As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Road Trippin’

Posted by Hedwig on April 24, 2008

Usually, with my Weekend Double Features, I try to find two movies that have a theme in common, or a central story, or, you know, something. Last weekend I couldn’t think of any movies related in a meaningful way to any of the four movies I watched. But two of them had a tenuous connection: they were pretty much as disparate as two movies that arguably belong to the same genre can be. So, this is not a “Weekend Double Feature” in the strictest sense of the word (not least because it’s already Thursday), but rather a study in contrasts.

The Genre? The road movie.

The movies? Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and … My Blueberry Nights.

I’m not much a pothead, as I’ve mentioned before. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate stoner humor. Yup, I laughed my ass off watching the likes of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie and even Dude, Where’s My Car. The Big Lebowski is among my top-10 movies. And while I might not personally enjoy lighting up much, I’m glad I live in a country rational enough not to equate weed with the harder stuff.

Not all stoner movies are road movies. But somehow, stoner movies work well on the road. After all, when you’re in transit you’re in between two places, in a kind of suspended state, and this often leads to a languorous, hazy mood, a state in which time stops making much sense and your mind is free to wander. Smoking a little pot, well, it seem to me that that would only enhance this feeling, and as a result anything can happen.

Pretty much anything DOES happen in Harold and Kumar Go To While Castle, and while the trek to a burger joint might not sound like a great journey, here it takes an entire night and can justifiably be described as epic. Not everything works – an interlude with Cristopher Meloni of L&O:SVU fame, unrecognizable under a mass of pulsating boils, is painfully unfunny, and I could have done without the animatronic raccoon – but all the elements of a great road movie are here. There are obstacles, deviations from the road, there are recurring characters who bump into the protagonists every once in a while. There is a moment when the main characters almost give up their quest. And of course, in the end, the characters are changed by their travels.

What makes Harold and Kumar stand out is the many jokes based on race and ethnicity, that are slyly embedded everywhere. Harold and Kumar themselves perpetually slink out from under the prejudices associated with Korean and Indian-Americans, respectively: they don’t deny their roots, but they’re not quite prototypical either. And one of the most inspired jokes has one of their Jewish friends say about Katie Holmes’ boobs (on display in the Gift): “You know the Holocaust? Picture the opposite of that!”. It’s a joke that works because of the initial shock, and because it’s delivered so off-handedly.

So what does this stoner comedy have to do with Wong Kar-Wai’s first English-language movie, My Blueberry Nights? More than you might think at first: both have lusciously photographed food, and in both cases the food is used as a metaphor for something the main character(s) want to achieve. But really, while both can be seen as comfort foods, they offer a very different kind of nutrition.

My Blueberry Nights has been pretty universally panned (28% cream of the crop over at RT), and I can kind of understand why. It is largely style of substance, filled with gorgeous shots lit by fluorescent light, soft faces and smoky music, but with little purpose underneath. And it is elliptical to a fault. But seen in the right, dreamy mood (or in my case: with a bad cold), considered on its own terms alone, there’s much to appreciate here.

The problem, really, is that Wong Kar-Wai is a hopeless romantic, who thinks even tragic love-affairs are worth having, and who can film a car crash like it’s some sweet kind of revelation. But do we really want to label that a problem? He offers us an unrealistic view of the world, a naïve one that cannot hold up in the bright light of day, but don’t we go into the darkness of the cinema for the express purpose of escaping that bright light?

While we don’t actually see much traveling in this movie, just the stops in between, this is absolutely a road movie. Again, we have many stock elements, though this is a trip where the start and the endpoint coincide. Deviating from the mold, the development of the main character is not the consequence of the journey here, it’s the main motivation behind it. And the oddest thing is that she doesn’t change much at that, maybe because she doesn’t meet a whole lot of adversity. Possibly this is because there are no bad people in Kar-Wai’s word: even the card shark (Natalie Portman in some amazing outfits) can more or less be trusted. Possibly because the main character isn’t the most important character, but just an excuse to lead us around, from New York to Memphis to Las Vegas and back again, a panorama of the United States as seen by an awed foreigner.

Unfortunately, she isn’t just a cypher, but she’s a somehow bland one. This might be on purpose. But it’s partly also casting: Chan Marshall (aka. Cat Power) also makes a short appearance in the movie, and the contrast between her and Norah Jones is reflected in their music: Norah Jones has the better, silkier voice, and her songs are absolutely pleasant to listen to like she’s pleasant to look at, but it’s the rawness in Cat Power’s music that makes it (and her) interesting. Just like pretty images need ragged edges to be worth more than a cursory glance. And Marshall, in her few minutes on screen, leaves you wanting to know more.

Despite all this, I enjoyed spending some time with Norah Jones on the road, just like I enjoyed spending a night with Harold and Kumar. And I think the viewing experience of both might be improved by being just a little under the influence.

(The next post will be shorter. It’s a promise)

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6 Responses to “Road Trippin’”

  1. Kaj said

    Cat Power’s music has a rawness to it?

  2. sarcastig said

    Absolutely! Admitted, the song “the Greatest”, which is featured prominently on the soundtrack, is one of her smoothest, “nicest” ones, but listen to pretty much any song on “Moonpix” or “You Are Free”, especially songs like “Names” and “I don’t Blame You”, or earlier songs like “We All Die”. Admittedly, since she’s gotten sober, her songs are somewhat more polished, and both “The Greatest” and her cover album “Jukebox” are a lot smoother than what she’s done before, but it still doesn’t approach the harmless Starbucks-readiness of Norah Jones’ music.

    I like Norah Jones, don’t get me wrong, but all her songs blend together for me, and it’s all just a little too polished for me. The despair that sometimes seeps through in Cat Power’s music (as said before, especially the earlier stuff), that’s what make her records worth listening to over and over again.

  3. I long to see My Blueberry Nights….thank God it opens this week Thursday in SA.

  4. Kaj said

    You’ve got a point with those songs you’ve mentioned, I guess I don’t know her that well. Can’t say I ever heard that much of a difference between her and Jones though, but maybe that can be attributed I’ve only heard The Greatest and You Are Free.

    As far as the actual films: I’ve enjoyed both, H&K a lot and Blueberry only slightly. I was glad I was given an advance of the soundtrack at a press screening of the latter.

  5. Daniel said

    Of the parts of Harold and Kumar I saw, we agree on its funniest parts – which is why I kind of want to see the new sequel. Blueberry I plan to see in the next week.

    In any case, I enjoy the linkage as usual.

  6. I finally saw My Blueberry Nights, wow…..it amazes me…it really is gorgeous and brilliant and flawed and I cannot wait to have a second helping, maybe tomorrow.

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