How the West was Not

So, I got Netflix for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which of course meant we could watch THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, so we did. I used to indiscriminately like all Coen Bros movies, with a slight preference for the early, funny ones. The tendency towards emptiness did start to nag at me a little as early as MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK. The nasty sense of humour didn’t — I have a fairly dark S.O.H. myself. But then came INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS which I disenjoyed so thoroughly it made me retroactively question even my favourites, and proactively question subsequent films.

I suspect the following will make David E. impatient, since he was onto the Coen’s combo of snark and misanthropy from the start.

Here’s my run-down of the episodes in this latest western compendium. Not too many specific spoilers, but plenty of comparisons with the Bros’ earlier offerings, good, bad and ugly.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The ballad itself is practically a proper musical, except that, as with OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the songs are all sorta diegetic. We have the welcome return to the fold of Tim Blake Nelson, and the unbelievably crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who they got acquainted with on PARIS JE T’AIME and used again to even better effect on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a flm with a unique look in the Coen oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see iconic western imagery shot in an ultrasharp digital way. When people start by telling you they liked the photography it reliably indicates they hated the film, and I hated this episode. The “humorous” violence is mean and squicky: the severed thumb from THE LADYKILLERS is back. Remember how funny it is when Travis blows the guy’s hand off in TAXI DRIVER? That’s how funny the mutilation gag is here. The saving grace is Carter Burwell’s music: this whole movie is the best showcase he’s had for a while.

2. Near Algodones. Or, One Damn Thing After Another. A pretty good Leone imitation in places, this is nevertheless just as pointless and unpleasant as Part 1. James Franco as a bank-robber is given no appealing qualities, so his Really Bad Day is neither a nightmare we can empathise with nor even a justifiable punishment. These two episodes look to have been written in an afternoon. Both end, kind of, with The Last Sight You’ll See, harking way back to BLOOD SIMPLE’s grotesque yet kind of poetic plumbing close-up final shot.

3. Meal Ticket. Here’s where I start to wonder if the ordering of the stories is a problem. As soon as we meet the armless, legless “protagonist” of this one, we expect that something terrible will happen to him. Which means viewing the whole film in a queasy suspense, and not being surprised. The wintry, nocturnal look is really gorgeous and the reason for the story being told, as with the previous installments, is inscrutable. Shit happens, you say? No shit. Fiona was on the point of bailing at this point… but got drawn back in.

4. All Gold Valley. Things take a turn for the better here, maybe in part because we have a story by Jack London. It’s no TO BUILD A FIRE but it’s good. All the episodes are magnificently cast from both a dramaturgical and a physiognomic point of view, but here Tom Waits is actually given sympathetic traits, and though we suspect we may be being set up for a fall, this is not entirely true. This was the first yarn that didn’t make me feel horrible, and the nature photography ascends to new heights of loveliness,

5. The Gal Who Got Rattled. Another adaptation, this time from Stewart Edward White. whose stories have been used by the movies a fair few times, but not since 1941. A really grand evocation of a wagon train. Likeable characters. “I’m really worried about this girl,” said Fiona of Zoe Kazan’s nervous young frontierswoman. There’s a cute dog. This one’s a proper story, very strong, strikingly presented. It would play even better if it weren’t following a trio of sick joke blackout sketches: we need to believe the Coens are sincere here, for the yarn to play emotionally. It COULD be taken as another set-up/punch-line bit of cynical manipulation, and of course if we can give the Coens more credit than that and actually embrace the apparent warmth of feeling and sympathy, the film will play MUCH better. It’s a great little film: Kazan is terrific, and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines ought to be stars.

Also, by this point, the use of pages turning in a book of wild west yarns, with coloured illustrative plates, is really paying off. It’s something I don’t believe we’ve seen before in a film: the illustrations pluck a moment from the narrative, often from near the end, and then we wait for it to turn up and make sense in context. It can add a little extra touch of inevitability to a tragedy, an added twist of irony to a joke.

Also also, it’s nice to finally meet a girl. I know westerns have traditionally been male-dominated, but watching this one’s like going to prison (if you’re a man). Only with less sex.

6. Mortal Remains. OK, Tyne Daly is here so you’ll get no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few. This is DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS only on a stagecoach instead of a train. I mean that literally. I liked the misty cut-out buildings that nod both to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the whole history of the western movie set. A bunch of facades with nothing behind them seems an apt metaphor for something or other, but what? Oh yeah.

The garrulous English character is hard to process as anything other than a riff on THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and it does feel like the Coens have been treading familiar ground: Tarantino already gave us a western full of talk, with epic iconography but an oddly intimate, enclosed locale, and a lot of unpleasant characters doing horrible things we cant possibly care about. The mysterious, even mystic quality the Coens aim to evoke here certainly adds a new flavour, but as this one fades out I realize why anthology films usually have a framing structure. It’s hard for one episode to deliver an ending satisfying enough for all six.

Maybe the Coens need to stick to adaptations. Their two strongest films, the ones that feel most like they have a reason to exist, are NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT. The brothers are experts at pastiche, and their delight in language, both verbal and cinematic, is a kind of redeeming feature (they do care about SOMETHING), but what they get from an original author with world experience and an interest in people seems to be something they struggle to achieve by themselves.

Dissenting views are welcome.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS stars Delmar O’Donnell, Harry “Oz” Osborn, Ruby Sparks, Oskar Schindler, Dudley Dursley, R.M. Renfield, Mary Beth Lacey, Colonel Oates and Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody.

