Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Clerks (1994)

Dir. Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Lisa Spoonhauer

"What kind of convenience store do you run here?”

Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) is not having a good day. Woken up before dawn to fill in for a sick colleague at the Quick Stop Convenience store he has to face a whole host of indignities. Someone has blocked the locks of the roller shutters with gum meaning that they cannot be opened. He has to improvise a sign (‘I assure you, we’re open’) out of a sheet and shoe polish. He then smells of shoe polish all day. Smokers riot and pelt him with cigarettes. He discovers that while his girlfriend only slept with two men before him she had given blowjobs to 36. His friend Randal (Jeff Anderson) from the neighbouring video rental store seems determined to lose him all his customers. He only manages to make twelve minutes of roller-hockey practice before the ball is lost. An ex-girlfriend dies; Dante and Randal go to the viewing but Randal upsets the coffin. He gets hit with a $500 fine for selling cigarettes to a 4-year old. And the ex with whom he dreamed of getting back together accidentally shags a corpse in the staff bathroom. This leads to his current girlfriend dumping him. And as Dante bemoans “Do you know what the real tragedy about all this is? I’m not even supposed to be here today!” 

So, as Randal asks, why is he? Dante complains about the purposelessness of his dead-end job, but he refuses to do anything to change his situation. He didn’t have to go in. He didn’t have to keep the store open once his promised relief doesn’t turn up at noon. But he does. Randal points out that his litany of woes makes him sound “like an asshole. Jesus, nobody twisted your arm to be here today. You’re here of your own volition. You like to think the weight of the world rests on your shoulders. Like this place would fall apart if Dante wasn’t here. Jesus, you overcompensate for having what’s basically a monkey’s job.” In other words, he has a martyrdom complex that would put Joan of Arc’s to shame. He takes no action to change his life. Girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) tries to convince him to return to college. Randal tries to convince him to not give a shit. The contrast between conscientious Dante who tries to be as professional and pleasant as possible and Randal who does not care about his job could not be greater. Randal swans in late, ignores his customers, shuts the store to go next door to talk to Dante, abuses Dante’s customers, sells cigarettes to the four-year-old (yes, it was Randal, not Dante), and then drives off to rent a hermaphroditic porn movie (which he then watches in the Quick Stop) from a rival video store. This prompts a discourse between the pair on the ethics of their profession, about whether they have to compromise their own free will and personality because of the profession they are in. 

But it is not just with regards to his job that Dante is unable to make a change. He is dating Veronica, but his heart still belongs to his high-school girlfriend Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer) - who cheated on him “8½ times” during their relationship). And when she returns unexpectedly he is more than willing to go out with her. But he won’t tell Veronica what he wants. It is only once Caitlin has been traumatised by her inadvertent necrophilia and Silent Bob (writer and director Kevin Smith) finally speaks that he finally realises that he loves Veronica. 

When looking for New Jersey movies, I had to start off with the film-maker who has become synonymous with that state: Kevin Smith. I had already seen Chasing Amy (mostly good) and Dogma (a fine idea stretched too far), but I wanted to see where he started from. Clerks was Smith’s first movie. This has good points and bad points. Bad points: it was produced on a minimal budget - $27,000. The black-and-white footage is grainy. More than that, quite a lot of the acting is pretty ropey. There are a lot of jerking hands and monotone voices to be seen. The good points are that he drew from his own experiences. The convenience store featured is the one in which Smith himself at that time worked. He would finish his shift at 11PM, film until 4AM, grab a couple of hours’ sleep and then clock back on at 6. And so his depictions of the minutiae of life in a shop is well targeted. When he talks about the ‘Milk Maids’ searching for milk with a longer shelf-life, the guidance counsellor searching for the perfect egg or the elderly man needing the toilet (and a better class of toilet paper) I felt that he was writing from experience. Quite often it is the little customer set pieces that entertain the most, such as the smoker riot, the old man or the woman wanting to rent a children’s video. Added to that is Smith’s delight in language. I think this must have been the start of the ‘contractors on the Death Star’ argument. And the roofing contractor himself throws further light upon Dante’s dilemma, saying that everyone has a choice about what they do with their life. He personally turned down a high-paying job when he knew that he would be working at the house of a mob boss. Those Death Star contractors had a choice about whether they were willing to take the Emperor’s shekel. And Dante has a choice about whether he comes in to work on his day off. 

"I find your lack of chunky knitwear disturbing"

One can see why Kevin Smith was nurtured as a choice talent (until he got sucked into the Ben Affleck / Jennifer Lopez nexus with Jersey Girl). What is great about Clerks would be great whatever the budget – the dialogue, the characterisation, the vogue for slackers. What is poor – the quality of film and acting – would presumably be rectified by a bigger budget. 

What have I learnt about New Jersey?
We do not see much of New Jersey in the film. Essentially we see the two bunker-like stores (is crime a problem?) and their carpark and not much more. But – despite the fact that Dante is fined for selling cigarettes to a child – it seems quite deregulated. The ambulance that takes the dead man and Caitlin away is run by volunteers, video stores stock all kinds of hard-core porn, and packets of cigarettes retail for less than $3 each. I know the film was made back in 1994, but that still seems ridiculously cheap. 

While we do not see the waterfront Caitlin makes reference to going for a walk down on the boardwalk. 

From the roofing contractor’s comments it is at least a belief that mob bosses live in New Jersey. 

Can we go there?
Clerks was filmed in Leonardo, a town to the south of New York Bay. The Quick Stop Groceries can still be found at 58 Leonard Avenue; it seems they are used to Kevin Smith fans visiting to take photos. RST Video is located next door at number 60, although it is now closed down and only used for storage. Both can be found just north of Route 36. Posten’s Funeral Home likewise really exists and can be found at 59 East Lincoln Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Week 31: New Jersey

"I'm proud New Jersey is my home,
 Yeah said I'm proud New Jersey is my home!
 Well they're breaking out the tractors to build more interstates,
 They're moving out my neighbours all across the Garden State...'
 - 'New Jersey is my Home',
 Bruce Springsteen

We're cranking up The Boss on the radio (well, it was either Springsteen or Bon Jovi) as we motor on down to New Jersey.

