Cinematic Odysseys Through the Underworld
Most movies are stories in the traditional sense. They are narratives that run a certain course and have a their three act structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Some of them have characters who travel around, yet we might hesitate to call the action taking place an "odyssey." Odysseys require more than moving from point A to point B; they require an uncovering of a world or reality entirely new to the character traveling through it or a mission that requires fulfilling. Odysseys exist with a sense of drive and purpose attached to their exploration. While there are fun-loving odysseys, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), or endless adventure movies some of the best are the explorations into the underbelly of society; the worlds most of us never actually encounter and yet have a genuine desire to explore.
For a true dive into seediness, let us start with cult favorite Showgirls (1995). (Author’s note: not one of my favorite movies, but I can appreciate the appeal). Showgirls might not initially be thought of as an odyssey, since it takes place in one city, but the exploration takes place in it's protagonist Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and her character arc. Nomi wants to be a dancer, and once she arrives in Las Vegas she finds her entrance to this underworld, unsurprisingly, in a sleazy strip club. We follow as she delves deeper into a realm that many of us would shudder to encounter. It’s a movie about navigating the most exploitative creatures and offers, seeing how one changes when presented with temptations and getting lost in a veritable sea of grimy ambition.
Nomi starts the movie hitchhiking her way to Vegas. From the road sign, we can see she’s only a couple hundred miles out. Soon enough, she’s picked up and the journey begins. As stated before, she finds the entrance to the world she needs access to, and relentlessly pushes forward into it. Or more accurately, she dry-humps her way into it via Kyle Maclachlan, aka Zack. To be fair, raise your hand if you wouldn’t dry-hump 90’s (or current day) Kyle Maclachlan just for the hell of it. Since I see no hands, I assume you’re all with me on that one.
What we observe through Showgirls is someone beginning to understand an industry and a city that they once only knew from the outside. Through actually entering the business, Nomi quickly learns the tools she needs to get further along. She secures a spot for herself in a high-end topless show, then pushes the star of the show Crystal Connors (the ever fabulous Gina Gershon) down the stairs in order to get her position. It's an odyssey of someone climbing to the top of the bottom; once Nomi gets there, she realizes just how terrible the reality actually is. No matter how good she is, no matter how hard she dances, she will one day be replaced by someone younger and hungrier, all the while being viewed as a commodity by those in charge. In one of the last scenes of Nomi’s strange ride through the Vegas strip, she visits Crystal in the hospital where Crystal tells her that she got her part the same way Nomi did, that this is just a cycle she’s taking part in without knowing it. Following this, and some kind of tacked on justice for a friend, Nomi leaves Las Vegas and the movie comes full circle as we see her hitchhiking away from Sin City.
While Showgirls takes place over the course of several months and shows a character adapting to their new environment, Good Time (2017) is a more straightforward odyssey that takes place over the course of one night. Connie (Robert Pattinson) is on a mission to rescue his brother from police custody but everything he does just makes it all worse. His brother Nicky (Benny Safdie) was arrested following a bank robbery that Connie planned out, but ends up hospitalized due to a fight in jail. When Connie hears this news, he heads to the hospital to break his brother out, which is where the movie goes full force into the real voyage.
From that point on, Connie is always on the move; we follow him from Manhattan to the Bronx to Adventureland out on Long Island (Represent! Kinda, I just went there a lot as a kid), then to Queens. Each location serves a purpose, and almost as interesting as the action in the locations themselves is Connie’s ability to travel to them. Leaving the hospital with a bandaged, unconscious man he believes to be his brother, Connie lies his way onto a shuttle bus that’s dropping other patients off, which leaves him on a random block he claims to live on. So now he’s away from the cops and thinks he’s achieved his goal, but it’s New York in the winter, not to mention the middle of the night, and Connie knows he needs to get inside. He backtracks to the house of a woman he met on the bus and again lies his way into her house. When the unconscious man who turns out to not be his brother wakes up, he tells Connie about a stash of money and a soda bottle filled with LSD that he hid in an amusement park on Long Island. Connie convinces the woman’s granddaughter, with whom he has been watching TV (and almost engaging in statutory rape) to let them take her grandmother’s car to get to Adventureland. Eventually this leads them to attacking a security guard, stealing his keys, and hiding out in his apartment in Queens.
