The Small-Town Surrealism of Desert Blue
Desert Blue directed byMorgan J. Freeman Casting and directing actorsin ways that play to their strengths is a talent in itself. In both Streetsand Blue, the Sexton character is a troubled hero who has a disorderedhome life (one parent is dead and the other is either a deceiver or deceived).He has an unlikely dream-in Streets, he wants to leave New York Cityfor New Mexico, and in Blue, he wants to bring water to a stretch ofCalifornia desert containing an uncompleted amusement park built by his deaddad. He's fundamentally a decentguy-someone with a visible if imperfect moral code, a leader of groups whoseauthority comes naturally, and who rarely abuses that authority. But he alsohas a touch of Hamlet's paralysis and passivity, maybe because misfortune hasmade him reluctant to risk disappointment or embarrassment. It's a teenage MontgomeryClift role, or Matt Dillon circa 1981-sensitive but hard-shelled, afraid ofbeing hurt. These roles are a natural evolutionary step from Sexton's debutin Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, where he played a middle-schoolthug so socially maladjusted and emotionally damaged that the only way he couldadmit his crush on the heroine was to threaten her with rape. Even in that swaggering,pathetic incarnation, Sexton gave the character a faintly sheepish quality-atender goofball side. (Freeman served as second assistant director for Solondzon Dollhouse, which is how he met the actor.) Like Mark Wahlberg, whomhe physically resembles (I keep hoping some smart filmmaker will cast them asbrothers), Sexton has a compelling but unglamorous look-lean, slouchy, witha face that can seem either nondescript or broodingly handsome. And like Wahlberg,Sexton has an easy way with dialogue; he makes almost every line sound likesomething that tripped right off his tongue-even the clunky, screenwriterishstuff. Consider a moment earlyin Hurricane Streets where the hero visits his mom (Edie Falco) in prison.Freeman isn't the world's most graceful writer (more on this in a moment), soSexton is obliged to spend the script's first act taking part in expositionalconversations that establish how old everybody is, how they earn money, whattime of year it is, etc. The hero's mom asks how things are going, and he replies,"I've only been out of school for one week, but it's been a good week."It wasn't until a second viewing that I realized the line was exposition pretendingnot to be exposition, and that it wasn't the sort of thing a young petty thiefcirca 1998 would say. Sexton has the true movie star's ability to make questionablelines and situations ring true. Sexton's unforced charismaholds Desert Blue together. At first glance, this appealing but unfocusedfilm seems very different from Hurricane Streets. It's set in Baxter,a small town in the sandy, scrub-dotted hills of central California (pop. 89and falling). The away-from-it-all setting seems a fulfillment of the hero'sdream in Streets; he wanted to flee the city for the American Southwestwhere there was room to breathe. But the hero of Desert Blue-a kind butdistant teen named, alas, Blue-doesn't seem to notice the peculiar charm andbeauty of his surroundings, which is only natural considering he grew up there.The story doesn't unfold quite the way you expect it to. At first it seems likeit's going to be a Last Picture Show examination of teen lives in a dyingtown. (The opening shot of a never-completed water park in a dust bowl valleysuggests the desolate opening and closing images of both Picture Showand Texasville.) Blue and his buddies-ChristinaRicci, Casey Affleck, Sara Gilbert, Ethan Suplee and Isidra Vega-loiter aroundtown, making out, smoking pot, getting in trouble and otherwise resisting boredom.All the teens have little obsessions. Ricci's character, the daughter of thegenial town sheriff (Daniel von Bargen), is a self-taught arsonist who likesto blow stuff up. Affleck, the hero's hotheaded, sarcastic best friend, is anall-terrain-vehicle racer who's hoping to win a yearly ATV race held in a nearbytown. (Many of the teens ride ATVs. The sight of them zipping across the landscape,engines ripping and sputtering, perfectly suits the setting, and it's a sightI haven't seen before in a movie-a journalistic detail that feels just right.) Blue is obsessed with openingthe aquatic park envisioned by his father years earlier, before the giant raisedaqueducts that carry water to Los Angeles stole the town's moisture and renderedit geographically marginal-a dusty little roadside attraction. (The town sufferedan even worse blow when the local