New Jersey was named the 'the Garden State'. And I think that is probably the last nice thing anyone has ever said about Jersey. It has a reputation for being everything that is bad and tacky about America. It is somewhere that people drive through to get to New York. No one ever thinks to stop. What is there? The dumb-ass nonentities of Jersey Shore? Sopranos-esque mobsters? The sleazy low-rent amusements of Atlantic City? The Jersey Devil? Interstates and pollution? It is the US's laughing stock. It is the US's Essex.

And like Essex it suffers from its location. Looking at the centres of population in the state they all seem to be overspill suburbs for either New York City or Philadelphia. I always think about Essex that if its population had any get-up-and-go they would have get-up-and-gone to London. Likewise NJ: it is home to the people who cannot make it in NYC or Philly.

But, why would you want to live in the middle of Manhattan with sky-high rents and crime and traffic if you are trying to raise a family? Surely you would want to find somewhere with space and trees and open air. Logically that place is New Jersey. Sure, if you've got the money you move further out to Connecticutt, but we've seen how soul-destroying those suburbs are. In the right place in Jersey you have a straight route into the city and a straight route back out again. Plus, it's home to Princeton university and Cape May (where Betty Draper's family summer in Mad Men) so it can't be as bad as Americans would have you believe. Can it?

My first choice for a New Jersey film was Garden State. But I've seen it before. And to be honest I wasn't blown away. So I've found three more that I actually did want to see. Obviously I would have to start with the filmmaker who is to New Jersey what John Waters is to Baltimore, Kevin Smith. So my chosen films are:
  • Clerks (1994)
  • On the Waterfront (1954)
  • Cop Land (1997)

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Lolita (1962)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick
Starring: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Peter Sellers

After two films involving rape (one of which also had traces of incest and another where general promiscuity formed a backdrop) it was refreshing to sit down and watch a comedy about paedophilia 

The film, of course, is Lolita. Here director Stanley Kubrick (of The Shining) bases his version upon the original novel of Vladimir Nabokov, but somehow manages to turn a tale of a predatory professor infatuated with underaged “nymphets” into a knockabout romp. Much as he did with his next picture, Dr. Strangelove, he turns an unsettling premise into something amusing and well-executed. In fact Peter Sellers pretty much does the same German accent in both. 

Humbert Humbert (James Mason, best known to me as the suave villain in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) comes to the New Hampshire resort of Ramsdale for a break prior to taking up a position at an Ohio college. Blowsy landlady Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) persuades him to stay at her house. He says he was persuaded by the promise of her “famous cherry pie”; in reality the cherry pie that made his mind up was the sight of her young daughter Dolores (Sue Lyon) – also known as ‘Lolita’ – sunning herself on the lawn. Over the course of a summer the frustrated and lovelorn Charlotte increasingly throws herself at Humbert. He, however, has eyes only for the precocious Lolita. She, he thinks, hs a “mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity”. She struts around confidently, seemingly aware of the appeal she holds for Humbert. Faced with the prospect of never seeing the object of his infatuation again he marries Charlotte. Charlotte discovers his true feelings for the two women in the Haze household. Luckily for Humbert her death removes an impediment. It is now just him and his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter. 

And that’s the way he wants it. He wants Lolita all to himself. But he is just one of her admirers. In a panic he takes her off on a road trip around America, fearful that someone is following them. And then she vanishes. It takes him four years to find her again and to track down the man who took her from him. We know this from the very first scene, which shows Humbert shooting Peter Sellers’ sozzled playwright Clare Quilty. The rest of the film is told in flashback, Humbert explaining how he came to be in Quilty’s mansion brandishing a revolver across the ping-pong table. 

A grown man’s fascination with a fourteen-year-old might strike the viewer as distasteful. However, this is the cleaned-up version: in the original novel Lolita is twelve-and-a-half. It is never made explicit that they have commenced a sexual relationship – though her whispered comments about a “game” suggest that they do. Humbert comes across as much more sympathetic, even though he is a monster in many ways. He thinks about murdering his wife, and does not mourn her when she does die. He lies repeatedly and exhibits a fierce jealousy where Lolita is concerned. He is an intellectual snob and is incredibly cruel in his judgements upon other people. However the viewer sympathises with him against the social-climbing Charlotte who fills her bedroom with reproduction prints, drops French phrases into conversation and is at pains to stress that she lives in West Ramsdale. He is also played for a fool by Quilty.

Quilty barely appears in the novel, but here he allows Peter Sellers to revel in his comedic talents. In one scene he is a barely-dancing hipster, in another a fake German psychiatrist, in another a baffled drunk. They are hardly the same person. But he too is clearly just as unpleasantly infatuated with Lolita as Humbert Humbert. One can only wonder at the nature of the “art films” he wanted the young girl to star in… Thinking back to the first scene Quilty seems to think of the pursuit of Lolita as a game – a game which Humbert lost. “You’re a sort of bad loser Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play.” Ostensibly he is talking about ping-pong; the undertone is that he is referring to Lolita. But he, the voracious Mrs Haze, the awful Farlows (who talk about swapping partners at the dance while hinting that they are “extremely broad-minded. In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded…”), all provide comic relief – albeit a very black comedy. There are sexual double entendres – when Charlotte tells Humbert that she goes “as limp as a noodle” when he touches her he drolly comments “yes, I know the feeling.” In bed with Charlotte he stares over her shoulder at a picture of Lolita. She talks blithely about sending her daughter to boarding school and then comments, presumably about his waning ardour, “You’ve gone away again.” In comparison the scene where Humbert tries to unfold the cot is very low slapstick. In the background the music warrants an entry all of its own, changing from swooping orchestrations that would seem to belong in a more conventional love-story to the hip-swinging cha-cha-cha of the Lolita Ya Ya. But I suppose one’s willingness to laugh at Lolita depends on how easily you can see Humbert’s pursuit of Dolores as pathetic rather than creepy.  

