Flickchart Road Trip: Wisconsin
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!
I’ve only seen one NFL football game in my life. After my visit to Wisconsin, I remain at one.
Because it’s NFL preseason, I thought there was a possibility I could see a Green Bay Packers game. The Packers were in St. Louis this past week, so it was not to be. However, I remain fascinated with the Green Bay Packers because they are a complete anomaly in North American sports: The team is owned by the town. That’s right, this relatively small city (population: 104,000), which has no other professional sports teams, truly has its one team. Everyone from the mayor to the guy who works at the liquor store owns a part of it, which is just kind of dumbfounding if you ask me. They are also a non-profit organization. Forehead smacks continue.
So I decided to check out this town 112 miles north of Milwaukee, just to get a sense of the place. I took interstate 94 from Illinois and then grabbed interstate 43 on the extreme eastern edge of the state. That took me up to this city at the mouth of the Fox River, which leads into Lake Michigan. Because the Packers were actually playing when I was there — albeit several hundred miles to the south — the cheeseheads were out in force. Don’t know what a cheesehead is? It’s a hat shaped like a large hunk of cheese, as cheese is one of the primary exports of the great state of Wisconsin. Here, it looks something like — okay, exactly like — this:
The Packers won the game, which I’m sure contributed to the very convivial attitude of the fine residents of Green Bay. This town has a lot of character, and I’d like to come back some time.
A rather less convivial Wisconsonite is featured in my Wisconsin movie, Dahmer. David Jacobson‘s 2002 film tries to get inside the head of mercurial serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, who raped, murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, before ultimately being killed in prison. Sorry, did I give away the ending? That part doesn’t actually appear in the movie anyway. Flickcharters are pretty cool to this one, ranking it only #10361 globally.
What it’s about
Jeffrey Dahmer (Jeremy Renner) has got his procedure down. He picks up victims in clothing stores and other places where they may be looking longingly at articles they can’t afford, and offers to buy them the item in question — for a price. If they’ll come back to his place for a drink, and maybe a few Polaroids with their shirts off, the item is theirs. Of course, that’s not how it turns out — he poisons their drinks, causing them to pass out, where he can take whatever advantage of them he feels like. Over the course of the film, however, we see how the adolescent Jeffrey turned into the predator he is in the film’s present tense, with flashbacks to his younger years when he was hounded by his father (Bruce Davison) for behaviors that were the first indications of a demented mind. The film jumps back and forth from Jeffrey’s memory to his present tense, where his latest victim — who could be his final victim, because Jeffrey’s getting sloppy — may join the others under the floorboards of Dahmer’s house.
How it uses the state
Perhaps because people generally know that Dahmer is from Wisconsin — and also because it doesn’t really matter where he’s from — the film doesn’t put much energy into establishing the location. In fact, the state name is never mentioned. However, Dahmer’s foreman at the chocolate factory where he works does introduce him to a new employee, saying “He’s been working six years over at the Madison plant.” Madison is, of course, the state’s second biggest city, between Milwaukee and the aforementioned Green Bay.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Wisconsin 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 Dahmer will battle:
1) The Straight Story (1999, David Lynch). My Flickchart: #177/3562. Global: #1127. The least Lynchian David Lynch movie of all time is also my favorite. This uncommonly quiet, soft and moving story of an octogenarian who travels from Iowa to Wisconsin by riding lawnmower to visit his estranged brother is like nothing else in Lynch’s catalogue. The G rating is also unprecedented for Lynch, though there are a couple moments when his sensibilities as an artist unobtrusively creep in to the proceedings. Rather than this being Lynch’s movie, or writers John E. Roach and Mary Sweeney’s movie, The Straight Story belongs to Richard Farnsworth. Appearing in every scene of the movie while suffering from terminal bone cancer that would prompt him to commit suicide the following year, Farnsworth brings incomparable dignity and drive, literally, to the real-life character of Alvin Straight. There’s something about Farnsworth’s plain folks delivery and salt-of-the-earth appearance that makes his performance a tour-de-force of naturalism. He was nominated for best actor.
2) Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zack Snyder). My Flickchart: #681/3562. Global: #1509. I’ve got a soft spot for Watchmen myself, but many people still think of Zack Snyder’s debut as his strongest cinematic outing. The remake of George Romero’s seminal zombie satire finds the zombies moving at a faster speed than a shuffle, and the inhabitants of a Milwaukee shopping mall left with a larger task than simply out-maneuvering their ambling attackers. Dawn of the Dead exists as the definitive example of the kind of remake that became omnipresent in the 21st century, with modern editing styles and gore standards contributing to the sense that the material is being “updated for a new generation.” While in many cases that would be a backhanded compliment or a straight-up insult, in this case, it leaves you feeling downright invigorated. (In fact, I saw the original only after I’d seen this one, and was laughing at how simple it seemed.) Among the actors, Sarah Polley stands out for her doe-eyed determination.
3) Starman (1984, John Carpenter). My Flickchart: #1579/3562. Global: #1171. I don’t remember a lot about Starman. I saw it pretty close to the time it came out, and I remember thinking it was pretty good. I suspect that it’s somewhere between E.T. and K-PAX, both in quality and subject matter. What can I say? I didn’t promise you that I’d perfectly remember every movie I wrote about in this series. I can tell you that it concerns an alien (Jeff Bridges) whose craft is shot down by the military, causing it (and him) to crash in Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin. He shows up as a blue ball of energy, but uses a lock of hair of the deceased husband of the woman (Karen Allen) whose house he comes across, allowing him to take the form of the dead man. After this, he’s got to get to a rendezvous point in Arizona in three days, or he will die. My guess is that it packs an emotional wallop rather than being treacly, especially with a fine craftsman like John Carpenter at the helm, but I’m only guessing.
