The Florida Project played as the Festival Gala of the 61st BFI London Film Festival.
“They must really feed each other to the lions down there,” says an amused Henry Hill in GoodFellas (1990) as he contemplates dangling a victim over the lion den at the Tampa Zoo. The ‘down there’ the New Yorker refers to can only be one place: Florida.
Florida is a strange, transient place. Sunshine State though it may be – land of magical theme parks and year-round balmy weather – it is also a place of severe inequality and often bizarre criminal activity.
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In fact, the state’s weird news cycle has been the butt of more than a few jokes. From front-yard suburban beheadings to alligator attacks and meth-fuelled robberies, the third most-populous state in the union is far from sedate. It follows on from this that cinema set in this beautiful tourist trap makes for a garden of diverse, flashy, hothouse flowers.
In Tangerine (2015) director Sean Baker’s brilliant new feature The Florida Project, the candy-coloured but impoverished world of working people is detailed with humanity and humour. Seen from a six-year-old girl’s point of view, the strip-mall underbelly of Orlando’s urban sprawl still has its own kind of potent thrill and magic.
That magic is dispersed in trashy southern-fried neo-noir The Paperboy (2012). The sexual intrigue is ratcheted up with the sticky Florida heat. Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo are both reporters in late 60s Miami, and McConaughey is a good old boy most firmly in the closet. While they both investigate a case of redneck justice – John Cusack has been accused of killing a racist cop – they grapple with their attraction to each other. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman rescues Zac Efron from a severe jellyfish sting with her much-remarked-upon urination scene. Laugh if you like, but any Floridian knows the ammonia really does reduce the swelling.
Although Florida is often seen as a dwelling place for retirees and tourists, it also holds an enormous cross-section of Americans who are escaping something – whether that be cold weather or something more sinister. Home to the very poor and the very rich alike, it houses a gaggle of pro wrestlers, strippers, real estate agents, dodgy politicians… and criminals of all kinds.
Gene Hackman stars as a private detective chasing a runaway teen to Florida in Night Moves (1975), only to learn that a larger criminal conspiracy is taking place across the false cheer of the Florida Keys. The film closes with Hackman hopelessly circling in a boat on the warm waters of the Gulf, mired in a plot that he can never hope to solve or fix. The corruption is too great.
In the 1980s, Miami became a hub of American cocaine trafficking, led largely by gangs and going on to inspire the lurid world of Scarface (1983). When Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay, he spent time embedded with the Miami police in the city at the height of its bloody turf wars and tacky new money. And if the operatic maximalism of De Palma’s film seems stylised, Billy Corben’s incredible documentary Cocaine Cowboys (2006) proves that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. The real Miami drug wars of the 80s had a host of terrifying and eccentric kingpins, and they owned the city in ways that made Tony Montana look small-fry.
That’s to say nothing of the state’s infamous serial killers, among them Ted Bundy and Aileen Wuornos. Both have been depicted in several film and television works over the years, but Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn as Wuornos in Monster (2003) is the most memorable. Her desperate poverty leads first to prostitution, a lively trade in the nocturnal underbelly of Florida’s cities.
With its shiny corporate artifice and traffic-jammed four-lane highways, it’s almost hard to believe there’s a ‘history’ of the state. But a handful of mid-century American films visit the locale in the 1940s and 50s, and some slick comedies from masterful studio directors show us more of Florida’s past.
Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) knows all about the peacocking wealthy that languish on their Florida yachts. Divorcee Claudette Colbert meets an eligible millionaire (Rudy Vallee) on her train to Palm Beach and hooks him, winding up with a lavish closet full of clothes but the old assurance that money can’t buy love. In the rapid-fire switcheroo of Sturges’ world, Florida is the place you go to become somebody else – and that’s an important lesson to remember.
Marilyn Monroe also seeks out a wealthy suitor in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) – a movie that’s all about people pretending to be someone else. When Sue’s Society Syncopators head to Miami to perform in a swanky hotel, Marilyn skips around on the beach and finds herself wooed by Junior (Tony Curtis), a pretend oil heir with a stolen yacht and a decent Cary Grant impression.
The immortal final scene on a speedboat only hammers the point home. The Sunshine State loves its sun-baked millionaires and capitalist hucksters. But it has an ethos at heart that’s very American: you can create whatever identity and status for yourself that you see fit.
In the 50s, Florida was a popular resort location for the well-heeled, even in the days before Disney World. But much of it remained untouched swampy backwoods, housing a much poorer section of society.
While most mid-century directors naturally focused on the glamour of the former, those alligator and mosquito-infested patches of land fascinated Nicholas Ray. The master director responsible for Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel without a Cause (1955) was often fascinated by the lifestyles of those on the margins: rodeo cowboys, disaffected teens, drug addicts. In his 1958 drama Wind across the Everglades, Ray illustrates the work of a turn-of-the-century conservationist (Christopher Plummer) who is working passionately with the Audubon Society to protect the wild birds of Florida from poachers.
Although it’s a pessimistic and not widely loved work, it does provide a pointed antithesis to the luxurious white-sand beaches that populated most Floridian films of the era – one of hard graft, rampant wildlife, and, frankly, an onslaught of sweaty rednecks.
That glistening sweat is a indomitable factor of living in the humidity of the state, and filmmakers have learned to use it excellently. From the male strippers of Magic Mike (2012) to the sweltering love affair in Body Heat (1981), Florida’s on-screen depiction of perspiration tends toward the sexy.
Toned, gym-bunny bodies are more frequently on display, as with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s appearances in Baywatch (2017) and Michael Bay’s saga of bodybuilding crooks, Pain & Gain (2013). In fact, Bay’s might be the ultimate Florida film, featuring lavish wealth, sleazy crime, fake tan and ostentatious bad taste. But it’s willing to laugh at itself, too.
Florida’s extremes – alligator attacks in pristine Disney World theme parks, a staggering divide between gated communities and worn-down slums, its gorgeous landscape and its ugly shopping centres – make for a unique environment. In Sean Baker’s new film, the crassness and the beauty come together in the most humane and memorable ways.