Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Screw any Man under 30: ARIZONA DREAM (1993, dir. Emir Kusturica)
"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 an Eastern European post-structuralist fascination with America's desert 'roadside attraction' culture, and yes it's got a whimsical voiceover (from Depp), 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 up the sky river whenever someone dies; ambulances going over 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... and about quirks" nor is it done in an 'aren't common folk delightful?' Capra style nor inundated by Chaplin sediment. 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 PRENOM: CARMEN. In short, it's genuinely nuts, not that fake Sundance 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, and he's marrying 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 stepping on each other's game like the Marx Brothers over Thelma Todd. Depp quickly moves on up to the ladies' remote Arizona mansion, to shag Dunaway and help her realize her dream of building a fantasmastical flying machine while crazy (or saner than everyone else) daughter Lili Taylor smokes and broods. Sure it might sound a little Wes Anderson-meets-Tim Burton but hey, any film where Faye Dunaway out crazies Jerry Lewis is all right with me. (I generally cringe watching Lewis' schtick, but he's restrained and excellent here, content to step back and let the cast each have a moment).
Fans of Vincent Gallo should note there's early signs of his BROWN BUNNY austerity, as 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 sleeps downstairs on the couch, watching GODFATHER II and reciting the whole Fredo "Don't you think I'm smaht?! speech while the hopping intercuts its way through the night. Are these moments of metatexuality meant as metaphors for desert roadside America? (French theorist Baudrillard and writer Nabokov were both fans of driving aimlessly around in the American Southwest - I'd bet Kafka would have been too, were he born in the correct egg sac). As seen by the European cinephile mind, Arizona becomes a place of endless expanse, pop culture hall of mirrors refraction, and stunted emotional connection, where space, time, and family cease to have any meaning, and one finds oneself hiding and dodging like a scarecrow at an airport. Gallo also quotes the Cowardly Lion ("I didn't bite him!") and dances around when things get too weird, which they do.
Lili Taylor has perhaps never looked sexier or seemed more relaxed as Dunaway's stepdaughter, even as she commits bungee jumping pseudo-suicide or dreams of coming back as a turtle, and even she, like fellow eccentric ham Lewis, lets co-star Dunaway--sexy cougar-style in country frock, pale denim jacket and beauty contest hair-- out-crazy her. That's love, brother!
This cast clearly has affection for each other and the chops to improv and ham it up without moving out of character or grandstanding or stepping on each other's beats. 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 ARIZONA DREAM 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 --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 DREAM, 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. (P.S. 2/16/15 - it did.)