In his moonlighting career as a director of steely, even mulish focus, the perpetually weathered, stern Tommy Lee Jones has taken the Clint Eastwood route of imbibing in the great American traditions, although he does not share Eastwood’s masculine commitment to the Sam Fuller get-in-and-get-out storytelling method. Jones imbibes so much, in fact, that he catches his nation’s favorite tradition, the Western, when the genre is looking the other way with its pants down. In his previous directorial work The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he pursued the sociospatial region of the modern American small-town – a space forever clinging to its past and stubbornly, cantankerously refusing to examine itself – as an avenue for comment on the history of the American imagination. Continue reading
After Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah would move away from the 1800s, although that doesn’t mean he left the Western behind. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is without a doubt a Western; it is as cracked and craggy as any of Peckinpah’s prior films, and its thematic content is almost identical, although it takes place in the 1970s. This is fitting, and perhaps the only way Peckinpah could have progressed as a director. His prior two Westerns saw the end of the era, with Peckinpah tackling the transition from the individualist, outlaw lifestyle to a more socially sanctioned form of violence bred by corrupt and violent men being buttoned up on the outside without actually curbing their violent tendencies on the inside. The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid were about the end of the West, but also about its continuity, its persistence in the modern era. The deserts and the ten-gallon hats had been replaced with institutions and machinery, with the industrial revolution and government. But the raspy habit of men fighting the only way they’d been taught how, and the curdled fact that these men were being destroyed by these ways, remained. Continue reading
It is easy to view Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah’s first Western post-The Wild Bunch, and examine it as a follow-up to that seminally shrieking exercise in wolf-like nihilism. It would be easy to do so, and probably correct, but also incomplete. Pat Garrett, which follows ex-outlaw turned lawman Pat Garrett (James Coburn) as he vengefully hunts down his ex-partner Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), bears an outline that is almost identical to The Wild Bunch. In both films, an ex-outsider who becomes a man of respectable society is strangled by his dogmatic commitment to hiding the memories of his lawless days by killing the last reminder he has of those days. In both films, the violence of wild society gives way to the violence of so-called “civilized” society, and in both cases, the social outlaws must die so that the corporate, conglomerate violence of civil people can live. Continue reading
Amidst the sinew and cartilage of cinema during 1999, so many new cinematic talents emerged from the fray that it can be easy to overlook some of the talents who, charitably speaking, took a while to truly do any emerging. One such force, David O. Russell, spent the better part of the next decade generally hiding from the cameras and doing his damnedest to sour his indie-goodwill, keeling over his once-bright reputation until he was known more as a blistering brute, an angry young discontent of a director behind-the-camera, than as a genuine talent whose skills were readily viewable on-screen. He became an untouchable, in other words, scaring off actors as far as the eye can see and sending them scouring for the new next young upstart director. Continue reading
Update 2018 with Roeg’s passing: Slightly less taken with Walkabout’s politics this time out. As a critique of settler colonialism, it’s both vaguer and less eloquently abstract than Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock, a truly poignant and critical take on a cloistered community corseted by their own haze of superiority and indifferent curiosity about other ways of life.
But I’m possibly more enamored this time of Walkabout’s metaphysical vision of sensory experience. Its vision of the conviction of colonial consciousness shuddering apart, of transfixed youths suddenly spellbound by the limits of their own minds, is problematic, but also intoxicating food for thought. And Roeg uses it to divine a film of internal ruptures and wanderings into the unknown, exploring the irregularity of human experience and the non-totality of any individual culture with frighteningly fractious editing and cinematography that veers from the acrid to the oneiric. Above all, he dares us to touch the jagged poetry of the world in disarray. It’s a flawed experience, and perhaps too nihilistic, but it boasts its own truly singular poetry, an elegiac and tragic meeting of minds that explores the fallout of cultural connection and clash.
Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading
Is there any way to announce a consideration of Johnny Guitar other than the now famous Jean-Luc Godard quote about Nicholas Ray being “cinema”? Famously, the director expressed that Ray was among the first, if not the first, American auteurs to do with cinema as only cinema could, taking up the poetry of dialogue and the untarnished, painterly quality of art and the distant timelessness of theater and encircling them with the vulture of film, engorging itself on the carcasses of other mediums and ensuring they lived on, in altered, transmuted form, inside cinema.
Godard’s quote is a touch too heated (I’ll take to my grave the thought that Nicholas Ray is among the most underrated auteurs Hollywood ever produced, but that he was the first true advocate of “cinema” is a much more difficult proposition). Certainly, however, Ray’s films always felt more alive with pulsation, even in their embalmed detachment, than those of many other auteurs. And Godard naturally felt the love due to Ray’s unparalleled work in genre as a means of classifying social incoherence and expressing differing views of humanity’s own artifice. If he wasn’t the first true cinematic visionary, he was up there with the greats of his or any other time. Continue reading
It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, transformative sense of cinematic self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as invested in film for the sake of film itself.
It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than anyone else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading