Archive for the ‘Western’ Category
Vincent Price just rocks as James Reavis, an ambitious and motivated (to say beyond the least) forger and con-man willing to go to downright stupefying lengths to acquire the entire territory of Arizona through fraudulent land claims and lineages. The first portion of this film is a spectacle of deranged tenacity on Reavis’ part that would require an incredible suspension of disbelief if this weren’t, incredibly, based on a true story. Reavis finds an unassuming girl from the backwoods of Arizona and culture-fies her, in a kind of foul twist on My Fair Lady to groom his own unknowingly fake heiress to a vast Spanish legacy with whom he can marry into the rights to Arizona itself, creates fake messages in stones, and goes so far as to spend years – years! – at a Spanish convent going through all the rites of becoming a monk, just so he can eventually find a brief opportunity to alter a land grant in the library to further validate his fictitious family tree. It’s an impossibly complex and ambitious scheme, and most if not all of the fun of this film is derived from trying to get into the head of this man, as you can’t help but think, is acquiring Arizona worth this staggering amount of deceit and risk? He’s well-spoken, charming, obviously intelligent, and apparently a man of means, able to afford a years-long trip to Spain as if it’s a trip to the supermarket, surely that’s enough to build a respectable life? If anything, you can’t help but admire his ambition and drive, even if that ambition and drive are completely deceitful and self-serving. You get the feeling that he is simply reveling in the process, in putting his admittedly incredible skills of forgery and duplicity to work, rather than looking towards the end-game of essentially becoming the king of a vast desert, and indeed, Vincent Price excels at this, his combination of suavity and humility completely fooling both his fellow monks and his ward-turned-wife, while a certain degree of sliminess reminds us of the sheer immorality behind it all. We dare not root for this ruthless snake, all while we almost must root for him nonetheless, just to see whether this impossibly cruel, impossibly incredible scheme can actually come to fruition.
As in-his-element as Reavis seems while putting this ridiculous scheme together, he seems just as out-of-his-element, and utterly lost, once he’s gotten what he wanted. And so too does the film itself lose its way. I was having a blast watching Vincent Price act the snake, charming his way through forged documents and using rube-like monks as his playthings, but then as heavy became the head that wore the crown and stereotypically redneckish displaced landowners and the bland common girl-turned-baroness (whose undying devotion to her husband is both baffling and irritating…if we the anonymous viewers of a film can see the reptilian underside of this Baron of Arizona, surely his own wife can, after a while…) and the government powers-that-be who smell a rat replaced the fascinating James Reavis as the focal point of the narrative, things got more conventional, and interest is lost. To compound that, Fuller cheats and gets a bit lazy in his storytelling, using a bunch of wealthy old white guys sitting in a parlor to reflect on the life and times of James Reavis and narrate the proceedings and give us a rather needless guide to what we’re seeing with our own eyes (although, to be fair, their explaining Reavis’ backstory at the film’s outset was helpful). But, at the very least, most of the footage of these men is set at a fixed mid-angle shot, not all that close to these men and indeed with some of their backs turned to the camera, making these indistinguishable wealthy old white guys seem even more indistinguishable and wealthy and old and white – pretty much the polar opposite of Vincent Price’s Reavis, who literally emerges from the rain one night and works his degenerate ass off to get to the top, only to in all likelihood stick out like a sore thumb in the presence of men such as these – a dark mirror image of the American dream. His eventual shot at redemption feels like all kinds of false and unsuitable and reeks of Hollywood conventions at the time demanding a, if not happy then at least tidy, ending. But, at least his clear and somewhat amusing surprise at such an outcome leads to all kinds of opportunity for speculation about his character. He clearly knows he’s a shameless scoundrel, but whether he’s actually repentant or merely relieved is a fun question to ask during an otherwise disappointing conclusion to a film that started with great promise.
