FLORIDA ON FILM….A HANDY TEN

I like this map because it represents the absurdist nature of the Sunshine State perfectly. Palm trees in the Panhandle? Scholars in Gainesville? Salvador Dali got nothing on us! Oh, wait. Did I mention his museum is in St. Pete?

A few months back, I posted a list of recommended Civil War films (which I now take the opportunity to re-recommend) and came up with the concept of “A Handy Ten.” I’ve decided to make that a category, with the Civil War post the first entry (now duly noted and categorized). It won’t just be for films. I hope it will prove useful for large subjects and small. The “Civil War on film” is a pretty big subject. “Florida on film” is a medium-sized subject. I tried to watch or re-watch as many Florida-themed films as I could. My range of familiarity is by no means exhaustive (really disappointed that Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise and Gal Young ‘Un are not on DVD…On the strength of his Ulee’s Gold, which didn’t quite make the cut, I would have gotten hold of those if they had been available), but the state has certainly inspired a lot of takes, and from some very odd angles.

Here’s a Florida boy’s handy ten…

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Not a “Florida” movie? Have you forgotten the location of Xanadu? Have you forgotten where the word “Rosebud” was uttered? Have you forgotten that it didn’t really make sense for such things to happen or be located anywhere else, not even California?

California might do for Hearst Castle or some such. But that’s mere reality.

No, Xanadu could only be in the future home of Disney World, which, unlike its Cali predecessor, has swamped an entire region of the state and become not so much a theme park as a life-style, spreading like fertilizer, burying any hint of the “old Florida” underneath as surely as Charles Foster Kane buried himself.

Re-inventing the “Florida as Destination” movie (The Ghost Goes West is an earlier, happier, example) is hardly the first thing Citizen Kane is known for…but none of the other things it’s known for have had any greater effect.

These days Xanadu is called Mar-a-Lago.

Dreams, people. Dreams! It’s what even the nightmares are made of.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
D. Preston Sturges

…And yachts!

Yeah, they have those in Cali as well, but The Quail and Ale Club never rode west of the Smokies, so to Florida we go, with this re-re-invention of the Florida as Destination movie, which, had mobsters taken it to heart the way Walt Disney and Donald Trump did Xanadu, would have made Florida the new Reno.

We got the lottery instead. Probably because the state has been run for decades by people who make The Quail and Alers look like the Jedi.

One of Sturges’ indestructible comedies (to my mind, more indestructible than anything he did except The Lady Eve, which will still be standing when the last diamond is ground to dust). Ring Lardner did fine work in a similar vein in print a generation earlier, but nobody got the Florida Adventure on film quite like this movie, which almost ends happily if, in true Florida Dreamer fashion, you don’t look too close.

Key Largo (1948)
D. John Huston

Of course Florida makes a great setting for a definitive gangster film. Chicago and New York are just big, grimy cities. Florida’s a dream. Except in Key Largo, where it’s a creeping nightmare, a hurricane-haunted ghost world that Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco has to pass through on his way to Paradise.

John Huston is a favorite director of mine (somewhere in my American Top Five at least) and Key Largo may be my favorite of his films. There’s competition to be sure, but, filming in the Keys, no director has gotten the feel of the Florida landscape, or it’s peculiar semi-tropical atmospherics quite as right (down to its endless, flat highways, which feature in a stunning opening sequence that catches something about Florida that’s similar to what Touch of Evil‘s opening sequence catches about Mexico, namely that, if you don’t happen to belong there, you probably shouldn’t stay).

Perhaps the story–a good one, involving Humphrey Bogart’s half-brave serviceman, home from the war, trying to outlast and outwit Rocco’s gang in Lionel Barrymore’s classic Old Florida hotel while storms rage within and without–is merely taut and well-made, rather than terribly original. But for a sense of Florida as a place that is never quite settled, even by constantly shifting and grinding American standards, this is definitive, even down to a reasonably sympathetic view of the local Indians. There’s fine work from an Oscar-winning Claire Trevor and Lauren Bacall (as Barrymore’s daughter and Bogart’s love interest), plus a for-once convincing crew of hoodlums.

But the land and the air are the show, eclipsing even Robinson’s towering performance. Key Largo, in permanent competition with the following year’s White Heat as the greatest American gangster film,  has been in the DNA of every Florida noir since.