Child Pawn

What have I learnt about New Hampshire?
Desirable places like Ramsdale make a lot out of their “good Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-Scotch stock”. Obviously history and culture is important to the townsfolk. The snobbishness of insisting that they live in West Ramsdale is lovely. To an outsider I doubt anyone would think that Ramsdale was large enough to have a western side (which, of course, is where the better  class of people live). But it's notable that the state contains restful and peaceful resort towns so good that they would be recommended to visiting professors as a pleasant place to spend the summer.

One might think that towns there would be “provincial” – especially if one has seen Peyton Place – but the Farlows are keen to point out that there are some “extremely broad-minded” people about. Sex seems to be on everybody’s brains.  

Can we go there?
Although the film was set throughout America, mainly in Ohio and New Hampshire, filming was completed much closer to ‘old’ Hampshire. Stanley Kubrick, as was his custom, shot the film in England. Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, just north of London, was used for the bulk of the shooting, though other locations did creep in. These include the nearby Hilfield Castle, which provided Clare Quilty’s decrepit ‘Pavor Manor’ and a house on Packhorse Road in Gerrard’s Cross which doubled for the Haze residence in West Ramsdale. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Dir. Roger Avary
Starring: James van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel

If you ever find yourself uttering the line “I only did her because I’m in love with you!” you know you’ve fucked up. And The Rules of Attraction is full of fucked-up fuck-ups who fuck up their lives over the course of the film. It’s quite impressive, to fuck up quite so badly when you’re not yet 21. 

The film introduces us to the wealthy students of a prestigious east-coast university. This is a place where the student body is privileged and entitled, the sex is drunken, the gays are predatory, every night is a debauched party and everybody is on drugs as a matter of course. We see the story through the eyes of three people in particular – virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), louche gay Paul (Ian Somerhalder from Lost) and the empty “emotional vampire” that is Sean (brother of American Psycho’s Patrick) Bateman (James van der Beek from Dawson’s Creek). At times we even see the same scene from each of their perspectives. And this is right. Because if the film is about anything – other than meaningless sex and the ingesting of vast amounts of narcotics – it is about how everyone is alone in life. 

You can see it in the way the characters talk at cross purposes to each other. They don’t seem to have any friends. Sean meets Victor (Kip Pardue) and Mitch (Thomas Ian Nicholas) socially in a café. But they don’t like each other; in fact they seem to despise each other. They have the minimum of small talk. Their relationship is purely transactional. Victor and Mitch want Sean to get them coke; Sean needs money to give his dealer. Ergo they have a mutual interest. Sean and Lara (Jessica Biel) sleep with each other. It is not because they care, it is purely because they are horny and available (well, it is the ‘Dress to Get Screwed’ party!). And in Sean’s case because Lara has told him that her room-mate Lauren, the object of his affections, won’t be coming. So he sleeps with her to imagine he is with Lauren (who of course then walks in on them, prompting the utterance quoted above). But as this episode shows, they may all be alone, but they don’t have to like it. They are all searching for something. In one key scene Lauren and Sean are shown going about their lives separately in split-screen – right up until the moment when they meet. At that point the two separate scenes become one. They have made a connection. In that one moment a spark has been lit. 
2 Become 1
(They need some love like they've never needed love before...)

This is the one attempt that looks like it might work. Paul is trying to find some semblance of intimacy with someone, but he always picks the wrong horses (or, potentially the right horse, but just too soon). He is just too self-centred (he is frustrated by an associate OD’ing because it will make him late for a date). Lara sleeps her way through college. Lauren believes that Victor is her boyfriend. Victor pinballs around Europe bouncing off the random people he encounters, letting them steer him to the next city, the next party, the next drug, but none of them have names. When he returns it becomes apparent that he does not even remember who Lauren is. And there is the poor girl (Theresa Wayman) who sends Sean love letters (letters which he believes are from Lauren). The letters make him feel like a champion, but he has not even noticed the girl who writes them. In the end they all end the film as they started it: alone. Maybe sorrier, unhappier and with a few more illusions shattered, but still fundamentally alone. Lauren tells Sean plainly: “Nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” 

But mainly it is about the drugs and the sex and a cast of generally rather unpleasant characters. Bullingdon Clubbers, the whole lot of them, swanning around with their sports cars and coke habits and lack of empathy with or awareness of other people. These are people who think that faking suicide is a good way to get a reaction from others. They are certainly all raving monomaniacs, and possibly even psychopaths by the dictionary definition of the term. And no surprise – the film was adapted from a novel by Brett Easton Ellis. Sean Bateman is the brother of American Psycho’s Patrick. Try and find a character to care about. Go on, I dare you. 

What probably surprised me the most was the performance of James van der Beek. For the past twelve years I had always referred to him as ‘James van der Chin, from Dawson’s Chin’ – on the belief, I guess, that he had a massive chin. He doesn’t. His chin is hardly noteworthy (though he does have a massive forehead). But I suppose I had written him off as an actor because he found fame on an American teen soap. But his performance here is amazing. He throws all that fluffy teen-heartthrob stuff away to portray a really nasty character. He comes across as a malevolent Frankenstein’s monster: the ‘emotional vampire’ he claims to be, leaching off others to find any kind of humanity at all. His performance encapsulates the film. Both performance and film are interesting, but not particularly enjoyable.

