Saturday, April 09, 2011

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #7--Arizona Dream (1993)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

Johnny's in your dreams.
"This is your brain on drugs." 
©New Line Cinema
After Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp showed up in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare--a thank you to the people who cast him in his first movie. In this funny cameo appearance, he makes an anti-drug public service announcement on late-night TV. It's only a few seconds before Freddy interrupts the commercial with a classic slapstick move. I didn't draw anything for this--I don't want to ruin the surprise--but I thought I should mention it. If you're not an avid follower of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, you can find Johnny's cameo on YouTube. I was going to post it here, but Freddy Krueger makes The Kitties and me nervous.

Johnny has his own weird dream.
With that, we move on to Johnny's next movie. Yesterday, I found a 12-page research article, printed in the European Journal of American Studies in 2010, that analyzes how Arizona Dream reflects the director's European view of America and details all the intentions and symbolism that go into that. Maybe I'll read it someday, but my short analysis is that Arizona Dream, the first American project by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica, is a work of art. It sparks all sorts of emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, unease, confusion. The director manipulates the film throughout--smearing and blurring images, highlighting reflections, or maneuvering objects for a dreamlike state. The characters and situations are absurd, and there are flying fish and Eskimo dreams. I may never understand this movie fully--maybe I should read that study--but every time I play it, I find something new. Whatever it really means, Emir Kusturica's ingredients make this movie highly entertaining.

Johnny as Axel Blackmar, fishing in New York
©StudioCanal Image/Hachette Premiere
In this coming-of-age story, New Yorker Axel Blackmar (Johnny Depp) is dragged back home to Arizona to attend his uncle's wedding. Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis), a used car salesman, guilts Axel into staying in town to help him run the business. On his first day, he meets Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and her step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor). The three become involved in a relationship that is at times sweet, weird, hilarious, and toxic.

At their first meeting, Emir Kusturica and Johnny hated each other, but they shook off their first impressions and got along fine during their second meeting 3 weeks later. (Today, they remain great friends.) For unexplained reasons--Johnny doesn't even know--Johnny saw his character as a chicken, growing up and becoming a rooster. You'll notice this in his hairstyle, mannerisms, and impeccable impression. "He lets you do anything--anything!" Johnny said of working with Emir Kusturica. "If you go to any other director and say, 'I'd like to seduce her by becoming a rooster,' that's it. You're fired. Get out!"

What excited me most about this film was the people involved. I hadn't heard of Emir Kustrica at the time, but Johnny was working with Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, and Lili Taylor! I was sold. Faye Dunaway is brilliant as Elaine, and while I never caught on to Jerry Lewis's trademark humor, he's really good as the grown-up in this movie. In a dream sequence during which Axel and Uncle Leo are Eskimos fishing in Alaska, they have a conversation in the native language. On the set, Jerry stopped Johnny from learning his lines in proper Eskimo, saying that they could just make it up during filming. (I think the Eskimos would notice, wouldn't they?) Johnny was terrified, but did his best trying to keep up with what Jerry Lewis could probably do in his sleep. I think it works, just as Jerry said it would. There's some talent in that, but you've got to love Johnny's preference for authenticity. The Eskimos probably would have appreciated that more too.

What's Tom Petty doing here? 
Amid filming, Arizona Dream was stalled a bit due to illness. During the break, Johnny made a quick trip to star in Tom Petty's latest music video, "The Great Wide Open." At the time, MTV was still playing videos, and Tom Petty was riding high as one of the art form's pioneers. His videos are like short films, and they became increasingly star-studded. Johnny plays Eddie in this story, but you'll also find him making a quick cameo as the tattoo artist working on Matt LeBlanc's arm. When Johnny asked Faye Dunaway if she would like to "meet my friend Tom" and shoot the video with him, he said she turned into a squealing teenage girl. Of course, Comet just dug this video out of the archives, and The Kitties are already singing along. Here it is:


Everybody get back to work! 
After that side job, Arizona Dream was completed. Johnny looks back on the film fondly: "Everybody in Hollywood, in the movie business, is always concerned about how much a movie's going to make in the box office and how many theaters it's in, how popular it becomes," he said. "Who cares about the numbers when you're able to experience something like this, live through something like this, and be involved in something as magical as this."