Seminole (1953)
D. Budd Boetticher

Good, swift entertainment from Boetticher, a few years before he began his cycle of classic westerns with Randolph Scott. There’s little fealty to history in its story of the United States army clashing with the Seminoles under their most famous chief, Osceola (a scenery-chewing, not terribly convincing Anthony Quinn). There’s much else going for it, though–Rock Hudson, more relaxed than he would be again until McMillan and Wife in the 70s, plus Boetticher’s usual sure-footed, no-nonsense direction, some terrific action scenes and a rare and compelling early look at Lee Marvin playing someone on the side of the angels (which didn’t happen again for years) and, perhaps drawing on his own military experience, giving a definitive portrayal of a type usually reduced to cliches: the career sergeant, caught between command and his troops, right and wrong, duty and justice. Of the few given the opportunity, no one’s done it better.

But it’s as a Florida movie that Seminole leaves a lasting mark. Nothing has come close to this one in catching the feel of the Florida swamps, or the difficulties inherent in trying to root out a people who owe their survival to centuries-earned knowledge of an impossible landscape (in this case, the Florida Everglades). Every American military commander or political leader preparing to send troops to yet another foreign jungle or desert or mountain range, where they will be pitted against locals who know how to turn every inch of the ground to their advantage, should be required to watch Seminole so they might be reminded of why, in what is now the United States, only one Indian tribe–the Florida branch of the Seminoles–has never signed a peace treaty.

“The Girl in the Bottle” (Pilot Episode of I Dream of Jeannie) (1965)
D. Gene Nelson

Dr. Bellows: “That image of a beautiful girl on a desert island was your mother.”

Major Nelson: “My mother’s in Salt Lake City.”

Dr. Bellows: “I’m a psychiatrist. I know a mother when I see one!”

So far as I know, not a single foot of the original series was shot in its nominal setting of Cocoa Beach. That’s okay. The astronauts were all living and training in Texas by then anyway.

Come on now. You didn’t think they were gonna set a story about a genie and an astronaut in Texas? They sent them to Texas because it looked like the moon.

Not even Barbara Eden could have saved that concept. They needed the idea of Florida, and, frankly they got it. In the neighborhoods I lived in, Dr. Bellows and Major Nelson would have fit right in.

And I’m only a little disappointed that the pilot didn’t feature the snow-capped mountain peaks of Cocoa Beach.

That came later in the series.

Did I say something about our knack for inspiring Dali-esque absurdism?

Night Moves (1975)
D. Arthur Penn

Pervert: “There ought to be a law.”

Non-pervert: “….There is.”

Set partly in California, it finds life–and death–in Florida, mostly by living out the tragic implications Key Largo couldn’t quite face.

This time the good guy doesn’t win.

Mostly because there are no good guys.

This time, the boat that was a ride to shore in The Palm Beach Story, and a testing ground in Key Largo, is a coffin, circling round and round.

Florida in the 70s–the place that left California behind and made its own way.

Definitive. After The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn’s best movie. After The Conversation, Gene Hackman’s best performance. Plus everything Melanie Griffith would ever be.

Body Heat (1981)
D. Lawrence Kasdan

On celluloid, all the happy, spring break, astronaut movies were set in the New Florida, where all the famous beaches and tourist attractions are (now including the Kennedy Space Center, which these days is basically a museum).

The noir stories are set in the Old Florida, where the beach bums and white trash and old money live.

Same places of course. For movie or mythic purposes, everything below Gainesville is the same place.

Body Heat was filmed in Palm Beach County, which is just north of Miami. But the most noir-ish real life experience I ever had was when I was thirteen and my Dad and I were painting a banker’s house in Ormond Beach, which is connected at the hip to Daytona, a good two hundred miles north, straight up US 1.

You pass the hospital where I was born along the way.

Anyway, he and I were staying in the house during the week and going home on weekends. One night we ventured out for some reason (to eat? a baseball game? the Boardwalk?…the memory hazes). On the way back from wherever we had gone, he drove down the main drag, where the big, flashy hotels loomed over the only beach in Florida you can drive on–a detail lost on the makers of The Right Stuff, who think you can drive on Cocoa Beach without Jeannie’s help, a fact which kept it well off this list–in a gaudy, neon-filled, row.

In those days, there were such things as pay phones. For some reason, the stretch of highway that led south from Daytona’s hotel strip had one phone booth, free-standing in the middle of nowhere, meaning a hundred yards or so from the last hotel and maybe half that far past the last cone of light.

