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Jul 25, 2011

A Good Year: 2007's Revival of the Hat and Boots


*All spoilers in the article are marked from beginning to end.

 
 
This is the first episode of mine and Robert’s series “A Good Year”, where we look at a particular calendar year that turned out to be significant for a specific filmmaker, actor, genre, country, or the like, cinematically speaking. We’re starting the series on a pretty modern note, as we look back at 2007 and the mini-revival that the Western genre enjoyed with the simultaneous release of Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Andrew Dominik’s Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.


Amir: First things first, I have to say I'm really happy we're starting this because I think it's gonna be quite an experiment. But on top of that, I'm also really happy we decided to start with this particular topic, which is something I feel really passionate about. I've long been a fan of Western cinema. Some of my all-time favourite films are from this genre and I definitely feel there's a shortage of new films for western fans. And even though this "revival" was, for the most part, short lived, I still got a real kick out of it back in the day. So I guess I have to start by asking you, how do you feel about Westerns? I know most people are not really into it these days and that partly contributes to the fact that Westerns are practically dead right now. So what say you? A yes? A no? A maybe?

Robert: Well, you know, it's interesting because before I started watching the three films we're going to discuss, I wasn't really too familiar with Westerns. And I guess I'm really still not - I haven't seen a lot of the western classics because, as bad as this will sound, I had kind of erroneously written off the genre. In fact, I'm tempted to say that the first real Western I saw was the remake of True Grit last year (I can feel my film buff credentials lowering as we speak!). However, I loved that movie and so catching up with the three Western revival films from 2007 was a project I really looked forward to, and since I heartily enjoyed all three (and fell completely head over heels in love with one in particular) it's really encouraged me to go back and catch up with classic Westerns I've missed.

A: Doesn’t that kind of prove my point that the genre is dead these days? I talk to my friends, even those in film school who sometimes look under piles of titles for the most obscure films from all over the world and any time frame, but don't really look into Westerns. Even a film buff like yourself...
I know where my personal interest comes from though. My first obsessions with cinema (outside my childhood and cartoons) were formed when I was a teenager and I used to borrow VCDs from a senior in my school who was a real film junkie and loved Westerns and crime films in particular. And so do I now. I think that early impression never left me, even now that more than a decade's gone by. But I’m curious to know, why do you think that is? Is it because the cultural appeal of the old timey epics is gone? Or because the industry is too reluctant to make westerns anymore? Or a bit of both?

R: I think it's a bit of both, for sure; almost as if there's a cultural stigma against westerns - I think that they're unfairly perceived on a general scale as slow paced, out-of-date and irrelevant. On the other hand, I think on the whole Westerns are making a sort of comeback. True Grit did well at the box office, and now Meek's Cutoff is getting great reviews - even Rango is basically a Western and it did fabulously! Even though scattered Westerns have been appearing for years, the triple hitter of 2007 brought them back into the limelight, and for me (and I think, a lot of other modern cinemagoers), this contemporary take is allowing me to access a genre that I had previously brushed off out of pure ignorance. A lot of it might also have to do with the cultural climate. All three of the films have the theme of the "underdog" taking control of his situation in some way. [SPOILERS] Even if all three pursuits ended up negatively in a way, there's something gratifying about seeing someone like the socially inept Robert Ford or the struggling Dan Evans defy the authority in place. [/SPOILERS]

A: I actually think your point is dead-on. When you really think about it, it's hard to make films like Rango, or No Country For Old Men that have a modern spin on the old genre. For the most part, the films stay the same. True Grit can't possibly be set in the modern world. It can be made by modern techniques, but it’s basically the original film again. The movie I'm dreading (and at the same time, anticipating) a bit is Cowboys and Aliens which I think is Hollywood's effort to modernize Westerns a bit. I just hope it doesn’t end up being ludicrous. As for the revival, I think it dates a bit further back than 07 actually. The real origin of this revival was Deadwood. I'm not sure if you were a fan of the series, but I thought it was fantastic and I'm sure the popularity of that series certainly played a part in this somewhat renewed interest.
So while we're on this topic, let's start with the most modern of the three films: No Country for Old Men which is a difficult place to start, because, well, what's left to say about it? I think we're stretching the definition of Westerns when we include it here, because in terms of the era it’s set in and its themes it's can't be counted as a real Western. Thematically it almost goes against what other westerns, certainly Yuma which is the most traditional of the three, stand for. But disregarding genre boundaries, it's a grand film, isn't it? Coens have rarely been in better form.

R: Fargo will always be my favourite Coen brothers’ film, but No Country for Old Men is definitely their most technically accomplished. It is, like you said, grand - the themes it tackles are so complex and so skilfully presented. I understand what you're saying about it being the least traditional Western of the three, but on the other hand, I think it could also be an example of the Western being successfully cast into a more modern context. It is, like you said, almost an "anti-western" but perhaps it's also the future of the genre? I think it's important to note that No Country for Old Men was, despite being the least Western-y of the three, the most critically embraced as well. The fact that it won Best Picture at the Oscars, while Yuma and Jesse James both barely even got nominations, is, in my opinion indicative of where the genre is going. Then again, I don't want it to sound like I'm knocking No Country for Old Men - it's a remarkable film all around. Thank god for Roger Deakins, right?


A: Yeah, it doesn't beat Fargo for me either. But you bring up a good point about their technical mastery, because I can hardly think of another film where the director(s) has such control over everything. The weird thing is that while the film is enjoyable and by no means damaged by this, you can feel their presence in every scene. In a career filled with films that have their fingerprints all over them, I think No Country for Old Men is their most signature piece of work. I know I can say the same about another of their films on a different day, but really, No Country for Old Men cannot be ANYBODY else's film. It’s theirs. And it's kind of interesting to think it’s not their original material. I hadn’t read the book before watching the film, but when I did read it, I could tell why they were attracted to the project in the first place. It’s thematically really close to their territory.

R: You are absolutely right about it being a typically Coen film - nobody else could have done it. I’m certain that the stark nihilism of the story attracted them to the project - it's not their original idea but from what I know of Cormac McCarthy, his writing shares a lot of common themes with their filmography.



A: And speaking of nihilism, what to think of Bardem here? He’s become one of my favourite villains of all time. And I’m not surprised to find so much in common between him and Fargo’s Gaear, also a favourite villain of mine. He didn't quite have the charisma of Anton Chigurgh but he was one of the unsung heroes of that stellar film.

R: Bardem is great! The best thing about him is that he's so freaking scary but at the same time, you can't help but kind of feel some empathy for him. At the end, when he has to take care of his own wounds after that car accident, you realize - this is a guy that has completely isolated himself from any kind of possibility of human connection - and Bardem puts this all together so well. Of course, the entire ensemble is really great. I'm a big fan of Josh Brolin's performance; it balances resilience and vulnerability perfectly. Although, I'm not sure about Kelly MacDonald - she seems a bit strained emotionally at times though that could actually be one of the parts of her characterization. Really, I don't think Westerns are historically known for their acting but all three films had really stellar ensembles.

A: It's interesting you bring up the duality in what you feel for Anton Chigurh's character. To an extent I agree with you, and this is also exactly what I feel about Ben Wade, Russell Crowe’s villain in 3:10 to Yuma. His monstrosity is not as tangible on screen as Chigurh's, but references and hidden story lines are plenty. He specifically mentions how evil he could be a few times, particularly to Evans' eldest son, but at the same time, he's so charming, you can't despise him, or even dislike him. I actually think Crowe’s performance is incredibly underrated. He totally makes that movie for me. He has that perfect combination of humour and charm that can make a villain likeable. You know, say Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. Also, the one thing I think he and Bardem share most in common is that they're men of principle in their own way. [SPOILERS] Chigurh never changes his killing method and never compromises even with his leg shot or bones sticking out of his arm. Ben wade surrenders himself to law at the end after witnessing Evans' final moments and his son's journey. [/SPOILERS] And I love both characters because I love men of principle. So, what did you think of Wade and 3:10 to Yuma in general?


