Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Will Penny (1968) - Directed by Tom Gries

Will Penny is a bit of an off-kilter experience, with regards to the western. It arrived in the era of Peckinpah, the spaghetti western, and John Wayne’s distinctively republican leaning throwbacks. Yet it doesn’t resemble these even remotely. It’s a strange slice of the western experience, focusing on a loner cowboy and his deepening relationship with a woman and her young boy. Tom Gries directs this film with a remarkable sensitivity to the human elements: from the open and reflective nature the film takes toward the concept of the masculine identiy, to the spirited respect the film pays to the female perspective. Ultimately the film succeeds because of an engaging script, some extremely well-drawn performances, and a tone that’s both melancholy, self-aware, and contains just enough trappings of the western genre that we don’t forget we’re watching a western.

Heston apparently liked this film above any other film that he ever appeared in. It’s not hard to imagine why he would feel that way. The film is based upon a television episode of The Westerner from 1960 (created by Peckinpah) that Gries had written and directed himself. It’s easy to see how Gries became very familiar with how he wanted this film to be. He thus also wrote and directed Will Penny, and the flair for how this movie looks and sounds is all his own. Heston stars as Will Penny, a loner cowboy, who goes from one job to the next. Between work, he and a few other cowboys become entangled in a skirmish with a really weird, cultish family, headed by Preacher Quint (a whacked out Donald Pleasance). Penny kills one of the family members in the fight. He moves on and through his travels encounters a woman named Catherine (Joan Hackett) and her boy Horace (Tom Gries’s real-life son Jon Gries) in mid-travels at an inn. He then moves on again and happens upon a job tending a remote section of a huge cattle range over the winter led by foreman Alex (Ben Johnson). When Penny arrives to his assigned shack, he finds Catherine and Horace squatting there. She threatens to shoot him, so he tells her she has a few days to leave due to his boss’s demands. While he’s off riding, the Quints ambush Penny in revenge. Near death, Penny returns to the shack, where Catherine nurses him to health and slowly but surely, the trio of Penny, Catherine, and Horace begin to form a family unit. Until of course, there is a fateful showdown with the Quints, and Penny is forced to make some tough decisions.

The amount of investment given to pacing in this film is key. Penny and Catherine and Horace are not thrust together too early in the film. Their events are allowed to arc slowly together until they intersect in a natural way. Even though we suspect they will find each other later, it’s not due to anything that feels emotionally disconnected or forced. The film earns every moment. Part of a direct appeal of this film, in fact, is the dialogue between Penny and Catherine as they exchange feelings and ideas. Their relationship is one of the most tenderhearted and romantic in all of western-dom. In fact Catherine’s character is one of the great female roles in any western. She shoots her own gun, bosses around Penny, pursues him sexually, thwarts the bad guys, even proposes marriage to Penny. It’s a full-blooded, well envisioned female role, the likes of which I’m afraid to say are not common enough in films like this. But Heston’s Penny is also a well-rounded character. He’s sensitive to the point of nearly crying at one point in the film. Gries doesn’t just demystify the cowboy psychology, allowing Penny to be vulnerable and humble, but also the cowboy physicality. Penny gets shot at, ambushed, pushed around, humiliated, and emasculated and doesn’t always have an answer for all of these things. He’s fallible, awkward and real. It’s one of Heston’s greatest achievements. The film’s backbone are these characters and these progressive thoughts.