As we passed the phone booth on the way towards the hotel strip, an extraordinarily beautiful girl stepped into the booth’s milky light and lifted the receiver.

I can see her yet: Twentyish, blue jeans, white blouse, dark tan, shag haircut, sandals.

All very 1974.

The inside of the phone booth was the only spot of light for fifty yards around and it was impossible to tell, from the girl’s body language, whether the call was prearranged or an emergency, something she did every day or never, whether she was in deep trouble or simply casually phoning a friend.

The night and the setting–and the distance from civilization, so close and yet so far–said it could be anything.

I always thought there was a story there, if not a hundred stories.

At least one of those stories was later turned into a movie and that movie is Body Heat, one of the few masterful modern noirs.

Kathleen Turner didn’t look anything like that girl and didn’t generate anything like the same vibe.

But it was her, a few years on….I know it was her.

Doing just what I was afraid she might.

Being very, very bad.

“Brother’s Keeper” (Pilot Episode of Miami Vice) (1984)
D. Thomas Carter

It hit like an atom bomb in ’84 and the New Golden Age of Television hasn’t dimmed the afterglow. Not only does the series still pack a punch–the pilot still hits the hardest.

By this time, of course, South Florida really was the most dangerous place in the developed world (or maybe just the world). The bad wind from Johnny Rocco’s ghost-world had blown up to the mainland and the corpses-in-waiting were toting machine guns. Brian DePalma tried to catch the new vibe in an update of Scarface and just came off looking silly. Michael Mann’s TV show, filled with castoffs and never weres, caught all the dread–and the deadpan humor no absurdist landscape can do without–DePalma and a hammy-even-by-his-standards Al Pacino missed.

I know, there’s a movie of Miami Vice, too. I just don’t know why.

How were they going to improve anything this perfect?

It has the best quality of all, too.

When I’m only thinking about it, I think I must have dreamed it.

And that was before Edward James Olmos came on board.

Matinee (1993)
D. Joe Dante

Nothing’s more Florida than the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know why? Because when Cronkite or Brinkley or Huntley or that other guy nobody remembers used to come on the air and intone about Cuba being ninety miles away from the United States or, better yet, the “US mainland,” what they meant was ninety miles away from the coast of Florida. And that’s what they meant when they said Cuba was ninety miles away from the coast of Florida too.

Freakin’ National Guard used to roll past my house.

Ask William Castle! Er, I mean, John Goodman. Er, I mean…Lawrence Woolsey.

Yeah, him. Go ahead. Ask him.

He knows! That’s why he headed to Florida–not your podunk state–when it was time to promote Mant!

Because where else would he go? Ten years later, we were laughing at the memory of when our older brothers and sisters had to duck under their school desks to protect themselves from the nuclear bombs!

Bunch of maroons. They deserved a Lawrence Woolsey.

Never catch anybody pulling the wool over our eyes that way. We were just waiting around for the eighties, when we could be the guinea pigs for the Cowboys running the Cocaine capital of the world.

We’ll show ’em!

Still scarier than Scarface, too, which I’m told is a big favorite to this day among a certain class of Cocaine Cowboy morons.

To hell with them and to hell with Castro.

Go Mant!

Men in Black III (2012)
D. Barry Sonnenfeld

The quality of mercy is not strained.

Strange, but, except for Love and Mercy, nothing in any movie this century affected me the way the Cape Kennedy scenes did in this movie. (And, yes, it was Cape Kennedy then, in the moment just after and before it was Cape Canaveral). Somehow or other, seeing it in the theater, the sublime silliness of the Men in Black franchise was submerged, for just a moment, under a sense of wonder.

I know what it felt like to watch the first moonshot come off the launch pad. I was there. I was eight years old.

In boyhood, it felt like a moment when time travel was possible, even inevitable, even mundane….like a concept that had already been accepted as reality. It felt like we had already been to the moon and back and were ready to move on to the next thing.

And who cared what that was.

If you could dream it, my friends’ dads could build it.

At fifty-something (and I watched MIB III again before I wrote this, just to be sure), that moment feels like a missed opportunity, a hole in time that matches perfectly to a time travel plot in a silly movie about the secret society of men who protect us from aliens.

We like to think we could put a man on the moon again. If we only had a reason. If only we really wanted to.

I wonder.

But at least we can still make movies about the time when we could.

That’s not nothing.

And all those movies have to come to Florida sooner or later.

Because, unless the Men in Black really are out there–hiding something from us, protecting us from our own ignorance–nobody sent any men to the moon from anywhere else on this earth.

Get to know this list here well enough and you might just find yourself a little closer to understanding why.

Like Xanadu and Mar-a-Lago and unconquered Indian tribes, some things can only happen in Florida.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Ring Lardner, Richard Pryor and the Fast Disappearing Art of Trash-Talking)

The week was filled with mostly mind-numbing buzz about Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman’s speechifying (and subsequent standard round of mostly mind-numbing non-apology apologies) after last Sunday’s NFC title game.

For all the fuss it kicked up, what struck me about Sherman’s immediate post-game spiel was that it just wasn’t very interesting. Words like “dull,” “witless,” “insipid,” “predictable” kept running through my mind when it was live and no amount of replays could dislodge them. I mean, as trash-talking goes, repeatedly calling a guy “mediocre” is about as lame as it gets. What’s he supposed to come back with?

“Well, you’re…you’re…you’re AVERAGE!”

Seriously, folks.

It was, nonetheless, sadly inevitable that Sherman–being black–would receive a certain amount of racist bile in return (probably quite a lot, though it’s hard to know for certain–let’s just say any is far too much and far, far worse than anything Sherman himself did or said).

And it was equally inevitable that well-meaning ignoramuses of varying stripes (all queuing up for membership or renewal in what we around here like to call the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade, or DBCCB for short) would try to elevate his behavior by making their own set of race-specific assumptions (“He’s from the street man…and he went to Stanford, see, so he can’t be what you say he is, see,…The game just finished man and that’s how the game is and he was excited see,” etc., etc., etc.) and, yes, by just plain making stuff up.

My favorite example of this latter was the frequent assertion (frequent enough I even heard it on MSNBC, where nothing is ever said out loud unless it’s already been thoroughly processed as conventional wisdom) that ran along the lines of “I didn’t hear anybody calling Richie Incognito a thug.”

For those who don’t know or remember, Incognito is the white Miami Dolphins’ offensive lineman who was caught bullying an African-American teammate earlier this year with truly vile behavior that included dull, witless racial epithets and a dull, witless promise to defecate in his mouth.

Good, clean fun no doubt.

If you do a standard internet search using the phrase “Richie Incognito thug,” you will find pages and pages of items which are heavy on examples of obscure media outlets like the Washington Post and the Sporting News very specifically calling a white man (in this case Incognito) a thug, interspersed with a sprinkling of posts like this one insisting nobody has ever done any such thing!

The usual foo-fer-all between the usual intellectual titans in other words.

It happens that, entirely by coincidence, I’ve been reading the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection (I’m planning to officially review it some time in February), which begins with Lardner’s first major work You Know Me Al, a short novel initially published in 1916. The book is, among many other things, a detailed essay on the finely nuanced art of trash-talking as it existed in the then national past-time sport of big league baseball a century past.

It’s narrated (through a series of letters sent to a friend who was evidently descended directly from Job) by a clod-hopper named Jack Keefe who is on his way to being the ace of the Chicago White Sox staff and far too clueless to know when he’s being ripped to shreds (especially by a coach named Kid Gleason) and wears his complete ignorance like a suit of impenetrable armor.

I’ll save the snappy lines for my review but, believe me, when it comes to smack, nobody has introduced any new angles in the last hundred years.

Just to see how things stood at roughly the half-way point between then and now, I went back to the work of another genius, Richard Pryor (I hardly need prodding), who has some version of playing the dozens (a specifically African-American version of America’s real national pastime–the putdown) running through his entire body of work and has a sort-of parallel version of Keefe and Gleason going on in his sketch titled “The Gang,” where Gleason is a kid named Clifford who tells jokes that are actually funny and Keefe is a kid named Bubba who tells jokes that make no sense whatsoever.

Everybody laughs at Bubba’s jokes anyway because his ignorance is as mighty a shield as Jack Keefe’s and–more importantly–he’s bigger than everybody else.

I just provide this brief historical perspective because none of the dozens of commenters I heard or read this week did anything similar. (Not saying that nobody did, just that nobody I sampled did and I sampled quite a few.)

Hence nobody I read or heard actually got around to calling out Richard Sherman’s real failure.

