Monday, April 30, 2012

The Idiot (Hakuchi)

Setsuko Hara

THE IDIOT (Hakuchi)              B                    
Japan  (166 mi)  1951  d:  Akira Kurosawa
Opening version (180 mi)  Extended cut (265 mi) 

I can't ruin the innocent life of a child like you.        
— Taeko Nasu (Setsuko Hara)

Kurosawa always enjoyed the challenge of filming great literary works, but certainly a Dostoevsky novel, The Idiot, presented immense challenges simply in length alone.  Transporting 19th century events from Saint Petersburg, Russia to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido following WW II, the Christ-like protagonist Kameda is returning after being falsely charged with war crimes, initially sentenced to death which drove him into a mental breakdown where he continues to have harrowing dreams of his death, leaving him frail and susceptible to epileptic seizures, recovering in an American POW camp.  There’s an early scene in this film where Kameda, whose innocence and blunt honesty causes social awkwardness that leaves him known as the Idiot (Masayuki Mori, the slain husband from Kurosawa’s previous 1950 film ROSHÔMON), is walking through a snowy, tree-lined landscape with Yoshiko Kuga as Ayako, where one is immediately reminded of similar post card images from Orson Welles and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), two films that suffered similar fates, as they were both mutilated beyond recognition by the studio brass who felt the director’s four-hour version was unwatchable.  Kurosawa’s original cut was 100 minutes longer than the only surviving print and an hour longer than his highly successful later work SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), which suggests nearly 40 % of the original film is missing.  Nestled between two masterworks, there’s every reason to believe this was an epic adaptation, including an array of activities and developments that befit an entire host of novelesque characters, where Kurosawa turns this into a wrenching melodrama, but all we’re left with are fragments, which at times feel underdeveloped, perhaps resembling the tone and structure of one of Kameda’s fever-pitched dreams. 

Kameda meets Akama (Toshirô Mifune) on a train back home, two men who are exact opposites, as Kameda is penniless while Akama is wealthy beyond his means, a man who lets no one stand in his way and is as physically aggressive as Kameda is passive.  At the train station, they see a picture in a photography studio of Taeko, Setsuko Hara, who worked with Kurosawa previously in NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH (1946), also several Ozu films including TOKYO STORY (1953), where the snowy mood on the streets is beautifully captured in a sequence here, even if it includes Russian dubbed dialogue 'The Idiot' (Akira Kurosawa) ("Однозвучно гремит  YouTube (3:33).  Kameda mysteriously breaks into tears as he sees the sadness in her eyes, as she’s been a kept women, the mistress of a wealthy businessman since the age of 14, and has obviously been visited by more men than she cares to remember.  She’s being sold into marriage for 600,000 yen at a dinner party when Kameda and Akama arrive in a blizzard of snow, where Akama offers a rival bid of one million yen on the spot.  This extended sequence runs the gamut in expressing tumultuous emotions, given a backdrop of insidious male behavior, female subjugation, and town gossip, as the deal is brokered by Ayako’s father, Takashi Shimura, who plays something of a slimeball in this picture, a rarity for him as he’s usually the noblest character onscreen.  But that part belongs to Kameda, who in a brilliant masterstroke after Taeko has melodramatically rejected all offers, drowning in her own sorrows, penniless and humiliated, claiming no one would want her now, quietly indicates he would accept her as she is, asserting that in his eyes, she remains a pure and faithful woman, which leads to a real contradiction of morals, as Taeko is stunned by this admission and truly touched at hearing it, as men have only wanted to dominate and control her.  Akama is stunned as well, wondering what business it is of Kameda to butt in on his offer, which he feels is just as genuine, amazed that his frail friend has suddenly become his biggest rival.  This masterful party sequence beautifully interweaves the lead characters and their relationship to one another, while also establishing the town’s inclination to ridicule Kameda.     

While offscreen, the two men attempt to win Taeko’s hand, but she regrets it can’t be Kameda, fearing her disgraced lifestyle would ruin him.  Meanwhile, Kameda has found a defender from Ayako, whose family is the picture of gossip and convention, whose father (Kameda’s uncle) is forced to admit he swindled Kameda out of his inheritance.  Liko Ozu, the master of intimate chamber works, Kurosawa uses signature shots which he repeats throughout the picture, that include shots of Kameda pacing out front of Akama’s immense home that is covered in snow hoping he’ll let him in, or a shot of Ayako sitting at the piano in front of a window in her home with snow pelting the glass pane.  Snow figures prominently in this version, beautifully capturing the architectural landscape of Hokkaido buried under layers of snow, where much of the narrative takes place in a blizzard, using a Godard-like interior and exterior expression, where a tracking camera captures documentary style street scenes in the snow, also reflected from interior shots looking out large windows, and where inside Akama’s dark, cavernous mansion are rooms filled with snow and ice, resembling images from DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965).  But the most outrageous of all is a wonderfully expressive outdoor ice carnival (can’t say there’s anything else like it), skaters wearing masks while carrying sparklers, all set to the frenetic music from Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,”  Mussorgsky-Stokowski "A Night on Bare Mountain" YouTube (9:47), at least partially captured in a short trailer sequence here The Idiot 1951 YouTube (1:03).  The finale pits both the two women and the two men against one another, where their fate seems to rest in each other’s arms, each a shadow figure of the other, where Setsuko Hara pulls off her best Joan Crawford imitation while Ayako, something of a caged bird, attempts to find her own wings, but it’s the haunting quiet of the men losing their grip in the darkness of Akama’s frozen mansion, turned into a living tomb, that is the most unsettling, reminiscent of the final apocalyptic father and son scene in DODES’KA-DEN (1970), where the presence of doom is everpresent, yet here its silence is unusually poetic, the gravity broken only by a brief and altogether unnecessary final coda.      

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt

SHADOW OF A DOUBT             A              
USA  (108 mi)  1943  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Love and good order is no defense against evil.        —Alfred Hitchcock

A small gem of a film, thought to be Hitchcock’s own personal favorite, perhaps his “first indisputable masterpiece” and the predecessor to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986), featuring the optimistic charm of small town America, perhaps best captured a year later by Vincent Minnelli’s 1944 film MEET ME IN ST LOUIS, here turned upside down, corrupted and grown ghastly pale, as if the life force was sucked out of it by an unhappy visitor, Joseph Cotton in one of his rare turns as an evil man with a prominent dark streak.  The film has a delicious quality to it, filled with a constant stream of clever wit and humor, written by the unlikely combination of Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, MEET ME IN ST LOUIS writer Sally Benson, and Hitchcock’s own wife, Alma Reville, who seemed to revel in the antics of her husband’s comic obsession with death, relishing the wicked idea of having a weird killer uncle in the family, as if this provided a fountain of neverending delight.  Much of what is so marvelous about this film is the likability of the town itself, its citizens with their sunny dispositions, where suddenly one man walks among them who hates living, who thinks life is hell, who dishes out vile thoughts at the family dinner table, but people overlook it as pure nonsense, the ravings of a man who is simply tired and needs a good night’s sleep, or perhaps an extra helping of desert.  On the heels of Cotton’s brilliant performance as the ultimate misanthrope, a smooth as silk, quietly mannered, evil snake of a man, there is something amusing and startlingly unique about this unlikely combination of opposites, delivered with an understated perfection from start to finish.

