Untouchable

Untouchable

Movies have different ways of communicating with the audience, some prefer to stick to heavy loaded dialogue, others rely mostly on poetry and metaphors, others use music and physical gags, others are founded on story and plot, and finally, there are those that target the audience with only one single element: visuals. Movies are motion pictures, they are an art form that specializes in capturing movement on camera, they are known for manipulating reality and cramming it into a digital screen that projects the image to the audience, be it in a theater or someone’s living room. However, if one were to look back at most mainstream films that have come out in the last decade or so, one will start to notice a pattern: most films focus on what is being said rather than what is being done. Directors and producers feel a lot safer when the script is the focal point of the project rather than a story, or even worse, an abstract idea because what’s written on paper will always guide in some way, some direction, be it a description of an object, tone of voice, a look, a character’s line or even a setting, as in INTERIOR – JOE’S OFFICE – NIGHT. Today’s major studios want safe options, blockbusters  that are easy to make and follow a set narrative formula which means there is an entire generation of directors who spend their time jumping from one franchise to another, from Planet of the Apes to Star Wars to Jurassic World and The Avengers,  without ever being able to clearly reveal their true identities as artists, storytellers. That is now, but what about forty, thirty, even twenty years ago? Back then  studio influence was just as powerful in some cases if not more (re: Apocalypse NowHeaven’s Gate), but there were certain filmmakers who were allowed to do whatever they felt like doing, and who were always able to make the most out of any source material. One of these talented dudes was a man named Brian De Palma, a director who based his entire career on chasing the ghost of Alfred Hitchock, and by doing so, he learned how to seduce his audiences with the simple help of visuals and nothing else.

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You will not dare to look away.

When it comes to watching a De Palma movie forget plot, forget dialogue and character, simply focus on what is on screen. The first thing one will notice is De Palma’s immediate need to drag you into his world. He often does this by opening his movies with a 5-10 minute long tracking shot, like in Bonfire of the Vanities or Snake Eyes, during which the main characters are introduced and set within one specific world. In Snake Eyes, for example, we follow Nicholas Cage as Detective Rick Santoro walking around a boxing arena, waiting for a big fight to take place. Through De Palma’s eyes we’re quickly thrown into the world that Santoro is immersed in, a world of scumbags, dealers, call girls and gangsters, who all happen to know him. Considering the traditional structure of a screenplay I doubt such an opening was written specifically for De Palma to follow. The director, instead of introducing his protagonist through various conversations and interactions, decided simply to use the camera to track the protagonist’s movements, way of walking, capturing the energy around him, the excitement in the arena building and slowly but surely building tension within the viewer’s mind, preparing him for something significant to happen in the following minutes.

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The opening to Bonfire of the Vanities sweeps you for 5 entire minutes with the sizzling energy of upper class New York.

Another example of De Palma using mostly camera movements and angles to grab the viewer’s attention can be found in his systematic use of long tracking shots (6-12 minutes) at the movie’s midpoint in order to build the stage on which the climatic midpoint event (a fight, a chase scene, a murder) will eventually take place. This is mostly used to full effect in Dressed to Kill (the museum scene) and Body Double (the shopping mall). In both scenes a character is spying on another character and the single take is used for two purposes: 1) to build an elaborate map of the setting, be it a museum or a shopping mall, so that the viewer can easily follow the character’s movements and predict certain scenarios (for example, a dead end that prevents the character from escaping, or a wrong turn that will lead the character into the other character’s path); 2) to force the viewer into assuming a character’s point of view, be it the one being spied on/chased (Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed to Kill) or the one spying/chasing (Craig Wasson’s character in Body Double). This way, De Palma has the artistic freedom to exploit one single location to its fullest potential instead of shooting multiple scenes, switching settings and time of day, distorting the viewer’s attention and awareness, following a formulaic development. In The Untouchables this method is even clearer in the scene where a gangster is trying to break into Malone’s (Sean Connery’s) home and follows him from the street, onto the window into the apartment. Had it been filmed any other way, this scene would have lost its energy and the quality of a ticking bomb, yet De Palma perfectly uses the limited space of a cop’s apartment to turn this scene into a real nail-biter.

