Thursday, 20 September 2012

Stand By Me (1985)

Dir. Rob Reiner
Starring: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman 

Stand By Me is yet another nail in the coffin of Stephen King the horror writer. Films I have seen based on his horror stories – like The Mist or Maximum Overdrive – I tend to hate (The Shining counts as a bit of a strange aberration. Notably King himself disliked Kubrick’s interpretation of his novel). Films based on non-horror stories of his I tend to quite enjoy: The Shawshank Redemption, Misery… and now Stand By Me. It is a touching story of a particular moment in someone’s life – the summer when he was twelve. With adulthood looming he goes for an adventure with his three best friends. Looking back twenty-six years later he concludes “I never had any friends later on like I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Much like The Goonies their last adventure takes place in Oregon. Here they are not looking for hidden pirate treasure but instead for a dead body. A local boy had gone missing and they had overheard that he had been discovered by the train tracks some twenty miles away. The discovery had not been reported, and so four close friends set out to become heroes by finding him. There’s the narrator, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), trying live up to the memory of his dead brother. There’s the cool, tough, protective one from the wrong side of the tracks, Chris (River Phoenix, who really does steal the movie), trying to escape his no-good family name. There’s the fat one – there’s always a fat one – in the shape of Jerry O’Connell’s Vern. And there’s Corey Feldman – there’s always Corey Feldman as the previous year’s The Goonies proved – as the conflicted Teddy who doesn’t know whether to love or hate his violent war hero father. In their own ways they’re all weird. But as Chris points out, “so what? Everybody’s weird.” 

There are moments of drama along the way – an escape from a junkyard dog, a facedown with local gang leader Ace (Kiefer Sutherland, looking the spit of his dad Donald), and a perilous crossing of a railway bridge. More directors should refer to the latter scene to see how tension should be handled. As soon as we see the bridge we know that should a train appear as they are crossing it the boys will have nowhere to go. It is, of course, the full-of-bravado Teddy who leads them out onto the wooden spans. And as soon as they commit to crossing we know – we know – that a train is going to arrive. But the scene is played out with many glances down at the gaps between the sleepers and the genius moment when Vern drops his comb. But Gordie refuses to leave Vern behind. These boys commit to supporting each other through thick and thin. They are the twelve-year-old male equivalents of the Steel Magnolias. They insult each other (and their mothers) non-stop, they play pranks on one another, and Vern in particular always seems to be the butt of each other’s jokes but they have each other’s backs. Chris stands up to Ace after he steals the baseball cap Gordie’s older brother Denny (John Cusack) gave him. Chris drags Teddy off the train track when he decides to play dodge with an oncoming locomotive (and later admits that he has nightmares about not being able to save him). Gordie gets Vern off the bridge and backs up Chris at the film’s climax. But they also support each other emotionally. The whole gang comfort Teddy when the junkyard owner reduces him to tears by calling his father a “loony”. Chris acts like a father to Gordie, encouraging him to ignore his father and continue to write stories (“Kids lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for them. And if your parents are too fucked up to do it, then maybe I should.”). Later on Gordie comforts Chris when he worries that he will never get out of Castle Rock. 

It is this emotional support that gives shape to the movie. The real point of their quest was to see a dead body. They do this, but it doesn’t really mean anything – except to Gordie who, it transpires, needs this to get closure on Denny’s premature death. But this is more a Bildungsroman. What is important is not the final destination of their quest but the lessons about life they learn among the way. As I said about The Goonies the characters are forced to grow up along the way. Not that this is necessarily a good thing: all the adults in the story seem flawed. Teddy and Chris’s fathers are abusive – one violently insane, the other a drunken low-life. Gordie’s is more psychologically abusive, forever comparing him dismissively to his popular football-star brother who died prematurely. “It should have been you” he says to Gordie at Denny’s funeral (though it is unclear whether this is a memory or, more likely, just a dream). Chris breaks down in tears when he realises the wickedness of the adult world (after he is punished for stealing the milk money, which a teacher then uses to buy a new skirt). But grow up they do. Well maybe not Vern (who seems to have the least conflict or emotional depth of the four characters – he isn’t even that fat). Or, in fact, Teddy (who leaves singing a TV theme tune). But certainly Gordie and Chris determine to follow their ambitions and become more than their families think they can.  

