Silver City (2004)

Writer’s Note: This was originally submitted for publication December 20, 2020, over two weeks prior to the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building.  Life comes at you fast, doesn’t it? 

While on my recent writer’s retreat, I spent some time free of wi-fi and, when I had run out of ideas for the day, enjoying the cornucopia of DVD delights that my cabin’s hosts had left behind. There were 21 DVDs, of  which three were things that I had at home (Stranger than Fiction, Cabin in the Woods, and something I’m too embarrassed to admit), four that were exercise/yoga related, and a number of westerns that I obviously ignored. Most of them seem to have come from that 2003-2009 “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years” era, having been purchased from the now-defunct company during its last years, with a decidedly independent bent. And so it came to pass that I have now seen Silver City, the 2004 political satire directed by Passion Fish-helmer John Sayles. 

The plot is relatively labyrinthine and cribs from Chinatown (there’s even discussion of water rights in a potential real estate development) and the then-contemporary election year political discourse du jour, which is depressing both in how unbelievably stupid the whole thing was and how much more dignified it was than 2020. Our lead is Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter turned private investigator after filing an explosive, provocative story whose informants later recanted under pressure from the political establishment, ending that phase of his career and ultimately bankrupting the paper that employed him. Danny is brought in when dim-witted Colorado gubernatorial hopeful and George W. Bush analog Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) accidentally hooks a dead body while shooting a bucolic political ad that sees him fishing in a  pristine lake. His cutthroat campaign manager Karl Rove Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny’s agency to help determine where the body, that of a tattooed Latino man, came from while keeping the whole thing under wraps. Danny is aided in his investigation by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a former colleague in his past life as a newspaperman who now keeps the public informed in his own jaded way: leaking enough of the incomprehensibly large, true evil done by government that is too tied up in corporate interests, in the hopes of getting legitimate news outlets to pull the thread enough to take down bad political actors. Along the way, he also receives assistance from Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez), who works within the undocumented community to try and identify the dead man. 

There are three major enemies of the Pilager campaign that Danny is sent to investigate/quell: right wing radio pundit and political commentator Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining safety inspector Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who was ousted in disgrace following a falsified scandal involving an accident; and Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), Dickie’s disgraced “nympho” sister, the free-spirited black sheep of the family and once-and-current Olympic archery hopeful. Of them, we spend very little time with Castleton, but Ferrer makes an impression as what a right wing nutjob used to look like: power-hungry, conceited, and exploitative, but educated, tempered, and articulate, back when the people in such positions were merely obstructive backward, not completely insane or opposed to scientific progress, immoral but not amoral (Ben Shapiro clearly thinks he’s the heir apparent to William F. Buckley but he could never, and Buckley himself was a terrible person, but I’d take him over Charlie Kirk or Alex Jones any day of the week and twice on Sunday). It’s a stark reminder of how far we’ve fallen in so short a time—I’m in my mid-thirties, and I wasn’t even old enough to vote in the presidential election that happened the year this movie was released, so chew on that for a second. As a mirror of American politics of the new millennium, it feels like this movie is a reverse portrait of Dorian Gray that, though depressingly hideous, has grown more lovely with time as the body politik visibly betrays every hidden malice, every wicked act of greed, and every failure of decency

The titular “Silver City” is a proposed land development deal to build a planned community in land that is beautiful but unfit for human habitation: mining has made Swiss cheese of the hills and rendered the groundwater contaminated, but Pilager patriarch Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) made a bad investment in it and was bailed out when family friend and multi-millionaire business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) purchased the land from him far above its value. In exchange, Benteen wants to skirt the regulations that have prevented the development of Silver City and, one presumes, swim around in his profits like Scrooge McDuck. Kristofferson is fantastic here, appearing in only a few scenes but leaving a lasting impression and an air of malice, casual evil-by-way-of-enterprise. In his major scene, he takes Dickie on a horseback ride through beautiful, uncorrupted nature while decrying the regulations that keep it so; he can barely contain his bile as he curses the name of the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies, and it’s evident that in his dreams he sees the purple mountain majesty in the background as crawling with excavators and bulldozers like ants, but he paints his vision of the future with such a lovely palate that Dickie buys it.