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De Palma’s art lies in making something ordinary stand out.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, De Palma is well known for his fixation with Hitchcock. Some might even call him a cheap copy of Hitchcock, but that would absolutely be a false claim. De Palma’s style is unique precisely because he follows certain patterns and uses certain elements that were previously introduced by none other than the man behind PsychoVertigoNorth by Northwest and Birds. Most De Palma movies use Hitchcock’s teachings to make the most out of nothing, for example, by foreshadowing a dramatic, bloody resolution like in Dressed to Kill to make the actual finale even more shocking. In Dressed to Kill the audience is bombarded with violent images showing the gruesome slaying of a middle-aged woman (Angie Dickinson) at different moments of the movie, finally culminating within the one hour mark with the full depiction of the murder as witnessed by the prostitute played by Melanie Griffith. Certain lighting patterns, like in the first minutes of Carlito’s Way, will foreshadow the character’s end but also give a sense of what is about to follow. By using different shades of purple, gray and blue, De Palma paints Carlito’s Way‘s introduction with a sense of nostalgia, a sense of accomplishment even though the movie has just started. We realize the character is dying not because Carlito says it in his voice over narration but because of the way he is introduced on screen, eyes wide open, staring upwards, right into the camera, his body being slowly pushed in a stretcher by a group of nurses, the world around him fading out, leaving him alone with his story that he’s about to tell the audience.

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A dying man staring right at us, this is Carlito’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the key to De Palma’s visual seduction of the viewer lies in his untamed love for genre. You will often find yourself wondering what you’ve just watched when the credits to a De Palma film start to roll, was that a thriller (Blow Out) ? A horror (Body Double)? A black comedy (Scarface)? Or a Western (The Untouchables)? These questions are extremely valid since the director is always trying to mask his films with multiple layers of genres in order to make the most accurate representation of his own intricate vision. The scene in The Untouchables where the group of policemen lead by Elliot Ness and Malone (Kevin Costner and Sean Connery, respectively) charge a column of vehicles driven by mafia members on horseback wielding shotguns and pistols is something one would expect to see in a Western by John Ford, not a gangster movie written by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, and yet that’s what makes the entire scene, and not a minute of it feels silly or unnecessary, it simply is a De Palma moment, something so unique, original and full of life that you, as an audience member, cannot help but appreciate the sheer passion that went into the production of that particular scene.

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And what about The Untouchables railway station sequence? A mix of Eisenstein and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

De Palma will keep making many people shake their heads in dissatisfaction, be it with his ‘male gaze’ (re: Femme Fatale from 2002 where the character played by Antonio Banderas is literally taking pictures of women from his balcony) or simply with his fixation of turning every moment into a big, loud celebration (the fireworks in Blow Out ‘s ending). This, however, should not be held against him as De Palma is one of the very few directors who is capable of making movies by using a ton of style and a grain of substance, something other fellow filmmakers (yes, I’m looking at you, Nicolas Winding Refn) are simply not up to, or at least, not on De Palma’s level. Having watched a lot of his movies lately, some with repeated viewings, it is safe to say that sometimes studying a cheap copy of Hitchcock might even be more beneficial and worthwhile than studying the real thing. Bet on it.

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How the West Was Won by Clint

How the West Was Won by Clint

There have been numerous articles and reviews that have tackled the obscurity and the powerful kick of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, Unforgiven. Countless film critics and film scholars have used Unforgiven as the prime example of an anti-violence film, a film that used short yet effective spurts of bloody action to convey a message about the theme of violence. However, oddly enough, both Clint Eastwood David Peoples, the screenwriter, have admitted that when the film was in the making, the thought of it being an anti-violence picture hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. The theme was simply thrown into the mix by those that went to see the film and wanted to write something important, something that would make the audiences flood the theaters and would have their names in the headlines. So my question is, 26 years after its release, what is Clint Eastwood’s Western really about? What has changed over the course of these last two decades?

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Clint Eastwood as William Munny, and Morgan Freeman as his partner, Ned Logan.

I remember watching Unforgiven as a soon-to-be-teenager and thinking that along with No Country for Old Men this was the scariest movie I had seen up to that point. And I must admit, it still holds up very well. It is still a wonderfully directed gruesome Western that speaks volumes on a multitude of difficult topics. What starts out as an odd revenge storyline about three desperados, a young unexperienced hillbilly accompanied by two veteran murderers, who set out to kill a couple of men accused of cutting up a woman in a small town in Wyoming called Big Whiskey, soon turns into an engrossing moral tale that confronts the depths of evil with the scarce oases of goodness during some of the most troubled times of the American West, namely the days after the shocking assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. It is here that a lot of critics like to use the word ‘revisionist’ – the word ‘revisionist’ has been used countless times in recent years in order to describe different modern-day Westerns (think Hell or High Water, 3:10 to YumaTrue Grit), but has it been used right? In my opinion, very few films fit the term ‘revisionist’ since very few films are powerful enough to modify an entire genre, and when they do modify it, these modifications last a long time, preventing other films from crossing those established lines (think the way Goodfellas changed the gangster genre) and setting new ones. Unforgiven is, without a doubt, one of the few Westerns, along with Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller from 1971, to actually overturn the laws of the Western genre and create something remarkable, something that transcendences the limits of the genre and goes beyond the rules established by its predecessors, viz.  John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks in the 1940s and 50s. The way Unforgiven unfolds resembles a drama more than a Western and that is the first point I aim to make; Unforgiven‘s structure.

