W is for Western


W-films – Part 6

W is of course for Western – but given the bizarre self-imposed structure of these blogs I can’t write about any old Western, just ones beginning with W.  And the most recent actual film called Western isn’t what you’d really think of as a Western at all: it’s a pretty off-beat but excellent film made by Valeska Grisebach, with a non-professional cast, about German construction workers on a job in Bulgaria.  And while certain elements (as well as the title) make you think that it may be a modern-day version of Cowboys and Indians – the pioneers in their camp; the plums on the natives’ land, at one point seen as a primal paradise; the horse isn’t wild, someone owns it – it’s always subtler than that.  Nor is it just Western Europeans exploiting the east, or German hegemony over the Balkans (as under Hitler), with the Germans flirting with the local girl and the natives taking down the German flag.  Nor is it simply about economic migration – the Germans here for work who are different from and yet similar to the others from the Middle East trying to cross the other way from Greece, while Bulgarians themselves go to Greece to seek employment.

Overall it’s nicely enigmatic, as the story unfolds with progress on the construction stymied and worker Meinhard making friends locally; literally fraternising, becoming a brother to Adrian in a conversation where he says his own brother is dead and Adrian, not understanding German, replies ‘you’re saying something sad’; drifting into being a bodyguard, threatening the local mafia on Adrian’s behalf – they jump him, after he jumps local girl Viara; he pulls a knife, which he later gives away, but gets back.  Part of the film’s charm is its avoidance of easy drama: the construction work is threatened because of the water supply – either the Germans or the locals can have it, but not both – but when the foreman adjusts the valve, and accidentally injures the horse, this isn’t as fateful as you expect; similarly, the party at which the flag reappears ends with Meinhard being attacked by a villager because of Viara, but it’s quickly over and he’s moving once more to the village beat by the inconsequential ending … .

Watching with subtitles elides the mutual incomprehension, inadvertently tweaking one of the key themes, but it’s very watchable, and perhaps also haunting: and adult in its loose drama and elusive symbolism, nicely boiling down to the basic situation it describes and just riffing interestingly on that, with subtle restraint.

More traditionally, director William Wyler gets The Westerner going at quite a clip, with summary justice from Walter Brennan (in one of his three Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning roles) as self-appointed Judge Roy Bean, favouring the cattlemen over the homesteaders, and Gary Cooper up next for the noose.  Bizarrely, despite the early lynching (and the later conflagration and the murder of the leading lady’s father), it’s played largely for laughs, with Cooper talking his way into a stay of execution by discussing Lily Langtry with the besotted Bean.  Cooper is wonderful here, showing a humorous touch quite similar to Cary Grant – for example in a hangover scene which gives Brennan, also of course a great comic actor, a chance to essay his To Have and Have Not character as they strike up an unlikely bond.

Gregg Toland photographed it: there’s one wonderful scene as the foreground has Cooper’s hand, evoking Lily; another with him facing off with Brennan – the sign for the jury room, where Cooper’s inevitable fate is being decided, in the background, and Cooper slowly, deceitfully, inventing a lock of Lily’s hair back in El Paso to save his life as he promises to fetch it for Bean.  Cooper later has to clip the lock from Doris Davenport’s hair, as part of the mutual exploitation that underlies the romantic sub-plot on the way to the happy ending that sees him in a homestead and Bean in heaven having finally met Langtry.  There’s a terrifically dusty fist-fight, partly in shadow; and an early appearance by Dana Andrews.  And overall it’s a delight.

Winchester 73 is an inventive Western built around the movements of the eponymous gun, won by James Stewart but stolen from him under the nose of Wyatt Earp.  We get iconic images as familiar protagonists populate the vast blank landscape, essentially creating it for that young nation with stories of biblical simplicity and scarcely a prehistory, save as derived from the victors; a slightly nuanced treatment of Native Americans; and a slightly nuanced treatment of women, in the sole shape of spunky Shelley Winters (just the type who might retire to become a Parisian concierge in, say, The Tenant); Millard Mitchell, as per The Gunfighter (rather than Singin’ In the Rain); Charles Drake, from Star Trek – The Deadly Years; and Rock Hudson, hardly present; Chris O’Dowd appears to be running Riker’s Bar.