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)
The last third or so, when shit gets real and they have to get out, is proof enough what a joke it is that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Suspenseful to no end despite knowing how it’ll end up if you know the true story (clichéd to point that out, I know, but it still applies). I usually can’t stand when people in a movie theater applaud when the heroes prevail at the end, but I found myself waiting and wondering what everyone was waiting for when the plane got into the air, and was relieved when it happened. Pretty good sign of quality filmmaking from my point of view. There was just the right amount of screentime devoted to the Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home – not too much so that they’d develop, and be defined by, genre stereotypes, not too little so that they’d be nothing but macguffins. I just wish the movie as a whole didn’t rely quite as much on humor as it did…this is an amazingly improbable, ridiculous true story; that improbability and ridiculousness should speak for itself (plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a running gag get as old and irritating as quickly as “Argo fuck yourself” did).
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
Its perceived glorification of independence and the will to survive sometimes strays distastefully towards, instead, pigheaded obstinacy and an irresponsible shunning of outside assistance, especially when you’re dying, you know you’re dying, and your little kid’s gonna be alone in a fucking swamp when you’re gone. Despite that, though, you have a feeling that little Hushpuppy will be alright. Her father Wink can be a prick, can be hard and stern, but when living in said fucking swamp, that’s the father he needs to be. Putting aside qualms about the reasons Wink and the other Bathtub inhabitants so virulently shun the outside world, their methods of survival are fascinating and exciting to watch. Those titular beasts were stupid, though. Let this captivating setting, and the ability of this little girl to both tune out and adapt to/survive the outlandish challenges of that setting, speak for themselves, without the empty symbolism of imaginary, prehistoric animals.
Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)
Moderately disappointing by Pixar standards, which still makes it better than almost everything, ever. My disappointment probably comes from the fact that the end didn’t make me outright cry like the last three fucking Pixar movies did, but the bear vs. bear fight was great, an exciting and fitting climax to the evolution of the relationship between Merida and her mother. Pixar’s technical and visual prowess just keeps getting more astounding (look no further than Merida’s hair), and putting a strong, self-reliant woman in the forefront was refreshing, and yet, things like the narrative being interrupted by a song and the 11th hour spell reversal happy ending (I regarded the end of this similarly to Marlene Dietrich’s famous “where is my beautiful beast?!” reaction to the end of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) made it seem like this was relying on Disney tropes of old. One step forward, one step back for the genre.
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
There’s Tarantino’s signature genre-mimicking, embellished here by the last third or so essentially being nothing but blood and gunfire, and then you throw in perhaps the most intriguing and motivationally complex character of Tarantino’s career in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, and you have a downright brutal satire of slavery (not so current) and racism (much more current). I didn’t even mind that the scene with the Klan’s misadventures in hood-wearing might’ve gone on too long and stretched the joke out too much, was still a well-timed instance of straight-up humor in a film of brutal imagery (i.e. the Mandingo fight…I’m still not sure what made me wince more, the fight itself, or Calvin’s hooting and hollering as he watched his property fight to the death. Was a challenge to not look away, and an absorbing challenge at that) and even more brutal subject matter…a laugh-so-you-don’t-have-to-cry kind of subject. To have comedy and atrocity mesh so easily and feel so natural together, you have to be one hell of a filmmaker, which Quentin Tarantino has again proven to be.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Second-best film of 2012 featuring a character named Mr. Bilbo.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
The raid was fantastic – perfectly filmed and edited, a textbook on how to hold the audience’s attention; the 80 hours preceding it were somewhat of a bore. Usually don’t consider it a very good sign when it’s so easy to spot an actor’s Oscar clip (when Chastain about chews Kyle Chandler’s head off, her neck vein about to explode).
I had a big, steaming pile of pre-ordered hate for this in anticipation of all the classical western clichés I’ve come to expect. I hated how the lone hero rode into town for the 837042184732nd time (although this time around to murder his adversary on that adversary’s wedding day – a surprisingly morbid twist on the formula), I hated how the few female characters were personality-less bartering chips for the 870431497325th time, I hated how Bart insisting on paying for his own whiskey and Sheriff Swede insisting that Bart keep his money led to the same 10 minute dick size contest I’ve seen in so many classical westerns, I hated how the hero’s motivation was, what else, revenge. I hated Bart, the prototypical anti-hero out for revenge. But then I realized, where so many classical westerns have simply left me apathetic and I forget about them the morning after, Bart and Decision at Sundown inspired a real negative reaction from me, which alone had to be worth something. And then when I thought harder, and Bart stubbornly stuck to his blind lust for revenge when the world was trying to convince him it wasn’t worth it for so many reasons, I realized that I didn’t hate Bart himself; I hated his desire for revenge, as if even he didn’t fully buy his incapacitating need to avenge his dead wife, but rather needed to fulfill that silly archetype of getting revenge, to prove his manhood to himself, and to his dead wife who we soon find out had every reason to disregard and be apathetic to that manhood. Kimbrough, the tacit dictator of the little town of Sundown, and Sheriff Swede, the Darth Vader to Kimbrough’s Emperor, may be monstrous, but so too is Bart: his mindlessly destructive need for violent revenge, his embracing of every masculine stereotype that so infuriated me the cynical viewer, his (willful?) blindness to the true nature of she who is is to be avenge, his disregard for how his personal quest for an ultimately empty murder affects his friends and allies in Sundown, to the point where his noble intentions aren’t noble at all; they’re as greedy and egotistical as Kimbrough’s. That hero and villain are essentially the same shade of gray from the outset, the only difference being that one hides behind the veneer of dignity and worthiness while the other doesn’t care what anyone thinks and is beyond (and not worth) saving, show that this here’s more than the typical cliché-ridden Western, where that villain not worth saving might just have to be for the hero to save himself. And all that is played out in an economically tense standoff with Bart and his buddy holed up in the livery stable while the townspeople become increasingly disillusioned with what’s become of their town under Kimbrough. The sermonizing of those townspeople at the bar while Bart is holed up across the street could’ve been lame, but wasn’t. Hell, these people’s coming together and collective waking-up rivaled, dare I say, the similar townspeople’s collective awakening towards a common goal at the end of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Both they, and their representative Bart, wake up to the fact that they don’t have put up with this insecure asshole Kimbrough, that a wrong doesn’t have to be righted with a bullet, that they’re in a movie that questions all those masculinity-driven Western stereotypes by putting them on display and leaving viewers like me to be disgusted with them and reflect why they’re so disgust-worthy. Great movie!
“Paths of Glory” in the old west? Not quite, as you have barely a shred of the remorse for and sheer intimacy with the condemned men here as you have with the condemned men in Kubrick’s masterpiece, and Fonda as the de-facto voice of reason can’t hold a candle to Clenched-Jawed Kirk. And “Paths” had settings ranging from a no-man’s-land battlefield to a regal palace to a grimy holding area for the condemned men to a makeshift execution area as its backdrop, while “Ox-Bow” essentially uses one crappy-looking set with about 30 smelly men packed into it like it’s a can of sardines (although some select shots are quite impressive, particularly those involving the three on-the-spot condemned men huddled together and filmed like the world itself is crowding in on them). To its credit, though, “Ox-Bow”, like “Paths of Glory,” did genuinely get my blood boiling to see these three men – a family man, an elderly simpleton, and a mysterious and highly intelligent bandit – get treated like garbage by what amounts to a lynch mob. It all feels rather scripted and not all that “real”, whatever thatmeans, but nevertheless, to witness this group of men’s pack mentality, their bloodlust, their desire to see three necks snap, really for the heck of it rather than their claim that they want to see justice done, did genuinely piss me off in a good way and make me lament man’s continued inhumanity towards man in general. Solid western that I’m probably not giving enough credit to.
When he was a little, little kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, all my grandpa wanted was a Tom Mix gun, and sure enough some cereal or something was letting kids send in boxtops, and once you collected enough boxtops and sent ‘em in they’d send you the Tom Mix gun. For weeks – hell, MONTHS – my grandpa made it his life’s mission to collect as many boxtops as he could, and finally, FINALLY, he collected enough and sent ‘em in. For 6 to 8 weeks after that, he remained ever-vigilant at his mailbox waiting and waiting and waiting for that Tom Mix gun, and it still hadn’t come. One morning, his mom, my great-grandma, had enough and basically ordered him to go to school. However, as he was leaving, the mailman came, and sure enough, SURE ENOUGH, there it was – the Tom Mix gun. But, mom still ordered him to go to school, but assured him that his precious gun would be there waiting for him when he came home. Dismayed, but happy that it came, he complied. Hours later, he basically ran home as fast as he could to play with that Tom Mix gun, the thought of that gun racing through his head as his feet raced home. He finally gets home, opens the door, and…
his baby brother, my uncle Jimmy, had gotten his grubby little hands on it and had broken it in half, beyond repair. All that time, all that work, and the Tom Mix gun was now just dust in the wind.
