Sunday, March 28, 2004

"If they move ... kill 'em!"

Following my recent obsession with things Walter Hill, I approached the local mom & pop video stores for Wild Bill - in vain, alas. So, against my better judgment, I watched Kevin Costner's recent oater, Open Range (Rotten Tomatoe's "ripe" prognosis can be read here).

I'll admit it wasn't all that bad. Kevin Costner plays Kevin Costner, and Robert Duvall does a fine turn at playing Robert Duvall, but the real surprise was Annette Benning. Not her performance, which paid the bills, but the lighting she was subjected to. The director of photography seemed desperate to bring out the age in her face, casting a hard, white light against every potential jowl and sag. She endured the indignity with stoic repose, while the fellas, meanwhile, basked in the usual back-lit amber-haze trickery. The only clue to their advancing years was their indisguisable hairlines.

If I sound bitter, I'm afraid my tone isn't going to improve. But just to establish the solitary positive note, I'll admit I was never tempted to turn it off or fall asleep, and I have the scenic vistas of Montana to thank for that. And yes, the climactic showdown was well-executed, giving the viewer a sense of how chaotic and ridiculous something like that might be, and also how pathetic, what with shot folks wallowing in the mud and all, and the hero tracking them down, considering whether he should shoot again or leave be. When it was all over, I shut off the DVD, feeling mostly satisfied with an evening's entertainment.

Unfortunately, TVO was just cueing up The Wild Bunch. Just seeing again the first five minutes of Peckinpah's masterpiece made me realize what emotionally fraudulant nonsense I'd just exposed myself to.

Every once in a while a person is witness to a work of art that makes them say, "This is it. Why would anyone bother trying anything like this ever again?" The Wild Bunch poses that brutal question for the Western, and I have yet to see a western made since that satisfactorily answers it (although Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado came close, by declaring, "We've forgotten how much fun this used to be." Unfortunately, what we hadn't forgotten was any of the by-the-numbers closing shootouts we'd seen 100 times before).

So why do Hollywood stars continually try their hand at the western? I'm inclined to think it's a personal ego booster. It doesn't matter if you're a gormless rider, you can't help but look good in the saddle. The dusty clothing, the thunderous boots, the facial hair all conspire to make a dude look downright useful, when we know for a fact that it's been a lifetime since either Costner or Duvall so much as mowed their own lawns.

No, give me The Wild Bunch over the mild bunch, please. Peckinpah's ego is there, no doubt about it, but it's as self-lacerating as it is self-congratulatory. The entire production is a highwire act over flames that eventually consume the whole thing. Just contrast William Holden's performance here, to Clint Eastwood's in Unforgiven. Clint still towers at the end of his movie thanks to the sort of moral sleight-of-hand we've come to expect from Hollywood. He acknowledges that the moral ambiguity you followed for the last 70 minutes was probably a mite tough to swallow, so he gives you 10 minutes of sugar: Clint, shootin' the bad guys up real good. Meanwhile Holden's flaws - his alcoholic rage and self-pity - are painfully harnessed and finally exhausted in a conclusive nihilistic howl. Holden never recovered; Eastwood strode on to make a dozen forgettable movies.

I know it's asking too much of our actors to kill themselves for a movie, but the least they could do is stop in their tracks for a moment before they make the next western.

And if they move ... kill 'em!

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