Archive for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Sunday Intertitle: Intrigue

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2019 by dcairns

Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film THE FAVOURITE has intertitles! Or at any rate chapter titles. This poster gives you an idea of the adventurous use of type. They’re all lines of dialogue we haven’t yet heard, so it’s a rather literary use of foreknowledge. They say things like THIS MUD STINKS. Or ~

A bit like the book illustrations in BUSTER SCRUGGS, in fact. This could be on its way to being a new stylistic norm, the way starting a story near the end, at a crisis point, has become something of a cliché.

The film’s other stylistic ideas are adventurous too, though one can see where they come from. The candlelight and low angle tracking shots and slow dissolves are from Kubrick (as is one music cue, via BARRY LYNDON); the perriwigged foppery and arch sexual cruelty is pure DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT. The plot, as Fiona pointed out, owes plenty to ALL ABOUT EVE. The spirit of the Marquis De Sade is not far away either, though he’s locked in a closet so all he can do is shout suggestions through the keyhole.

Dave Ehrenstein, via Facebook, has already attested to a hearty dislike for the film, due to its encouraging the audience to feel superior to the characters. Which is a good reason, and if my feelings waver between cautious admiration and squeamishness it’s probably because I didn’t read the film’s signals quite that way. I had quite a lot of sympathy for Emma Stone’s character all the way through: she’s pushed into doing evil because, Sade-style, there are no rewards for being good. It’s possible we’re meant to regard her as having been a schemer from the start, but even then, she’s got good reason for wanting to attain power: her position without it is desperate.

Stone is good, and Rachel Weiss is really good, which hasn’t always been the case. Her attitude to the offscreen war — tax the farmers to starvation and fight until the soldiers are all dead — is as uncompromising as her abuse of Stone’s character. With similar results, nearly: if the underlings realise they’re in for it no matter what, rebellion becomes their logical recourse. So the art of governance is the science of knowing what you can get away with.

Nicholas Hoult, as the Whig leader opposed to the war, is deliberately written as vicious as everyone else, so that his apparent political compassion doesn’t make him a kindly bore: and so it can be read as him simply trying to preserve the status quo. He’s very good — he has something of Hugh Grant’s light comedy skills, Fiona suggested.

She also remarked that all these characters are after power as a means to happiness, but the character who has all the power, the Queen, is the most wretchedly unhappy of all. (If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.) Fiona did a bit of digging into Queen Anne and found a strange historical obsession with her gouty body, which this film connects to directly. It’s hagsploitation, of course. Olivia Colman is excellent in a very showy part requiring an abandonment of all vanity and an ability to reconcile, at least to her own satisfaction, the character’s innumerable contradictions: she’s alternately cunning, stupid, heartbroken, vicious, kindly, mad, confused… plus she keeps suffering destructive neurological events (too much cake is bad for you).

The script is by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara, and it’s quite witty — often in a very basic way, surprising you with sudden brutality or swearing. But that can be witty. It can also get tiresome. Sympathy is the enemy of drama — but some tiny, homeopathic dose of it may be needed to keep the audience engaged. I had to work a little to find any sympathy, and in the end I found it in myself, by an effort of imagination, not so much in the film.

I’ve neglected Yorgos Lanthimos, along with the rest of modern cinema. The only thing of his I’d seen is this short, courtesy of a student, but I can feel a bit smug because the IMDb doesn’t even know this exists (it does, but it calls it a documentary) ~

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How the West was Not

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2018 by dcairns

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.