Flickchart Road Trip: Kansas
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!
You know, after all these miles driving, it’s time for a different mode of transportation for an hour or so.
The state of Kansas got me thinking naturally about The Wizard of Oz, which got my thinking naturally about… hot air balloons.
I’ve skydived (skydove?) and I’ve parasailed, but I’ve never ridden in a hot air balloon. Although you don’t actually see the wizard himself ride his hot air balloon in Kansas in the 1939 film, you do get to see that happen in this year’s prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, which I quite enjoyed. It may be a flimsy excuse to do a particular activity in a particular state, but on this trip, all I need are flimsy excuses. If you want another, here it is: Kansas is the first state I think of when I think of the phrase “flyover state,” a dismissive term used by snooty residents of the cosmopolitan east and west coasts of the U.S. about all the states beneath them (literally and metaphorically) when they hop from one coast to the other. Why not literally fly over it?
As it happens, there’s a company called Soaring Adventures of America who can arrange that very activity for me.
I booked a trip leaving out of Topeka for $169. (You can pay more for additional guests, but I don’t know anyone in Kansas.) Topeka is the state capital, and it’s right along interstate 70, which I had been taking west since St. Louis. The crew chief, a guy named Gary, took me to the launch spot, a clearing in a field where the balloon was inflating for our trip. They dropped the sand bags and we were off, flying at heights between 500 and 2,000 feet for the better part of an hour. I wouldn’t have needed to talk much — the views were gorgeous — but Gary is a good conversationalist, so we did. The balloon floated over farms and small towns, but it moves slower than you think — in that whole time we covered only five or ten miles. It would have been cool to fly over Topeka itself, and get a good gander at the capital, but we didn’t for reasons having to do with restricted air spaces and the like. Upon landing, we had a champagne toast, which Gary tells me is ballooning tradition.
Perhaps that’s something old Oz would have known about.
Truman Capote was just the kind of person who might have coined the term “flyover state,” and he’s the subject of my Kansas movie. The 2005 biopic Capote, directed by Bennett Miller, would make my third cinematic viewing of the tragic events of November 1959, in which a family of four was slaughtered in their home in Holcomb, Kansas. I had previously seen the film adaptation of Capote’s book In Cold Blood, as well as the biopic starring Toby Jones that came a year after Capote, called Infamous. This one had been eluding me, however, and the fact that it was nominated for best picture makes it an even stranger oversight for me. The global ranking of Capote is very appropriate for the timing of my trip, as it currently stands at #2013 overall.
What it’s about
Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a celebrated writer who’s perfectly in his element with a martini in his hand at a fancy New York cocktail party, reducing party guests to fits of hysterical laughter over the outrageous stories he tells. One day, he sees a story in the newspaper that’ll take him outside his element to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, where a family of four has been brutally murdered as part of an apparent robbery. Convincing his editor that this is the next book he wants to write, and that it will be not only his masterwork but one of the great books of all time, Capote travels to Holcomb with his friend and fellow writer Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). Initially maintaining an emotional distance from his subjects, Capote can’t help but become more involved when he lays eyes on the corpses and starts to learn the details of the crime. His relationship to the material only becomes more complicated when two suspects are arrested — Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) — and Capote decides that the book will hinge on getting inside their minds and understanding them. This venture comes at no small personal cost to the writer, who forms an unexpected bond with Smith.
How it uses the state
If this were Truman Capote’s life story, it would probably spend a lot more time in New York. As a focus on the years in which he was writing In Cold Blood, however, much of the action takes place in Kansas, which is portrayed as the epitome of the type of place where murders like this just don’t happen. Capote initially has a superior attitude over the Kansans (laughing over the institution known as the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, shortening it to “KBI”), but he ultimately develops the requisite level of sympathy with the stunned populace of Holcomb — as well as with the two violent criminals who stunned them.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Kansas 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 Capote will battle:
1) The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming). My Flickchart: #49/3568. Global: #102. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Okay, so most of this all-time classic family movie takes place not in Kansas, but in a wondrous land populated by munchkins, yellow brick roads and emerald cities. However, we also learn that “there’s no place like home,” and home is Kansas, where the iconic dreamer Dorothy (Judy Garland) envisions how life could be “somewhere over the rainbow.” (I’ve got to stop quoting this movie. Wait, I’ve got one more: “And your little dog, too!” There, I’m done.) Much more needn’t be said about the greatness that is The Wizard of Oz, except that it made up only half of one of the greatest years in cinematic history for a director. Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (my #1 Georgia movie) was also released in 1939, winning best picture.
2) Looper (2012, Rian Johnson). My Flickchart: #292/3568. Global: #415. One of my biggest surprises while watching Looper was the on-screen graphic that listed the setting as Kansas of the future. That wasn’t what I considered the most likely locale for one of the smartest sci-fi time travel thrillers to come along in years — don’t they usually set those movies in New York or Los Angeles? As with any time travel movie, Looper has its share of narrative holes that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but writer-director Rian Johnson is smarter than to just gloss over them. In one of the movie’s funniest moments, the future incarnation of Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s mob executioner, played by Bruce Willis, sits across from him in a diner and tells him not to start talking about the logistics of how any of this is happening. “We’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws,” he says. Yes, Looper has its cake and eats it too.
