Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Quintessential Tennessee film

The Quintessential Tennessee film: Mystery Train

Tennessee is what I like to call the horizontal Chile of the US: a rectangular slab so thin and long that people on one end have virtually nothing in common with people on the other end.

Only Tennessee doesn't have two distinct regions that have nothing in common with one another: It has three centered around the state's three major cities of Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville as signified by the three stars on the Tennessee state flag. Look at Tennessee's state quarter and you'll see a guitar on the left, a violin (or fiddle) on the right and a trumpet in the middle with three stars on the outside and the inscription "Musical Heritage" written in the center. The message is clear: The state is three distinct regions defined by musical styles.

In the West, the port city of Memphis was a convergence point in the development of the Blues as musicians traveled up and down the Mississippi in river barges. The city is the home of Beale Street, Graceland and Sun Studios where Elvis got his start. In addition to the King, Memphis was instrumental in the musical journeys of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and pretty much every other icon of rock and roll you can think of.

In the center, Nashville is the world capitol of country music. Like Memphis, the city's tourist scene is also nearly synonymous with its music scene, counting Mercy Lounge, the Gran Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame as its greatest landmarks.

While Memphis is the classic Midwestern city and Mississippi River port and Nashville is a bastion of the glamorous side of Antebellum South, Knoxville is squarely in the heart of a distinct cultural sliver of the U.S. known as Appalachia where one of America's most distinct musical styles is king: Bluegrass.

The quintessential Tennessee film is an ensemble film in which different strangers' lives are united through musical fandom and, no, its not Rob Altman's landmark epic "Nashville." That film is more about aspiring dreamers and politicians than people living in the present reality of Tennessee.

Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train has three interlocking stories set in a seedy Memphis hotel all tied together in time by a local radio station playing the Elvis version of "Blue Moon." The first story centers around a suspicious woman on the run who needs a room for the night and is taken in by a sympathetic woman as a roommate. The second one centers around three lowlifes (Steve Buscemi is one of them) for whom a night of drinking turns into all-out criminal activity from which they seek shelter at the Memphis hotel.

The third is the one with the largest Tennessee connection although the other two stories provide a much-needed backdrop of the ebb and flow of urban life for this story to bounce off of.

A young Japanese couple is making pilgrimage to Memphis to witness its musical history. They're heavy rock and roll buffs who have an ongoing debate over whether Elvis or Carl Perkins was the true father of rock and roll. The young man looks out of place as a Japanese tourist dressed like a greaser. In addition to his attempts to look cool smoking (much like Godard's film "Breathless"), there's another motif of him flicking out his comb and running it through his hair. Still, the film portrays this young couple's relationship to the musicians they idolize with delicacy and sincerity.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review:
In the hands of another director, this setup would lead directly into social satire, into a comic putdown of rock tourism... But Jarmusch is not a satirist. He is a romantic, who sees America as a foreigner might - as a strange, haunting country where the urban landscapes are painted by Edward Hopper and the all-night blues stations provide a soundtrack for a life.

The message is that true passion of music transcends any superficial disconnects (much like the theme on the state quarter suggests). It's also a film that delves into nostalgia and how the pervasiveness of Elvis is both haunting to some and a source of beauty to others. Lastly, it's worth noting that for a state defined by its musicians, it features blues musician Screamin' Jay Hawkins in the role of the desk clerk.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The quintessential New Jersey film

The quintessential New Jersey film: Dogma

Mob dramas such as "The Sopranos" or "Boardwalk Empire" on TV or "Atlantic City," "Wise Guys," "Color of Money," or "Owning Mahoney" have a long tradition in the Garden State but the gangster/casino genre has long been established as belonging to Chicago and Atlantic City can't hold a candle to Las Vegas. Even if Las Vegas' latest offerings in film (Honeymoon in Vegas, The Hangover, Waking up in Vegas) or TV (take your pick between the failed Michael Chiklis/Dennis Quaid series "Vegas", the moderately successful yet shallow Josh Duhamel/James Caan series "Las Vegas" or the failed Rob Lowe series "Dr. Vegas") fail to measure up to the Atlantic City-based dramas in terms of portraying the grandiosity of a casino town, that doesn't change the fact that Las Vegas is THE casino town in America.

