The Small-Town Surrealism of Desert Blue

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Desert Blue

directed by Morgan J. Freeman

photo courtesy of Wiki

Casting and directing actors in ways that play to their strengths is a talent in itself. In both Streets and Blue, the Sexton character is a troubled hero who has a disordered home life (one parent is dead and the other is either a deceiver or deceived). He has an unlikely dream—in Streets, he wants to leave New York City for New Mexico, and in Blue, he wants to bring water to a stretch of California desert containing an uncompleted amusement park built by his dead dad.

 

He’s fundamentally a decent guy—someone with a visible if imperfect moral code, a leader of groups whose authority comes naturally, and who rarely abuses that authority. But he also has a touch of Hamlet’s paralysis and passivity, maybe because misfortune has made him reluctant to risk disappointment or embarrassment. It’s a teenage Montgomery Clift role, or Matt Dillon circa 1981—sensitive but hard-shelled, afraid of being hurt. These roles are a natural evolutionary step from Sexton’s debut in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, where he played a middle-school thug so socially maladjusted and emotionally damaged that the only way he could admit his crush on the heroine was to threaten her with rape.

 

Even in that swaggering, pathetic incarnation, Sexton gave the character a faintly sheepish quality—a tender goofball side. (Freeman served as second assistant director for Solondz on Dollhouse, which is how he met the actor.) Like Mark Wahlberg, whom he physically resembles (I keep hoping some smart filmmaker will cast them as brothers), Sexton has a compelling but unglamorous look—lean, slouchy, with a face that can seem either nondescript or broodingly handsome. And like Wahlberg, Sexton has an easy way with dialogue; he makes almost every line sound like something that tripped right off his tongue—even the clunky, screenwriterish stuff.

 

Consider a moment early in Hurricane Streets where the hero visits his mom (Edie Falco) in prison. Freeman isn’t the world’s most graceful writer (more on this in a moment), so Sexton is obliged to spend the script’s first act taking part in expositional conversations that establish how old everybody is, how they earn money, what time of year it is, etc. The hero’s mom asks how things are going, and he replies, ”I’ve only been out of school for one week, but it’s been a good week.” It wasn’t until a second viewing that I realized the line was exposition pretending not to be exposition, and that it wasn’t the sort of thing a young petty thief circa 1998 would say. Sexton has the true movie star’s ability to make questionable lines and situations ring true.

 

Sexton’s unforced charisma holds Desert Blue together. At first glance, this appealing but unfocused film seems very different from Hurricane Streets. It’s set in Baxter, a small town in the sandy, scrub-dotted hills of central California (pop. 89 and falling). The away-from-it-all setting seems a fulfillment of the hero’s dream in Streets; he wanted to flee the city for the American Southwest where there was room to breathe. But the hero of Desert Blue—a kind but distant teen named, alas, Blue—doesn’t seem to notice the peculiar charm and beauty of his surroundings, which is only natural considering he grew up there. The story doesn’t unfold quite the way you expect it to. At first it seems like it’s going to be a Last Picture Show examination of teen lives in a dying town. (The opening shot of a never-completed water park in a dust bowl valley suggests the desolate opening and closing images of both Picture Show and Texasville.)

 

Blue and his buddies—Christina Ricci, Casey Affleck, Sara Gilbert, Ethan Suplee and Isidra Vega—loiter around town, making out, smoking pot, getting in trouble and otherwise resisting boredom. All the teens have little obsessions. Ricci’s character, the daughter of the genial town sheriff (Daniel von Bargen), is a self-taught arsonist who likes to blow stuff up. Affleck, the hero’s hotheaded, sarcastic best friend, is an all-terrain-vehicle racer who’s hoping to win a yearly ATV race held in a nearby town. (Many of the teens ride ATVs. The sight of them zipping across the landscape, engines ripping and sputtering, perfectly suits the setting, and it’s a sight I haven’t seen before in a movie—a journalistic detail that feels just right.)