The great thing about the film is that it seems true to life – even for people like me who didn’t grow up in the 1950s. We can believe in the characters as friends. The ridiculousness of their interactions rings true. As is said at one point, they have the conversations that seem so important when you have not yet discovered girls: what would be the one meal they eat forever, what kind of animal Goofy is, who would win in a fight between Superman and Mighty Mouse. I can tell you honestly that I would have behaved in much the same way in many segments. For example it has a great period soundtrack (if one excuses the awful synthesizer muzak version of Ben E. King’s Stand By Me; face it, the original is such a classic it’s like trying to pass off Sprite as champagne). At one point The Chordette’s Lollypop is played. I stuck my finger in my mouth and went “pop!”… just as Teddy and Vern did in the film…  

The sad thing is that this is the end of the adventure. Whereas in The Goonies the gang are saved from being split up, in Stand By Me they do split up. Not because of any external fforce, but because they just drift apart. Life gets in the way. “It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives like busbuys in a restaurant.” The narration of the grown-up Gordie (Richard Dreyfus) tells that upon their return to school he fell out of contact with Vern and Teddy who today seem to respectively hold a comfortable menial job and to have been in trouble with the police. He kept in touch with Chris, but had not seen him for ten years. He writes that he will always miss him. Well, quite possibly considering that Chris inspired him to follow his writing dreams. But one wonders where they were for each other over the previous decade. Still, it is enough to get the audience thinking about their own childhood friendships and what happened to them. I am ‘Facebook friends’ with no more than three people I was at junior school with. I was recently at the wedding of a mate from first year seniors, but this is a group of friends that gets together no more than three or four times a year. Nor do I think that they ever left me feeling as self-aware as those friends portrayed in the film. But Stand By Me is a warming, affirming story of childhood friendships and big adventures that is guaranteed to make you think nostalgically about the summers of ones youth. 
They never expected the 9:41 to Clacton
to be running on time for once...

What have I learnt about Oregon?
We still see the forests of The Goonies but here there is no fog and drizzle. This is a childhood summer, and childhood summers are always hot and sunny. Here we are inland, and it becomes clear that once away from town (Castle Rock, with a population of twelve-hundred-odd) there is not much population. Tracks and railway lines cross a state chracterised by forests and deep impressive rivers. Wildlife includes deers (certainly), coyotes (probably) and bears (possibly). And leeches (unfortunately!). It is little surprise that the biggest industry in the area appears to be logging and lumber.  

One thing I did notice was the prevalence of French names in the film: Lachance, Duchamp, Desjardins. My instinctive thought was that there must be some French influence in the area. However, it was adapted from King’s novella The Body which, like much of his work, was set in Maine. Maine is just over the border from Quebec. So I think the French heritage is probably truer of the original Maine-set story than its relocation to Oregon. 

Can we go there?
Castle Rock, the town from which the boys hail, does not really exist. For the purposes of filming Brownsville in the Willamette Valley was used. The local authorities have helpfully compiled a walking tour around the town. The junkyard was further south, in Veneta. The campout scene where the boys stand guard with the gun was filmed near Eugene. Mr Quidacioluo’s was in Franklin. Scenes along the railroad tracks were filmed durther south again, along the Gooseline Railroad in Cottage Grove (now the Row River National Recreation Trail). Buster Keaton’s The General was also filmed along this stretch of railroad. The body was found about ¼ of a mile north of Highway 58, five miles east of I-5. The scene where they have to outrace the train over the bridge, however, was shot in California, at Lake Britton on the McCloud River Railroad in Shasta County.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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