Another popular candidate might be Zach Braff's quirky indie comedy Garden State. Braff is not the only New Jersey native who decided to honor his home state in his titling choices (Danny DeVito's production company is called Jersey films despite the fact he no longer lives in Jersey). He delivered a nicely convincing soliloquy on Jersey when he hosted SNL (complete with a song and dancing Prudential Center) but that doesn't mean his love of New Jersey translated into film very well. His film felt like it could be centered anywhere in the U.S. that has deciduous (you better believe I spell-checked the hell out of that word) forest.

New Jersey, the nation's densest and richest state, is the epicenter of suburbia in the U.S. Most of its residents are suburbanites of three of the country's largest metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Philly, and New York) and what's left over has formed an indistinct tract of the larger Northeastern megalopolis. People who drive between NYNEX and the Mid-Atlantic on a regular basis think of New Jersey as a series of rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike or Garden State Parkway (taking your pick between those two is likely the most exciting thing you'll do while inside the state).

The state's biggest attempt at having a thriving city of its own, Newark, has been a complete failure for most of the past 150 years, despite the popularity of ex-mayor Cory Booker's Twitter account. One of the most notable moments in Booker's tenure was when he received a $150 million dollar donation to the school system from Mark Zuckerberg which isn't so much an indication of Booker's ability to charm Silicon Valley so much as Zuckerberg deciding that no municipal government was more hopeless than Newark.

In 1903, as the power of the suburbs increased, the state legislature froze Newark's municipal expansion and it became the country's first doughnut city (where the suburbs are bigger than the city center). Hence, New Jersey is where suburbs rule.

And no one knows suburbia better than blue collar director Kevin Smith. The suburbia of Kevin Smith's world is the place where bored teenagers escape into the world of comic books, pot, and sexual perversion (or if not actual sexual perversion, discussions about the topic). It's populated by foul-mouthed characters uninhibited by any sense of fear because they likely didn't grow up with any serious problems or boundaries. It's a place where the most glamorous place in town is the mall (see "Mallrats"). The mall is so iconic to suburban history that most textbooks on urban development or land use planning note a distinct phase in the evolution of suburbia called "malling."
In other words, Kevin Smith's suburbia filtered through the lens of his New Jersey experiences, is suburbia period.

Among his many Jersey-set films, I'm drawn to Dogma because of it's sheer self-importance. The film posits the scenario that Jersey is the center of the celestial universe. It's where God occasionally takes human form to play pinball along the boardwalk, where the devil's minions are are a street hockey gang, and where Jesus's thirteenth apostle is hanging out behind a Burger King. Most importantly, it's the nexus of Heaven and Hell where the universe's very existence will cease to exist unless a loud mouth New Jersey slacker and his sidekick don't act.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The story of Dorothy Gibson and Titanic's first movie

Many people made names for themselves on the night of the Titanic's sinking, either through heroism, feats of strength and endurance, inaction or cowardice. A survivor who went unnoticed the night of the Titanic as she quietly boarded a lifeboat with her mother, 22-year-old Dorothy Gibson, would go on to make a name for herself as the first person to tell the story of the Titanic cinematically.

Gibson was a New York-based actress and magazine model who had found success acting on Broadway between 1907 and 1911 and was beginning to segue over into movies. She was less than a year into her contract with the French film company Eclair (she was based out of the American branch) when she had become well-known as an actress for playing Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher. To celebrate the completion of her latest string of films, she and her mother went on vacation to Europe.

After the disaster, she was asked by Eclair to star in a film about the Titanic. Although she was hesitant about reliving her own tragic experiences, she conceded and ended up writing the film as well. She essentially played herself and wore the same clothes as she had on the night of her sinking. The other major roles in the film were her mother, father, two friends, and an Ensign Jack. It was not, in essence, any sort of comprehensive account, but the film got good reviews.

The one-reel film no longer survives today. The last-known copy was destroyed in a vault fire in 1914. Because she quit acting to puruse opera shortly after making "Saved From the Titanic", none of Gibson's other films except one ("The Lucky Holdup") exist today either.

Gibson had a very interesting life in the 34 years after the Titanic. Aside from a second career in opera, she later become involved in Fascist politics and intelligence work before switching allegiances against the Italians and Nazis in World War II. She was arrested by the Gestapo but escaped her prison in 1944.