R: I'm usually pretty underwhelmed by Russell Crowe, but I really liked him in Yuma as well. I like your comparison of Wade and Chigurh - both frighteningly evil, but still, men of principle. Overall, I think 3:10 to Yuma may be my personal least favourite of the three, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. From my still developing knowledge of the genre, it seemed to be the most traditional Western, and also, it was less concerned with "greater themes" than No Country for Old Men and Jesse James, instead focusing on being purely entertaining, with a lot of action and gun slinging. The actors all do great work and I really love Marco Beltrami's score, but overall I think it left the least impression on me. What was your opinion? It sounds like I hated it but I really did like it a lot.

A: A lot of people say that about Russell Crowe, but I think he can be blamed for his choices in roles more than his acting abilities. How long has it been since he was in something interesting? Probably since Yuma actually. I’ve long been a fan of his but I definitely think he needs to expand his realm. Maybe a musical? Or a laugh-out-loud comedy?

R: I would love to see Crowe in either a musical or a comedy - either of those would be such a good choice for him at this point in his career. It's hard for me to like him though, since I actively dislike both of his "biggest" performances - in A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator.

A: I understand where you're coming from with the film though. Yuma’s themes of morality and principle and discipline and its display of full-blooded American virility of the west make it a generic Western film. Whereas you can start to talk about where No Country for Old Men and Assassination of Jesse James diverge from Westerns, for Yuma it's mostly about how well it executes what it aspires to be: a very well done old fashioned Western. I won't argue with you over its entertainment value though. It’s tough to beat. All those series of gunfights and escape attempts one after another culminating in that terrific finale...
What I do have to say though is BEN FOSTER! I love the guy. His sidekick character is extremely clichéd in this film and he does talk a little too much here and there, but every time I see him in a film, I ask myself the same question: "why is he not a huge star?" Have you seen him in The Messenger?


R: How could I forget about Ben Foster? I actually loved how unhinged he was. I think any cliché that was present for him in the script is completely eradicated by his performance. I mean, almost everyone in the cast is doing great work, but Foster stands out because he's so unique. He gives Charlie an almost modern touch, which I think works so well in the movie. It's almost anachronistic, but only slightly so, to the point that it's genius.
You mentioned the finale - I agree with you that it's terrific. In fact, not that we want to get hung up on discussing endings but I think all three films have such fascinating (but different) ways of ending. 3:10 to Yuma is enthralling and emotional, Assassination of Jesse James ends sombrely and simply. And of course, No Country for Old Men is often criticized for its ending - I think I like the way it ends but I haven't quite passed complete judgment yet.

A: YES! YES! And YES! When I watched the films back to back and tried to connect dots, one of my very first thoughts was how all three films began and ended with such terrific sequences. (Of the six sequences though, nothing can top Jesse James' opening character intro for me. Pure cinematic magic!)
I'm on board with the ending of No Country for Old Men but I have to be honest, the first time I watched it in the theatre, I wasn't. I felt dissatisfied with it, but on repeat viewings it started to grow on me and the more I think about it, the more it seems like the perfect ending. Aside from the fact that it does comply with the book, what else could have ended that film without spoiling its mystery? This ending can spark a whole new debate in itself, but for me it’s the perfect affirmation of what Tommy Lee Jones starts the film with, his dreams and his discontent with his position as a lawman. He distances himself from the mess of the outside world and I love how it is physically materialised by Coens' framing and the window right behind him.
You used the word sombre for Jesse James' ending though and I’ve heard that word being used over and over about the film, its tone, its narration, its music and now its ending by yourself. Where I’m most interested in your opinion is the narration though. When I first watched it with a group of friends (read: film junkies), the one thing everyone had some sort of problem with was the narration. And the word sombre came up there first. Did you like it? Or was it too mechanical and lifeless (or sombre)? His tone certainly is more factual than anecdotal.

