Archive for True Grit

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.

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Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 26, 2011 by dcairns

MEEK’S CUTOFF, directed by Kelly Reichert, is an unusual arthouse western, following a small wagon trail across parched desert, on a seemingly endless quest to find water — by half an hour in, the ideal of finding land to settle in is forgotten, and mere survival is the goal. Different from TRUE GRIT in nearly every particular, it does bear some resemblance in its evocation of historical speech patterns, agreeably strange to modern ears, and in the character of the guide, Meek, who shares some of Rooster Cogburn’s bluster and bullshit, but seemingly none of his redeeming competence.

Fiona and I went with my parents, who like their westerns. Though this one is unconventional, relying not on onscreen death and action for dramatic high points, but on creeping uncertainty and desperation, it still gave them some pleasure. Unfortunately, Dad didn’t wear his hearing aid — movies are usually so over-amplified he doesn’t need it, but MEEK’S CUTOFF goes the other way, presenting most of its speech at the fringes of audibility.

This is part of the film’s you-are-there aesthetic, and its identification with the female characters, who are excluded from the major policy decisions of the party, even those which affect their chances of survival. So much of the key talk is eavesdropped upon from a distance, and the soundtrack reflects that. The you-are-thereness is reinforced by impenetrably dark night scenes where the campfire illuminates only itself, long, numbing scenes of trudging across the plains, the arrhythmic squeak of a wagon wheel producing highway hypnosis of the ears, and a refusal of all but a little atonal droning in the way of music.

The you-are-there approach can be quite a powerful thing, and it can be used with taste or otherwise. Mel Gibson’s religio-snuff flick actually turned a soundtrack of dead languages into a commercial asset, by making viewers feel present at the authentic crucifixion. That makes sense of Gibson’s preference that the film be screened without subtitles, to make the ancient-world jabber as incomprehensible as it would be to a church outing of chrononauts. The excessive gore wasn’t just Gibson’s sado-masochistic impulses at play, although it was mainly that, it was also an attempt to make us feel uncomfortably close to the spectacle of torture and murder.  I suspect most devout Christians, if they could time-travel, would choose to go back and see Christ — but since they wouldn’t be able to understand a word he said, I guess they’d have to settle for watching him in action — what’s odd is that his death is judged of more interest than his miracles. Possibly, in fact certainly, the walking on water could not be portrayed with the brute viscerality Gibson brings to slaughter, the need for special effects would take us out of you-are-there literalness, so as he saw it the film’s are of effectiveness was violence, pure and simple.

With MEEK’S CUTOFF, the effects aimed at aren’t violent (there’s only one blow struck onscreen, I think), and the purpose behind the approach isn’t rubbernecking at a martyrdom, but participation in a fearful state of unknowing. I was reminded very much of John Sayles’s LIMBO, only here the domain of emptiness is more powerfully evoked. At first the travelers are uncertain as to their guide’s ability — he seems to have gotten them lost, but can he get them unlost? As doubt turns to the certainty that Meek is no reliable guide — “The only question is, is he evil or merely stupid?” — a new guide is discovered, a lone indian who speaks no English. Given his probable hostility (he’s been wounded and kidnapped by Meek), his inability to communicate verbally, and his alien culture, this man may be no more reliable than Meek, but putting faith in him seems the only way to proceed with hope…

The appearance of the line “Stay the course” made me wonder if the film was in any way a political metaphor for present American embroilments in the Middle East. I think it can read that way, but it doesn’t force the thought upon us. If we follow that line, cowboy Bush is succeeded by non-white American Obama, and the journey through the wilderness is one where the outcome cannot be known: all that’s clear is the mistakes already made, which it’s too late to correct. That seems, at least in part, reductive, though, since the film’s thematic openness is part of it’s strength, and the tactile dustiness seems to insist that the film is about exactly what it is about — THIS journey, THESE people.

Excellent performances all round, notably from Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood. Haunting cinematography. Bold, mesmeric pacing. I don’t award stars, but imagine lying on your back on the prairie at night, looking up at the sky.

Nothing But the Night

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by dcairns

Twitter has a purpose after all and, as it turns out, it’s nothing to do with fomenting revolution in Iran. When Jon Melville, a Twitterverse friend as well as a real-life one, tweeted that he’d acquired the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, but had no means of watching it, I invited him round for dinner with alacrity (alacrity is a special sauce popular in Scotland). I have a player than can handle discs of different countries of origin, but not many discs to watch on it.

The Criterion disc is splendid, of course, as are the extras, but enough has been said elsewhere about that. Nor am I going to regale you with details of the splendid vegetable casserole Fiona prepared, nor the mulled wine quaffed. I want to talk about the film, for several posts, but where to begin?

A dull but perhaps original thought that came to me was that, boy, the Coens have been pilfering this movie for years. I haven’t seen TRUE GRIT yet, but have heard that the score relies heavily on Leaning on the Everlasting Arm, the hymn sung by Mitchum in Laughton’s classic. Which seemed like kind of a miscalculation: there are plenty of hymns to choose from, so why use one that will forcibly remind the audience of a great film, while they’re trying to concentrate on yours? The comparison is unlikely to be flattering, and I say that as one who admires six or so Coen films, and bits of some of the others.

“He was especially hard on the little things,” says Nicholas Cage of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA. “It’s a hard world for the little things,” says Lillian Gish in NIGHT.

“The Dude abides,” says the Cowboy in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. “They abide and they endure,” says Gish.

Even the use of jingling bells on the soundtrack to make Peter Stormare’s axe attack on Steve Buscemi “more Christmassy” — a whimsical idea in FARGO, or so it seemed to sound designer Skip Lievesay, who executed it — is anticipated towards the end of NOTH, where it’s startling but completely sensible.

I’d heard that the Coens liked to screen THE CONFORMIST and THE THIRD MAN to their crews before a shoot, which made sense as a way of getting the idea of self-conscious style into everybody’s head. The specific connections never seemed obvious until MILLER’S CROSSING, which features a hit in a forest and a romantic rejection at a funeral — but most of MILLER’S CROSSING is swiped from Dashiell Hammett anyway. The NIGHT OF THE HUNTER connection makes complete sense because of the idea of a mythic or biblical resonance being infused into a story with genre elements. Think of the reconfiguring of elements of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (chain gang, freight car, picture show) into the narrative structure of Homer’s Odyssey in O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Or the dybbuk, a wraith from Jewish mysticism, who turns up in a seemingly unrelated prologue to A SIMPLE MAN. All this could stem from a love of the way Laughton’s movie, taking its cue from Davis Grubb’s novel, interlaces the mundane with the numinous.

And that influence is a good thing, and it’s nice that some modern filmmakers have attempted to take up the gauntlet flung down by Laughton. Of course, the Coens don’t tend to take their characters and themes seriously enough for this stuff to actual resonate with anything outside cinema, but that’s them. I’m just not sure I like the paraphrases, in the same way I don’t much like Paul Schrader’s swiping of the end of PICKPOCKET for his AMERICAN GIGOLO. If you happen to see the more recent film first, it is apt to interfere with your first viewing of the older classic. Does the end of PICKPOCKET seem as “transcendental”, to use Schrader’s word, if you’re struck by a powerful sense of deja vu and see Richard Gere’s face superimposed over that of Martin LaSalle?