Category: the Western

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and the ‘twilight Western’

The lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern)

Although I’d seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous three films, I still wasn’t quite prepared for Certain Women. I watched it intently but despite foreknowledge about her approach to narrative I was still surprised when it just stopped. I’ve thought a lot about the film over the last few days. Ms Reichardt is a favourite of many (most?) critics and I understand why. But her films still don’t get a wide release. She doesn’t make it easy for audiences but I would urge you to watch the films if you get the chance.

The ‘certain women’ of the title are four women in Montana. They are involved in three separate narratives which are subtly linked together in indirect ways. In the first we meet a small town lawyer played by Laura Dern who finds herself exhausted and exasperated by a difficult client. In the second, Michelle Williams is a business woman with a husband and teenage daughter who don’t seem totally enamoured of her attempts to build a weekend cottage using sustainable local materials. The third story features Kristen Stewart as a recent law graduate with little money forced to drive across the state to teach night school. There, by accident, she meets a young woman working in a solitary job as a ranch hand looking after a small herd over winter. This character (who some reviewers refer to as ‘Jamie’) is played by Lily Gladstone who is part Native American. I have to agree with all the critics and festival juries who pick out her performance over her more established fellow actors – each of whom are very good in their roles.

Chosen as the ‘Best Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2016, Certain Women has since been extensively reviewed so here I want to focus on just a limited range of responses. (Sophie Mayer has an excellent article on the film in Sight and Sound, March 2017 – it isn’t online as far as I can see but Mayer covers some of the same ground here.) Kelly Reichardt was born in Florida and her first film was made there, but her recent work is set in the North West, especially in Oregon. Landscape is crucially important in these films and Reichardt began her career with a fascination for photography. She has been well-served by her director of photography Christopher Blauvelt who has shot her last three films and she herself has taken on the film editing for her five major features. She has re-iterated that she hopes audiences will look to find meanings in her films rather than have them explained. The first shot of Certain Women (the whole film was shot on 16mm, blown up) is a static long shot as a mile-long freight train gradually comes into view. I’m not sure if I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain at this point, but I certainly did later. The first shot of Brokeback is a long shot of a truck stopping early in the morning, in Wyoming not Montana but the landscape is similar. There are huge spaces, mountains, big skies and only a few people in small towns. I remember two other specific moments from early in the film. In one the camera lingers on a scene in a small shopping mall where children in Native American costume are performing a dance. It feels like a documentary. Sound is important as well. Laura Dern’s character, despondent in her car, turns on the radio/CD and we hear Guy Clark’s ‘Boats to Build’:

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same o’l same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I didn’t register those lyrics at the time, but when I read them now, they seem like the perfect ironic accompaniment to the desolate lives of the characters. I’ve never been to Montana but I’ve read a few stories and watched a lot of movies. The stories that interest me most are those which are either set in the final days of the ‘frontier’, both ‘real’ and mythical, or which comment in some way on the world of the contemporary ‘Western’ with its lonely cowhands and characters seemingly bereft of purpose. Any time after the 1880s is perfect for the ‘twilight Western’ and Brokeback Mountain is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of story. Brokeback began as an E. Annie Proulx short story that was adapted by Diana Ossana and the ‘dean of the twilight Western’, Larry McMurtry (also responsible for the Montana-set Lonesome Dove and Texas-set The Last Picture Show). Another writer with a trilogy of Montana-set variations on the twilight Western is Thomas McGuane with Rancho Deluxe (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Tom Horn (1980). The (anti-)heroes of these stories are generally men who can’t come to terms with the decline of the West and its codes and are defeated/discouraged by the modernised West. (Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman from 1978 is one of the few female leads.)

Kelly Reichardt began to critique the Western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010) in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with more sense than the men on her pioneer wagon train – but, of course, the men don’t listen to her. The four women of Certain Women still live to some extent in a world of men who don’t listen or who make foolish decisions which the women will pay for in some way. For Certain Women Reichardt has adapted short stories by Montana novelist Maile Meloy from her collections Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009). It occurs to me that each of the three stories could be related to Western narratives and themes. The first story develops into a familiar tale about sheriffs and fugitives with Laura ‘used’ by the law because she is compassionate and can defuse a potentially tricky situation. What does she get out of it? It’s as if she’s restricted by those traditional roles for women in the Western – schoolteacher, pioneer mother or saloon girl. The third story about the lonely ranch hand and the exhausted teacher is a sad romance, beautifully played and paced and its standout is the short sequence in which the two young women are together on the horse that takes them between the school and the diner. This story has obvious echoes of Brokeback (in which, as I’ve just remembered, Montana-born Michelle Williams is the abandoned wife and mother). In the twilight Western there are often two characters – one who tries to adapt to modernity and one who is trapped inside the codes of the West (which in these stories are usually honourable codes). The exhausted Beth and ‘natural’ ranch hand again seem familiar.

Michelle Williams as Gina, the business woman, properly dressed and striking a confident pose?

In the second story from Certain Women Williams is Gina, the ‘strong woman’ still not sure if she is doing the right thing and struggling with herself as she does what those pioneer women had to do and build her own house (or at least, direct and organise the men she finds to do it). In this story the key scene is her encounter with the old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks that she would like to use for her house. He doesn’t need them but how much should she pay for them? Is she right to ask for them? If he offers them to her for free should she take them? The man with the stones is played by René Auberjonois, a name I recognised more than a face. Later I realised I had seen him in countless Westerns as well as the films of Robert Altman (Reichardt in an interview says she used to use his voice as the bartender in McCabe and Mrs Miller in exercises for film students). While her husband says nothing, Gina tries to engage the old man when he looks out on his land and points out the birds. Gina mimics the bird calls and we can’t be sure whether she is genuinely interested in the birds or just practised in negotiation. Again she seems to be struggling with a ‘modern’ role. Is she any happier than in her previous incarnation as pioneer woman?

Kristen Stewart as Beth, the law graduate trying to teach night school.

The first story, in which Laura at one point cries out, imagining what it might be like to be a man who is listened to and given credence, is the only one with conventional (i.e. generic) ‘action’ – but even then its conclusion is subverted. In all three stories, the meaning is conveyed through landscape, cinematography and sound. It’s also ironic that one of the markers of the mise en scène of the ‘woman’s picture’ is costume. Reichardt may well have made an ‘anti-woman’s picture’ (as well as an ‘anti-Western’ and an ‘anti-melodrama’?). Costume says a lot here. In the first scene Laura returns to her office from a lunch-time tryst, late and a little bedraggled. Her sweater is half tucked in her skirt and half pulled out. We watch her climb the stairs and then come down when she is called to the phone by her receptionist. We know it isn’t going to be an easy afternoon. By contrast, Michelle Williams as Gina is seen first in running gear (and headphones) and then securely wrapped up for the cold – ‘properly’ dressed and with her hair tied up. At the end of the episode when she smokes a cigarette and sips a glass of wine at the chilly barbecue she has organised it seems like a visualisation of the contradiction between her efficient businesswoman and her striving for authenticity. Like Laura, Gina seems to represent the two twilight Western characters in a single conflicted character.

Lily Gladstone – fresh and open-faced

In the third episode, Beth (Kristen Stewart) wears clothes that look as tired as she is. Meanwhile, Lily Gladstone as the ranch hand is dressed for manual work but looks lively and alert (for the moment anyway). Both Wendy Ide in the Observer and A. O. Scott in the New York Times comment on Kristen Stewart’s performance. Ide argues that we know her performance is exceptional but it’s hard to figure out what she does. Scott makes the point that she successfully conveys the character’s tiredness and despair, but still retains enough of the glamour that appeals to the ranch hand. In terms of the ‘anti’ twilight Western however, the ranch hand who is closest to the land and open to the romanticism of the myth of the West is the one who is going to suffer. The other three characters all seem aware that they are attempting to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Western scenario, but so far are still trapped in their mythical roles or are unsure how far they have escaped them. You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the male characters in the film. There are two significant male roles, both of which have a narrative importance, but one of which is so inconsequential as a character that I didn’t realise his significance until after the screening. There is also a dog (there often is in a Reichardt film). I didn’t know there were corgis in the US. They don’t look well-adapted for ranch work, but Wikipedia tells me they are bred as ‘herding dogs’ (see the trailer below). I chose the German trailer as the best on offer for this blog.

I had to travel for four hours to see Certain Women – not as far as Kristen Stewart’s character, but it would be good if distributors and exhibitors had a bit more faith in films like this. There’s a good reason why Kelly Reichardt excites cinephiles. She makes films that make you think – and feel.