bottling plant that produces much of the region'sEmpire Cola laid off its local staff and imported cut-rate labor from Mexico.)Blue's father, who perished in a mysterious motel fire six months earlier, wasan expert designer of roadside attractions. He spent his last few years on Earthcoming up with cockamamie ideas to lure tourists to Baxter; besides the waterpark that never was, he also erected the world's largest ice cream cone. Thelatter draws the attention of Lance (John Heard), a pop-culture professor fromLos Angeles who arrives in town with his teenage daughter, Skye (Kate Hudson,one of the few things worth remembering about 200 Cigarettes). This all seems a letter-perfectsetup for a small-town romance, but it's a fakeout; shortly after the main charactersare established, a tanker truck jackknifes on a highway outside town, spillingthe top-secret unmixed formula for Empire Cola. The driver of the truck diesof unknown causes, and federal authorities (led by Michael Ironside as a brusqueFBI agent) swoop in and set up roadblocks, forbidding anyone to enter or leaveBaxter until the Environmental Protection Agency can figure out whether thetanker truck's contents were toxic. The quarantine turns the town into kindof a romantic hothouse. Since Lance and Skye can'tleave town and can't stay anyplace in town-the burned-down motel hasn't beenrebuilt yet-they have to stay with Blue and his mom (Lucinda Jenney), a UFO-obsessedwoman who runs the local diner. Naturally the adults are attracted to each otherand Skye and Blue hit if off as well. The teens in town suffer spikes in theirhormone levels, too-being unsure whether you're going to live or die can dothat to people. One of the film's funniest observations is that during timesof great community uncertainty, many residents will set aside their anxietyand enjoy a rare chance to behave impulsively. (Ricci's firebug rises to thetown's chaotic condition by upping the volume of her home-brewed explosions;the actress makes this character funny by treating her arsonist's dexterityas just another skill, like the ability to do card tricks.) I wish I could say I knewwhat the film was up to, but I have a sneaking suspicion Freeman couldn't tellyou, either. There are a lot of different ideas floating around in DesertBlue-a lot of different potential movies, really-and most of them are interestingfor one reason or another. But many of them seem to work at cross-purposes,and few of them lead to anyplace definitive. In one sense, the movieis a portrait of constrained small-town lives. It's startling how many of themarginal details feel correct, from the old Galaga video game in the diner toRicci's slightly outdated goth look (small towns are always a few years behindon fashion) to Blue's mother's casual reference to an FBI agent's "cellularsurveillance phone." When it isn't merely supplying information-which isoften-the dialogue can be quite acute, particularly the banter among the teens."Seems like a real bitch," one says, on seeing Skye for the firsttime. "You don't know her," protests another. "I know," comes the reply. "That's why I said, 'Seems like.'" As in Hurricane Streets,Freeman demonstrates a keen eye for the little moments that define charactersas individuals rather than types-like the throwaway bit where Lance and Skyeare grabbing lunch in the diner and Lance declares, "I'm having a BLT.I have a hunch the bacon is good around here." It's precisely the kindof earnest, slightly idiotic thing that an academic would say when visitinga dusty desert town. Desert Blue is also a mystery; like HurricaneStreets, it immediately instills viewers with the suspicion that the herodoesn't know the real story behind his father's death (there are dead dads inboth movies) or is hiding the truth from himself and others. And the film has a political-satiricalaspect. Unlike the apolitical and sitcommish 200 Cigarettes-and unlikealmost any contemporary movie featuring teens and twentysomethings-this filmis set in a place that resembles the real world. The characters know what'sgoing on in that world; they have opinions on what they know, and so does Freeman.The sexiness they feel when they suspect they might be doomed lifts a page fromGregg Araki's playbook, but without Araki's crude gargoyle-like approach towardcharacterization, which is more interesting in scoring points than developingrealistic personalities. There's a Don DeLillo-ish aspect to the tanker wreckand how it plays out. The bland intransigence of the FBI agents, who refuseto provide the imperiled townspeople with any news about the EPA investigation,is funny and feels