison Mrs Loomis is overjoyed at the prospect of her daughter marrying in to the Stampers’ wealth. The one weapon Deanie has in this unequal fight is her virginity. Mrs Loomis urges her to keep it as the way to snare Bud into wedlock; Mr Stamper fears that should she lose it to his son, Bud would have to marry her. They approach the subject from different sides of the debate, leaving poor Deanie the victim of her passions in the middle.

But it goes further than this. Mrs Loomis is deeply sexually repressed by today’s standards. She tells Deanie that her father “never laid a hand on me until we were married. Then I… I just gave in because a wife has to. A woman doesn’t enjoy those things the way a man does. She just lets her husband come near her in order to have children.” In comparison, Mr Stamper is happy with his double standards. He later puts Bud’s disinterest at Yale down to another infatuation; he attempts to remedy the situation by procuring him a showgirl for the night. He gladly divides the entirety of womanhood into two camps – good girls and the other sort, with whom one can guiltlessly slake ones needs.

The trouble for him is that he knows full well which camp his daughter Ginny falls. For my money Barbara Loden gives the performance of the film as Ginny, the flapper stranded in rural Kansas. Expelled from college, running with a loose crowd up in Chicago, she is brought back to Kansas to escape an annulled marriage and “one of those awful surgeries”. She turns up with a flapper wardrobe and a ukulele, rolling her stockings down and singing songs, running off with bootleggers and drinking. Is it any wonder that the local men identify her as a bad girl. This culminates in a horrible scene where they queue up to take advantage of her drunken state at the New Year’s ball. The inference that I took away with me is that she was, essentially, gang raped by a crowd of young men in black tie. I felt that she was a fascinating character, her desire to enjoy herself warring with her desire for her daddy’s approval. There is a certain self-loathing to her character. At one point she snaps at Bud, "If you weren't my brother you wouldn't even come near me. You're a nice boy. I know what you nice boys are like - you only talk to me in the dark!" And I felt that hers was a fascinating story – one that we barely get to glimpse. After the ball she disappears from the screen. We later hear that she died in a car accident, a fact presented by Mrs Loomis with a very ‘well, what can you expect of a girl like her?’ tone of voice. (Eight years later Barbara Loden went on to marry Splendor’s director, Elia Kazan, twenty-two years her senior).

Everyone's wild about Ginny
(she's the talk of the town...)

To be honest, the story is largely timeless. While it is set in 1928-9 I think the subject matter would have been just as relevant in 1961. It even has some relevance today. In many ways the film is very modern: the first half has a very recognisable high-school setting, with male and female students studying together, casting longing looks at the football captain and fumbling in the backseat of the car. John Hughes must have learnt all he knew from this film. The modernity of the setting struck me as anachronistic, just because I had never seen the 1920s depicted in this way. It is a time when every schoolboy seems to own a car, where they drive up lover’s lane to make out at the waterfall, and where the female lead has a pretty dress for every different scene.  Bud even goes to a pizzeria in Connecticut, though he admits he doesn’t know what a pizza is (and it’s an Italian New Haven pizza, not a Portuguese Mystic Pizza).

The handling of the teens’ turbulent passions is well played, but for me it verges into melodrama in the second half of the film. After Bud follows his father’s advice by indulging himself with the young, willing and able Juanita (Jan Norris) Deanie cracks up. Convinced by her mother that only bad girls have those sort of urges she models herself of Ginny and tries to seduce Bud at the prom (“Deanie, you’re a nice girl!” “I’m not. I’m not a nice girl.”) When he rejects her she attempts suicide, and is confined to a sanatarium for the next few years. Getting out she finds Bud married to his Italian waitress and managing a struggling ranch, his family’s fortunes having been wiped out by the stock market crash. She herself accepts a proposal from a fellow patient at the hospital. Are they happy? Probably not, but too much water has slipped under the bridge as they ruefully acknowledge. They cannot go back now and, freed from their parents meddling, try to reignite that spark. The film ends with Deanie reciting the words of the Wordsworth poem from which the film takes its name:
“Though nothing can bring back the hour                        
 Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind…”

What have I learnt about Kansas?
I was surprised when In Cold Blood mentioned that Kansas was home to natural gas. And Splendor in the Grass has taught me that it is also home to oil reserves – or that the south-east corner of it was in the late 1920s anyway. This was big business and made whole towns wealthy – as long as they sold their shares prior to the stock market crash. Bud describes the area as “quiet” Ginny describes it as “the ugliest place in the whole world. Everywhere you look there’s an oil well, even on the front lawn.”   

