Sunday 8 May 2016

Humboldt County (2008)

Directors: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Writers: Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs
Stars: Fairuza Balk, Peter Bogdanovich, Frances Conroy, Madison Davenport, Brad Dourif, Chris Messina and Jeremy Strong
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
I’ve found it fascinating to discover what actors and filmmakers choose when I ask them to pick two films from their career for me to review at Apocalypse Later. Of all the people I’ve asked so far, though, Brad Dourif is the one whose choices I was most eager to hear. I’ve been a fan of his for years, so long that I can’t remember where I saw him first. It may have been Dune, Blue Velvet or The Exorcist III, but I know that I quickly racked up personal favourites like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Wise Blood and Sonny Boy. His career has been long and varied, including wild obscurities, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. Not all of these films are good ones but they’re usually interesting at the very least and his performances are things to anticipate. There are so many movies in his career worthy of being chosen for this project (and Tiffany Shepis already chose one) that I was eager to see which he’d select. This was his first pick, though I hadn’t even heard of it. He thought long and hard before choosing one of my favourites as his second.

Humboldt County is an indie drama from Embark Productions that was picked up for theatrical distribution by Magnolia in 2008, after a resonant set of screenings at SXSW, and, while it has met a variety of responses, it found a passionate core audience, making it an underground cult hit. Dourif is far from the film’s only recognisable face, with Peter Bogdanovich, Fairuza Balk and Frances Conroy all prominent in an ensemble cast. The lead, however, was brand new. He’s Jeremy Strong, no household name but an actor who has done very well for himself since his screen debut here. You’re likely to recognise his face because his nineteen films thus far include four which have been nominated for an Oscar: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Selma and his most recent, The Big Short. He’s perfectly cast as a clueless young man, Peter Hadley, who hasn’t seen much of life as he’s been living his father’s dreams rather than his own. We first meet him as he takes his medical school final, only to find that Prof Hadley fails him. That’s dad, who’s ‘unbelievably disappointed’.
Peter seems already lost, even before he fails his exam. Sure, partly it’s because he’s been up for three days but most of it is because he has no idea who he really is. His dominant father has kept him on a dedicated path all his life and he’s done pretty well with it up until now but he’s finally hit a dead end and he has no idea what to do. So he goes to a club to see the young lady who moonlighted as his final exam patient, a part time jazz singer called Miss Bogart Truman who lives on the road. ‘Just little gigs as I come through LA,’ she explains as she strips him naked in her hotel room. He’s clueless enough to ask if she takes cheques. She laughs and does him anyway, but then drives ‘home’ and takes him with her, asleep in the front seat. He wakes up in an empty car to find her out looking at the stacks in a well shot oceanscape. ‘Is this Malibu?’ he asks. It’s the Lost Coast, she says. Welcome to the Humboldt County of the title, which is real. It’s in California, so far north that it’s almost Oregon, and it’s full of coastline, mountains and forests. And weed.

And this is how Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs, who wrote and directed the film, found an audience. The odd thing is that this is far from the usual druggie movie. It’s unashamedly pro-marijuana, but it’s no propaganda film. I’m not sure if weed is the MacGuffin of the piece or just a convenient local symbol for the freedom that the characters really crave. Perhaps it’s both. Certainly, everyone in the film seems to care about it, whether they’re the hippie types with a few plants to earn from, those trying to get rich with a big crop or the DEA who are content to burn the fields when they find them rather than seek out and arrest their owners, but it’s never the focus of the story, merely a common thread for the people in it. It seems just as important to read it as a symbol though, a badge that those who choose to opt out of conventional society adopt because it’s illegal but commonplace. This isn’t about pro-pot people vs anti-pot people, it’s about what freedom really means and who gets to define it and that runs a lot deeper than smoking weed.
I’m sure that’s one reason why Dourif chose this film. He plays Jack, the patriarch of an extended family out here in the woods who’s a sort of adoptive father to Bogart. Family here isn’t restricted to blood lines and marriages in, it’s a community spirit and those who share that spirit tend to get absorbed into the family. A bigger reason is that, to quote Danny Jacobs, ‘for the first time in a long time, he was playing a role that had a lot of him in it.’ That was important as the film needed ‘someone who could be believable as a former physics professor and a mountain man, and those are two opposite qualities that are difficult to find in people.’ Jack lives off the grid where he philosophises, plays piano and sells pot; Dourif’s career exists because he’s so good at empathising with the outsider and he even took his false teeth out to play this part. But Jack also used to teach at UCLA, leaving it ‘to get away from some stuff’; Dourif is a huge astronomy buff who brought a $40,000 telescope with him that needed its own hotel room. He anchors the film well.

