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Starring “Phoenix, Arizona”

Starring “Phoenix, Arizona”

We can’t claim there are any life lessons to be drawn from the Valley’s appearances on film.  I’m warning myself as much as anybody else — be careful.  Any fleeting images of former versions of the city are to be held at arm’s length, between thumb and forefinger, as completely, thoroughly, inherently fictional, not to be trusted, even for a half-second. That’s especially true of “documentaries.” The city playing the role of “Phoenix, Arizona,” voyeuristically searched by Alfred Hitchcock’s camera in the first few minutes of Psycho, in its single most red-carpet moment in the movies, with its visibly revolving VNB sign and all the rest, was and is truly “Phoenix” the same way Anthony Perkins was actually Norman Bates. Please don’t fall for it, I tell myself.

And yet. It’s a good game. You get drawn in. You know you mustn’t trust the movies. But some of the moments carry a back-in-time truth that it’s hard to get elsewhere. Is it worth the risk of being fooled?


The films below tend to have good, long views of what we want, related to architectural or at least spatial observations & pleasures.  The important parts of all of them are findable online — as of this afternoon, anyway.

My favorite of these is set in the freshly completed Maryvale of 1961, as it appears in a 25-minute short called “The Homeowner”, directed by Joe Parker. It’s a sales job. The developer and showman John F. Long always went to preposterous lengths to get your attention: clowns, seals, carousels, snappy names of models with calculated price-points, even hiring Ronald Reagan once. This time he called in the old, endearingly battered professional Buster Keaton, who brings his own ancient vaudeville shtick and treats Long’s new houses as the straight man. It totally works. The footage includes a textbook pitch about how the house’s desirable features add up to a simple, clean, effortless lifestyle, also found in the simple, clean, easy little town John F. Long built for you practically next door. You get the idea of the spaces being radically straightforward, and modernism sold as attractive because you don’t have to think about it.

The west valley is also shown off in William Wellman’s Thunder Birds, from 1942. As Hollywood as it gets: about 80 efficient minutes of ripe true Technicolor, war-era, major-studio, patriotic opinion formation wrapped in a simple narrative, easy to look at, plenty of swooping zooming airplane footage, and Gene Tierney introduced skinny-dipping in an open-topped water tower. Wellman gives us a minute of credits, then two minutes of a narrated mini-documentary which roots the story at Thunderbird Air Field in Glendale, scene of the quick training of British, Chinese and American flyers zipping around in biplane training aircraft. Boring exposition all done — on with the show. Other films might teasingly show an empty horizon where you know there are five Home Depots now, but this one takes you up in the air and looks down, revealing the runways laid out in the shape of a Thunderbird, and the undeveloped canvas of the entire west valley. Get a good look — only 20 years before John F. Long shows up.

I have a soft spot in my — well, head — for Robert Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs. Shot in 1983, it wasn’t released as much as it finally escaped in 1987, with its sources akin to Animal House and other teen-oriented comedies of the 1980s already long stale. Something about this movie requires a lot of patience.  As with other Altman there’s a loosely rambling storyline and a multi-valent audio track that murmurs under its breath. The two leads are not easy to sympathize with, they come with some unanswered questions, and they share with Altman an urge to target “suburbia” without a clear grasp on how to get that done. All that said, there are pleasures in the cast, which includes Jane Curtin, Dennis Hopper, Melvin van Peebles, young Jon Cryer, Martin Mull, old Ray Walston, Tina Louise, Bob Uecker, and, importantly, the excellent Paul Dooley, who comes closest to manifesting Reagan-era materialism in human form. There’s also an unexpectedly sweet, familiar verisimilitude about its display of the back yards and sunny back bedrooms of south Scottsdale, the alleys of Arcadia, and a truthfulness about the colorful golf shorts of the 1980s.