Westerns are so ingrained in American popular culture that it wasn’t long before they had their own theme park: Westworld.  The film was written by Michael Crichton and was the first one he directed – and the story of course prefigures Jurassic Park.  Westworld (alongside Medieval World and Roman World) is a place where adults can go to act out fantasies, like the virtual reality experiences offered in Minority Report, but here this is with the help of robots as gun- and sex-fodder (overseen by kit which is half terribly outdated (magnetic tapes, rudimentary screens) and half still impressive (remote control almost like, say, 24)) and when the robots for obscure reasons cease to be controllable it gets sticky.

The fantasy worlds here are like films in two ways – they are like film sets, offering a direct experience usually only seen on the screen; and the fantasies themselves are derived from films and mimic them (Hang ‘em High is the rallying call at one point).  Goofy Richard Benjamin isn’t well cast; James Brolin is fine; Yul Brynner is very striking, reprising his Magnificent Seven persona, a proto-Terminator with his pixelated vision behind weird eyes – the scene when he’s attacked with acid is good, before he turns into one of perhaps the earliest won’t-lie-down horrors.  Star Trek’s Majel Barrett is Miss Carrie.

And as is becoming traditional nowadays, the film became the box-set, with J.J. Abrams the executive producer of the TV reboot Westworld, and right at the start of series 1 there are some similarities with his Lost: the pianola restarting like the Mamas and the Papas record and, more generally, a stylishness that’s initially enjoyable even when you’ve no idea what’s happening.  There are some nice differences with the film, as it emerges that the rogue gunman (Ed Harris as the Man in Black, perhaps playing the role that he was made for) is actually a guest, not a malfunctioning android (‘I’m on fucking vacation!’, as he remarks), just as the returning visitor at the start is actually one of the ‘hosts’.  But it also shares with the original the underpinning use of the fantasy of real people living out their Western filmic fantasies.

Because of the stylishness they can afford to extend the set-up a little, but even so episode 6 is quite late for it to begin to come to the boil, with the increasing sentience of the androids.  But by that time the sense that it’s all building up nicely fights with one’s difficulty in remembering exactly where we are in the various stories.  It’s all very well nodding to the way in which, as in Jurassic Park, those behind the theme park are endangering the visitors, but not all the questions are novel or worked through enough.  Are the creators gods or evil?  Do the fantasies bring out the worst in humans, or just their deepest selves?  How do the humans know they’re not programmed and controlled?  To what extent are the hosts or the humans free or at the whim of hackneyed storylines?

The point at which it loses you (and that may never come in some viewers) is when you yourself emerge from your torpor and, like a disappointed guest, begin to resent being used as sofa fodder for repetitive and predictable plotlines.  The coup that Bernard is an android is fine, but as you realise that the hosts are being manipulated into rejecting the empty, meaningless stories their creators set for them, you can begin to react in the same way, and to seek your own exit.  The more the plot is surfaced, the more the strands and the memories multiply; it risks becoming the kind of unfocused and indulgent, pretty but incoherent and frankly dull stuff that Lost eventually morphed into – but here rather earlier; and with the opening credits remaining the best bit.  It’s telling, in fact, that that’s the way each episode opens – another of the repetitions, sure: but also style over substance, with no attempt to update the audience on the stories, and in fact you wonder whether they could.  By the end, as the revolt becomes just another narrative heralding its own proliferating repetition into the sequel series, you’ve had more than enough.  ‘Another fucking riddle,’ comments Harris (unconsciously perhaps echoing Philip Larkin’s remark on hearing about Tolkien’s latest novel – ‘another fucking elf!’).

Throughout Anthony Hopkins is coasting a little, looking like Malcolm McDowell as the coward Robert Ford; Sidse Babett Knudsen also coasts; Shannon Woodward is good as Elsie; Simon Quarterman is frankly poor.  Those playing the hosts are the ones who come out of it best – Evan Rachel Wood, and particularly Thandie Newton.  There’s great use of Monument Valley, so iconic in Westerns, with the control centre atop one of its stacks; and nice coups with flies early doors – crawling over the eyes of the hosts marks them as androids, before one is swatted, showing things are changing.

