Archive for May, 2012


Honk if you’re normal

It has been impossible ignore the rise of ‘My Family’ stickers in Australia: cutesy, chalk-like stick portraits of mum, dad, and the kids, perhaps a dog or two, slapped to the rear of at first conspicuously ‘family’ cars (Taragos, Odysseys, etc.) but now all manner of vehicles.  Part of the appeal of these stickers (available from local newsagencies) is meant to be their sheer diversity and capacity for personalization: as one purchases each stick-person separately, all manner of combinations are possible. Not only can one select a dad playing golf, barbecuing or wielding a power drill, but any combination of family members: two, one or no mums; ten kids or zero.

However, with queasy inevitability, the family portraits one sees are almost invariably nuclear, and the stickers have been adopted as a self-satisfied badge of heternormative, middle-class nuclear pride. In these stickers we see unselfconsciously displayed the driver’s immense satisfaction at having hit the jackpot of cultural ‘normality’—wife, husband, two or three or more kids, dog, cat, white picket fence. One does not see single-mother or father families, nor families without children. The stickers are the almost exclusive domain of those who must announce that not only have they observed to the letter the scripts of the dominant ideology, but observed a kind of retrograde fantasy of it (a romanticization of domesticity reminiscent of the post-war years).

The dubious idealism of these stickers is double-layered. Not only do the arrangement of family members tend to reflect traditional constructions of family that a large number of us ‘fail’ to achieve, but the cutesy stick-images themselves recall the family portraits crayoned by young children: a willfully ‘childlike’ vision of domestic life. What we are seeing is surely the glamorization of a middle-class, pre-feminist domesticity through an ‘innocent’ point-of-view. We are left with an image that begs us to imagine, to celebrate: ‘family, remember how it used to be?’

The stickers have been subject to a recent backlash, however, expressed most pointedly in parody stickers that announce “f*@! your family” or, less pointedly, announce as the driver’s ‘family’ a cheekily lone individual. It’s easy to understand the irritation leveled at the original stickers’ outdated expectations, at the triumphant normality of those who display them, and at their repressive restamping of desirability and ‘normality’ itself.

*Readers are advised the following concerns the show’s Australian 2012 incarnation.

The Biggest Loser is over for another year—and it was difficult to not be charmed by the triumph of bashful grouch Margie, who provided much of the show’s humour: in her tantrums against her trainer and regime; her self-deprecating humour; her refusal to dilute her personality in social niceties like many of her peers; and in the show’s embarrassing failure to observe her sexuality in a mock-dating segment early on. Yes, the theme was ‘singles,’ this time around, with a focus on readying contestants for the love from which their weight had apparently disqualified them.

The Biggest Loser, like Extreme Makeover or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is in the business of policing deviant appearances, and dramatizing the urgency and fundamental goodness of that policing. However, part of that dramatization is of course dressing it up. This season, that policing was rephrased as defense against the threat of deep, social and personal exclusion (as the ‘singles’ theme indicates): contestants simply could not live fulfilling lives because of their weight. Or so we’re led to understand.

Locating deficiency solely within its contestants, The Biggest Loser never even entertains the notion that society’s expectations of individuals are not empirical, immovable, and infallible. From the show’s perspective, if a contestant had ‘never been kissed’ because of their weight (as at least two had not), this was an understandable (and, actually, condoned) disqualification. They had the power to fix it. It was not worth considering that this shouldn’t disqualify someone from being kissed, at all—nor indeed from kissing someone. Desire for social (and, through this, personal) acceptance is a crucial motivator in The Biggest Loser; however, it is always the individual who must transform, totally, to bring this about.

With self-righteous urgency, the disciplining of unacceptable bodies also wears the altruistic mask of ‘serious health concern.’ Now, many of the people on this show are overweight to an extent that puts them in real danger, and it is difficult to take issue with their avoidance of early death. Similarly, I am not denying that this show has an emotionally transformative effect on those who participate in it. What I am getting at is the somewhat cute assumption that what its producers seek to create primarily, and what its audience are primarily moved by, is deep investment in these transformations, in the revelation of inner potential—or in the warding off of diabetes and heart attacks. The show’s medical concerns are undermined by its more conspicuous fascination with exposed blubber, with rituals of humiliating bodily exposure. Moreover, it takes little imagination to consider those contestants who must have been rejected from the show in its initial intake for being too overweight, too far gone. Behind The Biggest Loser that we see must slump those who were more medically urgent, yet could not usefully reinforce the show’s ideology of magical rebirth and integration into the status quo (for more on this see Fiona Whittington-Walsh’s essay, “Beautiful Ever After”).

Where we are gripped by a contestant’s emotional transformations, their ‘journey’ (as the show unceasingly puts it), we have also to consider to what extent our joy is, again, the joy of normalcy, of new acceptance. Are we actually celebrating the achievement of a dream that one, of any size, should not have to ‘dream’ in the first place?

I’ve argued that in the appeal of The Biggest Loser is a desire for social conformity, for the policing of ‘abnormality,’ for the correction of that which seems to challenge the status quo. What these very large bodies (humiliatingly paraded at various junctures prior to their transformation) troublingly suggest is not some mere visual affront (the offensiveness of ‘fat’), but a more disturbing denial of the social norms in which the rest of us are painstakingly expert, and through which we measure and understand ourselves. In the revelation of shirtless contestants—fat obscenely cascading the length of their bodies—is not simply an eyesore. Shockingly evoked is also the idea that one could possibly live without observing the codes and conventions surrounding physical appearance the rest of us take so seriously.

Within any culture, a level of difference between people is expected and desired, however only within the parameters of what that culture finds acceptable. René Girard writes that “Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, and its mortality” (The Scapegoat 21). For Girard this dynamic is most easily exemplified in the case of physical disabilities, which can challenge with their “impression of a disturbing dynamism” (21) an otherwise stabilized and accepted system of physical differences. Similarly, the ‘obscenely’ overweight is so perhaps because it challenges the individuality we cultivate and believe we have achieved within the rules—achieved while actually rigorously observing society’s every standard, especially those relating to how others perceive us. According to Girard, each of us values ourselves as somehow ‘different’ from those around us. Yet what we see here is difference on a scale that upheaves the very coordinates of that difference, of our difference. Extreme difference, I’m arguing, tends to uncomfortably highlight, to even insult, our total and unquestioning adherence to social norms—tends to suggest to us that we’re not different or individual, at all.

Following this, encouraged in the viewer of The Biggest Loser is, surely, an almost aggressive desire to see normative codes of appearance and behaviour reinforced and revalued, to see awakened in contestants a ‘necessary’ self-discipline. In this we also see a reflection of the fascist ethos. The trainer “Commando,” an unsmiling military-themed character in combat boots and camouflage who runs fitness programs like R. Lee Ermey in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), clearly illustrates this connection. One might easily argue that behind the most rigorous fitness routines lies a kind of fascist idealism—a preoccupation with strength and endurance, with self-denial and discipline (leading frequently to a desire for self-discipline in others, or revulsion at its absence). Through Commando this tendency is utterly undisguised—even glamorized. Whatever the case, the barking soldier was a useful enforcer of a broader cultural desire for physical conformity, for machination, for the regulation of difference outside the system. And he was so because of the affinity that the broader status quo shares with the fascist mentality when it comes to policing these disgusting bodies.

Much more positively, with the show’s intense focus on social acceptance, particularly that proven by romantic (heterosexual) coupling, it was heartening to see no-frills lesbian Margie come out on top, and the show come to terms with her sexuality along the way (a revised dating segment allowed her female suitors). In Margie’s victory one could celebrate someone fitting in, finding acceptance, and learning to love herself—however not quite in the ideologically homogenized way the show seemed most keen on.

 

Cited:

Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Whittington-Walsh, Fiona. “Beautiful Ever After: ‘Extreme Makeover’ and the Magical, Mythical Spectacle of Rebirth.” Popping Culture, 6th ed. Eds. Murray Pomerance and John Sakeris. Boston: Pearson, 2010. 179-190.

Note: First-time viewers are advised that the following makes details of the film’s plot explicit.

Much reviled by John Wayne, who felt its focus on a man’s abandonment by the community around him was a metaphor for McCarthyism, Fred Zinnemann’s otherwise celebrated film High Noon sees Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) hanging up his guns as a lawman and leaving town with his new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), to open a store. As the deal is sealed, however, he hears word that scum-of-the-earth criminal Frank Miller, a man who has sworn vengeance against him, has been pardoned and is due to arrive on the noon train. Once reunited with his gang of three cutthroats at the station, Miller intends to ride into town and gun Kane down.

Retired, and intending to leave anyway, Kane rides out with his wife, only to turn back, at Kane’s insistence, so that he can face his aggressors. Abandoned by his impudent deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges), however, and unable to deputize the cowardly townsfolk, it looks as if he must face the Millers alone. As if this wasn’t trouble enough, Kane’s decision to stand his ground drives a wedge between him and his Quaker wife. Not wanting to wait an hour to find out whether she’ll be a widow, pacifist Amy threatens to leave Kane if he faces the bandits.

Despite his 1952 best actor win, Cooper’s characterization of Will Kane is beaten out in broad strokes. A few serious lines are either paced too bluntly, or delivered with melodramatic breaks in eye-contact and side-to-side glances. This is not all Cooper’s doing though; the actor’s relationship to the camera, generally, does not seem to have been adequately worked out, and the occasional close-up unduly exaggerates his gestures. His character’s initial introduction, prior to news of the Miller gang’s impending arrival, also seems misjudged. Confronted with the same blinky, moist-eyed act he perpetuates throughout the film, we are unsure as to why Kane should seem so visibly discomforted at this point in the story (particularly as he marries a Grace Kelly less than half his age).

High Noon’s narrative unfolds in almost real-time as the fatal hour creeps closer, and the now-iconic shots of the clock seem to expand each moment, investing it with urgency. The film’s editing is for the most part carefully handled and highly effective: a wonderful pulse-thudding montage startles us with the dread of the situation when the hour is finally struck. The opening scenes make good use of energetic and creative cinematography to perpetually reinsert the viewer into the thrust of the narrative. The film is, however, somewhat let down by the intrusive repetition of its theme-tune, which undermines the subtleties of particular scenes by explicitly cataloging basic events in the plot.

The effective use of cross-cutting easily sustains High Noon’s real-time trajectory and helps make us feel this town is a real location with a temporal life of its own. It is at the level of attributing real character to its townsfolk, however, that the film falters and allows us to question its thematic agenda.

The townspeople’s attitudes toward Miller’s gang are so inconsistent it seems implausible that they should, ultimately, behave so uniformly. These people are purposely intended to make life difficult for our hero, rather than acting of their own accord in such a way that would allow this situation to arise naturally. As the gang rides into town, people scurry in fear; one woman sanctifies the space through which they pass with a sign of the cross. Clearly these men are devils incarnate. Later, however, a hotelier admits a fondness for the Millers, whose presence made his business more profitable. The same goes for the bartender, whose patrons also liked having the Millers around, so much so that, prior to Frank Miller’s arrival, his brother rides in to town for a drink with his old friends. Despite this, when Kane attempts to raise a posse in the same bar the reason for the men’s reluctance is inexplicably given as their fear of being outnumbered, rather than that they are unwilling. In this way, the film seems to adjust the characterization of the Millers and the townsfolk’s attitude to them to suit its moral and emotional purpose, ensuring the villains are greatly feared while having everyone still effectively end up on their side. This episode makes the townspeople’s collective failure to act seem unnaturally unanimous—a device for increasing Cooper’s isolation, inflating his bravery and sustaining this trial of his manhood.

The problem with this is that while High Noon surely purports to demonstrate how a group of people can be murderous through their very passivity, it never convincing portrays group psychology at all. The scenario it presents is a priori contrived to morally endorse a masculine ideal of independence and bravery. At the same time, one suspects the film uses Cooper’s visible moments of self-doubt to assure the viewer that because this isn’t a pretty situation what they are cheering for cannot be mere egotism and pride.

And if it isn’t egotism, it is something odorously close to it. As he famously attempts to raise a posse in the church, Kane is advised to leave town because it is his presence alone that ensures trouble. Anyway, the church-goers argue, when the new Marshal arrives, he will have the community’s full support should trouble eventuate. The film, of course, intends for us to frown on this position, and uses it to reinforce Kane’s pitiful isolation (and thus our sympathy for and identification with him). However, because the story consistently declines to clarify whether leaving would not indeed cancel the threat of violence to Amy and himself (a subject of dispute from early in the film), we cannot see that his insistence on staying is more than a matter of pride. The film’s music also seems to emphasize foremost damage to one’s own ego and reputation, with its fear that the protagonist will “lie a coward, a craven coward—lie a co-ward in [his] grave.” Despite what Kane might do, then, High Noon is insistent that some problems must be solved through violent force and, without due explanation, that this is one of them.