3) Splendor in the Grass (1961, Elia Kazan). My Flickchart: #1198/3568. Global: #2122. How frank is the sexuality in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, especially for its time? It’s so frank that it showed the first French kiss in a Hollywood film (between a young Warren Beatty and a young Natalie Wood), and expends much of its dramatic conflict on Beatty’s character’s decision to bed a woman of ill repute in order to lose his virginity, instead of the woman he loves (Wood’s Deanie Loomis). All of this struck me as terribly advanced for a film released in 1961, as does Wood’s harrowing performance once her heartbreak over the situation with Beatty’s Bud Stamper leaves her unhinged and actually institutionalized. If it seemed advanced for 1961, consider the impact on the actual characters, who were living through the rural quiet of 1928 Kansas. It’s a vigorous and touching romantic drama.
4) Man of Steel (2013, Zack Snyder). My Flickchart: #2746/3568. Global: #1332. Truth be told, the parts set in Kansas were the parts of Man of Steel I really liked. The parts set in Metropolis, on Krypton, in Antarctica … not so much. One of the 2013’s most talked about movies was a miss for me, but not such a miss that I trash it every opportunity I get. (Only every other opportunity, ha ha.) The second Superman reboot of my adulthood does have some really interesting moments considering Clark Kent’s formative years in Smallville, Kansas, and the sacrifices he has to make (as well as those he fails to make) to keep his super powers hidden. The rest of the movie is a lot of ponderous backstory and fight scenes that play like video games without considering the consequences or loss of life of the extreme violence depicted. Unfortunately, Kansas is also the setting for one of the silliest fights, in which Supe punches a bunch of Krypton baddies through all sorts of name-brand commercial operations (one of which can be easily identified in the photo above).
5) The Ice Harvest (2005, Harold Ramis). My Flickchart: #3238/3568. Global: #3842. It’s one of those bad vibes holiday movies, which are almost never any fun (Bad Santa notwithstanding). Despite a reliable director of comedies (Harold Ramis) at the helm and a game cast (John Cusack, Oliver Platt, Billy Bob Thornton), The Ice Harvest has all the personality of the everpresent slush that fills the streets of Wichita on Christmas Eve. The problem is probably that The Ice Harvest isn’t really a comedy, but rather, a glum crime drama/noir with some misfiring comedic elements. Did I say “glum”? One depressing turn of events after another takes things from bad to worse for a pair (Cusack and Thornton) who attempt to steal $2 million from a Wichita strip club owner and mob boss (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve, but are stuck in town by icy roads. Don’t ever spend your own Christmas Eve watching this one.
First duel: Capote vs. Splendor in the Grass. A murder isn’t the only way to traumatize innocent Kansans. Splendor in the Grass wins.
Second duel: Capote vs. Man of Steel. Sometimes, a fabulous scarf from Bergdorf’s is more powerful than super strength. Capote wins.
Capote finishes fourth out of the six movies.
Now that I’ve seen two feature films by director Bennett Miller — not to mention one fantastic documentary, The Cruise — I’ve got a real feel for his style. He does indeed seem to have a style, despite the fact that he has only two features to his credit, 2011′s Moneyball being the other. (That is, until his new film Foxcatcher comes out this Christmas.) In both Capote and Moneyball, I can summarize that style as follows: Miller shows the scenes between the scenes. By that I mean he shapes a narrative without always showing what most people would consider to the “biggest” moments in that narrative. It’s a bit like splicing together a story from the parts of the movie left on the cutting room floor. That sounds odd, like I could be accusing the man of poor judgment, but the effect is to credit his audience with the intelligence to piece together the story without hitting them over the head with tons of exposition.
The way this manifests itself in Capote is by giving us only a few quick tastes of who Truman Capote was, before diving us headlong into the story. You don’t need five episodes of Capote telling an outrageous story to Manhattan socialites at a fancy party to get that this was something he did often, that it was an essential part of his public persona; you just need one. Miller knows this instinctively, and I appreciated the succinctness with which he gets us into things.
Unfortunately, when you’re already deep into the murder case by the 30-minute mark, that does leave a viewer wondering how the film is going to spend its next 80 minutes to fill out the anticipated running time. This creates in Capote the sense of being a bit front-loaded. It’s a particular problem because the second half — or really, the last two-thirds — is supposed to be devoted to understanding the powerful relationship that built up between Capote and accused killer Perry Smith as the former interviewed the latter. We get some of this, and we certainly get a damn fine performance from Clifton Collins Jr. as Smith. However, I felt a bit unsatisfied by the film’s portrayal of their bond. I suppose one reading is that it’s intentional not to know exactly what the nature of their relationship was — whether it was love, or mutual sympathy, or simply mutual usury.
Speaking of performances, the one you’d come out of the movie most likely to discuss is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the lead. After all, he did win an Oscar for his work. The performance is certainly award-worthy, but you shouldn’t confuse that with Hoffman succeeding at making the character sympathetic — which certainly wasn’t his intention. Capote frustrates viewers, in part because you really don’t know what is genuine and what is just an act, including his famously affected speaking voice and vocal patterns. Was that really how he talked, or was it just a way of making himself more memorable? Capote never really elucidates this — which in itself has a fairly elucidating effect on the viewer, if you follow me. The man was an enigma, both by design and by his natural human frailties.
Nebraska is known for its corn — sports teams at the University of Nebraska are even known as the Cornhuskers. So as we get lost in those Nebraska cornfields next week, how about watching the 1984 film Children of the Corn, based on Stephen King’s short story?