What have I learnt about New Hampshire?
Firstly, a caveat. The great state of New Hampshire is not mentioned once in the film. All one knows of the location of the fictional Camden College is that it is somewhere in the north-east of the US, not a million miles away from New York. It is only in the novels of The Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero that Ellis specifies that Camden is in NH. 

That being noted we can ask ourselves the question Why New Hampshire? Ellis went to Bennington College in neighbouring Vermont, and says that Camden is built upon fragments of his own college days. So we can assume that both states have colleges that cater for over-privileged brats. We do not get much sense of a surrounding town – it is a campus university. There is a clear town and gown divide, with the townsfolk believing that the students are all rich (not a bad assumption as it turns out). University life revolves around social events: the Edge of the World Party, the End of the World Party, the Dress to get Screwed Party. Even a Pre-Saturday Night Party Party. This procession of parties marks the change in the academic year just as surely as the change from warm summer nights to golden Fall to a snow-bound winter. 

Can we go there?
As stated above, Camden was based upon Brett Easton Ellis’s own college days at Bennington in Vermont – the Commons Lawn at Bennington is known as “the end of the world”. None of the filming was done in either Vermont or New Hampshire. California’s University of Redlands, halfway between LA and Palm Springs, provided the backdrop for Camden College. The Bekins, Grossmont and Fairmont dorms were used for filming.

Kip Pardue, as Victor, was lucky enough to get a whirlwind tour of London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, Florence, Rome and Dublin out of his part. Well done him!

Overall Rating: 2/5

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Peyton Place (1957)

Dir. Mark Robson
Starring: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Lee Philips

Peyton Place is one of those picture-perfect New England towns, the sort you have probably always dreamed about. The wooden shopfronts are immaculate, the streets clean and tidy. From the wooded hills you can gaze out over the glittering New Hampshire lakes. The townsfolk are courteous and everybody knows everyone else’s name. 

And everybody knows everyone else’s business. And if they don’t know it, they guess at it. And they gossip about it. And there are always secrets which need to be kept. Dark and terrible secrets which, if revealed, can tear apart families and lead to imprisonment or even death. 

Budding high school writer Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) introduces us to Peyton Place. It is the summer of 1941. Much like American innocence was to be fractured by the sudden coming of war so is the innocent friendly face of Peyton Place that she sees smashed by the experiences of the next six months. Sex is the serpent in this Garden of Evil. The buttoned-up townsfolk loom own on all prurience. Allison’s swimming trip with her friend Norman (Russ Tamblyn) is noted and commented upon and the story spreads. But really this is just the catalyst for a series of terrible revelations. It turns out her prudish mother Constance (Lana Turner) was not always so prudish. Allison is the illegitimate offspring of a married New York business man with whom Connie had an affair. No wonder Connie watches over her daughter like a hawk and runs away from the advances of new school, principal Mike Rossi (Lee Philips). Worse still is the life of Allison’s best friend Selena Cross (Hope Lange). Living in the tarshacks on the poor side of town, she is raped by her drunken stepfather Lucas (Arthur Kennedy) and becomes pregnant by him. She miscarries – with a little help from the kindly Dr Swain (Lloyd Nolan) – but when her father next appears she kills him in self-defence and buries the body. When this emerges she is put on trial for murder; the only thing that can save her is the true nature of her relationship with her stepfather, but that is the one thing she dare not reveal lest it tarnish the future career of her boyfriend. Illegitimacy, rape, incest, murder, suicide, poverty – these are the real problems hidden away in Peyton Place, yet everybody is more afraid of scandal and gossip.  

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Rumour!

Yet for all that, the film pulls its punches. Grace Metalious, author of the novel upon which the film was based, was apparently horrified by it for completely diluting her story. It had already been diluted once before publication (in the first draft Seelena was raped by her father, not step-father). So we are left with a film with three stages. First, we have idyllic little Peyton Place. When Allison and Norman climb up to Road’s End to look out over the lake it does seem as though the place is a little spot of perfection. Then we have the heart of the film – Lucas raping Selena, Nellie committing suicide, Allison leaving home, Selena murdering Lucas. And then there is the denouement. Allison’s transformation into a ‘bad girl’ merely consists of her getting a job in New York and taking up smoking and drinking. Dr Swain saves Selena (twice). The townsfolk gladly sign up for the US armed forces at the first chance they get. Constance and Mike finally get together. Mr Harrington (Leon Ames, Judy Garland’s father in Meet Me in St Louis) takes in his son’s widow. Allison and Constance make up. The townsfolk applaud Selena upon her acquittal. It seems as though everyone has seen the error of their ways and become better people for it. What a lovely little town! That was not what Metalious intended. She intended Peyton Place to be reactionary and morally bankrupt, a town so mired in its prejudices and intolerance that it was beyond salvation. What we get instead is a collection of characters with their own individual weaknesses and pettiness but who are, when it comes to the crunch, profoundly moral and good. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes took the source novel, its characters and some of its dramas and sanitised it for public consumption under the Hays Code. 

Metalious’s original novel was, I think, closer to the truth about the prurience of the American small town. And do you know why I think that? It is because, upon its release in cinemas, Peyton Place did respectable trade. But a few months into its release takings suddenly picked up dramatically. Why? Because Johnny Stompanato, the mobster boyfriend of star Lana Turner, was murdered by her daughter. The case made headlines and shone a light upon Turner’s current film. Peyton Place benefited from the great American public flocking to have a gawp at the woman whose daughter murdered her lover. Peyton Place  was truer than the studios thought. 

What have I learnt about New Hampshire?
The New Hampshire depicted is the New Hampshire of 1941, but some assumptions can be made. New Hampshire is a land of small, well-kept towns that certainly try to act appropriately. There are nicely-sized houses, clean shop-fronts, neighbours who look out for one another, and one large employer in town – in this case a textile mill – that strives to convey an impression of concern for its employees. The scenery is beautiful. But there are dark shadows. There is a class divide (even if Allison and Selena on one hand and Constance and Nelly on the other don’t make it apparent). Mr Harrington sounds at one point like Mr Stamper in Splendor in the Grass as he outlines his opposition to his son’s relationship with Betty. There are shacks on the edge of town where people live in poverty. There are alcoholics and rapists but the townsfolk prefer to look the other way and gossip about less serious matters. This gossip is the key ingredient. I have talked in the past about a small town morality, and the Peytonians enjoy besmirching people’s reputations. 