Can we go there?
The film is set in South-East Kansas, though nowhere in the movie does it specify where. The screenwriter, playwright William Inge, stated that he based the drama loosely on people that he knew growing up in Kansas in the 1920s. This would mean that the featured community would be modelled on that of Independence, Kansas. In particular Ace Stamper can be seen as a stand in for real-life Independence citizen and oil magnate Harry F. Sinclair, who formed Sinclair Oil and ran Prairie Oil and Gas (like Ace, Harry was also lame in one leg, though this dated from a hunting accident rather than from falling off a derrick. I must admit though that I’m not sure whether Ace’s limp was an original part of the script; Pat Hingle, who played him, had his own limp following a near-fatal 1960 fall down a lift shaft). Sinclair’s 1906 mansion can be seen at 215 South Fifth Street. Independence Community College, Inge’s former school, now houses the William Inge Center of the Arts. And there was a sanitarium in Wichita.

However, the Kansas scenes were not shot in Independence. The scenes in Bud and Deanie’s hometown – and the Wichita Sanatarium and Yale college – were all filmed in New York. Interiors were mostly shot at Filmways Studio in East Harlem. Horace Mann High School  in the Bronx stood in for Bud and Ginny’s school. The Loomis house and other Kansas scenes were shot on Staten Island, on Victory Road in the west coast area of Travis. Bud’s ranch was shot on Long Island, specifically on Beaver Dam Road in Brookhaven. The North Campus of the City College of New York was used for Yale, even when New Haven is not too far along the Connecticut shore from NYC. The waterfall was a distance from Manhattan though – those scenes were shot at High Falls in the Catskills.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Capote (2005)

Dir. Bennett Miller
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Bruce Greenwood

In November 1959 Perry Smith and Richard Hickock killed a family of four in a burglary gone wrong. Celebrated author Truman Capote travelled out to investigate the effects of the slayings on the Kansas town of Holcomb. When the perpetrators were apprehended he switched his attention to them as well. In 1965 he published a book about the case, entitled In Cold Blood. Two years later a film dramatisation of that book was released. This was the film I watched earlier in the week. And in 2005 the film Capote was released. This film chronicles the genesis of that original ‘non-fiction novel’. (A second film, Infamous, was released about exactly the same subject matter the following year with an intriguing cast that included Toby Jones as Capote, Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, Daniel Craig as Perry, Jeff Daniels as Dewey as well as Sigourney Weaver and Gwyneth Paltrow).

In Capote the novelist Truman Capote is portrayed as a talented author and raconteur, a sensitive man clinging on to scraps of affection, a manipulative liar, a determined and ambitious individual, a vain monomaniac. He has many different strands that are teased out by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance. He spots a story in a grisly killing and travels out from his world of New York cocktail parties to the small Kansas town of Holcomb. At first the locals shy away from him: he is alien and tactless. It is up to his friend Nelle – otherwise known as Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) – to smooth their ruffled feathers. In the end he wins his way into the right circles simply because he is a celebrity. His tales of Humphrey (Bogart) and John (Huston) sprinkle a little bit of stardust over the Kansas prairie and get him an ‘in’ into the investigation. When the killers are caught and charged he gets access to them. In particular he establishes a connection with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.)… or maybe Smith establishes a connection with Capote. He sees there is more than an article in this case, there is a whole book. But he needs access to Smith and Hickock. He provides them with a lawyer so that they can appeal for a stay of execution, giving him more time to winkle the details out of Smith. He starts to write. But he needs an ending. As the killers appeal again and are granted another stay of execution he starts to feel frustrated. He complains of the “torture” of not being able to complete his work. Smith keeps contacting him, asking for another lawyer to handle their appeal. Truman ignores it. Eventually all legal recourse runs out. The killers have a date with the gallows. Truman is there to see them die. He gets the ending to his novel, but the implication is that his guilt overpowers him. He put his own work and ambition before the lives of two men who considered him a friend. He betrayed them. He tries to justify himself down the phone-line to Nelle: “There wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” “Maybe not,” she bites back, “but the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

Truman Capote comes out of the film a not very sympathetic character. He enjoys being the centre of attention. He pays a railway porter to praise his work in front of Nelle. When her own work, To Kill A Mockingbird, is made into a movie (a very good one as I have already seen this year) Capote mutters that he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. He tends to steer conversations back to himself. He lies again and again to Perry, whether it is about the book’s title, his progress in writing it, or about the man’s sister missing him (she actually warned Truman that he was a violent killer). He essentially abandons Perry for a year while he flies off to Spain. Coming back he does nothing to find the pair a new lawyer. Having raised their hopes by buying them more time so that he could write his book, their continued existence is now depriving him of the ending he craves. But just as the consequences of their actions finally catch up with Smith and Hickock, so they do with Capote. His book is a smash and reinvents fiction, but he never finishes another work. He has to carry the guilt of his actions with him forever more.