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A world of violence.

The structure of this film is incredibly straightforward and what is so striking about it is the fact that in a story that is just as concerned with the past of its characters as it is with their present, there is no use of flashbacks. The whole premise of the film is that two ruthless killers turned farmers, William Munny and Ned Logan (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman),  set out on a journey that will force them to confront their own past and will require them to go back to their old criminal habits. Usually the temptation to rely on flashbacks in a situation like this would be very strong; in fact, Eastwood as a director used flashbacks a multitude of times, most notably in High Plains Drifter, an earlier picture of his about another tormented soul who must face his own demons. Yet here, Eastwood clearly decided to stick to the timeline of 1881 and this decision is what brings out the film’s best qualities. As viewers we are only allowed to imagine the past of the characters on-screen, rather than see it first-hand. If a character recalls a specific memory we can only guess whether this memory is true or not, whether it is accurate or not, whether the character really is who he says he is, which brings me to the most important revisionist quality this movie holds – the theme of storytelling.

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Gene Hackman as the unmerciful sheriff of Big Whiskey.

The Western tradition has been built on the myth of the Wild West. The glorious days of robbers robbing banks and trains, cowboys fighting Natives and gunfighters squaring off on the streets of most American towns. But that’s also where the genre has stumbled, often too concerned with the myth rather than the actual story. And it is here that Unforgiven steps in to change the Western landscape for years to come. In fact, aside from William Munny, our protagonist, and Little Bill, our antagonist, every other character that we see on screen is more concerned with their own myth rather their actual story. English Bob (played by Richard Harris), for example, an English gunfighter that has arrived in Big Whiskey to collect the bounty for the two criminals who have scarred one of the local prostitutes, is nothing but a big lie dressed up in fancy clothes and armed with a number of expensive, custom-made pistols. He brings alongside a biographer who is charged with the task of writing a book about English Bob’s adventures in the Wild West and the way he spent his later years rescuing innocent women and children from the hands of violent, blood-thirsty men. When he is confronted by Little Bill, the local sheriff who doesn’t tolerate armed strangers in his own little town, English Bob is unable to separate himself from the myth. Eventually, the myth of English Bob as the saviour of the innocent results in his downfall and Bob ends up in a jail cell with his face bloodied. Why? Because Little Bill knows English Bob’s real story. Little Bill, as mentioned before, is one of the two characters who prefer to hold on to the story rather than the myth. A man like Little Bill despises the kind of English Bob, the kind of men who need to build their own myth in order to feel better about themselves. Similarly to Eastwood’s Munny, Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is nothing but a brutal man, a product of the Wild West who’s seen his fair share of pain and violence and who will not stand the lies of cowards like English Bob. Here, fact meets fiction, and fact takes over, fact wins, as Little Bill turns English Bob into a bloody pulp and ridicules him in front of the whole town, sending him back to England beat up and unarmed.

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English Bob’s downfall.

However, as complex as Little Bill is, I would be at fault if I did not go in depth about Eastwood’s character of William Munny, the definite factual character whose whole life has been avoiding his own infamous myth, the one of a stone-cold murderer of anything that ever crawled the face of the earth. When we meet him, Munny is at his strongest; he’s sober, he hasn’t fired a gun in over ten years’ time, he has two children and is a loving widower who spends his days watching over the grave of his wife, Claudia. And yet, in the face of the young hillbilly named Schofield Kid who comes to recruit him for the killing of the two criminals, Munny is nothing but a pathetic mess; a dirty old man, a pig farmer who’s got nothing going in life, a joke, a dead myth. Eastwood does a great job at portraying a man who has learned to embrace the present and forget the past. He does not mention his wrongdoings unless someone drags it out of him. The scenes that stand out the most are when Munny prepares himself for the journey by retrieving his old pistol and practicing after all these years with a coffee can. To the viewers’ surprise Munny can’t hit. He empties the entire clip and we see the disappointment in his and his children’s eyes. Following this scene, is the scene where Munny has a hard time getting on his horse, which becomes a recurring joke in the story, as his horse throws him off numerous times and we end up realizing that Munny is the embodiment of change; he is a man who has learned that the past must be left behind, that the past does not need to hold a special place in our lives unless we want it to, and yet…!