Can we go there?
There is no real-life Peyton Place. Metalious was a New Hampshire native and drew elements from several towns in Belknap County near Lake Winnipesaukee – and several real-life news stories – to construct her novel. It hit a nerve. Upon her death the townsfolk of Gilmanton, where she lived, almost refused to bury her in the church cemetery. Mentioning the novel around that lake district in east-central New Hampshire might not be a good idea, even today. 

By contrast you can mention the film all you like in Camden, Maine. The film was shot in Camden (just one year after Carousel was also filmed there), and the town was very fond of the association. The film premiered in Camden before it went on national release, and even today they celebrate the film and hold an archive devoted to its production at Camden Public Library. The Library have also prepared a map showing locations which featured in the film. These include Main Street, home of Constance’s Tweed Store and the Labor Day parade, the Smart House on Chestnut Street which was home to the MacKenzies, the Dean Fisher residence on Harbor Hill where Dr Swain looked after his wife’s flower garden, Mount Battie (where Allison and Norman went up via ‘Road’s End’ to look out over the town and lake), the various churches shown, the ‘Peyton Place Arch’ and the actual Whitehall Inn.

Overall Rating: 2/5 

Week 30: New Hampshire

"B. B. King just turns on
 The New Hampshire boys, Steve and Joe..."
 - 'New Hampshire',
 Sonic Youth

And so we travel from the big city glitz of Las Vegas to the quieter charms of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire is the filling of the Vermont and Maine sandwich up in the north-east corner of the U.S. I suppose I always think of the three interchangably as being home to hills, lakes and forests. Maine, of course, is bigger and wilder than the other two, as well as having a famous coastline. Vermont has no seashore, and New Hampshire has a mere sliver between Massachusetts and Maine. But it does have a naval port called Portsmouth. So maybe it is not too dissimilar to 'old' Hampshire.

Hampshire cannot lay claim to Manchester though. Manchester is New Hampshire's largest town; in fact its the largest New England city north of Boston. It still isn't very big; we're talking a town with half the population of the real Portsmouth. Wikipedia is silent on whether it is wonderful, or indeed whether it is full of t*ts, f***y and United. But it does have its place in the news. Every American Presidential candidate spends a lot of time in New Hampshire because its primary election is one of the first in the season. The good burghers of Manchester must be used to having high-powered politicos clogging their streets and trying to be folksy.

But away from that folksiness there must also be a New England literary tradition. The three films I have lined up this week are all adaptations of novels (by Grace Metalious, Brett Easton Ellis and Vladimir Nabokov). They are:
  • Peyton Place (1957)
  • The Rules of Attraction (2002)
  • Lolita (1962)
Just having a quick flick through them now it looks like we are in for a bucket-load of sexual promiscuity, two rapes, a tinge of incest and some paedophilia. It looks like Steve and Joe aren't the only ones getting turned on up in New Hampshire!

Friday, 20 July 2012

Tremors (1990)

Dir. Ron Underwood
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross

I think that what I have realised most of all on this cinematic mission impossible through the States is this. While I may appreciate and admire some of the more cerebral or art-house films, the ones I most enjoy are just well-executed action movies. I loved The Untouchables. I thought 3:10 to Yuma was great. And I had huge amounts of fun re-watching Tremors. Okay, two decades later the special effects have not aged particularly well but Tremors was never all about the FX. 

Tremors is, essentially, a B-movie. It is set in the settlement of Perfection, just fourteen solitary souls short of being a ghost town out in the desert. Our heroes are rowdy good ol’ boys Earl (Fred Ward, who played Reese Witherspoon’s father in Sweet Home Alabama) and Val (Kevin Bacon). Tired of scratching around for odd jobs they decide finally to up and leave for the bright lights of Bixby. Only they find the one road out of the valley blocked. Something is moving up the valley, funnelled by the mountains, towards Perfection. And it is something that has a taste for human flesh! 

With the help of visiting seismology student Rhonda (Finn Carter) – there’s always a helpful visiting seismology student when you need one – they figure out that there are creatures under the soil, vast tunnelling three-headed worm creatures they name ‘graboids’. These creatures home in on vibrations, bursting up from the ground to engulf their prey. The only way to stay safe is to keep off the ground. Their only hope of salvation is to round up the townsfolk and somehow make it to the bare rock of the encircling mountains. But the graboids are smart and they learn from experience… 

All this takes place with tongue firmly in cheek. It is silly. Earl and Val bicker back and forth (“Running’s not a plan! Running’s what you do once a plan fails!”). Supporting characters include paranoid survivalist gun-nuts Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire) whose approach towards the graboids consists of blasting away with a variety of high calibre fully-automatic firearms. One escape tactic involves pole vaulting. (Maybe more unintentional as comedy was the producers’ efforts to Bowdlerise bad language. I’m sorry but I can’t take seriously anyone who refers to deadly killer worms as “motherhumpers”). But one can see the difference with, say, The Mist. The Mist takes itself so monumentally po-faced seriously that it sucks all the fun out of the film; Tremors keeps the mood light. In fact, apart from one scene, all the action in Tremors takes place during the day, the sunlight bleaching the desert white. Yet it also manages to jam in suspense, with characters having to outrun or outwit these clever deathworms as they tunnel through the sand. 

