OFF THE MAP (2003)
FLIGHT FROM EDEN
In 1994 Joan Ackerman, an east coast playwright living in Massachusetts, remembering a time when she lived in New Mexico, produced her play OFF THE MAP with her small theater group, MIXED COMPANY, in a tiny theater in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Campbell Scott, full-time actor and sometimes writer, producer, and director, son of theatrical and film royalty George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst –saw the play and loved it immediately. It touched him so deeply that he wisely took out an option on it for the film rights. It took him over ten years to “develop” the project. Investors were not knocking down his door or ringing his phone off the hook to get in on a small movie about a “special family” living in the middle of the high desert in the early 70’s. He stayed in touch with Ms. Ackerman, and he brought her on board to adapt her play into a workable screenplay. In the interim, as these things go, he managed to direct three other films. His first one was a collaborative effort with his high school buddy, Stanley Tucci. It was titled, BIG NIGHT (1996), and actually the film was an auspicious beginning for a fledgling director. It won the New York Critic’s Award, and it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year. Then between several acting gigs, Scott went on to direct HAMLET (2000), starring himself, and FINAL (2001), with Denis Leary and Hope Davis.
In 2002 he brought his film crew to New Mexico, north of Taos, near the small town of Tierra Amarilla. While scouting locations he found several lovely spots on the high plateaus above 8,000 feet –but the land belonged either to the state or the federal government, and he found way too many restrictions on the use of it. Finally he settled on some private land, a ranch owned by the Donner family. Scott’s art design folks studied the architecture of the Southwest, and designed the Grodin house with an adobe base, thick mud walls, augmented by several kinds of local timber lumber, well weathered and sometimes odd lengths. The result became a unique, yet striking structure, both historically and geographically accurate, capped by a round room that stuck up like the operating bridge on a ship; a child’s room, a place of dreams and imagination. The only access to that room was up a steep ladder from below.
The cabin, almost house, was furnished with swapped for used furniture, refinished and painted up in bright primary colors, and a lot of “good junk” gathered at the local County Dump. The family made weekly, sometimes daily runs there regularly. People discarded a bunch of useful items of furniture, pots and pans, and wildly assorted dishes and jars. Back in 1955, as a kid, I remember going to the several County dumps with my stepfather and our family. We scrounged chairs, a dresser one time that my Dad used to put tools in within his garage, several useable pieces of lumber, concrete blocks, and even a repairable bicycle that Art fixed up for my younger sister and myself. It was a boy’s bike, sporting twin bars under the seat. My sister was too little to ride it, so Art sawed off the top bar for her, converting it into a “girl’s bike”. I was always embarrassed to ride it after that, being a macho little boy. So I only rode it in the dark delivering papers in the early mornings until I could afford to go to the Salvation Army store in Georgetown, WA and purchase a real boy’s bike; which I peddled proudly for seven months until one day I was in a hurry and left it lying on the pavement of our driveway behind my stepfather’s pick up. He backed over it without seeing it, and bent the hell out of it. Angrily he refused to repair it or replace it. It sat propped up next to the house for a few months until we moved into another rental. We moved ten times while I was still in Elementary School. My mother was just grateful that he had not backed over my toddler little brother who tended to play in the driveway. I was just hurt and did not appreciate the tough love. I wonder if Ms. Ackerman had ever prowled over a dump looking for treasures. As a child it did seem to be a fun adventure for me; a lot of free stuff no one else wanted. “Heavenly discards” my Mom used to call them.
Scott ran a tight ship, and there was only three weeks allotted to swing those hammers and build the Grodin house, and that was from the ground up. It was not a set, it was an actual house, and it had to be constructed in such a way that cameras could be set up within it. There were no breakaway walls, or cable pulled muslin flats. But in their haste, it being summer in
New Mexico, they did not build a very functional roof. The first time it rained very hard, they had to string up a few large blue tarps to save the props and the shoot. Scott asked for “many windows”. He stated, “I want this place to be full of light, golden plentiful visible rays of gorgeous New Mexican Sol.” In reality an actual family living in NM in a house like they built, would never have erected half so many windows. Too many windows beg for oppressive heat and minimal shade. The film’s shooting schedule turned out to be 31 days.
Joan Ackerman has written several plays, like THE BATTING CAGE, and ICE GLEN. She has worked as a producer, a theatrical director, and even a bit as an actress. She wrote several episodes for the HBO series, ARLI$$ (1997-2003). The limited run for OFF THE MAP was well received. In the play, Bo as an adult served as narrator for the whole piece. Theatrically, this dramatic device, this chorus, worked better than it would, or did on film. On stage, Bo would sit in the shadows, and as she spoke her face would be lit with a pin spot. The audience would have been aware of her throughout the play. Many excellent films use a narrator, but the most effective choice seems to be to provide exposition during the opening scenes, and then possibly a summation during the epilogue just before the credits; like Orson Welles did several times on films other than his own, and Richard Burton did for ZULU (1964), and Robert Mitchum did for
TOMBSTONE (1993). So throughout OFF THE MAP, we heard Amy Brenneman’s narration under the action, but since we only had a brief glimpse of her at the beginning of the movie, we tended to forget who she was. In the play it was stated that the adult Bo was a bank manager in
Salt Lake City. In the film she was just a mystery lady sitting in an apartment looking at artifacts from her childhood. I cannot put my finger on it, but somehow the narration did not work well for me. I guess I would have been happier to let young Bo narrate that period in her life, like Mary Badham did in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). I think the ending would still have had the emotional wallop when Bo returns to the homestead and visits her aging parents, minus the intro and adult musings.
From the play:
Bo: Each change lets you catch something new. The better you are at letting go, the freer your hand is to catch it.
Elyse Sommer, a theater reviewer for CURTAINS UP wrote, “This family is never dysfunctional –since they never let go of the connecting threads of love that bind them. The play’s language is poetic without sacrificing accessibility.”
Reviewers were split on Ackerman’s contribution with the screenplay.
La Salle of THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE wrote, “The movie is based on a play by Joan Ackerman, who also wrote the screenplay. Considering the lack of dramatic movement, the theatrical pedigree comes as a big surprise. The film falls prey to a familiar disease of the genre –authorial narcissism disguised as frank self-criticism.”
Michael Wilmington of THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE wrote, “This story, adapted by Joan Ackerman from her play, has all the richness of a fine little novel, and though it may seem improbable in outline –it is so convincingly drawn and so richly empathetically played by the whole cast that we tend to accept everything.”
I could not find a plethora of data out there on the net regarding Ms. Ackerman. I did unearth that she, or some other Joan Ackerman (there seems to be a battalion of them in the world), like myself writes brief reviews for AMAZON.COM. This Ackerman wrote up (5) Listmania lists on music, on specific CD’s. The last time I looked at my Amazon profile page I had written (554) Listmania lists –all about movies; perhaps I got carried away some. It is just so much fun to pick a topic, say Jesse James, and list every movie and/or book ever made about him. It appeals to the raw researcher in me I suppose. In Ms. Ackerman’s “Amazon Profile”, within the box labeled residence, she put her location as “in a cloud”.
This summer, in just a few months actually, on my annual road trip through the southwest, I plan on driving through northern
New Mexico, and visiting Tierra Amarilla and
Taos. Perhaps I will get lucky and happen upon the Donner ranch, and maybe get a peek of the “movie house”. It makes my palms sweat just to contemplate it. Campbell Scott talking with Joan Ackerman on the director’s commentary on the DVD mentioned that last year he had visited the set, and the house was still standing. He sat on the porch, and relaxed in its interior, remembering his shoot and the film he created.
I recall strolling through the back lots of MGM and FOX, off the tour, and just marveling at the muslin, peeling paint, and sad splendor of sets for films I loved, like the Western town out on the Columbia Ranch north of LA, like Andy Hardy street and the fake subway set for TOP HAT at Metro, or what was left of Tara from GONE WITH THE WIND, before they tore it down to make room for a set on the remake of KING KONG, the one with Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange, and the Mexican pueblo set for the ZORRO TV series, or that Texas ranch near Brackettville where John Wayne erected his set for THE ALAMO, and on the same ranch a half mile distant a Western town used several times in the TV mini-series LONESOME DOVE, or how it felt standing at the base of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, looking for the mother ship from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, or traveling through South Dakota and checking out the real town of DEADWOOD, while on route to view those massive presidential faces at Mt. Rushmore, straining to see that resort Hitchcock imagined was on its peak for NORTH BY NORTHWEST, or just walking the pavement anywhere in New York City with hundreds of films parading past in memory.