 

Blue is obsessed with opening the aquatic park envisioned by his father years earlier, before the giant raised aqueducts that carry water to Los Angeles stole the town’s moisture and rendered it geographically marginal—a dusty little roadside attraction. (The town suffered an even worse blow when the local bottling plant that produces much of the region’s Empire Cola laid off its local staff and imported cut-rate labor from Mexico.) Blue’s father, who perished in a mysterious motel fire six months earlier, was an expert designer of roadside attractions. He spent his last few years on Earth coming up with cockamamie ideas to lure tourists to Baxter; besides the water park that never was, he also erected the world’s largest ice cream cone. The latter draws the attention of Lance (John Heard), a pop-culture professor from Los Angeles who arrives in town with his teenage daughter, Skye (Kate Hudson, one of the few things worth remembering about 200 Cigarettes).

 

This all seems a letter-perfect setup for a small-town romance, but it’s a fakeout; shortly after the main characters are established, a tanker truck jackknifes on a highway outside town, spilling the top-secret unmixed formula for Empire Cola. The driver of the truck dies of unknown causes, and federal authorities (led by Michael Ironside as a brusque FBI agent) swoop in and set up roadblocks, forbidding anyone to enter or leave Baxter until the Environmental Protection Agency can figure out whether the tanker truck’s contents were toxic. The quarantine turns the town into kind of a romantic hothouse.

 

Since Lance and Skye can’t leave town and can’t stay anyplace in town—the burned-down motel hasn’t been rebuilt yet—they have to stay with Blue and his mom (Lucinda Jenney), a UFO-obsessed woman who runs the local diner. Naturally the adults are attracted to each other and Skye and Blue hit if off as well. The teens in town suffer spikes in their hormone levels, too—being unsure whether you’re going to live or die can do that to people. One of the film’s funniest observations is that during times of great community uncertainty, many residents will set aside their anxiety and enjoy a rare chance to behave impulsively. (Ricci’s firebug rises to the town’s chaotic condition by upping the volume of her home-brewed explosions; the actress makes this character funny by treating her arsonist’s dexterity as just another skill, like the ability to do card tricks.)

 

I wish I could say I knew what the film was up to, but I have a sneaking suspicion Freeman couldn’t tell you, either. There are a lot of different ideas floating around in Desert Blue—a lot of different potential movies, really—and most of them are interesting for one reason or another. But many of them seem to work at cross-purposes, and few of them lead to anyplace definitive.

 

In one sense, the movie is a portrait of constrained small-town lives. It’s startling how many of the marginal details feel correct, from the old Galaga video game in the diner to Ricci’s slightly outdated goth look (small towns are always a few years behind on fashion) to Blue’s mother’s casual reference to an FBI agent’s “cellular surveillance phone.” When it isn’t merely supplying information—which is often—the dialogue can be quite acute, particularly the banter among the teens. ”Seems like a real bitch,” one says, on seeing Skye for the first time. “You don’t know her,” protests another. “I know,”
comes the reply. “That’s why I said, ‘Seems like.’”

 

As in Hurricane Streets, Freeman demonstrates a keen eye for the little moments that define characters as individuals rather than types—like the throwaway bit where Lance and Skye are grabbing lunch in the diner and Lance declares, “I’m having a BLT. I have a hunch the bacon is good around here.” It’s precisely the kind of earnest, slightly idiotic thing that an academic would say when visiting a dusty desert town. Desert Blue is also a mystery; like Hurricane Streets, it immediately instills viewers with the suspicion that the hero doesn’t know the real story behind his father’s death (there are dead dads in both movies) or is hiding the truth from himself and others.

 

And the film has a political-satirical aspect. Unlike the apolitical and sitcommish 200 Cigarettes—and unlike almost any contemporary movie featuring teens and twentysomethings—this film is set in a place that resembles the real world. The characters know what’s going on in that world; they have opinions on what they know, and so does Freeman. The sexiness they feel when they suspect they might be doomed lifts a page from Gregg Araki’s playbook, but without Araki’s crude gargoyle-like approach toward characterization, which is more interesting in scoring points than developing realistic personalities. There’s a Don DeLillo-ish aspect to the tanker wreck and how it plays out. The bland intransigence of the FBI agents, who refuse to provide the imperiled townspeople with any news about the EPA investigation, is funny and feels just right; so does the fact that the chief ingredient in a major brand of cola might be lethal and smells exactly like dog shit. The characters express justifiable anger against the media (“The only business in the world that’s happy when people die,” says Blue) and cops (“They can do whatever they want whenever they want,” says Skye of the LAPD. “Run red lights and stop signs, make illegal left-hand turns, turn their sirens on to get to the donut shop faster”).

 

Freeman is so smart and has so much talent that it’s too bad he doesn’t know exactly where he’s going with his material. He has ending problems—after involving its hero in a surprising and horrific turn of events, Hurricane Streets didn’t so much end as simply stop. It seemed less a nod to ambiguity than an evasion of the storyteller’s responsibility to satisfy his audience. (Filmmaker: “Does it really matter how it ends?” Viewer: “It matters to me—I spent the last two hours watching the damned thing.”) Similarly, Desert Blue, while consistently engaging, staggers to the finish line without ever really figuring out what sort of movie it wants to be. The romantic relationships don’t develop, they just kind of happen, like love is no big deal.

 

More puzzling, both his films lack a crucial tension—a sense of urgency that leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that this particular story absolutely, positively had to be told. His first movie felt more lived-in, more tethered to reality, than the two movies it bore comparison with, Boaz Yakin’s Fresh and Larry Clark’s KidsFresh was patently artificial and fable-like—Yojimbo in the ghetto—but Yakin had boned up on his Spielberg and told the story in precise, dynamic, detail-packed shots, each of which pulled its weight.

 

Kids was fake anthropology and alarmist nonsense, but it had brute force: Like a rabble-rousing tabloid cover story, it ordered you to pay attention. Unlike the above movies, Streets was rarely electrifying; it was smart, nuanced work, but it should have had a propulsive energy. The same dispersal of energy and lack of focus that sentenced Streets to be good rather than great are also present in Desert Blue.

 

Freeman’s intelligence and tenderness might be his Achilles’ heel. To be interesting is rare these days, but it’s not enough. It makes you wonder if Freeman appreciates Sexton’s gifts instead of really understanding them. This young actor has a restless, searching quality, an openness to possibility and a sensitivity to slight that boils Freeman’s stories down to their emotional essence. But he’s never halting or vague; even when his characters are unsure of who they are, Sexton seems to have a pretty good idea. There’s quiet certitude in his portrayal of teens; his acting contains no unnecessary or decorative flourishes, no indulgences or blind alleys, no fat. Even when the film plods, Sexton gives it the illusion of forward momentum. This kid has an eye on the future, and a chance to claim it.

 

Framed

Creature features: Is The Phantom Menace a hotbed of racist stereotypes? I don’t really think so, but other people seem to. Since the film opened, I’ve heard Jar Jar Binks, the digitally created amphibious sidekick character of the two Jedi warriors, referred to as a Jamaican stereotype and as a Stepin Fetchit (one reviewer compared him to Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element and a friend of mine said he was like the black chauffeur character in Die Hard). 


I’ve also heard that the reptilian Trade Federation bureaucrats sound Chinese, Japanese, Italian or some combination, and that Watto the Tatooine junk dealer sounds Spanish, Mexican, Italian, Egyptian and Israeli, or some combination thereof, and that some or all of these ethnic groups ought to be offended.


I hate being put in the position of defending George Lucas, a peculiar billionaire filmmaker who does difficult things easily (like create fantasy worlds and pop mythologies) and other things poorly (telling stories, portraying human emotions). But I think he’s getting a bum rap here. Clearly, he left himself open to charges of racism by not casting at least one nonwhite person in a non-alien lead role. (The voice and movements of Jar Jar Binks are the invention of actor Ahmed Best, who is African-American.) And to complicate matters further, Lucas decided to have many of the aliens speak accented English this time out rather than speak in subtitles or be “interpreted” by English speakers, as was the case in the original trilogy.