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19 Responses to “How the West was Not”

  1. Not impatient at all. The Coens are all about snark and misanthropy. The two exceptions to this rule are “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo”. Both films float along on the charm of their leading players. The Coens haven’t so much as the vaguest idea of how to do a musical. The “No Dames” number in “Hail Caesar” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Musicals depend on sincerity and compassion — two qualities the Coens can’t stand. I was watching the last third of “The Wizard of Oz” last night. Can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it. But what makes it work, for all the beauty of the sets and the glorious hamming of the supporting players is Judy Garland.

    IN Aljean Harmetz’s book about the film she notes that at one point fairly early on in pre-production Cukor was assigned to it. They had Judy decked out in a fancy costume and even fancier wig and headdress out of Maxfield Parrish. Cukor hit the roof declaring that this will never work at all. He ordered simplicity and got it, telling Judy “Remember you’re just a little farm girl from Kansas.” Judy remembered, and that’s why she hired Cukor so many years later for “A Star is Born” (the latest incarnation of which, BTW Stinks On Ice!)

  2. Yeah, that Hail, Caesar number rubbed me the wrong way: one example where their gifts of pastiche (which are mainly found in their dialogue) crashed and burned in a blaze of anachronism. Musicals could be camp, but not like THAT.

    Like Kelly MacDonald in No Country, Zoe Kazan in this one is encouraged to carve out some genuine emotional terrain for herself, making it another example of at least potential humanism in their work.

  3. Zoe is quite something. One of this year’s best films is “Wildlife” directed by her S.O. Paul Dano from a screenplay she wrote with him

    She’s Nick Kazan’s daughter and Gadge’s granddaughter

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    TBOBS really is their LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN, isn’t it. And it has Stephen Root, best chameleon since Chaney Senior

  5. Didn’t watch to the end—-did Hollander get credit for his song from DESTRY RIDES AGAIN?

  6. I will respectfully dissent. The brothers’ patented blend of misanthropy and nihilism color their entire catalogue, but a genuine affection for the evidences of human decency is certainly present (probably in proportion about equal to the world at large). I liked “All Gold Canyon” best, but enjoyed all the stories hugely, with no complaints about their order. The darkness of the first three make the infusion of sunlight in the Waits segment even more bracing. I loved this movie, in a way I didn’t come near in NCFOM or TRUE GRIT (impeccable, I know, but somehow not as much fun as the Hathaway/Wayne outing, even with Glen Campbell punching a hole in the screen). Burwell is superb throughout, and his arrangement of “Mother Machree” is near divine. This was their most moving flick yet, in my book.

  7. The guy who did the song clearances got a credit, but Hollander does not. Sheesh. What a world.

  8. I enjoyed the nastiness of BLOOD SIMPLE, including the film brat gag of the track down the bar that moves up and over the drunk. But as early as RAISING ARIZONA it was a case going too far. At some point during a film they would lose me. I enjoyed much of FARGO, but was horrified by the cruelty of the comedy around the kidnapped wife–a character integral to the plot, but who is treated as joke for slaughter. I just stopped going to see them.

  9. Yeah, that’s bad: everything around the actual kidnapping is terribly sour. Because Blood Simple is an inherently dark and nasty film, it can get away with… well, murder.

    But I think True Grit and Big Lebowski would be worth your while.

  10. The kidnapping is appalling, but I vehemently disagree that it is played for comedy. Buscemi is having a grand chortle, but that only underscores the cruelty of the situation and the thugs’ lack of any kind of empathy for the abducted wife. I think the brothers are keenly aware of human callousness that many of us would prefer to deny or ignore—and unflinching in their scrutiny of it.

  11. Oh, it’s played for comedy. And the audience around me thought it was hilarious. And she is a one-note comedic character with no depth, which allows the audience
    to laugh.

  12. I’m mostly thinking of the woodchipper scene, with her running around bumping into things.

    David, I have seen LEBOWSKI, and I enjoyed it.

  13. I never did get “Fargo” as a comedy, which seems to be how a lot of people viewed it. I more or less agree with surly, it was pretty cruel. (I’ve always wondered if the Coens expected Fargo to be received in the way it was). I’ve enjoyed the actual comedies more – Intolerable Cruelty, Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona.

    I’ve only watched the first story, the title one in Buster Scruggs. There isn’t that much to it, it seems to exist in order to reference a few of the most well known western themes and settings and a movie or two – Monument Valley, singing cowboy, the fastest gun, Destry as pointed out, probably a reference to Sergio Leone, etc. Other than that though, it’s not a whole lot as a story.

  14. Well, get used to that sensation… until Jack London and Stewart Edmund White ride to the rescue.

    Fargo is (1) a true crime pastiche (2) structurally, an episode of Columbo (3) a dialect comedy set in a nightmare dystopia where everybody is El Brendel.

  15. IMHO the Coens can be hit or miss, but I truly love The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Llewyn Davis, and Lebowski. Even at their worst (Miller’s Crossing?), they’re intriguing and watchable: I found parts of Hail Caesar immensely enjoyable, though the film peters out to nothing in the end.

  16. Even as I was watching that one, I was wondering what the glue was supposed to be that stopped it just being a bunch of bits.

    Miller’s Crossing I liked scene by scene, as smart pastiche (although a resurrected Hammett could arguably sue over the borrowings from The Glass Key) but then was left with emptiness at the end.

    I find Raising Arizona a bit TOO broad now, but enjoy all those you mention at least to some extent.

  17. Didn’t watch it all the way, but it was like a western theme moulin rouge, kinda

  18. I think that’s a completely fair assessment of the first couple of episodes. Maybe not as manic and better organized, but about as meaningful and convincing. But I would recommend watching the 4th and esepcially 5th episodes which are more compelling and deserve to be in better company.

  19. I think so too

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