Why do I tell this story, despite it having nothing to do with Winchester ’73 and that it sounds exactly like A Christmas Story, except that it was a Tom Mix gun instead of an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle, and baby Jimmy broke it instead of little Ralphie shooting his eye out? I dunno, I guess I’m just trying to comprehend how an inanimate object like a gun, whether toy or otherwise, can be so important that both a little boy and grown cowboys would go to the ends of the earth, devote every ounce of their time and strength, and risk life and limb for it
Or the Winchester was just a MacGuffin to catalyze the eventual showdown between Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally, in which case my retelling that whole Tom Mix story was a waste of time. My bad
Anyway, yeah, the Winchester pretty much is just a MacGuffin for that showdown (you can see the ‘plot twist’, the true nature of Stewart and McNally’s relationship, a million miles away, but it’s still poignant and a nice development once it is revealed), albeit a MacGuffin with very, very phallic implications, and ever since taking Lit Theory in college I’m all about phallic symbols and works of fiction subtly dealing with gender symbols and gender roles . In other words, this was cool. It started off amazingly, with the awesome, awesome shooting contest as the camera glides down the line of contestants, and of course the awesome outcome of that contest (cannot believe that shit with the postage stamp was real, but lo and behold IMDB tells me it’s real, so ), which segues into a cool parallel story structure. Unfortunately I started to get bored and lose interest at a certain point, but overall this was still a highly entertaining whole. And Shelley Winters was actually attractive! Who knew she was actually attractive at a certain phase in her life?!
…After writing all that, I finally realize how much art imitated life and how the story of my grandpa and uncle jimmy mirrors the brothers’ tale in “Winchester ’73″ to a T. I feel a special kinship with this movie now. Maybe I should give it a bigger score ‘cuz of that. Nah, fuck it.
What a filmmaker this Nicholas Ray is! What a gift he had for revealing, and inverting, society’s fallacies, gender roles, and prejudices through metaphor! “Rebel Without a Cause” and “In a Lonely Place” so effortlessly depicted the oddities of gender roles and taboo as Ray really got under your skin, but “Johnny Guitar” may have bested those two, not just because it was an effective metaphor decrying McCarthyism, but because of its depiction of dominant, masculine women in a Western, perhaps the most masculine and male-driven of all genres traditionally. True, Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, as saloon owner and cattle rancher respectively, and bitter enemies, really ham it up and ramp up the tell-tale signs of masculinity, to the point that McCambridge’s Emma completely emasculates her less than enthusiastic posse with her near-demonic vitriol of Crawford’s Vienna, but this is 1954, when Westerns still featured heroic gunmen and their damsels in distress, so maybe a bit of exaggeration was needed to get the role-reversal train rolling in the most difficult of genres with which to experiment with that type of thing.
The film’s title refers to Sterling Hayden’s character (a sad and subtle Sterling Hayden! Who knew?!), the guitar-strumming former gunslinger and former lover of Vienna hired to protect her and the saloon once she senses that Emma and her goons smell blood, but this isn’t his story. Plenty of Westerns have dealt with feuds and the coming of the railroad (and thus modern society), but none that I can remember where that feud was between two women, but just as destined for violence and death as any other, and where the men, including the crack-shot Johnny Guitar, are more or less left on the sidelines. The first big set-piece, a confrontation between Emma’s gang, Vienna, her lover the Dancin’ Kid who Emma accuses of robbing a stagecoach and killing her brother, and a spectating Johnny Guitar, is such a fascinating one, even if it’s nothing more than a bunch of men hurling corny Western-esque macho-isms at each other, basically comparing dick sizes (indeed, later on the Dancin’ Kid admits that he hopes the town finds out that he robbed the bank, just for the notoriety, like he needs that to be a man), while Vienna observes intently from her second-story perch. They try to act tough, one of the Dancin’ Kid’s insulted goons basically telling Johnny to put up his dukes, but once Vienna speaks up and tells them to take it outside, everything stops and the men calmly walk through those swinging before slugging it out – they know who’s in charge (“I never met a woman who was more man,” the bartender tells Johnny).