just right; so does the fact that the chief ingredient ina major brand of cola might be lethal and smells exactly like dog shit. Thecharacters express justifiable anger against the media ("The only businessin the world that's happy when people die," says Blue) and cops ("Theycan do whatever they want whenever they want," says Skye of the LAPD. "Runred lights and stop signs, make illegal left-hand turns, turn their sirens onto get to the donut shop faster"). Freeman is so smart andhas so much talent that it's too bad he doesn't know exactly where he's goingwith his material. He has ending problems-after involving its hero in a surprisingand horrific turn of events, Hurricane Streets didn't so much end assimply stop. It seemed less a nod to ambiguity than an evasion of the storyteller'sresponsibility to satisfy his audience. (Filmmaker: "Does it really matterhow it ends?" Viewer: "It matters to me-I spent the last two hourswatching the damned thing.") Similarly, Desert Blue, while consistentlyengaging, staggers to the finish line without ever really figuring out whatsort of movie it wants to be. The romantic relationships don't develop, theyjust kind of happen, like love is no big deal. More puzzling, both hisfilms lack a crucial tension-a sense of urgency that leaves no doubt in theviewer's mind that this particular story absolutely, positively had to be told.His first movie felt more lived-in, more tethered to reality, than the two moviesit bore comparison with, Boaz Yakin's Fresh and Larry Clark's Kids.Fresh was patently artificial and fable-like-Yojimbo in the ghetto-butYakin had boned up on his Spielberg and told the story in precise, dynamic,detail-packed shots, each of which pulled its weight. Kids was fake anthropologyand alarmist nonsense, but it had brute force: Like a rabble-rousing tabloidcover story, it ordered you to pay attention. Unlike the above movies, Streetswas rarely electrifying; it was smart, nuanced work, but it should have hada propulsive energy. The same dispersal of energy and lack of focus that sentencedStreets to be good rather than great are also present in Desert Blue. Freeman's intelligence andtenderness might be his Achilles' heel. To be interesting is rare these days,but it's not enough. It makes you wonder if Freeman appreciates Sexton's giftsinstead of really understanding them. This young actor has a restless, searchingquality, an openness to possibility and a sensitivity to slight that boils Freeman'sstories down to their emotional essence. But he's never halting or vague; evenwhen his characters are unsure of who they are, Sexton seems to have a prettygood idea. There's quiet certitude in his portrayal of teens; his acting containsno unnecessary or decorative flourishes, no indulgences or blind alleys, nofat. Even when the film plods, Sexton gives it the illusion of forward momentum.This kid has an eye on the future, and a chance to claim it. Framed Creature features: Is ThePhantom Menace a hotbed of racist stereotypes? I don't really think so,but other people seem to. Since the film opened, I've heard Jar Jar Binks, thedigitally created amphibious sidekick character of the two Jedi warriors, referredto as a Jamaican stereotype and as a Stepin Fetchit (one reviewer compared himto Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element and a friend of mine said he waslike the black chauffeur character in Die Hard). I've also heard that thereptilian Trade Federation bureaucrats sound Chinese, Japanese, Italian or somecombination, and that Watto the Tatooine junk dealer sounds Spanish, Mexican,Italian, Egyptian and Israeli, or some combination thereof, and that some orall of these ethnic groups ought to be offended. I hate being put in theposition of defending George Lucas, a peculiar billionaire filmmaker who doesdifficult things easily (like create fantasy worlds and pop mythologies) andother things poorly (telling stories, portraying human emotions). But I thinkhe's getting a bum rap here. Clearly, he left himself open to charges of racismby not casting at least one nonwhite person in a non-alien lead role. (The voiceand movements of Jar Jar Binks are the invention of actor Ahmed Best, who isAfrican-American.) And to complicate matters further, Lucas decided to havemany of the aliens speak accented English this time out rather than speak insubtitles or be "interpreted" by English speakers, as was the casein the original trilogy. The first time I saw themovie, I was thrown by this technique; Lucas hadn't done it before, so it tookme out of the story. But except for the Trade Federation creatures, who weredefinitely some