The Overlanders (Australia-UK 1946)

(from left) Clyde Combo as Jacky, Chips Rafferty as Dan McAlpine and John Heyward as Bill Parsons

(from left) Clyde Combo as Jacky, Chips Rafferty as Dan McAlpine and John Heyward as Bill Parsons

The Overlanders is a highly significant film, an Australian classic helping to re-establish filmmaking in Australia after 1945. The Australian government approached the British Ministry of Information in 1943 in the hope of producing a film celebrating the Australian war effort. The MoI passed the request to Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and Harry Watt was eventually despatched to Australia. Production began in 1945 at the time the war was coming to an end in Europe. It was released in September 1946 when the war had been over for a year (though ‘policing’ duties carried on in the Dutch East Indies during the Indonesian War of Independence). The film was extremely successful in Australia and sold well around the world. (See this Australian Screen website for more background information.)

Harry Watt was one of the most distinguished filmmakers of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, probably best known for Night Mail in 1936, co-directed with Basil Wright. After directing the documentary Target For Tonight in 1941, Watt moved from the Crown Film Unit to Ealing and in 1943 directed Nine Men, a fictional war combat film set in the North African desert in which a small British squad hold off an Italian attack. In 1945 he was not yet 40 and quite prepared for a gruelling shoot in Australia. He took some Ealing personnel with him but recruited local Australian talent as well.

overlandersposterThe story, written by Watt, was based on real events suggested by the Australian authorities. The film opens in 1942 in Wyndham, the centre for meat-packing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (but in effect on the North coast of Australia). Bill McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) a cattle ‘drover’ has just delivered 1,000 local cattle for slaughter and processing, but the perceived threat of Japanese invasion following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 sees McAlpine ordered to shoot and burn the cattle as part of a ‘scorched earth policy’. The whole area is being evacuated. McAlpine refuses to abandon the cattle and declares that he will drive them over 2,000 kms to the outskirts of Brisbane. It’s the worst time of year to cross a huge expanse of brush and mountains and rivers and McAlpine struggles to put together a motley crew that includes a sailor (‘sick of the sea’), a gambler, two Aborigine stockmen, two horse traders (facing the same problem) and a local family fleeing south. The family includes an experienced man and wife and their two daughters, one a 20 year-old rider. What follows is a form of ‘Australian Western’ that actually predates the classic Hollywood ‘trail Western’ Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) with John Wayne.

Chips Rafferty, destined to become one of Australian cinemas first international stars, is an interesting actor – physically tall but here proving a strong leader because of his calm demeanour, knowledge of cattle and terrain and decisiveness rather than his physical presence. Wikipedia quotes a line from what I assume was an obituary notice in 1971, he was: “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Watt manages to make the drive interesting by carefully structuring the narrative to include potential hazards and set-backs ranging from ‘poison grass’, river crossings with crocodiles in attendance, bogs, drought and dangerous mountain crossings. He also brings aircraft into play, including the Flying Doctor service. Watt’s documentary background enabled him to make good use of these scenes – I especially liked the farmer who pedalled a generator to contact the Flying Doctor by radio.

The presence of an attractive young woman in the shape of Daphne Campbell would have certainly pushed a similar Hollywood narrative in particular directions, but here she is celebrated mainly for her horse-riding skills, even if a brief romantic interlude does lead to a lack of attention to the cattle. (See the poster which certainly ‘oversells’ the romance.)

There are two aspects of the film that seem important in the context of its production. At one point the cattle are taken through a gorge and watching them from the top of the cliffs is a group of Aboriginal men – dressed for hunting as they would have been for thousands of years. The scene is familiar from John Ford Westerns but instead of some kind of stand-off, McAlpine and his drovers simply acknowledge the men on the cliffs who return the recognition. Throughout the film the ‘otherness’ of the Aboriginal characters is not emphasised as such. Given the exposure of institutionalised racism in Australian society in the 1930s in more recent films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) it’s tempting to see the attitudes in The Overlanders as representing a British left/liberal position as set out by Watt. The script still registers ‘difference’ – as when the drive comes across a small town with “The first white man we’d seen” – and the two Aboriginal drovers are not promoted to major speaking roles. But at least they are part of the group. This links to the second key scene picked out by Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios.

In several of the British films made during the latter part of the war, especially those from Labour-supporting writers and directors, there is often a short speech about how future plans should work out and what kind of world might be built when peace arrives. In The Overlanders, that speech goes to McAlpine when he discovers that Corky the gambler wants to ‘exploit’ the Northern Territories by forming a private consortium. “No”, he says – “the development has to be national and to involve all Australians”. This is, indeed, the logic of the film’s narrative with the group of drovers representing Australia (including the Aboriginal groups).