The film opens with images of ballroom dancing, similar to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), only they’re dancing to a Franz Lehár tune called The Merry Widow Waltz I Love You So (Merry Widow Waltz) - The Merry Widow YouTube (3:19), introducing an appropriate recurring leitmotif (often distorted) for a Merry Widow serial killer who seduces, steals from, and murders wealthy widows, whereupon we see gobs of money laying all over the floor while Cotton is alone in his room seen from the street address as #13, where he is alone with his thoughts.  He is told two men came around looking for him and they are still waiting outside.  He takes a walk where he gives them the slip, filmed from the rooftops above as the two unlucky guys find only each other, as Cotton is looking at them from high above smoking a cigar.  Next, he’s on a train to visit his elder sister’s family in Santa Rosa, California where he is Uncle Charlie.  They look forward to his visit with great anticipation, as if it was the highlight of the year.  The black locomotive pulls into the station with gigantic puffs of black smoke, filling the sky with dark clouds of soot, as if the devil himself was arriving. 

Top billing in the credits goes to Teresa Wright, a goodness gracious, all American girl, also named Charlie after her favorite uncle, who she adores. The family dinners are reminiscent of MEET ME IN ST LOUIS, but with a slight variation, as everyone spontaneously speaks about whatever interests them.  Our first sign that something is amiss happens at that perfect family dinner setting.  The niece, Charlie, is humming the catchy Merry Widow tune that she can’t get out of her head.  Uncle Charlie, obscuring the obvious, tells her it must be The Blue Danube Waltz used so effectively by Kubrick in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).  When she’s about to point out the error of his suggestion, he intentionally knocks over a dinner glass, a diversionary measure that may have been the basis of a similar glass breaking in Kubrick’s White Room sequence in 2001. Oddly, the head of the family, Henry Travers, the angel Clarence from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), works at a bank and reads murder thrillers for fun, and one of his favorite past times is comparing ways he and his best friend (Hume Cronyn in his first film) might murder the other without being caught, continually relishing the idea with absolute delight as an aside at the dinner table, which drives his family mad.  Cronyn is always showing up unexpectedly to offer new ideas.  In much the same way, wherever trouble is, Cotton is sure to be lurking nearby.

A couple of detectives visit the house, posing as random questionairres searching for a typical American family, and niece Charlie figures them out, discovering they are searching for a Merry Widow Murderer who fits the description of her Uncle Charlie, which completely changes the dynamic in her bright and cheerful outlook.  She becomes moody and sullen, continuing to sneak in the back way to avoid contact with her uncle, but soon enough, he realizes she’s on to him.  There’s a magnificent sequence where she flies out of the house, Uncle Charlie heads after her.  The sidewalks are jam packed with pedestrians, while the streets are equally crammed with cars, Charlie nearly gets herself killed threading her way through the crowd, eventually running into the middle of a busy intersection where a friendly local policeman safely collects her.  Uncle Charlie pulls her into a ‘til 2 am bar and explains the facts of life: 

“You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep...You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip the fronts off of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”  Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - YouTube  (42 seconds)

While he’s offering this delectable piece of advice, there’s an all-too brief, yet terrific appearance by a burnt out barmaid (Janet Shaw) who may be a year or so older than niece Charlie, but she’s already old before her time, an empty shell of a person that used to have a future in front of her.  Now she seems to be the living personification of Uncle Charlie’s dreary vision of the world as hell. The confrontation of the two Charlie’s, the polar opposites of good and evil, both one and the same, plays out in fine fashion, perhaps the predecessor to the multiple personalities displayed in David Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY (1997).  First he’s guilty, then he’s not, we in the audience get played by the contradictory yet juicy elements of the evershifting storyline, all supported by a wonderful supporting cast that add humor and a change of pace to the suspense, eventually drawing us into the murky scenario of the evil uncle, who can’t stop talking about, what else? 

“Middle-aged widows…useless women…horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.”  Hitchcock Shadow of a Doubt Dinner Scene - YouTube  (1 minute)

How can you not love a guy who so plainly speaks his mind, once again, at the family dinner table, with all the kids gathered around?  All is not what it appears to be in the quiet utopian heart of smalltown USA, the picture image of happiness and economic prosperity.    

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Long Voyage Home

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME       A-              
USA  (105 mi)  1940  d:  John Ford

As far as this job’s concerned, you men haven’t gotten any names. You’re just so many hands.     —Captain (Wilfrid Lawson)

A grim yet revelatory work, beautifully shot throughout by CITIZEN KANE (1941, his next film) cinematographer Gregg Toland using a powerfully provocative German Expressionist style, almost completely told through light and shadow, where man is seen as little more than a silhouette on the wall.  Something near and dear to the director’s heart, Dudley Nichols adapts Eugene O’Neill’s Sea Plays, a combination of four one-act plays all taking place at sea, including port excursions, The Moon of the Caribees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, and The Long Voyage Home, all written between 1914 – 1918 during the First World War.  Ford, however, sets the action during the lead-in to World War II, weaving them all together into a single voyage, perhaps as a progressive notion to raise awareness for the war effort, because England was taking on Hitler alone at the time, where Andrew Sinclair, author of John Ford: a Biography (1979) points out, “Ford was using Irish-American plays and players to praise English patriotism.”  The film became a personal favorite of both Ford and O’Neill, where this is but one of many Ford films built around a journey, such as THE IRON HORSE (1924), THE LOST PATROL (1934), STAGECOACH (1939), WAGON MASTER (1950), THE SEARCHERS (1956), and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), though often the object of the journey is never attained, like a mythical quest for the Golden Fleece, or immortality.  There’s a near surrealist aspect to Ford’s vision, as the weary and rootless sailors of this beat-up freighter ship circle the seas endlessly in a Sisyphus notion, always with the hope that land will offer them renewed life or opportunities, but they’re forever seen dragging their feet back aboard ship again for the next voyage, disappearing into the night like ghosts at sea.  Any O’Neill story is filled with a notable bleakness and sense of disillusionment, but these are ordinary men who lead hard lives filled with noble dreams, broken promises, and false hopes, having no one to blame but themselves for continually abandoning any possibility of hope.          

Coming between the era of rampant unemployment during the Great Depression in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and the harsh setting of a small mining town in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), these form a powerful trilogy on the exploitation of workers, where ordinary people become victims of circumstances beyond their control, becoming easy prey for more powerful interests to swoop in and continually take advantage of their situation.  It’s interesting that these all precede America’s entry into World War II, where our values of passive non-involvement reflect the nation’s lingering paralysis in coming to terms with Hitler and the war, leaving an unsuspecting nation vulnerable and unprotected for attack, which, for lack of a better plan, mirrors the hopeless predicament the men in this film continually find themselves.  The film can be linked as well to THE INFORMER (1935), as both have Irish source material, including the lyrical and near musical enunciation of the language itself, but both are also set inside a hermetically sealed, artificially self-contained universe, a supposed safe haven where one can comfortably retreat, but which often becomes a trap of enclosing doom.  Instead of a powerful lead performance, however, or even a unifying narrative, this is clearly a more abstract ensemble piece of collective voices, giving this the feel of an experimental work, where the striking expressionist look continually creates a murky atmosphere where figures on deck are silhouettes moving slowly through the mist, resembling the fog and gloom of Béla Tarr’s THE MAN FROM LONDON (2007).  The closely constructed quarters onboard the ship resemble the claustrophobic confines of a submarine, where the men are continually stacked on top of one another, never more than a few feet away at any time, with no air to breathe, where privacy is a luxury that exists only in one’s head.  Having spent several years at sea, Eugene O’Neill also suffered from alcoholism and depression, common elements that figure prominently in this film.

