In the past six weeks I’ve seen two exceptional low-budget, independent films. Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, it’s unlikely that either will be showing at your local Cineplex. I’m sure they will be available soon enough on Netflix, Amazon Prime or On Demand. This is an okay way to see these films, but it’s not optimum. Both deserve to be seen with an audience, in the intimacy of a theatre, cell-phones and other electronic devices turned off and put away for the duration of the screening.
Each film stars an actor that I represented when I was a talent manager during the nineteen eighties. I have great affection for these two artists. I worked with them both when they were in their early thirties and their careers were just beginning to take off. Now, three decades later they are in their early sixties and are currently doing their best work in years—maybe career best.
As I watched these movies, I was filled with a longing that I haven’t felt as strongly in some time. I didn’t long to be back into show business; I longed to be back in Oakbrook, IL at a CMED reunion so I could introduce these two marvelous films to my friends, colleagues and students, my CMED family.
If anyone has any ideas for another platform for doing film weekends, I am wide-open to suggestions.
I was at the Academy Awards when my former client, Willem Dafoe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor in 1987 for his performance as Sergeant Elias in Platoon. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Willem’s performance is the soul of the movie. I feel comfortable saying this because I read several drafts of Oliver Stone’s screenplay and found it disturbing and largely lacking in humanity—that’s before I saw what Willem did with his role. There are not many (if any other) actors who can convincingly play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ and Green Goblin in the Spiderman franchise. This season Willem is featured in The Florida Project, far and away the best film I’ve seen this year. If any of you are struggling to get a clear handle on the archetype of the Guardian Angel on assignment (fulfilling his Sacred Contract) watch Willem’s performance. I expect him to get an Oscar nod again for this performance. I’m happy as a clam, however, to watch the ceremony at home and fast-forward through the commercials.
I returned to the Academy Award Ceremonies two years later in 1989 and was there to share in the celebration another former client, Geena Davis, received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist. In that film Geena embraced the Wounded Healer archetype expertly stripping away from it any fake sentimentality. If Willem’s performance is the soul of Platoon, Geena’s performance is the heart of The Accidental Tourist.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Geena in a movie. She’s on television occasionally but apparently devotes most of her energy to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Late this summer she returned to the big screen in a film called Marjorie Prime in which she costars with Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption). At the center of the film in the title role is veteran theatre actor Lois Smith reprising the role she originated on stage. You may not know her by name; her face is unforgettably beautiful.
Both The Florida Project and Marjorie Prime speak powerfully and prophetically to the bleak, alienated times we are currently experiencing. Both films are filled with compassion for the present malaise and, almost miraculously, hold out some hope.
The central metaphor for The Florida Project (the code name that the Disney company used while purchasing the real estate and designing Disney World) is a brilliant one. The entire film takes place in the seedy motels (the projects) of Kissimmee Florida, an impoverished and largely itinerant community adjacent to Orlando both a stone’s throw and a million miles away from the “happiest place earth.” A substantial number of the inhabitants are children crowded with their parents or grandparents and all of their possessions into motel rooms with a single queen-sized bed. Stacks of clothes are piled in laundry baskets—there’s no place to put them away. The trash bags that line the walls of the rooms are not filled with trash but with the sparse worldly goods of its denizens. The residents live like refugees, taking with them only what they can carry or pack into a car if they are fortunate enough to have one. All the while America’s culture of consumption is fed back to them 24/7by the always turned-on television sets that cast a cool eerie light over the proceedings.
The central location of the film is the Magic Castle Motel. All of the motels on the strip have names that just barely avoid copyright infringement lawsuits by the Disney organization.
The paradise that is Disneyworld and its contrast with its downtrodden neighbors reminded me of Elysium (2013), a science fiction movie (or allegory) which starred Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. Damon, like the citizens of Kissimmee is trying to crash paradise, while Foster is charged with denying him entrance. Elysium is an imperfect but highly watchable movie. Star power!
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) explaining motel rules to one of its more colorful guests
Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is the patient, kind, pretty much unflappable, manager of The Magic Castle which is an eye-punishing shade of purple. When Bobby is not mediating conflicts between residents or trying, without much success, to enforce the residency rules of the Magic Castle, he spends his time touching up the purple paint of the building.
The dominant colors of the film seem to be drawn from the old eight color Crayola box. The garish orange juice stand (a two-story orange with a face painted on it) perfectly captures the primary color palate of Binney and Smith, the founders of the Crayola company.
Against this backdrop the film focuses on the childhood adventures of a six year-old named Moonee and her two friends Jancey and Scooty. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle with her single mother Halley, a multi-tattooed feral creature with green streaked hair (again Crayola) who herself seems barely out of her teens.
Moonee and her mother, Halley, in The Florida Project
Scooty, Moonee and Jancey in The Florida Project
The glory of the film is that these children, at least for the present, thrive in this environment. Their adventures and mischief making are endlessly inventive and often hilarious. Bobby seems always to watch over them. In one telling scene, Bobby spots a sexual predator moving in on these children. Bobby gently guides the predator away from the children until the kids are out of earshot and then brings down the wrath of hell on the would be perpetrator. Willem moves with the grace of a dancer; there is also something dangerous and unpredictable about him, and he employs these qualities majestically in this performance. With the exception of Dafoe all of the actors are amateurs. The performances that director Sean Baker elicits from them are astonishing—in particular those of Mooney (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite).
The film’s unexpected and exhilarating ending left me in awe of the resilience of children. I exited the theatre both shaking and smiling.
Jon Hamm and Lois Smith in Marjorie Prime
If The Florida Project is about the resilience of children, Marjorie Prime is about making peace with the unavoidable limitations of aging. It is a sly masterpiece of film making that explores our experiences of our parents, spouses and children both as they were and as we would like to remember them. It’s an almost contemplative meditation on the loneliness of loss and the longing for do-overs. I can’t describe the plot without spoiling its surprises, so I won’t. Most of the film takes place in one location, much of it shot in close-up. The performances offer a master class in the art of fearless and ego less acting. This film is as muted and subtle as The Florida Project is lurid and in your face and it is every bit as powerful. Make sure that you are wide awake and attentive when you watch this film; the shifts in tone and plot are subtle and seamless thanks to the skills and talents of director Michael Almeyreda.