All he said was "I could murder a cup o' tea"...

 The film is about the clashes of two contradictory impulses. Truman talks of two worlds existing in the US, “the quiet conservative life and the life of those two men – the underbelly, the criminally violent. Those two worlds converged that bloody night.”  He wants to explore that clash. But there is clash between him with his Bergdorf mufflers and the folk of Holcomb with their Sears & Roebuck hats. And there is the clash within him between his ego and his compassion. His partner Jack (Bruce Greenwood) seems first to be jealous of the time Truman spends with Nelle, and then the attention he gives to Perry, even accusing Capote of having fallen in love with the man. Yet there are links too. Perry’s tales about his unhappy childhood remind Truman of his own. He tells Nelle that it is “as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” Perry becomes a man who would slit your throat. Truman just becomes a man who would stab you in the back. There is steel behind the shrill giggles and camp hand gestures. The folks of Holcomb never really forgave Truman Capote for concentrating on the murderers rather than the murdered; I’m not sure that the ghosts of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith would ever forgive him for abusing their trust.

I found watching In Cold Blood invaluable to my understanding of Capote. Perry’s limp and need for aspirin are never explained in Capote. References to being “Cornered” and “the warehouse” only make sense once you know Perry is referring to the location of the gallows. The downside is that after the visceral impact of In Cold Blood, Capote just feels a little extraneous.

What have I learnt about Kansas?
The film In Cold Blood showed the wind and rain of Kansas. Capote shows its snow. The words ‘cold’ and ‘exposed’ spring to mind.

Admittedly, the film is set in the early ‘60s, but there are one or two elements of the Kansas depicted that seem, well, backward. Certain parts of the state have banned Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And the prison governor had to decide whether a man with a Cherokee parent would count as ‘white’ or not for the purposes of jailing him; the implication being that non-whites have an even less pleasant time of it than whites. However the Kansans openness and trust compare favourably to manipulative big city types like Truman.

Can we go there?
Again, the same places appear as in In Cold Blood: Holcomb, the Clutter house, the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, the ‘Corner’. However director Bennett Miller took a different tack to Richard Brooks. Rather than setting the action in the exact same locations as the original crime the action in Capote isn’t even set in the same country. Filming took place in Manitoba, Canada. Winnipeg and the town of Selkirk to its north, stood in for Holcomb (when the murderers first arrive they are walked up the steps of the Manitoba State Legislature, and Gilbart’s Funeral Home in Selkirk is where Truman finds the coffins of the Clutters). And the Stony Mountain Institution in Rockwood stood in for the prison in Lansing. Interior scenes were not filmed on location; old fixtures and fittings such as toilets and sinks from the prison were used on set however.

In fact, only one section was filmed in the U.S. as far as I can make out. Those scenes on the Costa Brava in Spain? Malibu in California.

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 22 April 2012

In Cold Blood (1967)

Dir. Richard Brooks
Starring: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart

When I sat down to watch In Cold Blood I did not know what to expect. I knew the basic overview, that it was the dramatisation of a book written by Truman Capote about a real life 1959 crime in which a family of four were murdered during a robbery. What I did not know was that the film would be so fascinating to watch.

The film opens with Perry Smith (Robert Blake), a quiffed leather-jacket-wearing young man, riding the bus through the night to Kansas City, Missouri. At the bus station he places a panicking call to a prison chaplain who warns him not to set foot in Kansas as to do so would be to break the terms of his parole. Meanwhile a car drives to meet him, behind the wheel is Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock (Scott Wilson), a man with a plan. His plan is to drive four hundred miles west through Kansas to the farm of the Clutter family. He has it on authority from a former cell-mate that Mr Clutter keeps $10,000 in a safe in his office. They plan to break in, steal the money, and escape to Mexico. Their inability to find black stockings to hide their faces is not a problem; they plan to leave no witnesses

The next morning the bodies are found. The FBI are called to the scene. The killings seem pointless – rather than $10,000 all that was taken was $43, a radio and a pair of binoculars. And apart from two boot-prints no evidence has been left behind. No evidence, no clues, no witnesses. The police would need a miracle to crack the case. Thankfully instead they have two criminals making bad decision after bad decision. The smooth-talking Hickock raises funds by liberally spreading around bad cheques, getting credit or pawning his purchases. They then escape south, over the border to Mexico. Before long, however, they have spent all their loot on living expenses – hotels, food, and (in Hickock’s case) whores. With the remainder of their cash they buy two tickets back to the U.S. They hitchhike from California to Iowa, where they steal a car. They then head back to down to Las Vegas where they are arrested – Dick’s former cell-mate has notified the police of his interest in the Clutters. Their footwear matches the boot-prints found at the Clutter farm. Confronted with this evidence they finally confess. It had taken six months to hunt them down. A jury takes just forty minutes to convict them.