The spectacular cattle drive

The spectacular cattle drive

Ealing went on to set up a production base of sorts in Australia and produced four more films over the next ten years –but generally declining in quality according to Barr. Two of those four were directed by Harry Watt (Eureka Stockade (1949) and the last official Ealing film, The Seige of Pinchgut (1959)). In the intervening period, Watt found himself in East Africa where he made two features. The first, in Kenya, was the early ‘eco-thriller’ about the struggle to establish game parks in the face of poaching – Where No Vultures Fly (1951). Charles Barr dubs this film an ‘African Overlanders‘ and like the Australian film, it attracted appreciative audiences in the UK and abroad. The two films suggested that there might be an international market for British films (as distinct from ‘Hollywood-British’) with ‘adventure narratives’ and spectacular scenes made overseas, but for a variety of reasons this didn’t really develop in the early 1950s. However, The Overlanders did give confidence to an Australian film industry struggling to recover after the war.

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) and The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)

Kurosawa's original with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

The new 'Seven' led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new ‘Seven’ led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.

There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.

Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.

Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.

 

Hell or High Water (US 2016)

Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as the brothers Howard

Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as the brothers Howard

Hell or High Water is one of the most hyped films of the year with five star reviews coming from several directions. Fortunately it is very good, though it may not be to everyone’s taste. Any film that includes Townes Van Zandt on the soundtrack at the end of the opening credits is alright with me, so this may not be an entirely objective analysis of what is on offer. For most film fans the twin attractions of the film are likely to be that a) it is the second screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario the highly-rated film directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2015 and b) it features one of Jeff Bridges’ many film-stealing performances. Cinephiles may note that Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, the second Scot to make a Western in recent years after Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014) and a well-regarded filmmaker with many different kinds of films in his back catalogue. But is the film a Western? I’ll come back to its classification in a moment, first a brief plot outline (no spoilers).

The action takes place in West Central Texas, though the film was shot entirely in New Mexico. In fact the fictional space is perhaps better described as ‘Comancheria‘ (the working title of the film), the area dominated in the mid 19th century by the Comanche people that runs across the modern state lines of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – an important geographical factor in the film’s narrative. Two brothers set out on a carefully-designed campaign to rob small banks belonging to the same Texas banking company. They plan to steal only small bills and to launder the money quickly before using the new stash to pay off a large debt the family owes to the same bank. They have to get the money “by Hell or High Water” to meet a strict deadline within the next few days. One of the brothers (Tanner, played by Ben Foster) is a wild professional criminal, having already served time for bank robberies. The other brother (Toby, Chris Pine) is ‘clean’ and he is the one with the brains and the cunning plan. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement. He’s been waiting for an interesting ‘last case’ and he’s the only one who seems to understand what the brothers are up to. He has a sceptical partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – a Comanche/Mexican man who must put up with Marcus and his good-natured racist banter. So, two pairs of seemingly mismatched men in a contest. It’s a neat genre proposal.

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers

For me this is a ‘modern Western’ and even possibly a ‘Twilight Western’, one of my favourite genres.The classic description of the twilight Western is that it tells a story about the ‘end of the West’, often featuring two men – one who is wedded to the cowboy code of honour and one who is prepared to change and move on. The ‘Dean’ of the genre in literary terms is Larry McMurtry, responsible for the novels that became the films Hud (1963) and The Last Picture Show (1971), both Twilight Westerns. The latter film starred Jeff Bridges and Timothy Buttons as two young characters in early 1950s Archer City – a small town in West Central Texas which in Hell or High Water is the site of the first bank robbery. It’s amazing (and slightly worrying) to see Jeff Bridges growing old from the fresh-faced kid in The Last Picture Show through countless Western-related roles (one of the most entertaining being the comedy Hearts of the West (1975)) to the aged Marcus. I think he plays older than he actually is in this new role. I guess he has now taken over the roles played by actors like Ben Johnson (who was the father figure to the two boys in The Last Picture Show). It’s clear in this new film that a way of life is dying – and that what’s replacing it does not necessarily signal ‘progress’. Marcus and Toby Howard are on opposite sides but they have something in common. One aspect of ‘progress’ seems to be that nearly every citizen in Texas carries a powerful handgun – which makes bank robbery a dangerous game. Is this a sly commentary on America’s (lack of) gun laws?