Benteen is aided in this endeavor on multiple fronts. There’s sad Mort Seymour (David Clennon), who’s trying desperately to sell local government authorities on the Silver City idea, and who gains ground when Benteen puppeteers a casual, ostensibly coincidental run-in with Dickie at a local restaurant (Dickie’s election to the office of governor is treated as a foregone conclusion). Also on Benteen’s bench is slick, sleazy lobbyist Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane at his absolute oiliest), who presages the Kirks and Shapiros of the present as someone with utterly no moral compunction about flat-out lying with a straight face. His moral compass points due south, as he demonstrates in one of the film’s best, most nauseating lines: “Every idea, no matter how politically incorrect, deserves an advocate.” What he’s talking about in that moment is his previous testimony to Congress that there is no identifiable link between smoking and lung cancer. The idea was absurd, even for 2004, but it foretells a time when the general public would fall for easily disprovable scientific fact, like that the earth is (generally) round, that climate change is real and affected by human action, and that COVID-19 is real and deadly. 

Narratively, Danny’s investigation is complicated by two issues in his personal life: his employer Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to Mort, which we learn late in the film, and the impending marriage of Tyson to Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a morally just crusading reporter who has a huge blindspot regarding Tyson’s lack of a conscience and also happens to be Danny’s ex. It’s clear to everyone paying attention that Dickie is completely out of his depth when he’s confronted without extensive preparation and coaching, at which point he repeats himself, cites jingoistic jingles, and makes it clear via an inability to express a single intelligent thought extemporaneously that he lacks any real savvy or acumen. (Remember, this was made in a time before The Right realized that they could get people to slurp that up with a spoon as long as it was sufficiently combined with white supremacist rhetoric.) This isn’t really relevant to the mystery of the watery corpse, however, except in the way that evil breeds evil. As it turns out,the deceased Lazaro Huerta (Donevon Martinez) was an undocumented day laborer who died in one of Benteen’s facilities. To prevent the exposure of Benteen as both (a) a hypocrite who exploits immigrants for cheap labor while decrying the practice and (b) a manufacturer who fails, mortally, to meet the OSHA regulatory guidelines that he derides as part of his deregulation agenda, Huerta’s body was hauled into the hills and thrown down an abandoned mineshaft that had previously been used to dispose of Benteen’s toxic waste. Casey Lyle (remember him?) had been trying to blow the whistle on the fact that the mines were now prone to collecting water in times of torrential rains and causing flooding in the future home of Silver City; one such flood had washed Huerta’s body into the lake, as will everything that’s hidden there, eventually.

There’s one man who could help reveal all of this: Vince Esparza (Luis Saguar), a cutthroat who obtains and arranges laborers, including for Benteen on the site where Huerta was killed. He threatens Danny and is shot by an overzealous sheriff’s deputy,  the two men who initially told Danny about the mineshaft are captured by I.N.S. and prevented from corroborating Danny’s information; when he returns later, the entrance to the mine has been sealed. Grace also fires him, and all hope seems lost as Benteen’s organization has bought up the news outlet for which Nora writes, killing any chance of exposing the rotten heart of American politics. Except … Paine and his team have managed to expose the thread, if someone else in the media can only pull it and see where it leads. But, as every fish in the picturesque lake that girds Silver City dies in a mass event that leads us to the credits, the message is clear: even if the truth is learned, it won’t un-destroy the ecosystem.

Silver City received mixed reviews in its time, and that’s well-deserved. The core of the film’s narrative at first presents itself as a murder mystery, and it ultimately is exactly that, metaphorically—who killed Lazaro Huerta? The system. We just get there through a roundabout investigation, and by that time we’ve pulled the thread of something bigger, more insidious, and, worst of all, entrenched. Conceptually, that’s a rich vein to be mined, so to speak, but what we’re left with teeters on the edge of being a little too on-the-nose. We need to care about Danny, at least a little bit, and it’s hard not to—Danny Huston can pull of “charismatic loser journeyman” with charm to spare—but his trail of discovery has in its margins a truly harrowing story about oppression under a capitalism that seeks to consume nature for no other reason than because it’s there, and does it on the back of exploited labor while paying silver-tongued lobbyists to lie, baldly. That something like this is offset by conversations between Danny and Nora about their former relationship, in which she basically tells him that he was just too damn good and married to the job, or a scene in which Nora waxes philosophical about Danny with Tyson while the latter gears up for a bike ride while expounding on the lack of objective morality, feel very Sorkin-y and pedestrian. The comedy is just too broad, perhaps as best epitomized by Hannah’s Maddy character, a manic pixie middle aged woman who smokes pot, has a weird hobby (archery), and delivers huge pieces of exposition while jumping on a trampoline.* There’s a deadly serious thing happening here, but the whole thing feels very flippant, because—did you notice it? “Pilager” sounds like “pillager”! That gets a Perfunctory Liberal Chortle™ and then we’re on to a scene in which a man is crushed under a car while trying to learn Huerta’s identity. It’s a three-flavor swirl of political satire that’s too broad, a background event with implications that encompass broad ecological destruction and consequence-free manslaughter, and also Danny and his ex-girlfriend considering getting back together. The narrative throughline is solid, but everything hanging off of it makes the thing unwieldy. Worst of all, the film has made me wistful for the immediate post-9/11 years. Is this really what it’s come to? 