Campbell Scott was in high school with Stanley Tucci, and they have remained friends. Scott graduated from college in 1983. He was listed as one of the “Twelve Promising Actors of 1990” in SCREEN WORLD. As an actor he has had 44 film appearances since 1986. He played Bobby in FROM HOLLYWOOD TO DEADWOOD (1989), played the controversial role of Willie in LONGTIME COMPANION (1990), was Victor in DYING YOUNG (1991) with Julia Roberts, was Doug in DEAD AGAIN (1991) with Kenneth Branagh (before either of them filmed their own versions of HAMLET), was Bob in BIG NIGHT (1996) with pal Stanley Tucci, and Tony Shalhoub, was Joe in David Mamet’s THE SPANISH PRISONER (1997) with Steve Martin doing a fine dramatic role, portrayed Hamlet in his own production of HAMLET (2000), and he won a lot of acclaim for playing David in THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (2002).
A very employable actor, he stays active in theatrical stage plays, and now has directed four films. He has been in over 24 plays, many on Broadway, many of them in classical roles. In several of his early theatrical roles he appeared with his mother, Colleen Dewhurst. He has been a reader in over a dozen audio books as well. Scott did not have an easy road to travel with his film, OFF THE MAP (2003). He spent a long time on post-production, and then after its Sundance release, it took two more years to get it into general release. Scott once said of this film, “You always end up making three movies. The one you write, then envision; the one you shoot, and finally the one you edit.”
Roger Ebert of THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES wrote, “These characters in this setting could become caricatures, or even grotesques –but director Campbell Scott never underlined them or drew arrows to their absurdities. He accepts them and lets them tell their tale.”
Maria Chocano of THE LA TIMES wrote, “Directed by Campbell Scott, the movie plays like an al fresco production of a parody of social realist theater –all rangy speeches, quirky characters, and wild roaming symbols. Fans of the irrepressibly kooky will enjoy such flights of whimsy.”
Sarah Chauncey of REEL.COM wrote, “Campbell Scott has a great eye for small films as an actor and producer, and as a director he can clearly work with actors and designers –but something still falls short of the mark.”
Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE wrote, “The funny and heartbreaking OFF THE MAP, directed by Campbell Scott with a poet’s eye and a keen ear for nuance, resonates with something rare in today’s movies; simplicity. The script by Joan Ackerman, from her play, never exploits the characters –it just presents the whole to us.”
Our film opens with a faded blue ’55 Chevrolet half-ton pick up making its dusty way toward us, with the expanse of deep purple foothills in
New Mexico behind it. Then we are introduced to an Adult Bo, though that is never clearly stated, only implied, sitting in an apartment in some city, reflecting on the summer that she was eleven years old –the year everything changed.
Sometime in the early 70’s, the Grodin family resided in tranquility –without an address, a telephone, a television, or a paved road. This is a tale of a very functional family immersed in a very dysfunctional world—living in a hand-me-down house located deep in a forgotten corner of northern
New Mexico, furnished with furniture cast off by others, eating off plates with no mates, drinking out of fruit jars of many colors. Their story is fraught with humor, absurdity, spirituality, art, affection, alienation, angst, love, and some tragedy –not unlike many of own lives, wherever we reside. The plot is punctuated with dialogue that sounds like the syllables and meter found in Sam Shepard Country –and yet it never wavers or loses its way in the “true west”, and we never feel kept at arm’s length from these characters or their humanity.
The lord of the domicile, the father Charley was normally a ball of fire, a streak of energy and creative original ideas. He was a man whose hands could fix anything. He picked up appliances and old radios at the County dump and fixed them, and sold them, and bartered them off for the necessities of life; flour, coffee, sugar, and beer. He built their house himself, and he built their unique lifestyle, living free and unencumbered off the grid, under the radar, out of earshot, as a freebooter with no regular employer. Working for someone else just used up the precious time one needed to learn things for themselves, and to enjoy the very act of creation, the fruit of their considerable labors; even separating themselves from the government. They earned less than $5,000.00 a year. Why file income tax just to get a punk return? They did not go on welfare, nor did they use food stamps.
Charley defined being able-bodied, and he had the temperament for bartering and scrounging. They were never hungry or cold or homeless. He would barter their crafts, like Arleen’s Hopi dream catchers, or Bo’s hand-tied fishing flies, or cords of wood, or the pruning and care of neighbor’s orchards or gardens, or engine repair, or plumbing, or electrical or carpentry work. By God, Charley was everyone’s “Man”, the fellow to call in the middle of the night, the friend who would always show up to build a barn, or cut the horns of cattle, or slaughter farm animals. There seemed to no end of things he could do, no challenge he would not accept, no task too complicated. That was until the early spring of that fateful year when a crippling clinical depression settled in on him, and his entire world crumbled.
His family and friends stool perplexed at his inactiveness. And suddenly his wonderful hands were useless. They were no longer even connected to his brain. Late at night and early in the morning he could hear the gods laughing at him; the man who could fix everything and anything could not even fix himself. Black sadness became his constant companion, and constant weeping became his primary pastime.
The daughter, young Bo, a fetching intelligent cunning precocious Tween, used the high desert as her playground. Her boundless imagination, fueled by reading the classics during her home-schooling, peopled her world with pirates, rogues, and circus animals. Her father had taught her how to hunt with a bow and arrow, and she was a crack shot with a rifle. With her father incapacitated by his emotional problems, she took it upon herself to be the huntress, bagging squirrels, rabbits, and other desert varmints.
As a young child she had stuck to her father like his second shadow, riding with him on their tractor, or in his old pick up, or often perched upon his tall shoulders, astride a Minotaur, with her plumb little legs held tight around his tanned muscular neck. But this summer she no longer recognized him. This pathetically depressed man was just not the same man who had raised her as his independent pragmatic princess. She was no longer Daddy’s girl. She was cut off from him, set adrift. Her abrupt isolation left her angry and childishly resentful. She became an adolescent malcontent, pining for indoor plumbing, television, and the opportunity to attend public school.
From the play:
Bo: I should have tried to comfort him, thank him –but that summer I had failed again and again to give my father comfort. All I could do was look at his hands, now stone still in his lap like two fine birds that had been shot. They had held me so many times, had swooped me up and hoisted me onto tractors, horses, trees, and places with a view, places only my father took me to. He stared at his hands too, as though they weren’t his own. They didn’t belong to either of us any more.
Her tall beautifully striking mother, Arlene, part Hopi and well tanned with a face that was a stranger to make up, was forcibly thrust into the role of matriarch. Honestly she had been much happier in the role of wife and mother when Charley was “better”. She was definitely a child of the 60’s, part Native American, and part Janis Joplin, a hell raiser who was handy with her hands and generous with her heart. She adored the life Charley had created and built for them. They were a tribe unto themselves, completely independent and self-sufficient. But damn, that was before the “depression” had come to take up residence within their hallowed Hogan. It mantled Charley like a sunless shard. He moved about in the light, but his face never seemed to find the sun. She buckled down and waited for it to pass; worked in her garden, sold her crafts, bartered to pay their few bills, and tried to hold her head high when she went to town for the mail or the groceries –but it was hard.
People were just more used to bartering with Charley. Her wonderful husband was the hub, the vertex, the engine for the whole emotional apparatus that was their life –and with him shut down, the family seemed to be just free-wheeling, still coasting with the volition he had put into the current, and they were slowing down. The end of the track began to be in sight. She began to worry and wonder how much longer she was going to be able to hold it together –the family and her own emotional stability.
From the film:
Arlene: God damn it, Charley, not again! Come out. Come out, Charley, now! Come on now, enough. Look, Charley, you can lock yourself in the chicken house, you can lock yourself in the root cellar, you can lock yourself in the shed and the truck –no, not the truck, and not the outhouse! Come out of the outhouse right now!