Johnny Guitar might have the résumé of a top-tier gunfighter and have a movie named after him, but once he enters Vienna’s Saloon, he’s basically her tool, her toy, the way the wimpy marshal and posse who dare to have a sliver of a conscience are the tools and toys of the viciously jealous and perpetually enraged Emma. Later, when we finally learn of Johnny and Vienna’s tumultuous past together, when the cynical but amorous Johnny dares to try to show Vienna who has the pants in this relationship and to rekindle their romance, a fascinating back-and-forth ensues:
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure. What do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited …
Vienna: All these years I’ve waited.
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.
Vienna: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
This puts a similar conversation in “Blade Runner,” in which the emasculated Deckard tries to exert the proverbial phallus upon the Replicant/non-woman Rachel by having her repeat ‘womanly’ phrases like “I want you” and “kiss me”, to shame. Of course Vienna repeats these falsehoods halfheartedly, of course they aren’t true, and Johnny knows it – he just needed to hear her say it. What a sad scene. But Vienna just ain’t that kind of woman, even if she does love Johnny, which she does. There are only two women in this film, and the last word you would ever use to describe either of them is ‘submissive.’
Now that Johnny’s failed at his attempt to come out on top and to pull the marionette strings, this is Vienna’s story through and through, namely her fight against the impossibly spiteful Emma. There really is no rhyme or reason to how much hate Emma shows, despite the stock reason of the Dancin’ Kid possibly being responsible for her brother’s death and later a bank robbery, and thus Vienna being responsible-by-proxy, or her contempt for the coming railroad, for which Vienna stands to strike it rich and Emma uses fear tactics to try to convince the townspeople that they’ll be ruined (two words came to my mind as Emma made her frighteningly impassioned, xenophobic speech: Sarah Palin. This movie wasn’t just a metaphor for 1954 society apparently, but a herald for 2009 as well…). She’s just…evil, filled to her eyeballs with rage, and every ounce of that rage directed at Vienna. On the surface, it’s because she wanted the Dancin’ Kid, who in turn wanted Vienna, so it’s all out of jealousy, but could Emma be in love with Vienna herself, and her inability to get what she wants because it’s societally unacceptable fuels her rage, causing her to despise that which she cannot have? Stands to reason, considering how these two careen towards the Western-esque showdown so often reserved for the men while still retaining the romance-driven hopes and desires of women – the sexual ambiguity and dare I say, full-on bisexuality, bleeds from every pore of this film. Just consider the astonishing scene in which Emma’s posse confronts Vienna in the saloon to demand that she give over the Dancin’ Kid, only to find her playing the piano, decked out in a regal white dress and calmly rebuking the fiery Emma. Quite a difference from the no-bullshit Vienna we met earlier, dressed like a cowboy, overseeing her establishment from her high perch with that angry, scrunched up Joan Crawford face. Who’s the real Vienna, the pants-wearing entrepreneur whose male employees obey her without a second thought, or the dress-wearing piano player who feigns ignorance, loves Johnny, and is easily overpowered by Emma’s mob, needing to be saved by Johnny in one of the film’s few moments of reliance on traditional Western gender conventions? Maybe both. Also helps that this scene is damned suspenseful and entertaining on its own as a great Western showdown, Vienna on one side, Emma and her posse, hands on holsters and slowly walking forward, on the other, with the sound of a piano punctuating the air as it would in any other saloon right before a potential shootout – just with typical conventions flipped, as it’s sexually ambiguous woman vs. insane and sexually jealous woman. Vienna’s ambiguous, but boy, Emma ain’t. You could criticize Mercedes McCambridge’s performance for being far too simplistic and overly-malevolent to the point of being hilarious, but I bought into it the way I bought into Walter Brennan’s performance as Old Man Clanton in “My Darling Clementine” – they’re like wild animals, with no shades of gray (at least in terms of Emma’s being a bitch; in terms of motivations, there are shades of gray up the wazoo), and in a metaphorical genre like a Western, that might be appropriate. She’s so contemptible that I was fuming in that big showdown scene that she could cause so much bad to happen, as I’m sure many back then were fuming as people were mercilessly fingering others as Reds – the allegory isn’t exactly subtle here. Vienna ain’t exactly a completely likable character in her own right, what with her obstinate stubbornness and Joan Crawford just being Joan Crawford, but compared to a woman like Emma, you can’t help but align yourself completely with Vienna and worry for her, one woman against an entire posse, a piano and sheer guts at her disposal instead of a gun.