But that’s not to say the film is devoid of excitement. The Quints, in particular, Donald Pleasance are frightening. Pleasance plays the Preacher with a wild eyed unhinged freedom. You’re not sure at all of what he’s capable of doing next. Even his accent is unpredictable! He somehow blends his English accent with shades of southern inflection and cowboy drawl. So bizarre! He’s one of the great villains. The final 20 minutes or so of the film where the Quints overtake Penny, Catherine and Horace in the shack, are a queasy, unsettling mix of terror and fiendishly comedic bravado. We can’t help but be a bit amused at Pleasance’s weirdness, but we’re afraid he and his cohorts are going to kill our likeable heroes. Ultimately, though, the film's greatest suspense comes at the end, where Penny must decide whether to stay with Catherine and Horace or to continue on his loner path. It’s here that the film makes the appropriate and less sentimental choice of having him ride off into the sunset, leaving Catherine and Horace as he feels it’s the right thing to do. Gries’s deft writing allows for the psychology of the people to be laid bare, but maintains an appropriate sense of the cowboy myth at the same time. One could say that the film wants to have its cake and eat it too, but to that I would reply that Penny's decision feels like the decision that this particular individual would make in that situation. We understand him well enough to know that his self-doubt and fear keep him from choosing the family as his future. If anything, it’s the most realistic and truth-based conclusion that this extremely honest film could come to. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Warlock (1959) - Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Warlock, one of the most powerful and unsung of Westerns deserves a huge reappraisal. It got great performances, a thematically dense script, and a revisionist, sinister, almost anti-western tone. Although the revisionist western took hold in the 60’s and 70’s, a film like Warlock certainly helps lay the groundwork. It’s loaded with buried undercurrents, and some not so buried, like for instance the prejudices toward gunman, turning the concept of martial law into an ugly expression. To be a gunman is not heroic in Warlock. The film also questions violence, positions masculine ethos as barbaric and outmoded. We have also the examination of physical disability and ridicule, the domestication of the cowboy and the question of whether the concept of COWBOY and DOMESTICATION are actually mutually exclusive from each other. There’s a lot going on here. 

The town of Warlock is being browbeaten into submission by a local rancher named Cabe McQuown (Tom Drake) and his gang of cowhand thugs. Cabe and his fellas show up into town periodically to raise a ruckus, and cause turmoil. They’ve also run off (or killed) several sheriffs in a row and generally make it known that they don’t want anyone telling them what to do. When the local barber is shot dead in cold blood, and the latest sheriff run out of town, the local citizens decide to take extreme measures. Instead of requesting a new sheriff from another district…..they decide to hire a gentleman of great prowess who has a reputation for taking law into his own hands….essentially being paid to handle rabble-rousers. We learn that this man basically goes town to town, enacting justice wherever he’s paid to deal it. His name is Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda). He also brings with him a sidekick with a crippled leg, named Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn). Clay and Tom arrive as the town’s hopeful heroes, and despite the fact that they warn the citizens that their brand of justice will wear out its welcome someday, the town lets them have control. They quickly take over the saloon, renaming it the French Palace, and begin to set things straight with a thorough, purposeful insistence upon letting the gang know that they mean business. One of the gang members named Johnny (Richard Widmark) quits the gang and decides to volunteer to be the actual town sheriff setting up confrontations of authority, moral rightness, justice, heroism, and masculine identity between Johnny, Clay, Tom, and the gang. 

Perhaps Edward Dmytryk’s best film (he had some good film noirs too), this magnificently scripted work by Robert Alan Arthur is as good as it gets, with multi-textured portrayals like Fonda’s anti-hero “bad sheriff” persona, to Anthony Quinn’s embittered sidekick, who’s filled with devious plots of his own, to Dolores Michaels, as Clay’s love interest, Jessie, who’s anti-violence stance strikes a blow against the masculine mystique, to Dorothy Malone as Lily Dollar, the hooker who’s out for revenge, and also Richard Widmark’s conflicted bad-guy Johnny, who looks for redemption in his new role as Sheriff. All of these machinations are magnificently framed by Joseph MacDonald’s CinemaScope photography. Dmytryk’s feel for pacing and set-up is remarkable too, particularly in the scene when Clay confronts the gang for the first time in the saloon….the spatial relationships of the characters and their motivations coming into play as antagonistic and opposite of each other across the room, with various shotguns held at the ready and eyes watching. It’s a cool yet suspenseful moment, emblematic of the kind of tensions at play in this masterful film. 

