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Alien: Covenant

The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Alien: Covenant (2017), is when Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender. The film features Fassbender in dual roles as the androids David and Walter and, of course, they kiss. This is bound to be great fun for fans of the actor, but it pinpoints a troubling side to Scott’s cinema. If one considers that it is the film’s villain, David, who kisses his double Walter, one cannot escape the legacy of villainizing characters who do not conform to heteronormative sexual practice. The stand-out representative of this trend in Scott’s films is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in 2000’s Gladiator.

Alien: Covenant

Repetition is the theme of Alien: Covenant in more respects than just the one stated above. For it seems that the narrative of Alien: Covenant is born out of a fusion between James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Erle C. Kenton’s The Island Of Lost Souls (1932). Thus, Alien: Covenant is as predictable as 2012’s Prometheus was subversive. There is now, more than ever, a sense of formula to 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise. Not only does Alien: Covenant rehash familiar narratives, it also recycles it’s characters. By casting Katherine Waterston as the protagonist Daniels in a position within the narrative not dissimilar to that of Ripley in the original films, Scott has diminished the subversive potential of a female protagonist within a science fiction film.

Ridley Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker are, however, very much present in Alien: Covenant. The attention to detail in the set design and the pervading sense of atmosphere render this mediocre film far more visceral than it has a right to be. This does not redeem the series of special effects and stunts that send us blundering through Alien: Covenant’s narrative though. A criticism that seems applicable to almost all of Scott’s work.

Interestingly, this pattern of repetition or doubling appears to have extended beyond the confines of Scott’s work on its own terms. Just as Ridley Scott began his career by emulating Stanley Kubrick in his underappreciated first feature The Duelists (1977), so has Denis Villeneuve been emulating Scott since 2013’s Prisoners. This aesthetic intersection only occurred to me when the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 played before Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve is quite literally replacing Scott as he helms the sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film into the world of the franchise. My impressions of Blade Runner 2049 are actually quite similar to those I had of Alien: Covenant upon first seeing the latter’s trailer; haven’t I already seen this? Within this complex of subtle codification it is entertaining to ponder if Ryan Gosling really is to a generation of viewers what Harrison Ford was before him.

-Robert Curry

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Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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Two Short Reviews

Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing.  However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure.  That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other.  The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.

Spotlight

spotlight

from left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, & Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe.  In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie.  Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces.  The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story.  Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church).  McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements.  Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public.  This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.

The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents.  Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material.  His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film.  McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.

This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain.  Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity.  Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers).  This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”.  The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion.  In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position.  Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.

Serena

o-SERENA-facebook

Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons in Serena

Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time.  I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty.  Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama.  Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain.  This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).

But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western.  Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion.  With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time.  The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.

Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative.  This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of.  However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material.  Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht.  Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.

-Robert Curry

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A Dog Unarmed

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954)

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954)

When one thinks of the American West one may recall the vistas of John Ford, prints by Mort Künstler, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the music of Ennio Morricone, or even perhaps Tom Mix, though that seems somewhat doubtful today.  The West, with its legendary gunfighters, its promise of Western expansion, and the advent of railways that would unite the country have all worked together to solidify its myth in the consciousness of nearly every American.  The West provides such a rich mythology that, within the cinema, it has become the single most American of film genres.  It’s potential and versatility has even prompted filmmakers from without the United States to make films of the West.  Just as American filmmakers embraced Arthurian legend and Roman history, so have the Europeans embraced the Western.

Being the most popular genre in this country one can find an almost inexhaustible resource of film criticism and analysis on the subject.  Critics have been debating the many forms the genre has taken over the years since its inception in the late 19th century.  Due to this over abundance I have seen fit to isolate and examine a few key films from the last century that represent an international understanding of the genre.  Placing these films for discussion by order of release will help map the evolution of the genre from B-Movie to blockbuster and beyond.  But in selecting these films I have opted to avoid titles and filmmakers alike who have become iconic within the genre.  Names such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, John Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone will not be discussed at great length.  Likewise, filmmakers who have been widely written about in cinema circles, like Monte Hellman, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Bud Boetticher will also not be discussed at great length.  As I stated before, the primary goal of this article is to examine films from around the world that have reinterpreted and expanded the genre beyond the parameters one commonly associated with Westerns today.

“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930)

John Wayne in The Big Trail

Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals.  And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films.  Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most.  This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release.  These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.

Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène.  Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith.  Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.

Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded.  The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar.  But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns.  In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters.  The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources.  The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.

What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted.  In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western.  Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992).  That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.

Rancho Notorious

Arthur Kennedy & Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals.”-Fritz Lang

Rancho Notorious (1952) is not unique in its inversion of the traditional female role in Westerns.  Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) accomplish this with more style and aptitude.  What Rancho Notorious has that makes it something unique during the height of the Westerns’ popularity in the United States is Fritz Lang.

Coming from years of working at Ufa as one of Germany’s most successful directing talents, Lang brings not just his experience, but weds that experience with his own sense of disenfranchisement that he was experiencing in America.  Lang’s own struggle to connect with American culture is in no film more apparent that Rancho Notorious.  Early in the film there is a montage in which Arthur Kennedy travels about looking for the man who killed his lover.  This montage resembles, in pace and content, those of M (1931) and Metropolis (1927).  Similarly, when Arthur Kennedy recognizes his lover’s broach on Marlene Dietrich in the scene where they first meet the lighting as well as the camera’s proximity to Kennedy recreate a number of similar shots of similar emotional content in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922).  The most striking sequence in the film in terms of technique occurs in the scene where Kennedy gets into a brawl at a barbershop.  This scene, unlike any other in Lang’s career to that point, features a roaming camera whose focus is the action.  That simple choice of camera work gives the scene a realism to its violence that is, even today, uncomfortable simply because it is not at all what one expects.  The fight from Rancho Notorious would recreate itself the following year though in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).

It’s in these distinctly expressionistic tactics cited above that the audience finds the sense of “other worldliness” in Rancho Notorious.  It is an unreality more violent, more sexual than one is accustomed to in Westerns of this time.  And it is through this phenomenon that discerning viewers may realize that the “other worldliness” of Rancho Notorious is, at least for Lang, representative of his view of the United States.

“…a movie about a one-woman all-fag cowboy town“-Andy Warhol

Lonesome Cowboys

Joe Dallesandro in Lonesome Cowboys

If the fifties represented a trend in subverting the Western genre by inverting the sexual politics of the day, enhancing the explicitness of the violence, and embracing the sexuality of the films’ characters, then the sixties simply pushed those elements out and beyond into the realm of camp.  And it is in this realm that Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) lives.

Like most of Warhol’s films at the time Lonesome Cowboys was co-directed by Paul Morrissey, who was bringing a degree of legitimacy to Warhol’s productions via his knowledge of classic Hollywood.  So it is little wonder that Lonesome Cowboys follows the conventions, with regards to its sexual politics, set forth in Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar.  Except Warhol’s cowboys are all gay, thus relegating the “one-woman” in town into the role of mother and incestuous lover.  The significance of this film beyond that has little to do with re-writing the conventions of the genre.  Instead Lonesome Cowboys significance derives from the simple fact that it is a Western shot in Arizona.  Up until this time “underground” filmmakers the likes of Warhol and Morrissey were restricted to making genre films for almost no money within the limits of the city in which they lived, New York.

Ironically it was the foul language and the vulgarity of the sexuality depicted in Lonesome Cowboys that isolated mainstream audiences while the more legitimate production value drove off the “underground” audience.  Even Jonas Mekas had nothing good to say about the film in his column at the Village Voice.  Without any audience, Lonesome Cowboys wandered into obscurity.  However, the film has become a little more important in recent years when Gregg Araki cited it as an influence, thus canonizing it as part of the early Queer Film movement.  As Mark Rappaport points out in his Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) the old Hollywood Westerns are brimming with homoerotic innuendos.  Lonesome Cowboys then represents the first major film to make the inherent homoerotic qualities of the genre its primary concern.

In art there is only artifice“-Luc Moullet

A Girl Is A Gun

Rachel Kesterber in A Girl Is A Gun

 Luc Moullet remains one of the most neglected filmmakers of all time, and certainly of the French New Wave.  Like Jacques Rivette, his films are near to impossible to obtain in the United States.  All of this in spite of a significant critical re-evaluation by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others.  Still, Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun (1971) is the most unique and thought-provoking film on this list.

A Girl Is A Gun follows the misadventures of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy The Kid.  Unlike most depictions of the famous gunslinger, Billy The Kid is depicted as a bumbling loser who, despite himself, manages to exact his revenge and steal the girlfriend of a man he has killed.  The narrative content of A Girl Is A Gun is completely vacant of the Romanticism that unifies most American Westerns.  Even Lonesome Cowboys plays into the popular Romantic notions of the Old West by being so totally dependent on the recognizable signifiers and tropes of the genre.  Billy The Kid in Moullet’s film is, therefore, the antithesis of the genre itself.

