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Entries in John Ford (2)

Sunday
Nov292015

CRITERION'S HEAVEN'S GATE

Class War, Willful Myth-Making, Fin de siècle Grandeur and Bottomless Irritation

It’s all Sergio Leone’s fault. Only he had the audacity to rain graveyard post-Beat humor and existential irony all over the sacred Western. After 60 years as the dominant mythological trope in American cinema —the first American feature, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, was a Western —who knew the form was so played, so ripe for a toppling? Even more destructive than Leone’s cartooning of the holy Western (moral) landscape was that, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood, “it was the first time in history the hero fired first.”

Leone’s trio of spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) formed the first domino. Four years later, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch proved the flaming sword that swept all before it; equivalent to the first Ramones album, only bloodier. Every subsequent foray had to grapple with Peckinpah’s new cinematic West, one of paralyzing moral ambiguity, villainous heroes, and contemporary social commentary.

Peckinpah, romantic even at his most bloodthirsty, unironically furthered Leone’s themes: That the supposed heroic cowboy brotherhood proved to be male-bonding/sexual sublimation amped to the level of psychosis; that the outlaws’ only moral code was, as William Holden put it, “ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties”; and that the true lure of the Old West was its opportunities for unfettered capitalism made manifest by the (slow-motion) shooting of anybody who stood between you and the money. This was not John Ford territory.

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller provided the final nail. Altman presented the noble pioneer homesteader as a desperate, morals-free empire builder - Warren Beatty as an ineffectual, love-struck wannabe pimp - whose miserable, hard-earned toehold would be ruthlessly looted by better-organized, more corporate predators. Economic critique was not Leone’s or Altman’s locomotive, however.

Both wanted to strip Westerns of their simplistic, post–WWII romantic optimism and replace it with a more complex, modern, post-Vietnam, post-Beckett pessimistic vision - the romantically failed vision of those who once believed. By 1973, even Peckinpah wasn’t making Westerns anymore; his Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a eulogy for the form, with another shoot-out ’n’ funeral every fifteen minutes. And yet, these ferociously destructive revisionist pictures remain among the best Westerns, and the best films, ever made. Even these debunkers, at heart, loved Westerns.

Over a decade after the first temple pillars fell, Michael Cimino went to Wyoming with the world’s finest cinematographer - Altman/Spielberg collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond - several wheelbarrows full of cocaine, and as the stories go, a miniature of the Oscar he won for The Deer Hunter dangling around his neck. Supposedly he shook that miniature at anyone who dared disagree with him demanding to know - in an enraged shriek - if they had one, too. If they didn’t, they could shut (the fuck) up and do as they were told. Few movies have produced the variety and depth of deranged drug-fueled anecdotes that emerged from the Heaven’s Gate shoot. Most center on Cimino’s greed and hubris.

Few movies have been so universally reviled upon release. 

United Artists supposedly went bankrupt over Cimino’s excesses. He spent close to $40 million on his artistic vision, various mountain properties, and them wheelbarrows of cocaine. But are 40 million 1980 dollars all that excessive compared to the $120 million dropped on, to cite just one egregious example, Jackie Chan’s Around the World in 80 Days?

Another Heaven’s Gate legacy — which, like the financial and pharmaceutical excesses, can’t be separated from the viewing experience — is the rabid, pack-dog chickenshitedness of the massed American film critics at the time of Gate’s release. Each tried to outdo the other in shrill condemnation, hollering that it numbered among the spectacularly worst films ever made, that it was an obscene squandering of coin, a travesty of the immortal horsey idiom. Most took a stridently high moral tone against Cimino’s mad ego, even though that’s what gets directors get hired.

Suffice to say, Richard M. Nixon's reputation got rehabilitated sooner than Heaven’s Gate's. What should be obvious in the face of that kind of critical unanimity is that the movie is a harrowing masterpiece, a poetic epic of the kind hardly attempted - by Americans at least - since D. W. Griffith, a detailed study of the pathology and sociology of class war in the guise of an action-driven historical epic wrapped around a heartbreaking love triangle with class-war implications of its own. With Cimino/Zsigmond’s wide-screen Bierstadt vistas and Leone-scale close-ups, it’s a privilege to see this new print on Blu-Ray. Those not compelled by the mythology of Westerns will be enthralled; those who crave it (Does anyone still crave it besides me?) will be transported.