From the play:
Where do you expect Bo and me to pee? Where do you expect your daughter to pee? We’ve got a sick boy in the house burning up with fever, a visitor, the least we should be able to offer him is a decent place to shit!
From the film:
You’re being selfish, Charley. You’re just sitting there listening to me, being selfish and self-indulgent, self-pitying! (She bangs on the outhouse door) Sweetheart, I can’t take this much more. Humility, Charley, it’s what keeps you from being humiliated. That’s where the word comes from. Everybody gets depressed. Why should you be above it, huh? Well, I’ll say one thing for you, when you take on a project you give it your all. God. You’ve never done anything half-assed in your life, and you are not doing it now.
(After a pause). I’ve been thinking, maybe we should try and have another kid. We’re getting kind of old for it, but…. She can’t stay a little girl forever, Charley. Just cuz she’s growing up doesn’t mean we are losing her.
From the play:
Arlene: (Looking up into the sky), he likes it better when it is overcast. He can’t tolerate sunshine, he says. Can you imagine that? Charley Grodin, Mr. Sunshine. I guess the bright light makes the shadows in him feel even darker.
William Gibbs appeared unannounced, walking in like a lost pariah from the desert, his tie loosened, his sleeves rolled up, carrying his suit coat and his corporate briefcase –the man from the IRS, fresh-faced in his late 20’s. He stood transfixed, staring at the naked Arlene standing stone still in the midst of the lush green of her garden, who was likewise staring at a beautiful coyote who was stalking a rabbit.
From the play:
Adult Bo: That was the summer a saint appeared on our doorstep, dazed and sore of foot, in a white shirt in the heat of high noon. Something of his anguish still lingers, hangs on a nail in my heart. I look to that summer –the summer my father was depressed –for answers to great mysteries; of deep love, and loss.
A fascinating character, this William Gibbs, who appeared as a button downed bureaucrat, but was neither underneath; for what he actually existed as was a short order cook with a law degree, a New Englander who just a month before had come to Albuquerque and had answered a standard want ad from the IRS. They needed field men desperately. It must have been a real crisis, because they hired him even though he had no background in accounting.
Standing there mesmerized by the sight of a natural wonder, the nude Arlene, Gibbs failed to notice that he was being stung by several of the Grodin’s honey bees. Less than ten minutes after he entered their home, he went into some kind of allergic reaction, lies down on their couch, and became completely delirious. Just before dawn, Charley woke him up to give him a drink of cold well water.
From the play and the film:
Charley: Excuse the crying. I’m a damn crying machine. That’s why I drink so much water; don’t have any fluids left in me. Have you ever been depressed?
William: I’ve never not been depressed.
Charley: You have never not been depressed?
William: Never. Not.
Charley: You have always been depressed?
William: Yes, sir.
Charley: First time for me. How can you stand it?
William: I guess I’m used to it.
(Later after explaining that at age 6 he had discovered his mother’s body after she had hanged herself in the front parlor)
Charley: You put me to shame.
Charley: Yeah, you do. A good reason like that. This is a terrible thing to say, but sometimes I think being dead would be easier.
William: You will be dead very soon. Your life will be over in a heartbeat.
Charley: Is that…comforting?
Three full days later, William Gibbs emerged from his delirium, from his near-coma like a moth from its chrysalis, fully conscious. He wandered outside the cabin, and marveled at the view, was overwhelmed by the heat, the silence, and the perfect naturalness of the moment. Arlene drove up in the Grodin pick up. He seemed to have an odd epiphany.
From the film:
Arlene: You’re up. You look much better. You’ve got some color.
William: Mrs. Grodin…
Arlene: Would you like to wash yourself? Would you? There’s a pool in the stream above the goat pen.
William: Mrs. Grodin, I…
Arlene: There’s a junked Mercury out at the dump, same model as yours. I’m sure we can use a lot of parts.
William: I love you.
Arlene: Oh. Well, that’s nice.
William: The moment I saw you, Mrs. Grodin, that very first instant, I knew my life as I understood it was…I’d been up since sunrise; my second night in the car. I was completely lost. I must have walked ten miles to a clearing, to your garden. To you, standing here in all those vines, those vegetables. I saw you and the pinion trees behind, and the hill, and everything completely still. So beautiful. It was almost unbearable. It still is. Then later, holding your hand, I remembered being at a birthday party, this children’s birthday party, and my older brother was acting out. Me –discovering my mother dead. My mother committed suicide. But maybe she didn’t. He was telling this story, how I’d come home from school carrying a foam core pyramid, and opened the front door, and walked in backwards and bumped into her, in the hall. She hung herself. Now I don’t think it’s true! I don’t think it was a real memory, my memory. I think it’s just the description that I heard from my brother. I always felt partially responsible, involved, being the one to find her, but now I don’t think I did. I don’t think I did! It was like the cornerstone of my childhood, the event upon which I built everything else, and now it’s pulled out and everything is toppled. The only thing I can hang on to right now, Mrs. Grodin, the only thing I know to be true, is my love for you.
(After a pause, smiling) Arlene:
New Mexico is a very powerful place. You have been living in a city all your life. Often when people first get here it’s a little overwhelming. Their boundaries disappear.”
This “love” that William Gibbs felt so powerfully would never be consummated, at least not with Arlene carnally –rather it would work itself to the surface through his newly found creativity; painting. It opened him up like a blossom on a cactus, brilliant and prickly. He asked to stay with the Grodin’s for “a few days”. He stayed for the rest of his life –eight blissful and meaningful years. He just reached out and picked up the water colors that George had given to Charley, that were sitting unattended, unused, and as he began to dip the brushes in the paint, and smear those colors onto a canvas, something opened up in him, a cauldron of creativity, as unexpected and unheralded as a sinkhole in a rural highway.
From the play:
Adult Bo: William Gibbs’ first painting was twenty inches high and thirty-one feet wide, one foot shy of the perimeter of my room. The dimensions suited the subject, the ocean’s horizon. He hung it so that when I lay on my bed, I could stare out 14 miles to the horizon any way I looked. Encircled by water, I could turn and float on my back, arms outstretched, chin up, and feel in the small of my back the rounded curve of the planet, supporting me like a buoy. Like faith. Though unsigned, the value of that painting is now recklessly high. Not just because of the “sheer volume of ocean and sky, the disturbing depths of emotion,” as one lame-brained critic had put it, but because the art world deems it the only painting in William Gibbs’ short but brilliant career that wasn’t some view, some study of the garden. What those high-minded fools don’t know is submerged in the water are some two dozen sketches of the garden, his first, of my mother, naked as the back of my hand. Those he sketched first in pencil, then like a murderer burying the body, drowned it in a wash of blue.
Where does art come from? That is the question, isn’t it? And we could discuss for hours, for eons, about the nature, interpretation, and manifestations of art. An artist friend of mine, Gerry Sperry, who saw this film with me, had an interesting theory about William Gibbs, and about the character’s embrace of his “true” self.
Sperry noticed that there were many dream catchers hanging in the Grodin cabin. Arlene’s Hopi belief system was powerful, engaging, and seductive; permeating the atmosphere like the pollen off desert flowers in spring. Gibbs, stumbling into their presence, into their home and their lives, had been on a vision quest; although he was unaware of it. The bee stings provided the process, plummeted him onto another plane where only the truth of things could survive –all falsehoods were driven off by ancient spirits. Sperry said that after a bee sting it is common in Indian lore that a kind of spiritual transition must occur, or the person will die. The old persona will be vanquished. Gibbs awakened as a “new” person, an Uberkind. He was reborn as his true self, an artist who now could view the world around him with completely new eyes, who was capable of transferring the unspeakable beauty surrounding him into impressionistic lines, colors, and fantastic shapes. Completely consumed with his fresh creativity, he burned bright for eight years. He had become coyote; that was his chosen totem. Arlene and Bo had a relationship with that coyote, and now that energy, that love and respect would shift to Gibbs. Sperry said remember the shot in the movie, the close up of the coyote’s face just before Bo killed it. It had a tear in one eye. The same tear appeared in one of William Gibbs’ eyes when he was found dead alone out on the desert. The real coyote understood that it had to sacrifice itself, with Bo as its instrument of death, in order to transfer its spirit, its essence to Gibbs. It is the way of the world, Sperry said, with a tear forming under one of his eyes.