“Johnny Guitar” works as an entertaining as hell Western in its own right, with larger-than-life performances and gorgeous color and cinematography, even if the production skimped out with cheap-looking sets, but that doesn’t matter when a movie is as purely character-driven as this one is. It’s also a political metaphor, and as a gender inverter, featuring an inevitable showdown between two uber-masculinized mega-bitches whose motivations are up in the air, and a mysterious guitar-strumming gunfighter who isn’t subservient to Vienna the way the woman would be subservient to the hero in another Western, but rather, her partner in crime. He’s the supporting player (I guess “Vienna” just wasn’t a sexy enough movie title) while she takes center stage with more at stake for sure, but regardless, they need each other. This film changed everything about gender roles and relations, and hardly anything at all.
Laaaaammmmeeee ending, but everything else was awesome. Sexual tension (girl taking the arrow to her shoulder and shrugging it off, then Monty Cliff nonchalantly sucking the poison out = badass, from both parties), homoerotic tension (rivalry between young gunslingers Monty Clift and John Ireland in an ‘i’ll show you my gun, you show me yours’ scene where phallic implications abound, but sadly that rivalry never really comes to fruition) and that turns out to have reflected real life, John Wayne’s best performance that out-nuances his job in The Searchers any day…starts off as typical John Wayne brave western do-gooder, subtly changes over the journey until he’s a bitter, gray haired, crazed monster…very nice and unexpected turnaround from ambitious hero to obsessed villain (hell, after he’s banished by his fellow herders, they dare not even speak his name lest he sneak up on them and blow them away). And even old Walter Brennan does a nice job in comic relief as the old codger and longtime confidant of Wayne’s who’s constantly bickering with his Indian lackey. He’s a silly character, but his difficulty in having to decide whether or not to continue standing by his old friend who’s descended into madness and putting his men in peril was still touching. Overall, other westerns will say they’re epic, but this one actually felt epic, and not just because the journey that all the herders go on is vast in distance and impossibly difficult in terms of keeping 9,000 heads of cattle under control (as seen in the showstopping stampede scene, that’s begun with a scene of great and agonizingly quiet suspense and descends into all-out chaos). It’s epic because of the Shakespearean – hell, the Biblical – relationship between John Wayne as the stubborn man who built his cattle empire from the ground up and Montgomery Clift as the kid he raises as his heir, and son, and how that deep relationship is tested when father goes mad and the son must betray him to protect the legacy that the mad father thinks is being stolen from him. They love each other, even as Wayne vows to kill the kid, but the best thing about what transpires is that that doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t kill the kid, so you still worry that something terrible’s gonna happen, and the relationship is all the more dynamic. Great tale of obsession and pride and tension, climaxing with one of the best lead-ups to an inevitable Western showdown I’ve seen, that’s unfortunately marred by a horrendous resolution. Otherwise, that’s all I gotta say…umm, great cinematography? It’s no Ford in terms of looks, but still some great wide shots and intimate, gritty closeups…you really feel like those bulls’ll trample ya. This is going straight to my list of 100 favorite films, which was the last thing I expected to do going in. Epic, and unexpectedly great
A spraawwwllliinngg tale centered around a Texas sheriff’s investigating the apparent murder of a wicked predecessor forty years before, and an examination of pretty much everyone directly and indirectly affected by it, both in the past and in the present. Too sprawling at times? Yeah, I guess it gets muddled in subplot after subplot, some of which it’s tough to find a connection between even after the credits roll. But really, it’s only tough to follow in the beginning – you’ll get used to it once you get to know the many, many characters and their stories, most of which feel pretty genuine, like they really have been living amongst each other in that small town for years before we meet them (except for Frances McDormand in an inexplicably quirky and over the top, one-scene performance that seems like it’s from another film entirely. Clearly that other performance of hers in 1996 outdid this one by miles ;) ). The investigation is the lynchpin around which the rest of the plot revolves, but clearly the theme’s supposed to be the complicated race relations in a place like this small Texas town, particularly between the whites, blacks, and latinos. Sometimes Sayles emphasizes that too much and “Lone Star” turns into too much of a lecture on race, as everyone stops to discuss what should be taught in a history class, or the history of intermarrying blacks and Native Americans, etc. (a subplot involving a bar fight between soldiers and the implications of that at the nearby Army base felt utterly superfluous