Don’t expect any back story about what these graboids are, where they came from, or why they have just decided to pop up now. The characters have a spot of banter about their mysterious disappearance, but really the focus is on getting the hell out of Dodge / killing the motherhumpers. And to be honest you can pick holes in any back-story, so it’s probably just best that it is ignored. The graboids are just there and they pose a clear existential threat. Speculation about their unique place on the evolutionary ladder can wait until after our heroes are safe. 

As I mentioned, the special effects look a tad dated these days. The whole ‘tunneling under the ground’ looks good, but the jets of steam fail to convince. I’m glad that the graboids actually have a physical presence rather than just being computer-animated: the original animatronic Jabba the Hutt always looked much better than the CGI one seen in the 1997 re-release of Star Wars. But they do, at times, resemble little more than dirty vacuum-cleaner hose being waved around randomly. There is a scene where a graboid invades the Gummer’s rec room / gun store and it is clear that the image of Burt blazing away on full-auto has just been super-imposed over the image of the graboid (it looks very Ray Harryhausen). But I suppose all that adds to the entertainment. It’s like being able to spot the walls wobbling on Blakes 7 or noticing that the Doctor’s Tardis always lands in the same quarry. It’s a B-movie. It’s not trying to make some deep, profound Stephen King-ish statement on humanity. It’s Comedy Cowboys vs Mongolian Death Worms, and it’s all the better for it! 

The Gummers really hated woodworm

What have I learnt about Nevada?
This is Nevada away from the bright lights of Las Vegas. Perfection is a small hamlet in the desert scattered with rusted junk and century-old wooden buildings. It is hemmed in by mountains, scattered with rocks, and is connected to the outside world by only one road through the wilderness. The people who live there are recluses who choose to live out there: either because they have always lived there (like Chang I suspect) and have no impetus to move on out (like Val and Earl), or because they have moved their specifically. These would include artist Nancy and the survivalist Gummers who choose to get as far away from the state as they can. It is a place for the hardy and the self-sufficient. And guns and bulldozers are always appreciated. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in Perfection, some 38 miles to the north of Bixby. Neither Perfection nor Bixby exist in real life (in later Tremors sequels it is stated that they are located away from Las Vegas towards Carson City, but aren’t really close to either). Filming took place not far from Nevada, in Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine is located west of Death Valley and east of Kings Canyon up in the Owens Valley mentioned in Chinatown, sheltering beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains. The desert landscapes certainly conjure up what one would expect of Nevada. Many films have been shot here to take advantage of its parched surroundings since 1920’s The Roundup, including The Lone Ranger, High Sierra, Rawhide, Bad Day at Black Rock, How the West Was Won and Zabriskie Point 

Sadly the town of Perfection was specifically constructed to be torn down after use (local townspeople contributed labour in exchange for the lumber after shooting was finished) and so nothing survives. Even the large rocks scattered about the place were fake and have been removed. The concrete drainage ditch is out east of Lone Pine, and the final scenes when the survivors are ‘fishing’ from the big rock is out west. The narrow defile where the road workers were killed is out in this direction as well. 

However the graboids are still there! Well, one or two. One of the graboids used in the film, along with a ‘Shrieker’ (a separate stage in the Graboid lifecycle that appeared in a later Tremors sequel) can be seen at the Lone Pine Film History Museum. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Casino (1995)

Dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods 

At one point in Casino Sam talks about all the punters funnelling in to Las Vegas and points out that the only one to ever win is the house. His tragedy is that he does not realise that, to Las Vegas, he is just another punter. 

We open in 1973, just two years after Hunter S. Thompson wigged out big style. Thompson wanted to compare the glitz and glamour of The Strip to the seediness of North Las Vegas. In Casino we are shown that the seediness reaches right up to the front desk. The person whose job it is to hide the seediness behind the glitz is Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), the Mafia’s top book-maker. With a track record of always getting a result when gambling he is sent out to Vegas to manage the casino at the Tangiers on the behalf of the Midwest Mob bosses. They are known men so they can’t go any further west than Kansas City. It is up to Sam (aka “that Jew motherfucker”) to keep the money flowing in. He doesn’t even need to be corrupt – well, no more than any other casino in town. His job is just to keep people gambling, keep them coming back, keep an eye out for professionals looking to do over the house, and keep the heat away from their door. And there is no one better at it. As for how the Mob get their cut? They take the cash straight from the counting room in a suitcase before it can be accounted for. So much cash coming in, off the books? They are prepared to give Sam the leeway he needs to do the job he wants to do. 

He is not the only man carving out an empire in the desert. Hoodlum Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) has also realised that the Mob bosses dare not tread on Nevada soil. Their eyes are fixed only on the suitcases coming in from the gaming floor. They have never employed the usual tactics that have worked so well in other cities: extortion, robbery and muscle. Las Vegas is “virgin territory”. So he brings in some guys and goes to work. Both Sam and Nicky are useful to the Mob, each bringing in valuable earnings. But Las Vegas goes to their heads. They start to think outside their pay-bracket. Sam starts to turn professional: he wants to run an efficient, respectable casino. Meanwhile Nicky thinks of breaking off from the old-timers in Kansas City and go solo. 

Their both thrive on the independence they are given but their aims and tactics are mutually incompatible. Nicky’s robberies are nosy and noticeable; Sam’s skimming relies upon being done quietly. He does not appreciate that whenever Nicky makes the news he drags in Sam too. Sam loves running the casino and is good at it, but his known link to a criminal like Nicky from back in the day jeopardises his respectability. He wants the respectable lifestyle: the trophy wife, the family, the country-club membership, the fame for running a tight ship. So he makes two mistakes. Firstly he sacks one of his undermanagers after one mistake too many. Fair enough, the guy was a doofus. But he was a doofus with influential family. Not ‘Family’ in a Mafia sense, but family that is settled in Nevada and has been for generations. He is one of the honky-tonk cowboys with boots, bootlace ties and big hats that have to be kept appeased because they own the land, the council and the state legislature. “Everybody out here with cowboy boots is a fuckin’ county commissioner or related to a county commissioner. I’m fuckin’ sick of it!” complains Sam. Part of his job is keeping them sweet with “comps” – complimentary stays, chips, girls. And jobs. But this doofus offends his professionalism and he refuses to compromise and take him back. With a stroke he has put the backs of the Nevada cowboys up. He is warned: they own the town. He is only a guest. 

