Thursday, October 23, 2008
Horses in Cinema
Being a citizen of the United States, and of the western United States, and having grown up during an era in which the cinematic Western was quite popular, I watched a lot of Westerns in theaters and on TV. In Sweden, in 1994, I also learned from an Irish scholar (that is, a scholar from Ireland), that many Irish men more or less of our generation were and are awfully fond of Westerns.
The more eccentric the Western, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Therefore, I love the one with Johnny Depp (is it called Dead Man?), directed by Jim Jarmusch and featuring a splendid cast, including Robert Mitchum, who was acting in his last movie. I think Neil Young did the soundtrack.
The plot is witty and surreal, and what poet can resist a Western in which the protagonist is called William Blake? I like the "spaghetti" Westerns very much, partly because of the spare scripts and over-the-top music, but also because of the post-modern combination of Spanish locations, one American star, mostly Italian actors (although Klaus Kinski is in one), and an Italian director. One detail I liked in those movies was the food. It really looked like the kind of slop people had to eat in the West back then.
I'm awfully fond of High Noon, mostly for technical reasons (no fuss, no muss direction), the casting, and the tossing of the badge in the dirt at the end. Arguably, that movie is the grandfather or grandmother of the anti-hero Westerns from later decades, such as the Culpepper Cattle Company and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, although in the latter film, Altman does his dumb thing with dialogue and sound in which people mumble and are not audible on purpose. Just make the damn film.
With the exception of Dead Man and The Unforgiven, I don't like most contemporary Westerns, not Costner's, not the one with Kevin Kline and Danny Glover, not the one with Lou Diamond Philips and the other "rebels" of the moment. There's an abundance of predictability, an excess of costuming and sets, and a ponderousness of direction.
Shane, of course, is supposed to be a great film, and it has its moments, but Alan Ladd isn't believable, in my opinion. They couldn't ever really hide the fact that he was a miniature man who wouldn't last 2 seconds in a bar-fight. In that long fist-fight scene, I think they had to use all sorts of ramps and boxes for him to stand on. I thought Ven Heflin was terrific. Monte Walsh is a pretty darned good Western, with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is good because it has some real political, intellectual, racial, and sexual complexity to it. There's some great lore about Woody Strode and John Wayne on the set of that one, but I'll skip it. John Ford knew how to make movies, but I find most of them kind of boring, except for the use of exteriors, and almost all his movies are unbearably racist.
The greatest comic Western is Blazing Saddles, although Cat Balou is a close second. My favorite musical is a Western: Paint Your Wagon, in which the casting is superbly absurd: neither Marvin nor Eastwood can sing! How lovely. I'm one of the few people, apparently, who liked The Missouri Breaks. I loved Brando's cross-dressing schtick as "the Regulator." The Western Brando directed (I can't think of the name) fell apart, but it also had its moments. Brando didn't know how to direct. He probably wasn't practical enough.
I appreciate what they tried to do with Sharon Stone in that one Western, or maybe I don't; anyway, it was miserable. I can't think of a Western with a genuine female protagonist that really works. There's probably one out there.
On the small screen, I have to go with Deadwood. Before that, I really liked the Virginian--a 90-minute per week series! Seems incredible now. Gunsmoke left me cold.
But anyway, no matter what kind of Western it is, I always watch the horses. They are the movie within the movie. Hence this poem:
In movies with horses, watch the horses,
not the actors. The horses are thinking
all the time. They react to phenomena
while professionally fulfilling the task of giving
a stunt-man a lift or standing still beneath
a vapid star who hates working with animals,
children, and complexity. Horses snort.
They rear their heads, swat at flies with their
tales, sweat. They appear not to understand
the plot. They fear smoke and loud noises,
get wild-eyed with fright for good reason.
Their intuition is as wide as a pasture.
No matter what the movie may be,
the horses tell a horse-story while
the film drains through its reels
into accounting books and profits,
the manure of Hollywood.
Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom