Flickchart Road Trip: California
Welcome to the final installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
California. Otherwise known as: Home.
It’s not only my home, but home to more movies than any other state, for the simple fact that it’s where the movies are made, and where the people who make them live. Writers are always told to “write what you know,” and you may be surprised how many of them actually follow that advice. It’s also simple to shoot in LA because you don’t have to fly anyone anywhere.
With the most movies set here, I also have the most choices to include in my final stop of the trip. Instead of fretting about finding movies that are most representative of this many splendored state, I made some selections based on a certain logic, and then some random selections. I’d like to wow you with my cleverness as I end this series, but in truth, I’m just too tired.
Which is also why I’ll break with tradition and not tell you what activities I engaged in upon returning home to California. You can do almost anything in California; people talk about how you can surf and ski in the same day (especially at this time of year).
All I wanted to do, though, was give my wife and son a big hug. So shortly after stepping off the plane from Honolulu to Los Angeles, that’s just what I did.
Home in time for Christmas. It was always the plan, and I made it by four days.
After a big sleep, The Big Sleep was waiting for me as my final movie of the trip. Choosing Howard Hawks‘ 1946 film noir was a simple proposition; I just found the highest-ranked California movie among Flickcharters that I hadn’t seen. I was curious about this well-regarded outing of Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe, but more than anything I wanted to end the trip with a bang, as well as something that fell into the category of classic cinema after a number of weeks spent in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The Big Sleep ranks #103 on the global chart.
What it’s about
Private detective Philip Marlowe (Bogart) has been contracted by a new client, the sickly retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), to resolve gambling debts for his daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). Upon leaving the general’s mansion, he encounters Carmen’s older sister Vivien (Lauren Bacall), who suspects that the real reason Marlowe has become involved with their family is to find her father’s missing friend, Sean Regan. Both pursuits may lead to a seller of rare books named A.R. Geiger. When Marlowe visits the bookseller, he can tell that something is not right with the business, and the investigation leads him down a path of murder, betrayal, and relationships between characters that he never could have imagined.
How it uses the state
The setting of this film is essentially unimportant, which I must admit, is kind of a sad outcome for the state where the most movies have ever been set. Those who know Philip Marlowe know he’s based in Los Angeles, but the only way the movie tells us that is by showing us the city name on a check Humphrey Bogart is looking at, or the camera passing a store front that has the Los Angeles street name (Las Palmas) in the name of the business. There is actually one close-up on a sign that reads “Hollywood Public Library.”
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other California movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films The Big Sleep will battle:
1) Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino). My Flickchart: #4/3611. Global: #6. My choice for #1 in California was simple: Just pick my highest ranked California film and go with it. Pulp Fiction was/is that movie. Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece ends up being a pretty good ode to the state, as it infuses a post modern pop culture sensibility with a mix of violence, $5 milk shakes, 50s dance competitions, palm trees and San Fernando Valley seediness that feels distinctly Los Angeles. I also like ending the trip with a film that genuinely changed the way films are made. No film in the last 20 years has been as influential on cinema as Pulp Fiction, and I still remember the overwhelming sense of revelation when first watching it. I saw it three more times in the theater, making it my most viewed theater movie, in addition to its many other stupendous attributes.
2) A Better Life (2011, Chris Weitz). My Flickchart: #836/3611. Global: #6867. California is my last chance to make up for parts of the American experience I may have neglected thus far on the trip. One of those is the plight of immigrants, specifically Latino immigrants, explored so movingly in Chris Weitz’ A Better Life. Demian Bichir received an Oscar nomination for his exceptional work as Carlos, an illegal living in Los Angeles, who is pushing forward his gardening business by buying a truck. When the truck is stolen, it sets Carlos and his teenage son (Jose Julian) on an epic search around Los Angeles to recover it. A Better Life recalls Vittorio de Sica‘s masterwork The Bicycle Thief in its portrayal of a father-son bond strained by trying circumstances.
3) The Joy Luck Club (1993, Wayne Wang). My Flickchart: #1268/3611. Global: #2725. The California melting pot is also home to many Asians, especially in the Bay Area. What, you thought I was only going to write about LA movies? This story, adapted from Amy Tan’s popular novel, follows four Chinese-American women living in San Francisco, each of whom has an adult daughter, who meet for weekly games of mah-jong. The narrative flashes back both to China and to earlier times in their lives in America, as they try to assimilate to a new life, and also to navigate their mother-daughter relationships. Emotions run toward high melodrama from time to time, but the film does a lot right, including focusing on characters who often get the short shrift in mainstream American films.