4) Lars and the Real Girl (2007, Craig Gillespie). My Flickchart: #2762/3562. Global: #1381. Yes, I do feel a little bad about this ranking, but only because I know so many Flickcharters really bought Lars and the Real Girl hook, line and sinker. Well, I was not one of those people. Remember how I said I wasn’t sure if Starman was treacly? (It was only one paragraph ago, so I hope you do.) I have no doubt in this case. The concept is interesting — a lonely, small-town Wisconsin man (Ryan Gosling) takes up with a sex doll in order to try to have a real relationship — but I couldn’t buy the execution. I just never understood how a whole town could rally around a man who earnestly loves a fake woman, even if he might be a little soft in the head. It’s meant to be a heartwarming lesson in acceptance and unconditional love, both Lars toward his partner and the town toward him. Me, I just wanted to shake them all, then tell them to slap Lars in the face and force him to get real.
5) BASEketball (1998, David Zucker). My Flickchart: #3211/3562. Global: #2159. Trey Parker and Matt Stone would have better days ahead. Perhaps if the South Park creators had had something to do with this film, creatively, it would have been a laugh riot. As only the stars with other people’s material, we see the life they could have led if they’d done that proposed Dumb and Dumber sequel and other projects that would have been beneath them as writers. Instead, they made The Book of Mormon and it was a happy ending for everyone. In this film, directed by former parody wunderkind David Zucker and written by Zucker and three others, they play the inventors of a sport that’s a hybrid between baseball and basketball, with trash talking. As professional athletes in the sport once it becomes huge, they play for the Milwaukee Beers, hence the Wisconsin connection. A lot of other stuff happens, none of it very funny — though you do get to see Jenny McCarthy literally lick the chrome off of either a doorknob or a trailer hitch. The interwebs won’t tell me which.
First duel: Dahmer vs. Starman. Starman was pretty good, right? Starman wins.
Second duel: Dahmer vs. Lars and the Real Girl. The headless mannequin Dahmer’s father finds in his closet is more fascinating than Lars’ real girl. Dahmer wins.
Dahmer finishes fourth out of the six movies.
Dahmer is a very unusual serial killer movie in the sense that it doesn’t involve much serial killing. Rarely has a movie about a genuinely reprehensible person worked harder to make him seem sympathetic, or at least to explain the man behind the monster. David Jacobson’s film is rightly not concerned about body counts or gruesome acts of murderous perversity. It’s more interested in how unspeakable urges manifest themselves in a person who may not be fully on board with the idea of being a killer.
The film is therefore minimal, almost to a fault. For example, one of the famous details about Dahmer is that he had the bodies of his victims buried under his house — at least, those whose dismembered parts weren’t in his refrigerator and other locations. This seemed to beg for some kind of money shot, but Dahmer only alludes to this detail of the case with one three-second scene with the killer sliding on his stomach under the building, pulling a garbage bag. It’s clear Jacobson has no interest in a “greatest hits” approach to Dahmer’s life, and this certainly suits the film, setting it apart from other films of its ilk.
This choice also allows Jeremy Renner to really spend time making Dahmer into a full, three-dimensional character. In fact, so chilling is his performance — most of the time not for the reasons you would expect — that Kathryn Bigelow apparently cast him in The Hurt Locker based on this performance. What really comes through in Renner’s work is how essentially normal his character is, which is part of what makes him chilling. He doesn’t dance around with his manhood tucked behind his legs, a la Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. Rather, he works in a chocolate factory and is the foreman’s choice to show the new guy how to use the machine. He’s charming, functional and in many other ways unassuming. Regarding his proclivities, he covers them up almost sheepishly, the way someone would hide pornographic magazines — and in fact, he uses porn as a cover in a situation that involves his father and grandmother nearly discovering a severed head.
The elephant in the room about this movie, which I so far haven’t mentioned, is the fact that Dahmer is gay. This is no small part of the film. He lures men to his house in order to take pictures of them shirtless or more, often after crushing some sleeping pills into their drinks. However, the film doesn’t present this as merely a predatory scheme to deliver him victims. It’s clear that Dahmer might want just to be with some of his victims, not to kill them, and the film almost presents a psychological reading that his murderous tendencies are the product of a misunderstanding how to properly court men. That reading may not sit well with some viewers, especially since it comes close to equating homosexuality with homicidal tendencies. The fact that the film spends so much time on his dysfunctional attempts at ordinary sexuality — and so much time with the potential victim who ultimately got him pinched — makes it a lot more thoughtful than your typical serial killer movie. This could only be possible with the kind of dedicated, lived-in performance Renner gives.
When you think of famous Minnesotans, who do you think of? Al Franken? Jesse Ventura? Garrison Keillor? Well, how about Prince? That’s who I thought of, so I decided to watch the film Prince directed, 1990‘s Graffiti Bridge, a sort-of sequel to Purple Rain. I’m just glad he’s called Prince again, because I don’t think I have that symbol on my keyboard.