The Phoenix observed and celebrated in Bus Stop (1956, directed by Josh Logan) has a loud, strong personality to match its lead characters. It’s a Phoenix I honestly don’t recognize: hootin’, hollerin’, decked out in Nudie western gear, bronc-busting, throwing a big annual regional rodeo like Calgary or Cheyenne, and the colorful stage setting for a big broad slab of countrified humor akin to Lil Abner. The twangy music starts in immediately. Arthur O’Connell (as “Virgil Blessing”) here prefigures similar services he performed for Elvis in 1962’s Follow That Dream (as “Pop Kwimper”) and then in Kissing Cousins (as “Pappy Tatum”). And, oh, Marilyn Monroe is in it, as a prostitute with a heart of gold. The crowds shown in the grandstands, and all the social and style information visible in their hats, boots, and looks to each other, are apparently authentic; we get a good thorough presentation of the Western Ho, the fairgrounds, the parade, the stands, inside the old Greyhound station on Van Buren, and a brief but marvelous glimpse of downtown neon on the VNB and the Hotel Adams just before the hour mark. Somebody’s going to have to tell me if the Jaycees rodeo really turned this part of town into Fort Worth every year.

Waiting to Exhale (1995), directed by Forest Whitaker, with Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Gregory Hines, begins with a title sequence of Whitney driving into a stylized desert landscape, which is fair warning about what you’re about to see. On a narrative level this film’s interested in its four Black protagonists, four women in four social classes, and the gradations of their emotional reactions to relationships with their husbands, lovers, sons and neighbors. We get views of the Borgata and Fashion Square, the Hermosa Inn, the Arizona Biltmore lobby bar (Jesus, I love that place), and the yearly ostrich races at Turf Paradise, presented as if they race ostriches every day, all of it amounting to a grand, mythologized, stylized, fantasy, surreally plush and lush portrait of the eastern half of this metropolitan area at its most impeccably groomed, with good art borrowed from local galleries. This is mid-1990s style taken to the point of science fiction.

One critic of the time called Zabriskie Point (1970), directed by Antonioni, with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin) a “spasm of oversimplification.”  Subtlety is no problem here.  The film also doesn’t reach Arizona until its last half-hour, when of course we linger over dozens of saguaros.  It’s reasonable and prudent to skip straight to the climactic explosion, the explosion of the “Boulder Reign” house in the Carefree Grandview Estates, on the south slope of Black Mountain in Carefree, just northwest of the intersection of Stagecoach Pass and Whileaway Road, designed by Hiram Hudson Benedict. The owners Karl and Vija Hovgard were away on a sailboat cruise when all this happened.  It’s a sign of MGM’s commitment to the project that the studio put $100,000 and its veteran production designer Dean Tavoularis on the task of entirely re-creating Boulder Reign on a nearby slope at full scale, completely furnished with replicas, with “the same type of concrete slab roof, individually cast concrete facia trim blocks, and balcony. Even the large foundation area was hand faced,” (AZ Republic, 12/8/68) in order to point about 15 cameras at the blast.  It’s a sign of Antonioni’s filmmaking that the house blows up about 15 times in the film. He shows it all. They say the rocks are still scorched up there.

Used Cars (1980), directed by Robert Zemeckis, with Kurt Russell and Jack Warden, is easily going to be the most entertaining movie on this list. If you have to pick only one, this is it. Used Cars bubbles over with rude transgressive comic energy but it’s also rooted, somehow truly rooted, with a strangely strong sense of place, as one view of Mesa’s underbelly circa 1980, specifically on Main Street eastward out to A.J., specifically on the two disreputable fictional car lots warring across the road at 837 W. Main, one of them played by the former Darner Chrysler Jeep.  We also get views of the City Courthouse downtown in the film, also some glimpses of ASU, also the inside and outside of Macayo’s on Central (just as it should be), but in its main setting on the Old Road Out of Town, zoned for motels and liquor stores and trailer parks, with the steady hustling transient energy and threat of a busy arterial, somehow that feels emotionally true.