And then something strange happens. The film does not end with the conviction. The story is finished off the only way it can: with their deaths. There is a final coda as the pair of them wait on Death Row, issuing appeal against appeal. Each appeal is refused. And then on the morning of 14th April 1965 they are taken out one after the other to the old tin-roofed warehouse known as ‘The Corner’ where they are executed.

I was not expecting this last section, and it is beautifully done. The mundanity of a life spent waiting for death is beautifully captured through Dick’s conversations with the reporter, Jenson (Paul Stewart). Meanwhile Perry is repentant of his crimes. There is a scene as he takes confession with the prison pastor while waiting for his appointment with the hangman’s noose where he reflects back upon his life, trying to find even a single moment when he could, perhaps, have been happy, and it becomes clear that this was a man who never had a chance. Reflections from the rain battering against the window cast ghostly shadows of tears running down his face (a completely unplanned effect). “I’d like to apologise” he says, “but who to?” And why must they die? Agent Dewey (John Forsythe) sums up the results of the executions:
“Four innocent and two guilty people murdered. Three families broken. Newspapers have sold more papers. Politicians will make more speeches. Police and parole boards will get more blame. More laws will be passed. Everybody will pass the buck. And then next month, next year… the same thing will happen again.”
“Well, maybe this will help to stop it.”  
“Never has.”
Dick understands why they must be killed; he equates it simply as “revenge”. “Hell, hanging’s only getting revenge. What’s wrong with revenge? I’ve been revenging myself all my life. Sure, I’m for hanging. Just so long as I’m not the one being hanged.” The only person who can understand the motives of the state in executing them is a killer; he sees a moral equivalency between the criminal and the law. The hangman is paid $300 a drop, so $600 for the two deaths, not bad for a couple of hours’ work. He makes more money from the Clutter murders than Hickock and Smith ever did. The trap door is opened below Smith and he drops to his death. The scene is replaced by a screen once again stating the film’s name: “In Cold Blood”. All along we knew that the Clutters had been killed in cold blood, with malice aforethought. And now we are presented with two more killings, likewise carried out in cold blood. Hickock and Smith were not killed in rage or passion or the heat of the moment. Their deaths were a long, drawn-out, pre-planned affair.

If the last message of the film was a surprise, so too was the staging of the action. The crisp black and white cinematography, the sharp editing, the too-cool-for-school soundtrack – it all combined to create an almost impressionistic effect. It was like watching a 1960s French art house movie – but one with a clear plot and a serious story. There are shots of cars and buses barrelling along the endless night-time roads of Kansas, with the insistent double bass of Quincy Jones’s jazz-fused score creating a sense of speed and urgency. Smith will move towards a door… And out the other side steps Mr Clutter. The scene has changed to the domestic bliss of the Clutter home, tranquil, almost balletic, music twittering in the background. A splash of water on the face and we are back with Smith in a bus station rest room. One of the most notable dissolves is when Hickock finally admits to his involvement. He slumps to his side as if dead as a shot rings out. Only then does the scene change to the exterior of the police station, revealing the shot heard in the last scene to have been the kick-starting of a motorbike engine. Sound cues always occur just before the visual scene change, whipping the viewer along with the action.

As for the action at the Clutter residence, we do not see that at first. Hickock’s car draws up outside at midnight on the Saturday and Perry expresses reservations. The next we see is the discovery of the bodies on Sunday morning while a church bell clangs ominously in the background as if it were tolling a funeral. We just see the puzzled law enforcement agencies trying to make some sort of sense out of the killings, and the misadventures of the two murderers. Their recourse to collecting empty Coke bottles from the side of the road for three cents a time is particularly black comedy. Here we get to see more of their personalities. We see the charm and confidence of Dick, certain that they can still make a new life for themselves on “$43 and a smile and bullshit”. We see the messed-up childhood of Perry with a deluded father and a drunken mother. When Dick brings a Mexican prostitute back to their room we see her through Perry’s eyes taking on the characteristics of his departed mother with yet another of her lovers, her children huddled in the corner, and we see his father storming in and beating her. Notably this scene comes just after Dewey is presented with a psychologist’s view that killers in similar cases often “felt physically inferior and sexually inadequate.” The inference is that Perry, with his damaged legs and his traumatised reaction to Dick’s womanising, has turned his impotency into violence. When they confess we, finally, see the killings. The hapless criminals increasing frustration at how their plans have gone wrong turns their earlier concern and care for the Clutters into an instinctive murderous rage.