The Quintessential Hawaii film

The Quintessential Hawaii film: Blue Hawaii

Hawaii is widely seen as America's slice of exotic paradise. It's one of the nine states I haven't been to but my image of it is well-formed by the friends I have who take their once-in-a-lifetime vacations there and by all the sitcom specials (Saved by the Bell, My Wife and Kids, Step by Step, Full House) where the family or gang takes a trip to Hawaii.

A popular choice is Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity.

The 1953 Best Picture Oscar winner, set in a military barracks on the eve of Pearl Harbor, is famous for that makeout scene on the Beach, Montgomery Clift's broody performance, and Frank Sinatra winning an Oscar for a character dressed in tacky Hawaiian shirts. 

From Here to Eternity did lead to an increased resurgence in Hawaiian aloha shirts but the problem with the film is that Pearl Harbor doesn't define Hawaii. It's one of the two most disastrous homeland attacks ever to occur on American soil, but that's more of an anomaly and that anomaly is far overshadowed by the ensuing years of Polynesian-tinted sunniness.

Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Another option is Alexander Payne's 2011 film The Descendants (an Oscar nominee and winner in the screenplay category) which (like Sunshine State) seeks to crack the facade of a tourism mecca and show struggling ordinary people underneath. The film delves into the social hierarchy between Hawaiian land owners, natives, and new blood in the real estate market, but this all falls into the B-story that's overshadowed by an A-plot about a disheveled middle-aged man struggling to cope with the pending loss of his unfaithful wife. In short, it's largely a film about a disheveled George Clooney in tacky Hawaiian wear. 

Descendants is a worthy runner-up, but my pick is going to be the 1961 film Blue Hawaii because it's pure kitschy, fun escapism. 

Elvis Presley stars as the quintessential all-American looking to have a good time after getting out of the Army. His father wants him to work at the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company but Chad decides to work at his girlfriend's tourist agency instead as a guide. 

It's not really about any sort of grand socio-economic conflict. The film's tag line was:
"Ecstatic romance...exotic dances...exciting music in the world's lushest paradise of song!"

Also of note: A lot of the glamour of Hawaii was first spread through military men stationed in Hawaii during the war reporting back to the homeland on how glamorous the islands were, so it's fitting that Presley plays an ex-GI, although his journey is in reverse. 

In short, the film features Elvis (an honorary Hawaiian) wearing an aloha shirt and playing a uke. What better image could Hawaii want than that?

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Quintessential Alabama and Mississippi films

The Quintessential Alabama film: To Kill a Mockingbird
If being Southern before the Civil War is a bad thing and holding onto that Southerness after the Civil War is considered a very bad thing, then Alabama (along with Mississippi) is widely considered one of the two worst states in the nation. Whereas Mississippi has other points of pride that don't specifically bring up its racist history (the blues, aquaculture, the Mississippi Delta, some of the South's more ornate plantations), there's not as much for Alabama to do except own up to being the epitome of the Deep South which would explain the nickname Heart of Dixie. After all, Alabama today is a center of industry and manufacturing which is something present-day Alabama has in common with Alabama in antebellum days.

Candidates for the quintessential Alabama film ranges from dark films like Color Purple while a film like Tuskegee (or what I imagine Red Tails would be like) tries to simply portray heroism without its contrast. Talladega Nights and My Cousin Vinny also come to mind as films with a specific location but I associate NASCAR as being more of a Carolinas thing and My Cousin Vinny lacks a strong regional flavor. I first assumed it was in the Midwest or Not-So-Deep South before looking it up.

The quintessential Alabaman film, therefore, should be a film that negotiates Alabama's racist past with its progress. It should be a film that's unapologetic about the attitudes of its people back in the day. To Kill a Mockingbird has the quintessential hero in a fight for justice that results in his client not being exonerated. It's a bittersweet film in which the main protagonist (the book's narrator) is a young girl who learns that right and wrong are complicated where they live.

It's a good portrait of small-town Alabaman life as told first-hand by an Alabaman.  Although it's primarily known as a book, the film version is iconic enough to appear in the iconic AFI list: 100 Years...100 Movies.