But this new film also embraces two other repertoires. One refers to what some critics have called ‘neo-noir’. In a visual sense there is nothing noirish about Hell or High Water, but it does draw on some of the same elements as crime films set in the South-West and based on ‘hardboiled’ pulp novels. Good examples would be Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), both based on Jim Thompson novels and Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot (1990) based on a Charles Williams novel. These all have the small town Texas locations and the violent action, but they also have a significant focus on female characters that perhaps isn’t present in Hell or High Water. Finally, there is a repertoire that goes back to the 1930s and ‘rural crime pictures’ that might be summed up by bringing together Woody Guthrie’s song ‘Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw’ and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The connection is the practices of banks to, in effect, ‘steal’ the land belonging to poor farmers during hard times when they can’t repay loans. Everyone knows this and therefore potential witnesses are not particularly helpful to law enforcement officers. My favourite scene in Hell or High Water is when the two Texas Rangers try to question the occupants of a diner where the brothers were eating before a robbery. Paul Howard Smith, simply listed as ‘Old Timer’ in the credits, is entirely convincing in response to the Rangers’ questions (see him in the trailer below). A semblance of empathy for the robbers is also evident in Alberto’s comment that “all this was my ancestor’s land before these folk took it and now it’s being taken from them – by these sons of bitches” (nodding towards the bank branch he’s watching). He understands what the robbers feel in ‘taking back’ what has been taken from them.

The performances in the film are all very good and it looks great thanks to British cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who has worked with Mackenzie before and has many credits on both independent and Hollywood films). The soundtrack lists ‘original music’ by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I presume that they selected the other songs as well. I particularly enjoyed the Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch contributions as well as Townes. I’ve also discovered Chris Stapleton because of the film, but I don’t remember hearing the version of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ played on the trailer below. (I would have noticed it – it appears, sung by Bob Dylan in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973 as Slim Pickens is dying.) Some music fans would call some of these tracks ‘outlaw country’.

Hell or High Water is the kind of film that makes you think of so many other films and reminds you why you enjoy certain kinds of genre pictures. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m not giving much away in saying that the sight of police cars careering along dusty roads in pursuit of ‘outlaws’ is something that actually belongs in several different genre repertoires from Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) to Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (1974). We know what’s going to happen but it is still thrilling.

The Hateful Eight 70mm Road Show

the-hateful-eight

I saw this, not in Edinburgh or London, but in Barnsley at the Parkway Cinema. This is one of four Parkway Cinemas and it is sited right in the middle of town just opposite the Travel Hub. You can get there from Leeds in about 45 minutes [sometimes longer] by road and around the same amount of time by train and bus. The cinema was originally an Odeon outlet, and the interior architecture is recognisable. Now there are two screens. Screen 1 is the converted balcony. Screen 2 is the original auditorium and seats about 400. It is fairly spacious with comfortable seats and plenty of room.

The management, clearly possessing get up and go, arranged a booking with the Entertainment Distributors for the film and set about converting for 70mm. They even adjusted the masking to accommodate the 2.76:1 ratio of Ultra Panavision 70. In fact we had a short introduction before the feature explaining the conversion, lots of hard work. We also had a digital copy of an old Cinerama Trailer: nearly the same aspect ratio.

The 70mm print was in good condition with only a few scratches. It looked fabulous, especially the exterior shots. This really is the top end of cinema viewing with the highest resolution you can enjoy.

This is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature and it is the best since Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) or even Jackie Brown (1997). It is typical in many ways of Tarantino’s work. So it has a host of references to earlier westerns, but at the same time there is an overlap with Reservoir Dogs (1992). This is both in terms of some of the casting but also of the plot. There are secrets and revelations and characters soon turn out to be rather different from how they appear. There is an amount of blood and gore, but mainly in the second part.

Tarantino and his team have produced a good facsimile of the classic Road Show presentations. There is an overture, and intermission and something like 20 more minutes of film that in the digital release. The first part sets up the characters and stories and runs just on a hundred minutes. The twelve minute intermission is followed by the final eighty minutes. Here there is not only more gore, but more action and some tricky plotting. It might seem a little convoluted, though less so than the review of the film in Sight & Sound.

The greatest pleasure in the film is the cinematography by Robert Richardson: think of The Aviator (2004). From comments I had supposed that the film was predominately interiors. However, there are frequent and beautifully composed landscapes. The snowy setting rivals The Revenant (2015). One has to think back five decades for earlier Ultra 70mm features: say The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Khartoum (1966). It is a great format. Besides the quality of the image there is the width of the perspective. The opening shots as a coach ploughs through snow by a weather worn Crucifix looks great. But equally, interiors and close-ups, including one of Jennifer Jason Leigh, are terrific. At times it was a pleasure  just watching the folds and hues of faces: the props and furnishings of the sets: and the wintry scapes.