The set up of the story is, of course, to throw Peter into Jack’s world and keep him from leaving until he’s learned something about living his own life rather than his father’s. With Bogart gone as quickly as she arrived, Peter has no ride out of there and so he finds himself paired off with Max, who will drive him to the bus stop after they check on irrigation, which naturally takes so long that the buses have stopped running when they’re done; he feels rather awkward alongside a man with whom he has no common ground but a shared lover. It’s Jack who starts to open his eyes, beginning when he tags along to take Charity to school and discovers that Jack and other locals financed and built the Pencil Patch because the nearest school is fifty miles away. Peter is alternately intrigued and bemused by conversations that he initially overhears but gradually becomes part of: Rosie, Jack’s partner, wants to colonise Mars, for instance, and she and others rant about personal bugbears out of the blue. Sudden outbreaks of honesty aren’t what Peter is used to.
If he isn’t used to people like Jack and Rosie, he’s really not used to people like Charity, who’s Max’s daughter. Melissa Davenport was only eleven when Humboldt County was released but she shines as a very adult and very free young lady. When we meet her, she’s out in the woods pretending to be a cat, like an eleven year old girl might, but she schools Peter quickly on more adult topics. Marijuana? ‘It’s just a plant,’ says the little girl. ‘I think it’s nicer than beer.’ Bogart? ‘My daddy and her have sex.’ Oh, and she isn’t named for the actor, she’s named for the habit of holding rather than passing to which he unwittingly gave his name. Her favourite book is The Closing of the American Mind. ‘You shouldn’t know about all this stuff,’ Peter tells her, but she just replies, ‘You’re funny.’ Davenport is clearly another burgeoning talent, having led her first film at eight. She’d already provided voices to characters in Over the Hedge and Horton Hears a Who! but she’s gone on to The Possession, A Light Beneath Their Feet and, currently, From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series.

In her way, Charity is as important a character to this film as Jack, because together they ably highlight how this isn’t just a fleeting thing. They’re two generations apart but they share the epitome of freedom, living off the grid and enjoying the life they have. Max, in between them, is the one who isn’t happy; he’s farming a huge crop in the hope that he can get rich and get out of there. It’s easy to read into him as having fallen for the sort of mainstream cultural expectations that the rest of his family have happily opted out of. It’s insightful to look at how each of the characters ends the movie, not only Peter, who gets a fantastic open-ended final scene, also notable for how much he isn’t in it. If that sounds cryptic, then watch the movie and you’ll understand. It wouldn’t surprise me to see it in a decade or two highlighted in the future equivalent of YouTube collages of great movie endings. In its way, it’s as iconic and as representative of its time as the more famous endings of Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot or Planet of the Apes.
It’s also underpinned wonderfully by one of the best performances I’ve seen from Peter Bogdanovich as an actor, neatly subdued but perfect for the part. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, though it’s probably more than Fairuza Balk, but what he does get resonates throughout the film as, for so long, Peter is clearly channelling his father. We see enough of Prof Hadley at the beginning to see how he would act in the situations that Peter finds himself in and, when he returns to the screen, we see we were right. He’s part of a real ensemble here, each of whom benefit from solid writing from the directors, who write for their actors as much as for their story. Balk is as resonant as Bogdanovich, with just as skimpy a role. Frances Conroy gets one magnificent monologue that’s a horrible, spiritual, wonderful ride. Brad Dourif has a powerful monologue too and many other lines and scenes to build him throughout. Davenport acts far beyond her years as Charity, the one character I’d like to have had a better ending, and Messina does well as Max too.

It’s unfair for this to be remembered as a drug film, because it’s a superb drama, not so much for its plot as for its depth of character. Gordsky and Jacobs cast well and wrote well for those actors, who together build a strong picture of Humboldt County that, after 97 minutes, feels like we’ve lived there for years. It’s enticing but also dangerous and none of the characters could honestly claim their quest for freedom as pain free. There’s a lot of elation here but there’s also a lot of heartbreak and the suggestion isn’t that one must lead to the other. I don’t think the directors really wanted to do anything more than to paint this place onto the screen in as clear a way as they could and they achieved that. We appreciate that life in Humboldt County isn’t as blissful or as horrifying as the polarised views of most would suggest. It’s neither and both and that’s what makes it so enticing. We can call out Strong, Dourif or Davenport, with justification, but really the best performance here came from Gordsky and Jacobs as scriptwriters.
But a drug film it became, because that’s the primary audience that it found. Of course, in this environment, Peter cannot ignore the marijuana that seems to be everywhere around him. Of course, his reaction to the fact that Jack and Rosie sell pot out of their house is one sourced directly from his father. Of course, that opinion changes, as he spends more time with these folk and ventures into the life. ‘Am I high?’ he asks when he samples his first joint. ‘I don’t feel high.’ This happens in front of a nice shot of the sun lighting him up from behind; it’s literally an illuminating moment. But this is about freedom not about drugs. Drugs, in different forms, cause a lot of pain here, just as they cause a lot of pleasure, and labelling this as a drug film misses that. The DEA aren’t the bad guys here; that’s reserved for the conventional lifestyle and the expectations it has. This film doesn’t tell us to get high, it tells us to be ourselves. In the end, that’s what Peter learns and that’s why the ending to the film is so beautifully ambiguous.

Important Sources:
Collin Armstrong: SXSW 2008 - interview with HUMBOLDT COUNTY writers/directors Danny Jacobs & Darren Grodsky

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