The Quintessential Mississippi film: O Brother Where Art Thou
Mississippi, like Alabama, is known for being the extreme Deep South so we could go for a film that uses the state as a hotbed for hatred such as "Mississippi Burning" or "Ghosts of Mississippi" but look closer (as I did last year on a very touristy trip through the state while staying in Memphis) and you'll see other traits such as their blues heritage, the riverboat culture of the Mississippi Delta, the ornate plantations, and even the fact that they farm fish (aquaculture). Mississippi also has a natural beauty with its swampy magnolia and oak forests that's almost mystical.

The Coen brothers create a strong sense of place in their films and capture that natural beauty out of which tall tales could be spun, the likes of which appear in the travels of Everett, Delmar and Pete. Mississippi is the proud birthplace of the blues in their purest form (as in acoustic, unpolished recordings) which ties into the trademark sound of the inadvertent band formed by the trio known as the  Soggy Bottom Boys. In its early form, Blues was almost indistinguishable from something heard in churches which is why it's also appropriate that there's such elaborate religious mythology.

Remember when I talked about the ornate plantations Mississippi was famous for? We see that in the elaborate divide between rich and poor and the class-conscious ex-wife of Everett (Holly Hunter).

Lastly, when I was in Mississippi, a lot of the tourism centered on roads and corridors such as the Blues Highway (running through Clarksdale) or the Natchez Trace and the film emphasizes this geography as well as all the mythical and legendary stuff they encountered was along the road. The character who sold his soul to the devil (Tommy) is even based on a piece of Mississippi folklore about a famous blues guitarist (Robert Johnson) who sold his soul to the devil at the confluence of two major highways in Cleveland, Mississippi.

The quintessential Florida film: Sunshine State

The Quintessential Florida film: Sunshine State

Since Ponce de Leon came to Florida looking for his fountain of youth, the state of Florida has historically been a land of opportunity with vastly different groups of dream seekers -- the tourist industry, Russian arms dealers, Cuban emigres, Latino power players, Northeastern snowbirds, adherents of the philosophy/religion of Jimmy Buffet -- intersecting to make a vast socio-economic web that includes the moderately dysfunctional government we often read about.

There are a lot of great examples of Florida films covering all those different views of Floridian life: Off the top of my head, there's the dysfunctional urban landscape of Miami in Barry Sonnenfeld's adaptation of the Dave Barry book "Big Trouble," the mob film "Scarface" (few know that Al Capone ran much of his Chicago mob operations from Florida), the portrait of Florida as an lavish 50's vacation spot for snowboards in "Some Like it Hot" and "Palm Beach Story," Miami as a happening singles scene in "Hitch," and the more backwater view of Florida as a small-town haven of eccentric characters in "Because of Winn Dixie."

Rather than pick and choose any one specific version of Florida for the quintessential Florida film, I've chosen "Sunshine State" because it includes the intersection of multiple Floridian versions in one Altmanesque whirlwind.

The underrated gem by John Sayles flew under the radar when it was released in 2002 but it's worth a second look. Starring an ensemble that includes Mary Steenburgen, Edie Falco, Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, Alan King, James McDaniel, and Jane Alexander, the film centers around seaside town whose tranquil existence is threatened by an enroaching real estate developer.

Florida is largely a state where real estate development is the rule of the land. The city of Miami, for example, is no longer home to the Miami Dolphins, Miami Beach, University of Miami, Key Biscayne, or even Miami airport. As seen below, all those places broke off from the main city proper as the municipalities became dominated by gated communities and developments that encouraged voters to need the city less. Miami, in fact, survived a vote to dissolve the city entirely in 1997.

Steenburgen stars as an overanxious real estate developer who is trying so hard to sell her latest development she doesn't even notice that her husband (King) is suicidal. Real estate developers in Florida are notorious for pushing the boundaries of development.  

The only reason there isn't enough sprawl to connect the East and West coasts of Florida is through the tireless work of wetland preservationists (what ultimately dooms this real estate venture). The Everglades saved through the championing of Majority Stoneman Douglas who now has a number of streets, statues, and parks named after her in South Florida.

Bassett stars as former town pariah Desiree Perry who got pregnant by the local football star (McDaniel) before he made it big and is now returning to her hometown. She's deciding on behalf of her family whether to sell the land or preserve the special piece of her town. The theme here is Florida being a dream for so many conflicting groups of people is represented here. For Bassett's character and her neighbors, the town represented the opportunity for blacks to have their little piece of the beach. The town also highlights the pockets of poverty found in many a Florida coastal town.