His second mistake is falling in love. For the cerebral bean-counter this is unexpected. But I suppose it is another sign of how Vegas has got to him. It can make any man feel like a king. With his ego flattered he feels he can make it with whoever he wants, and he wants hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone). She is charming, beautiful, blonde, smart – who wouldn’t want her? So he proposes to set her up with a lifestyle she could never attain by herself. But she doesn’t love him. Her heart, inexplicably, remains with weasely gigolo Lester Diamond (James Woods). Her marriage to Sam is transactional. He gives her the dream house, the walk-in wardrobe, the million dollars of jewellery and she gives him that perfect home life. For as long as she can. But she is in thrall to self-destructive influences: booze, coke, Lester, Nicky. The bitter disintegration of the Rothstein’s marriage is a subplot to the disintegration of the Mafia’s Las Vegas empire. It becomes too loud, too public, too violent. Las Vegas chews them all up and spits them out the other side: Sam, Ginger, Nicky, the Mafia. Only Las Vegas itself endures. The rest – they are just punters… 

"Welcome to Jack-a-fuckin'-nory. Are you cock-suckers
sitting comfortably? Then we'll fuckin' begin..."

Casino was Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to Goodfellas – with all the guns and f-bombs that involves. And – like The Departed – it is an intelligent film. In The Departed the audience are left trying to think through the twists and double-crosses; in Casino they can intellectualise how to make money from gambling. Here you have the casino bosses and the gamblers each trying to outwit the other and keep just one step ahead for long enough to make a killing. But where Frank Costello in The Departed shown the seductiveness of evil, here we see the banality. The Mob bosses are old farts bitching in a back room over their momma’s ragú. 

For all that, though, the rampant criminality of Mob rule is presented as the better than the alternative. The Mobsters were hands off gentlemen who knew the benefit of hospitality. Who has taken their place?

After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checkin' into an airport. And if you order room service, you're lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it's all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old hotel school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number. After the Teamsters got knocked out of the box, the corporations tore down practically every one of the old casinos. And where did the money come from to rebuild the pyramids? Junk bonds.”

It is clear that Sam – or Scorsese – finds the latter approach less noble. 

One gripe I would have is the voiceovers. The film was adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s book. Many of the characters were based – at least loosely – on real life individuals. Sam Rothstein was Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Nicky Santoro was Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, Frankie Marino was Frank Cullotta. But Scorsese could not escape from the literary nature of it. Rather than have the characters drop great chunks of exposition in dialogue he uses voice overs from Sam, from Nicky and – in one place – from Frank (Frank Vincent). Considering that from the very first scene it looks as though not all of those characters will reach the final reel alive it is more confusing than otherwise. It might be preferable to Doctor Who­-ish exposition, but it is still a clunky tactic and it is disappointing that Scorsese couldn’t escape from it. It jarred more here than just having a single voice narrating the story (as in Goodfellas). 

What have I learnt about Nevada?
The film chronicles the rise, fall and rise again of Vegas. The Mob moved in, they funded their casinos with Teamster money, they sold the idea of glitz and glamour, they built up the image, and then they imploded. Now Vegas is a corporate hospitality playground where the marketing strategies are, if anything, even more cynical. 

For all that, though, Las Vegas is a city in a desert. That desert has its uses – such as disposing of bodies – but it is a reminder that there is a wider Nevada out there, and that the Mafia do not control. Rube cowboys have their own dynasties and run the state, and their coexistence with the flash casinos run by Easterners is a tenuous one. They may look dumb but these cowboys hold all the aces. People who refuse to accept that come a cropper. As do those that refuse to tread carefully. 

Can we go there?
There is no Tangiers Casino. There never was. The story is in part based upon that of the now-demolished Stardust Casino (something obliquely referenced by use of the tune Stardust on the soundtrack). But Marty did get better access to Vegas than Terry Gilliam did for Fear and Loathing… - surprisingly considering that this film damns the casino authorities rather than the punters. The Riviera was used for principal filming. 

Sam and Ginger’s house can be found on Cochise Lane. Nicky’ restaurant was Piero’s on Convention Center Drive. Nicky’s jewellers, the Gold Rush, was set in a now-demolished Kawasaki dealership in West Sahara. When Sam is called to meet Nicky in the desert, that scene was again filmed at Jean Dry Lake Bed. They also meet at an isolated café – this was the Idle Spurs  in Sandy Valley. Nicky later meets Ginger for sex at the La Concha Motel on Las Vegas Boulevard South; the motel can now be found in the Las Vegas Neon Museum. Nicky plays golf at the Las Vegas National Golf Club; later he and his brother have an unpleasant time amongst the corn at the Rocking K Ranch. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Dir. Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Craig Bierko, Christina Ricci 

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs started to take hold…” 

What a great opening line to a film. And it was, of course, the opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s most famous piece of writing: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a warped psychedelic trip through the sordid underbelly of Sin City. 

Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is a journalist. He is sent on assignment to Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. With him he takes his attorney, Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) and a car full of hard drugs (“As your attorney I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top. And you’ll need the cocaine…”). And the assignment is all but forgotten, passing in a mescaline kaleidoscope of images and perceptions, a nightmarish world where bats attack from the skies, casino patrons transmogrify into squamous reptilians and entire chapters of time are lost. It is the ultimate bad trip. It is the ultimate hangover. 

