Monday, 31 December 2012

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Abigail Breslin 

On the last day of the year I have reached the final film of my challenge. I feel like a real winner. Which is good, because Little Miss Sunshine is about people striving to be winners. Admittedly, none of the characters get what they want – Olive (Abigail Breslin) is barred from her beauty pageant, her father Richard (Greg Kinnear) does not secure a book deal, Uncle Frank (Steve Carrell) is overtaken as America’s number one Proust scholar, her brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) realises he will never become an air force test pilot and grandpa (Alan Arkin) dies. But they all gradually coalesce as a family with mother Sheryl (Toni Collette). They leave the film happier and more unified than when they started it. 

In the film an ill-assorted and dysfunctional family find themselves hitting the road to travel from Alburquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California, in a clapped-out old VW Minivan. Olive has made it through to the finals of the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant (after the winner of a previous heat was stripped of her crown). Sheryl needs Richard there to drive the van. Grandpa insists on coming after he has been coaching Olive. Frank, temporarily staying with them following a suicide attempt, has to come along so that they can keep an eye on him, and likewise Neitzsche-reading teenage Dwayne who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his aim of qualifying for the air force. They face upsets along the way which culminate in a spot of grave-robbing. The adventures and vignettes along the route are part and parcel of the Road Trip genre; so too are the personal journeys undertaken by each of the characters.
And so according to the goals they set themselves they may all be unsuccessful. Richard starts the film stating that “There are two types of people in this world: winners and losers.” It is his foul-mouthed reprobate father who nuances this later on. He says that “Losers are people who are so afraid of not winning, they don’t even try.” In the end they have to be themselves. Even knowing that Olive is seriously outclassed at the beauty pageant they let her take the stage – and they all run up there to support her. They start as individuals, all focused on their own individual desires. Frank studies Proust. Dwayne reads Nietzsche. Richard echoes Dwayne in that his motivational speaking mirrors the Nietzschean ‘will to power’. Their actual prize is learning to trust and support each other unconditionally along the way. And a large part of this is down to the presence of Olive. You just cannot be horrible to a seven-year-old girl. It’s impossible. She actually is the sunshine that binds the family together. She is the only one who can make her grandpa behave like a human, she hugs her mother at the right time, and she brings Dwayne back from his tantrum when his dreams are crushed. She is wonderfully human when the ‘winners’ they encounter are all freaks, from the smooth agent to the porn-obsessed cop to the monstrous and petty pageant organiser to the actual contestants themselves. Child beauty pageants are freaky as hell, with the spray-tanned, bouffant-haired, hyperconfident little girls prowling around sexually in swimsuits looking like aliens. To be honest if that is the sort of thing that defines being a winner in this world the Hoovers are better off out of it… 

The Chef might have been Little but the Eaters were not Happy
The parts are well-acted. The innocent Breslin as Olive in particular shines, alongside Dano (who has to act without words for most of the film), Arkin’s gloriously badly-behaved grandpa and Carrell’s low-key depressive (cast before Carrell hit the big time with The 40 Year Old Virgin and The Office: an American Workplace). Toni Collette did not really have that much to get her teeth into I felt, and Kinnear’s Richard just reminded me too uncomfortably of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundberg in Fargo. There was, in truth, a touch of the Coen’s about the whole film. Considering that it deals with death, suicide and broken dreams it is actually a bit of a feel-good film. It certainly makes one happy to be part of a family. 

What have I learnt about The Road?
The roadway network in America is constantly evolving. In Easy Rider (1969) Wyatt and Billy rode almost deserted roads between fields. In Vanishing Point (1971) the roads were busier and in the process of being constructed. In 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine we see concrete multi-lane highways and flyovers 

It is a crime to transport a dead body across a state boundary without a permit. This is not something I had ever personally thought of before, and I am hoping that this knowledge will not prove to be of any real use to me in life! 

Can we go there?
In the original screenplay of Little Miss Sunshine the Hoovers were required to undertake a roadtrip from Maryland to Florida. An east coast roadtrip would have been a nice companion for Easy Rider’s Mexico-Arizona-New Mexico-Louisiana or Vanishing Point’s Colorado-Nevada-California. However, to facilitate filming the journey was changed to a sort of ‘Reverse Easy Rider’: New Mexico-Arizona-California. The Hoovers start off in Alburquerque and head down Interstate 40 to end up in Redondo Beach on the coast. Richard takes a separate detour en route to Scottsdale, Arizona. 