The construction of the bad guys is just as targeted toward testing Kane’s manhood: hardly real characters, they ride into the town as if possessed, accompanied by ominous musical themes to assure us of their inexorable badness. The problem they pose seems speculative—a worst-case scenario—rather than realistic, because the challenge to Cooper’s masculinity they bring about is what the film really wishes to focus on. An interesting variation in their appearance concerns Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), who observes Amy from a distance as she visits the train station with an approving “Hey, that wasn’t here five years ago.” The handsome Ben shows none of the roiling antagonism and scrunched features of his fellow gang-members, and the pleasure he takes in seeing Amy seems to threaten Kane with cuckoldry more than violence: there is more to this conflict than the basic narrative admits.

High Noon’s problematic politics are most immediately enacted through the relationship between Kane and Amy, and one of the film’s more dissatisfying moves is the arrogant dismissal of the latter’s position on the conflict in which she and her husband are embroiled (that they should leave town as originally planned and avoid the confrontation). At one point in the film, Amy gets it into her head that Kane refuses to leave because of some lingering devotion to his past love, Helen (Katy Jurado). She visits the older woman, requesting she allow her husband to go. This otherwise unnecessary plot point allows the film to use Helen to morally silence Amy with the reason her husband must stay (because he is a man who stands up for himself), enforcing the film’s dominant politics of masculinity from an apparently objective point of view.

The specific language Helen uses to do this is even more interesting. To Amy’s question of why her husband won’t leave, Helen responds: “If you don’t know, I can’t explain it to you.” This is a direct echo of Kane’s response to Harvey’s question about why he cannot be made Sheriff on a whim. In this way, Amy (the “child bride”) is associated with the explicitly childish Harvey, and her pacifism denounced as a product of her immaturity rather than treated as a legitimate philosophical viewpoint.

To be fair, the film does allow us a degree of moral ambiguity when Amy responds to Helen by recalling the death of her family through gun-violence, giving us a real sense of the trauma it may inflict. However, this ambiguity serves as a kind of rhetorical holding-bay. The film temporarily abstains from clearing up our moral ambivalence until it can do so with the kind of dramatic absolutism afforded by its finale, in which Amy rejects her pacifism by killing one of her husband’s attackers.

Prior to the climax of this ideologically questionable character-arc, Amy urgently proceeds to the scene of the showdown where she encounters the dead body of one of her husband’s assailants. This spectacle, given to us from her perspective, viscerally recalls the horror of violence she experienced as a child and led her to pacifism. Now that she has decided to do the “right thing” and stick by her husband, the corpse occurs as a faintly sadistic test of her courage. However, in a move that is surely intended to disappoint or frustrate the viewer, she fails this test: traumatized, she locks herself in the Marshal’s office alone. The viewer counts her out; in fact, her turn-around here might even render her more treacherous than before—for she decided to help her husband only to wimp out once our expectations were up. Through this, the character is maneuvered to such a point that only a violent act can redeem her in the viewer’s eyes. Not only must her pacifist ideology be abandoned, but she must bring herself to commit real violence in order to legitimize her devotion to her husband.

In one scene of Zinnemann’s film, Harvey overhears the bartender admit that, while he doesn’t like Kane, the man has guts. Turning to Harvey, he claims that his own decision to abandon Kane showed brains. Harvey, of course, tired of being considered but a boy, doesn’t want brains. In the world of High Noon, guts and brains are oppositional: guts are what really make the man, and the specific logic of Kane’s predicament is secondary.

This focus on the ethos of masculinity is High Noon’s real interest, and the dilemma at the narrative’s center is geared to provide a morally approved pretext for its demonstration. When questioned as to why he will not allow himself to run, Kane responds: “I don’t know.” His need to stay is something ideologically ingrained and normalized rather than ethically argued-for or justified.

Whatever High Noon’s politics, the film is more than a straightforward male fantasy; it takes us on a fascinating emotional and intellectual journey, lingering at a number of psychic places that we would probably prefer not to visit. If we are to share in Kane’s triumph, the film still asks we share in his doubt and, at times, piercing vulnerability. The narrative manages the passing of diegetic time and its significance masterfully, and there isn’t a moment that it fails to engage the viewer. Combined with this stylistic energy, High Noon’s controversial politics and its enduring cultural impact make it essential and discussion-provoking viewing.

Maverick, inspired by the comic-Western TV series of the same name, opens with eponymous gambler and smart-mouth extraordinaire Bret Maverick (Mel Gibson) reddening at the wrong end of a rope, only the horse on which he is precariously balanced keeping him from the longest drop of them all. A bunch of belligerent hombres, framed in Leone-esque close-up, squint at their victim a few times through the desert heat before riding away—leaving our hero in a situation as sticky as his bulging forehead.