From the languorous opening in the steamy tropics of the Caribbean West Indies where women for hire are swaying in the breeze under palm trees, where a chorale of voices chant to the rhythmic sounds of pounding drums, a ship at shore sits with idle men leering over the deck smoking cigarettes, a truly exotic sequence which can be seen here:  ThLngVygHmA - YouTube (10:01).  After a night of alcohol and prostitutes, the ship heads for Baltimore where explosives are packed into the ship before they cross the open sea for England, secretly offering assistance for the war effort.  This is a no frills version of another TITANIC (1997) like disaster of epic proportions, a portrait of endless life on a ship at sea, fresh meat for the officers, hash for the men, where the men’s nerves are frayed entering perilous waters in the Atlantic knowing the cargo they carry and how vulnerable they are to submarine attack.  Like a scene out of HURRICANE (1937), a huge rainstorm takes them by surprise, with giant waves crashing over the deck loosening the anchor, where one poor sap trying to help gets submerged by thundering waves, puncturing his lung.  His chilling death only magnifies their weakness and sets the men on edge, where the mood of camaraderie disintegrates, gradually turning into an eerily extended sequence of growing panic and psychological paranoia, where an overwhelming wave of fear turns them all against one man, creating a lynch mob atmosphere drenched with a malevolent suspicion until shame clears the air with a foul odor.  Adrift at sea, in a perpetual state of soulless decay and dreary isolation, each man must face their own inner demons, where Ford’s direction continually accentuates character, blending the absence of adventure of the voyage with the collective interior wasteland of the men, so once they reach their designated port, they pessimistically ply themselves with alcohol, blithely divorcing all rationality from their inebriated brains, allowing themselves to get suckered once again, until all that’s left is a tragic portrait of a pathetic human condition, each one a beaten down shell of a man, lost souls destined to wander the vast and endless seas in a shadow existence. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Trouble With Harry

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY         B+                 
USA  (99 mi)  1955  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

He looked exactly the same when he was alive, except he was vertical.
—Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine)

A good old-fashioned murder mystery where the whodunit concerns are completely overshadowed by the embellished, personality-driven aspects of this autumnal theater piece set in the glorious fall colors of rural New England, where characterization supersedes all else, as the acerbic tone and blistering speed of the nonstop dialog feels like a tongue-in-cheek Hitchcockian take on an equally comic romp about concealed murders in Frank Capra’s equally enthralling ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944).  Hitchcock obviously loved morbid humor, where the colorful pastoral setting gives this an artificialized, storybook feel, where even the childlike stick drawings in the charming opening credit sequence by Saul Steinberg have a dark and particularly edgy “Once upon a time” appeal.  The opening shots resemble colorful pages of fall colors from a magazine, where every tree is exploding with a painterly appeal, where out of this pictorial bliss appears a dead body.  The film was a favorite of Hitchcock, but one of the few that actually lost money, becoming one of The Five Lost Hitchcocks, kept out of circulation for decades (thirty years for this film) because their rights were bought back by the director and willed to his daughter, eventually re-released in theaters in the mid 1980s.  Only his second comedy after MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941), this is a film uncluttered by extraneous plot devices or unnecessary loose ends, but is instead a vivid character-driven account of events that take place one day in the lives of two couples, though they barely know one another at the start of the day, brought together by the presence of a corpse, where each initially has their own unique reaction to his death.  The truth of the matter is no one really cared that much for Harry, nor is anyone truly sorry to see him go.  Nonetheless, the poor guy gets ungraciously buried and dug up 4 or 5 times in a single day, each time with some new revelation about the effect his death will have on the participants. 

Introduced by the whimsical musical score of Bernard Herrmann (later used in a 2010 Volkswagen commercial), in his first of many Hitchcock collaborations, a young boy, Arnie (Jerry Mathers, soon to be Beaver Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver [1957 – 1963]), goes innocently playing in the woods with a toy gun in his hand, much like Little Red Riding Hood, only to be greeted by a corpse lying on the ground.  Simultaneously, Edmund Gwenn is retired sea Captain Albert Wiles, an elderly old coot with exaggerated autobiographical exploits who happens to be shooting for rabbits in the woods.  Seeing the dead man sprawled out on the ground, he naturally assumes he accidentally shot the man and thinks to bury him on the spot, but quickly hides when he hears others approaching, which include the likes of a wandering hobo who steals the shoes, a self-obsessed professor so engrossed with reading his book that he actually trips over the corpse but nonchalantly continues on his way, unconcerned, until the young boy returns with his mother Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine, goofy and brilliant in her first film appearance), who doesn’t seem the least bit sorry about a corpse that she recognizes as her dead husband.  The Captain narrates his thoughts out loud, as what he hoped he could secretly bury and quickly cover up from view was turning into a busy thoroughfare of pedestrians wandering through this precise patch of isolated woods, eventually joined and invited for elderberry tea by his eccentric neighbor, Mildred Natwick as Miss Ivy Gravely, an elderly spinster, and a local landscape painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), who actually stops to help the Captain bury the corpse.  We quickly learn of budding romantic interests of both the elderly, with Gravely politely and flirtatiously serving tea and blueberry muffins, and the young couple, where Marlowe makes his intentions clear straightaway by forwardly confessing an interest in painting her nude, which leads to the unphased Jennifer changing the subject to her fresh batch of tart lemonade. 

The secret to the success of this witty and deliciously dark comedy is the quick pace of the highly impulsive chatterbox dialog and the warm charm of each of the characters, especially MacLaine, who has the kind of infectious, sensual spunk of a grown up Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), where the setting could just as easily be the cozy small town allure of Angela Lansbury’s Cabot Cove from Murder, She Wrote (1984 – 1996).  Among the more memorable scenes include MacLaine’s curiously detailed explanation of her past with Harry and his brother, also the four of them, like thieves in the night, carrying shovels as they continually walk back and forth into the woods to unearth the poor corpse once again, with a collective intent to keep Harry’s decidedly unpopular influence at a minimum, as who needs to notify the authorities, see their name dragged through the mud, and be forced to re-live this experience all over again?  Better to let bygones be bygones and let Harry sleep undisturbed.  But Harry simply won't stay in one place.  Watching them press and clean his oft buried clothes in order to keep the police from discovering any scent of their unscrupulous activities has an absurdly comical air of wiping their hands clean of any indecent or immoral activity, yet all along they plot like petty criminals how best to cover up their crimes.  This scatterbrained, screwball comedy was written by John Michael Hayes, adapted from a Jack Trevor Story novel.  Shot in Craftsbury, Vermont in late September 1954, nearly all the foliage was gone by the time the film crew arrived, necessitating leaves to actually be glued to the trees in order to create this colorful canvas of idealized perfection, and also, due to the incessant rain, several scenes were shot in a nearby school gymnasium, where a 500 pound camera attached to an elevated crane fell and just missed hitting the venerable director.  21 minutes into the film is Hitchcock’s signature appearance seen through the window of a general store walking past a parked Rolls Royce while an elderly man inspects roadside paintings for sale.  Using occasional racy dialog throughout that might sound more at home in a Marx Brothers movie, it’s curious the effect a corpse can have on an otherwise sleepy and safely protected community, each resorting to innocent white lies that only grow in epic proportion with their wildly active imaginations. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