The first time I saw the movie, I was thrown by this technique; Lucas hadn’t done it before, so it took me out of the story. But except for the Trade Federation creatures, who were definitely some kind of boneheaded but basically harmless riff on 1930s Oriental baddies, I didn’t see anything in the movie that invited charges of prejudice.


Now, I’m going to go through this next argument very carefully, since some of the people I’ve tried it out on didn’t understand it: Fantasy filmmakers are limited by the contents of their imaginations, and by and large their imaginations contain (let’s be honest here) reconstituted, reimagined versions of things that actually exist in the real world. Lucas decided to have his aliens speak English this time out, and to communicate the idea of “foreignness,” he gave them non-American accents. The accents are not strictly consistent with any known nationality and aren’t supposed to be (thus the confusion on the part of critics as to who exactly is being slurred). Unlike some reviewers who seem to have never actually met a person from Jamaica, I can tell you that Jar Jar’s accent and lingo (“Ex-kweeze me!” “Meesa missa Jar Jar Binks!”) bears about as much relation to Jamaican patois as pig Latin does to actual Latin. It’s gobbledygook, kiddie-speak, and it’s worth pointing out that the other amphibious aliens with speaking parts don’t talk the same way Jar Jar does.


Are the people who were most emphatic in charging Lucas with bigotry—a long list that includes Janet Maslin at The New York Times and Carrie Rickey at the Philadelphia Inquirer—actually projecting their own ignorance onto the movie? I halfway suspect they are—especially considering that collectively, the Lucas-is-a-racist crowd seems to think any goofy, harmless sidekick character is a Stepin Fetchit by definition (what about Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd? Or C3P0?) and that a frog mouth equals Negroid lips and floppy ears equals dredlocks. But since Lucas did such a rotten job of protecting himself against such charges, and perhaps invited them through sheer naivete, I’m willing to grant the benefit of the doubt and chalk up the charges to well-meaning but misplaced kneejerk liberalism.


One other point: When The Phantom Menace is shown in non-English-speaking countries, do you think the heroes will speak whatever language happens to be most familiar to native audiences, and that the aliens will sport accents from other nations—including, perhaps, America? If you said yes, you win a Womp Rat burger.


All cylinders: David Denby is quickly becoming my favorite film critic, which is weird considering that as recently as a year ago I was ready to write him off as a prematurely aged crank who was always proclaiming the death of cinema and clearly no longer enjoyed movies or moviegoing. His relocation from New York (maybe the publication was the culprit) to The New Yorker seems to have reconnected him with the pleasures of moviegoing and writing. He’s intimate and direct, capable of communicating slippery abstractions in plain language without selling out the ideas or condescending to the reader. He’s one of the few critics writing for magazines—or any publication, really—who researches the films he reviews and thinks hard about what he sees and what it means, rather than merely riffing.

His two articles in the May 31 issue are both indicative of his rediscovered enthusiasm and dexterity. His assessment of the secret agenda of teen films is astute and amusing (“No movie teenager now revolts against adult authority,” he writes, “for the simple reason that adults have no authority”) and his lengthy review of The Memoirs of Elias Canetti made me more interested in that writer than I ever imagined I could be.


If I were Anthony Lane, I’d be ashamed to be in the same publication with him. If Denby is a brilliant friend talking to you over a beer, Lane is a bitchy wiseacre holding court at a party you can’t wait to leave. He’s not a critic, he’s a stand-up comic who watches movies for a living, only a notch more respectable than Premiere‘s fictional Libby Gelman-Waxner. His Phantom Menace screed in the May 24 issue read like a mental meltdown; other critics hated the film a lot more passionately than Lane, and I can certainly understand why, but Lane’s moral outrage was so unlike him, and so clearly unsuited to the task at hand, that it invited incredulity rather than laughter. (This from a guy who gave a favorable review to The Mummy two weeks earlier, and who once called Speed “the movie of the year”?)


The juxtaposition of Lane and Denby reveals Lane’s utter inconsequentiality. In recent months, especially, he has begun to seem more and more like the kind of shallow, disengaged consumer-advocate-type critic Pauline Kael rightly used to rail against.

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