The bulk of the movie was shot in California however. The diner where Olive orders “waffles alamodie” was actually Pann’s on La Tijera Boulevard in Los Angeles. The beauty pageant was not actually filmed in Redondo Beach but in Ventura instead – the ‘Redondo Suites’ were the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach Hotel. Frank and Dwayne have a heart-to-heart on Ventura Pier. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Vanishing Point (1971)

Dir. Richard C. Sarafian
Starring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin

“And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin' closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape the last beautiful free soul on this planet…” 

A white supercharged Dodge Challenger speeds across the Nevada desert, clouds of dust being kicked up in its wake. Its engine screams as it slaloms the brush. Behind the police pursue. Ahead there is an unknown fate. At the wheel is Kowalski (Barry Newman). High on speed he is engaged in a desperate race against time to deliver the car he drives from Denver to San Francisco in only fifteen hours. And over the radio comes the voice of blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), urging him to keep going, warning him of the cops on his tail, and mythologizing him to his listeners as “the last American hero… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.” 

A great car chase can make a great movie. Think of Bullitt racing through the streets of San Francisco, the carnage strewn across Paris in Ronin or the loop-the-loop bridge jump in The Man with the Golden Gun. Vanishing Point is one big car chase, 90 minutes of it. There is no danger of getting bored by the leisurely pace as there was with Easy Rider. Like Kowalski the viewer is taken on a speed-fuelled adrenaline-boosted turbo-charged race across the American West. Many questions are left unanswered. What is Kowalski’s first name? Why did he refuse to stop for the first policeman? Why does he have just fifteen hours to reach ‘Frisco? We never know. When Kowalski’s dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) accuses him of joking about his deadline Kowalski merely replies “I wish to God I was.” The deadline seems arbitrary and unreal – and I was left suspecting that it was invented by Kowalski himself. Kowalski speeds and races not because of an external force compelling him, but because he wants to. Deep-down he needs to. A former racecar and speedway driver – as well as a former Marine and cop – he is drawn to the danger and the thrill of the pursuit. Super Soul posits that to him “speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when he’s gonna stop, but who’s gonna stop him.” 

Kowalski is trying to outrace not just the police but the past. Through flashbacks we glimpse his life-story. We see his romance with Vera (Victoria Medlin) and we see her fail to return from surfing. It is the painful memories which he is trying to outpace. Finally he succeeds. It might not be true to say that he has a deathwish – actor Barry Newman is on record as saying that Kowalski smiles as he races towards the final roadblock because he thinks he can make it. I disagree. I think Kowalski finally makes peace with himself. With his actions being followed by the police, by the media, by the many listeners to Super Soul’s show, he has nowhere left to run. He decides to take the chase where they cannot follow him and where the answers about his behaviour will go forever unanswered. 

He is helped along the way by those that see him as the ultimate expression of American freedom, escaping the tyranny of an oppressive state. It is not just Super Soul, who seems to have an intimate connection to Kowalski, who helps, but also dealers, hippies and old-time prospectors. All people who have no love for modern American society. Being mobile is freedom: this is literally the freedom of the road. Kowalski becomes a folk hero overnight, a modern-day take on the old outlaws of the West. Both he and his car are resolutely and stoically American – they burn off a cocky (European) Jaguar driver. Super Soul refers to the police as “Nazis”. Speed, independence, freedom – these are the American virtues Kowalski represents. 

The film has wonderful sights and sounds to accompany Kowalski’s drive. The rural silence is shattered by the throaty roar of the Challenger’s engine. Wheel-tracks criss-cross the barren salt flats of Nevada. Super Soul lays down a funky soundtrack. Richard Sarafian manages to entertain with a film that has the energy and urgency of a car chase, but with more depth to it than that description would seem to merit. Vanishing Point is a redemptive quest as a man finds that no matter how fast you go,you can never outrun your demons. 
No matter what his GPS told him, he was sure this wasn't Bristol

What have I learnt about The Road?
As in Easy Rider The Road means freedom. And that is maybe not surprising when one considers the limitations on the police forces along the route – they are restricted to their own state and cannot cross the boundary lines. This means that the pursuit of Kowalski has to be handed over from the police in Colorado to those in Nevada, and from Nevada to California. California’s state police seem to have a lot more resources than Nevada’s. 

Can we go there?
Kowalski’s route is to take him from Denver to San Francisco. He takes possession of the Challenger in the Denargo Markets area (20th Street and Fox). He is first spotted by the police near Glenwood Springs in Colorado. When he refuses to stop a chase ensues. The route has been recreated as far as possible. The climactic end of the movie (and also its beginning) occurs in Cisco, California. There is no real life Cisco in California however – these scenes were shot in Cisco, Utah (off Interstate 70 about 30 miles from the Colorado border). 