From the play:
Adult Bo: William Gibbs’ death last week was as mysterious as his mother’s. Some German tourists in a Land Rover found him out on the desert, lying on his back, arms outstretched; a sketchbook by his side and a nub of blue pastel crayon cradled in his open hand. Officials pressed for an autopsy, but my mother would have none of it. She and my father buried him below the garden. His memorial service is in Sante Fe tomorrow, just a block away from the Hungry Coyote Gallery where his first show received rave reviews in the NewYork Times. This week they featured him on their Sunday magazine cover, his hair, thank the Lord washed, in a pony tail down to his waist. My 31’ painting of the ocean’s horizon sold in that first show for $215,000. When we sold it in the fall my father was no longer depressed to a wily art collector by the name of John Garlick, it fetched $9,000, enough to pay off the government, American Express, and fit me with a set of braces. I have of late been pondering that painting. It has struck me to view the ocean as the past, the sky as the future, and the present as that thin line where both meet, precarious because as we stand there it curves under foot. Ever changing.
The actual drawings and paintings used in the film were done by Sante Fe artist, Stan Berning. It was all original art done just for the movie. Berning is a friend of director Campbell Scott’s. He worked with actor, Jim True-Frost, who played William Gibbs, teaching him some basics about brush work, sketching, and working with color. Frost cultivated an authentic interest now in painting, in art, and he kept sketching and painting beyond his role. Maybe he will pursue it, and master it, and actually become a fine artist, like Henry Fonda did, and Anthony Quinn.
Amidst one of the discussions I participated in following a screening of this film, one of the viewers, a bright-eyed middle aged woman, had another interesting theory about the saint and sinner William Gibbs.
She said, “I would like to believe that the Grodins had Gibbs fake his own death, and that’s why Arlene wouldn’t allow an autopsy. His death would insure that the value of his paintings would escalate, and they would be able to crawl out of quagmire of their financial woes. They hatched the plan right after the scene where Charley had just come out of his depression. Arlene was cleaning carrots at the sink, and he asked her to come over to him, and he gazed up at her smiling, and he kissed the inside of her thigh.”
From the play and the film:
Arlene: I covered the tomatoes. I think there’s going to be a frost tonight. Summer’s over.
(Charley watches her)
Charley: What did you do to your hair?
Arlene: My hair? Nothing.
Charley: It looks different.
Arlene: (Not looking at him), No it doesn’t.
Charley: I asked him to do a painting of you, in the garden. You don’t mind? (She shakes her head). I’m going to make him some oil paints. I was reading in Di Vinci’s notebooks. To make azure blue put in cornflowers and then wild poppies. Amber is the latex of the cypress tree. You only have one boot on.
Arlene: Mmm. I took the other one off. (She turns to him holding the carrots).
Charley, what are we going to do, how are we going to deal with this? We owe the government $1,260 and we owe American Express $4,776.
Charley: Would you come over here, please?
Charley: Put your foot up here.
Charley: Put it right here.
I thought it was a lovely theory, the kind a romantic and attentive viewer would have come up with, but actually according to the plot, William Gibbs lived for several years after Bo started public school. So he would not have died until Bo was out of high school and probably into college.
Another compadre’ and film buff friend, Ron Booth, with his psychology background, felt that there was a “deep significance in the transfer of emotions when Charley presented William Gibbs with his father’s telescope. It is the absolute key to the whole picture!” He felt further that the telescope was a blatant phallic symbol, and the transfer, the gift had something to do with William’s initiation into manhood, time to leave his childhood behind and step forward on man’s strong legs; presented to him by Charley, who even in his weakened state had mucho macho to spare.
From the film:
William: I have no past. I have lost my past.
Charley: Maybe you are an artist.
William: No, no, I’m just…(he waves) painting.
(He looks through the telescope at the night sky).
(They look at the telescope together.)
Charley: It was my father’s.
William: It’s a beauty.
Charley: I give it to you. It’s yours.
William: I can’t take it.
Charley: It’s yours.
William: No, I can’t.
Charley: Yes, I’ll get another one.
Charley: They’re all over the place. Telescopes. They’re everywhere.
William: They are?
From the play:
Adult Bo: Through my open window above, the warm night air carried the sound of my father dropping the complimentary box of tissues from the Kleenex company as he passed them over to William Gibbs, passing as it where between athletes on a relay team a baton. For as the valve opened in William Gibbs, he who had not shed a tear in 20 years –it released a torrent of tears; and it seems that same valve continued turning in my father all the way to the off position, shutting off that steady leak that had streaked his face and our lives for more than a half a year. In comforting others do we comfort ourselves. The tears of William Gibbs flowed into the estuary of my father’s despair like a tide that rolls in and gently prods the stranded boat up off the shoals to set it free.
Ron Booth also is credited in my mind for shedding light on the greatest mystery the film offered; the onset of Charley’s depression. This theory, hatched by Sir Ron with great accuracy and aplomb, postulated that Charley’s depression was straight forward to diagnose. It came about as Bo approached puberty and her young womanhood. His beautiful daughter, Daddy’s sweetheart little princess, was yearning to reach out to the world around her, to see an ocean, to move beyond the parameters of the comfortable, albeit tiny world he had lovingly created for her. She was soon approaching the time when she would be uncomfortable riding on his shoulders ever again. Ron felt that the major clue was given to us when Arlene gave her soliloquy at the outhouse, when Charley had locked himself in –that perhaps the solution for his problems would be to have another child, because Bo would eventually have to leave the nest. Ron, I bestow kudos to you, sir; for your theory smacks of logic, science, and credibility.
The film awakens long dormant dreams within me I say. There is something to be said for living simply, close to nature, unattached to technology, not reliant on the media or the internet, embracing a kind of
Walden Pond Syndrome. Sometimes for those of us who hike or camp, getting ourselves far from the city, out onto the desert, or nestled into a clover strewn meadow deep in the mountains –we can remember that rush when the stress flows out of our pores and it is replaced with a moment of magnificent silence. Director Scott worked hard at filtering out the ambient persistent sounds on the set. He worked with the sound men editing in the perfect symphony of wind, creaking blades on a windmill, insects and birds. The only misstep, if any, I saw was a careless use of those panoramic New Mexican skies at night. For me there is nothing on earth to rival a desert sky presenting us with a billion brilliant points of light, flashing her finest jewelry.
A number of years ago I spent some time with a woman friend who lived in a cabin at the end of the road north of
Matlock, WA. She was surrounded by the Olympic National Forest. From her puncheon porch one would see no smear of city lights, just open sky for 80 miles south to north, up and over the
Olympic Mountains. She lived without electricity, using oil lamps at night. She used a propane stove scrounged from an RV, and had no refrigerator. She had no phone, no television, and only a battery powered radio/stereo. She had converted the west end of the cabin into a studio, and she sat in natural light creating hand crafted jewelry; fabulous stuff that smacks of
Africa, Joan Jett, and the
She had several of her trees on her property cut down, and with bartering she would get the wood all bucked up and stacked in neat cords alongside her cabin. She heated the cabin with a wood stove made from a 50-gallon metal barrel, hooked up to Rube Goldberg stove pipes tightly stuffed up through her wooden ceiling. She saved the rain run-off from her slanted roof in two large blue plastic barrels on the west and east sides. On the north side of the cabin she had dug out the scotch broom and black berry bushes, and created a wonderful and large vegetable garden. She was very knowledgeable about gardening, working with raised beds. She had purchased a 500 gallon metal water tank from Army surplus, and hooked it to the rain run-off on the north end of the cabin. It had a hatch 5 feet off the ground that opened up like a submarine’s portal. On the south side of her cabin there was a rushing creek. I sometimes feared it might swell up in heavy rains and flood her yard, but it never did. It wouldn’t have dared to. She hand carried five gallon buckets of water for drinking and for the garden. That garden, in the summer, was a ravenously thirsty beast. Many a Saturday I spent untolled hours slogging five gallon buckets, one in each hand, from the creek to a ladder on the Army water tank, and we would pour it into the hatch. It required 50-75 trips to fill that monster, but duty called. Her natural bathroom was 200 yards from the cabin, out into the trees; a six foot deep pit dug out just for purposes of defecation, straddled by a cut out carved log potty, covered partially with a white tarp, and decorated with wind chimes and fruit jar vases filled with wild flowers and pungent ferns. I can still smell the alder and fir and cedar and the cool moss that hung in the thick air there. If one had to urinate, they just stood on the porch, or found a quiet clump of grass a ways from the cabin.
From her loft, like Bo’s in OFF THE MAP, from her bed we used to gaze long out of the skylight cut into the ceiling. The stars, as I had never seen them on the coast of western WA before, were so dazzling and stunning, that it would bring a lump to my throat just to stare at them, and one had to fight the urge to spend hours weeping for joy, for being so much plugged into everything; so absolutely connected to the cosmos. I became addicted to my visits there. For more than a year I spent nearly every weekend at “The Blue Rain Barrel Ranch” as we dubbed it. I could feel my blood pressure and the stink of the suburbs ebbing every time I approached road’s end, one of her smiles, her German shepherd, Sarge, and her two Siamese cats. I wrote a lot of poetry that year.
In a field of sleeping thistles,
Standing ankle deep in wet amber leaves,
Near the swollen swirl of the stream,
I glanced over at your studio
Like a tall brown heron,
The pale mossy sun that set
Behind the thick slippery limbs
Of the mother of maples.
In the half-light
I caught a glint off
Of the chromatic curves
Of your metal chimney,
Like a tall stack on a sturdy ship,
And I was greeted
By the trickle of creosote
Into the black flaming barrel
Of your wood stove.
I stood there for a time,
Quietly in the almost dark,
By the moment’s majesty;
Marveling at how much alike
Even our two Japanese cars were,
Parked side by side
In the naked scotch broom.
What a rare November’s eve
On the heels of that last day
Of Indian summer;
Warm and clear,
Yet nearly invisible in the gathering ink,
Standing very close
With me struggling to visualize
Your slender fingers pointing
To a constellation
That you remembered.
Even in the gloom,
I am not lost;
With your gentle guidance
I found first a hidden door,
And then a hidden room
In some secret fold of my soul;
Nothing had ever penetrated.
No phantom footprint.
No phantom breath.
If you pursue this,
You will have me
In magic and dreams
Glenn A. Buttkus 1990
I will continue to seek out the wild and desolate places in order to get my mind right, and my soul metabolized –even though these days I can only visit them on a day trip. Still I am a seeker, and I will gaze at the environment with a poet’s eyes, and a cinema buffs need to catalog and compare and find momentary closure.
The cinematography for OFF THE MAP was done by Juan Ruiz Anchia. His imagery was subtle, yet powerful, full of rainbows and piercing shafts of sunlight, violet foothills, dusty grey-green sage, winding dirt roads, and small town’s buildings painted bright southwestern hues –and the Grodin house shot during the golden hours, so that its weathered wood sides perched on the ivory adobe lower walls, and the reddish brown tin roof could play shadow tag with ragged clouds and clear skies alike. There was the opulent greens of Arlene’s garden, surrounded by the brilliant spattering of wild flowers mixed in with the sage, framed with red earth and dried mud clods; showing us the chicken house, the burro corral, the goat pen, the work shed, the root cellar, the rusted yet once shiny windmill blades on the pump near the creek, the old blue school bus perched on flat tires with its hood up slightly, along with all the piles of old foundling lumber, cords of freshly cut and neatly stacked wood squatting tarpless in long rows in several directions, and clumps of old VW car parts –all vivid, all etched in sunlight and shadow dramatically and yet quietly, like the red sash on a Hopi doll on Arlene’s dresser; creating a world of the play, a world of the movie that is burned deep into a special corner of my cortex.
Director Scott gave Anchia some interesting technical challenges. While shooting inside the house, surrounded by all those windows and that magnificent New Mexican sunlight bursting in carried on thousands of shards, Scott demanded to have an infinite depth of field; wanting to see what was outside clearly all the time, day or night. This created for me an immediate sense of reality, of being in that house with those people in that place. But Scott took it a step further. No matter how many shafts of sunlight entered those many-paned windows, striking golden yellow the wood of the furniture and the floor, all those colored bottles and jars placed on the narrow shelves indented within the several adobe arches built into the inner walls, illuminated bits of gingham table cloth, and ribbon and velvet, and even the aluminum and faded copper on the old cookware –still Anchia was mandated to leave pockets of deep shadow; for that was where Charley lived, drenched in shadow while everyone else was bathed in light. It was pretty easy to pick up on that while Charley was depressed wherever he sat inside, he resided in shadow, or became a dark silhouette against the brightness through the windows; like in that fine scene when George placed the gift of water colors on a table by one of the windows.
Juan Anchia at 23 years old graduated from the Escuela Official de Cinematografia in
Madrid in 1972. He had lensed 19 films in
Spain before he came to
America. He graduated from the American Film Institute in 1979. His graduate directed film, MISS LONELYHEARTS, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was broadcast on PBS. He went on to lens THE STONE BOY (1984) with Robert Duvall and Glenn Close, AT CLOSE RANGE (1986) with Sean Penn and Christopher Walken, THE SEVENTH SIGN (1988) with Demi Moore, DYING YOUNG (1991) with Julia Roberts, and a young actor named Campbell Scott, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992) with Jack Lemmon and Ed Harris, A FAR OFF PLACE (1993) filmed in Africa, and David Mamet’s SPARTAN (2004) with Val Kilmer, a much overlooked gem of a thriller.
Roger Ebert wrote further, “The film is visually beautiful as a portrait of rich lives in the middle of emptiness –but the film is not about the
New Mexico scenery. It’s about feelings that shift among people who are good enough, curious enough, or just maybe tired enough –to let it happen.”
Sarah Chauncey of REEL.COM wrote, “The silences are equally as important as the dialogue. The location landscapes and William Gibbs’ watercolors are equally important as the character’s development.”
Michael Wilmington of THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE wrote further, “The mysterious alchemy of art –how it’s born and how it survives its creators –is the central subject of a lovely film, OFF THE MAP, shot near D.H. Lawrence’s old ranch near
Juan Ruiz Anchia’s wonderfully sparkling photography and cinematography brought to my mind repeatedly those times that I found myself “quiet” in the middle of some natural order, where every olfactory clue and every stirring of sounds populated the stanzas of the music of the spheres; again like those halcyon days spent in the forests near Matlock, playing pioneer or Mr. Natural. That scene in Bo’s bedroom when William Gibbs hangs his 31 foot painting of ocean and sky and the horizon line sparked my recall.
A VIEW FROM THE NEST
I really do not know
Which I love more;
The skylight sparkling with stars,
Or when it is drenched
The color of a bird’s egg,
Streaked white with cloud snakes,
Or that tiny window
At the south end of your loft,
When morning’s color book
The thick moss on Mother Tree;
Or Archie’s purring
As he lies at the foot of your waterbed,
Or that bag of bright marbles
I discover beneath
The creek’s ripples
As I bend over to brush my teeth;
Or the strong odor of split alder
Stacked in quart-sized chunks
Drying in stacks on your plank porch,
And in symmetrical piles alongside
That black rotund barrel that will become
Or the frenetic chatter of the two cats
Scampering along the runs
That girds your cabin;
Or how it feels to hug you,
And without prompting
To begin to sway to some sweet
That rises up from our twin hearts;
Or how we see movie stars
In each other’s faces.
Glenn A. Buttkus 1990
The original music for OFF THE MAP was composed by Gary DeMichele. The last time I watched the film it was in a small screening room equipped with great Dolby speakers, and DeMichele’s perfect pitch and bang on simplicity colored all the action with just the right dash of acoustics, or snare drums, a blues guitar, blaring Mexican brass, and in one case just the solitary sound of a child’s accordion. He had worked with Scott before on BIG NIGHT (1996), THE IMPOSTERS (1998) with Stanley Tucci, HAMLET (2000) with Scott as the dark prince with the keen nose, and THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (2002).