*Without taking her shoes off first!

-Mark “Boomer Redmond

Inserts (1975)

When the New Hollywood movement made movies dangerous & vulgar again in the 1970s, there was a kind of nostalgia in the air for pre-Code filmmaking of the 1920s & 30s. It’s the same way that punk dialed the clock back from mid-70s stadium rock to straight-forward 60s garage. Counterculture touchstones of the era like The Cockettes, Cabaret, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle all pulled influence from an idealized vision of Old Hollywood hedonism in the industry’s pre-Code era. The forgotten X-rated drama Inserts is no exception to this indulgence in pre-Code nostalgia, but it takes a more direct, literal approach to mourning the loss of the Hollywood that could have been if it weren’t for the moralistic censorship of The Hays Code and it’s fiercest enforcer, Joseph Breen. While most 1970s artists were romanticizing the first couple decades of amoral Hollywood excess at its heights, Inserts instead visits the era at its death bed to have one final swig of liquor with its corpse before it’s hauled off to the morgue. It’s more of a grim memorial than a celebration, which likely contributed to the film being forgotten by critics & audiences over time.

A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss stars opposite a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as a 1930s director/actress duo scrounging at the outskirts of the Old Hollywood system. Dreyfuss is the lead: a once reputable Silent Film director who floundered when the industry shifted into making Talkies. Bitter about his fall from fame and, subsequently, blind-drunk, he wastes his directorial talents by shooting stag pornos in his decrepit Los Angeles mansion. Harper enters his life as a wannabe actress who volunteers to shoot anonymous “inserts” for an incomplete porno that goes off the rails when its original star overdoses on heroin. In exchange, she pushes Dreyfuss to return to his former glory as a fully engaged, passionate filmmaker and to teach her the ropes of her desired profession as a Hollywood starlet. Their miserable struggle to complete the picture is sequenced as if in real-time, while other doomed characters drift in and out of the shoot (most significantly Bob Hoskins as a blustering porno financier and Veronica Cartright as a more, um, experienced performer). The whole thing feels like a well-written & performed but incurably misanthropic one-act stage play.

While Inserts is effectively about the death of Hollywood’s hedonistic first wave, visions of that fallen empire are mostly left to play in your imagination off-screen. Names like Strondheim, DeMille, and Gish are shamelessly dropped in non-sequitur anecdotes. Meanwhile, the much-buzzed-about new kid in town Clark Gable periodically knocks on the door of the mansion the movie rots in, but he’s never invited inside. Hollywood is changing outside, but it’s not deliberately leaving Dreyfuss’s drunken misanthrope behind; that’s a decision he’s made himself. We’re mostly left to rot with him in the choices he’s made: his choice of cheap booze, his choice of self-destructive associates, his choice of violent, vulgar “art.” The core of the film’s overwhelming sense of boozy, sweaty desperation is in his budding relationship with his newest starlet, Harper. The volatile pair turn shooting inserts for a throwaway stag porno into a game of dominance & mutual self-destruction. It’s a sick S&M game where he tries to scare her away from the industry by referring to her naked flesh as “meat” and acting as the domineering auteur. In turn, she playfully tops him from the bottom – mocking the sexual & creative impotence caused by his alcoholism in a humiliating display. Their collaboration is the act of filmmaking at its ugliest and most corrosive, an extreme exaggeration of the industry’s worst tendencies.

Inserts isn’t all smut & gloom. The film is viciously miserable, but it’s also shockingly amusing when it wants to be. It’s darkly funny the way a lot of stage plays are, often interrupting its cruelest offenses with a withering quip or a burst of slapstick humor. It constantly tempers its 1920s filmmaking nostalgia with Hollywood Babylon-style shock value in heroin addiction, necrophilia, and casting-couch abuses. Still, that nostalgia manages to shine through the grime, and the film mostly feels like a belated funeral for a well-loved era that was cut short by Breen & Hays. It might not be as fun to watch as a Richard Dreyfuss porno-drama sounds on paper, but it’s a rattling, captivating experience that deserves to be dusted off & re-evaluated now that we’ve all had enough time & distance to properly sober up.