Good Time isn’t an odyssey about exploring, but rather one about someone moving from chance to chance, opportunity to opportunity. The film creates a sense of urgency and each step in its journey feels like a worse decision than the one before. What makes Good Time such an interesting experience is how the viewer finds themselves rooting for Connie. Not because he’s a good guy, but because he’s made such a mess of things for everyone else and you can’t help but hope with each new location that this time things will get fixed. The truth is that Connie could have fixed everything right away by walking into a police station, turning himself in, and telling them that he forced his mentally handicapped brother into the bank robbery. Instead, he traverses a cold, dark world, taking advantage of everyone he meets, even when some of them appear to be genuinely good people trying to be helpful to someone in need.
Connie and Nomi couldn’t be more different as characters at the start but they do meet somewhere in the middle, especially once Nomi learns the ropes. Connie’s quest is powered by his selfishness and assisted by the manipulation he’s mastered. Nomi’s is powered by her ambition and assisted by the manipulation she discovers. They both provide an example of how the worlds we choose to live in change and shape who we are and in the end, Connie is caught and Nomi leaves on her own accord. Both are stories of fairly joyless journeys, however the next movie is pretty much the opposite.
Tangerine (2015) is a movie about trans sex workers Sindee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) on a Los Angeles Christmas Eve. Sindee, who has just gotten out from court ordered rehab, finds out that her boyfriend and pimp (seems like a winning combination) Chester (James Ransone) is cheating on her with a cisgender woman Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), so off she goes to find the offending party. Her search takes her all over LA as she finds Dinah, drags her along to find Chester, then hauls ass to see Alexandra performing at a nightclub. Here there is a moment of respite before they set out again to find Chester, only to have him laugh at how ridiculous Sindee’s being while they all smoke meth together.
Unlike Showgirls and Good Time there is a sense of levity to Tangerine, the characters aren’t seen as sad or broken. Though Sindee’s odyssey is frenetic and charged with manic energy, it remains fairly low stakes. In fact, one of the tensest parts of the movie is a scene on a bus when Sindee realizes she’s going to be late for Alexandra’s performance and is legitimately torn up about it. This is a slice of life in another world most of us don’t visit yet Tangerine is populated with people who enjoy their lives and each other’s company. Even after their initial scrape, Sindee and Dinah share several laughs together (many of them drug fueled) and there’s no hint of violence in their confrontation with Chester. In fact, the only moments in the movie that make you remember what a dangerous life it is for these women is when people from outside their world attack them – one being a man who didn’t want to pay for services rendered, and the other a car filled with young guys who toss a cup of urine at them. Their own lives radiate warmth and friendship, and at the end of a hyper, delirious day, Sindee and Alexandra sit together in a laundromat smiling at each other while they wash the urine out of their wigs. This is not the louche ladder of Vegas or the scramblings of a frantic, selfish convict. This is just the lives these women live, and they just happen to be lives that are always erratic, shifting, and strange.
Odysseys are moved forward and directed by what the characters bring to them, and often times, those characters find themselves at the mercy of the trek. In all three of these movies, the protagonists take the first step, setting their sights on something, but soon find that they control very little in their own lives. This is the essence of an odyssey; it’s not just a physical journey or a straight motive. It’s having a moment where, like Homer the Greek, someone is staring out over a proverbial ocean and realizing that the whims of nature or power or society have taken control of their path. All they can do is hold on until the next island is spotted with the hope that this will be what they’re searching for: the moment when they get to stop moving.