Off this route Super Soul broadcasts from the Goldfield Hotel in Goldfield, Nevada. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Monday, 24 December 2012

Easy Rider (1969)

Dir. Dennis Hopper
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Luke Askew

Easy Rider perhaps spawned the genre of road trip movies and – coming as it did at the dying end of the ‘60s – it was a very bad trip. 

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas mention is made of the “high-water mark”: the place where the momentum of the hippy revolution faltered and was beaten back. It is clever that Hunter S. Thompson recognised it. But you can see that moment quite clearly in Easy Rider, made in 1968 and released the following year. Here we see the peace and love of the hippies – or, indeed, of anyone willing to check out from mainstream society in pursuit of freedom – confronted with fear and loathing. Our two protagonists, Wyatt, aka ‘Captain America’, (Peter Fonda, who produced and co-wrote the film) and Billy (Dennis Hopper, who directed and co-wrote the film), embrace the freedom of the open road on their Harley Davidson choppers and find themselves smashing at full-throttle straight into “straight” America. 

Easy Rider is largely improvised and free-form, so it is hard to find a plot amongst the vignettes. At its basic level it simply charts Wyatt and Billy’s journey towards New Orleans in search of Mardi Gras. The film opens with them picking up some cocaine in Mexico, which they then sell on to their contact (record producer Phil Spector) in Los Angeles. For the entire first nine minutes no English dialogue occurs. Wyatt and Bill then turn east. They drop a hitch-hiker (Luke Askew) off at a hippie commune. They are then arrested in New Mexico, meeting up in the slammer with drunk lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). George decides to join them on their trip to New Orleans. Unfortunately they are ambushed by intolerant locals in Louisiana. Wyatt and Billy go on to New Orleans, pick up two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni “Hey Mickey!” Basil), take them out to a cemetery and get blitzed on whiskey and acid. One trip later Wyatt and Billy are on the road again; again they run up against intolerant locals 
The Man from DelMonte quite liked his new hat
The film shows a world in which the battle lines are drawn. It is a war – except the hippies fail to realise this. George the straight does. He points out that freedom scares mainstream society. “They’re scared of what you represent to ‘em… What you represent to them is freedom.” “What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about!” “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what it’s about alright. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ‘cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you, about individual freedom. But they see a free individual it’s gonna scare ‘em… It makes ‘em dangerous.” He is proved tragically right. When the hippies say “this is where we make our stand” they are talking about establishing a commune in the South West deserts, trying to grow simple food in common. When rednecks make a stand they do it with laws or clubs or shotguns. Even Wyatt comes to the final conclusion that it is all hopeless. “We blew it” he tells Billy. 

I knew that Easy Rider  was the film my mum and dad went to on one of their first dates – my mum actually watched it three times with different boys. It has this great storied mystique about it, so I was keen to see it myself. And while I am glad that I saw it I have to admit that, to be honest, it is not very good. Director Hopper was angry when it was edited down to 90 minutes behind his back. Yet even with that cutting, it idles. I expected more plot. Because it was semi-improvised there is not much character development. Billy at the end of the movie is exactly the same at the start of the movie. There are weird cuts between scenes, the lighting levels are often too dim and there was often not enough content to keep me entertained. It starts well with their cross-border drug deal, then gets very dull very fast with the hippie commune. There was a hint of intrigue with the arrival of the Stranger on the Road, but that promise is not fulfilled. Jack Nicholson really lifts the piece; it then sags back into self-indulgence with Wyatt and Billy’s cemetery acid trip. But, as my dad commented, the soundtrack is fantastic – not just Steppenwolf’s iconic Born to be Wild but also The Weight by The Band, If 6 Was 9 by Jimi Hendrix and The Pusher by Hoyt Axton. 

All-in-all I probably feel more let down by Easy Rider than any other film I have watched this year. It is not the worst film I have seen – compared to Trigger Man, Rosalie Goes Shopping or Legends of the Fall it is great. But it a film I was really looking forward to and ended up disappointed.

What have I learnt about The Road?
For starters, America’s road network enables quicker travel than I had thought from looking at the map. I had imagined that travelling coast-to-coast would take over a week, but New Mexico - New Orleans can be covered in three days. The freedom of the road does look liberating – and it seems that camping out at the side of the road with a campfire is possible across wide swathes of the country. This is, perhaps, necessary as motel owners might not like long-haired sorts cruising up on choppers late at night. 

Travelling The Road is all about freedom – it is a signal that you are free to do what you want and are not “bought and sold in the marketplace”. As George warns, however, that makes you a target for all the deadbeats you pass along the way envious of your freedom to follow your own desires. 