When Scott cast the film he had Joan Allen in mind to play Arlene. He had seen her act with the STEPPENWOLF THEATER COMPANY. Jim True-Frost was also a member there, so he knew Joan Allen; and he had worked with Campbell Scott on several films. The two big casting hurdles were for Charley and Bo.
Sam Elliott played Charley. He gave it exactly the right amount of alienation and pathos, without taking a cheap shot and reducing the character to caricature. Elliott has the ability the moment he appears on the screen to look like an extremely competent man; like he could use tools, or creates crafts, or cajole and barter for all the necessities his family needed, relating to mechanical things and tasks the way Steve McQueen could –very believably. McQueen seemed a lot more comfortable down in the engine room of the U.S.S. San Pablo in THE SAND PEBBLES (1966), or astride a motorcycle in THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), or behind the wheel of a hot mustang in BULLITT (1968)—the he ever was running dialogue with other actors.
Sam Elliott once said, “I’ve spent my whole career on horseback, or on a motorcycle. It boxes you in, the way people perceive you. I read a lot of scripts, but most of the parts go to other actors.”
I think that Sam Elliott always gives us the impression that you would love to have him covering your back in an emergency. No one plays a better cowpoke, gunslinger, motorcycle gang member or lone rogue rider, platoon sergeant, foreman, or down to earth cop than he does. So to see him portray Charley, who was once a very competent and blessed man, who now has lost his way –was a powerful experience. The casting was perfect. He will forever be Charley Grodin to me; but I wonder if comic actor Charles Grodin, whose real name is Charles Grodinsky, is pleased with his name being attached to such a character? I should hope so.
Sam Elliott was born the same year I was –1944; and that’s where the similarity ends. Of course he is 6’2” tall, and is married to Katherine Ross. He met her on the set of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), when he was playing the pivotal character of “card player #2”. They were married in 1984, a solid
Hollywood marriage by most standards. They have one child, a daughter Cleo. His nude scene in OFF THE MAP was tastefully done (as was Joan Allen’s in the garden), and he seemed comfortable sans wardrobe. His bare buns scene in THE LEGACY (1978) was rated with 3 stars in THE BARE FACTS –a printed guide to nudity in the movies.
He won an Emmy for playing Wild Bill Hickok in
BUFFALO GIRLS (1995). He has had 75 film appearances since 1967. He began to get some notice on MOLLY AND LAWLESS JOHN (1972). Then he became a more bankable actor after he received great reviews for playing Rick Carlson in LIFEGUARD (1976). He was hardly noticed standing around saluting James Whitmore a lot in the TVM, I WILL FIGHT NO MORE FOREVER (1975). A young actor friend of mine, Johnny Kauffman, played Wahlitits, a young Nez Pierce warrior in the movie. Most of us were excited for him, but like the fictional William Gibbs, Kauffman’s arc and career burned bright, and ended prematurely. Elliott had a big break with THE SACKETTS mini-series in 1979, and another not quite so fine Western mini-series, WILD TIMES in 1980. I really enjoyed his work on his own TV series, THE YELLOW ROSE (1983-84). He stood out romancing
Cher, playing biker Gurin in MASK (1985). He was rattlesnake mean and all man as Con Valiant, romancing Kate Capshaw before Steven Spielberg did in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD (1987); not to be confused with the insipid rather silly feature film, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, with Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Elliott played a great cop in FATAL BEAUTY (1987), was a memorable biker/bouncer in ROAD HOUSE (1989) with Patrick Swayze; then he wrote, produced, and starred in the TNT television movie, CONAGHER (1991), with his lovely wife, Katherine Ross, was the best of the Earp brothers backing up Kurt Russell in TOMBSTONE (1993), the gutsy Capt. Bucky O’Neil in ROUGH RIDERS (1997) with Tom Berenger as Teddy Roosevelt, then played it straight and smart as Kermit Newman in THE CONTENDER (2000), working for the first time with the dynamic Joan Allen; moving on to cover Mel Gibson’s backside at Sgt. Major Basil Plumley in WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002).
Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE wrote, “Sam Elliott and Joan Allen perform acting miracles in a quietly devastating spellbinder that sneaks up and knocks you flat –OFF THE MAP.”
Sarah Chauncey wrote further, “Sam Elliott has an actor’s dream role in Charley. For the first half of the film he barely speaks a word –yet his performance speaks volumes.”
Michael Wilmington wrote, “For Sam Elliott, his Charley gives him a chance as an effortlessly virile actor to show his vulnerable side.”
Joan Allen played Arlene to perfection. Her natural beauty came through on her tanned lined face, wearing little to no make up. She embodied this role, darkening her hair, finding a Hopi spirit within her and letting it shine. Like another fine actress, Glenn Close, she does not have the classic beauty of many others. Being 5’10” tall, she often appears lanky, angular, and boney –but she is lean and fit and she appeared to be all woman portraying Arlene; warm, competent, and sexy –earth matriarch, temptress, ready to smother you with affection one moment and punch you in the face the next. She can smolder until she shimmers when it is called for, or find her perfect stillness and silence within when that is needed. Having said all that, I would be remiss not to mention that several times while watching this fine movie I visualized
Cher as Arlene. She and Sam Elliott had great chemistry in Peter Bogdanovich’s MASK (1985). Ms. Cher has been absent from the screen lately, and I miss her.
Joan Allen once said, “I’m hard to pin down. I tend to look different in my films. So I can just live my life without the fanfare. I get on the bus. I get on the subway –it’s not a problem. These days I think of myself as a character actor more than as an ingénue leading lady. (Joan Crawford must be twitching in her tomb). When I started out I thought I might be like Michelle Pfeiffer or say Jessica Lange –but I am a lot quirkier than that now.”
Sarah Chauncey wrote, “Joan Allen is probably not the first person you’d think of to play a half Native American woods woman –but she fits the part as if she were born to it. Allen has a stage background and one can imagine it was a joy for her to embody a role originally written for the stage –and with greater emotional depth than most of the characters she plays.”
Roger Ebert wrote further, “His wife is Arlene, played by Joan Allen, in a performance of astonishing complexity. Here is a woman whose life includes acceptance of what she cannot change, sufficiency within her own skin, and many simple pleasures like gardening in the nude.”
J. Hoberman of THE VILLAGE VOICE wrote, “Joan Allen is a gingham Gary Cooper. She’s a weathered part of the landscape, gently eroded by a zephyr of shores.”
Michael Wilmington wrote, “For Joan Allen, Arlene is one of the strongest and most deeply sympathetic of all her recent roles; a much richer part.”
Joan Allen joined THE STEPPENWOLF THEATER COMPANY in 1977 when she was 21 years old. She won a Tony Award for her debut on Broadway, performing in BURN THIS. She has been nominated for an Oscar three times –one for Best Supporting Actress for playing Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s NIXON (1995), another for Best Supporting Actress playing Elizabeth Proctor, working with Daniel Day Lewis in THE CRUCIBLE (1996), and the third for Best Actress portraying Sen. Laine Hanson in THE CONTENDER (2000).
She has had 35 film appearances since 1983. I was impressed with her Reba, the blind girl, in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER (1986). She was very homespun as Vera in Francis Ford Coppola’s TUCKER: A Man and his Dreams (1988), was Bonnie in the wonderful film, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER (1993), distinguished herself in Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM (1997), and PLEASANTVILLE (1998). Recently she was better than the script as Pamela, the bitch bureaucrat in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004), with Matt Damon, and she worked with Kevin Costner in THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2005).
Jim True-Frost played William Gibbs. He has been a member of the STEPPENWOLF THEATER COMPANY for decades. He first met Joan Allen while working there. He was in one of their productions as recently as 2006. His task was daunting, to play a pivotal character, who came to the Grodins as buttoned down as possible, subdued, medicated, and overly polite –and then to emerge later as his true self, an artist, an angel, a poor man’s Christ walking in from the desert, lost and bewildered. He is as tall as Sam Elliott, and although a little old for the part (actually all the actors were older than Joan Ackerman had written for in the play), he approached the role with a wide-eyed vulnerability and an honest sense of wonder.
