Making America Great Again
Josh Slates' New Short Remembers Another Reason To Hate the 1980s
Not many movies are inspired by throwback hairstyles, but local filmmaker Josh Slates' new short "89 Gator Mine" was largely influenced by 30-year-old Elke Wardlaw's new 'do. Wardlaw, who plays Penny in the movie, sported a mullet for the first time in the summer of 2006, which moved Slates to write a script set in the decade of acid-wash denim and crimped hair. This pixielike actress has been working with Slates for six years, in projects such as 2006's "Ponkutsu Park" and 2001's "Here and There," and she says that "this latest effort is evidence that Josh's work is getting more ambitious and plot driven."
The layered story of this eight-minute short, which screens at the Charles Theatre Nov. 2, is evidence that Slates has shifted more toward plot and action and away from his earlier work's focus on language and lofty metaphysics. "89 Gator Mine" explores the politics of nuclear war and personal loss through the ruminations and interactions of a girl named Rhett, played by fire-engine redhead Nicolette le Faye.
Slates, executive producer Benn Ray (an occasional City Paper contributor), and actresses le Faye and Rachel Anne Warren sit around an oval table in the back of Atomic Pop on a sunny Sunday afternoon as they laughingly recall the horrors of an icy February shoot and trying to achieve the perfect 1980s look. The shy Slates, 31, says that with this movie he was "interested in portraying what the cool kids who I didn't get to hang out with were up to in the '80s," an obsession clearly reflected in the short's attention to fashions and products of the era. Slates gave le Faye, 26, and his longtime acting and producing collaborator Warren, 25, complete creative control over their wardrobe--such as Warren's Rudy Huxtable-like sideways ponytail. The lone exception is a pair of zebra-print pants that le Faye wears, which Slates says he "miraculously found in the street in Charles Village."
Finding these clothes was as easy as going through their closets. "It makes it easier to find this stuff now that the decade's fashions seem to be coming back," Warren says. But Slates still spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to locate key items, such as a red 1986 Nissan sports car and an anti-Qaddafi T-shirt.
This attention to 1980s period details helps calibrate the movie's tone. In the mid- to late '80s, American optimism was peaking, the Cold War was abating, and people were no longer afraid of imminent nuclear attack. That relief and optimism are reflected in Rhett's metalhead friends.
"There was this weird period of time no one seems to remember where you had young people like metal fans that were really in support of Ronald Reagan," Slates says. "They were very simplistically patriotic because of the end of the Cold War," which Slates feels led to "national isolationism and . . . destructive insularity."
The movie's less-than-flattering depiction of young adults in the '80s reflects a naiveté that Slates suggests stems from American feelings of world domination. And Slates puts such sentiments into his characters' mouths. For "89 Gator Mine," Slates attempts to capture young Americans' worldview of the time period. "[I] wanted to try something different and really get away from lengthy poetic dialogue in order to emphasize the time period and the characters in it," he says.
Lines such as "Nuke 'em all--let God sort 'em out" are surely meant to be funny, but they feel awkward in the context of Slates' more eloquent work. In previous movies Slates has favored Hal Hartley-ish dialogue, an admitted influence, where complicated and poetic exchanges reveal character insight into a world of emotion and thought. "89 Gator Mine" forcibly avoids intellectual speech and focuses on tactile problems at hand with transparent dialogue--a friend leaving home to join the military, a parent's untimely demise, a nation on the brink of isolation.
"Some of what I set out to do relies on the understanding that this disconnect with the rest of the world fostered pride and arrogance in this country," Slates says of his new short. And executive producer Ray sees a parallel between its 1980s political setting and the present. "The American movement toward isolationism portrayed literally in the movie through these characters, I think, suggests something about where we are today," Ray says.
Slates instantly agrees, adding that there's "no correct read on the film, but if [I] was forced at gunpoint to say there was one, Benn . . . had it right."
"89 Gator Mine" ends on an ambiguous note. A nuclear explosion at the close could foreshadow the political powder keg set up by its characters' arrogant reasoning. It could also simply serve to reinforce Rhett's heartache and the disconnect she feels from the world. Either is accurate, since the political and personal become so closely intertwined. This ambiguity is what opens the short movie up to escaping its poor dialogue (with or without a purpose) and lends it resonating layers of meaning.
"This movie's only about a third about philosophy," Slates notes, "with the emotional anguish of the main character and aesthetics making up the rest."
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