The casting is good. I especially enjoyed Samuel Jackson’s ex-Major. The film is tricky with characters, as the plot progresses one has to revise one’s ideas of who are the key characters of the title. The whole production design and supporting crafts are excellent. And there is also the pleasures of a Morricone score: at times very familiar but also for certain sequences quite distinctive.

The film has been criticised for not being epic, and so not justifying the length or the format. I think this is a misnomer. It does not offer the gravitas of The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it has more character and more complexity than Khartoum. Black people and women do come off rather badly, especially on the receiving end of violence. But this is partly the period in which the story is set. I did think that the liberal use of ‘nigger’, [as in Django Unchained, 2012] was partly down to Tarantino’s delight in teasing/provoking the audience.

Anyway it is some time since I spent three hours in the cinema with so much pleasure. The good news is that The Parkway is providing additional screenings: on Sunday evening April 17th; then on Monday and Thursday evening and Wednesday afternoon. Worth the trip. Apparently they have had film buffs from as far afield as Bournemouth.

The Revenant (US/Canada 2015)

One of Emmanuel Luzbezki's 'atmospheric' compositions

One of Emmanuel Lubezki’s ‘atmospheric’ compositions in THE REVENANT

The Revenant is a $135 million film that runs for 156 minutes, has taken box offices worldwide by storm and gathered armfuls of awards nominations. In virtually every sense it is a ‘big picture’ that can’t fail to impress the viewer. But I wonder what it all adds up to? I found the film to be visually stunning and I recognise the extraordinary lengths to which the cast and crew must have gone in the most difficult filming conditions. It’s a film to watch and think, yes it’s all on the screen and it’s a great technical achievement. Unfortunately though, as a film narrative it seems to me to fall short.

I should confess that I’m not familiar with the films of Alejandro González Iñárittu. The subjects of his previous films haven’t attracted me apart from Biutiful (Mexico/Spain 2010) which I hope to see at some point. I’m not, therefore, interested in any kind of auteurist study. I came to The Revenant because I thought it must be a Western and I read the film in that context. My interest in the Western is in terms of both its relationship with American history and its universal themes which have been taken up by filmmakers around the world. In my conception there is a narrow definition of the Western repertoire that locates narratives in the uncharted territory of the western United States between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the ‘closing of the frontier’ in the late 1890s. A much broader definition of the Western covers the whole period of ‘American’ history from the first contacts between settlers and indigenous peoples right up to the present day and ranges north into Canada and south into Mexico. Contemporary Westerns do, however, have some kind of geographical and/or cultural connection to the 19th century ‘frontier’. Within these broad definitions, various sub-genres or fluid repertoires can be discerned. The Revenant is a ‘survivalist Western’ – man versus the natural environment – and a ‘frontier Western’ focusing on the upper Missouri River in the 1820s when the huge territories of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) were still being ‘absorbed’ by the US. The new territories represented a third of the total land area of the US in the 19th century and the two big issues were the resistance of the various indigenous groups and the commercial interests of British and French trappers and fur traders. The story of The Revenant is based on what happened to a real character, Hugh Glass in 1823. This was in turn used for a fictionalised account by Michael Punke published in 2002 and it was this that prompted the adaptation by Iñárittu and Mark L. Smith.

A fundamental aspect of Iñárittu’s approach appears to be to ‘tell’ his audience as little as possible. We aren’t told the date of the story nor where it takes place. Instead we are required to think through what we see. We note first that the ‘Americans’ have flintlock muskets and pistols – placing the story earlier than the 1840s. The names of some of the Native American peoples are mentioned fairly early – as is the presence of French fur traders. The Americans are slaughtering animals for pelts and they have to get them back to a fort. The leader of the group is a quasi-military figure. Is he employed by one of the trading companies? Later we will hear mention of the Missouri but at first we have no real idea where we are. (The film was mostly shot in Canada, but some scenes were shot in Argentina when the snows left the Canadian mountains.) Does it matter where and when the action takes place? Possibly not, but Iñárittu goes to such lengths to ensure ‘authenticity’ that there seems to be a contradiction here. It would have been simple enough to include a title saying simply “Upper Missouri River: 1823” and perhaps “American and French fur traders compete for pelts” or something like that. On the other hand, with no context, the film narrative could have been solely about survival.