©StudioCanal Image/
Hachette Premiere
Though Arizona Dream did have a limited theatrical release somewhere in the world, I couldn't find it. "I imagine that when Warner Brothers saw this film, they must have been shocked,"Johnny said. Its sudden appearance on video and DVD 3 or so years later must have been a result of Johnny's increasing popularity. I think I bought the video through eBay, but I also saw the movie on cable, which gave me the full picture. Sadly, the video and DVD versions are not adjusted for letterbox format, a frustrating lapse. For example, you miss the full humor of the scene where Uncle Leo and Elaine are discussing Axel's future over a civilized cup of tea because Axel and his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo)--who are rolling around in the dirt beating each other up in the background--are cropped out of the frame. The DVD is also missing the subtitles for the conversation between Uncle Leo and Axel in the final Eskimo dream sequence that I mentioned earlier, a conversation that touches on one of the film's main themes. Dedicated to the memory of his father, Emir Kusturica's film reminds us that, in order to grow, you need to remember your roots, respect your elders, and learn from your ancestors.

Despite these flawed products, the film still comes across well. I was absolutely thrilled when Roger Ebert featured the DVD on At the Movies, calling it a whimsical love story and pointing out the fine performance by rising star, Johnny Depp. (Why do I remember these things?) People listen to Roger Ebert, I thought; the movie will be seen now.

The Kitties and I are unanimous.
For Johnny Kitties, the scene to draw was clear: Axel and Paul enjoying their first dinner with Elaine and Grace. One of the great things about this movie is that so much is going on in each scene, and this 15-minute, hilarious, crazy scene tops them all.


Elaine (The Mother Kitty) spends the evening talking about one of her obsessions, Papua New Ginea, a topic that is killing her step-daughter Grace, who threatens to yank the tablecloth off to destroy the table setting if she mentions it one more time. Meanwhile, Axel is explaining his recurring Eskimo dream (while keeping his eye on Grace's pet turtle, who has his mind set on escape.) Paul is focused on Elaine's legs--and the big plate of spaghetti in front of him--and Grace is playing footsie with Axel under the table. Through it all, the wobbly ceiling fan is threatening to crash on the party, and Django Rhinehardt's fantastic song "Minor Swing" is whirling in the background.

The Mother Kitty insisted on playing Faye Dunaway's role. No one could deny that she's perfect for it, though I hesitated considering Axel and Elaine's romantic entanglements later on in the story. But, if we're just doing this scene, I suppose it's okay. Simon was supposed to play the part of Axel's wily cousin Paul, but was bullied out of his seat once Norman saw all the food on the table and found out that all he had to do in the scene was eat the spaghetti. Ashes, who loves Lili Taylor as much as the rest of us, was excited to play Grace because she couldn't wait to smash the dishes. (She's disappointed that we didn't get to that point.)

I added some windows in the background to highlight some other interesting movie moments: The first introduces Uncle Leo (B.J.) and his new wife Millie (Paulina Porizkova/Lily) next to his newly planted cactus on the front lawn of his flamingo pink home. The middle window shows the Eskimo family in Axel's dream after Dewey, the dad, returns home with fish for dinner. (Simon was happy to switch roles with Norman and play in the snow with Mini here.) The last window displays one of Elaine's beloved flying machines, which Axel keeps building and Grace keeps destroying in this story.

None of this makes much sense does it? Well, I don't always say this, but listen to Roger Ebert and rent Arizona Dream. It still might not make complete sense, but it'll be worth it.

What's coming up? 
Simon is busy teaching Gordon his favorite circus tricks. He's practicing his pratfalls now.  
Next month, Johnny channels Buster Keaton in Benny and Joon. 

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