Thursday, January 24, 2013

Box of Moonlight (Lakeshore Entertainment JVC, Largo, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Box of Moonlight (though the entry on it spells the last word of the title as two words, Moon Light), a production that though made in 1996 definitely has the “vibe” of a 1970’s film. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t immediately make clear what the dramatic issue is going to be, but the gimmick is that Al Fountain (John Turturro) is away from his home in Chicago with his wife Deb (Annie Corley) and son Bobby (Alexander Goodwin) on a job assignment. He’s an electrical engineer for Zeus Turbines and he’s installing huge turbines to generate electricity for a plant that’s going to make windshield wipers — only just when he and his crew have got the turbines installed, the company they were hired by pulls the plug on the whole project, leaving an abandoned factory with a lot of spanking new turbines and nothing for them to power. It’s shortly before the Fourth of July, and writer-director Tom DiCillo establishes that Al is a martinet by having him break up a game of some sort (involving feet and a small, hard-rubber puck-like ball) his workers were playing. Then we learn his workers know he’s a martinet when they invite him to a poker game in a room of the hotel where they’re staying, and he gets as far as the front room of their suite, overhears them talking about him and using words like “asshole,” and slinks now. Now, guess what happens? Al decides to stay in the area (its precise geographical location is unstated, but the film was actually shot in and around Knoxville, Tennessee) and locate Splatchee Lake, a resort where he spent a weekend as a child. He remembers the lake because it had a big slide mounted in the middle; you had to swim through the lake to get to the slide, but once you climbed to the top of it and slid down, it was built in such a way that your body literally flew over the water until gravity overcame inertia and you fell into the lake again. He finds the lake, but he also finds an evangelical minister, Luvven Cottle (Reathel Bean), and his wife Wynelle (Betty Wills Stephens), who tell him the lake can no longer be swum in because a chemical company has been using it as a site to dump toxic waste — though the slide is still there, sitting forlornly in the middle of a soup of toxic chemicals. Rev. Cottle also inquires about the state of Al’s soul and whether he’s been saved, which predictably irritates him. (Later the not-so-good Reverend is arrested for allegedly killing three people — a husband, wife and their six-year-old child — because they dared leave his church.) 

Al also sees a few magical-realist sights, including two visits to diners in which first a glass of water and then a cup of coffee get poured backwards, flowing into rather than out of their pitchers as they’re being poured, and then he sees a boy riding a bicycle … also backwards. Then he encounters a long-haired hippie-type alternately known as Buck and The Kid (Sam Rockwell), who wants Al’s help with his car — a decrepit 1967 Ford Galaxie convertible whose distributor has basically disintegrated — and who latches on to him both literally (he chains his own non-functioning car to Al’s rental so Al can tow him to a garage) and figuratively. Buck, who dresses in a buckskin jacket and raccoon coat he stole from the star of a play he was in about Davy Crockett, invites Al to stay at his home — which is basically an open-air courtyard in the middle of nowhere with just a few enclosed bits. Buck is a proudly independent young man who makes his living stealing and reselling bits of tacky ceramic sculpture used by local homeowners to adorn the fronts of their houses. He also refuses to pay taxes and aspires to live “totally off the grid,” generating his own electricity and avoiding being billed by anything for anybody. Al and Buck end up hanging together for several days, finding a swimming hole in which they go skinny-dipping (there was a brief full-frontal of Sam Rockwell and seeing his dick was a treat!) and ultimately take two sisters, Floatie (Catherine Keener) and Purline (Lisa Blount) Dupre, whom they meet-cute when they literally bump into each other at the local supermarket and it’s the sort of hate-at-first-sight meeting that you just know is going to blossom into love, or at least mutual lust — and Al and Floatie end up getting it on in a sequence that seems retrograde in itself given the extent of the sexual counterrevolution.

It seems like years since we’ve been asked to believe in an extramarital coupling as a sign of personal, emotional and spiritual liberation — in modern-day movies like Lost in Translation the geographically isolated male lead is usually depicted as strong in his refusal to have sex with a willing partner because he’s already got a wife back home — and ultimately Box of Moonlight both stands and falls on its quirks: the tomato fight in the field Al and Buck get into, their bar confrontation with two of the locals (one played by a virtually unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney) that leaves them both badly beaten, the mix tape that’s been left behind by a previous renter of Al’s car (including the Fireballs’ cover of “The Carioca,” the first song Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever danced to on screen, and a searing Elmore James version of “Blues Before Sunrise”) that itself seems to broaden his horizons, and even the magical-realist bits that don’t seem to add much to the film plot-wise but bolster its overall strangeness. After pissing off his family that he won’t be there for the Fourth of July (which he spends setting off illegal fireworks with Buck while his wife and son back home get upset over the amount of money they’d spent on hamburgers and chicken for a Fourth of July barbecue they were counting on him to make), Al finally comes home, surprising his wife and son by being less upset with his son’s failure to study the multiplication tables (for which Al ordered him “flash cards” — I remember flash cards as about 4” x 6” but these are poster-sized!) than they expected and more open to other people’s priorities. Box of Moonlight — the title refers to a keepsake box Buck gives Al, saying it contains moonlight which will get away if he ever opens it, but which really contains the keys to Al’s rent-a-car, which Buck hid there so Al would stay with him longer — is one of those films that isn’t great but it is thoroughly charming, and even though it’s rather predictable in terms of where it’s going it’s still joyful to watch it get there.