kind of boneheaded but basically harmless riff on 1930s Orientalbaddies, I didn't see anything in the movie that invited charges of prejudice. Now, I'm going to go throughthis next argument very carefully, since some of the people I've tried it outon didn't understand it: Fantasy filmmakers are limited by the contents of theirimaginations, and by and large their imaginations contain (let's be honest here)reconstituted, reimagined versions of things that actually exist in the realworld. Lucas decided to have his aliens speak English this time out, andto communicate the idea of "foreignness," he gave them non-Americanaccents. The accents are not strictly consistent with any known nationalityand aren't supposed to be (thus the confusion on the part of critics as to whoexactly is being slurred). Unlike some reviewers who seem to have never actuallymet a person from Jamaica, I can tell you that Jar Jar's accent and lingo ("Ex-kweezeme!" "Meesa missa Jar Jar Binks!") bears about as much relationto Jamaican patois as pig Latin does to actual Latin. It's gobbledygook, kiddie-speak,and it's worth pointing out that the other amphibious aliens with speaking partsdon't talk the same way Jar Jar does. Are the people who weremost emphatic in charging Lucas with bigotry-a long list that includes JanetMaslin at The New York Times and Carrie Rickey at the PhiladelphiaInquirer-actually projecting their own ignorance onto the movie? I halfwaysuspect they are-especially considering that collectively, the Lucas-is-a-racistcrowd seems to think any goofy, harmless sidekick character is a Stepin Fetchitby definition (what about Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd? Or C3P0?) andthat a frog mouth equals Negroid lips and floppy ears equals dredlocks. Butsince Lucas did such a rotten job of protecting himself against such charges,and perhaps invited them through sheer naivete, I'm willing to grant the benefitof the doubt and chalk up the charges to well-meaning but misplaced kneejerkliberalism. One other point: When ThePhantom Menace is shown in non-English-speaking countries, do you thinkthe heroes will speak whatever language happens to be most familiar to nativeaudiences, and that the aliens will sport accents from other nations-including,perhaps, America? If you said yes, you win a Womp Rat burger. All cylinders: David Denbyis quickly becoming my favorite film critic, which is weird considering thatas recently as a year ago I was ready to write him off as a prematurely agedcrank who was always proclaiming the death of cinema and clearly no longer enjoyedmovies or moviegoing. His relocation from New York (maybe the publicationwas the culprit) to The New Yorker seems to have reconnected him withthe pleasures of moviegoing and writing. He's intimate and direct, capable ofcommunicating slippery abstractions in plain language without selling out theideas or condescending to the reader. He's one of the few critics writing formagazines-or any publication, really-who researches the films he reviews andthinks hard about what he sees and what it means, rather than merely riffing. His two articles in theMay 31 issue are both indicative of his rediscovered enthusiasm and dexterity.His assessment of the secret agenda of teen films is astute and amusing ("Nomovie teenager now revolts against adult authority," he writes, "forthe simple reason that adults have no authority") and his lengthy reviewof The Memoirs of Elias Canetti made me more interested in that writerthan I ever imagined I could be. If I were Anthony Lane,I'd be ashamed to be in the same publication with him. If Denby is a brilliantfriend talking to you over a beer, Lane is a bitchy wiseacre holding court ata party you can't wait to leave. He's not a critic, he's a stand-up comic whowatches movies for a living, only a notch more respectable than Premiere'sfictional Libby Gelman-Waxner. His Phantom Menace screed in the May 24issue read like a mental meltdown; other critics hated the film a lot more passionatelythan Lane, and I can certainly understand why, but Lane's moral outrage wasso unlike him, and so clearly unsuited to the task at hand, that it invitedincredulity rather than laughter. (This from a guy who gave a favorable reviewto The Mummy two weeks earlier, and who once called Speed "themovie of the year"?) The juxtaposition of Laneand Denby reveals Lane's utter inconsequentiality. In recent months, especially,he has begun to seem more and more like the kind of shallow, disengaged consumer-advocate-typecritic Pauline Kael rightly used to rail against.
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