BLUE LIKE JAZZ          B-                
USA  (106 mi)  2012  d:  Steve Taylor             Official site

Do you have any idea what your hateful, bullying tribe has been up to? Cause around here, you represent a whole new category of despicable. So, if you plan on ever making friends, or sharing a bowl, or seeing a human vagina without a credit card, get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there.
—Lauryn (Tania Raymonde)

Easily the best thing about this film is the title, which immediately offers a multitude of suggestible images inside each individual’s head, which, as it turns out, has little or nothing to do with the movie, though it attempts to link jazz improvisation to the unforeseen forks in the road of life’s journey, though that’s at best a feeble effort.  Instead this is an occasionally smart, often funny and bitingly satiric comedy on the fickle nature of youthful idealism, where God and religion often get tossed into the mix of corporate evil and religious persecution, where it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.  While this film is occasionally hilarious, often similar to the dizzying kaleidoscopic blur that is Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011), though not nearly as consistently entertaining, this on the other hand moves to the other coast and reflects West coast elitism.  Loosely adapted by the director, cinematographer Ben Pearson, and author Donald Miller from his autobiographical book Blue Like Jazz:  Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, a collection of personal essays, this much more fictionalized journey starts out in Texas with a glimpse of Southern fundamental Baptism through the conservative eyes of a true believer, Don (Marshall Allman), who is the assistant youth pastor.  An only child living with his devout single mom (Jenny Littleton), the two are like peas in a pod, while off in the distance somewhere is the more out-of-sorts divorced and atheist father (Eric Lange), known as the Hobo, looking a bit like Allen Ginsberg, living inside a trailer in the woods somewhere, a free thinker who also believes in free sex and jazz, compiling an extensive John Coltrane record collection, whose claim to fame is his philosophy that jazz is like life “because it doesn’t resolve.”  Using his contacts, knowing his son is bright, he gets him into the prestigious Reed College in Portland, Oregon, affectionately known by locals as Weed College, labeled “the most godless campus in America” where the average IQ is 138, supposedly two points higher than genius level, a bastion of hippies, art students, and environmental junkies, the kinds of kids that comprise the hard core leftist agenda, but with rich parents who can afford their transition into progressive activism.  When Don realizes his mother is concealing an affair with the already married youth pastor, he’s off to what is arguably the most liberal college in the United States. 

Initially, this fish-out-of-water transition is hilarious, as the portrait of Reed feels like something right out of Mad magazine, as the attention to detail is uniquely accurate while seemingly greatly exaggerated, but this is a college campus that prides itself on free expression, where no cause goes unnoticed, and everyone seems to already have a fairly well developed, often capricious, point of view.  Immediately Don is singled out as the Texas Baptist boy, a lone voice on campus, where he soon finds that blending into the majority views is easier, often making self-effacing jokes about Christianity, where the suppressed anger of his mother’s morally hypocritical actions remain foremost in his mind.  When he starts submerging his personality in a self-imposed purgatory of alcohol abuse, the film immediately loses its edge, as he’s obviously a sheep gone astray, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way back to the flock again.  The film then goes on two parallel tracks, one delightfully successful, a developing romance with a cute blond named Penny (Claire Holt), who’s in one of his classes and happens to be a similarly God-fearing Christian who is conscious guided, somewhat along the lines of Sally Struthers on the Christian TV Network, where Struthers is always seen soliciting religious contributions for starving orphans around the world, while the other is a walking disaster, the irreverent and obnoxious actions of the Pope (Justin Welborn), a student running around in a Pope’s garments whose sole mission appears to be to prevent students from reading church-based literature, freeing them from the regressive force-fed chains of mental bondage, an anarchistic figure who takes Don under his wing, almost always in a perpetual state of inebriation.  Despite her supposed naiveté, Penny may be the best thing in the picture, as she’s the only one, apparently, standing up for and acting upon her beliefs, while everyone else seems to be pushing a constantly shifting personal agenda of some kind, which may as well be a new theme of the week. 

Adding to the religious blasphemy is Don’s first friend he meets on campus, a lesbian named Lauryn (Tania Raymonde), whose decisively opinionated conversation he overhears in a unisex restroom, but the two become fast friends and confessional soulmates, where Lauryn is often hurt by the unpredictable twists and turns of love, while Don is turning into a one-man wrecking ball, where he’s basically against whatever the prevailing point of view may be, deeply immersed in a sort of self-protected bubble of immunity where he refuses to allow himself to get hurt simply by not believing in anything.  Penny has a hard time with this side of himself, as he’s the one suddenly turning a blind eye to his own hypocrisy by pretending not to care about anything, including his inability to forgive his Commandment breaking mother.  Despite the stereotype of Christian outreach, at least Penny’s view of religion doesn’t alter or change her perspective, nor does she force her views on others, like the everpresent overbearing Pope who’s simply a pompous ass, instead she’s a persistent force for good.  But despite high hopes from the smart and freshly atypical opening, the film bogs down at the end in a kind of Pope-led Bacchanalia ceremony of pagan worship, which is a climaxing set piece of godless sin, initially a mockery of Catholicism and rigid thinking before it turns out to be an unseen healing force for Don, just as naïve as Penny, a novice in the world around him, where the college journey turns out to be his road to enlightenment.  This gentle, coming-of-age film gets the existential tone of transition correct from a kid living at home with his mother, basically brainwashed by the church, suddenly free to explore other trains of thought, which is of course liberating, even if what you discover isn’t far from where you started.  The progressive world of college is seen as a neverending series of choices, where his previous assurance and cliché’d understanding of God in his life turns into a search for meaning and truth, where college is fertile grounds for exploration.  This is an oddly satiric exposé of secular extremism that rejects the hypocrisy and turns into a much healthier and well-rounded understanding of religion. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Winchester '73

WINCHESTER ’73              A-                   
USA  (92 mi)  1950  d:  Anthony Mann 

From films like T-MEN (1947) and RAW DEAL (1948), Anthony Mann brought his textbook film noir stylization to the American western, bringing along Frank Capra’s American everyman Jimmy Stewart to boot, the first of five westerns they would make together, giving him a piece of the take in lieu of a salary that he could not afford to pay, turning the lovable Stewart into a man with a tortured past, obsessed, angry and bitter at having spent the last few years of his life chasing after his nemesis, the man who shot his father in the back.  Along with a more hard-edged, psychological view, Mann also preferred to shoot on location, which adds an element of realism and authenticity to the look of the film, while still carrying over insulting American stereotypes about Indians, where none other than Rock Hudson makes an early appearance as an Indian chief, uttering that stupifying “Injun” lingo to add insult to injury, not to mention that exact same portrayal of Indians in battle that John Ford initiated in STAGECOACH (1939), sending wave after wave of Indians on horseback senselessly to meet their deaths while few if any whites get shot, actions that by any standards would be considered sheer idiocy.  Nonetheless, this film helped bring about a new wave of westerns that once again took another stab at re-inventing the West, this time at least making an attempt at being more truthful.  

