Flickchart Road Trip: Arizona
Hey everyone! Thanks for joining me for the first stop of my Flickchart Road Trip, where I’ll be watching movies from all 50 states, one per week.
If you’re wondering “How the heck are you going to do this for a whole year?”, the answer is simple: It’s virtual. Because I’ve got an active imagination, however, I’m going to give you a little flavor of the things that happen to me along the way. (Some people call this “lying.”)
So I kissed my wife and son goodbye, pointed my 2006 Volkswagen Jetta east on Interstate 10, and kept driving until I hit the Arizona border, some 240 miles from my Los Angeles home. I found a little fleabag motel, which was surprisingly clean for a place that costs only $29 a night. Next door was a convenience store, and I went inside to see if they had any funny-shaped balloons for sale. The guy at the counter told me “No. Unless round’s funny.” I won’t be able to hit the Grand Canyon on this trip, but at least I did pick up a couple of postcards at this convenience store – even though it’s some 400 miles away.
In my room I pulled up my laptop and started Smoke Signals (1998, Chris Eyre), which was conveniently available on Netflix streaming (though the wi-fi signal wasn’t great, so I had to deal with some buffering).
What It’s About
The story involves a pair of twenty-something Native Americans from Idaho’s Couer D’Alane Reservation, who make a road trip to Phoenix in order to claim the remains of the man who served as a literal father to one and a de facto father to the other. When he was a baby, Thomas (Evan Adams) was saved from a fire that killed his parents by the deceased man Arnold (Gary Farmer). The fire left its scars on Arnold, however, and a decade later he left his own son Victor (Adam Beach) and Victor’s mother, settling in Phoenix. Upon his death, Victor wants to return his estranged father’s remains, but doesn’t have the money to make the trip without help from the talkative social misfit Thomas — who serves as a reminder to Victor about why his father left him in the first place.
Simply put, this movie — made entirely by Native Americans — floored me. Sherman Alexie’s script is filled with the kind of sharp observations about human behavior that take them way beyond the specific culture he’s examining here (his own). The script consistently underplays the material, trusting audiences to extrapolate from quiet moments and seemingly insignificant pieces of dialogue. Despite the heavy subject matter, though, Smoke Signals has plenty of room for life’s quirky details and even more room for humor. Few movies are this skilled at wringing both laughs and (if you’re so inclined) tears, and both emotions are made possible by just how well Smoke Signals distills truth. Eyre’s direction and the performances of Beach and especially Adams deliver home an emotionally satisfying journey and then some.
Use of the State
The movie may not focus on the state of Arizona as much as I thought it might, but it does represent the place that provided an emotional refuge for the troubled Arnold — and where his son(s) reconnected with him, even in death. We also get to see plenty of the regional topography, its majestic brown rocks jutting out in various beautiful angles.
Now, my custom in these posts will be to duel the new movie I see with five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen to represent different spots in my Flickchart rankings, from favorites to quite the opposite. For your reference, I have 3369 films ranked as of this writing. Here are the five Arizona movies Smoke Signals will be dueling:
1) Raising Arizona (1987, Joel & Ethan Coen). My Flickchart ranking: #3. As should be obvious from the ranking, one of my favorite movies of all time. The Coens’ quirky crime comedy actually gets two uses out of the word Arizona: It’s not only the state where the story takes place, but it’s the last name of the furniture magnate whose quintuplet is abducted by ex-con H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and his barren wife (Holly Hunter).
2) Pump Up the Volume (1990, Allan Moyle). My Flickchart ranking: #437. Christian Slater stars as a troubled teenager whose family has most recently moved to a suburb of Phoenix. As an outlet for his frustrations, he runs a pirate radio station out of his bedroom under the name Hard Harry. His format is to play alternative music, but also to share truths about the teenage experience with other troubled teens — sometimes with unintended consequences. This movie came out when I was 16, and I loved it.
3) Tombstone (1993, George P. Cosmatos). My Flickchart ranking: #1684. The better of two versions of the Wyatt Earp story released in the early 1990s (the other being Lawrence Kasdan‘s Wyatt Earp), Tombstone takes its title from the name of the town where the Earp brothers served as lawmen and eventually fought in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. On a real trip to Tombstone with my wife several years ago, I fired a gun for the first and only time in my life. The movie is pretty good, and some folks think it’s great.
4) Hamlet 2 (2008, Andrew Fleming). My Flickchart ranking: #2666. Steve Coogan plays a struggling actor who moves to Tucson — “where dreams go to die” — to become a reluctant high school drama teacher. After a series of personal setbacks, he stages a gonzo musical envisioned as a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play, involving time travel, Jesus Christ, and a musical number entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus.” Although some people loved this movie, it didn’t really do it for me.
5) Eight Legged Freaks (2002, Ellory Elkayem). My Flickchart ranking: #3249. After a toxic waste spill in the quiet mining town of Prosperity, AZ, spiders grow to the size of automobiles and begin terrorizing the local population. This film was clearly intended as some kind of monster movie throwback, but it didn’t work for me on the level of irony — or on any other level. Casting David Arquette as the lead only made things worse.
As you know, if you have ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie always goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. How it fares against that film determines whether it will next duel the movie at the 75th percentile or the movie at the 25th percentile. Duels continue until the exact correct spot is determined. With a field of five movies, that means at least two but no more than three duels.
So let’s see how Smoke Signals fares against other Arizona movies:
1) Smoke Signals vs. Tombstone. On behalf of indigenous peoples everywhere, I’m proud to say that in this case, Indians defeat cowboys. Smoke Signals wins.
2) Smoke Signals vs. Pump Up the Volume. Hard Harry may speak the truth, but it’s nothing compared to the truth spoken by Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Smoke Signals wins.
3) Smoke Signals vs. Raising Arizona. Sorry, but no one beats my #3 movie of all time. Okay, only two movies beat my #3 of all time. Raising Arizona wins.
Smoke Signals finishes second out of the six movies.
Alright! As I continue east on Interstate 10, New Mexico is next in my sights. If you want to follow along with me, I’ll be watching Billy Wilder‘s Ace in the Hole, and talking about it a week from now. See you then.