Sunday, August 31, 2014

This is Phoenix! Real Life (1979)

I'm going to take a break from taking a break from posting about scary stuff (it HAS been awhile since my last post....ahem) to tell you about one of my favorite comedies of all time, which was not only set and filmed in 70's-era Phoenix, Arizona where I grew up, but also made some startling predictions about how technology would change filmmaking, and how unscripted "reality" programming would become a viable entertainment format.
It's the 1979 pseudo-documentary Real Life. Written and directed by Albert Brooks (Finding Nemo, Taxi Driver, Drive), and starring Brooks as a fictionalized version of himself, Real Life is essentially an early "found footage" film in which we view the results of a failed attempt to document a year in the life of a typical American family.

Today, this is such a commonplace premise it hardly needs further explanation, but back in '79 the idea that cameras capturing the typical everyday interactions of regular people in their homes, warts and all, would be a source of entertainment, and perhaps provide insight into the human condition, was a pretty radical concept.
The Yeager Family of Phoenix (portrayed by Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain as the parents, with a son and daughter), are the lucky family chosen for the project, beating out hundreds of other applicants in a grueling (and hilarious) screening process, which involves interviews, psychological evaluations, and embarrassing role-playing exercises (which, as Brooks notes dryly, "single-handedly discouraged 23 families from further participation.")
This occurs not at a Hollywood studio casting call, but at the "National Institute of Human Behavior" in Boulder, Colorado, in order to lend the project, which Brooks is convinced has important sociological and scientific merit, an air of legitimacy.
This is where the film makes some remarkable predictions about the future of filmmaking technology. First, as part of the screening process, candidates have their face scanned into a computer model in order to evaluate their "screen presence" at any angle.
That's right--in 1979, Brooks predicted digital face scanning and pre-visualization on a computer.
Although the actual result resembles the greatest Vectrex game never made.
On top of that, Real Life purports to be the first movie photographed with DIGITAL CAMERAS. In an effort to be as unobtrusive to their subjects as possible, a "whole new generation of motion picture equipment" is developed specifically for this project: The Ettinauer 2-26 XL, from Holland.
Not only is the camera worn over the head (supposedly for ergonomic considerations, but it also has the hilarious effect of making the cameramen look like alien visitors)...
...but all images and sound are captured digitally, on printed circuit-boards, which are swapped out when filled to capacity and later transferred to traditional film.
It's important to note that in 1979 this was, frankly, impossible, and the introduction of these cameras steers the film into the science-fiction genre.

Despite Brooks' initial enthusiasm, things get off to a rocky start when the Yeagers' on-camera family dinner debut begins in uncomfortable silence and collapses into a loud argument that sends the children to their room while Mrs. Yeager complains about her menstrual cramps.
Mr. Yeager, meanwhile, can't disguise his discomfort being filmed, repeatedly looking at the cameras and issuing apologies for his family's behavior.
Brooks, for his part, can't seem to stay off-camera or out of the Yeagers' lives. He moves into the house directly across the street and is constantly popping in, involving himself in their family drama, and trying to steer the Yeagers' behavior with offers of a big screen TV or football tickets if they'll "open up".
A few weeks into the shoot, word of the project leaks to local media thanks to an article in The Arizona Republic, and the Yeagers are soon hounded by news cameras on the street and at their home (including a reporter from KPHO TV 5).
"Nightmare In the Desert: The Phoenix Experiment". Sensational article appears to have been doctored into an actual copy of The Arizona Republic next to a story on winter tourists a.k.a. "snowbirds". A flyer advertising the Heard Museum is visible on the table.