My quiz question last time was what War-film, starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, and Richard Widmark, is actually a Western?  The answer is Warlock, the title coming from the name of the town which is here edging towards a mature attitude to law and order as modernity beckons – not just for American civilisation, but also for its films.  Conventionally enough, Warlock is beset by the lawless McQuown gang: the unsupported deputy sheriff flees, the proper sheriff is distant and no help, and so the citizens’ committee buys a marshal in – a hired killer, to bring a degree of illegitimate control.  This is an oldish Fonda, who comes in a curious double-act with his limping partner Quinn, who watches his back and runs a bar to profit in the meantime (but is generally up to no good).  Fonda is under no illusions as to how he’ll be expected to sort the trouble out and then end up hated by his employers, and having to move on.  Widmark is a decent member of the gang, leaving them as they become back-shooters (and also because of his involvement with them in a massacre of Mexicans), becoming deputy sheriff, setting himself on a collision course with the rest of the gang (who in turn declare themselves the arbiters of order, mimicking the citizens’ committee) but also with Fonda.

It’s a complex film (Widmark for example having to accept the killing of his own kid brother, uncredited gang member Frank Gorshin, The Riddler from Batman), pseudo-philosophical in parts; Fonda’s realisation that the world is changing (though there may just be enough towns for him to protect to see his career out) is paralleled by the film’s implicit message that the simplistic shoot-‘em-up won’t do for much longer in the Western genre; a more nuanced view of civic law will be required to reflect the modern world, and we certainly have it here alongside themes not only of right and might, but also manhood and ageing, some small stuff about gender and a definite gay strand, coupled with disability (Quinn says in explaining his devotion that Fonda is the only person, man or woman, who saw in him something beyond his limp).  The women are Dorothy Malone and Dolores Michaels; there’s a big role for Star Trek’s DeForest Kelly as a flamboyant gang member; and usual suspects like Whit Bissell and Vaughn Taylor.  Director Dmytryk gives us pretty Technicolor, again in Monument Valley, alongside some odd Toytown-like views.

Now, you’re probably expecting me to go straight on from Warlock to various film witches (and maybe wizards).  But those’ll be for another day.  Then again, that will just make you wonder just how many different blogs on W-films there are going to be.  It’s almost as if, I hear you say, he’s not got anything up his sleeve yet on films beginning with X.  And it is true that I can’t quite make myself rewatch X-Men (the 134 episodes of the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, with the peerless Lucy Lawless, somehow seem more tempting).  Perversely, instead I’ve been watching White-films despite having already covered them in Part 3, together with a Wild- one (see Part 2).

To say that White God is as good as any cartoon might seem to fail to do justice to this extraordinary Hungarian film; but, after the nice opening with the many dogs running after the girl on the bicycle in deserted Budapest, and the sketched-in preamble about the broken family which leaves the father to look after daughter and star dog Hagen, the sequence when the dog is abandoned is as effective as any animation: the dog is brilliantly expressive (or rather brilliantly trained, shot, and edited) as we follow his adventures.  That’s all rather good-natured, as he dodges the traffic, responds to the horns of boats, finds a friend, scavenges for food, and resists capture for the pound; but then the tone changes, and we’re into Amores Perros territory as an inventive training programme prepares him for dog-fighting – but it’s the same feel again, live-action where you’d imagine only a cartoon or Planet of the Apes-style motion-capture could do it.

And this continues as Hagen escapes, finding his old dog-pal, but is finally consigned to the pound – where, fittingly, the dogs watch Tom and Jerry (even more fittingly, the Oscar-winning Cat Concerto, in which Tom is giving a performance of the same Hungarian Rhapsody that the daughter is rehearsing with her orchestra).  While they are performing it, Hagen is cheating death row and leading the escape: the dogs running amok, causing havoc, and attending the concert in the shut-down city, explaining and revisiting the opening sequence.

