Tag Archives: Westerns

Film Favorites: Johnny Guitar

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

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After Midnight Screenings: El Topo

topo4Update upon another viewing in 2017:

Is El Topo pointless then? Or rather, is it depoliticized? Or is chaos and ambiguity political and purposeful in an age of order? Simultaneously earthy and beyond the grave, the characters of El Topo do not effuse logic or purpose or even desire, but they do implode with the chaos of uncertainty, of the crushing weight of their totemic status as archetypical figures bounded by unclarifiable laws of desire and need and want they are unable to do anything about. They wander through a mass of centrifugal emptiness, never for or to or from anything; such liberal teloses hold no sway in this anti-rationalist mindspace that reveals, conclusively because of how vague and inconclusive it is, how arbitrary various masculine desires are. Or rather, how a life governed by the compulsion to complete goals is so often defined through the runaway assumptions of capitalist conclusiveness where one finishing line is the starting pace for an even faster act of running in circles. Most Westerns create male spaces of desire, empty and virginal worlds ready to be deflowered by a male character’s conquering, ordering phallic motion through space linking the edits and giving reason to this world. A contrapuntal riposte, there’s nothing to fill up in El Topo, nothing to complete, no oasis of purpose to stretch thinly across the randomness of the world in hopes of masquerading. In this sense, if the film dodges conventional meaning or any normative point, it also explodes the oppressive certainty of a social order which bounds and demarcates meaning to that which can be conventionally construed through only that order’s logic.

Original review:

Writing about Mulholland Dr. recently, I began with an explication on the film’s wonderful arbitrariness, its cluster of contrarian images and sounds which existed for no reason other than to bemuse and titillate, to enrage and befuddle, and to please David Lynch. I then spent most of the review coming to terms with the fact that my opening paragraph, all praise for Lynch’s film existing for the sake of itself, wasn’t really fair: the director’s 2001 anti-film does nothing simply for the sake of itself, for it had more to say about film as an object of corporate culture and voyeuristic gaze than any film of its decade. It is not an arbitrary film; it is replete with intentional, textured meaning, and it is a masterpiece of commentary on film as object of invention and sociology.
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Double Feature: A Serious Man and True Grit

A Serious Man

A deceptively sedate but perpetually off-kilter movie, A Serious Man really has a lot going on under its sleeves, even if the characters seem more interested in re-fastening the cuff-links to keep everything  from spilling out. It’s one of the two-headed director’s patented caustic satires of the very mundane oppression of everyday suburban America, only this time without as much salt and vinegar. Yes, A Serious Man is a combative, anxious film, and it takes a perturbed delight in unearthing the daily existential crises of a society that seems to run on wheels to the untrained eye, but it’s also a curiously warm film. Perhaps the Coens had a little bit of humanist fun left in them after 2008’s 60’s caper comedy re-reading Burn After Reading, and they decided to infuse just a smidgen of it into a decidedly brainier, more intellectual stew. Or maybe they just had Jewish guilt on the mind, and needed a little Jewish humor to save their tired souls. Either way, they produced some filmic dynamite, a work as rabidly intellectual as it is lightly feeling and genially flighty. It captures humanity looking the other way and takes a true delight in watching and letting the popcorn fly. Continue reading

Bonus Genre Month Reviews:The Proposition and Brick

Or: a couple of short reviews I had penned and linked together in one of my patented “just made up on the spot” combinations, namely that they are both products of 2005, they are both depressingly cynical and nihilistic modern reflections of the long history of their respective genres, and they, respectively, fit into the genres I’ve covered in the past couple months: the western and film noir. Again, don’t think too much about why I posted these films together. Just enjoy the ride. 

Edited

The Proposition
220px-the_proposition_5The significant resurgence of the Western genre since about 2005 (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) is one of the few truly surprisingly revelations from the cinematic world to be found this past decade. It’s all the more notable particularly because the Westerns themselves have taken so many different forms, from pure, effervescent myth-making, to black-hearted heaving gasps of grimy moral decay, to slowly gliding, almost Impressionist location tapestries where characters serve merely as extensions of the environment, to plain ol’ rootin-tootin shoot em’ up character studies.

One of the first, and among the absolute best, in this trend was John Hillcoat’s rusty nail mauling of the gaping, open wound flesh wound of Australian history, The Proposition. It wouldn’t emerge the best Western over the past ten years (my vote would probably go to the sensuous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but it’s within earshot of the title. Considering the film’s swaggering aimlessness and rough-around-the-edges decay, it may even graze that ear. Continue reading

American New Wave: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (AKA: Yes, yes I did two Altman films in two weeks. Deal with it. He deserves it.)

hero_eb19991114reviews08911140301arEdited and Updated 2016

Released only one year after Robert Altman’s first masterpiece, MASH, this sly, revisionist Western is the rare film whose intentions and affect are captured fully in its opening credits.  Fore-grounded, we have an image of a decrepit, hunched over, and phony looking enigma of a man riding slowly into an equally decrepit and hunched-over town. It is nothing short of a stunningly snarky and caustic wry mockery of the Western archetype hero riding into town to save the day. Only he isn’t there to “save the day” here. He, McCabe (Warren Beatty), simply wants to make a name for himself, and he does so by running a brothel, but only once he’s saved by a woman who initially couldn’t care less about him, the down-to-earth Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) who somehow manages to maintain an unreachable magisterial mystery about her. And that’s the film in a nutshell: decrepit, deadened, and down-trodden yet still somehow attaining a sort of energetic sense of positively alert human feeling. In this sense, it is the quintessential New Wave film. Continue reading

Wild Wild Best: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Edited

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a difficult film to review. Usually this means one of two things: the film was mediocre and I find myself struggling to say something substantive about it, or I’m fascinated by it but I have not yet figured out how to unlock its mysteries. Usually the latter means I will love the film for its confounding, maddening tension and hate it for the same reason, at least until I see it again. Neither of those is the case for Andrew Dominik’s second film. I know exactly what I think of this film, and it is far from mediocre. The issue with this review is quite simple: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was all-but made for me. And gushing over something does not a review make, so I must try to formulate my jumping up and down into something coherent. Here we go.

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Wild Wild Best: Unforgiven

Unforgiven is about as gutsy and ravaged a film as you’ll find from a mainstream American director, a work which not only deconstructs a genre of film but the filmmaker’s entire career. It’s seeped in merciless violence, but as much a violence which occurred decades before the film begins as any violence which occurs from first reel to denouement. It rolls over the arid hills of the American West, bathed in a dark, ominous red of the blood done in the past but which refuses to be forgotten. With Unforgiven, Eastwood not only tears down the violent core of America’s past, but he has a few choice words for the gaze we place upon violence in modern society. We’re fascinated with it. And Eastwood, a man whose career was built on celluloid violence, knows this well. He runs us through the wringer with quiet, elegiac visual poetry which provides us with a dreamy, mythic Western landscape and that turns out to be a nightmare clinging us to our past. This is cinema of implication, with Eastwood questioning whether we can ever break from the horror-show of the Western genre and underlining his question in blood-red strokes. Continue reading

Wild Wild Jest: Rango

When Rango was first announced, it seemed like a dream come true. An animated film starring a lizard that embraces and likely parodies the Western genre? Now there’s something for you. Unfortunately, there was that whole trailer thing … well, let’s just say the trailers were downright tepid and filled with jokes that seemed more clever than funny, products of a writer hopped up on his or her own ego. Continue reading

American New Wave: The Wild Bunch

wildbunchhedEdited

Few genres run the gamut of nervy nightmare to clear-conscience mirth like the Western. Some films have used the medium to push deeper and deeper on the world’s great un-bandaged wounds. But, traditionally,  the genre has been enjoyed for its ability to set the mind at ease. Filled with  grand, black-and-white archetypes which convince us of a world long-gone predicated on righteous morality,  the Wild West is less reality than a dream, a moral vision of America’s mid-century hopes for a conservative world in an era where the world’s complications were increasingly boiling to the surface. In the 1940s and 1950s, the genre was the ultimate in cinematic comfort food.

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Wild Wild Jest: Dead Man

This being a review in a month-long exploration of the Western genre.

Update late 2018: After a re-watch, I’m not entirely satisfied with my original, college-age review. (Would that I ever was?). In particular, I find my more nihilistic reading of Dead Man to be hopelessly mired in my youth. In its interplay of shaken signifiers and layered meanings, Jarmusch’s film is never nihilistic. If it reduces the Western to a pageant, it also animates new possibilities for pageantry, retexturing the Western as a kind of poetry as Emersonian as it is Derridean, as open to reconnecting with space and nature as it is exposing its inabilities to do so. The film thrives on an immanent tension, and would that more films followed suit.

After all, if this film re-reads all films as lies, is not Dead Man part of that great filmic canard as well? Dead Man is not “truth”, nor does it want to be. It’s a self-reflexive, filmic op-ed piece, overstated for pure effect. In its untethering from reality, it associatively overlays, blurs, and emulsifies various images and sounds together in new, unexpected ways, shattering pre-established truths and restitching them with an eye not for their cohesion but their imaginative associations, for the spaces in between them, for the breakages and fractures which expose the stitching of reality and the potential for reorganizing sound, space, and mind to new ends. A lyrical expression of the Western as out-of-body experience, it not only critiques the genre; it breaks it, and resurrects it as something anew. What it ultimately imagines is not anti-Western, really, but a new, hopefully prognostic breed of cinema, one not only interested in excoriating the Western myth but also in conjuring a new, more mutable one, a vision of the Western as self-critical, poetic play. I’ll keep the original review up for posterity’s sake, but read at your own risk!

Original Review (Edited mid-2015):

Dead Man is a revisionist Western, sure, but there have been many great revisionist Westerns (look to Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven from three years before-hand for ample evidence). There certainly have not, however, been many movies like Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s attempt at creating not a gritty non-myth but an anti-myth –  and it’s a marvel of marrying acidic form to acerbic content. This is not only a revisionist Western, but an anti-revisionist Western, an anti-Western, even an anti-film. Continue reading