R: Since you asked, I suppose I will take this opportunity to say that Assassination of Jesse James was by far my favourite of the three. It's a long movie but I was completely captivated from beginning to end - that opening sequence is absolute magic, but so is the train robbery, and the assassination(s), and almost every other frame of the movie (thanks in no small measure to Deakins's cinematography, which is just unfathomably gorgeous). Narration is very hit or miss for me, but I actually had no problem with it here. I always associate narration with giving a film an almost "fairy tale" quality to cinema, and in the context of Jesse James, I think that approach is absolutely genius. Just think about it - the lush cinematography, the mystical score, and then that narration - everything's pointing to the film being a sort of sombre fairy tale, and since the real Jesse James is a figure of such mystique and intrigue in modern culture, turning a movie about his death into a dark bedtime story is remarkably effective. Maybe you disagree?

A: Well, no. I think many people walk into the theatre thinking a Jesse James biopic is going to be a gun slinging action packed Western film and what they get is Andrew Dominik’s poetic vision of James’ story. I’m a big fan of the film as well. It’s in my top ten of the past decade. And actually the narration gets a big plus for me. I like your wording, because in a way everything about the film has that fairy tale quality and the narration kind of makes it literal. It ACTUALLY is a fairy tale. In a way, it’s the best Terrence Malick movie that Malick never made. I much prefer a biopic like this that portrays the hero (or anti-hero as is the case here) as a real human. Jesse James is a legend, but before that, he's a human being and this film just looks at who he was as a person, not who he killed or robbed. And I love that. Overall the film is kind of a marriage between several of my favourite people at their peak form. Roger Deakins, Brad Pitt, and Nick Cave, whom I was a HUGE fan of before this film and an even bigger one after. But let's focus on Deakins for a minute. What do you think of his work here in comparison to No Country for Old Men? We could have made this post about his “good year” too!

R: I adore Deakins's work in both films, but I like Jesse James better. That movie is like a cinematography master class - I wish I could hang every single shot on my wall. At the same time, No Country for Old Men doesn't call for the kind of flashiness that Jesse James does, but even so Deakins is strong. I love how he shoots night-time scenes - especially in No Country for Old Men, the way he uses shades of orange and red and blue to outline the characters. It's so effective.

A: I don’t think the two films could have been more different. Jesse James is more of an "original" work of cinematography, if not the better one, but I love the framing work in No Country for Old Men. Maybe even more than Jesse James! Surprisingly though, despite the films' differences, my favourite shot from both films came to be as identical as it could get. I had no intention of choosing such similar shots, but it just so happened.

R: It's also interesting you mentioned Nick Cave - the score to Jesse James is probably my favourite of the year. I listen to parts of it all the time and still get goose bumps. It is so unexpected - when the movie opens with that celesta and string arrangement I was caught by surprise, and coupling that with the narration and the cinematography I knew I was in for something special. On the topic of scores, I think looking at them alone is so telling of the films themselves - Jesse James is fantastical and pained, 3:10 to Yuma is exactly what you'd expect for a Western, and No Country barely uses a single note of score. Very bleak, just like the Coens' vision. Three very different, but very successful, approaches to a genre, just like the films.
I have to bring up someone we haven't mentioned yet - Casey Affleck. He takes best in show of all three films, I think. I cannot even put into words his brilliance - I'm interested to hear your thoughts on his performance.