A unique twist in this film is introducing the actual weapon, a Winchester 1873 repeating rifle, that the opening title credits indicate “won the West,” as Indians were never able to match weapons with a repeating rifle that did not need to be reloaded after a single shot, their ultimate undoing, and then turning one such rifle into a character in the film, as the story seems to follow whoever’s carrying the gun.  Set on the 4th of July in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876, Marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) holds a shooting contest where the winner is awarded a rare "One of One Thousand" edition of the rifle, a valued weapon that draws together Stewart as Lin McAdams, along with his loyal sidekick High Spade Frankie Wilson, the always low key Millard Mitchell, and the volatile Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), the man McAdams has been trailing.  When they spot each other, their reaction says it all.  But they can’t kill each other, as the law disarms everyone entering town in order to keep the peace, so they go through the motions of simply hating one another.  The shooting contest is interesting, as it goes into what’s ironically called sudden death overtime to determine the winner, McAdams—was there ever a doubt?  But within minutes, Brown and his gang have bushwacked McAdams and stolen his gun.  A pursuit follows, where the gun is at the heart of plenty of action, which takes them to a legendary card game between Brown and an Indian trader, John McIntire, full of swagger and especially creepy at outsmarting others, a gun deal gone wrong between the trader and Young Bull (Hudson), an eventful buggy ride between saloon girl Lola Manners, one of Shelley Winters best roles, sensuous and tough at the same time, never seen with a speck of dirt on her, her hair never out of place, seen earlier being unsolicitously thrown out of town by the Marshal in order to give the town an appearance of being clean and orderly for the festivities, and her fiancé (Charles Drake) just as they are attacked by Indians.  This buggy chase is memorable when the guy confoundingly halts the buggy and bolts away on a horse leaving Winters to fend for herself, a stupifyingly cowardly act, only to discover a small group of Cavalry around the bend, so he returns and brings her to temporary shelter, though as they soon discover, they are surrounded by Indians.   

One clever sound device is listening to the singing of the Indians, who make eerie, highly distinctive animal calls in the night, while also getting the sound of the rifles right.  McAdams and his partner join this little party as well, telling war stories about the Civil War, where incredulously, McAdams is not only aware of the Custer defeat while riding out on the range, which happened in late June of the same year, but he’s also well informed on the Indian’s military strategy on how to attack repeating rifles, which one would have to conclude would be impossible since there were no witnesses.  Again, this is typical of American mythmaking in westerns, which continues through John Wayne’s portrayal in John Ford’s legendary THE SEARCHERS (1956), considered by many to be the best western ever made, where the lead whites (Wayne and Stewart) are not only the most skilled marksmen, but they’re also the wisest military tacticians on the planet, offering a mythologically superior view of whites contrasted against Indians who can’t hit the broad side of a barn.  This exact same scenario has played out in dime store novels, comic books, newspapers, books, as well as movies, always the same, where Indians are just plain dumb, where westerns established the seeds of historic racism that may never be rectified.  Since this is one of the iconic westerns, and seen as a turning point towards more realism, this is painfully hard to swallow.  Nonetheless, the whites are attacked at first light (perpetuating another myth that Indians never attack at night) and wave after wave of Indians are slaughtered before our eyes, including Young Bull and his infamous rifle.  Discovered on the battlefield, the rifle is ironically turned over to Drake for his courage under fire, but he soon loses it as well. 

Enter Waco Johnny Dean, Dan Duryea as a preening lunatic playing his part in the physically exaggerated style of Brando, where his theatricality seems amusing even to Lola whom he abducts and abhors everything that he stands for, but she’s caught by his unorthodox, near caricature of a psychotic outlaw.  He joins up with Dutch Henry Brown, as outlaws always seem to do, and the rest is history.  McAdams stands down Waco Johnny in a manic scene of pure madness, where Stewart had never been seen before savagely fuming with such venom, before he and Brown hightail it out of town for the inevitable final showdown.  We soon discover in a Cain and Abel story that Brown is the bad seed brother to McAdams, whose been tracking him down ever since he shot their father in the back.  They end up in a shootout just between the two of them in a rocky canyon with bullets flying off the rocks, a delirious gunfight that is all about family honor and personal vengeance.  In the end, despite a nicely crafted edginess to a movie that delivers the goods with plenty of action, taut editing, crisp dialogue, some interesting characterizations, and exquisite location photography by cinematographer William Daniels, especially the silhouettes on horseback riding at the top of the hills, copied by none other than Ingmar Bergman for the finale to THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), the resolution comes all too quickly as the moral lines are drawn hard and fast in this movie.

Largely a response to the extensive comments left below by Andrea Ostrov Letania who has her own website here:  ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA

I'm afraid this response may not do justice to your stated concerns, as differing views may be just that, but it's an attempt to clarify possible misconceptions.  Racial depictions are prevalent in Westerns, along with societal inequities and historical injustices, so they need to be evaluated along with the film.

“John Ford initiated in STAGECOACH (1939), sending wave after wave of Indians on horseback senselessly to meet their deaths while few if any whites get shot, actions that by any standards would be considered sheer idiocy.”

To clarify, the idiocy isn't what happened, that Indians (or Chinese Boxers in one of your examples) were shot down in droves, but the way this was portrayed onscreen, where the whites not only shoot the Indians, but also their horses out from under them - - all in a single shot.  This is utter lunacy, yet it is the key to understanding John Ford's mythical creation of a continually escalating visceral thrill onscreen, where the camera is placed low to the ground looking up at the Indian on the horse as they both die, falling simultaneously to the ground, all from a single bullet.  This happens repeatedly, as the fast-paced movement actually creates tension and drives the action.  Why few critics have questioned this outrageously racist depiction is beyond me, as whites are always depicted as not only militarily, but morally and intellectually superior, as if this is a known and undisputed fact, continually portraying Indians as savages and never as the culturally developed people that they were, who did not ravage and destroy the earth, understanding they were dependent upon it to survive.  These images degrade the viewer's understanding and appreciation for Indians and their place in American history, as they were more often the victim of genocide and untold atrocities by the U.S. Cavalry and Defense Department that attempted to wipe them off the face of the earth in order to make way for the white settlers.  It is this fictitious and mythical view of supposed white superiority, as projected in the movies, that continues to plague this nation, reflected by the equally hostile and racist attitudes of many misinformed American soldiers when they are sent to foreign lands.    