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Munny’s new life.

And yet Munny is the only character, along with Little Bill, that is still capable of being just as ruthless and cold-blooded as he was in his younger days. When called upon, Munny , unlike his long-time partner Ned, is the one who can still kill a person without batting an eye. Therefore, one might conclude that the ghost is chasing him, rather than the other way around. Munny is the victim of his own myth as he quickly finds out that no matter what one does, how one lives for a certain period of time, how one tries to introduce new values into his own life, the past will always expose a man’s true colors, just as it exposed English Bob’s cowardly side and Little Bill’s experienced one. The scars that haunt men like Munny are just as deep as those that have been inflicted on the poor prostitute’s face. When Munny finally meets the victim of the attack, the reason for his journey, the reason he was forced to retrieve his old habits, he is at a loss for words, and after a while admits to what we all found out throughout the course of the film: ”What I said the other day, you looking like me, that ain’t true. You ain’t ugly like me, it’s just that we both have got scars.” 

While most Westerns have focused on the glamour, the appeal and the myth of the Wild West, Unforgiven decided to focus on the stitches that cover the deep wounds, the blood trickling through these stitches, the imperfections that have accompanied every man and woman who were forced to survive in such a brutal environment. Munny and Little Bill are on opposite sides of the conflict; one is there to set the rules straight, while the other is there to break them. However, if we take a close look at both of them, if we study their actions and their motives carefully, are their methods any different? Are their survival strategies divergent? Are these two men products of fact or fiction?

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Two different kinds of scars.

 

How to Get Away with a Stinker

How to Get Away with a Stinker

Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The HappeningAfter Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.

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Scott Cooper directing Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.

Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…

All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.

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The misery of Bad Blake.

Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.

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What could have been a good thriller.

Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and  De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.

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A snapshot that sums up Black Mass: empty, violent, ugly to look at.

Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.

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Not a good Western.

So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.

 

Love Letter to the West

Love Letter to the West

Westerns.  John Ford was the master of Westerns.  He was THE guy when it came to depicting gunfights and chases on horseback.  Sergio Leone might be the director you’d like to think invented the Western genre, but he didn’t.  He improved the Spaghetti Western one.  The Western genre was all John Ford’s.  Westerns at the time (we’re talking about 1930s and 1940s) were rather easy (financially cheap) films to make and they often revolved around the same story.  The prominent themes were those of family, friendship, trust.  The Wild West was just a stage for it.  That’s why we should never forget Ford’s brilliance.  He reinvented the genre and added a huge chunk of value to it.  The settings mattered, the surroundings mattered, the characters felt more real than ever and of course, the action (at the time) was incredibly modern in its presentation.  Ford began in the silent movie era and as time went by he grew to become one of the most famous directors in Golden Hollywood.  He was notorious for his bad temper, rough words and sometimes, arrogance.  While for quite some time Henry Fonda was his number one actor, the man he collaborated with the most, their relationship began to deteriorate in the late 40s and the two eventually fell apart during the shooting of a movie in the mid 50s, when Ford socked Fonda in the mouth. As Fonda swore he’d never work with the director again,  Ford brushed these remarks right off his shirt and remembered that he had directed another bright kid in a big movie back in 1939.  His name was John Wayne and the movie was Stagecoach. Now, ten later years later John Wayne was a big bright star shining all over the world of cinema.  He had been nominated for his work in Sands of Iwo Jima and had become a ‘serious’ actor giving memorable performances in Fort Apache and Red River.  It had been the latter, Howard Hawks’ Red River that convinced Ford to offer Wayne, what the actor would call, his favorite and most valuable role.  That of Captain Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

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Welcome to the Wild West.

