Flickchart Road Trip: Washington
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!
Can I be honest with you? Good.
I’ve seen the sights. Boy have I seen them. I’ve been seeing the sights for nearly 50 weeks now, and I consider them to be officially seen. Even if there are some sights that I haven’t quite seen, because I’m arriving somewhere slightly new each week, my patience for seeing them is just about used up. So I’m sorry, Washington. At this point I’m basically blind.
Thanksgiving was, therefore, perfectly timed, coming along during the week when I hit this wall, and allowing me to focus my energies on figuring out a way to eat turkey in the greater Washington area. Beggars can’t be choosers, though, and no one said I’d be able to work out Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving day itself. Good thing I started my research early.
When trying to imagine where I might spend Thanksgiving in a state where I don’t know many people — and none well enough to impose on them for the holiday — I thought of the fact that my dad has been involved in group Thanksgivings at his church back in Portland, ME. The idea is to provide a place for those who may be isolated from their families during the holidays, and give them some yummy food and good cheer. My dad hasn’t participated in these out of need, since he does have family around with whom to share the Thanksgiving feast. He just takes on a leadership role in planning things like this out of the goodness of his heart, which I think is pretty cool.
Wanting to at least stick with my own kind, I searched out a Unitarian church in Washington that was doing something for Thanksgiving. (I was raised Unitarian, but for all intents and purposes don’t have any religious affiliation at this point in my life.) I couldn’t make the actual details work out for Thanksgiving Thursday, but I did locate a church that was celebrating the holiday on the Sunday before: Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church in Shoreline, WA. Shoreline is just north of Seattle, and gave me the opportunity to drive along the Puget Sound for a while leading up to it, about which I couldn’t complain.
I figured it was only right to attend the service beforehand, and the minister (a female minister, just like the one in my childhood church) gave a nice holiday-themed sermon, about the true meaning of giving and all that. Then it was on to the potluck Thanksgiving lunch, which was surprisingly well attended. All the stuff you would expect was there, including my cracker and cheese spread. No, that’s not entirely in line with traditional Thanksgiving fare, but the church online bulletin did list “crackers” as a suggestion of one of the things to bring. Given that I don’t have easy access to a kitchen on this trip, I felt a lot less guilty about availing myself of that option — and getting a fancy spread that included cheese from a local shop further assuaged my guilt.
Anyway, it was a really nice time. These Unitarians were as open and open-minded as I’ve always experienced Unitarians to be, and the couple who were sitting near me really took an interest in my road trip. It gave me one more thing to be thankful for: that I’d decided to stop here in the first place.
Thanksgiving day itself? I spent the night eating pizza and watching my Washington movie, An Officer and a Gentleman. Taylor Hackford‘s 1982 film helped make stars of both Richard Gere and Debra Winger, but that hadn’t been enough to secure a viewing appointment with me until this past week. I wanted to see if Flickcharters, when ranking it #1472 globally, had “lifted it up where it belonged.”
What it’s about
Zack Mayo (Gere) has spent his teenage years with the alcoholic military father who abandoned him (Robert Loggia), a fate that befell him after his mother committed suicide. Upon coming of age, and despite his father’s predictions that he’s not up to it, he enrolls in the Navy’s aviation officer training program, based in the (fictional) town of Port Rainier, Washington. He and his fellow candidates (among them David Keith, Lisa Eilbacher, David Caruso and Tony Plana) have their eyes on the prize of a flight education worth $1,000,000, as well as an exciting career as pilots, but they’ll have to get through a tough gunnery sergeant (Louis Gossett Jr.) whose sole aim is to weed out the unqualified. They aren’t the only ones in the area with eyes fixed on the prize. Sergeant Foley warns the candidates of the advances of young local women looking to make them into future husbands, even by becoming pregnant to trap them. One in particular named Paula (Winger) catches Zack’s eye, so he’ll have to focus and avoid the wrath of Sergeant Foley if he wants to prove his worth to his father.
How it uses the state
A title card at the beginning tells us the wrecked room we’re seeing is in Seattle, Washington. (Gere is standing pensively, remembering; his ne’er do well father is asleep in the bed with a prostitute.) Most of the action takes place in an around the (fictional) Port Rainier naval base. Winger plays a so-called “Puget Deb,” a local woman looking to marry a future pilot, and the dismissive terms gets its name from the Puget Sound. Winger’s character also once laments “I’ve never even been out of Washington.”
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Washington 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 An Officer and a Gentleman will battle:
1) Singles (1992, Cameron Crowe). My Flickchart: #356/3585. Global: #1428. Singles is not my favorite Cameron Crowe movie. In fact, it’s not even my favorite Cameron Crowe movie set in Washington. Say Anything … wins both honors. However, I have a hard time thinking of a more quintessential ode to Seattle, and specifically the grunge period that brought the city worldwide recognition in the early 1990s, than this film. A half-dozen main characters navigate this landscape to the strains of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone and Screaming Trees, though what they’re really navigating is the complexities of the human heart. Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Matt Dillon and Bridget Fonda are all good in their respective roles. Singles is funny and at some points heartbreaking, but first and foremost it always has an absolute sense of time and place.
2) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971, Robert Altman). My Flickchart: #465/3585. Global: #241. One of the reasons I don’t generally love Westerns is that many of them deal with outlaws and lawmen having it out in cookie cutter old west towns that might have been there forever. Much more interesting to me is how such towns were formed, which is the core of Robert Altman’s masterpiece McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s not surprising Altman called this an anti-Western, as many Western conventions are subverted in telling the story of an enterprising gambler (Warren Beatty) who begins to shape a Washington mining town into something more definite after establishing a makeshift brothel (eventually run by professional madame Julie Christie, who convinces McCabe she can run it better than he can). Bounty hunters employed by a nearby mining monopoly factor in to an incredible exciting and similarly unconventional third-act showdown.
3) Dante’s Peak (1997, Roger Donaldson). My Flickchart: #1046/3585. Global: #4997. In Oregon we got the better of two contemporaneous Steve Prefontaine movies. Now Washington brings us the better of two contemporaneous volcano movies (though Volcano was set in Los Angeles). Dante’s Peak features Pierce Brosnan as a volcanologist looking suspiciously at a supposedly dormant volcano in the fictional Washington town of the title, warning local officials to close the town to tourism (a warning they of course ignore). Eruptions ensue. What makes this disaster movie more effective than most is how it sustains tension and creates a real sense of normal life gone awry (though scientists would probably laugh at a lot of what happens). The movie was inspired in part by the real eruption of a real Washington volcano, Mount St. Helens, in 1980.
4) Twilight (2008, Catherine Hardwicke). My Flickchart: #2873/3585. Global: #9692. Only by researching it just now did I realize that Forks, Washington is a real city. Before now I’d always assumed it was the fictitious setting for one of the most popular YA phenomena of all time, the Twilight series, whose four subsequent films are presumably set there too (though I don’t have the displeasure of being able to confirm that). The first melodramatic outing of Edward the vampire (Robert Pattinson) and Bella the human (Kristen Stewart) is actually not too bad, though it does have one of the most hurried progressions toward the climax of any movie I’ve ever seen. One minute, they’re playing vampire baseball; the next minute, it’s a life-or-death finale. The Pacific Northwest woods are used to good effect here, in any case.
5) 88 Minutes (2007, Jon Avnet). My Flickchart: #3303/3585. Global: #10792. 88 Minutes would like to say it takes place in real time, but that would be lying, because there’s nothing “real” about it. Words like “ludicrous” and “preposterous” were invented to describe the events of this film, which involve Al Pacino as a forensic psychiatrist (or something) on the run through the city of Seattle while being taunted by a man on death row, whom he helped put away. That’s right, a death row inmate is involved in some Jigsaw-like game that he knows will take exactly 88 minutes to play out — even though Pacino’s character has to do dozens of things exactly right for that to work. Meanwhile, almost every woman in his life is potentially deceitful, adding bad gender politics to this film’s lengthy list of demerits. Lastly, Pacino has comically big hair.
First duel: An Officer and a Gentleman vs. Dante’s Peak. I prefer Dante‘s eruption of lava over Gentleman‘s eruption of cheese. Dante’s Peak wins.
Second duel: An Officer and a Gentleman vs. Twilight. Officer may indeed have that cheese, but Twilight could take a lesson on how to do romance. An Officer and a Gentleman wins.
An Officer and a Gentleman finishes fourth out of the six movies.
The movie has that famously sentimental (some might say schmaltzy) romantic finale, as Gere carries Winger out of the factory while Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes sing “Up Where We Belong” on the soundtrack. It’s a scene that achieved the specific brand of immortality that comes from being parodied on The Simpsons. I therefore expected the film on the whole to be a pretty safe and sanitized mainstream product.
Then I remembered that it was 1982, barely out of the 1970s, when films were edgy even when they didn’t need to be, just for the heck of it. In fact, An Officer and a Gentleman resorts to more bad language than one of Eddie Murphy‘s stand-up specials from that same time, using more F-words — and sometimes worse — than you can shake a stick at. It’s not just the F-words, either, but how they are used that raised my eyebrows.
It seems pretty clear that the makers of An Officer and a Gentleman didn’t expect to have an iconic romantic fable on their hands when they started out, because much of this film is pretty raw. It’s a reflection of the time in which it was made, as well, that it scores poorly in terms of gender politics, and not just in the ways you would expect. Obviously, the film is critical of the so-called Puget Debs (Winger, Lisa Blount), who on some level are trying to hitch their wagons to a star, whether they admit it to themselves (Blount) or not (Winger). (Winger’s Paula is looking for love, not upward mobility, but there’s a reason she’s limiting her selection pool to officers in training.) What shocked me more was how hard the film is on the ensign played by Lisa Eilbacher, who is frequently reduced to tears by the task of climbing a rope over a wall in one of the training drills. In fact, her entire character arc is built around whether she can climb over this wall, which the other ensigns (all male) ascend with ease. The way she flails around in such instant despair when faced with this task is a bit disconcerting.
At least Winger is constantly elevating the weaker patches of the material. There’s something that’s just so sweet and earnest about her, something so ready about her smile, that she lives up to that old cliche — she truly lights up the screen. Winger practices the craft of acting with an effortlessness that’s astonishing, hitting the notes she’s supposed to hit at all times, and giving the character a dimension she didn’t have on the page. Gere is good as well, but he’s in a losing battle against Winger where charisma is concerned.
The film’s other really strong performance belongs to Lou Gossett Jr., who brings heart as well as toughness to the sometimes thankless drill instructor role. Another thing that surprised me about this movie is how much time it spends as a basic training movie, which doesn’t usually float my boat. I did find the training sequences pretty engaging here, and was ultimately engaged as well by the tragic direction the plot takes before its literally uplifting ending.