That said, A Girl Is A Gun brings a bit of that Romanticism into play in terms of the films theme song and visual structure.  But these mechanisms, in Moullet’s hands, work only to compliment and enhance the anti-Romanticism of the narrative.  A Girl Is A Gun only superficially functions as a Western.  As the film perverts the Romantic models it employs via the contrast of narrative content and technique, Moullet is able to disassemble and examine the Western Genre.

This deconstruction of the genre is playful, the precise opposite of the intellectualized genre deconstructions that Jean-Luc Godard became famous for in the sixties.  This playfulness derives from A Girl Is A Gun‘s relatively low-budget, forcing Moulett to make a Western without either the vistas of Ford, the violence of Anthony Mann, nor the horses of every other Western.  Moulett, like Warhol and Morrissey, is forced to make the film with the available resources, even if that restricts the films Western “look” to props and costume.

It must be said that this “superficiality of genre” in A Girl Is Gun comes from a unique place in the history of the genre.  Where Sam Fuller may make a low-budget Western and accommodate that budget by distilling the narrative down to a hard-punching tale of revenge, Moullet decides instead to pay for devices such as a theme song with his budget.  This decision on Moullet’s part places A Girl Is A Gun into the same category of “Western Camp” as Lonesome Cowboys, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), and Douglas Sirk’s Taza-Son Of Cochise (1954).  Critics like Jonas Mekas would interpret this alignment of stylistic concerns with Pop Art, which seems to be what A Girl Is A Gun is getting at.

Luc Moullet obviously does not have a strong Romantic connection with the Western genre.  For him it is a unique spectacle in that it is a legitimate genre.  A Girl Is A Gun is a testament to Moullet’s view of the cinema as entertainment first and foremost.

So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well.”-R.W. Fassbinder

Whity

Gunther Kauffman & Hana Schygulla in Whity

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1971), released the same year as Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun, adopts the “Western Camp” aesthetic of Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious and blows it up to Brechtian proportions.  Whity, more so than any other Western, infuses with its Historic Romanticism the rich melodrama of the fifties “Weepy” or “Woman’s Film”.  For Fassbinder the Western provides a means of examining the political and sociological relations between sex, class and race.  Taking his cues from Douglas Sirk’s period at Universal Pictures, Fassbinder seizes the chance to exploit the most American of movie genres to ironically critic the state of the world at large.

Firstly, the theatricality of “camp” is heightened not just in Fassbinder’s direction of his actors, but in the blocking and framing.  Photographed by Michael Ballhaus in a series of predominantly long lasting wide shots, the cast is positioned so that they are almost always facing out, regardless of how many characters are in a scene or the nature of this interaction.  This strategy, often summed up as Brechtian, allows the subtext of a scene to emerge superficially through the actors’ over-sized performances.  When contextualizing this choice by Fassbinder in the Western genre, Whity becomes a critique of the Western Romanticism and its own subtextual racism and sexism.  Westerns have functioned as allegories for contemporary issues before, it is true, but not so within the vernacular of Fassbinder’s particular brand of “camp”.

 At the heart of Whity is the story of an interracial love affair akin to his own Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974).  Gunther Kauffman and Hana Schygulla play a house servant slave and a saloon mistress whose love is forbidden.  Their union, emotionally and sexually, is not only verboten, but reminiscent of Dietrich and Kennedy’s May/December romance in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious.  The very manner with which Schygulla performs her songs in the local saloon intentionally recalls Dietrich.  Kauffman’s dark skin that keeps him a rung below on the ladder in this Western town also recalls the “outsider” in films like Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939).  The difference being a matter of race rather than cowardice or femininity.

The scenes of Kauffman at the rancher’s estate where he is a slave to his half-siblings are a step removed from the Western.  These scenes play out like an anti-white parody of Gone With The Wind (1939), complete with white actors wearing white face.  But it is the sadistic and exploitative quality of the sex and violence in these sequences that bolster the sense of artifice with not just their outlandishness, but in their striking similarity to Italian exploitation films of the same period.  Whity is very modern in this respect since its concerns have little to do with the world of the Old West as it was and everything to do with what a Western can say about society in the present.

The modernity of Whity can also be seen in another respect.  In scenes at the saloon when cowboys and gunslingers are hanging about, Fassbinder has positioned them so that their posture maximizes the homoeroticism of the genre.  In this he is more subtle than Morrissey and Warhol but also more realistic since most homosexuals are not as depraved or aggressive as the cowboys in Lonesome Cowboys.

The accumulation of all of these parts within the confines of a Western allow Whity to exist beyond the genre.  In terms of style one couldn’t call it a Western at all since there is no visual or narrative connection beyond some subtle allusions.  Pieces may be seen as distinctly Western, but the whole of the parts evolves into something so post-modern that it is uncategorizable.  As though he were aware of this, Fassbinder opens and closes Whity with a ballad about the title character sung by Gunther Kauffman.  This strategy forces the audience to take this non-Western and interpret it as such.

If only he had realized all his ideas, he could have become one of the greatest.”-Sergio Leone

The Great Silence

Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence

Sergio Corbucci has long-lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone.  One cannot read about Corbucci’s work without the inevitable comparison to Leone, despite the fact that the two men have highly contrasting styles and aesthetic concerns in their approach to the Western genre.  Corbucci’s films are noted for their loose style and hyper energy.  Sometimes a particular sequence seems muddy or out-of-place, but the overall feeling of Corbucci’s style is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, very similar to Luc Moullet.  What the Italians did with the Western genre was to re-appropriate it after it had been filtered through Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).  The Italian Western, Corbucci’s films included, champion an anti-hero, depict governments as corrupt, and exploit the violence and sexuality of the genre.

The Great Silence (1968) sees Corbucci taking the Italian Western a step further.  Though the Italian Westerns added a grittier element to the genre, they still followed the basic principles of good and evil that can be traced back to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail and even further.  The Great Silence shatters this balance of negative and positive, concluding with a bleak, existential morality.

It’s interesting to note that The Great Silence pre-dates the shifts in the American Western aesthetic that would occur in the seventies.  Robert Altman’s meditative Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) would be the first to outright contradict the forms one associates with the Western film.  Prior to that, American filmmakers such as Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann preferred anti-heroes working within a corrupt moral system but still maintained the regular signifiers and conformed to the basic narrative expectations of the Western.

The Great Silence is like any other Corbucci film.  It’s violent, the characters are corrupt, the hero has a gadget gimmick and an odd name (in this case Silence) and the villains are sadistic.  Yet, in the last act when Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is expected to defeat his nemesis, despite his wounds, he fails.  Silence is murdered by the man he should have defeated, Locco (Klaus Kinski).  As a result of Silence’s death the starving townspeople living in exile, because of their differing ethnicity, are butchered by Locco and his gang.  This ending speaks to Corbucci’s bleak outlook on life.  For him the righteous are not always victorious.

That this ending comes in a film who, until its end, fits so nicely into the regular genre makes it all the more shocking and impactful.  The Great Silence, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), addresses the Johnson County range war with a contemporary leftist commentary.  Corbucci treats The Great Silence as a sort of allegory for the failed student riots and demonstrations that occurred in Rome in 1967 and 1968.  In the following decade this is the role, the function, that the Western genre would play.  Marking the genesis of the revisionist Western.

I created ‘The Westerner’ because of anger – anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters … anger at TV’s quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents’ worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute’s worth of bad philosophy.”-Sam Peckinpah

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

The Revisionist Western that came to prominence in the early seventies at around the same time the New Hollywood began, like the latter, dissipated after Heaven’s Gate.  Since then filmmakers have tried to strike a balance between the philosophical complexity and grittiness of the Revisionist Western with the Historical Romanticism of the Western of the fifties and before.  Clint Eastwood has consistently made Westerns in line with Revisionism while others, such as Alex Cox with Walker (1987), attempted to fuse the genre with a blaring sense of post-modernism.

The least interesting and least successful Westerns have tended to be those dressed up in the grit of Revisionist Westerns that function on every other level as Romantic Westerns.  Unfortunately films such as these tend to be more popular.  In most recent years the best example of this nostalgic phenomenon would have to be the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).

It is unfortunate that the genre has been unable to perpetuate itself into a new form at the beginning of the 21st century.  This is even more unusual when one considers the renewed sense of nationalism America is still experiencing after 9/11.  Perhaps this is because America, as a nation, is attempting to move beyond its pre-WWII past?  That’s an essay for another time.

-Robert Curry

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