 

Brittles is an essential character when speaking of Westerns.  He wasn’t the conventional macho man of the West, as most would expect from John Wayne.  He embodied the essence of a man of the Wild West.  And that’s why She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can be interpreted as the ultimate love letter from Ford to the West.  It is also why this was one of the first movies directed by Ford in color.  His aim was to translate the beauty and the fascination of this magnificent world of desert, dirt, sunsets, buffalo, canyons, woods presented in the paintings of the great Frederic Remington onto the moving screen. And as I sat a couple days ago and watched this movie for a second time, I noticed how accurate the translation from the canvass to the screen truly is. The images in Ford’s film are brilliantly structured and staged.  The actors are scattered around the frame in a way that allows us to really grasp the dimension of the settings, be it a vast open range or a tiny cemetery at sunset.  Many directors forget the importance of composition.  Ford doesn’t.  He clearly understands that to achieve a peace within a shot of film you need balance.  Balance, like in most paintings, is found  in color and composition, two prominent features of this particular movie.  The contrast is between the visual balance and thematic balance.  The story is that of an impending war between the different tribes of Native Americans and the US Calvary after the massacre at Little Bighorn, and yes, John Wayne’s character is there to try to and prevent it from happening.  So, as you can see, the turmoil and chaos of the story, of what happened and what could happen, is evidently contrasted by these beautiful images that evoke a feeling of calmness, harmony and… balance.

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Shot compostion example n1.
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Shot composition example n2.
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Shot composition example n3.

Aside from the theme of war and danger, Ford’s love letter contains also the theme of time.  The passing of time to be precise.  In fact, John Ford said of John Wayne’s performance (who at the time was 40 years old) as the 60 year old Captain who’s facing retirement: “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!”  And indeed, if you’re not convinced of Wayne’s ability to act after seeing Red River then here you have further proof.  Wayne’s task in this particular role was to deliver a performance that was meant to tell the stories of all the men who lived their entire lives in the middle of nowhere.  He was supposed to show a man’s weakness, strength, character and inner loneliness and conflict, and here you get all of it.  As I said before, there is absolutely no macho feel to Captain Brittles.  He is just an ordinary man whose time is unfortunately coming to an end.  He has to face reality and let the younger generation take his place and again, Ford’s choice to shoot this film with the use of an experimental color palette, allows the viewer to fully grasp each movement, each look that appears on Wayne’s face, and yeah, you bet; the son of a bitch can act!

Don’t believe me? Here you go;

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Another note on the cinematography and direction this movie takes.  This could have been an absolute failure since it’s marketed and labeled as a Western but in truth very little happens in this movie.  Don’t expect gunfights, standoffs, chases and hangings like in Ford’s other Westerns like Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is a romantic drama that talks about the struggle between man and the land of the West.  Shot composition proves this.  There is always a presence of landscape in every single frame and very often, the characters are extremely small compared to it.  It feels like nature, the clouds, the dust, the rocks, the canyons, loom over these tiny human beings.  It may be a warning, a sign of impending doom.  Perhaps it means humans can fight all the wars they want but at the end they’re not the ones making the ultimate choice.  Captain Brittles is just an officer at the end of the day.  He is not God.  He’s a mortal man.  One of us.  And Ford doesn’t hold back in underlining it.  Many critics failed to understand his movies.  He didn’t preach the grandeur of cowboys nor the courage of soldiers.  All he did was tell stories of a land he so deeply admired and loved.  By using Remington’s paintings as a visual inspiration, the love glows more than ever in each color frame.  The beauty and the cruelty merge and create a stunning portrayal of what the Wild West truly looked like once upon a time, far and far away…

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Nature vs Man.
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Nature vs Man.
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And at the end of the day, one of the most beautiful sunsets shot on film…

 

Son of a Gun

Son of a Gun

Today’s topic: the not so Spaghetti Western of Sergio Leone. The 1960s were a time of booming ecstasy in European cinema, especially the Italian, German and French, which were producing an average of 112 films every year. It may not seem as much compared to today’s Hollywood productions, but in those times the three countries I mentioned were on a roll. However, quantity doesn’t mean quality. In fact, most of those movies were  called ”B-movies”; cheap, quick to make and either comedic or action-packed. In the main roles were either foreign, mostly American, washed-up stars or Italian good looking actors like Terrence Hill or Franco Nero. They weren’t there to play a part, they were there to carry a story. And that’s how Spaghetti Westerns got made; German, French and Italian directors would film stories of revenge and justice in the Spanish desert instead of Monument Valley because of budget restraints. Spaghetti Westerns were the bread and butter during those years, and honestly they all looked the same. Until the very day, one chubby Italian from Rome appeared on the Spaghetti Western stage: Sergio Leone. Maybe to some his movies seem too long and too predictable, but try and compare them to other movies of the cheap genre and you’ll notice that what this man did was start a Western Renaissance.

It's always quiet in the West.
It’s always quiet in the West.