Initially his “politeness” almost seemed grating, and automatic, not sincere; like this was the way he could survive in this world, deferring to everyone around him. He always called Charley, Mr. Grodin, and called Arlene, Mrs. Grodin. He even at first tended to call Bo as Cecelia Rose, never quite comprehending it was a girlish ruse. The William Gibbs who arrived on their doorstep just could not relax. I think that he could not be himself, because he had never been sure who that was. So he had spent 22 years behaving as other people perceived him, a mirror image from their eyes.
I loved the telescope scene near the end of the film, where he and Charley gently moved the plot along, and got on with their lives.
From the film:
William: You know, I really admire you, Mr. Grodin. More than any man I’ve ever met. You don’t have a penny in the bank, no life insurance, no credit. But your house is all paid for, you’ve got four years worth of food stored away, three years worth of firewood, stockpiles of clothes, beautiful wife, great kid. Your life is yours. I think you’re a genius.
I did enjoy True-Frost’s performance. It was a nice counterpoint for Sam Elliott and the rest of the cast –but somehow I still felt he missed some of his dramatic transitions. He mouthed the lines, talked the talk, made reference to his enlightenment and to his new abilities as an artist –but I never completely bought the performance. He was very adequate pre-bee sting as the old William, the barely functional civil servant, but when his true “self” emerged, we should have been able to be dazzled with the release of his old persona, the medicated uptight husk, and absolutely bask in the brilliance, the radiance of the new persona –William the Artist. There was something missing in the actor, something white hot and sparkling –like Jeff Goldblum gets when he is in high gear with a part and in full rant, or Robin Williams gets when he is five minutes into one of his fantastic comic riffs. I am not sure who might have been a better Gibbs –perhaps Johnny Depp, or Colin Farrell? I could even imagine Scott Caan in the role, the son of my old pal, James Caan. A young Richard Dreyfuss, or Elliott Gould would have been nifty too.
Jim True-Frost has had 21 film appearances since 1986. He started out with a small role on the TV series, CRIME STORY (1986). He was in SINGLES (1992), where he worked with Campbell Scott, and he was in the Coen Brother’s epic, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994). He has been busy over the last several years doing live theater, and being Det. Roland Pryzbylewsky on the hard-hitting HBO crime series, THE WIRE (2002-2006).
Sarah Chauncey wrote, “Jim True-Frost is interesting as Gibbs, though not quite as compelling as the other characters. Part of the problem is that his character’s arc feels forced.”
She makes an excellent point. As previously discussed, William Gibbs is a part to die for, but a part that requires tremendous talent to pull of successfully. Post bee sting fevered dream state and vision quest, this character must burst from that cabin with his eyes overwhelmed with wonder, with his new arms open wide, gulping the high desert’s cool morning air, inhaling deep the dusky perfume of the flora; deeply in love –first of course with Arlene, who nursed him through his delirium, and then with the landscape itself, with New Mexico, one of the southwest’s most fetching senoritas; and damn it, he needed next to approach this fresh new ache in him to express himself through sketching and painting like a man dying of thirst who suddenly comes upon a cold mountain stream –needing to immerse his grizzled features full into that icy water, and gobble it, swallowing loudly, and let the newness of it drip down onto his sweaty shirt, leaving shiny droplets hanging from his nose and chin. I think Joan Ackerman wrote the part with those transitions fully attainable. Frost just lacked the fire to transform mere words into a visual flame.
Michael Wilmington of THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE wrote, “Like Paul Gauguin, Gibbs trades an orderly bourgeois life for the charming disorder and unrepressed emotion of the artist’s life –and the freedom he enjoys, that he has only discovered by coming to live with the Grodins.”
The lovely Valentina de Angelis played Bo, aka Cecilia Rose. She was almost 13 at the time, playing 11, and doing it brilliantly. She was astonishingly good as Bo, brimming with playfulness and angst, pre-teen twitches, precociousness, intelligence, humor, and confused but lasting love for her parents. She already was showing signs of her ability to manipulate the system and control events, as she cajoled companies into sending her candy, pastries, and Kleenex –writing incredible diatribes to the customer service reps, complaining about insect and rodent part that she kept “finding” in their various products. The Grodin P.O. Box was always crowded with cases of cream-filled cupcakes or other goodies. Being an only child she would play alone out on the desert, and her imagination created a plethora of friends and invisible pets who would frolic and frisk with her. When she was not complaining about their rudimentary circumstances, she was busy hunting, fishing, and fixing VW parts. She was her father’s daughter. So this complex tale was a coming of age story, and a reflection of the past at the same time.
One of the interesting clues to this character could be found in the playwright’s notes. Joan Ackerman wrote, “Little Bo is a pistol, and even as a child, an avid writer. She was bright and precocious; kind-hearted. Don’t be afraid of casting an 11 year old girl in the part. 11 year old girls, as a group, are among the best actors we have. They know everyone else’s lines before them, and will throw themselves completely into the part. The summer she is eleven, Bo feels that she has lost her father; both of them are aware that she is on the verge of losing her childhood.”
Like all pre-teen girls, we can see both the child and the young woman to be in Bo. It is both fascinating and a little frightening for a father to witness this wonderful metamorphosis in his daughter. I raised three girls, so I speak from experience. I remember being irritated when I would sense in my male friends their unvarnished ogling of any of my daughters. Charley was desperate to hang on to his “little girl”, and life was just not going to allow that.
When a film captures those moments of blossoming into womanhood, it is beautiful beyond measure. We saw it happening with Jodie Foster in several films, with Elizabeth Taylor, and yes, even Shirley Temple. One of the most disturbing “tween” performances for me was the nubile 12 year old Natalie Portman in Luc Beeson’s THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), working with Jean Reno. She was extremely aware of her budding sexuality; so much so that at moments it was difficult to watch.
J. Hoberman wrote, “Indeed De Angelis’ noisy self-dramatizing notwithstanding, the performances here are largely a matter of posing.” I guess he didn’t like the movie much.
Roger Ebert wrote, “The life force bubbling in young Bo, suggested by De Angelis in a performance of unstudied grace, lets us know that things will change –if only because she will continue to push at life.”
Sarah Chauncey wrote, “De Angelis, who makes her debut here, is as memorable as Mary Badham was in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD –unfortunately the story is not as classic.”
Ms. De Angelis is 17 years old at present, and has just about finished high school. She has continued to act in several TV roles. Perhaps one day another great part will come her way –the way it seems to do all the time for Rory Culkin. I don’t think we have heard or seen the last of Valentina De Angelis.
J.K. Simmons played George, Bo’s godfather, ersatz uncle, and Charley’s best friend. His George was taciturn, yet contemplative. It is suggested that old George is “not too swift”, several eggs shy of a dozen –but Simmons gives him immensely more than simplicity and stillness; he gives him a huge heart, and a pair of eyes that would take upon himself all the pain around him if he could but find a way. George is a man traumatized and stunned by what was happening to his friend –an honorable man who in the final analysis was just tired of living alone. We don’t get much back story on him, but I had a sense that George has been married, and that his first wife left him for a truck driver; just left a note pinned to a TV dinner telling him not to look for her.
Director Scott really responded to the solidness of Simmons, who has a background in musical theater and musical composition. My favorite George scene was immediately after talking to Arlene on the phone and the “missing” Charley burst into his living room.
From the play and the film:
Charley: I’m going crazy, George, crazy. It’s those damned drugs. I feel like strangling something. I feel like going out in the yard and strangling that damned goat! I’m dangerous.
George: Sit down.
Charley: Sit down? Look at me! Can I sit down? I have just walked twenty miles! I mean look at my legs, they’re still moving. Look at ‘em!
George: Have a beer.
Charley: Beer? I can’t have a beer. I’m not supposed to drink alcohol with those damned drugs. I’m going to have to murder someone! OK, I’ll have a beer.
George: Maybe you better not.
Charley: I’m having one. (He goes to the refrigerator and pulls out a six pack). I’m having three. I’m having five. I’m going to drink until I pass out. I need some relief.
(He takes a long swig of beer). I am pathetic. I’m so pathetic. How did I get so pathetic?
(He suddenly stands up).