Glass remembers his wife who he lost in a raid on their village by US soldiers.

Glass remembers his wife who he lost in a raid on their village by US soldiers.

As it is, the story becomes incomprehensible. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) survives through miraculous escapes, severely wounded but able to withstand immersion in freezing waters. He leaps over cliffs etc. and is able to jump onto a horse despite being barely able to walk and to fire his flintlock pistol twice in quick succession with remarkable accuracy (and no reloading). None of this would matter in a Western ‘adventure’, but cumulatively such feats undermine the seriousness of the existential struggle for survival. If it is going to be a ‘man against the wilderness’ narrative, we need something else – a sense of what Glass is feeling and thinking. I’m not sure we get this – instead we are asked to focus on the idea of revenge. Glass is motivated by what one man in particular (the Tom Hardy character) did in leaving him to die (and much more). This is the plot line that prompts the film’s title. Glass is not just the man who ‘comes back’ in the literal meaning of the title, but also the mythical avenger who returns from the dead (also an established meaning of ‘revenant’). There are in fact a couple of fantasy sequences when Glass dreams about his Pawnee wife but otherwise the potential of ‘revenant’ in its more mythological sense is not exploited. Caught between survivalist and revenge narratives, I felt that the film was incoherent and the final section of the revenge narrative was tedious. This is a very violent film and by the end of 150 minutes I’d already had too much. The ending does, however, have one saving grace in  the re-appearance of a group of Arikara ‘Indians’. For me, the various indigenous groups and individuals represented in the film are its major bonus and I was struck by what one unnamed reviewer suggested was a nod to John Ford’s The Searchers, reversing the structure of that film’s search with a tribal chief leading a group of braves on a mission to find his daughter who has been abducted by French trappers.

Glass with his amazing flintlock pistol Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture Copyright © 2015 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved.Not for sale or duplication.

Glass with his amazing flintlock pistol
Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Despite all the potential, The Revenant fails as a Western narrative. I recently watched a TV showing of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the Sidney Pollack-Robert Redford ‘survivalist Western’ which is equally ‘epic’ in its vision but more coherent in execution. I’m also intrigued to have been reminded of the Richard C. Sarifian version of the Glass story, Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris. Harris had already appeared in A Man Called Horse (1970), a film in which an Englishman is captured by the Sioux and becomes a warrior and leader. With two remakes for this film, the early 1970s saw a cycle of films with similar elements to The Revenant. Iñárittu tried to place Glass’s story in a wider context with the ‘opening up’ of the frontier to trapping and trading. I did at some point think of films as different as McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate – films about the much later influence of American capitalism. Again, there was a film to be made about the early period of capitalism on the frontier (and racist exploitation) but The Revenant can’t fully accommodate it.

I mustn’t give the impression that I disliked the film completely. Most of the time I was engaged by the story, even when I wanted to critique it, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. The opening action sequence matches his celebrated sequences from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and his mountain vistas and long shot compositions are indeed ‘breathtaking’. I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate the music score written and arranged by Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto, but I was impressed by the range of pieces selected. I must also say something about the performances. I’ve never been a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and I don’t really understand his appeal. Here he is asked to do a great deal without dialogue and to express himself from inside a mountain of skins and coats and a large beard. By all accounts it was a tough shoot and he put himself through it to perform the role, but is that enough to win all those awards? Tom Hardy (who does seem very versatile as an actor) is as effective as DiCaprio but I was equally impressed by Domhnall Gleeson who has been excellent in films as different as Ex Machina and Brooklyn in 2015 and manages here to be convincing as the trappers’ leader.

Alejandro González Iñárittu’s early films used scripts written by Guillermo Arriaga who in 2005 wrote one of the best contemporary Westerns – The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Perhaps with Arriaga and Jones he could have made a great Western from The Revenant?

Aferim! (Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France 2015)

Still of Toma Cuzin, Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu in Aferim! (2015), © Big World Pictures (from IMDB.com)

Still of Toma Cuzin, Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu in Aferim! (2015), © Big World Pictures (from IMDB.com)

The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as

“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “

I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.

Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.

The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.

As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.

The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.

LFF 2015 #4: Warlock (US 1959)

Fonda and Quinn in Der Mann mit den . . .

Fonda and Quinn in Der Mann mit den . . .