In this post I’ll have a look at what I think is his most mature work – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – which doesn’t mean that his other pieces of filmography aren’t worth discovering: the whole Man with No Name Trilogy has some of my favorite set pieces ever put on film; Duck, You Sucker from 1971 is hilarious fun, and Once Upon a Time in America, his last effort before his sudden death in 1984 is a brilliant gangster epic. On the other hand though, I can’t help myself but think that Leone reached a peak of his directorial efforts in his smash hit, Once Upon a Time in the West. Why is that? Well, take a look at the opening scene. No one, not even Hitchcock could reach the same level of suspense and tension that Leone used in every movie of his. The first twelve minutes are almost played out without a single word being said. The only sound we hear is that of a broken windmill spinning, a fly buzzing around, and water slowly dripping onto a man’s hat. It’s the details that make us nervous. Leone’s strategy is to create a very long moment of silence and then disrupt it into million pieces with the use of the loudest sounds available, to make the audience jump, to make the audience think on the importance of sound. In fact, his movies never really focus on dialog almost as if they were silent films. In Once, the opening scene follows three strangers covered with thick dusters and dirty hats. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know where they come from and why are we following them but for some odd reason we can’t take our eyes off them. They’re nasty, ugly looking men, for all we care they’re simple bandits waiting for a train, and yet Leone manages to make it interesting and fun just looking at them. And when the train arrives, the credits stop rolling, we witness the climax of all that we’ve been waiting for. The windmill stops.

Henry Fonda's blue eyes hide one of the most terrifying villains in the history of movies.
Henry Fonda’s blue eyes hide one of the most terrifying villains in the history of movies.

Leone didn’t simply direct Westerns; by combining the ugly with the beautiful, the evil with the good, the present with the past he created art. A scene in Once that takes place in a sleazy saloon in the middle of the desert, where bounty hunters and filthy horsemen sit drinking and spitting, is a perfect place to introduce us the real nature of Claudia Cardinale’s character, the gorgeous Jill, a frightened yet strong woman that will face any man that stands in her way. How does the man behind the camera do it? Close-ups. That’s Leone’s trademark and something that went on and influenced later famous directors like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. It made him recognizable. We see a close-up and we immediately know it’s him. And again it’s the attention to detail that shapes this movie. In American Westerns, well respected directors like John Ford or Howard Hawks would never use close-ups because they felt the West was all about the posture and strong figure of cowboys, muscular lawmen. Leone had his own idea. His focus was on the slight movements, barely visible tics, a tear in the corner of the eye. Leone’s details tell us more about a character than any form of dialog. In Once we have the mysterious character of Harmonica, played by legendary Charles Bronson, we know nothing about him and yet he’s one of the main characters of the movie. In that same saloon scene, Leone directs a close-up of Harmonica’s face while the man plays a tune on his silver instrument. We ask ourselves what’s the meaning of this close-up? And I say precisely that: the audience asking themselves a question. We raise questions because we’re curious and Leone delivers the answers with the same close-up at the very end of the movie, letting us finally discover the character’s identity, motivation and dark past. You’ll never play harmonica again.

He plays, you live. He stops...
He plays, you live. He stops…

Finally, the score. Leone without composer Ennio Morricone is like steak with no fries. It’s good but the taste is not the same, it’s as if something’s missing. Morricone, an old friend of Leone’s from high school, would in some way help create the movie. He gave the director’s movies their identities, their spirit. Today almost everyone knows the celebrated tracks “Ecstasy of Gold” or “A Fistful of Dollars” with the recognizable whistle and whip sound because Morricone knew how to make the song not only suit the scene it played on, but make it memorable, make something special that people will always come back to and be left with their jaws dropped just like the first time they heard and saw it. Here, Morricone composes the chilling sound of a peaceful harmonica, and whenever we hear it we know who’s behind the instrument, ready to draw first.

The cause of all the good and evil, the beautiful Jill.
The cause of all the good and evil, the beautiful Jill.

Leone created a new way of telling personal stories in an impersonal world. His guns didn’t always fire bullets; they fired emotions and bruised feelings. The protagonists weren’t always presentable good guys: they were people touched by the past.

Luckily for us, Leone will always be the future.

A faded past marches toward us.
A faded past marches toward us.