4) Basic Instinct (1992, Paul Verhoeven). My Flickchart: #2203/3611. Global: #2870. The Bay area gets a much seedier entry with Paul Verhoeven’s second hot-and-bothered film of the trip, after Showgirls in Nevada. Basic Instinct is primarily famous for the thing that Sharon Stone does with her legs just a few seconds after the moment above — or is it a few seconds before? — but even without that, it likely would have gained notoriety as a kind of prototype of the erotic thriller. If people aren’t killing each other, they’re grinding their naked bodies against each other in this San Francisco-set story of a crime novelist (Stone) suspected of killing a rock star, and the homicide detective (Michael Douglas) on her case. Ice picks and lesbian lovers are also involved. It’s tawdry alright, but it’s also fun more often than it isn’t.
5) Twentynine Palms (2003, Bruno Dumont). My Flickchart: #3611/3611. Global: #24539. “What’s that?” you say. “Am I reading that correctly?” Yes, you are. Something has to be the worst movie on anyone’s Flickchart, and I’ve saved the worst for last. To say that I hate Twentynine Palms is an understatement; more correctly, it is the worst film I have ever seen. This exercise in sheer misanthropy sees a couple — an American man (David Wissak) and a Russian woman (Yekaterina Golubeva) — traveling through the high desert above Palm Springs in order to set up a photo shoot, and staying in the titular town. It’s so terrible because it alternates between scenes of crushing boredom and ridiculous bickering, culminating in one of those B.S. endings that only the most pretentious and hateful indie films can get away with. Or, in my case, can’t get away with. Oh, and perhaps its worst sin — at least for this trip — is how much its French director seems to hate America and Americans.
First duel: The Big Sleep vs. The Joy Luck Club. All the luck is with Joy. The Joy Luck Club wins.
Second duel: The Big Sleep vs. Basic Instinct. I’ll go with my instinct and say that Bogart is the better detective than Douglas. The Big Sleep wins.
The Big Sleep finishes fourth out of the six movies.
More like “the big snooze.”
I hate to be so dismissive about the movie I set up as my trip’s grand finale, but maybe I should have known before going in that The Big Sleep would not be a slam dunk for me. First off, I don’t love Humphrey Bogart. I was relatively underwhelmed by some of his classics, like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, and have really only loved his performance in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Then, film noir is not my favorite genre. It relies more heavily than most genres on clearly defined character types and other tropes, and noirs that hew most closely to those parameters are the least interesting to me.
The Big Sleep is, for all intents and purposes, the classic film noir. It’s based on Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name, which originated Philip Marlowe, the classic noir character. I kind of laughed to myself as I saw the classic noir scene playing out, the one where the femme fatale (Lauren Bacall) walks into the private dick’s office — which is the classic private dick’s office.
Of course, I have to remind myself that the reason I’ve seen these elements a hundred times before is because this movie was among the first to do them. The problem I really have with The Big Sleep, then, is not what it does, but how it does it. One of the film’s famously acknowledged flaws — frequently described as an unimportant flaw in the grand scheme its greatness — is its serpentine plot, which is either difficult to follow (the generous reading) or just plain nonsensical (the ungenerous reading). I do have a tendency to let my mind wander when a bunch of complex relationships between characters are laid out in rapid-fire dialogue, but knowing what I was up against with The Big Sleep, I tried particularly hard to pay attention here. Nope. Less than 30 minutes in I had lost my bearings, and if what people say about this film is true, I can blame the film rather than myself.
The plot wouldn’t be such a problem if I gravitated toward the other noir elements on display, or the leads, or any of the filmmaking techniques. I was disappointed, though, by how straightforward this film is as a piece of cinematic art. Only a couple times did I notice the camera moving, or shooting from an interesting angle. I was grabbing desperately for a part of The Big Sleep to seduce me, and none would.
What I was left with, then, was a succession of scenes of talking heads, with just a few occasional exchanges of gunfire to keep me on my toes. I was able to appreciate the basic cleverness of some lines of dialogue, but without the ability to divine their relevance within the whole narrative, I felt adrift between moments of greatness that were all too infrequent.
What, you thought we were done? I think an epic series like this demands some final thoughts. So I’ll wrap things up by looking back on the experience next week.