Between the stress of constant filming, the local media attention, and Brooks' overbearing personality, the entire family eventually shuts down...
...prompting Brooks to turn up at their door, unannounced, in clown makeup, in an ill-conceived plan to cheer them up so they'll be more interesting subjects for his movie.
Finally the Yeagers have had enough and announce they want to quit the project entirely. Brooks, realizing that two months in Phoenix is a movie without an ending, goes into some kind of severe emotional meltdown. Hoping to salvage the film by emulating the spectacle of big budget blockbusters like Gone With the Wind or Jaws, he provides his own dramatic climax by setting their house on fire.
To give you an idea of how novel the concept of filming "reality" for entertainment was at the time, we need merely observe the depiction of the old-guard studio head reluctantly funding the project, Martin Brand (Jennings Lang), who can't distinguish between what Brooks is doing and "the God-damned news", and repeatedly implores Brooks to cast James Caan, Neil Diamond, or some other big name as a next-door neighbor or housekeeper, to give audiences a reason to tune in.

We get to see a lot of Phoenix locations and landmarks during the course of the film (although I suspect at least some of it was filmed elsewhere) including long lost amusement park Legend City, the Phoenix Zoo, Goldwaters department store (owned by... yes, THOSE Goldwaters!) and the downtown area, as well as some local media institutions like The Arizona Republic newspaper, and TV stations KPHO and KAET, and radio station KDKB.

Here's some pics, and if any fellow Zonies want to help identify some of the locations or share your memories, please elucidate us in the comments section!

1.1 - Downtown Phoenix
The Wyndham Hotel (building with the half-circle windows) and Hyatt (with rotating restaurant The Compass Room on top)
1.2 - Downtown Phoenix
The Hotel Luhrs
1.3 - Downtown Phoenix
2.1 - Animal Hospital building
2.2 - Arizona Veterinary Clinic, lobby
Supposedly the interior of the same building, but it could be another location.
2.3 - Arizona Veterinary Clinic, interior hallway
2.4 - Arizona Veterinary Clinic, interior office
3.1 - Goldwaters Department Store
I believe this was the Scottsdale Fashion Square location, although there were several in town.
4.1 - Papago Park
This appears to be somewhere in Papago Park, a range of distinct mountains near where The Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden are located.
5.1 - The Phoenix Zoo, entrance
5.2 - The Phoenix Zoo, elephant
Not sure if this is the famed painting elephant Ruby or not...(?)
5.3 - The Phoenix Zoo, giraffes
5.5 - The Phoenix Zoo, tortoises
6.1 - Log Flume Ride
I'm guessing this is The Log Jammer, a ride at Legend City, an amusement park that used to be located near Papago Park. Can anyone confirm?
Picture of Legend City Log Jammer for comparison:
7.1 - KPHO "Live Eye" Truck
Looks like this is somewhere downtown.
8.1 - KAET mobile van and KDKB truck
KAET is the local Public Broadcasting station, and rock radio station KDKB is following in a truck. This appears to be in a residential area somewhere.
9.1 - Mountain Neighborhood
I'm not sure what mountain this is, presented in the film as the Yeagers' neighborhood in the newer "fifth district".
10.1 - Elementary School
This school is identified as "Benjamin Franklin Grammar School", but I have no idea what school this actually is or if it is even in Phoenix.
11.1 - Soft Serve Ice Cream location
Reflection in the glass places it adjacent to someplace called "CAL Automotive". I have no other clues as to its identity or location.
12.1 - Dry Cleaners
A sign reads "Thank You Call Again".
13.1 - The Yeagers' and Albert Brooks' cul-de-sac
The Yeagers' house is at the end of a cul-de-sac and bears house number 10510. Albert Brooks took a house across the street with house number 10501. I'm not sure if this cul-de-sac is actually in Phoenix (the green trees visible in the undeveloped area at the end of the cul-de-sac don't look very "Phoenix" to me) but here are screen caps from four directions if any detectives want to try to find it.

UPDATE: Reader totallymorgan managed to track down the cul-de-sac at 10510 Laramie Pl., Los Angeles, CA. The houses have been remodeled a bit since the film but there are several identifying features that have survived, including the circular garden wall at the neighbors house which is still standing. Thanks totallymorgan!

14.1 - Movie Theater
Because this is a night scene its hard to make out any details identifying this movie theater entrance.
15.1 - Memorial Park
Finally there's this memorial park, site of a funeral scene. The mountains in the background might help locate it.