Killers in a crowd:
Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson)

There is a strong homoerotic thread running between the two killers. They call each other “honey”, “baby”: “Baby it’s a cinch. I promise you honey, we’ll blast hair all other them walls.” Dick refers to them as a “family”. And there is something unsettling about the prostitute scene. When Dick says that he has a “señorita” coming over that evening, Perry says that he will attempt to make himself scarce. Dick’s reply is “What for? Hell, I’m not bashful, baby.” Dick kinda likes having Perry in the room while he makes love. He also considers taking advantage of 16-year-old Nancy Clutter (Brenda Currin) while she is tied up. Dick seems the urbane, confident, civilised half of the double-act, but he seems the most amoral.

It is hard to classify In Cold Blood. It is not a ‘whodunnit’, as we know who is going to do it before they do, actually, do it. It is maybe a morality tale, showing that crime does not pay. But it has such an inventive, immersive ‘60s spin on it that it is hard not to be drawn in. Smith and Hickock are charismatic anti-heroes with their own individual traits and tics that help the audience to identify them as people, albeit people who have committed a terrible and senseless crime. Certainly the fact that I knew none of the cast helped. If, as the studio had first wished, the two murderers had been played by Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, I think it would have been very distracting. Despite the editing and cinematographic tricks and the wonderful soundtrack the film manages to blur the line between dramatisation and verité. I felt almost as though I was along with the murderers for the thrill ride.

What have I learnt about Kansas?
“Welcome to Kansas, buddy: the heart of America. The land of wheat, corn, Bibles and natural gas!”
Wheat and corn I could have guessed. Bibles was a safe bet. Natural gas I didn’t know. So for three out of those four it seems that land is a prerequisite. If you own land, you can make money – hence the belief that even in the 1950s Mr Clutter would keep $10,000 in cash at his house. And if you don’t have land you are at a disadvantage – see Mr Smith’s wagon and Mr Hickock’s shack for comparison. And it looks like the meek might not be content to wait to take over the earth. Yet there is a trust in the air. Doors are left unlocked. Salesmen cash cheques on the basis of a trustworthy smile. The shock that something so horrific can happen in such a quiet little place is palpable.

Yet Kansas ain’t so little. The route from Kansas City to Holcomb, casually undertaken by the killers, is 400 miles long. That’s the equivalent of collecting someone in London for a trip up to the Scottish highlands. In area, Kansas is larger than Scotland. And it seems as though the road verges are all ankle-deep in Coke bottles, tossed from cars as they drive.

But it is not all dry, parched landscapes. The cold, howling wind features prominently in the film, as does the beating rain.

Can we go there?
I’m a little disturbed by quite how much of the film was shot on location. It is not just a case of director Richard Brooks deciding to film in Kansas, or Holcomb. He films right where the events took place. Literally. The Clutter residence seen on screen is the actual Clutter residence, River Valley Farm in Holcomb. Those pictures on the walls are pictures of the real Clutter family. The rooms where the Clutters get ‘killed’ on screen are the rooms where they were actually killed in real life. Personally I find that just a little bit too macabre for my liking.

The courtroom where Smith and Hickock are convicted is the actual Finney County Court in which they were convicted (and six of the onscreen jury were members of the real-life jury). The prison in which they are incarcerated is the actual Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, in which they were incarcerated. And the gallows in ‘The Corner’ is the real gallows which was used to execute the pair. Since the reintroduction of the death penalty in Kansas in 1994 no execution has actually taken place at Lansing; should one occur it will be by lethal injection rather than hanging.

If you particularly want to be a ghoul I should point out that the Clutter farm is privately owned and cannot be viewed. The family are buried in the Valley View Cemetery in neighbouring Garden City. FBI Agent Alvin Dewey is also buried there. The gallows used for the execution of Smith and Hickock is now part of the collection at the History Museum of Kansas in Topeka.

Overall Rating: 5/5

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Week 17: Kansas

"And now I know that you are going to laugh
 But I've just got to take a photograph
 Because I've never seen you look this way
 And you've not told me yet if I can stay;
 I don't care where this lands us I'm sure,
 But I don't think we're in Kansas any more..."
 - 'Kansas',
The Wedding Present

Ha! Shows how much David Gedge (or, for that matter, Dorothy Gale) know. Because we are in Kansas, for the first time since our stay in Dodge City en route for The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

I'm thinking Kansas, and I'm thinking that we're travelling on a Greyhound bus, mile after mile and hour after hour as featureless dust bowl pasture blurs past the window, fence-posts and telegraph poles. It's not too far from our last stop in Iowa, just a quick cut through the corner of Missouri or Nebraska, black bruised clouds lurking on the horizon. The only thing to break the monotony are the tunes on the radio, but there must be some interference because they are all getting jumbled in my head as I start to drift off to sleep in my room in my fugitive motel somewhere in the dust bowl. I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you through the whine and I know that I must carry on, wayward son, to find somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. Maybe Kansas is a state of mind: a lonely restless yearning for something that we cannot quite grasp - a lover, a dream, a life.

