Monday, July 26, 2010

It Takes A Child To Raise A Town

When I was twelve, the children of Chillicothe, Illinois participated in a project at our local library. We were to each interview a local business owner and write a brief essay on their role in the community, which would later be compiled into a book available on the countertops of every coffee shop and thrift store in town. I was assigned to interview a resident of the local nursing home, a feisty elderly woman named Mary Ellen.
During the interview, we talked about the good old days, about drive ins and rumble seats, about the days when Chillicothe was still the picturesque Midwestern small town we still like to imagine it is. “The young folks just don’t stay anymore,” said Mary Ellen sadly, “But I don’t blame them, they get offered jobs somewhere else and they up and take off. It just isn’t how it used to be.”
The film “Nonames” is about a man living a life that is just not how it used to be. Kevin’s (James Badge Dale) mother died when he was nine. He began smoking and hanging out with the local bad boys even before her funeral was over. Years later, his family, balking under the withering effects of the absence of their maternal bedrock, decides to pack up and start anew in the big city. Kevin stays behind.
As time progresses, with no family and no shortage of booze and drugs, Kevin is a rebel without a cause. His days are spent in the bar with his buddies or stirring up trouble at the town’s Fourth of July celebration, in a scene that anybody from a small town would be familiar with. The film is set in the fictional town of Dexter, Wisconsin. Even if the name isn’t familiar, the abundance of plaid flannel and beer guts are a definite nod to Wisconsin’s indigenous barflies.
Life in Dexter is set in neutral. Motivation is looking forward to a game of pool and a beer (or two or three) at the end of the day. The obvious choice for anyone who has any ambition is departure. The shortage of progressive thinkers has left the town stuck in time. The old-folks are content with this lifestyle, but for the adrenaline-filled under thirties, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. Grudges stick, and the convenience of knowing the local police chief by name is constantly put into play.
Everybody tells Kevin that he will never amount to anything if he stays in Dexter, but he is hell-bent on proving them wrong. After receiving a sum of money from his mother’s death, which quickly materializes into a sports car and a sprawling white house, Kevin and his girlfriend CJ (Gillian Jacobs) briefly taste an idealized happiness that is not to last.
Progression is as essential to humans as breathing and when we try to halt it, we run the risk of self-destruction. The image of small town America, of eating the world’s best pie at a family-style diner, and sitting on a wraparound porch watching the world go by as an unruly rose of Sharon tickles our hair is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Golden arches are replacing hand-painted restaurant signs and you will likely be met with a blank stare if you try to tell a twelve year old kid about sitting in the rumble seat at the drive in.
Kevin’s story is based on the true story of director Kathy Lindboe’s brother, but it is also the story of losing yourself while trying to hold on to something that is no longer there. I myself was born in a small Wisconsin town, home to an opera house turned movie theater where I attended a screening of “Nonames.” As I write this in the local ice cream shop, I watch the townsfolk troop by in a parade of camouflage baseball caps and, of course, plaid flannel. I look at them and wonder just how many “Kevins” there are out there; waiting for something more, wanting to get at it, and wondering just what “it” is.
The saying “grow where you are planted” comes to mind, but deprived of nourishment, even the toughest plant will wither and die. Mary Ellen had a point, why should the “young folk” stay where they cannot grow, when all the doors in the world are open for them? It takes a great deal of bravery to say goodbye to the things we hold most dear, but it takes even more to create a better world right where you are planted, and even if we don’t survive, we can at least say we tried.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tim Burton Is Getting Curiouser And Curiouser

It wasn’t until I was seven or eight that I realized “Alice in Wonderland” was actually a book and not purely a figment of Walt Disney’s expansive imagination. It wasn’t until I was twelve that I actually read the book and was introduced to the work of an imagination even more expansive than Disney’s. Today, Lewis Carroll’s eccentric masterpiece in the hands of Tim Burton, perhaps Hollywood’s most eccentric director. I was expecting something explosive.
Explosive, was what my dad and sister dubbed “Alice in Wonderland” after seeing it in the theater, equipped with surround sound and 3D glasses. Disjointed flashiness was what came across to me, watching the DVD on the small screen. Burton had upped the funky factor to keep up with the times. The Hatter is madder, the violence is gorier, and Wonderland is all the more wacky. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is all grown up and on the brink of betrothal to a prudish twit of a man named Hamish. Confused and claustrophobic in the high-society world of etiquette and corsets, she decides to pop down the old rabbit hole once again.
And we find ourselves back in Wonderland, or Underland as it is now called. The strange and fantastic creatures who make Underland their home are every bit as repellent as John Tenniel’s original illustrations hashed them out to be. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), with flaming orange hair, neon eyes and wonky teeth is like something out of a toddler’s nightmare. It is a role that only Johnny Depp could play with any degree of solemnity.
Burton’s “Wonderland” is not child’s play. When a younger Alice visited it so many years ago, she went to escape into the world of childhood, where her imagination could run wild without fear of scornful glances from her oppressive Victorian family. But with the grotesquely big-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) wreaking havoc on Alice’s beloved Underland, she is forced into making choices for herself- something she was rarely allowed to do in the “real world.”
Interpreting “Alice in Wonderland,” Burton could have bordered on surrealism without being accused of lunacy. Instead, he uses the plot as an excuse for a virtual fireworks show of psychedelic special effects. In a setting where logic is turned upside down, non sequitur plot twists would seemingly be right at home. But the audience is left standing at the altar as Burton darts off after every opportunity to dazzle visually. He attempts to create something internally dark, yet bursting with color and winds up with a whimsically nauseating hallucination.
To maintain a limber imagination in the starched bourgeois biosphere she lives in, Alice likes to imagine six impossible things before breakfast. Unfortunately for her, Wonder (or Under) land proves that not only is the impossible possible, it’s menacing. But Alice is not afraid, because she is convinced that it’s all just a dream. We do not fear for our golden-haired heroine for the simple fact that we do not care. We keep watching the movie because it hypnotizes us, not because it absorbs us. Even Wonderland loses its wonder when dipped in too much eye candy. Wake up Burton, it’s breakfast time.