A: Yeah, poor Casey Affleck had to battle his way against Bardem for awards and he had no chance, but he is quite something in the film. I do think he is actually the lead (or co-lead) of the film though. Not that that would have helped his chances at all given Day-Lewis’s presence in the lead categories that year. Awards-wise, I’m surprised Brad Pitt got zero traction because I think it's one of his best performances and far superior to the digitally aided and bland Benjamin Button that followed the year after.
Anyway, we've covered a lot of ground and it's been mostly praise. I wanted to ask you something before we end the conversation though. Westerns are not necessarily the most accurate depiction of the Midwest, but where I’m from – Iran, if you’re wondering - and especially in the past, say my grandpa's generation, they used to watch Westerns and the cowboy hat and the spurred boot and a handgun became symbols of Americanism for them. Part of what I like about Westerns is this cultural specificity. Regardless of their authenticity, as an American do you feel differently about these films compared to movies about the history of any other country? Again, not that these films are at all historical films. Maybe Jesse James a bit. But I love Westerns merely because I think it's great cinema, so I always wonder if Americans have a different perspective on that.

R: That's a fantastic question. I love the image you described; it's so romantic - Westerns being the symbols of Americanism, although I don't think I quite relate to that idea. Despite the fact that I do see Westerns as a sort of fantastical portrait of a small part of American History, for me they're more amazing cinematic fiction than a symbol of America. I'm not sure if it's because I am American or because I accessed Westerns at a more mature age, but I find the genre more fascinating as pure cinema than as a time capsule. It could be perhaps the opposite of what you described - being American, perhaps I take for granted my country's own history, and I am more inclined towards the history of other countries? It's definitely something I'll think about as I watch more Westerns.
But, wrapping things up, I'm curious as to how you'd rank the three films - I'd say Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men and then 3:10 to Yuma from most to least favourite. A bit more specifically, I'd say that I think of Jesse James as a masterpiece, that I admire No Country for Old Men’s grandiose filmmaking and that I think Yuma is a notch above good ol' entertainment. How about you?

A: You know, I think I agree with your ranking, except I have one caveat. As an artistic achievement, I appreciate Jesse James more than the other two, but I find those films more re-watchable. Jesse James has proved to be the more rewarding experience on the fewer viewings that I've had, but I'm more often "in the mood" for the other two films. I actually think No Country for Old Men is to an extent, good ol' entertainment as well. But if anyone asked me for recommendations, I'd say No Country for Old Men and Jesse James are essential works of art and any film enthusiast should watch them. Yuma isn't essential, but for any Western fan, or anyone who wants to have a fun time at the movies, it's a near perfect film.

Jul 13, 2011

Jul 11, 2011

Monday's Words of Wisdom

I have to apologize for the recently scarce posting on the blog. Personal life is getting in the way of my film-watching and writing. I'll be back with lots more in the last week of July, I promise. 

For now, let's get to our Monday's words of wisdom. I'm stealing today's post from Craig, one of the best film bloggers around, who writes at The Man from Porlock.

"What afflicts the movies is not an unpalatable ideational content so much as an idiotic and irritating technic. The first moving-pictures... presented more or less continuous scenes... But the modern movie is no such organic whole; it is simply a maddening chaos of discrete fragments. The average scene, if the two shows I attempted were typical, cannot run for more than six or seven seconds. Many are far shorter, and very few are appreciably longer. The result is confusion horribly confounded. How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters ten times a minute? Worse, this dizzying jumping about is plainly unnecessary: all it shows is the professional incompetence of the gilded pants-pressers, decayed actors and other such half-wits to whom the making of movies seems to be entrusted. Unable to imagine a sequence of coherent scenes, and unprovided with a sufficiency of performers capable of playing them if they were imagined, these preposterous mountebanks are reduced to the childish device of avoiding action altogether. Instead of it they present what is at bottom nothing but a poorly articulated series of meaningless postures and grimaces... These mummers cannot be said, in any true sense, to act at all. They merely strike attitudes -- and then are whisked off. If, at the first attempt upon a scene, the right attitude is not struck, then all they have to do is keep on trying until they strike it. On those terms a chimpanzee could play Hamlet, or even Juliet."
- H.L. Mencken (1927)