Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Screw any Man under 30: ARIZONA DREAM (1993, dir. Emir Kusturica)

"Why must you screw any man under 30?"
"Because it's normal... in Papua New Guinea!"

The above lines of dialogue give you some insight into the hysterical weirdness of Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica's first English language film, ARIZONA DREAM (1993). Don't let it get confused with other ARIZONA movies, or quirky ensemble films too numerous to name (BENNY AND JOON springs to mind, but I've never seen it). Yes, it's got a post-structuralist's fascination with desert roadside attractions, and yes it's got a whimsical voiceover (from Depp) and whimsy involving Eskimos, a hypnotist sled dog; a fish with two eyes on the same side of his face, a balloon; an airplane propeller mounted to the chandelier for a ceiling fan; Depp acting like a chicken "buck buck buckcock!"; fish swimming through the sky whenever someone dies; ambulances going up to the moon; pet turtles at the dinner table, but none of it done in a corny 'faux-centric" way like a Sundance workshop "about family... about hope"  nor is it done in an 'aren't common folk delightful?' Capra style. Instead this has enough 'hysterics' to land it amongst films like Zulawski's 1985  L'AMOR BRAQUE (my piece here) or 80's Godard like DETECTIVE and CODE NAME: CARMEN. In short, it's genuinely nuts, not nuts-lite.

The story unfolds with nature conservationist Depp being lured by brother Vince Gallo out to Arizona to attend his uncle's wedding. Jerry Lewis is the uncle, a car dealer with a thing for pink Cadillacs. He's marrying--wait for it--noted supermodel Paulina Porizkova! So far so good. Yet that whole set-up is dropped once Lili Taylor as a rich heiress and Faye Dunaway as her hot mess stepmom show up at the dealership and Depp and Gallo start falling all over themselves like the Marx Brothers over Thelma Todd. Depp quickly moves in to the ladies' remote Arizona mansion, to shag Dunaway and help her realize her dream of building a fantasmastical flying machine. Kudos to any film where Faye Dunaway out crazies Jerry Lewis (I generally cringe watching Lewis' schtick, but he's restrained and excellent here).

Fans of Vincent Gallo should note there's early signs of his BROWN BUNNY austerity, when he performs the crop dusting scene from Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST at a talent show. Later during a pivotal scene of bedroom hopping upstairs, Gallo is down on the couch, watching GODFATHER II and reciting the whole Fredo bit "Don't you think I'm smaht?!" These scenes, immortal as they come, seems to be metaphors for middle America to the European cinephile mind, a place of endless expanse and emotional voidness, where space, time, and family cease to have any meaning, and we find ourselves hiding and dodging and hiding like a scarecrow at an airport. Gallo also quotes the Cowardly Lion ("I didn't bite hm!") and dances around when things get weird, which they do.

Lili Taylor has perhaps never looked sexier or seemed more relaxed, as the stepdaughter, even as she commits bungee jumping pseudo-suicide, and dreams of coming back as a turtle, but--like Lewis--she lets Dunaway--sexy cougar-style in country frock, pale denim jacket and beauty contest hair-- out-crazy her. The cast clearly has affection for each other and the chops to improv and ham it up without moving out of character or grandstanding. Thanks to his endless Tim Burton movies, Depp's quirkiness isn't quite as fresh as it may have been back in 1993, but Kusturica is no Burton, and the film never loses its giddy, mystical edge. Actors tend to talk a lot about the friends and collaborative energy they experienced on the set of whatever film they're plugging, but here none of that friendly collaboration feels like it needs to be mentioned. It's there, for real, so there's no need to talk about it. Let the Iggy Pop songs on the soundtrack (written by Kusturica for the film) tell what needs telling, and leave it at that.

After this, Kusturica would make his definitive politico-black comedy UNDERGROUND (1995) and you can see some of the ideas in that later film born in DREAM's scattered, hypertextual framework. Long unavailable on DVD or VHS, it's a delight to find ARIZONA DREAM on Netflix streaming! Fans of acid cinema are obliged to, if not plunge, at least wade tentatively in... before it vanishes into the fishnet ether from which it came.


  1. I have yet to watch this one but have heard good things about it. Vincent Gallo, crazy nutter that he is, badmouthed Depp after this film. Oh well.

    Yeah, there are all kinds of hidden gems streaming on Netflix. Check out BANDWAGON which is an entertaining gem of a indie band trying to make it. Made in the mid-'90s, it really nails the alt. rock scene at the time and you've got Kevin Corrigan appearing as one of the bandmates, perpetually spaced out throughout most of the film. Definitely worth a look.

  2. Excellent review! I remember this playing a lot on Cinemax and the like back in the 90's. Despite that, I never did watch it, something that I will have to rectify soon. Love Netflix.