I've forsaken the easy film option of The Wizard of Oz this week - after all how much of it was ever really set in Kansas? Instead I shall be watching:

  • In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Capote (2005)
  • Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak

Iowa, 1965. Francesca (Meryl Streep) waves her family off for a four day trip to the Illinois State Fair. In their absence she gives directions to Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a photographer from National Geographic magazine who is looking for the local covered bridges. Over their four days of freedom they commence an affair and start to fall in love. At the end of the four days they are faced with a decision: do they leave together and try to build something or do they go their separate ways?

It is a surprise that Iowa could ever hold these two individuals. Neither have the small town views prevalent in this pastoral corner of America. Robert has travelled the world with National Geographic, and Francesca was born in Bari, Italy. Even before she married her husband Richard (Jim Haynie) and moved to an entire different continent she had shown a willingness to explore (she met him in Naples). Robert has an enquiring mind, a yearning to travel and an aversion to settling down. He can make his own rules, something that Francesca finds hard to understand: witness her uncomprehending repeats of his phrase that he “got off the train” to spend some days in Bari, just because he liked the look of it. She has that wider world-view, but she cannot make her own rules. She is tied to her husband and her children. Choosing her own destiny and leaving with Robert, as she wants, means closing the door on twenty years of her life. And as she says, she “can’t make an entire life disappear to start a new one”. She may not feel passionately for her husband (her first description of him is that he is “clean”), but she feels that he is a good man, and at the end of the film he reveals that he loves her. But she is, of course, close to her children, no matter how priggish their grown-up selves seem to be. In the end she cherishes the love that they have shared in those brief four days, and decides to stay for fear that should she leave with him that love would die. She would, obviously, love Robert until the day she dies, but this is a solitary candle burning bright in the middle of the Iowa farmland. Knowing that she had that would be the only way to make her marriage survive. Yet there is still one tension-filled moment when she sees him again, and her hand tightens on the door handle of her husband’s truck as they stop at the traffic lights, where it seems that she is about to leap into his arms again.

In comparison Robert has always been footloose and fancy free. Francesca is the first time in his life that he can feel himself wanting to make that leap into commitment. “This kind of certainty”¸ he says, “comes but once in a lifetime”. She jokes that he has women willing to indulge in guilt-free affairs all across the world, but in a way that is what she becomes. It may be more than an affair, but they refuse to feel guilty about it. And he too keeps his candle burning. And her words inspire him to follow his dreams and publish his photographs as art. And what is the title of his book? ‘Four Days’ – and it is dedicated to ‘F’. For almost thirty years they conduct this chaste affair, despite never seeing each other again.

The story is framed as a flashback. Upon Francesca’s death her grown-up children Michael (Victor Slezak) and Carolyn (Annie Corley) come back to Madison County to empty her house. Clues lead them to her journal, where she relates this story to them. At first they are horrified to realise that their mother had ever acted this way but in time they come to respect her decisions and feel inspired by her passion. The film ends with her ashes being scattered off the Roseman Bridge, which she had visited with Robert, and from where his own ashes had been scattered a decade earlier. I have to say that the flashbacks were much less diverting than those in Fried Green Tomatoes… - though of course it is the Streep-Eastwood romance that people have paid money to see rather than the framing device. I also found it a bit distracting how Francesca’s voiceover would suddenly appear, and then vanish for the next twenty minutes. I suppose it is needed though, to show how Francesca and Robert’s love stayed true until death.

"Like a bridge over troubled waters I will lay me down..."

And as for the leads… well, it’s a love story about people who aren’t physically-perfect twenty-somethings. This is a romance between those who are in the latter half of their life. Eastwood can still pull off walking around topless, even if he has wispy white professor-style hair. And it shows that just because you are edging into middle age it does not mean that you no longer have passions and desires.

What have I learnt about Iowa?
All learnings are about Iowa in the ‘60s. Francesca describes small-town communities to a tee when she talks about the reaction to Lucy Redfield’s affair; Robert later sees this himself when he witnesses Lucy being ostracised in the café. There is a gossip network, and possibly a vicious one; this makes Robert almost reconsider acting upon his attraction to Francesca. The other side of the community is one of support. Madge (Debra Monk) drops by to keep Francesca company with cake; Francesca later replicates this act with Lucy.

