' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Miss Firecracker (1989)

Friday, November 06, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Miss Firecracker (1989)

When Popeye (Alfre Woodward) explains that she plans on moving to this town called Elysian Fields, it’s like an even more earnest rendering of the moment in “Cool Runnings” when the conspicuously named Yul Brynner explains Buckingham Palace is his hopeful utopia. And like Yul Brynner, everyone in Thomas Schlamme’s sentimental “Miss Firecracker” is trying to go get their own palace, no one more than Carnelle Scott (Holly Hunter), a Yazoo City, Mississippi lifer. The first time we see her, she is striding through the plastic divider of her place of employment, a catfish packing plant, dressed to kill, her hair an illustrious red, as if she’s on a model walkway, which is where she yearns to be considering her dream is to win the local Miss Firecracker contest and then get the hell outta Yazoo City in a “blaze of glory.”


That's the ideal here - get out, go somewhere else, anywhere else. And yet everyone only seems to wind up back here. Delmount Williams, Carnelle’s cousin, fresh out of the mental asylum, walks off his job with declarations of going to find his greatness. “I’m tired of hiding from my philosophical calling!” he hollers. “Destiny is mine!” Of course, he returns to Yazoo City to find it. Elain Rutledge (Mary Steenburgen) actually did get out. She’s a former Miss Firecracker, version 1972, who now lives in Atlanta with a rich husband and two children. She has everything she wants yet still returns home to deliver the keynote address for this year's Miss Firecracker Contest because there's nothing like bathing in adulation from your hometown.

She's also there to deliver Carnelle the red dress she needs to win the contest. Except Elain isn't about to give it up so easy. She takes the contest seriously, as does everyone in it, Carnelle included, whose eyes focus on each part of the competition with a smoldering intensity. In reality, the contest comes across like one step down from fair queen. It's a little like watching The Laurel Players as Beauty Contestants, taking almost too much hope out of this crown. Elain is proof, whether or not she realizes it, revealing she's unhappy and plans on leaving her husband. “I don’t know if I can stand to give it all up. We have such beautiful clocks,” she sighs in one of the gloriously out of touch lines I can recall. This is what the victor's pageant sash yields.

The film, however, oddly, settles for being a southern friend “It's A Wonderful Life”, content to believe that there's no place like home, that Elysium Fields doesn't exist and so remaining close to your roots is what's best. The end of the film comes coated in that kind of saccharine stay home propaganda state governors and city mayors try to pitch to keep people from pursuing greener pastures. And that's fine. Some people want to stay where they came from. But not everyone. Carnell doesn't. And if the movie seems to think her concluding scene, firecrackers exploding above her marks self-recognition of Dorothy Gale's famous mantra, Holly Hunter is resists that idea, looking up at the sky with the gone-away expression of someone who has all too willingly crawled back in the cocoon.

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