No Heroes

No Heroes

Today’s topic: the end of an era in The Wild Bunch (1969). A lot of people consider the Western genre to be boring nowadays. My own generation, the youngsters, seem to be repulsed by the boring scenery, outdated dialogue and predictable action. Sure, Westerns are predictable; the good guy wins, the bad guy dies. The special effects sure look like nothing compared to today’s fast paced action blockbusters and yet, to all the non-Western-watchers, you’re missing out. Westerns were made to enjoy, to make audiences root for the hero who who would always come out victorious, to make them boo at the ferocious indians and ugly bandits, to make them laugh whenever the clumsy old sheriff’s sidekick would come up on the screen. Western set laws that didn’t apply to any other genre in the 1940s Hollywood. As movies they always followed a certain scheme, a plan that had a prepared route of what will follow. And yes, many times Westerns would get repetitive, tackling the same subject matter – that of a glorious Wild West, a land so rich and so beautiful that only the rightful hero can have. But then again, exceptions are made. The exception here was Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch that managed to destroy the myth of the good Old West.

William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.
William Holden as the protagonist of the dying breed.

As some of the more seasoned movie fans may know, Peckinpah was famous for his head-on, no-brakes concept of violence (Straw Dogs, from 1971, being the prime example), which in some way revolutionized the way audiences started to adapt themselves to the violent imagery depicted in movies. Until that time, most directors chose not to show blood on screen. Blood was considered a dirty element in the golden industry of Hollywood. However, Sam Peckinpah did not care. He was a true visionary who looked at film with his own eyes and mind. The Wild Bunch was his way of depicting the reality of what people considered a fairy tale. The very Wild but pretty West. Peckinpah does not talk about a good sheriff, or a handsome rider; he does the opposite – his movie is about the cruel passing of time. Time ignores the fact if you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever. Time is time and in The Wild Bunch, it’s ruthless. Our main protagonists are no kids; they’re seasoned veterans, real filthy bandits who in the past have killed, raped, robbed and drank every little penny they had. Their best days are way behind them. Maybe they never had them. They’re not as quick at pulling the trigger anymore, and their only reason to live is the love they have for crime. That’s their addiction, something they can’t stop themselves from doing. Time is killing them. What they once considered an easy two minute job becomes a bloodbath of a robbery. The authorities begin to outnumber them and in no time out of a whole gang, only six of them remain alive and loyal. Running.

Where are the horses? Long gone.
Where are the horses? Long gone.

As the movie progresses we notice how Peckinpah plays with time; in the shootout sequences, which for 1969 were something out of this world, he tackles time by making the most out of slow motion and fast paced intercuts. When a bounty hunter is shot dead and falls down to the ground from the top of a building, as he slowly reaches the ground, the director intercuts with the wild motions of galloping horses, symbol of progress and immediate change. Right after the bloodshed that took place in the street of a peaceful border town, Peckinpah dissolves to an image of a scorpion being eaten by thousands of ants. What happens next? Children set the insects on fire, and Peckinpah keeps the camera rolling as the flames devour what seconds before was devouring a mighty predator. We get the message. It’s time for the old timers to step away. If they stay, time will swallow them up. Even technology is subject to change and here too, the director makes the most out of the available props. Revolvers are replaced by semi-automatic pistols, bolt action rifles are left off in exchange for modern shotguns, and horses can’t outrun an automobile. It’s these simple things that make the biggest change in the gangbangers’ lives. The Wild West is filled to the brim with criminals much more skilled than these six poor old sobs.  This is no country for old men. Old men must go, but before they do, Peckinpah leads the gang into a brothel, just to show us that there is no class in being a bandit. It’s a simple reminder that makes us think about all those times we saw the hero prepare himself for his final battle by praying in a church or cleaning his weapon in a quiet hotel room. Not in this case. In this case, the brothel is the sanctuary. The holy temple.

Fairy tales do not exist.
Fairy tales do not exist.

As I mentioned before, what is so revolutionary about this movie is the use of epic violence: corpses riddled by bullets, a machine gun that rips bodies apart and grenades that destroy entire buildings. The final shootout is an example of a virtuoso working against a whole world of viewers by challenging the way they’d watch Westerns. This is a war movie. The remaining five bandits face a squadron of angry Mexican soldiers. It’s the scorpion being eaten by the never ending masses of ants. It’s five men against the inevitable passing of time. It’s the Wild West against the approaching twentieth century. It’s the beloved traditions against the modern age. The bullet-spraying machine gun, in this case, is seen as the last door to knock at. Each one of the wild bunch tries to hold the weapon for as long as he can, but in the end, they all let go, crippled by the enemy fire. Crippled by their dark past. Their mistakes. Time sinks its teeth into their lives, ending them once and for all. It’s never been about gold, silver or any of that. It was about living the fearless life no one would get to live anymore after that.

The dying breed of a dying era.

Their last walk.
Their last walk.