The countryside is very rural. Roads are not named, and directions are given with reference to individual families’ farms. For any exciting shopping (such as Francesca’s new dress) you have to go into Des Moines. There is also a colour divide between blacks and whites. This is not presented as anything malicious, just an opportunity for Robert and Francesca to go out to a black roadhouse (‘The Blue Note Lounge’) where they would be assured that no one who knew her would see.

And then there are the bridges of Madison County. This county, south-west of Des Moines, is so noted for its collection of covered wooden bridges that National Geographic would even send a photographer out to capture them and turn it into a front cover article.

Can we go there?
The success of the film – and of the original source novel by Robert James Waller – have turned Madison County’s covered bridges into tourist attractions. There were once nineteen in total, but now only six remain: Cedar Bridge (itself rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed by an arsonist), Cutler-Donahoe Bridge, Hogback Covered Bridge, Imes Bridge, and the two featured in the movie, Holliwell Bridge and Roseman Bridge, both of which cross the Middle River. All six date from the 1870s and 1880s and are wooden plank structures. In the film they seem slightly tattered with pigeons cooing in their eaves. They have been renovated since then. Roseman is the bridge that Robert got lost looking for; it is where Francesca left the note inviting him to dinner, and where their ashes were scattered. The Chamber of Commerce have helpfully produced a map detailing locations around the county.

Winterset, the largest town in Madison County, is also the nearest town to the Johnson farm in the film. It is located about thirty miles southwest of Des Moines. Town scenes were shot around Courthouse Square. The café, where Robert offered Lucy a stool, is really the North Side Café on the square. It has been in existence since 1876, reason enough for a refreshment stop. Robert Waller wrote portions of his novel in a booth here. The Blue Note, the black roadhouse, actually had its interior scenes shot at the Pheasant Run Pub & Grill, which is also located on the square. (The building used for the exterior is actually a tractor garage on the Madison County Fairgrounds just outside town). The City Park, just south-east of the centre, holds the arched stone bridge where Robert and Francesca go for their romantic picnic (the Park) also holds the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge). Finally, just south-west of town in the Pammel State Park; Michael and Carolyn sit out by the Middle River Ford here with their bottle of Jack to read their mother’s journals. The Johnson farm was actually an abandoned farmhouse in the north-east of the county that was renovated specifically for the film. However, it has been closed since it was damaged by arson in 2003, just one year after the Cedar Covered Bridge was itself destroyed. I’m guessing that someone locally really didn’t live the book and the film!

While in the vicinity of Winterset, movie buffs might want to visit one further location. The town was the birthplace of the legendary John Wayne. The four-room house in Winterset where he was born is open to the public as the John Wayne Birthplace. Among other memorabilia you can even see the eyepatch he wore as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit!).

Overall Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

Dir. Lasse Hallström
Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen

I got a DVD of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape free with a newspaper quite some time ago. I never got around to watching it, before binning it last year. It just never particularly appealed to me. Watching it now I realise that I was missing out. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a very good – if rather leisurely – film, lifter by an astonishing performance from a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

The action is set in the small town of Endora, Iowa. Johnny Depp is Gilbert. Gilbert works in the town’s always empty grocery. He is also almost a full-time carer for his dysfunctional but loving family: massively obese mother Bonnie (Darlene Cates), eldest sister Amy (Laura Harrington), schoolgirl Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) and younger brother Arnie (DiCaprio) who has learning difficulties. He is also having a casual affair with local yummy mummy Betty (Mary Steenburgen). And casual is the word. Gilbert drifts through life passively. It is the need to provide for his family – particularly the spirited Arnie who has severe learning difficulties – that provides the only direction in his life.

Not long before Arnie’s 18th birthday Gilbert’s world is shaken when a motor caravan breaks down just outside town. This particular incident brings Becky (Juliet Lewis) into his orbit until a replacement part can be delivered. Becky catches Gilbert’s attention. And as his attention wanders things start to go wrong. He leaves Arnie to bath himself one evening; the next morning the boy is found shivering in the tub of cold water and refuses to wash again because he “almost drownded”. He breaks off his fling with Betty; a chain of events is started in motion that concludes with her husband keeling over from a heart attack and her having to leave town due to rumours that she murdered him. And he takes his eyes off Arnie whilst enjoying an evening with Becky; Arnie runs off to climb to town’s water tower, whereupon he is arrested by the Sheriff. Becky represents freedom and the possibility of escaping from Endora. However Gilbert is chained to the town by his mother and brother. It is this battle that is played out, gently, over almost two hours of screen time.