The tone shifts again as they take bloody revenge: it no longer has any jokiness, and the film risks going off the rails into simple gore – particularly as the parallel father/daughter narrative is underpowered and sketchy (in fact it doesn’t really go beyond the cartoonish, in a negative sense).  The actress (though 17) seems rather too young to give a performance as good as the dog’s, and her character seems rather too young to convince in any coming-of-age sense (indeed the focus on her, with her white underwear and socks, can verge on the pervy)).  Until in the finale at the slaughterhouse she plays her trumpet solo version of the Liszt and soothes the savage beasts, in another startlingly successful and memorable scene.  The shots of Budapest are nicely varied: occasionally beautiful, sometimes standard cityscapes, sometimes scuzzy.  The persecution of non-pedigree, ‘half-breed’ mutts by the Hungarian authorities may reflect that country’s nascent racist policies.

White Material is a powerful story about insurrection in post-colonial Africa; but what strikes you straightaway is director Claire Denis’s great eye for colour, including the red hair of Maria (Isabelle Huppert, very good throughout) and the red soil (and the beautiful coffee beans when first harvested); Maria’s pink dress (her clothes signpost the different, intermixed times at which the narrative takes place); and even the variegated trousers of massacred men.  This takes its place alongside the Cézanne colours of the wider countryside, seen in a number of nicely composed images.  The sense of calamitous anarchy makes this seem less of a travelogue than some of the images in Denis’s earlier film Beau Travail, while conjuring up an equally good sense of place.

The whites are a bit like J.G. Ballard’s professional protagonists, doggedly going through the motions despite everything having fatally fallen apart; or Grahame Greene’s own desperate colonialists, unable to leave.  Maria in particular is determined to get the coffee crop in on her plantation, when everything is saying ‘run’ and the rebels are nibbling at her fences, the power supply and the phone lines, and child-soldiers are invading her lounge and bathroom; the rebels wear her jewellery, and her dress; eat her coffee beans; and the kids cradle their guns, drunk on biscuits; their throats then slit by the army as they sleep, holding cuddly toys, while others are burnt to death.

In a striking sub-plot Maria’s ‘sluggish’ son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) stupidly follows two child-soldiers, who strip him and perhaps rape him but certainly turn him mad; at the end both he and Maria’s ex-husband (Christopher Lambert) are dead.  Perhaps as befits the confused breakdown it’s not always clear what exactly has happened, or why (e.g. why she kills the white owner/ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor); who the escaping rebel is).

Finally, Wildlife.  Paul Dano’s directorial debut is very nicely done, again with a fine sense of time and place (here Montana, 1960).  He benefits from a typically solid source text from Richard Ford, and draws good performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, from the wonderful Carey Mulligan (who has much more screen-time), and crucially from Ed Oxenbould (who has about him something reminiscent of Dano’s own work in the earlier parts of There Will be Blood), as Jerry and Jeanette Brimson and their son Joe.  The focus is not so much on Jerry as he loses his job and self-esteem and cops out by joining the poorly-paid firefighters away from home, as on Jeanette as she tries to salvage something of her life (at one point she says something like ‘it’s like I just woke up into something and I don’t know what it is, or what it was before either’).  Her struggles are seen sympathetically, and her doomed romance with a richish divorcé (Bill Camp) is presented unflinchingly to us and not hidden either from the adolescent boy who is taking his own first faltering steps in work and relationships.  In a telling final scene he gets his visiting but now estranged mother to pose in the photographer’s studio where he works (usually confecting scenes of awkward celebration and family groups), sitting her not alongside his father but with himself between them, wanting to capture something about the three of them but clear-sighted enough to enshrine the distance between his parents, and between him and each of them.  Dano has some lovely shots of the skyline at various times of day (but perhaps this isn’t the most difficult thing to do when you’re filming in Montana).  He co-wrote this with his partner Zoe Kazan (grand-daughter of the great director Elia Kazan), as he had Ruby Sparks.

So, next time witches and so on.  And your quiz question is: you remember the Yes, Minister episode in which Jim Hacker’s daughter is cross with him because of the treatment of badgers?  In what W-film about paganism does the same actress play missing girl Rowan Morrison?

By Jem Whiteley