The Duke

The Duke

Today’s topic: the controversial icon. I’ve known the name ‘John Wayne’ since I was a little child. It made me feel safe, it made feel right at home. That familiar face, those reassuring blue eyes, and that walk. He would come up on screen and it was celebration time for me and the entire family. An old friend. That’s who John Wayne is to me. Because let’s face it, maybe not my generation, but anybody who’s lived through the 50s, 60s or 70s  must remember what it felt like when the big man hit the theaters. Of course, a lot of people think of him as the racist, homophobic, over-the-top republican washed up Hollywood actor. Yet, there must be a reason why he’s still famous and remembered by millions as “The Duke”.

You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.
“You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.”

Go ahead, complain about how every movie of his was about cowboys shooting Indians, cowboys taking over the prairie, cowboys killing buffalos. I won’t argue. But there is a lot more to who he really was than just that first impression. Wayne (with an acting career that spread well over 50 years), in fact, was an inspiration to such future celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Martin Scorsese and Michael Caine. He was great friends with Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Walter Brennan and James Stewart. He was revolutionary in the way he brought the Western genre to the big screen time after time and still managed to be a box office hit. However, Wayne was and still is misunderstood by the public. Seen as the ‘macho’ type, the one who always comes fists first, words later. The kind of character who punches someone and then asks the questions. A very common mistake committed by Hollywood, that still applies to today’s situation. John Wayne was type casted in the last twenty years of his career. He would be hired to make B-movies where he knocked the guy’s teeth out, or rammed through a door with his powerful kick. But as Wayne said many times: “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one if his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.” 

In fact, many people don’t know this or refuse to believe it, but John Wayne’s walk was invented by the actor. Like the greatest performances we see on screen by actors like Daniel-Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Wayne would undergo tough, compelling changes in the way he behaved and talked. The famous walk was invented and built in its entirety by the actor himself. He wanted some of his characters to have a past, dark motivations, scarred memories. He wished to push the character development as far as possible, to the extreme edge. And look how he fooled whole generations of viewers, letting them believe that it was all part of his true self. The slurred speech, the funny look, the way he reached for his rifle, Wayne had it all under control and all hidden under a great actor’s mask. A hidden identity.

The angry bastard in Red River.
The angry bastard in Red River.

Of course, he also had a bad reputation amongst other Hollywood stars and well known directors; he would argue like a madman with frequent collaborator, the legendary John Ford (director of Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), up to the point where the two would start cursing at each other and one of them would walk off set. During the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Wayne and actor-friend Walter Brennan would fight with co-star newcomer Montgomery Clift over political ideas; Brennan and Wayne were hardened Republicans while Clift was a convinced Democrat. Clift, after the movie got released, said he’d never work with the two again, especially with John Wayne. The Duke was  famous for his heavy drinking and chain smoking that eventually led to his death in 1979. He was also a strong supporter of the Hollywood Blacklisting, convinced that “un-american Americans need to stay out of here”.

So what is there to admire? Wayne’s passion and love for what he did. He loved acting, he loved people and he loved life. He loved simplicity and when we watch him act out his lines we see honesty and truth in the way he delivers them. Want to see an unusual, subtle performance by the tough guy who breaks people’s noses? Watch The Quiet Man (1952) and notice the transformation. For me, it will always be the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo (one of Tarantino’s favorites). The way Dean Martin’s character introduces the big man, Sheriff John T. Chance. His confident walk, his posture and warm look. A familiar face in a saloon full of bandits and drunks. There would always be hope when he  appeared on the big screen. His presence would and still does, make everything seem better. He can be the bad guy, the asshole, the hardened Sergeant, but he will always have a positive impact on how we view the picture. And I’ll never forget when Bruce Dern’s character in The Cowboys murdered John Wayne in cold blood. The tears I cried when I was a kid watching that scene. The many nightmares I’ve had since seeing that final bloody shootout. How could a nobody just go ahead and kill the man who’s never been killed before? How could someone put a deadly bullet into the back of a legend? I couldn’t comprehend and to this day I don’t have the courage to watch that scene in its entirety. It takes guts to kill John Wayne.

The way, Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.
The way Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.

What’s my point? Perhaps I’m just talking to myself, perhaps I just want to remind myself of some childhood memories or perhaps I just like to brag about some of the forgotten idols. Whatever it is, I like to think that Wayne is and always will be appreciated for his presence, his warm smile and the fact that John Ford admitted that “Wayne will be the biggest star of all time”. Don’t let the controversies fool you, because we all live in a world that’s built on controversies. That’s no news.

The Duke will always be The Duke.

Sail on, Captain, sail on.
Sail on, Captain, sail on.