I'm not suggesting the Indians (or the Boxers) were stupid, only the invented version of Indians as savages as created by whites in movies, which shows no understanding whatsoever of Indians or Indian culture, something altogether missing in these films.  My point here is to clarify how Mann at least attempted to add a look of realism, including psychological depth and complexity to the Western, but continued to project the same racist "Indian as savages" viewpoint depicted by Ford.  Both added to the common misconceptions, yet both are revered for their supposed authenticity and historic attention to detail in their depiction of the West.  Someone needs to point out how racist and degrading their supposed portrait of authenticity really is.  They allowed white characters to be psychologically complex, but never Indians.

When looking at John Ford, he is a man whose cinematic visualizations are renowned, but his hatchet job of American history is equally legendary, as he insists on perpetrating the same racist myths about Indians that have been in effect for the past 100 years, which makes his historic vision as a filmmaker no better than the dime store novelist that originated these misconceptions.  Ford has always portrayed Indians in the least desirable light, showing them to be less than human, vicious savages, terrible shots, poor military strategists, and little more than pathetic wretches of humanity, so little sympathy is ever shown when a gazillion Indians are killed onscreen, such as in STAGECOACH (1939). 

Compare that to the elevated sympathy offered to two white women escorted by a cavalry troop through hostile Indian territory in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), an overreaching drama that opens in 1876 just as news is spreading about the defeat of General Custer at the hands of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe, sending waves of anxiety and fear throughout the West, where a newsreel style narrator misinforms the audience straightaway, probably exactly as the newspapers speculated in that era, believing various Indian tribes were gathering together in great numbers to purge the West of white settlers.  In reality, Indians were gathering in record numbers to defend themselves against the inevitable advance of the whites into their territory.  After the Custer debacle, however, rather than remain a fighting force of multiple tribes united in opposition, as is suggested here, they split back up into smaller tribes, each going their own separate way, as they had always lived, reflective of their nomadic lifestyle of living off the land.  But that’s not the way the movies tell the story, instead projecting a view of the white settlers as victims of random and indiscriminate Indian violence, overlooking the genocide initiated against Indians by the U.S. cavalry throughout the West, ordered to militarily defeat one tribe after another, rounding up all free Indians in a form of ethnic cleansing, eventually forcing them into submission, legally requiring that they live away from their traditional hunting grounds, forcing them to live in isolation on desolate reservations, subject to rampant disease and the rotted food of government rations where more than half died within the first few years.  Ford conveniently leaves out all references to the true story of “American” history and instead recounts the same mythological racist lore that turns Indians into savages while the whites are noble heroes. 

While you may perceive Indians as clever in THE SEARCHERS (1956), this is a film about a racist and bitterly hateful man, perhaps the most racist film ever made, where Wayne's character is the ultimate Indian hater who rides for years harboring the racist view that whites raised by Indians are better off dead, as his captive niece has been irredeemably "soiled" by the experience, a view he reluctantly revises when he later rescues the daughter of the one woman he loves.  But this view recurs in Barbara Stanwyck's role in yet another Western portrayal, TROOPER HOOK (1957), where she is so scorned by the townsfolk just for having been an Indian's woman, her fall from grace is so severe that she is forced to live outside any society, white or Indian, much like Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS.  Wayne would also rather kill buffalo and leave it to rot on the plains than allow Indians to have food to eat, while the director Ford includes a despicable scene, also Aldrich in ULZANA'S RAID (1972), where whites raised by Indians are depicted as having been raped into insanity.  With Wayne typically the hero that audiences always root for, they are NOT apt to question this horrendous depiction of Indians and the generational harm these images cause both in planting the seed of ignorance in the brain and then having to re-learn how to reject such negative stereotypes, not when there is near unanimous praise for the film and the filmmaker. 

There is no question that in any John Ford/John Wayne movie, but in particular STAGECOACH (1939), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), and THE SEARCHERS (1956), together they forged a tough guy persona as the good guy, a lone man who harbors private secrets from a life filled with experience, adding a touch of intrigue and mystery, not to mention power to his character, personifying the freedom that is associated with the West.  In each, Wayne is viewed as the hero and will inevitably be the most skilled practitioner with a gun or rifle, but also in devising strategy whenever he and/or his men get caught in a tight situation.  It's also safe to say that James Stewart was known for his likeability which continued throughout his career, becoming one of the most beloved figures in American cinema, and that Mann used this trait against type in several of his Westerns, starting with this one. 

Indian strategy is at least mentioned in WINCHESTER '73, but the Jimmy Stewart character is already, in just a matter of weeks, well informed on the Indian military strategy in defeating Custer, displaying a kind of superhuman intelligence.  Again, what's racist is the demeaning and racially restricted view that only whites have a capacity for intelligence, as Indians are never depicted as having knowledge and skill, or powers of analysis, or exhibit a sense of humor or a concern for others, or any capability for being human. These qualities, in both Ford and Mann films, are only allowed for whites, just like a white-only neighborhood, or a drinking fountain, or a rest room.   

I'm not suggesting all Westerns need to be revisionist, this was the 50's after all, a time when Americans found Communists lurking under every rock, and call me an anti-racist if you will (I've been called worse!), but I will call them out on their misrepresented portrayal of Indians, as enough is enough, and Westerns are among the worst offenders of a culture plagued by race and culture hatred, so it's about time someone sought to eradicate some of the harm done by these damaging and misconceived historical perceptions which only cloud and distort reality, further leading to an ill-informed populace. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Man of the West

MAN OF THE WEST         A            
USA  (100 mi)  1958  ‘Scope  d:  Anthony Mann

I have seen nothing so completely new since—why not—Griffith. Just as the director of Birth of a Nation gave one the impression that he was inventing the cinema with every shot, each shot of Man of the West gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is reinventing the Western, exactly as Matisse's portraits reinvent the features of Piero della Francesca. It is, moreover, more than an impression. He does reinvent. I repeat, reinvent; in other words, he both shows and demonstrates, innovates and copies, criticizes and creates. Man of the West. in short, is both course and discourse, or both beautiful landscapes and the explanation of this beauty, both art and the theory of art of the Western, the most cinematographic genre in the cinema.
—Jean Luc Godard, listing the film #6 of the year Jean-Luc Godard's Top Ten Lists 1956-1965 from Cahiers du Cinéma (1958)

There's a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch.     —Link Jones (Gary Cooper)

Another critical and commercial failure upon its release, the controversy surrounding this film happened well before the movie was ever made, as James Stewart was initially targeted for the lead role until he had a falling out with the director who instead chose another all-too-familiar western figure, Gary Cooper, in something of a thematic reprise of his role in HIGH NOON (1952), though critics condemned his performance in 1958, calling him “too old.”  But Cooper is a calmer presence than Stewart and lends a quiet nobility to the role of Link Jones, exactly what’s needed as a counterpart to the other players, all of whom are marked by the bitter cynicism of the era, set in a time when settlers had grown weary of cutthroats, gunslingers, and card sharks and a prevailing sense of civilization was beginning to crop up throughout the West, eradicating the previous influence of Indians, outlaws, and thieves.  Link Jones is not a whisky drinking man, or even a man who carries a gun, though he has one tucked away in his bag as he leaves from desolate parts unknown on a train journey to Fort Worth in search of a schoolteacher for his barely formed community.  Part of the interest is the way Mann leaves out pertinent details about Link’s past, adding an allure of mystery to the quiet dignity of Cooper, who has always been notoriously polite.  Even more scintillating are the gorgeous landscape compositions from Ernest Haller in one of the most exquisitely photographed of all westerns, bearing a resemblance to Sam Peckinpah’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962) filmed four years later, even down to the use of familiar faces onscreen who represent iconic images already associated with many heralded westerns, where that chiseled and cultivated maturity lends credence to the truth and authenticity of the picture itself.  Stewart may have been the first choice, but Cooper is ultimately the better choice, where his reputation with the audience precedes him, where his stern countenance reflects the gravity of his every move, a precursor to later films like Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH (1969), and especially Eastwood’s own gravelly portrait of an aging, ex-gunfighter in UNFORGIVEN (1992). 