-Brandon Ledet

Howard Kremer’s #JawsReelTime Project

Stand-up comedian Howard Kremer has a recurring bit on his weekly pop culture podcast Who Charted? (co-hosted by fellow comedy mainstay and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ showrunner Kulap Vilaysack) called “Jaws is Better” that’s consistently hilarious, although spontaneously employed. Basically, if a guest on the show happens to mention the title of their favorite movie, Kremer’s “Jaws is Better” theme music plays and the comedian immediately launches into a tirade that “proves” that his own favorite film, the classic Steven Spielberg creature feature Jaws (1975), is objectively “better.” I don’t personally have much of a connection with Jaws. I’ve only seen the movie once, in my 20s, screened at the Prytania as part of a Shark Week-themed midnight movie series. I also fall firmly on the wrong side of Kremer’s Oceans Vs. Space dichotomy, which suggests that movies set in Earth’s waters are automatically better than sci-fi “make-em-ups” set outside Earth’s atmosphere. Still, the consistency & conviction of the bit always tickles me and I’m excited that Kremer lately seems to be determined to take it to another level in a project he’s calling #JawsReelTime.

The events depicted in the film Jaws occur over an eleven day span from June 28 to July 8 on the calendar. Kremer’s proposition is for Jaws fans (or just any dedicated “Chartists”) to watch the movie in sectioned-off parts on the corresponding calendar day those (fictional) events took place, effectively watching it “in real time.” From what I can tell, the rigidity of this eleven day timeline is much clearer in the novel Jaws is based on than it is in the movie version. It’s still an easily achievable goal, though, one that offers a new way to look at a modern classic that’s already been meticulously dissected by those who’ve seen it many more times than I have (i.e. most people). The project starts off easily enough, with landmarks like Fourth of July celebrations to guide the way. Where #JawsReelTime gets very tricky is in the film’s climactic shark hunt, a three day journey without clear makers differentiating between its individual calendar dates. Kremer has suggested “winging it” without timestamps to help determine where to stop & start watching on each day, rightly explaining that it’ll help participants keep a fresh perspective. However, for a Jaws novice such as myself, a guided, timestamped timeline might be necessary to keep the project in order. Otherwise, I’d likely get lost at sea, like so many Richard Dreyfusses past.

I encourage you to join us for the #JawsReelTime project! At the very least, give a listen to Kremer explaining the project in recent episodes of Who Charted? (episodes 340 & 341 have the most detailed discussions of it so far). If you, like me, need a timestamped timeline of the events in Jaws to help guide your way, I did my best to create one below by cross-referencing its plot points as detailed on themovietimeline.com with the clearest corresponding scene breaks I could find in the film. Again, the divisions between these events become a little muddled in the third act, but I did my best to create an accurate game plan here. I’m not sure what, if anything, watching what Kremer would call the perfect “Summah” movie this way will add to its overall experience, but I’m excited to find out and will be discussing the results with Britnee on our own podcast soon after the #JawsReelTime project concludes. If you’re joining us for the journey, be sure to hashtag your progress #JawsReelTime on Twitter so Kremer knows he’s not alone on the waters, hunting down a monstrously huge shark all by his lonesome.

June 28 (0:00-5:05): Chrissie Watkins is killed by a shark while skinny-dipping.

June 29 (5:05-18:39): Alex M. Kintner is killed by a shark.

June 30 (18-39-23:01): A $3000 bounty is placed on the shark.

July 1 (23:01-27:53): Michael Brody’s birthday.

July 2 (27:53-50:09): A caught tiger shark is shown to the public but does not contain human remains.

July 3 (50:09-53:27): Mayor Vaughn refuses to close the beach.

July 4 (53:27-1:07:02): The 50th Annual Regatta is interrupted by a shark.

July 5 (1:07:02-1:20:39): Martin Brody and Matt Hooper sail with Quint in search of the shark.

July 6 (1:20:39-1:36:23): The search for the shark continues.

July 7 (1:36:23-1:50:01): The shark damages the boat’s hull.

July 8 (1:50:51-2:03:55): Quint dies and the shark is blown up.

Have fun! And remember, “Don’t go in the water.”

-Brandon Ledet