LFFThis Western, directed by Edward Dmytryk and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur from a novel by the Western writer Oakley Hall, had been rather forgotten but has now been restored by Twentieth Century Fox. It’s a familiar story set-up found in several 1950s and 1960s Westerns – an isolated town is terrorised by a local rancher and his group of cowboys/’gunslingers’. The Deputy Sheriff is rarely in a position to resist the mayhem and the nearest lawman with real power is 50 miles away. At the end of their tether, the leading figures of the town decide to pay a significant salary in order to attract a notorious ‘enforcer’ who arrives with a business partner, a saloon owner. Henry Fonda, playing against type (well before Once Upon a Time in the West) is the enforcer with the ‘gold-handled colts’ and the snappy suits and a grey-haired Anthony Quinn is the saloon owner (with a limp). Later on a third new arrival, who clearly has history with the other two, arrives on the stagecoach in the form of Dorothy Malone – and the film gets a lot more interesting.

Dorothy Malone with Richard Widmark

Dorothy Malone with Richard Widmark

I did feel that this was a fairly pedestrian Western in some ways, but the casting is interesting and the script and dialogue are intelligent. There is something different about the Fonda-Quinn-Malone triangle. Equally, the ranks of the cowboys include Richard Widmark in an interesting role that plays with his good/bad star persona. Here he switches sides in the confrontation and becomes almost saint-like. More surprising still is DeForrest Kelley, aka ‘Bones’ in Star Trek as the most interesting of the cowboys. I didn’t know about his long TV career and many film roles in Westerns.

The film is unsurprisingly in CinemaScope, which is fine, but I thought that the DeLuxe Color had a rather yellow palette. I’m not sure if this was intentional or whether it was not a priority in the restoration. Overall, I didn’t think Dmytryk made the most of the location of the story in Utah. The extreme long shot in the opening looked like a model until the tiny figures moved. But clearly the film is about the characters. It’s a narrative in which characters actually seem to change in order to deliver the conventional resolution and along the way there is a hint that Quinn’s devotion to Fonda’s cause might be be based on more than just old times’ sake. In his paper on ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, David Lusted includes an analysis of Warlock. He places it as a ‘township Western’ and discusses it in terms of the split between romance and melodrama, bracketing it with similar films of the period which he describes as ” . . . clearly melodramas, disturbed and disturbing, at times hysterical in their character relations and fevered in their crises of male identity”.

Lusted identifies the ‘romance of the hero’ in the way that Widmark becomes decisive and eventually wins the day and the separate but related narrative in which Fonda makes a decision to finally reject his capitalist enterprise of ‘legalised crime’ (i.e. effectively extorting a high salary from the town via his gunfighting prowess) for the more acceptable bourgeois world embodied in a woman with capital in a mining operation. Quinn comes between these two and ignites the melodrama. Indeed Fonda’s ultimate response to Quinn’s action is almost operatic in its excess. I’m less convinced by Lusted’s class analysis, though I very much support his intent in trying to explore ways in which these 1950s Hollywood Westerns appealed to male British working-class audiences. Lusted sees both Fonda and Widmark as working-class characters (both are cowboys/gunfighters) who make attempts to operate as individuals in the new social structures offered by towns like Warlock. The image of Widmark above is misleading – he is in ‘Sunday best’ for a a meeting with Dorothy Malone – and most of the time he is in cowboy denim. My feeling is that David Lusted’s analysis fails to deal with the star personae of the leading players. Widmark is perhaps a little too old to be rebel cowboy who puts himself in danger (his younger brother in the film, who stays with the cowboys, is played by an actor 20 years younger). I know Fonda played the great working-class hero in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) but I can’t see the Fonda of 1959 as a working-class figure, or more pertinently, I can’t imagine him as having once been a working-class figure. This doesn’t mean I don’t value David Lusted’s analysis and his discussion of the ways in which interior and exterior locations are used for the ‘romance’ and melodrama scenes is very useful.

The main interest in the film is probably the homoerotic charge in the relationship between Quinn and Fonda and the balancing charge of revenge directed towards the pair by Dorothy Malone. This is a good 1950s Western and I love melodrama but I’m still glad that Peckinpah and Leone appeared in the early 1960s to shake up the Western genre.

On the audience angles of the film, I noted that although there were many grey heads at the Vue in Islington, there were a number of younger men and women – so perhaps the male melodrama will get some support in future.

Reference: Lusted, David (1996) ‘Social class and the Western as male melodrama’ in the Movie Book of the Western, eds Ian Cameron & Douglas Pye, London: Studio Vista