After a comical beginning, seeing the obviously uncomfortably Cooper awkwardly attempt to fit his long legs behind a train seat, the tone quickly changes when the train is ambushed at a water stop out in the middle of nowhere, leaving three passengers stranded behind who were knocked off the train in the shooting melee, including Jones, but also Julie London as Billie, a heady but also attractive saloon singer who’s been forced to acquiesce to the slimy nature of man, and Arthur O’Connell as Sam, an overly friendly confidence man known for dealing off the bottom of the deck.  Having no choice except to walk, as the next train doesn’t come by again for another week, Jones leads them to what resembles an isolated, uninhabited shack where they are quickly commandeered by ghosts of his past.  Unfortunately, they have walked right into a den of thieves headed by Dock Tobin, Lee J. Cobb as a demented old geezer who happens to be Jones’s deranged outlaw uncle who raised him as a kid.  Despite this bittersweet family reunion, the homecoming resembles a kidnapping at gunpoint, a psychologically crippling moment of terror where at one point the drunken men revel at forcing Billie to perform a striptease with a knife at the throat of Jones, her supposed “husband,” a lie he fabricates for her own protection.  This humiliation is the moral centerpiece of the film, as it shows how women remain vulnerable and are degraded in the wilderness of the Western frontier, a far cry from the supposed civilization depicted in the opening where she exerts the independence to make her own living, but it also challenges the unarmed Cooper to find a way against insurmountable odds to overcome this disastrous turn of events, where his honor in protecting the woman he calls his own is at stake.  Entrapped by thugs that used to be his family, he has to rely upon his wits to reflect a defining heroic masculinity instead of a gun, where his calm, self-assured nature is quite a contrast to the twitching anxiety of his kidnappers, who always seem to be distressed, continually flying off the handle, always at war with themselves.  

This is a film about choices, where characters are challenged throughout to make difficult choices, but here their lives depend upon them, which add a threatening intensity to every moment, where one wrong move could cost someone their life, and eventually does.  Civilization is given a mythical status here of dueling parallel options, where one is the undefined, almost imaginary town where Jones comes from that is depicted as hard working but true, a place where nothing comes easy, but it’s here that Jones built himself a better life, lifting himself out of the muck of his uncle’s thieving and murderous ways into a place of respectability.  The other is every outlaw’s dream, the imaginary oasis of fortune, the unprotected, two-bit town with a lone bank secretly holding untold gold reserves, where all they have to do is make one final score before they can make a clean break to Mexico.  Like THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), these men are both motivated and doomed by their respective obsessions, where Jones is driven to overcome his haunted past, while Tobin and his men are destined to mercilessly re-live their failures over and over again, where just the sight of seeing Jones again is like pointing a mirror reflection into their own failed pasts, reminding each one how little they’ve grown or accomplished.  Part of the brilliance of this film is balancing the haunting beauty of the exterior landscapes with the psychologically probing interior states of mind, which seem challenged at every turn of the road.  Adapted by Reginald Rose, who a year earlier wrote 12 ANGRY MEN, from a Will C. Brown novel called Border Jumpers, the film centers around familiar Anthony Mann themes, a vast untapped territorial beauty undermined by the devious nature of man, a film noir sensibility featuring flawed and damaged characters in the lead roles, where there’s an element of cruel inhumanity inside every man, not just the outlaws, but more importantly films that feature men who seek justice without resorting to violence, who are in fact forced into action, often against their will, to defend their inherent beliefs about the kind of world they want to live in.  What distinguishes Mann westerns from others is this rough edged vision, where they’re not just defending a person or a family, but the “idea” of a place where a man can live in peace.  Mann exposes the raw elements of nature and man, using fierce landscapes and cunning outlaws, not standard types, where overcoming these overwhelming obstacles is more than a thrilling adventure usually fraught with violence, but a legacy to our own perseverance and capabilities as a populace, as by now the untamed West has been tamed, but at what price, as certainly elements of our darkest nature survive intact as well and are also part of our historic legacy.     

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ride the High Country

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY             A                    
USA  (94 mi)  1962  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Peckinpah    
Ride the High Country (S. Peckinpah) - Trailer (2:36)

This is one gorgeous looking CinemaScope western, beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard, capturing all the grandeur of the Inyo National Forest in the Eastern Sierra Mountains just west of the California border with Nevada, including Mount Whitney (Full resolution)‎, which at 14,496 feet is the highest peak in the lower 48 states.  In a movie like this, location is everything, as the film is all about a 2-day journey up the mountains, and another trip back down.  Starring two icons of American westerns, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, both near the end of their legendary careers, where their declining age parallels the waning years of the frontier West, McCrea rides into town for a job transporting gold from the nearby mountains back into town safely delivered to the bank, a job that comes with high risks, as these carriers make easy targets.  Scott, on the other hand, is wearing his wig and Buffalo Bill outfit and working the Western carnival road show circuit as a touted gunman, the Oregon Kid, challenging would-be gunslingers to hit his rigged target.  But once they meet, they’re like two peas in a pod as they’re old friends with a history between them, and their clever dialogue together, written by N.B. Stone Jr, with a few Peckinpah ad libs thrown in, is delightfully comical making their screen time together thoroughly entertaining.   

Scott’s young partner is Ron Starr, an overly rambunctious kid who operates a camel race scam against horses and gets into fights at the drop of a hat.  In the West, it’s not always important to win or lose, just that you get into a fight and give it your best.  That’s all anyone could ask.  The three of them working together form a team, though Scott and the kid have plans of their own to steal the gold, thinking it could be worth as much as a quarter of a million dollars.  McCrea, on the other hand, is a morally righteous man, a former lawman who characteristically serves as the emblematic code of ethics for the West, setting the right example, being honest, morally upright, honorable, loyal to your partners, true to your word and commanding the respect of others.  These are the values being fought over in nearly every western and they’re certainly fought for here.  Along the way up, they stop at a preacher’s farm, where R.G. Armstrong is a puritanical father (cast in a familiar role in other Peckinpah films as well) in raising a lone daughter (Mariette Hartley) alone.  She, however, has never seen anything beyond the borders of her farm, as her father won’t even let her accompany him into town, so her curiosity about spending time with the overly game kid is understandable, as he’s one of the only young men of the opposite sex she’s ever seen.  No sooner are they off the next morning before she joins them, claiming she’s running away to marry Billy Hammond (James Drury) in the mining town where they’re heading.  When the kid makes a move on her the first chance he gets, he gets clobbered by the two older men reminding him of his better judgment.