Heaven’s Gate is also deeply, maddeningly annoying. Annoying in perfect proportion to its grand scale. Annoying at its most moving, annoying at its most self-conscious, and annoying at its most well-intentioned. Well, as the Spanish say, Maciado perfecion es un error.Yin & Yang

The twin avatars of this annoyance are, in order of impact, Isabelle Huppert and Michael Cimino. Huppert, the inexplicable romantic lead, plays a whore - avec integrity, bien sur - in 1890s Wyoming, torn between Kris Kristofferson’s old-money, Eastern-WASP sheriff and Christopher Walken’s immigrant murderer of immigrant cattle rustlers on behalf of the Stockman’s Association. United Artists' management went batshit that such an expensive film would star someone unknown to the American public who could barely speak English. And for once, the studio bosses were right.

At the time, Huppert had like total international art-house cred as a brimming-with-integrity arty French actress. But she also came off as a gratingly self-loving prima donna who took a creepily gleeful pleasure in spending most of her onscreen time naked while acting all innocent about it.

Among cinephiles, Huppert’s derriere was on a par with Susan Sarandon’s breasts: We knew it/they was/were going to be on display in every picture, and proudly. When the 2015 Huppert, a self-distanced, urbane echt-Parisian, disrobes, there’s an erotic/philosophical tension between her regal, armored essence and her naked bod. Not so in 1980. After seeing far too much of Huppert's bare behind in Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kale wrote in The New Yorker, “Sometimes you could swear it pouts as eloquently as her face.”

Huppert serves as the benign example of Gate’s naked (heh-heh) ambition. Cimino’s determination to make myth succeeds and fails repeatedly throughout the picture. When his aims become transparent - revealed by ten-too-many intercut shots of somebody’s ironic commentary on the action - the story falls away, leaving only the stunning impenetrability of coke-induced artistic blindness.

Cimino sought a Wagnerian scale, a self-conscious grandeur. When he achieves it, the visual/narrative results are mind-blowing, deeply moving tableau that seem wholly appropriate to the story. His particular mastery is the dialogue-free crowd scene. The best moments of Cimino’s career derive from the wedding sequence in Coppola’s The Godfather. No one can gather characters and turn them loose en masse with the community credibility that Cimino achieves. This underscores his debt to D.W. Griffith.

The film’s composer, fiddler David Mansfeld, leads off the film’s most astounding moment. He roller-skates around a canvas-roofed town hall, fiddling away, calling the immigrant villagers onto the floor. Hundreds follow him, clad in the trademark peasant outfits of eastern and northern Europe. As their sheriff, Kristofferson knows that a mercenary army, hired by the filthy-rich cattle barons of the Stockman’s Association, is en route to slaughter the entire town. The townspeople haven’t yet, as Brecht said, heard the terrible news, and this is their last revel. The dance hall and the frame become increasingly crowded as the music builds. Cimino never loses the details of individual character as each larks across the floor.

Kristofferson warns the villagers, and they turn on one another with predictable results. In the now-deserted great room, Kristofferson and Huppert take to the vast empty floor for a tender, doomed, extended waltz that’s too sweet to be borne.

After their dance comes class war with a capital C. The townspeople decide to fight and head out to meet the oncoming army. It’s among the most realistic, emotionally engaging, visually overwhelming battle scenes in cinema history. Cimino’s obviously haunted by the final shoot-out of The Wild Bunch, but he suggests a more timeless war, one harking back to Troy - composed of dust, blood, confusion, and madness. His presentation of the raw hatred of the rich for their usurpers and that of the downtrodden for their oppressors has no equal for bitterness and ferocity. They just want to kill each other, and by dint of being out West, beyond the law and armed to the teeth, they just can.

For a putatively drug-addled egomaniac, Cimino demonstrates a subtle grasp of classical structure. The first three-quarters of the nearly 200-minute film present the developing forces in opposition, each with their mores and minute idiocies. The opening twenty-minute set piece is Kristofferson’s Harvard graduation, with its implications of an Eastern elite determined to lift up the ignorant downtrodden of these here United States. It’s almost dialogue-free and proves Cimino a master of mise-en-scène from the jump. It also establishes Kristofferson as the moral center of the rapidly vanishing West: Cultured, two-gunned, shit-faced drunk, high-minded, grief-stricken, murderous, and conflicted.

The Stockman’s Association massacre is led by pompous high-WASP snotnose Sam Waterston in a performance of repellent conviction. Kristofferson’s got issues of his own as he tries to convince Huppert to flee the armed mob. Half of their scenes together are crushingly real and half seem to be between strangers reading dialogue. Still, Huppert gets better and better as the picture goes along. Kristofferson, in his prime, seems so damn American: Gary Cooper, Sam Shepard, John Doe, Kristofferson. They’ve all got that über-American face.

Cimino depicts the battle for America’s moral destiny as between the sincere, primitive immigrants and the decadent entrenched interests. The real struggle takes place in Kristofferson’s soul. And Kristofferson’s got the soul to pull it off.

Thursday
Sep172015

Criterion's My Darling Clementine - John Ford As Mozart

Criterion’s My Darling Clementine – Ford As Mozart

The Searchers is John Ford as Wagner. It’s an opera of one mood: Portent; Ford vests so deeply in cartoon characters they become archetypes; he vests so deeply in cornball it becomes profound. Those Wagnerian images – how can a troop of cavalry crossing an icy stream be so inspiring? Like Wagner, Searchers’ John Ford builds myths and monuments. Nobody frames and composes for – or understands the power of –inhabited space like Ford.

My Darling Clementine is Ford as Mozart. Clementine’s not operatic. It’s a series of self-contained movements forming a melodic symphony of moods: Elegiac, bittersweet, lethal, witty and touching. Some trip lightly, some evoke Death, some make fun of themselves, some are just plain stupid. The pace varies to underscore emphasis and emotion. The slower shit happens, the more it means.

Ford shoots Clementine with an unusual painterly sensibility. The grave, expansive frames are his most self-consciously gorgeous. The universe splits between immense sky above and endless earth below with men trapped where they meet. The interiors feature ceilings and chiaroscuro; Ford’s expressionist Black & White evokes Film Noir like no other Western. Criterion’s extraordinary 4K print brings out the richness of the cinematography. For once in a Ford picture, visual context isn’t only backdrop or grand metaphor. Clementine is Ford’s most subtle, elegant picture and, when it’s not stupid, his least sign-posted.

The story addresses mortality; the symbiosis between civilization and violence; the scale and poetry of the Western landscape; family bonds; and how the spoken word fails to resolve disputes or express love. When Ford vests in those themes, Clementine proves hypnotizing and profound: an archetypal myth. Ford tells it as a myth should be told, quietly. Astonishingly, Ford never beats you over the head with the most profound moments. The narrative power rises from the characters and the visual presentation of theme. Ford frames Wyatt Earp against the gigantic sky and Doc Holiday tucked in the corner of a long dark bar. The meaning’s clear. Earp strides the West like a colossus; Holiday’s a dead man walking.

 As for the stupid part, Ford apparently never had a conversation with a woman in his life. Or, at least never a post-orgasmic conversation – hers, not Ford’s. It’s not entirely Ford’s fault. In classical-period Westerns – Anthony Mann’s Freudian The Furies aside – women are wives, virginal wives-to-be, whores, spinsters, moms, prizes to be fought over, chicken-pluckers/plow-pullers, ornaments or encumbrances. Even so, where in Western mythology to fit poor Linda Darnell leaning against a doorway in mismatched flounces with a hairdo that launched a thousand drag queens, announcing: “I’m Chihuahua!”?

Mood needs nurturing. When Chihuahua appears as the epitome of grasping, clueless low-rent love – and she’s the sex object! – the mood goes to hell. Here Ford proves arrested development incarnate, stuck in 8th Grade, obsessed with 8th Grade obsessions: Dick-measuring, who hits hardest, who’s fastest, who’s the Alpha, who best conceals emotion, who’s most impervious to desire, who’s got the most inflexible notions of right and wrong. Granted, those obsessions do form the heart of classical-period Westerns. Only someone wholly vested without self-consciousness could spin that straw into mythology.

No women characters perfectly incarnate a '50's man's terror of women as do Ford's. Chihuahua counterpoints Clementine, who’s so virginal she’s practically paralyzed. She barely lifts her hands above her waist once in the entire picture. Earp, repressed himself, falls hard. Ford relishes their 8th Grade courtship. Clementine pretends to have no sexuality and Earp, no aggression. The more his Alpha aspects recede, the more comfortable Clem becomes. Yet in almost every exterior frame Earp and Clementine share, somewhere in the background, always between them, always thrusting to the sky, stands a big ol’ raging boner of a cactus. Few things appear in Ford frames by accident. Maybe all that role-playing and repression service lust. Must have been hell, getting laid in the 1940’s.

Just as the stupidity and regression, uh, climax, Ford constructs a transcendent sequence of visual narrative and metaphor. Clem and Earp stroll arm and arm down a board sidewalk. Ford goes to a medium long shot. Still for an instant, Clem and Earp look exactly like a couple atop a wedding cake. As they walk toward the camera, Ford pulls it just a bit ahead in an extended stately track. Somebody – I always think it’s Godard when somebody says something insightful about cinema – said that tracking shots carry the story forward into the future. Ford makes Clem and Earp’s future plain. In case we didn’t get the point, Ford goes to a reverse of the couple walking slowly, slowly, slowly to a half-built church under a vast, sheltering sky. Of course a big-ass American flag waves in the breeze.

They get to the church and everybody’s a’dancing. Clementine offers an 8th Grade condescending smirk as she stands in the hot sun waiting for fearless, mankiller Earp to grow a pair already and ask her to dance. Ford follows this annoying pantomime with one of the most evocative symbolic moments in all Westerns. As Earp prepares to pop the question, he yanks off his twenty-gallon hat and tosses it out of frame. He’s done with the range! Earp don’t need no hat! He’s gonna let this gal civilize him and live in town!

 In a metaphorical marriage, Earp dances with Clem before all the townfolk. Fonda manifests Earp’s notion of dancing as sweet, unknowingly ridiculous, and gooberishly self-assured. In that moment, Fonda rivals Charlie Chaplin in finding the precise physical manifestation of his character. Fonda has Earp wired, inside and out.

 As Walter Brennan has old man Clanton. This is not the wisecracking, aging coot Brennan of Red River (and everything else he ever did). Brennan’s never been so amoral, unyielding or darkly paternal. There’s a lot of Lear in his slumped shoulders as he bullwhips his boys and spits: “When you draw a gun – kill a man!” Clanton’s as serious as Earp. His sons, like Earp’s brothers, provide window-dressing. They give the old man and the Marshall context, but we know who matters.

Victor Mature seems to have wandered onto the wrong set. He’s so 20th Century and urban. Could it be that Val Kilmer manifest the definitive Doc Holiday in Tombstone? Maybe so; Mature justifies his presence in a jarring, haunting recitation from Hamlet. A drunken actor can’t remember his lines and the consumptive Holiday embraces his rapidly approaching death with, for Mature, astonishing gravity. It’s the single most credible, moving, precisely proportioned moment of his career.

Clementine’s power springs from restraint. Restraint ain’t Ford’s métier, but his rigorous understatement fuels the pressure in every crucial scene. Even within his immense, Olympian frames, Ford keeps the lid on. Clementine features genuine suspense, the rarest thing in a Ford picture. The final shootout, a masterpiece of composition, cutting and pace, carries no bombastic score, no musical cheering section. It plays in eerie silence. Character, not plot needs, drive the results.

 It’s impossible to reconcile the sensitivity, maturity and technical genius of these exemplary sequences with Ford’s aggressive dunderheadedness when it comes to women. This is the John Ford conundrum. And as much as I’d like to suggest fast-forwarding any time Chihuahua shows up, there’s a key plot kernel embedded in each of her appearances. I solve this dilemma – whenever Linda Darnell spouts her humiliating dialogue – by putting my hands over my ears and maturely humming aloud. Try it!

Criterion’s 4K Blu-Ray is mind-blowing: the restored print’s so sharp and clear and grand. However big your TV, you’ll wish it were bigger. If your living room was the Ziegfeld, you’ll still wish it were bigger. The crisp soundtrack’s in mono, as it was meant to be. Among the extras is a103-minute pre-release version of Clementine. This cut seems to be a compromise between Ford’s slower, bleaker version – one with fewer, less obvious musical cues – and Darryl Zanuck’s 96-minute cut that hit the theatres. The longer one feels more attuned to Ford’s themes. I prefer it.