Flickchart Road Trip: Oregon
Welcome to the latest 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!
Ah, the Pacific Ocean, my old friend. It’s the first sign that my journey is coming to a close. Just five more states to go. They’re the five U.S. states that border the Pacific, including the one that’s surrounded by it.
For now, though, I’m in Oregon. Really nice state.
I’ve been through Portland once before, and wish I could have stayed longer than the better part of an afternoon. This was in 2003. Visiting now, I can’t help but hear Washed Out’s theme song to the sketch comedy show Portlandia as I walk through the streets. I kept expecting Fred Armisen or Carrie Brownstein to come walking toward me around the next corner.
So instead of doing one thing in Portland, I decided to do as many things as I could remember from the TV show.
I visited the Portland Milk Advisory Board. I waited in an epic line for the newest hot brunch spot. I stopped by an organic farm to check that their chickens were being raised cage free. I got a flyer for a DJ spinning at a local club. I ran into the mayor kayaking on the river. I browsed through the reading selections at feminist bookstore Women & Women First. I did a scavenger hunt. I got lost in the confusing floor plan of a hip tech company. I opened up a bed and breakfast. I passed gas in the designated gas zone at a raw food restaurant. I put a bird on it. I pickled things. I made my own furniture. I even got Aimee Mann to clean my hotel room.
If you don’t get these references, well … you should be watching Portlandia.
Portland is also the primary base of operations for the characters in my Oregon movie, Gus Van Sant‘s Drugstore Cowboy. However, things were a little different in Portland back in 1971 … if you had something that ailed you, you didn’t have an acupuncturist or herbal remedies to come to the rescue. It was the good old drugstore or nothing. Flickcharters think Van Sant’s 1989 movie about robbing drugstores was pretty groovy indeed, as it’s in the top 1,000 of all time at #930.
What it’s about
Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a gang of four junkies who rob drugstores in order to maintain a lifestyle of scraping by and continue to get their fixes. Joining him are Bob’s girlfriend Dianne (Kelly Lynch), his friend Rick (James Le Gros) and Rick’s girlfriend, who they kind of picked up along the way, Nadine (Heather Graham). They practice an elaborate scheme on unwitting pharmacists, as Nadine fakes a seizure, Rick and Dianne run other kinds of diversions/interference, and Bob sneaks into the back to empty the drawers of the most desirable narcotics. A cop named Gentry (James Remar) is always only a step or two behind them, never able to prove anything. However, Bob and his crew may be their own worst enemies, as their belief in outlandish superstitions, their internal group politics, their increasing sloppiness and their unsustainable drug habit itself may be their undoing.
How it uses the state
There are no direct references to Oregon in the dialogue or otherwise, but a title card after the opening credits establishes the setting as “Portland, Oregon 1971.” A number of helicopter shots of the beautiful Pacific Northwest give us a sense of place throughout. The action does shift from Portland to an unnamed elsewhere during the movie, before returning there later in the story (aboard a bus that lists Portland as its destination).
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Oregon 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 Drugstore Cowboy will battle:
1) The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner). My Flickchart: #52/3585. Global: #184. When I was 11 years old in 1985, The Goonies was about the best thing to happen to me — at least since Return of the Jedi came out two years ealier. I loved it so much, I saw it thrice in theaters in one week. This coming-of-age pirate-treasure adventure is from a story by Steven Spielberg, and it finds the perfect tone of real peril for its teenage heroes, while also carrying a genuine optimism and sweetness. Mikey (Sean Astin), Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Ke Huy Quan) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) make a great quartet of intrepid young heroes trying to save their Astoria, Oregon neighborhood from being sold to developers to become a golf course, and the older teens include the likes of Josh Brolin, Kerri Green and Martha Plimpton. One can’t forget the bumbling criminals, the Fratellis, led by Anne Ramsey as the most frightening mother figure an 11-year-old could imagine, and featuring John Matuszak as the deformed Sloth with his heart of gold.
2) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman). My Flickchart: #233/3585. Global: #14. This is more appropriately a #1A than a #2, but I just couldn’t resist indulging in a little childhood nostalgia by starting out with The Goonies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of the original and most effective “patients vs. staff” movies, populated with memorable characters and a performance from Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy that kicked up his level of stardom by a couple notches. Milos Forman collected a cast of colorful character actors to fill out his Oregon mental ward, where McMurphy ends up as a conscious effort to avoid another prison sentence, before finding himself in an epic struggle of wills with the sinister Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The most memorable of these side characters might be the one who speaks the least: Will Sampson as the big Native American “Chief” Bromden. Although book author Ken Kesey disavowed the film — which would become a pattern with Nicholson when The Shining came out — and claimed never to have seen it, it won the Oscar for best picture.
