A shadow festival: Max’s alternative to the Walker’s ‘Location: MN’ series

The Walker Art Center is offering up a mini-festival of Minnesota-made films this weekend, which it has dubbed “Location: MN.” Among their offerings is Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats,” which was lensed locally but set in New Jersey. We also have the film adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s “Factotum,” a novel set in Los Angeles, and “Purple Rain,” which actually is set in Minneapolis, but a Minneapolis in which aspiring singer Apollonia Kotero can get off a Greyhound bus and take a taxi to a residence hotel across the street from First Avenue and have it cost her $37.75, despite the fact that she would have traveled about a block. At least there’s “Fargo,” the Coen brothers film that is so authentically Minnesotan that Steve and Sharon show up hosting “Good Neighbors,” and William H. Macy takes out his long-buried frustrations by aggressively scraping the ice off his windshield. Best still, the actual wood chipper used in the film will be on hand, presumably to sign autographs.

There have, by the Walker’s count, been 120 films made in Minnesota. Actually, they say “great” films, which is a necessary modifier, as I am certain the number of films lensed locally is in the thousands, if you count student films and microbudget productions. Sometimes, when I am exhausted, I feel as though I have seen them all, although that’s not true — not even close. Still, I’ve seen my share, and so I would like to take a moment to curate a shadow festival, if you will — an alternative list of Minnesota-made films that didn’t make it into the Walker’s festival. And to compete with the the wood chipper, I would like to offer my suggestion of a meaningful prop that should accompany each screening, which will probably be cheaper than the chipper. Rumor has it that Fargo’s wood chipper has quite a rider that accompanies live appearances, including a row of suites at a hotel for its entourage and endless bottles of Moet.

Dean Martin in "Airport"
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Dean Martin in “Airport”

1. “Airport” (1970): Arthur Hailey’s popular airline-disaster novel required a horrific winter storm, so, of course, when Hollywood decided to adapt it, they chose Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as their location Nobody had told them just how contrary Minnesota weather is, though; it only snows when you don’t want it to (I fully expect it to snow tomorrow), and so, during the entire production schedule, not a flake of snow fell on “Airport.” Well, no matter — they had plastic flakes to compensate.

I’d love for that to be a joke about the cast, but there’s not a plastic flake among them — in fact, the casting of the film is preposterously pleasurable, including Dean Martin as a pilot, presumably from an era in which it was acceptable to fly a plane drunk. Burt Lancaster plays the film’s airport manager, and the entire remainder of the cast is likewise filled out with slumming luminaries, including George Kennedy as a chief mechanic whose entire job is to dig out a snowed-in airplane, which the films insists on treating as exciting. The script is at least as interested in the trashy backstories of its characters (Martin, for example, is having an affair with a flight attendant) as it is with the fact that somebody has smuggled a bomb aboard the plane. Best still, the script is filled with unlikely one-liners and director George Seaton has filled the screen action with unexpectedly comic bits of business, such as a priest who responds to a hysterical man by crossing himself and then punching the man out. Somehow, this film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and went on to inspire three sequels.

Special guest prop: Van Heflin’s explosive attache case, which looks as though a child had filled it with a tangled clump of wires.

Eddie Albert and Charles Grodin in "The Heartbreak Kid"
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Eddie Albert and Charles Grodin in “The Heartbreak Kid”

2. “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972): The film was penned by Neil Simon and directed by Elaine May, but the real engine behind it was Bruce Jay Friedman, who came up with the story. Friedman was responsible for the “Black Humor” anthology of short stories, and was very much a product of a post-Lenny Bruce style of confrontational comedy that was also sometimes referred to as “sick” comedy — although the sickness was more about neurosis and social awkwardness than biological revulsion. And so here we have a fairy tale, of sorts, about culture clash, in which a Jewish everyman from New York, played by Charles Grodin, falls for a blonde and non-Jewish Minnesotan, played by Cybill Shepherd. He pursues her back to Minnesota, and here the story turns caustic — it is, in part, an ongoing series of punchlines about how out-of-place a New York Jew would feel in a land of stalwart Norwegians and Germans (including Eddie Albert, who was actually raised in Minneapolis, and plays Shepherd’s bigoted father). But the film is more corrosive than that — everybody in the film is shallow, petty and hypocritical, and Grodin’s presence peels back the veneer of civility bit by bit, including his own. It’s a film in which humanity’s only saving grace is its myopia, which allows it to ignore how awful people really are. Thankfully, the film also happens to be hilarious. There was a remake a few years ago with Ben Stiller, by the way; ignore that one.

Special guest prop: The football jersey Cybill Shepherd wears in the film’s poster campaign.

3. “The Wrestler” (1974): No, not the Darren Aronofsky film. Instead, this was a feature-length film that was functionally a promotional piece for the Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association and its owner/promoter and longtime champion, Verne Gagne. The film’s story, such as it is, tells of a wrestling promoter, played by Ed Asner, who must battle the mob to keep a fight between Gagne and British wrestler Billy Robinson from being fixed by a mob.

I know, this raises all sorts of questions. What sort of mob did we have in Minneapolis in the ’70s? Didn’t they know wrestling is already fixed? But never mind that; Don’t watch the film for its plot, but instead for its marvelous accumulation of oddball details. For instance, they cast a young woman to play Asner’s assistant who could be a dead ringer for Mary Tyler Moore, and the film strongly hints that the two are involved. This suggests that an aspect of the movie is that it is fan fiction by somebody who was unsatisfied by the episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore” show in which Asner and Moore go on a date that goes nowhere.

Better still, this was a time when wrestlers often were, as the Coen brothers once called them, burly men — stocky and hairy — and they are frequently shirtless over the course of the film, which gives much of the film the sort of startling visual that you used to get when you walked in on your grandfather and his friends in a sauna. Best of all, the film features a cameo by Harold Sakata, who played the villainous Oddjob in “Goldfinger.” He makes the mistake of messing with two AWA wrestlers in a bar (Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch), and gets quickly knocked out for his efforts; the wrestlers then trash the bar. Sakata is actually dressed as his James Bond character in this film and credited in the titled as “Odd Job,” so the lesson is clear: Minnesota wrestlers are just as dangerous as James Bond.

Special guest prop: Harold Sakata’s bowler derby.

John Jenkins and Chris Mulkey in "Patti Rocks"
Courtesy of FilmDallas Pictures
John Jenkins and Chris Mulkey in “Patti Rocks”

4. “Patti Rocks” (1988): A sequel to one of Minnesota’s first real independent films, “Loose Ends,” made by David Burton Morris and Victoria Wozniak in 1976 (their later film “Purple Haze” is part of the festival) and telling of a pair of down-on-their-luck friends played by John Jenkins and Chris Mulkey. The film got a great write-up in the New York Times (“the most interesting regional American film I’ve seen in years,” the critic enthused), and then became one of Minnesota’s lost movies. I’ve never seen it, despite searching for years. “Patti Rocks” was filmed 12 years later, and I have seen that, even though it seems equally lost to modern viewers. The sequel consists almost entirely of a road trip, instigated by Mulkey and accompanied, begrudgingly, by Jenkins. Mulkey is a nonstop noise machine in this movie, a relentless chatterbox of tacky opinions, and most of what he talks about is sex — in fact, the point of the road trip is to confront a pregnant women, the titular Patti Rocks (Karen Landry), with whom Mulkey’s character has been having an affair. Mulkey’s stream-of-consciousness dialogue is relentlessly bonkers, and Jenkins plays off it perfectly, listening in with a practiced irritation. Alas, the film doesn’t seem to be available anywhere in any form. Perhaps some smart local theater troupe will contact writer/director Morris to see about adapting the script for the stage; at the very least, we should be able to enjoy Mulkey’s dialogue again.

Special guest prop: Chris Mulkey’s car

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 07/14/2011 - 01:57 pm.

    I love “Airport” so much. I’ll have to watch that again. I love Airport 75 even better. Has nothing to do with Minnesota, but it does have Charlton Heston jumping from one airplane to another, mid-flight, to save the day.

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