But let’s talk more about Fonda, who I think was one of the best actors to appear in westerns. It is said that Sergio Leone got the idea of casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West after watching Warlock. It’s not hard to see why. Perhaps for the first time here, one really views Henry Fonda as a hard-nosed, arrogant SOB. He has this way of presenting plain statements of fact in this film that come across as condescending and callous… he’s been there before and is shocked that you HAVEN’T been there. And although he’s technically supposed to be the hero, he’s kind of like those bad cops in the bad cop movies. You kind of root for him because he’s cool, but you kind of don’t root for him because you feel like you can’t trust him. I think it’s one of Henry Fonda’s greatest and most varied of roles. He’s macho and gritty and pompous, but also sad and melancholy and sentimental. There’s this moment near the end where he’s overcome by sadness at the loss of a friend and displays this renegade spirit of self-destruction and becomes unhinged….setting the entire saloon on fire. The image of him standing in front of the burning building is chilling. Not only does Clay set the west “on fire”, he tosses his guns in the dirt at the end of film, saying goodbye to the west, to his way of life, to everything he knows to be true. He goes off into the sunset not knowing what is next. What a brilliant film.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) - Directed by David Miller

I was in a heated debate with someone online recently over the concept of what a “western” was and was not. One of the most interesting aspects of determining characteristics of a genre is just exactly trying to determine what the characteristics are supposed to be. Meaning, how does one define what a western is? Should there be a strict set of conventions that would need to be met? Or should the definition be more broad based? Surely a set of genre conventions for a western would be that the film be set in a frontier landscape, that there be some kind of past historical setting, say from the mid 1850’s to the early 1900s. Maybe someone’s convention is that the film must take place west of the Mississippi River? Or perhaps it must have horses, cowboy hats, and guns involved? I can tell you one thing for sure..... no definition that I, nor anyone else would be able to put down on paper would hold up to my own scrutiny. There are ALWAYS exceptions and films that wouldn’t fit neatly. And if we used the stringiest rules and conventions to define a genre, are we not just applying stereotypes? It could be argued that genre conventions and stereotypes are what actually inspires writers and directors to do great work. They can use said stereotypes to recall the genre, but then transcend, subvert, or recontextualize those stereotypes in such a way that allows us to reimagine or reinvent the genre. I tend to follow this line of thinking when thinking of a genre……it’s more of a “You know it when you see it” proposition.

Case in point, is David Miller's beautiful Lonely Are the Brave, featuring a terrific script, cinematography, and a remarkable, perhaps career best performance by Kirk Douglas. I say career best performance, because it’s the film where he smirks the least and instead infuses his character with a tiredness and detachment that fits his character perfectly. Douglas stars as Jack Burns, a wandering cowhand, who mosies back into town on his steed, Whiskey, except the time is the modern setting.... 1962 in this case. He arrives back to his friend Paul's house, but only finds his friend's wife, Jerry played by Gena Rowlands. They engage in some dialogue, and Jack finds out his friend is in jail for two years. Jack decides to get himself arrested so he can go into the jail and break Paul out. He proceeds to get in a bar fight, and then at the police station punches an officer, getting sentenced to a year in jail. Once in jail, Jack finds his friend Paul, but also finds out his friend isn’t willing to risk getting caught and instead prefers to wait out his two year sentence. Jack breaks out that night anyway, gets back to his Paul's house, grabs his horse and heads for the hills. Only thing is, that escaping on horseback, a la 1880, is not the same as escaping on horseback in 1962. They’re after you with jeeps, airplanes, helicopters and modern communication. It doesn’t take long for the cops to track him down, featuring a showdown on the cliffs of the mountain. Ultimately, time and fate itself catch up with our modern cowboy.

In choosing to use the outmoded (by 1962 standards) concept of the cowboy as loner figure in the west, we find that at once it recalls such figures from other westerns….Shane, The Gunfighter, Will Penny, however, because it places him outside of the typical time frame, it begs the question…. “Is the concept of the western and the cowboy more a state of mind than any time frame or locale suggests?” In this sense, this film says yes. This concept of the loner cowboy wandering aimlessly is so out of touch with modern ways of thinking, it almost comes across as loony insanity by 1962. It strikes the modern world as so strange Jack lives this way, that when he announces to the police at the station that he has no identity cards or driver’s license, they look at him like he’s crazy. But the fact that he embodies the attitude, the mannerisms and the outlook of the loner cowboy is what makes this a western. The film almost makes a  point of the fact that this cowboy is a throwback to old fashioned times, allowing for some funny comments from Walter Matthau as the police chief. But I believe that this film gets at the psychological heart of what makes a western a western, and it’s the state of mind. I complete my argument thus……Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven not only occurs in the right locale, Texas, the right time frame more or less - 1916 (remember The Wild Bunch occurs in 1913), and also concerns a plot (that of the traveling and displaced easterner) very common to the western genre. Yet, it feels really nothing like a western. It doesn’t have the state of mind to me that recalls what the western is all about. Lonely Are the Brave certainly FEELS like a western to me and can claim a right to at least a significant portion in defining the neo-western as a subgenre….that of taking western characters and placing them into modern settings that allows a film to contemplate just how little or how much the west has truly changed.

Based on Edward Abbey’s novel "The Brave Cowboy", the script for the film was written by Dalton Trumbo. It’s a fatalistic and somewhat irreverent script, allowing for dark moments, tearful moments, but also moments of comedic irony, particularly any scene that Matthau appears in. Douglas’ tender moments with Gena Rowlands are magnificent in their ability to distill human emotion and yearning, as are the moments that show us Jack’s love and devotion to his horse, Whiskey. It is said that this was Kirk Douglas’s favorite film of his. It‘s not hard to see why, as I also think it contains Kirk’s most heartfelt and honest acting. So often here, he’s understated and allows his emotions to speak for themself, displaying a wider degree of range than I’ve seen from him in any other movie. His performance is also remarkably physical, particularly when he’s trying to bend the jail bars, or climb the mountainsides with his horse, or create a splint for his shot leg. We feel the strain from him. There are other fine supporting roles here from Matthau, and Rowlands, but it’s Douglas’s film through and through. Lonely Are the Brave is perhaps the best neo-western of its kind. Both recalling, subverting, and reinventing the western genre at the same time. It’s a remarkable film.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Before Midnight (2013) - Directed by Richard Linklater

It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Linklater’s “Before” series. I’ve written essays on the first two brilliant films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I’ve even declared my affinity for Julie Delpy in my essay on her wonderfully screwball 2 Days in New York. So perhaps I’m already coming into this newest addition to the Before series with rose-colored glasses on. At this point I’m not really sure I’d ever have a negative reaction to any of these films. Why? I simply like these people, Celine and Jesse far too much to not enjoy hanging out with them and seeing what they’re up to every 9-10 years. With this third film, the full force and weight of accumulated fictional stories of these two characters, coupled with our growing cinematic memories of them (and our own simultaneous ways in which we relate to their experiences) are beginning to take on a life of their own. Although it is the 3rd film in the series, it’s actually beginning to feel less like a series and more like one long film. It’s hard to imagine now any of the films by themselves, as each of them comment upon, build upon, and re imagine elements of each on an ongoing basis. To say which one is better is almost sacrilege to me….they’re all really pieces of one story.

