July 22, 2014

The Reel Florida

When I found out that John Sayles' new movie Sunshine State had just come out on video, I ran to rent a copy. Here seemed a treat-a movie in which our home state was the star, and put together by a filmmaker who was himself a star, the king of the independents, famous for insight into the people and places of America. I got some jellybeans and settled back in bed to watch it.

But about five minutes into the film I realized something was wrong. True, it had every Florida buzzword and theme possible incorporated into its complicated, crisscrossing plot. There were evil developers, racial problems, an obnoxious chamber of commerce, even mermaids from Weeki-Wachee. But the whole thing wasn't jelling. It wasn't heartfelt. And worst of all, it was the one thing that Florida never is-it was dreary.

While our state lacks the wonderful body of cinematic work associated with California and New York, it still has a remarkable number of good movies that deal with its complicated psyche. I recently compiled my list of favorites, which I suggest you might want to rent instead of Sunshine State, or perhaps, in addition to Sunshine State, as John Sayles will need all the income he can get if he keeps making movies as bland as Sunshine State.

Back in the good old days, Florida movies were fun. They were about this strange tropical place that most Americans knew little about, so they played up the flora and fauna, the vacation aspects. Ecology was way in the future; so were neurotic people who lead dysfunctional lives. Drama was sharp, comedic and classy (The Palm Beach Story) and comedy was pure farce (Some Like It Hot). And most of them weren't even shot in Florida.

But the most fun Florida movie of all is undoubtedly Easy to Love. Esther Williams calls it her quintessential MGM movie; it not only shows off the Million-Dollar Mermaid at her peak, it also captures perfectly the elaborate, over-the-top style of the 1950s MGM musical. And it also, in a twisted sort of way, says a lot about Florida.

The plot is negligible-cardboard characters do stupid things to make the people they have crushes on jealous-but the setting is archetypal. It's behind the scenes at Cypress Gardens, Florida's very first theme park. It was such a crucial and important time for the state that its California equivalent would be the discovery of gold in the 1840s. Esther plays the star of the park's aquatic show, and Van Johnson plays her boss.

Much of the film was shot on location, and the glimpses we get of Florida and its denizens circa 1955 are delightful in their own right. But what distinguishes Easy to Love is the spectacular water ballet on water skis-filmed right on Lake Eloise-that seems to go on for hours, even though it's really only nine minutes. It was directed by Busby Berkeley, of all people, right at the martini-soaked end of his illustrious career. But he wasn't letting age and booze slow him down. There are 68 water skiers, all literally the best in the world. Esther performs one daredevil stunt after another, then caps things off by diving from a swing hanging from a helicopter.

As far as present-day Florida movies go, I would recommend anything by Victor Nuñez. The pre-eminent Florida filmmaker, he's one of the best in the country. He specializes in low-budget studies of everyday Floridians caught in situations full of Oprah-like conflict. His characters have money troubles, personal problems, family issues, addictive behavior, and tend to live off the beaten path, in some place definitely not Miami. Ruby in Paradise, for instance, stars Ashley Judd as a young woman from Georgia who flees an abusive relationship and ends up in Panama City selling souvenirs in a beach shop. A Flash of Green, based on the novel by John D. MacDonald, chronicles a reporter-played by Ed Harris-and his efforts to expose corruption in a town that is a barely disguised version of Sarasota.

But if you can see only one Victor Nuñez film, make it Ulee's Gold. Peter Fonda plays Ulee, a beekeeper up in Gulf County with a son in prison, a drug-crazed daughter-in-law and two granddaughters he is raising by himself, one not very successfully. That everything resolves itself by the end of the movie is a tribute to Nuñez's story-telling ability, and Peter Fonda is so good he got nominated for an Oscar. This movie stirs something in your soul; it's the kind of film John Sayles thought he was making.

Some movies are so original they defy classification, and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise is a perfect example. I suppose that technically it would be considered an experimental comedy, but there's nothing flaky or unintelligible about it-here the experiment is a complete success.

It concerns a low-level New York hipster, played by Jim Laurie, who along with his dim-witted sidekick, Eddy, whiles away the day in hilarious boredom. Things brighten up when his cousin Eva, just off the plane from Hungary, shows up for a visit. Eva carries a tape recorder playing Screamin' Jay Hawkins' version of "You Put a Spell On Me," and the boys are glad when she heads off to Cleveland to visit an aunt. But a contretemps involving a poker game sends the guys off to Cleveland also, and they pick up Eva for an impromptu road trip to Florida.

The fascinating thing about Jarmusch's Florida is that it's just as ugly as the slums of New York and Cleveland. Also hilariously evoked is the tedium of a Florida vacation done on the cheap and out of season. Our travelers lose all their money at the dog track, but the crisis is resolved by an incredible piece of luck involving a beach hat. You're so charmed by Stranger than Paradise that by the end of the movie you'll accept anything that Jarmusch comes up with, including the unlikely supposition that there are nonstop flights between Cocoa Beach and Budapest.

Back in the early 1960s John D. MacDonald was able to articulate a great discovery he made-that there was something criminal in the state of Florida's personality. Oh, there was plenty good and decent, too. But lurking away like a time bomb in Florida's psyche was a criminal gene that kicked in when greed and passion were aroused. This insight created the Florida crime genre, so successful that today it virtually rules Florida fiction. And its cinematic culmination is the classic Body Heat, a MacDonald-like story that out-MacDonalds MacDonald.

Body Heat takes place in a small Florida beach town that any Gulf-coast dweller will immediately feel at home in. Our badly tarnished lawyer/hero, William Hurt, is ensnared by femme fatale Kathleen Turner in a moody atmosphere of heat waves, wind chimes, arson fires and ice cubes-who can forget the ice cubes? The music and photography add heavily to the atmosphere, which is so thick and evil and fun that you can watch the film over and over.

And finally, what is the greatest Florida movie of all? My vote goes to The Yearling, the 1946 version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. This story of a 12-year-old boy who befriends a young deer pulls at your heartstrings so successfully that it's easily the best deer movie since Bambi. And even though it's pre-ecology, it displays such a reverence for the land and all its creatures that it should be shown to the Florida State Legislature at the opening of each session.

Not that it would do any good. I have a feeling that all our lawmakers would pick up on is the fact that the damn deer is eating all the corn.

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