He played a great football game, made a great, game-saving play…then he choked on a bone during what we all know is now the truly important event otherwise known as the Post Game Interview.

With Ring Lardner and Richard Pryor (not to mention Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson) as role models (role models he might have been expected to honor and emulate being a product of both Compton and Stanford) he tried to step into their shoes and ended up sounding nothing whatsoever like a “thug” (that was just the stupid people talking and easily parried) but everything like a clod.

More Keefe and Bubba than Gleason and Clifford then.

And what was borderline tragic about all this is that, when other, earlier interviews with Sherman–taken in more sedate surroundings–surfaced later in the week, it turned out he’s normally genuinely funny and self-aware and sharp as a tack.

Alas, you only get one chance to make a lasting first impression and the real shame about last weekend is that Richard Sherman clearly could have been a contender in an age that desperately needs one–a true thorn in the side of the deadbeats who instead spent the week justifiably claiming him as one of their own and to whom he will now be forever indebted.

Guess if we’re seeking purely random inspiration we’ll have to stick with the rapidly receding past a while longer.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Christian Bale Emerges From the Holiday Shuffle….By Disappearing Into Someone Else)

Busy, scatter-shot week this.

–Saving Mr. Banks was actually charming (I feared it would only be pseudo).

–YouTube revealed that the reason Jennifer Aniston’s pseudo-strip scene in We’re the Millers fell flat in the theater was due to incompetent editing…Whew! I was worried that Jen had lost it there for a minute.

–The pseudo-hardcore of The Wolf of Wall Street proved, once again, that Marty Scorsese is the Norman Mailer of film directors (that is, an artist whose reputation for seriousness, or even basic competence, is completely mystifying) and also reminded me that he’s the only director who manages to get me actively rooting for his characters–all of them–to die. Not so much in hopes that they’ll go to some just reward as so that the movie will mercifully end. At least it was a notch up from the last time I subjected myself to one of his masterpieces in an actual theater. In that one he had me rooting against Jesus.

–Finished a biography of John Knox which I should be able to review next week and started the Library of America’s Ring Lardner collection which has put me in the exceedingly rare state of looking forward to getting up mornings.

What rose to the top out of all that–besides a lovely Christmas–was Christian Bale’s performance in American Hustle, which is so lived-in, intense and finely nuanced that he actually drags the whole movie to a level of awareness I’m pretty sure its makers didn’t think remotely possible.

The director, David Russell, is known for being quirky and here, that doesn’t really jibe with the story’s more or less classically “redemptive” structure. But, through all the stops and starts (high point, directorialy speaking, is the eerily effective use of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over a slo-mo beginning, so good it survives being cut off a good minute too soon; low point is the disco scene which is not-quite-right on so many levels that explaining why would require its own post), Bale’s immersion into character somehow keeps the movie’s pulse beating.

Eventually, he literally pulls everyone else into themselves and elevates the whole enterprise. No small feat in a movie about con-men where Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper–who might not be the two shallowest performers on the planet but are certainly in the running–are the other main players and Jennifer Lawrence is laying on one of those walk-throughs (much lauded, I notice) that feel like a screen test delivered by an Oscar winner who can’t figure out why she’s being bothered when everybody knows she’s going to get the job anyway.

Like I said. It stops and starts.

Sooner or later, though, they all have to come up to Bale’s standard. It’s almost as if he left them no choice–as if his character’s reality finally became theirs.

I say this as someone who thought Bale made the perfect Batman for Christopher Nolan because he seemed so completely devoid of all remotely human qualities–just the kind of black hole that Nolan’s “vision” needed. I assumed Bale was basically a well-chosen cabbage, but this performance opens up the possibility that he was actually acting, which–even as a possibility only–certainly puts me in my place.

May have to go back and give those a second look.

Meanwhile, I wish American Hustle had found the sense of tragedy it seems built for (but then resolutely fails to deliver). In that respect it reminded me of the recent version of What Maisie Knew and was, finally, a bit of a letdown.

But the Method so rarely delivers what it is forever promising that it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge how far it can go when it works. Granted I don’t catch a lot of movies in theaters (only caught these because I have a friend who was exceedingly generous with AMC gift cards for the Holidays) but this was by far the best performance I saw this year.

God, I may end up having a rooting interest on Oscar night.

Very disorienting.

I better cross my fingers and blow out some candles. The New Year hasn’t even started and I’m already seeing hob-goblins everywhere!