This surly Spaghetti Western tribute, with its terse dialogue and sweaty close-ups, is amusingly disrupted as Maverick’s lackadaisical voiceover kicks in: “It’d just been a shitty week for me from the beginning…” Unfortunately this irreverent introduction is the apex of Maverick’s wit, and what follows is an almost interminable stream of lowball, throwaway gags and scenarios that fail to distract one from the film’s underlying banality.

Naturally, at this point Bret Maverick begins explaining how this less than ideal week began. We see him riding into the town of Crystal River (on a donkey, no less) to collect $3,000 owed to him so he can pay the entrance fee of an upcoming poker tournament. Before long, he crosses paths with a sassy swindler calling herself Annabelle (Jodie Foster) and swanky Annabelle-admiring drip James Garner, both of whom join him in a series of generally forgettable hijinks it would take more time than the task is worth to describe—as well as divesting them of what paltry humor they possess.

In essence, though, Maverick’s plot doesn’t so much unfold as regurgitate. The film is indulgent, overstuffed, and critically overlong. You’ll probably be left wondering how what initially appears a light, fun-loving venture went on to produce such a wearying circus of a movie, possessed of neither narrative nor comedic thrust. This situation is significantly worsened by the story’s final twists (although “seizures” is probably more accurate, given both their frequency and lack of restraint), which are arbitrary to the point of indifference in addition to dragging the film out at least twenty minutes longer than tolerable.

To his credit, Gibson’s natural charm sustains Maverick’s momentum as long as possible, as he hams it up with a delightful mixture of giddiness and guile. Unfortunately, the film’s numerous secondary character-interactions are awkward and disengaging. Characters speak merely because the actors who portray them have a line to deliver—or because they’re cuing Maverick to respond with a better one—and despite expensive sets and plentiful extras we never once believe in the existence of a living, breathing world outside the moment-to-moment shenanigans of our hero.

Maverick is also chockful of cameos, such is the script’s compulsion to help itself to everything within reach, however ineffective. In the midst of a heist scene, Danny Glover exchanges bemused glances with Gibson. And, just in case you didn’t get this egotistical reference to Lethal Weapon (also directed by Richard Donner) the first time, Sergeant Murtaugh is sure to mention that he’s “too old for this shit” a minute or so later. James Coburn makes a more sustained appearance toward the conclusion, although even his formidable screen-presence fails to adequately resuscitate a narrative that is, by this point, clearly dead on arrival.

Screenwriter William Goldman already had the financially overwrought though highly successful Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) under his many-notched belt prior to penning Maverick. Maverick is certainly a worse film than BC&TSK—lacking that picture’s remarkable visual flair and narrative directness. Nevertheless, there are similarities in the flaws of both productions: an overestimation of audience goodwill, and an over-reliance on swashbuckling star power and big-budget pizazz. Maverick’s particular failings are underscored by its incompetent management of the comic pace established by its witty opening scene, and the presumption that tired “jackass”/donkey puns or gunslinging clichés will revive its flagging plot at every turn.

The thing is, the pulpy caricatures and one-dimensional plotting of Maverick would be perfectly enjoyable if only the film was as funny as it seems convinced that it is (Maverick is so convinced of its humor that, at a soporific 127 minutes, it can hardly even bring itself to end). Somewhere here a deal has gone frustratingly awry: the merry antics of Donner’s film promise foremost to entertain, to charm us—sweep us off our feet. Although, by the halfway point one feels as if they are doing everyone in this overpopulated production a favor by sitting through it.  2.5 / 5

Bend of the River (1952)

Action by the wagonload in this masterful piece of high adventure from Anthony Mann. James Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw scouting for a caravan of settlers on their way to Oregon. When the supplies required to hold the settlers over during the winter don’t arrive from Portland, McLyntock drops by to discover the townsfolk rolling like pigs in the newfound wealth of a gold rush. The value of his already paid for stores has skyrocketed, muscling him out of market.

Dodging extortion in a head-over-heels dockside shootout, McLyntock and his friend Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) escape upriver with the goods in a steamboat to continue to their work of seeing the settlers to safety. Treachery, however, is never far away, as the lure of profiteering proves too much for several of McLyntock’s company.