other than to further emphasize the difficulties that minorities must deal with), but overall it just added flavor to an already-dynamic time in place, and something to stew over once the mystery is solved (a mystery that takes a page from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s” book that the legend is often more important than the fact). Sayles’s screenplay impressively weaves past and present pretty effortlessly, the flashbacks dominated by the presence Kris Kristofferson, sadistic and pure evil as the sheriff who goes missing and who made many enemies . The seamless, uncut transitions between present and flashback, mostly done thanks to no more than a camera pan, are a little gimmicky and Boondock Saints-ish, but still, the flashbacks start to answer our questions as the story and mystery progresses, yet and the same time only begin to reveal how past influences present, and how little has changed when it comes to the complicated issue of race. I was more interested in the individual relationships themselves than some overarching theme about how those relationships are a metaphor for race relations and all that – in particular, the rekindling of a romance between Chris Cooper’s sheriff investigating the decades-old mystery and Elizabeth Peña as the woman he loved, but was forbidden to love, when they were teenagers. They’re the two most ‘real’ characters in the film, from their awkward but truly affectionate by jukebox in her mother’s restaurant re-courtship to Cooper’s Sheriff Deeds’s quiet persistence in investigating an ice-cold case, tracking down financial records and questioning a series of shady characters forty years after the fact – a film noir in the bright sunshine of Texas. This was quite a fun little rubik’s cube of a sprawling mystery, and a tapestry of interconnected people and events, all of which, following some MASSIVE build-up and development of character after character, makes cruelly underwhelming sense by the end, and it shouldn’t be any other way.
“My Darling Clementine” is already my all-time favorite movie, and in my eyes flawless – but just imagine what it would be like if Val Kilmer’s attention-grabbing (to say the least) performance as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone” were transposed into “Clementine” to replace the more nondescript Victor Mature! It would be an utter disaster, as Kilmer’s semi-manic performance and John Ford’s meditative masterpiece would go together like a slug and a salt shaker, but boy would it be a sight to see regardless, like one of those horrific car wrecks you can’t help but stare at :P . “Clementine” and “Tombstone” both concern the shootout between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday and the Clanton gang, but are vastly different, both in quality and in tone. “Clementine” is slow and mournful, and while Victor Mature doesn’t exactly give a great performance, it’s brooding and fits the mood of the film perfectly, and that’s why I identified with the self-loathing, Consumption-ridden gambler/gunslinger so strongly. “Tombstone” is much more of a straight-up genre picture, with the more predictable plot paths and archetypal performances, highlighted by the conflict between the prototypically virtuous lawman Wyatt Earp, with just a hint of revenge-mindedness and the vicious wild animals that are the cowboys. But Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday really is something else. He’s dying of Consumption, looks like shit from the moment we meet him, has that slightly effeminate accent, the remarkable skill with a handgun, and a foolish knack for inciting the ire of cowboys and nearly getting himself killed again and again that can almost be mistaken for bravery. Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday might be more cartoonish and attention-grabbing than Victor Mature’s, but boy does he nail the persona of charismatic Western antihero. His performance is far and away the best thing about “Tombstone”…it’s just too bad he’s woefully underused in favor of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp. Russell does a good enough job as the morally upright lawman, but without more of Kilmer’s enigmatic Doc Holliday and the two men’s unlikely friendship, it’s just one more lackluster element of a solid if not lackluster Western. The gunfights themselves are spectacular and some of the best I’ve seen in any Western: quick, brutal, chaotic, and in extremely close quarters – probably how the real gunfight at the O.K. Corral went down – but otherwise the story is a collection of predictability and clichés, right down to Wyatt’s muse-like love interest, overwrought death speeches, full emotional breakdowns in the middle of the pouring rain, cowboy-hunting montages, and basic character archetypes. It’s your basic genre picture, with some excitement but light on depth, with one great yet underutilized performance to save it from clichéd Western oblivion – which is fine, and I enjoyed it enough, but tossed it aside afterwards. “Tombstone” summarizes the events surrounding the shootout at the O.K. Corral, but a film like “Clementine” turns that 30 second free-for-all into the stuff of good-versus-evil, chaos-versus-order, lawlessness-versus-civilization myth and legend.
With that phallic-as-hell whip (that he takes far too much pleasure out of using on his poor victims), his subtly homoerotic kinship with his posse, his running for delegate through his usual empty threats and out of sheer jealousy when the town nominates the likable Jimmy Stewart, and his yen for tripping, punching, and just plain bullying anyone who looks at him the wrong way, I think it’s pretty safe to say that this Liberty Valance fellow killed lots of squirrels, got (or gave) wedgies, titty twisters and swirlies, and had lots of mommy issues as a kid, what do you say?
That’s what I liked most about “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” how Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance isn’t the prototypical larger-than-life Western villain who nonetheless has a perverse code of chivalry – he’s an overgrown child, a spoiled brat, and a bully who beats up nerd-o’s like Jimmy Stewart’s do-no-wrong lawyer Ransom Stoddard just because he can, because of what are clearly deep-seeded psychological issues that, thankfully, are never elaborated upon and are left to us to interpret as we will. Some would argue that there’s no depth to the man with how much of a crude, despicable brute he is, but call me crazy, I found him more worthy of deep psychological readings/analysis and all the more threatening exactly for those reasons.
The man in the movie’s title stole the show, even though the other performances, by two legends of the screen no less, could’ve used some fine-tuning. Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, and whoever played that fucking Town Marshal were like fingernails going down a chalkboard (although, I must admit, Stewart’s aww-shucks persona probably worked well for the by-the-book lawyer hopelessly out of his element in the wild West, especially when put up against his polar opposite, Liberty Valance), and John “Pihhl-GRUM” Wayne’s journey towards self-parody was all-but complete at this point, despite some late moments where his Tom Doniphon’s rage is seething – moments that become all the more poignant once you know the big plot twist. So really, then, other than the fact that Stewart and Wayne were FAR too old to be playing theses parts (and even that wasn’t THAT distracting if you really buried yourself in the story, come to think of it), the two do a more-or-less admirable job of carrying the weight of these two weighty roles – the naïve but well-meaning lawyer and the hardened and extremely cynical – but well-meaning - rancher.
Once the movie starts to deal with politics ‘n shit, with stuff about the territory staying as open range or acquiring statehood and other stuff I didn’t care about, the movie starts to lose itself. But then, we get the crucial meeting between Ransom and Tom in that back room where everything changes. The film’s opening, where Ransom, now an older senator, tells a newspaperman the story of the shooting of Liberty Valance, takes on a whole new meaning and is even more elegiac once you realize why Woody Strode’s faithful Pompey looks as forlorn as he does, and why that run-down shack that Hallie visits has such significance. The overriding feeling during this opening passage of Senator and Mrs. Stoddard’s return to this place is that of melancholy and a wistful remembrance of the past and really hit home with me, but then once you realize just how Ransom got to where he is today, thanks to Tom Donophin, a whole new perspective is attached to every glance towards this person or that place these people haven’t seen in years. But most importantly, even though what Tom does that fateful night where Ransom meets Liberty in the center of town is the movie’s clear representation of the idea that the greater good and sacrifice trumps personal fame and glory, and a clear indication that Tom knew how important Ransom was in changing the West for the better, I still find myself juggling with the many possible reasons for why Tom would do what he did, considering how he felt admiration, pity, enraged jealousy, respect, and every sentiment, both positive and negative, in the book for Ransom Stoddard. And judging by how Tom takes out his anger on that shack, I’m sure he was struggling with that issue, and his conscience, just as much. This movie ain’t perfect, but in the character of Liberty Valance and the supposedly clear-cut, morally defined decision by Tom Donophin, I found a kind of resonance and emotional depth worth lots of thinking over in two places you wouldn’t expect.
And it’s a Ford movie, with the as-usual orgasmically awesome images, in widescreen. How the hell can you heavily criticize a movie that has THAT?