For someone determined to binge on mind and mood altering drugs Las Vegas must be the worst place in the world. The city is already so vivid and otherworldly that what you get is Madness2. The patrons are goyish and gross, the streetscapes are glittering neon in the darkness, while interiors are permalit dungeons where night and day have no meaning. Endless identical corridors lined with doors stretch away to the horizon and any desire no matter how warped can be catered for. It is a city of excess where nothing makes sense. The Bazooko Circus casino Duke and Gonzo visit whilst high on ether would be a terrifying assault on the senses at any time. The bar revolves, apes wear human clothing and an unearthly calliope plays (there are few sounds more laden with dread than that of a calliope).

And above all there is a feverish expectation about Las Vegas. Everyone believes they are just one card or roll of the dice away from the big time. They dream they can make it. It is the American Dream. They are, in Duke's words, “humping the American Dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the last minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino”. The American Dream is that everyone can make themselves what they want to be: a president, a millionaire or a rockstar. And of course they can’t. But there is a curiously American optimism that contrasts with the weary cynicism of Old Europe. For Raoul (and for his creator Hunter S. Thompson) Las Vegas in 1971 represents the abrupt awakening from that dream. The ‘60s had passed under its spell, a dream of hope and love born of San Franciscan acid. A new generation was rising and they could change the world. Or so they thought. And then the trip went sour. The opening sequence, set to a warped nightmarish version of My Favourite Things sets the scene beautifully. Raoul states that they thought that their “energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” TV screens reflect the reality of 1971: Vietnam – bombs – Vietnam – Nixon – Vietnam – war. The boorish middle aged middle classes of Middle America won (typo alert: I just wrote ‘missile classes’; Thompson would be so impressed with my mind making the intuitive leap). The small-town morals of the “silent majority” snapped back and left Duke and Gonzo stranded on the other side. Something was fun and wonderful and affirming and now it had turned vicious and mean and nasty. The American Dream was replaced by one of reaction and hate. Fear and loathing. In drug terms they went up, and then they came down. 

And the drugs replicate exactly the same change upon Duke and Gonzo. From what we see drugs do not seem to be the greatest lifestyle choice. The world that Duke and Gonzo take with them seems to be sordid and unhygienic. It is as vicious and violent as those of the red-faced cops they encounter at the District Attorney’s conference. If they zonk out so much that they cannot remember their actions they cannot therefore be responsible for their actions. This makes them mean drunks. They are self-absorbed egomaniacs. They do not care for anyone. Raoul’s solution for what to do with Lucy (Christina Ricci) is to keep her perpetually sedated with acid and pimp her out for gang rape. Gonzo pulls a knife on a waitress. Frankly they are dangerous to be around.  

In his drug-addled and paranoid brain Jason
was convinced Kylie was stalking him...

Thankfully Depp is at his entertaining best. With his bow-legged waddle and balding crown he barks out his lines and voiceover as urgently as a reporter filing a dispatch from a war zone. The cast is further dotted with stars in supporting roles: Cameron Diaz as a reporter, The Cider House Rules’ Tobey Maguire unrecognisable as a hitchhiker, Christina Ricci, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, last seen in Fight Club, as a San Francisco hippy. Even Hunter S. Thompson himself is briefly glimpsed at a party. And they have to be entertaining. I would say that the film has a great concept and a well-executed surreal aesthetic. But it runs out of steam half way through. For the first section of the film I was carried along like andrenichrome coursing through a bloodstream, not knowing what was going to happen yet. Thereafter the film became somewhat predictable. I knew that there wasn’t going to be much of a plot, I knew that it would just be a chronicle of two men behaving badly. I knew there wouldn’t be much of a pay-off. I’d come up, and I knew there would be a come down to follow. Though to be honest I’m impressed with what director Gilliam put out there at all. As seems eternally to be the case with Terry Gilliam movies the production was a nightmare. Gilliam was brought in at a very late stage and had to write a new script in ten days. It bombed at the box office. But there remains something appealing about the fact that the film was even attempted at all. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas certainly deserves an A- for effort, even if the finished product warrants only a C. 

What have I learnt about Nevada?
Las Vegas is far from the glamorous destination we have all been led to believe it is. Sure, there are the celebrities and the glitter. But behind that is an over-the-top nightmare of decadence. Desperation drips from the walls, its denizens shuffle around like zombies. People can be brought to Vegas for other events, like the Mint 500 motorcycle race or the DAs’ conference, but no one really cares. Vegas is its own little isolated reality. Away from the Strip we have Downtown for those who cannot afford to live the dream. And beyond that is North Las Vegas, where even the rule of law is patchy at best. 

The state has – or, in 1971, certainly had – very strict anti-drug laws. Even possession could earn someone twenty years in gaol; dealing life. Drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco are all fine. It is almost like the good folk of Nevada have to protect themselves from the insidious hippyish Californians over their western border. 

Outside Vegas the terrain is desert all the way over to Barstow in California. We are talking very light soil, barren and empty. 

Can we go there?
In Vegas Duke starts off at the Mint Hotel to cover the Mint 400 desert race. The Mint no longer exists; interiors were shot at the Binions Horseshoe. The ‘Bazooko Circus’ casino is meant to be Circus-Circus (in his writing Thompson explicitly states that “Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war”). The management refused permission for the crew to film there, so it was recreated on a Warner Bros soundstage back in Hollywood (the Stardust casino, demolished in 2007, stood in for its exterior). Duke is then sent back to Vegas to stay at the Flamingo. Interiors were shot inside the Riviera. 

Out in the desert the Mint 400 was filmed at the Jean Dry Lake Bed south of Vegas. Other exteriors were shot in Red Rock Canyon. The airport at the end was actually that in Kingman, Arizona. 

Los Angeles is represented by the now demolished Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard (which is meant to be the Beverley Heights Hotel), and a fleeting appearance by the Bahooka Family Restaurant in Rosemead as a tiki bar Raoul and Gonzo visit. 

Overall Rating: 3/5