Bend of the River’s journey narrative gives Mann the chance to display his talent for intensely visual storytelling: he makes breathtaking use of the cinematic canvas, focusing on the landscape in order to guide attention back to the human struggles that undermine the lofty dreams it inspires. The film develops several classic Western themes, such as the tension between the pride of building townships and apprehension at what they might become, and the fear of being overrun by the ruthlessness of urbanization even as you succeed in fighting it off in the form of hired goons. Man-with-a-past McLyntock represents the tenuous but irresistible hope that the blank slate of the frontier will allow its inhabitants to change their past. Bend of the River’s landscape is a quasi-spiritual place that can remake a person in their own idealized self-image. Greed and betrayal can make it here too, however, and we are constantly reminded that some leopards have no intention of changing their spots.

The film’s representation of the settler dream is dominated by the poetics of complicity with nature rather than conquest of it, and the grace of the steamboat that carries McLyntock and co. contrasts mournfully with the squalid image of “civilization” presented by early Portland. The increasing ubiquity of gold, however—as a natural product itself—is linked with urban inflation and corruption. The film uses this subtly forged connection to question the ideal of a simple, frontier life, and to hint at the Western dream’s inevitable decline.

Bend of the River’s drawbacks are minimal and their mention also risks their unfair exaggeration. Nevertheless, score and image are occasionally mismatched, particularly during the confrontation with the natives. And although this scene showcases some of the film’s more intrepid camerawork, the role of the natives is questionably limited to frightening and chameleonic reminders of the “wildness” of the natural environment.

What is ultimately so engaging about Mann’s film is its combination of subtle, personal and communal crises and joyously hell-or-high-water narrative pacing. Bend of the River is no high-flown think-piece: it’s a down home adventure with bucking horses, roaring rifles and a blockbuster final act that swashbuckles with the best of them. 5 / 5

No gaudy lasso shenanigans or puffed-up pistoleers in this unique and moody picture from 1943. Henry Fonda plays everyday cowpoke Gil Carter who, along with friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) rides into Bridger’s Wells in the hope of finding the sweetheart who seems to have made a few more promises than she can keep.

The girl isn’t there, but the two manage to get caught up in the hunt for the murderers of a local Irishman in this gripping tale of (among other things) how small-town affection for locals can have a dark—not to say farcical—side, and how bumpkin boredom might lend itself to bloodlust.

The murder of the Irishman, reportedly in some kind of cattle-heist gone wrong, sparks a frenzy among the locals and, with the sheriff out of town, they ride out almost immediately to find and punish those responsible. Among the most eager of the lynchers is the quasi-regal Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a confederate who saw little real action in the war and occupies himself by bullying his son (William Eythe) for the “feminine” weakness he sees in the boy. This strained relationship sets up the film’s interest in a kind of masculine posturing that obscures profound insecurity. And it veritably supercharges the confrontation created when a group of self-declared innocent campers are apprehended and standing up for real justice is labeled cowardice.

Few films achieve this combination of atmosphere and momentum. The Ox-Bow Incident is shot with the darkest of beauty as the posse’s night time journey into the woodland of Ox-Bow, where the hapless campers await, visually illustrates their moral transition. The wild landscape becomes a metaphor for the uncharted regions of their own aggression and insecurity, while the arrival of daylight is speculated to bring the arrival of the sheriff—that is, the force of rationality. A scene in which Tetley hassles one of the accused as campfire flames flicker and a vigilante townsman swings the hanging rope like a pendulum in the background is one of many examples of the film making full yet subtle use of the mise-en-scène to build tension.

The Ox-Bow Incident is scarcely less than a perfect picture. The speeches in the early part of the film may come across as slightly stagey and deliberative, but generally the film’s dialogue is both taut and evocative, and convincing performances from all involved ensure it largely transcends the self-righteous proselytizing of many modern justice-themed dramas. The thing is: the audience is sure all along that the accused men will turn out to be innocent, but this is hardly the point as the film shines a harsh light on mob-mentality, manhood, father-son antagonism, and the role of deeply personal fears in the enforcement of ‘objective’ authority. And, even though the innocent/guilty question is superficially predictable, the dénouement still surprises with its deft combination of resolution and horror.