Spoilers ahead….Before Midnight continues the saga and twisting/turning relationship of Celine and Jesse, two young people we met back in 1995 in Before Sunrise, as they spent a night together falling in love, before parting. They of course found each other again 9 years later in Before Sunset, elaborating on their life stories and how they diverged and joined together again. Now in Before Midnight we find them in Greece on holiday at the age of about 41. They’ve been a couple together for 9 years (haven’t married) and have twin girls. Jesse is still a writer and Celine continues her political involvement and activism. We follow them for an afternoon, evening, and night in which they chat about current parenting challenges, career challenges and relationship challenges. They engage in a robust dinner discussion at the villa where they are staying with other guests. We follow them on a long walk through Greek ruins and a nearby town on their way to a hotel stay that has been gifted to them as a break from their kids by another couple, and finally we witness an epic argument in the denouement at the hotel room as they discuss regrets about the past, dissatisfaction of the current state, apprehension on the part of Celine regarding Jesse’s wish to be involved in his son’s life (from a previous marriage), how to reconcile these wishes with Celine’s desire to take her dream job and ultimately questions of whether Celine and Jesse still in fact love each other.

Continuing the sharp and crackling dialogue from the previous two films, it’s clear that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke spend a good deal of time fleshing out the script. According to some articles that I’ve read, they take current experiences in their life and put them into the script and into their characters until things come together in a way that they’re all comfortable with. It’s clear that Celine and Jesse are who we thought they were. If we saw Celine in prior films as an independent feminist with high aspirations who can be sexually headstrong, but has a self-consciousness that makes her paranoid at times, it’s comforting to know that’s who she still is. If we saw Jesse as a hopeless romantic, who idealized love,  who had a perpetual boyishness about him and an almost too-honest approach, it’s who he still is now. This continuity of characterization both through mannerisms and through their speech is what ties all of these films and moments together. The script is dense with information as usual. In brief,seemingly off-handed moments, we get glimpses and pieces of information that help us as the audience piece the entire previous 9 years together. The instances are almost too numerous to count: moments that explain their reuniting, Jesse’s divorce, Celine’s pregnancy, their living in New York and then Paris etc. etc.  but all of this is handled so deftly that it avoids obviousness. This film, even more than the others, is woven with a biting and sarcastic wit throughout. Even in distressing moments, like the final argument, there is a startling and darkly comic streak running through, as often the jokes are at the other’s expense this time, whereas in the other two films, their jokes often avoided getting personal as they were still trying to impress each other. Here, they are in a full fledged relationship and they know each other well. So instead of just getting to know one another, the script allows now for deeper reflection on aging, parenting, death, career, the concept of love, marriage and lasting relationships, the concept of the self, the divide between men and women. When one considers the amount of information told through words here, the depth of characterization expressed through the words and also the pessimistic comedic strain and the damaging relational blows struck, it’s hard not to stand up and applaud the writing. It’s probably going to be my favorite screenplay of the year. Even more than in the previous films, the passing of the years and seasons is of high importance, with Celine and Jesse even commenting on how they demark time in their own minds. In this way, the elegance with which the film broaches topics of love coinciding with mortality has taken on a bitter sweetness that reaches a sort of pinnacle. 

I think my favorite thing of all about this film and actually the entire series itself, is the fact that I simply ENJOY spending time with Celine and Jesse. I really like them and could watch them do anything for any period of time together. This fits my definition of the hang-out movie. I simply love watching them interact and feel like I know them as an actual people. This type of pay-off does not come without significant investment. It’s clear that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke come at this incredibly serious about the whole endeavor. It never feels forced, maligned or insignificant. But they approach the concept of each new film with a high degree of dedication and respect for the characters, the films, and the audience who watches. They all seem fully invested in how these films turn out and are fully committed to keeping these films as honest as possible. It seems that Before Midnight is getting supreme amounts of acclaim, to the degree that they have not seen before with the previous two. Any praise they get, surely has become cumulative as their investment in this concept of Celine and Jesse as time passes, has been sustained so remarkably it’s time to recognize their efforts. If they never make another film, I will feel that these 3 films are complete together. But if they do make another one, I will be first in line to see it.