When they get to the mining town, it’s nothing but tents and a whorehouse that serves women and liquor, where the kid delivers her to her young fiancé, one of four brothers and a father that comprise the Hammond clan, one of whom is Warren Oates, the one with a bird on his shoulder who never takes a bath, where the idea of marriage gets them all stirred up, as their idea of marriage is little more than condoned gang rape, where what belongs to one belongs to them all.  The marriage itself is a crazy scene in the whorehouse where they arrive in procession on horseback, she in the lead wearing her mother’s white wedding dress, with the brothers singing a rousing rendition of “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” When the roll is called up yonder - Twila Paris - YouTube (4:43) or Johnny Cash Johnny Cash - When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder ... (1:37), with the Madame as the Maid of Honor and her hired help are the bridesmaids, married by the town’s drunken mayor, where she has to fend off not only the brothers but all the customers as well, which turns into a madcap scenario until McCrea hears her screams and decides to put an end to the nonsense and return her home to her father.  The clan has other ideas and the frontier spirit is alive and well as there’s several day’s ride ahead to sort all this out.  Scott and McCrea really carry the show, where they supposedly reversed characters at the last minute, but as partners in a long line of memorable partners seen in westerns, their friendship and well-worn characters make each of them feel perfectly comfortable in their roles, where the back and forth banter between them is a special highlight not often seen in westerns, as there’s a compelling, age-weary wisdom that tests the limit of their friendship as well as their understanding of the spirit of the West.  An engaging and highly personal film that is simply spectacular to look at, where these two leads could just as easily be chatting on your living room sofa—they’re that comfortable.     

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID              A-                   
USA  (106 mi)  1973  ‘Scope  d:  Sam Peckinpah              
1988 restored version (122 mi)             2005 DVD Special Edition (115 mi)

There are various cuts of this film, the original at 106 minutes which was drastically cut by the studios, a 1988 restored version which adds 15 minutes, and a 2005 Special Edition DVD that cuts half of the added minutes.  By all accounts, the 1988 restored version is the way to go, but a recent theater screening turned out to be the 115 minute Special Edition version which cuts some actors out of the movie completely, edits out certain lines as well while re-structuring various scenes.  Peckinpah’s last western feels like a somber death march, a mournful, poetic elegy to an end of an era where the values that men stood by were slowly disappearing along with their freedoms, replaced by the will of a few rich and powerful men who ruled the territory, monetarily and politically, putting an entirely new restricted face of commerce on what used to be wide open spaces and the land of the free.  The applicable metaphor, which is mentioned in the film, is their utter disgust at men who would fence in the West, in this case, cattle barons.  Set in New Mexico in 1881, James Coburn, in what is easily the performance of his career, chucks that career-defining hustler’s grin for a solemn frown as Pat Garrett, a world weary former gunslinger turned lawman, a man who rode with Billy the Kid in some capacity in their past, who opens the film riding into town visiting the Kid, a very young and clean shaven Kris Kristofferson, warning him to get out of the territory, as in 5 days he’ll become a lawman sworn to get rid of him, cleaning up the state, making it safer for bankers and cattle owners and prospective business ventures.  Even earlier, before the opening credits, there is a Black and White sequence of Garrett himself getting gunned down, an event that happens some 30 years into the future, certainly a foreshadowing of ominous things to come, and an interesting use of differing time periods where the death of both are mysteriously but inevitably linked together.    

The first 45 minutes of the film are simply extraordinary, featuring the music by Bob Dylan, whose name is credited above the title of the film and who also appears in a small role, where the mixture of sepia and Black and White from the opening set the tone for some astonishing use of ‘Scope by cinematographer John Coquillon, capturing the essential brightness of the empty desert landscape in early morning, but also the extreme light at dusk, where one of the more brilliant shots is seeing a rider on a horse on the far shore of a river get buried in the dark shadows, but a clear and vivid silhouetted reflection can be seen in the water as he rides across the entire length of the screen.  Two of the opening set pieces are riveting, among the best in the film, the taking of Billy alive and his subsequent jailhouse break out, which is unlike anything seen before or since.  After his memorable escape, someone brings him a horse which immediately throws him, an unusual commentary since it happens in front of a gawking crowd on Main Street right in front of the hangman’s execution site they are constructing.  From that point on, Garrett is on a mission to appoint involuntary deputies to help go after him, avoiding until the end the one place he’s most likely to be, instead visiting a litany of ornery characters throughout the vast territory who are never introduced but seem to have a history together, whose faces are synonymous with westerns, who simply appear out of thin air, where virtually every sequence is built around inevitable killings, compiling a high body count by the end, even for Peckinpah.  These secondary characters are essential, however, as they provide the emotional heft of the film, starting out with Slim Pickens and his rifle toting wife Katy Jurado, carrying bullets in her breast, both of whom appeared in Marlon Brando’s ONE-EYED JACKS (1961) a decade earlier, who silently express with their eyes everything we need to know about the murderous and endlessly bleak landscape.  

As Garrett wanders through the vast expanse of the territory, it’s obvious he’s not in any hurry, that he’s simply setting the tone for his mission by announcing his intentions across the state.  The Kid as well shows no sign of panic or alarm, as the film loses much of its initial vigor and sense of expectation and instead seems to meander slowly to its inevitable conclusion.  Unlike Brando’s film, based on the same Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid source material, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider, who inverts the story making the Kid the killer, another infurioratingly downbeat western where a maniacal lawman (Karl Malden) seeks public glorification by building a reputation of killing or humiliating a notorious outlaw (Brando), similar to Gene Hackman’s Sheriff “Little Bill” in Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992), sadistic lawmen who will resort to murder as a way of enforcing the law, Garrett seeks no public affirmation and asks for no special compensation, and is instead driven by a complex code of honor that is already outdated, like the end of the samurai era, and he wearily knows it, where the routine of killing has become a rotten job doing the bidding of others who are more ruthless and brutally despicable than the so-called outlaw.  While there may have been a motivation at the outset, as the Kid broke out of his jail and he sought revenge, but by the end, after the passage of time, all that is surprisingly meaningless, as what he’s asked to do is kill a friend, man to man, someone he respects perhaps above all others, especially those who are paying him to do it.  This hint of anguish and regret affects every move he makes as he eventually closes in, actually waiting patiently outside the Kid’s window as Kristofferson is making love to his eventual wife Rita Coolidge, another sign of obvious affection and respect.  But this is a story of a destroyed friendship, one who remains a free spirit until the end and another who is encumbered by age, duty, and responsibilities, who disappointingly accepts compromise and domesticity, all of which adds to an alcoholic portrait of bitterness and scorn, contemptuous of the vile men he works for and the short-sighted interests of lawmen who seek the same aim, thinking a kill may somehow bring them glory.  For Garrett, fulfilling his duty leaves a pathetic emptiness, dulling any hopes that the future offers any glimpse of righteousness or respectability.