John Ur makes a pitstop on his Cinematic Road Trip to give us a taste of Arizona.
Back when I was just a wee lad, my mental map of Arizona included nothing but orange sand. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live there. To me, any desert must be like the Sahara I’d seen on TV. I had no perception that different types of deserts could exist in different climates.
Fast forward some twenty years and my perception of Arizona hadn’t much changed. I expected to see a flat, dry and sandy land sprinkled with a town here and there. Much to my pleasant surprise, Arizona is much more diverse in landscape than I pictured. True, in the south, the land is largely dominated by saguaro cacti and the rugged landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert (as can also be seen in southern New Mexico and West Texas), but as you move north from Phoenix toward Sedona and Flagstaff, the elevation gains about 5,000 - 7,000 feet, with Humphreys Peak topping the state at 12,633 feet above sea level.
Heading north through the state, you will see the landscape shift from the flat desert land in the south to the wonderful red rocks of the central region. Sedona boasts an impressive amount of rock formations, each with their own particular name (based roughly on their shape: Coffee Pot, Bell, Cathedral Rock, etc.). Flagstaff and areas further north are surprisingly green and maintain a moderate climate throughout most of the year due to their elevation. And then, of course, there is the Grand Canyon, which sits in the middle of an enormous canyon country that stretches north into Utah and Colorado and south into Mexico’s famed Copper Canyon. Did you know you could ski in Arizona? Me neither.
I hope you’re getting the picture that this is an unexpectedly varied state. Now, which films best show this variety? If you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, you have a number of different films to choose from, including: Fools Rush In, Maverick, Nurse Betty, and Thelma and Louise. But the two I would recommend couldn’t be more dissimilar. For a campy comedy straight out of the 80s, National Lampoon’s Vacation gives you not only the Grand Canyon but a road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles (coincidentally, the same endpoints as the famous Route 66). But if you’re in the mood for more serious fare, you can’t get much better than Koyaanisqatsi (Life out of Balance) by Godfrey Reggio. A visual tone poem, the film contains no dialogue or narration. It is a beautifully moving picture that uses images and music (by Philip Glass) to convey its message.
If you’re looking for the rest of Arizona, the saguaro cactus and the like, you could peruse the old Westerns like Stagecoach, Gunfight at the O.K, Corral, or Angel and the Bad Man. But I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, George Clooney’s directorial debut from 2002. There is a scene where George Clooney (who also portrays CIA agent Jim Byrd) speaks with Sam Rockwell (Chuck Barris) in very hush-hush terms about his contract. This was shot on the White Stallion Ranch, a wide stretch of hot, dry, orange desert between Tucson and Phoenix. The screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) so you may recognize the surrealistic, dark humor. You will no doubt recognize the Arizona that I imagined in my youth – with a lone saguaro waving to you with its two limbs neatly turned at right angles like a gunman caught in a holdup.
Photos: above, a dead tree on the edge of the Grand Canyon; below, red rocks in Sedona. By John Ur.