Lastly, we have Edie Falco as Marley Temple who represents the state's evolving tourist industry. Temple, a sixth generation Floridian, used to be a mermaid in one of the seaside attractions that lined the highways before the corporate megaliths of Sea World and Disney World took over. She's now an owner of the family motel who's sick of where she's living. Her tryst with a landscape architect hired as (Timothy Hutton) with a prospective land developer could be seen as a metaphor for the past Florida going the way of the future.

As a tapestry of intersecting lives, Sunshine State works as a great scene piece that has aged well and will likely continue to be relevant.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reexaming Titanic 16 Years Later

If there's one thing the 1997 James Cameron film and the 1912 steam liner both have in common is that they were unprecedented cultural juggernauts. Simply by setting sail out of Southhampton, England on April 10th, 1912, the Titanic set a world record for the largest moving object. Of course, it would go onto set more records later in the week for death and disaster, but it was a symbol of crowning achievement for the guilded age nonetheless

Similarly, no movie had captured the public attention in my lifetime like the film did. It's budget and attention to detail was unimaginable and clearly enhanced the film in an era when the American blockbuster was still evolving as an art form. It's 15-week run as America's number one film (very few films today last more than 2 weeks at the number one spot and I highly doubt any film has gone more than four weeks at #1 since 2000)  and subsequent shattering of a 20-year-old record for domestic gross was ample evidence that this is the film everyone saw if they were alive in 1998 and not living in a cave.

I first saw the film in the theater a few months after its release in my early teens with my late grandfather (on a bittersweet note, this was the last film he saw) and was overtaken with sadness. To witness the senseless tragedy of those lives lost was a severely depressing experience that haunted me for a couple days. I wasn't a film enthusiast back then so rather than admire James Cameron for so effectively depressing the hell out of me, I just wished I hadn't seen the film in the first place.

About nine years later in college, I saw the film again with a more detached emotional perspective and found the film to be a brilliant film and used it as the topic for a term paper in one of my film courses. I no longer saw Titanic as a portrait senseless tragedy but a well-thought out expose on class tension. The tragedy wasn't that a lot of people died but that existing views on class (the fact that lifeboats for third class passengers weren't provided because they'd aesthetically clutter up the deck strolling experiences of the first class is the kind of thing you can go wild with in such an essay) prevented lives from being saved.

Fast-forward to the present where I've become much more educated on the Titanic. The 100th Anniversary of the sinking had an article in National Geographic that spurned my interest along with a recent Reddit question and answer session by a preservationist for the Titanic exhibit. The more I've diven into the research about the Titanic, the more I've realized that the mysteries of the Titanic are unknowable. We now have greater forensic technology to piece together what happened in the North Atlantic at 41'N, 48'W in the early morning hours of August 15th and research and new books have kept going on the disaster but those new books have the effect of disproving what the earlier books said and those new books are in doubt too.

For instance, the Californian and its captain Robert Lord took a lot of heat because they were apparently closer to the Titanic than the Carpathia (the ship that eventually picked up the survivors, making contact with the first lifeboat, approximately an hour and forty minutes after the Titanic sank and everyone not in a lifeboat died of hypothermia from being in 29 degree water) and did not respond to the disaster in time. However, new research by the British Department of Transport and another maritime historian David Gittins have supposedly cleared Lord's name by calculating that the Californian was likely too far away to be able to make a rescue in time. This pushed forward the theory that the ship that the people on board Titanic and the Californian saw over the horizon was a third unidentified ship (The Samson) that was sailing illegally in those waters. The problem with that theory is that another Titanic researcher, Leslie Reade, followed this revelation by consulting Icelandic port records (the Samson's destination) and did the math to discover that the Samson couldn't have been there in time. With that myth debunked, most Titanic researchers are pointing their fingers again at the Californian as the likely mystery ship on the horizon but how does that explain the fireworks seen on the bow of the ship?

These are still issues hotly debated today and whether the water was even 29 degrees or whether anyone lasted more than an hour in the water (see Charles Joughin) were up for debate.

Several of the survivors such as Colonel Archibald Gracie and Molly Brown made names for themselves as amateur historians after the incident and perhaps that's where James Cameron fits in: Cameron pieced together the most exacting details of history he could find while sifting through inexact historical speculation to create a powerful story and perhaps that's as good as one can hope for.