Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thru Fragments of Cinema: Southwestern Sunshine

The new movie Sunshine Cleaning is a real Southwestern film: Comedy, drama, slice-of-life, it can’t quite make up its mind, but it all kind of fits together. It’s well-made, but more than anything it made me miss the Southwest.

It’s weird how some places can carve themselves into your heart. It might have been the time and circumstance under which I was in the Southwest. There’s always an understanding that life is an inward journal – that when you experience some new place you’re finding something about yourself. But it is strange how places - being external - can etch themselves upon your personality as if they were people themselves.

That’s how Santa Fe hit me, for the few years I was there. Growing up in the East, each summer we visited one portion of that part of the country for a week, but living in one of them was completely different. I expected that after living in any given city – particularly in America – that after some time, it would just be the same as every other city. Maybe I had that impression from Kerouac’s On the Road - in which lively characters impetuously zigzag across America, searching for something, settling in, getting restless, and moving on, and devouring the American highways in the process.

That might've been a misread of On the Road. To my surprise Santa Fe never quite wore in as I expected it to. The sunsets were one of the first things I noticed. You could see far over the land. The flat dessert and lack of buildings was somehow easier on the eye. I expected to get used to the sun setting. But so many evenings it was completely unique and beautiful as if it was God’s blank canvas. Its wonder might have sunk in some, but never completely.

Around then it struck me – at first explicitly through conversations with people from that side of the county - that America’s landscape is one of its prominent characteristics. At the time I was accustomed to conceptualizing America as a political construct, delineated by Democrat, Republican, and GDP. It was as if it never occurred to me that it was a country as well. The diversity of the American landscape really is one of its most beautiful and unique features.

There were other more subtle differences out West. No one was quite so worried about being on time. Where I grew up, mileage markers on the side of the highway are often posted every tenth of a mile; makers out there are posted every mile. Driving on the interstate you might see signs for your final destination when you have over 500 miles to go.

It’s not bad just different. You learn that sometimes there’s something to be said for a lack of precision. Afterall, when you're in the desert there’s no need to mark the highway every tenth of a mile . Things seemed different when the horizon appeared endless. There was a different sort of beauty. I noticed a different sort of beauty to women as well.

Sunshine Cleaning captures a small piece of that: the wind-swept prettiness of the lead; the way the plot doesn’t wrap up perfectly, but still feels adequate; the loose connections between the characters.

Other films capture the Southwest too. Or, it’s not that they capture it, but they depict it, and think like it. These sorts of films have solidified in my mind as belonging to their own genre. Paris, Texas remains my favorite, which includes more panoramas of the scenery. The Tao of Steve is another. They’re not all great films. Others like Off the Map have struck me as too loopy. Sometimes the Southwest was as well. It’s just open, that’s all. Even Scorsese’s classic Casino gets at it.

I visited Las Vegas once and was awe-struck by how this area of lights, entertainment, and mischief seemed plop in the middle of desert. But I guess where else are you going to put it?

Centered around gambling – you can lose your lifesavings all at once if you’re so inclined - the city almost has a magical feel, until you stay out late a couple of nights and see the intensity of some of the losing ones. You can see it in their eyes. It was uglier in the smaller hotel-casinos located in neighboring Death Valley. There you don’t even have any of the lights and show. And the whole casino would be empty at 1am except for sometimes one or two desperate gamblers who are still pissing away all they’ve got. That side of it all made me feel dirty for just being there.

The city lies opposite – figuratively, and almost geographically - of the Mormon Salt Lake City. It’s almost as if it's there so that when the Utah citizens feel a bit too religiously pure they can soil themselves a bit, or when the gamblers are too in a rut then can cleanse themselves a bit among the Mormons. It’s probably not really like that.

Still though the most impressive aspect of the city is its location – as if an oasis of bubbling human life and distraction and sin in the middle of an infinite nowhere.


Media(in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Promo from the 2009 film Sunshine Cleaning; (2) Jack Kerourac, 01/13/2008, tompalumbo; (3)Santa Fe 2, 08/22/2007, by Javier ST; (4)On the road...., 12/17/2008, by Spejo Blano Negro; (5)Highway sign; (6)Hammock IV, 07/09/2008, also by tompalumbo; (7)Vegas at Night from the Sky, 07/15/2006, by Starr Gazr.

Video: (1) Trailer for the 2009 film Sunshine Cleaning; (2) Trailer, from AustralianRoadShow channel, for the 1984 film Paris, Texas.
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  1. "The diversity of the American landscape really is one of its most beautiful and unique features."

    Even as a U.K. citizen who has never visited the U.S.A. I already know this as a fact:

    "O beautiful, for spacious skies,
    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above the fruited plain!"

    Who has no love for the beauty in motherland or fatherland has no soul.

    "Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty:
    This City now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
    And all that mighty heart is lying still!"
    William Wordsworth, London, 1802


  2. Hey Patrick, that certainly describes what I was feeling while watching some of those Santa Fe sunsets.

    The more I think about the topic of nationality, the more I realize that I've a completely un-intuitive sense of how it works, particularly when it comes to the UK & Europe. This may sound naive but just the configuration of it all strikes me as alien - the notion of lots of countries living side-by-side on a continent, & then England - who we broke off from, but remain more similar to than any of the other countries - being separate from the land mass as if btwn Europe & the US (altho obviously more a part of Europe), & then its capital arising as the "financial capital of the world", as if a monetary holding system mediating Europe & the rest of the world...I'm sure that's not a completely accurate rendering, & once I read about it more I'll have a more of a realistic intuitive sense. But for now the more I think about it - & how it plays out in the identity of Europe - the more peculiar it seems to me being an American.


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