3) Wendy and Lucy (2008, Kelly Reichardt). My Flickchart: #1236/3585. Global: #3318. In figuring out which to include of Kelly Reichardt’s so-called Oregon Trilogy, I decided to keep it simple and go for the middle of the three, which also happens to fall between Meek’s Cutoff (#556) and Old Joy (#1795) in my rankings. Wendy and Lucy tells the deceptively simple story of a young woman (Michelle Williams) on her way to Alaska with her dog, trying to start a new life but having almost no funds to get there. A breakdown in Oregon puts her already precarious financial situation to the test, and leads to some bad decisions that leave the pair on the cusp of ruin. This contemplative indie, taking place entirely within the little Oregon town where Wendy and Lucy are stranded, was a real critical favorite that confirmed Williams as one of the most talented actresses of her generation. I like it a lot, even though it just misses the (meek’s) cutoff for the top third of my list.
4) Prefontaine (1997, Steve James). My Flickchart: #1999/3585. Global: #5748. I like both versions of the story of University of Oregon track star Steve Prefontaine, who went on to compete in the Munich Olympics before dying young in a car accident, about equally. However, sometimes where a film ends up on your Flickchart depends on when you saw it/added it, and Prefontaine (which I saw only last year) landed about 600 slots higher than Robert Towne‘s Without Limits, even though I make no meaningful distinction between them. This version features Jared Leto in the title role instead of Billy Crudup. How’s that for a distinction? Prefontaine’s story intersects with the formation of Nike shoes by his running coach, Bill Bowerman (R. Lee Ermey), so it features two town legends in Eugene, where the university is located. Interesting note: Prefontaine is the only fiction film directed by acclaimed documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters).
5) Body of Evidence (1993, Uli Edel). My Flickchart: #3523/3585. Global: #20168. Remember when Madonna wanted to be an actress? Remember when Madonna couldn’t get enough of showing people her naked body? Remember when those two things combined to make one of the most hilarious erotic thrillers of all time? That was Body of Evidence, which was in the Madonna school of courting controversy by trying its luck with the dreaded NC-17 rating. All anyone can remember are the laughable “graphic sex scenes” between Madonna and Willem Dafoe that earned the NC-17, but the story surrounds a lawyer trying to get his client off a charge of deliberately inducing a heart attack in her older, wealthy lover through intense sexual activity, when she had recently become a beneficiary of his will. A sadomasochistic affair begins between lawyer and client. Portland seems almost too quaint a location for this type of overheated sexual button-pushing.
First duel: Drugstore Cowboy vs. Wendy and Lucy. If only Wendy considered knocking over a drugstore to save her dog. Drugstore Cowboy wins.
Second duel: Drugstore Cowboy vs. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You’d have to be cuckoo not to pick the 1975 best picture winner. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wins.
Drugstore Cowboy finishes third out of the six movies.
So where has Drugstore Cowboy been all my life?
I know the answer to that, I think. I became aware of it around the time I was snubbing films that seemed to involve a lot of posing and posturing among cool people. I got a pretentious French New Wave vibe from Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch in this movie, and just never prioritized seeing it.
You can imagine my surprise that what I experienced most frequently throughout the movie was laughter. Who would have thought that Drugstore Cowboy — despite containing some definite moments of tragedy — spends most of its time as a comedy? The improvisational jazz score is a good tip-off that these characters are meant to be seen as comical figures as much as tragic figures. If you weren’t sure from some of the hijinks they get up to in the film’s first third, just wait until superstitious Bob Hughes gets a chance to share his interpretations of which seemingly innocuous activities result in a curse. I dare you to keep from laughing when he discusses, completely straight-faced, the ominous portent signified by a hat lying on a bed.
Of course, Drugstore Cowboy wouldn’t be such a favorite in indie circles if it were only in it for a laugh. Gus Van Sant gives us a number of set pieces that define the modus operandi of this crew of junkies, including the only necessary full-length dramatization of their main con and why it’s so effective. You really understand how a sustainable lifestyle could spring from their activities. Van Sant doesn’t waste any time on moralizing, either. A lesser film would take pains to show this crew at rock bottom, would give us a couple scuzzy scenes of melodrama to underscore the notion that robbing drugstores to feed drug habits is not a good idea. Van Sant knows he doesn’t need to do that.
He doesn’t glamorize their activities, either, but Drugstore Cowboy does deserve some credit for the way it visualizes some of the effect of these drugs on their users. The year 1989 was pretty early to be playing around with the some of the techniques that would later become a key aspect of the vision behind, say, Darren Aronofsky‘s Requiem for a Dream. Certainly this film and that film have very different purposes, with Aronfsky’s serving as more of a cautionary tale, and Van Sant’s trying more to explain the way this lifestyle seduces the characters. Both films give us plenty of close-ups of needles going into arms, then the resulting daistortions of reality once the drug has taken effect. One shot of Dillon laughing through a field of effervescent bubbles is particularly effective and memorable.
The thing that surprised me most, bar none, was the appearance of Heather Graham. As a guy who only first became aware of Graham in Swingers — a film that came out seven years later — I had no idea she was even around back in the 1980s. Of course, if I hadn’t carried an irrational bias against Drugstore Cowboy all those years ago, I would have seen her in Swingers and said “Hey, that’s that chick from Drugstore Cowboy.”