"No man can walk out on his own story": 8 notes on Gore Verbinski's Rango
1) I tend to avoid kiddie movies, or "kidult" features, but I was dragged into seeing Rango after losing two games of rock paper scissors with a colleague. Afterwards, I was stunned. Who is this former punk-rock guitarist Gore Verbinski guy? How did he manage to escape the corrupting effects of the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut to make this film?
2) Rango has its weaknesses, mostly because it can't help falling into the usual comforting storytelling conventions (notably, the "maiden in distress" and the "final showdown," even as it evokes High Noon), but the film kept surprising me by selecting distinctly arty, subversive, and adult source materials to allude to (specifically Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book), Apocalypse Now, Raising Arizona (with music), A Fistful of Dollars, Singing in the Rain, a hint of Vertigo, and lots of westerns).
3) If Rango was just an accumulation of cinematic allusions, it still wouldn't necessarily warrant much critical attention, but I also liked Gore Verbinski's apocalyptic emphasis on water depletion, an issue that is very likely to become more important as the world's aquifers run dry, the price of water continues to rise, and fountains dispensing drinkable water become a thing of the past. The documentary Flow (2008) points out how water bottling companies, part of a "400 billion dollar industry," are already "privatizing" once-free water just to sell it back to us. For an example of this insidious marketing campaign, check out Jennifer Aniston's pseudo-hip "viral" video for Glaceau Smart Water. As I watched Rango, I wondered how much can children intuit the implications of resource depletion? Why not give them blockbuster movies that acknowledge there is a problem?
4) What to do, though, about the multiple allusions to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (Never mind the inferior Terry Gilliam movie version, even if it does star Johnny Depp.) Does Verbinski mean to send off his youthful audience to read lines like:
"We were someplace around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"
Later, when Verbinski has a bunch of animals crank up Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" for a delightful bat aerial assault on a water bottle wagon train, are kids supposed to go see the equivalent scene in Apocalypse Now?
5) And what of the allusions to Chinatown (1974)? I enjoyed how the evil turtle mayor of the movie voiced by Ned Beatty has many correspondences (white hat, suspenders, similar voice) to John Huston's Noah Cross in the former classic. If one thinks about it, Huston does resemble a smug turtle. I liked the way the mayor kept saying things like "Control the water and you control everything." Rango builds up to an image of Las Vegas as the ultimate waste of expensively imported water (thereby merging Chinatown with Fear and Loathing), but it can't embrace the fundamental bleakness of Roman Polanski's and Robert Towne's vision, and therein lies the rub. Why not have something drastic happen like Rango's love interest Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) getting shot in the eye? As if to make up for the Disneyfied diminishment of the Chinatown theme, one of the bird galoots in the movie has a permanent arrow through one eye.
6) What of Hitchcock's influence? At one point, dangling in the air, Rango pronounces that he has vertigo. Also the "spirit of the west" who resembles a more youthful Clint Eastwood, describes heaven as "eating pop tarts with Kim Novak."
7) What of Rango's emphasis on the construction of identity? As in Toy Story 3, Rango begins with an emphasis on play. Rango, the Hawaiian shirt-wearing chameleon hero of the film, stays in a terrarium acting out various roles with a plastic fish, dead bug, and a mannequin which evokes the "Make 'Em Laugh" scene in Singin' in the Rain. When he's suddenly cast out in the desert to find himself (running briefly into Raoul Duke's windshield in the process), he soon adopts the role of a cowboy hero for a bunch of gullible varmints in the town of Dirt.
Later (spoiler alert), however, when he proves to be a coward before a menacing Lee Van Cleef-esque Rattlesnake (voiced by Bill Nighy and referencing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Rango has to wander off into the desert like Jesus to figure himself out. He learns that "No man can walk out on his own story." He must become what he play-acted because the people of Dirt believe in him. He imagines himself a hero, and so he becomes one.
8) Thus Rango hints at themes it can't quite fully develop--how the rich attempt to control what remains of our vanishing resources, how we delude ourselves about the desert we face, how the western as a genre can hint at solutions to these problems, and how heroism can sprout from theatrical postmodern play. Not bad for a gonzo kiddie flick.