Wrestle with me, George.
Charley: Wrestle with me. C’mon, we’ll go outside.
(After a pause).
George: I don’t want to wrestle with you.
Charley: Why not?
Charley: Cause why?
George: I’m dressed up.
Charley: Shit. That’s why?
George: I’m seeing someone.
George: I’m seeing someone.
(Charley pours some beer out in a glass and suddenly throws the beer all over George’s shirt. No response. He pours another glass and throws it at him. George lunges at him, and they wrestle. In a flash George has Charley pinned down to the floor).
Charley: Thank you, George. Thank you so much. Ow, ow. Do not let me go, George. I’m dangerous. Don’t let me go.
J.K. Simmons can handle comedic, musical, or dramatic parts equally. He wore a toupee to play J. Jonah Jameson in those SPIDER MAN movies. He, also, is the voice of the yellow M&M on those commercials. He has had 66 film appearances since 1966. (What would a numerologist do with this data?). He was in THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1996), with Diane Keaton, THE JACKAL (1997), with Bruce Willis, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999), with Michael Caine, and his future pal, Tobey Maguire. He was a real mean badass prisoner in 39 episodes of HBO’s 0Z (1997-2003). He played Buffalo Bill Cody in HIDALGO (2004) with Viggo Mortensen, did a stand out job camping it up in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005), working again with Sam Elliott, and just finished playing a jerk in the F.B.I. in THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (2007) with Billy Bob Thornton.
Miss Amy Brenneman did the cameo as the adult Bo in OFF THE MAP, and all the voice overs for the narration. Her nickname is “
Ames”. A few years ago she shocked television audiences with her nude scenes in NYPD BLUE. She has had 27 film roles since 1992. She was in HEAT (1995) with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, CITY OF
ANGELS (1998) with Nicolas Cage, and she was the star of her own TV series, JUDGING AMY (1999-2005). Interestingly her mother is a judge, and her father and one brother are both lawyers. She was a teacher for a short time, and even had her own theater company as well.
For me one of the greatest strengths of both the play and the film was the very strong ensemble feel to the piece. I credit first playwright Joan Ackerman, with strong writing, keen dialogue, and brilliant characterizations. Then I tip the top hat to director Campbell Scott, who seemed to be able to allow each character the perfect amount of close-ups and focus. They left in much of the play’s dialogue, opening up the action visually just enough to fully immerse us in the landscape, and to join the Grodins at their dinner table.
I asked myself, considering that Bo is the narrator, appearing as both adult and child –is it Bo’s story? She certainly has enough of the focus. It is her coming of age story. She is the motor for all the drama, tragedy, and humor. In her childish way, she was the puppeteer, the imaginary ring mistress, snapping her invisible whip, and getting the other characters to jump through her invisible hoops. She even manipulated unseen corporations who feared her recrimination or the expose she threatened them with.
But then again, what about Arlene? She is the loyal loving wife and the earth mother, friend and Muse to all, responsible for the spirituality, the Native American connection, much of the symbolism, all the sex appeal, the obvious object of affection for everyone; who belatedly functions as the feminine hub in the spinning wheel of each and every event that significant summer. Was it Arlene’s story?
But what about Charley, the ex-hippie dynamo handyman, once loving father, that emotionally absent and vacuous pinpoint of shadow that lay across the lives and faces of all the others, and who when he is on stage, or in the frame of the lens, just in the room, one cannot take their eyes off of him? Is it Charley’s story?
All that postulated then what about William Gibbs, the IRS man who came for lunch and stayed eight years, whose healing tears, bottled up for decades, flooded the landscape, providing the opportunity for Charley to reach out and circumnavigate that downward spiral of depression, who Bo described as “the Saint who appeared on our doorstep”, who managed to peel the veneer and trappings of society from his very essence, revealing a new hedonistic and pantheistic ardor for every breath, and a molten hot talent for being a painter, for recording and interpreting the new world all about him? Was it William Gibbs’ story?
Only George, the best friend a man could have, a life saver, an emotional stanchion, a godfather and mock uncle, a concerned person struck dumb by circumstances, the single person nakedly honest and tragically naïve, able to reduce life to its simplicity, seeing conflict as temporary and love as attainable –as far as I can tell only George was clearly delegated to be a “supporting player”.
As with any work of art, and literature, which is what a great film is, each of us may have a different perspective regarding the character we felt was the protagonist. For my few pesos, all the characters shared that privilege, and that responsibility. It was a sterling great effort, a drama with humor, a comedy with tragic events. My heart went out to all of them, and my tears were shed for each in turn.
Though I have found several positive things many critics had to say about this film, like any work of art, or any film for that matter, the critics were split in their responses. Truthfully, there were a lot more nay-sayers for this movie than there were heralds.
Sarah Chauncey wrote further, “OFF THE MAP is a decent movie that wants to be great. But it mistakes silence for depth, and contrivances for quirkiness.”
La Salle of THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE wrote, “Heading: IT MAY BE EDEN, BUT REALLY IT’S DULLSVILLE. OFF THE MAP has a sincerity of purpose, a talented and conscientious cast doing its best, and a director (Campbell Scott) with a positive track record in Independent films. But its story meanders, and it doesn’t build; and the pace is deadly slow, dictated by the rhythms of deep-feeling actors –but not by a director with an urgent interest in the narrative. The film plays like selected episodes from the life of a family –but the episodes are unspectacular and the family, though unusual, is not particularly engaging. There are moments of illumination, but the movie is mostly a long gloomy slog.”
With even more rancor, J. Hoberman of THE VILLAGE VOICE wrote, “Heading: SLEEPY HOLLOW CHATTY TWEEN GRATES IN DULL TAOS HIPPIE TALE.
Were it not so soporific, OFF THE MAP could easily drive you off your nut. Finally being released a full two years after its Sundance premiere, the film harkens back to the wholesome granola epics that the festival used to dispense 20 years ago.”
Maria Chocano of THE LA TIMES wrote, “It takes a rugged survivalist’s mentality to sit through all 108 minutes of OFF THE MAP; a self-consciously loopy and mystical drama about a family that lives off the map, off the land, and mostly off their meds in the mangy desert of New Mexico.”
Ah the full spectrum of responses in the human perspective, the many perceptual twists and turns, the insights, the missed clues, the hidden symbols, the misinterpreted actions, and the lessons to be learned. Some of the folks I talked to felt strongly that the movie never fully shook off the shackles of being a “filmed play”; that is to say it seemed to them stage-bound and overly talkative. I think I have made it abundantly clear how I feel about good dialogue and great writing in a film. To make a movie out of a play, a director has to open it up, and bring the environment into focus. Often that is very difficult to do, or even harmful to the dynamic of the drama.
In a play, the set with a few limited muslin flats and some furniture, and some inspired lighting has to “suggest” the world of the drama or comedy; obviously the place can only be implied, or symbolic of the author’s point of view. In a movie, the set can be grand, or approach something three dimensional, suggest depth, girth, and authenticity. The setting then can include the landscape, and this can take on a false reality, an almost validity; and the art design can either burn that locale deep into our consciousness, or it will simply provide a tempting travelogue to place the action within; some pretty photography.
I think director Scott succeeded in his endeavor; he transferred a play from a theatre to the vastness of
New Mexico. He was fortunate enough to cast well, and he received from his actors more than enough to push along the narrative; and he let the landscape become more than a backdrop –it stung us, took our breath away, made us pine for its open spaces and violet vistas, made us believe that those characters could exist in that world –allowing it to become integral and essential to the message of the movie –that life moves on, regardless. And that is as it should be.
When one is open to it, this film works on a visceral level that overrides the emotional, psychological and symbolic aspects of the piece. Though I love to reflect upon it in oh so many ways, still it hits me in the heart, not the intellect. As Charley passes the mantle of tears on to William Gibbs, my eyes are likewise misty; my throat and gut get tight. The movie leaves us all with a challenge to reassess our world, and our part in it; how we have chosen to live and survive. It resonates and vibrates with emotional growth, spiritual depth and ascendance, with art, with nature, and with love. I would cheerfully rate it at 4 stars out of 5.
Glenn A. Buttkus 2007