Gilbert is a character that has given up on ambition and drive. When Becky asks him to reply, as quick as possible, what he wants in life, he pauses and then says “I want to be a good person.” He is almost totally selfless. This is why the accusations of selfishness by his family when Arnie gets into trouble really wound him. He cares about Arnie, and for the first time in his life he is daring to dream of getting something for himself. He is trapped in a net of people’s expectations of him. His obese mother has never stepped outside the house her dead husband built for the family for seven years (this mirrors the real life story of Darlene Cates who played her; until the film came calling she had not left her own home for five years). As Gilbert puts it, “my mom is sort of attached to the house. Attached is, I guess, not the right word. She’s pretty much wedged in.” When he asks Betty why, out of all the men in town, she chose him for her affair her reply is that “I knew you’d always be there. Because I knew you’d never leave.” He is part of the furniture, safe, reliable… bland. On the rare occasions when Gilbert does express convictions – such as telling Mr Lamson that he would rather die than go to Food Land – he doesn’t sound very convinced by them. He is a perfect fit for a small town.

But the small town is threatened by outsiders. The caravans usually just pass through at the same time every year, en route from somewhere more exciting to somewhere else more exciting. It is the fact that Becky is forced to stop here until the car can be repaired that upsets his world. The grocery store is dying on its feet in the face of competition from Food Land on the outskirts. The arrival of a Burger Barn, shipped in complete, to sit beside it is another nail in the coffin on the deserted high street. Leaving Endora is a lure. Betty takes her family away once the small-town whispers get too much. Gilbert tries to leave, only to turn his truck around once he gets to the city limits.

The Grape Escape: Gilbert, Arnie and Becky
(Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Juliette Lewis)

The film really revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie. Now I am not a particular fan of little Leo. But here he puts on a quite astonishing performance. He is absolutely believable. The actor vanishes. There is not a false note in his portrayal of Arnie as an energetic and loveable but demanding and illogical boy. His accent, his mannerisms, his physicality and his exuberance all added up to what I have to call one of the most remarkable transformations I can recall seeing. I was a little bit upset when I read Leo’s own words about his spending time with “mentally retarded children”, words which actually caused me to recoil a little, because otherwise he gives a bigheartedly sympathetic performance as the strange boy that bursts into people’s lives like a ray of sun, and then rapidly wears them out.

I wonder where Swedish director Lasse Hallström grew up, as he seems to have an eye for the minutiae of small town life and the chains which hold people back from escaping. The pace is, as I’ve said, ‘leisurely’ throughout (I did find myself glancing at my watch even while I was enjoying the performances on screen). That is, until the last ten minutes, when the tone turns unexpectedly dark. But he populates Endora with believable characters such as the ever-helpful Tucker (the great John C. Reilly in one of his earliest roles), and the enthusiastic undertaker Bobby (Crispin Glover – otherwise known as George McFly from Back to the Future). One of the best small moments, which did not need to be included but which gives a great bit of flavour, is when Gilbert has to go to Food Land to buy a replacement birthday cake for Arnie. He comes out to find Mr Lamson (Tim Green) sat out front in his car. They make eye-contact. And Mr Lamson gives the most wonderful expression of hurt. That moment, for me, sums up everything the film is about. In trying to do right, Gilbert hurts someone. And it also expresses the fascination the outside world holds for the small town, even though it is killing them.

What have I learnt about Iowa?
I’ve spent so much time this year slating small-town mentalities that I feel almost strange sticking up for the small towns here. I much prefer the Endora main street with its family-run grocers, insurance agents, undertakers and cafes to the out-of-town corporate chains and franchises like Food Land and Burger Barn. People like Tucker who are always ready to help out with odd jobs are the backbone of a successful community. But I can see that people like Gilbert might feel the need to escape, to get away from the same setting, faces and scenarios day after day. But the fields, the water holes, the self-built houses and the central town watertower leave lasting impressions of small town scenery.

And for outsiders Iowa is just so much roadside. They drive through to get from A to B, but would not stop to investigate unless they were forced by circumstances to.

Can we go there?
You can, but you won’t be going to Iowa. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was filmed around Austin in Texas. The town of Manor provided the trademark water tower up which Arnie loves to climb. Lamson’s Grocery was really Manor Grocery. However the impressive courthouse seen when the Grapes go to pick up Arnie from the police station is nearby Lockhart, “the barbecue capital of Texas”. Other scenes were shot in Elgin, “the sausage capital of Texas”. Forget eating Gilbert Grape, I have a craving for eating barbecued bangers right now!

The Food Land supermarket is located at the intersection of I-35 and Texas State Highway 29 in Georgetown. The Grape residence was Quicksand Farm on Hodde Lane outside Pflugerville. Obviously it is there no longer.

Overall Rating: 4/5