Friday, August 31, 2007

John Wayne: I Get It

Caution: do not read the following as a nascent conversion to Republicanism.

John Wayne characters exude something wholly lacking in contemporary male characters, namely, manliness. Since, say, the Rocky/Rambo era, manliness exists on screen as little more than a set of visible and easily recognizable signs: a buff body, a big gun, and a vendetta to carry out. Modern manliness is determined only by a character's willingness to react quickly, violently and without mercy against an actual or perceived threat to himself or his family. Once the line has been crossed, our modern-day manly man has no choice but to seek revenge and/or eliminate the threat. He is mostly perfect, whereas the characters John Wayne plays, at least in his best films, are deeply, irrevocably flawed. Manliness in a John Wayne character is defined by that character's ability to measure the effects of violence against the consequences of inaction, and also by his ability to face, if not entirely overcome, his flaws. Perhaps the key word here is "measure." Modern manly men react without thinking, and their unthinkingness is viewed as a hallmark of their manliness. Thinking about the consequences of their actions, taking stock of themselves, and admitting (implicitily or explicitly) failure are signs of weakness. It is the opposite with a John Wayne character. None ever see violence as completely justified or completely unjust in a given situation. A John Wayne manly man takes into account the cost of violence always and, if he chooses the violent course of action, is willing to share the costs instead of simply passing them along to others.

I guess each generation gets the manly man it deserves.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hollywood at its Best

Destry Rides again is a near perfect old school Hollywood film. It stars two legendary actors, Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, both at the top of their game. Stewart plays the folksy-wise defender of all that is decent and wholesome, while Dietrich sings, dances, seduces, and sets aglow every scene she is in. Though it follows standard Western genre conventions -- i.e., it's about a lawless town controlled by lawless men who need to be tamed by the long arm of the law in order to prepare the way for "civilization" -- it feels more like a wedding of several genres: western, gangster film, musical, melodrama and screwball comedy all rolled into one. Western genre elements predominate, to be sure, but even so, all the bad guys belong to a business syndicate that is essentially a gang, no different from any number of gangs populating the crime films of the thirties. All gang members look "ethnic," and several have Brooklynish accents. Marlene Dietrich brings the musical element to bear with three songs and a dance number with Stewart. I might even say the memorable catfight between Frenchy (Dietrich) and a disgruntled housewife itself qualifies as musical by way of its extravagant choreography. Melodrama enters the tale through the unrequited love between the two stars, culminating in Dietrich's sacrifice of herself to save Destry in the final scenes. Finally, the witty, wacky, lightning-quick dialogue gives the whole thing the feel of a screwball comedy. Which is a way of saying that for all its western trappings, this doesn't exactly feel like a western. Yet somehow it works, wonderfully. Every gunfight, every close-up, every brawl, every musical number is bursting with life. Way to go Hollywood. Hooray.

PEARL vs. PEAR: The Blossom War

I just discovered that the title of the photocollage whose title I stole from David Hockney was "PEARblossom Highway..." and not "PEARLblossom Highway...." O well, the title of my blog is PEARLblossom Highway. And so it shall remain.

Netflix Cue

At Home:

1 The Misfits
2 Destry Rides Again
3 Major Dundee
4 The Culpepper Cattle Company Co.
5 McCabe and Mrs. Miller (watched, see below)

We're watching westerns these days. More on that later.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Altman and Godard

We watched McCabe and Mrs. Miller tonight, another futile attempt to discover what it is that people like about Robert Altman's films. It's certainly not his characters, who though they may be clever are never very likeable. His use of ensemble casts makes the films feel centerless, an effect exacerbated by his persistent and annoying use of simultaneous dialogue -- characters constantly talking all at once -- two, three, four at a time -- making it impossible to catch half of what is being said. While there is a strong and personal visual aesthetic to his direction, I often feel that Altman's misanthropy extends beyond his characters and out to his audience. I don't like feeling hated by an entertainer, or an artist, or anyone for that matter.

While I have learned to like and even love several of Godard's films (all from the sixties -- the rest is garbage, IMHO), I often have a similar feeling about him: he seems to derive more pleasure from trying his audience's patience than he does from engaging and entertaining them. While films like Masculin Feminin, Une Femme Est Une Femme, Bande à part, and Pierrot le Fou expanded my horizons and brought great pleasure, films like Weekend, Alphaville, Le Mepris & Les Carabiniers made me want to set my hair on fire -- and then find Godard and set his hair on fire.

That said, if I had to choose, I'd choose Godard, who at least has a sense of humor. More importantly, I don't think he's a misanthropist the way Altman is. Altman's assaults on his audience are born from a dark, ugly view of human beings, while Godard's are like pricks from a playful gadfly.