The Ox-Bow Incident was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1998; it remains a true milestone of the Western’s first half-century, and one of Henry Fonda’s finest films.  5 / 5

The writer must admit a sentimental bias: Tombstone was one of those films we kept around the house growing up, a VHS copy recorded off the television perhaps a year after its release. It was probably first watched by me and, later, my younger brother, as it seemed subject to some loophole or blindspot in my parents’ otherwise stringent regulation of violent viewing. We kept watching it, however, in the years to come and when no holes were barred, because it’s a terrific actioner: stylish, momentous, and filled with highly economical yet effective (and often memorable) performances. Love of the genre appeared out of the mist somewhere around here.

Whereas Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994), released around the same time, tells loosely the same story with a sublime moodiness and angst, George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone rides off with pulpy vigor. Wyatt Earp meets up with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliott) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) in ‘boomtown’ Tombstone, intent on putting his lawman days behind him and going into business. Try as he might to ignore it, however, Tombstone strikes Wyatt as a kind of ruined paradise, gradually throttled by the Cowboys, a gang headed by the villainous Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn). Unable to bring himself to exploit the town’s misfortune, the reluctant Wyatt is dragged back into law enforcement at the crabby behest of his brothers. Establishing new laws, they charge themselves with reining in the cowboys and making Tombstone livable for ordinary folk. “Justice,” as the tagline advises, “is coming.”

As Earp, Kurt Russell is stone-faced and eagle-eyed in the best kind of way, a storehouse of guilt and ambivalence. However, the film spends considerably more time introducing Doc Holiday, his tubercular buddy, played by Val Kilmer in an inspired performance. Rake-thin and chalk-pale, Kilmer’s Holiday sways around the movie with a effete charisma, firing wise-cracks as efficiently as he does his pistols.

Not everything in Tombstone works. Although my patience for all that lovey stuff may have advanced since I was ten, I can understand why I routinely fast-forwarded the romantic excursion of Wyatt and paramour Josephine. Wyatt’s martial woes aren’t disinteresting, exactly, but too far removed from the focus of the greater narrative. They also threaten to overload Wyatt’s character. His guilt over his past actions as a lawman is crucial to the plot, and clearly signaled; anxieties of a rather different variety threatened to push this into the background. Josephine herself is of little interest—a too-consciously ‘scandalous’ free-spirit, sassy to the point of tedium. Additionally, Jason Priestley, the cultured cowboy-associate, becomes enamored with a travelling theatre performer (Billy Zane) in queer subplot that would be fascinating were it not underdeveloped and, again, only loosely connected with the main drama.

Ultimately, however, Tombstone is a pretty easy film to like. It also looks splendid: the sight of Holiday, Wyatt, and bros strolling four-abreast toward the O. K. Corral, black-clad and meaning business was some costume designer’s proud moment. Cinematographically, the film borrows with skillful restraint from Leone and Peckinpah in the framing of its gunfights. Moreover, Bruce Broughton provides the film with one of the most underrated Western scores, which plays a crucial role in catching the viewer up into its thrilling gallop. Justice is coming, indeed.

4 / 5

“The Revolution,” according to a curiously candid white-on-black insert, “is not a social dinner, it is not a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery…” Chairman Mao’s quote is punctuated by A Fistful of Dynamite’s unglamorous first images: a close-up of tree trunk ant-traffic being overwhelmed by a powerstream of piss. It is an ironically bodily metaphor to kick off a big-hearted picture. Make no mistake: Fistful is an oaf, parading its hangdog humor with black-toothed grin. But how remarkable it then seems when this grotty lout, to the serenading strains of Morricone’s score, actually dazzles you with its elegance, pirouettes before your very eyes, sidles right up to you and—lo and behold—you swoon.

But before that… As they tumble to the ground the poor critters are hosed again for good measure. We see a pair of dirtied, bare feet nonchalantly shaken free of any unexpected blowback. The stocky, bearded fellow on the (relatively) dry end of the piss offensive is also our hero, or one of them at least—and one as reluctant as he is unlikely.

The year is 1913, and in the midst of the Mexican revolution pistol dynamo and salt-of-the-earth grub Juan (Rod Steiger) is quite content keeping his hands clean—metaphorically, that is. And of matters political, that is—preferring to occupy himself robbing the baleful Mexican upperclass as they’re stagecoached from the troubled region with the most intolerable pomp.

Enter Sean Mallory (James Coburn), an IRA dynamiter on the run from the British authorities. The two form an unlikely alliance when Juan, in an amusingly crackpot epiphany, envisions using Sean’s expertise to blast his way in to Mesa Verde Bank. Little does Juan know that Sean has promised his services to the Mexican revolutionaries, and hitting the bank is actually a move far more “political” than the crass campesino realizes.

One of Fistful’s most endearing charms is the sheer ingenuousness of its shifts from the absurd to the heartfelt. With a childlike lack of coercion the viewer is led to take very seriously what is, ostensibly, a very cheeky film. For one thing, the line between homage and parody was never so ambiguous as it is in Fistful. The Western genre’s Americanism is a subject of both adoration and triumphant irreverence: “You’ll pay for this, you bastard,” cries one of Juan’s victims, having been relieved of his clothes as well as his possessions, “I’m a citizen of the United Stated of America!” The bandit’s father wheezes indifferently: “To me you are just a naked son of a bitch.” The opening scene is surely a comical reference to the ant-torture that opens Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Steiger’s portrayal of the loudmouth Juan puts one in mind of Tuco (Eli Wallach) from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)—a deadly goof who, if he doesn’t quite have a heart of gold, at least has the stuff on the brain. Moreover, the oddball temperament of Morricone’s score ensures the viewer’s eyebrow is at least as frequently cocked as firebrand Juan’s pistols.

But it is with this mongrel makeup that Leone’s film gives the mind an insistent prod and the heartstrings quite the heave-ho. The flashback sequences, long-time favorite of the Spaghetti Western dons (and gorgeously complemented here by a Once Upon a Time in the West-style musical theme), attribute a cryptic backstory to the character of Sean. He is the man without a past familiar from any number of Westerns, certainly, although Leone is able to skilfully suggest obscure personal trauma without ever compromising the chummy accessibility necessary to sustain the character’s central position in a colorful adventure like this one.

It’s not all good-time quirkiness and candor, however. Ungainly charm aside, Fistful’s pacing goes belly-up several times, a problem possibly attributable to its playful brand of characterization—one that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to deficits in action or prolonged, single character scenes. Either way, the film feels at least a little disjointed and overdrawn. Nevertheless, one of Fistful’s grandest coups is the number of times Morricone’s score, like a character in itself, is able to shoulder the narrative momentum and push the film to its emotional peaks.

The most arresting of these relate to what is perhaps the film’s primary theme: betrayal. It seems modes of insecticide aren’t the only thing Leone picked up from Peckinpah: forms of betrayal (personal, political) are as central to A Fistful of Dynamite as they are to that director’s oeuvre. Finally, it is the compelling and nuanced exploration of this subject that makes Leone’s final Western, if not a better one than its much lauded predecessors, quite a different one—and certainly one worth watching.  3.5 / 5

 

Andrew Dominik’s remarkable The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford follows the induction of Robert Ford into the infamous James Gang and his dangerously close-range relationship with its leader. It is a sad and fascinating rendering of Ford’s ambivalent obsession with, ridicule by, and finally betrayal of the legendary outlaw.

The film presents the James/Ford narrative in a spellbinding haze of mythology and forensic historicism, a to-ing and fro-ing between the dreamlike and the documentary evoked by the use of sober narration with storybook sepia color-grading. We are looking at this story anew, but we are not beyond the myth yet. The use of narrowed focus in several sequences suggests both renewed scrutiny of a famous tale, while emulating the eye condition from which James reportedly suffered. The revisionist examination of the James myth offered here is provocative without being showy or cynical, and it is difficult for me to recall a Western so engrossing in its realism: we are watching the James Gang, we are watching Jesse James and Robert Ford.

This latter accomplishment clearly owes a great deal to The Assassination’s hypnotic, fully realized performances. Brad Pitt brings James to life as a dimly charismatic figure, both fact and phantasm, intimidating in his ability to project both inscrutability and brutish caprice whether they are genuine or not. Casey Affleck is undoubtedly the real star here though, and poignantly communicates Ford’s sense of his own inferiority alongside James, and his inability to believe (despite his fascination with similarities between them) that the two men are truly comparable. Both sinister and sympathetic, it is the kind of performance that one speaks of a film as “worth seeing alone for,” and hardly less than a triumph.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t for everyone: even with its rhythmic fluctuation between fear and banality, the film doesn’t always have the kind of scene-to-scene momentum that keeps viewers alert to the subtle significance of its portrayals. However, at least some of those who expect it won’t be for them will probably be surprised. At any rate, this reviewer found The Assassination an intricately nuanced picture sure to benefit from repeat viewings even though the initial one is a captivating, even overwhelming, experience.  4.5 / 5