Can we go there?
Easy Rider starts off in Mexico (actually what is now the Red Arrow Emporium in El Prado, just north of Taos in New Mexico). Wyatt and Billy then head on to make a drug-deal at the end of the runway at LAX airport. Wyatt ditches his Rolex at the ghost town of Ballarat in Death Valley. They cross the Colorado River on the I-40 at Topock, Arizona, get turned away from the Pine Breeze Motel at Bellemont, just west of Flagstaff. The motel is now disused, but stands on the grounds of the Route 66 Roadhouse Bar & Grill, which displays the motel’s No Vacancies sign above the bar and is described as “the ultimate biker bar”. The duo share lunch with a rancher in Valentine and then head east through Flagstaff (the lumberjack statue seen standing outside the Lumberjack cafĂ© is now located inside the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University). After picking up a hitch-hiker (at the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument) they stop for gas at the now-disused Sacred Mountain filling station (it’s on the west side of US Route 89 about 20 miles noth of Flagstaff). They camp out at the Wupatki National Monument near Cococino before continuing past Monument Valley in south-east Utah and on to a hippie commune in the desert. The commune was based on the New Buffalo commune, near Taos, but was recreated for the sake of filming overlooking the Malibu Canyon near Santa Monica, California. They go skinny-dipping at the Manby Hot Springs in New Mexico. They are arrested in Las Vegas, New Mexico (last seen in No Country for Old Men); the exterior of the gaol is 157 Bridge Street (now Tito’s Gallery) though the interior is the Bryans Gallery in Taos. They continue onwards to Louisiana – the scene in the diner was shot in Morganza, though the diner on Gayden Road has now been torn down. They arrive in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Madame Tinkertoys’ House of Blue Lights is supposedly located at the coner of Bourbon and Toulouse. The cemetery scene is the St Louis No 1 Cemetery. Thereafter they plan to head for Florida but run foul of some murderous rednecks on Louisiana Highway 105 North (North Levee Road) just outside of Krotz Springs. 

Of course, the best way is to do it all in one go, on a bike, sticking to Route 66 as far as possible. Mr Zip shows you how… 

The burned bike from the final scene can now be found in the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. 

Overall Rating: 1/5

Week 52: The Road

"Although we've come
 To the end of the road,
 Still I can't let go -
 It's unnatural..."
 - 'End of the Road',
 Boyz II Men
So here we are, stranded in Wyoming. Over the last 51 weeks I have watched 153 films, three for each state of America (including the District of Columbia). But I wanted one final week to take me up to magic 52 - and hence the concept of The Road. I suppose I could have tried to find three films set in Puerto Rico considering that they are making a play for statehood, but to me the concept of The Road is tied up with the mystique of America.
It is because the U.S. is so darned big compared to Britain. It takes time to get from one place to another. You could hardly have a revelation on the road to Darlington or get your kicks on the M6. Travelling from place to place gives a man time to think. The sights seen and the people encountered can change a man. The concept of the Road Movie is that the protagonist(s) leave their everyday life and encounter new experiences en route to their destination. By changing their location they transform their outlook.
And we've seen several examples of Road Movies already this year. In Into the Wild Christopher McCandless travels from state to state en route to his destiny in Alaska. In My Own Private Idaho the main characters pinball from Idaho to Washington to Oregon and back again. Just travelling from Los Angeles to Las Vegas exposes Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney to the dangers of "bat country". In Me, Myself and Irene Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger are pursued from new York down through Vermont and into Rhode Island. Though I have to say that I do not think of the east coast when I think of Road Movies. Everyone there is too close together. For true cinematic splendour you need a lonely road, isolated truck stops and diners, and a limitless horizon. The wide open spaces of what was once the frontier are essential.
So, before I start pondering about what I have learnt on my journeys in 2012 I have three final films to watch. They are:
  • Easy Rider (1969)
  • Vanishing Point (1971)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
So let's keep the motor running and get out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Dir. Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Brokeback Mountain has become famed as ‘the gay cowboy love story’. I worry about this on several grounds. Firstly, the homosexual aspect of it might put off straight filmwatchers from viewing it, which would be a shame (I know whereof I speak: it was offered as an inflight movie on a trans-Atlantic flight I was on in 2006 and I opted to watch less, erm, challenging fare instead). Secondly, that description contains a number of inaccuracies. 

Firstly, I’m not sure quite how ‘cowboy’ the central pairing of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (Heath Ledger and October Sky’s Jake Gyllenhaal) are. Sure, they wear cowboy hats and hang around in dusty Western towns, but this is not the 1880s Wyoming of Shane and Unforgiven. This is the West of the 1960s and ‘70s. Ennis and Jack are two hirelings employed to watch over the sheep flock of Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid from Hard Rain and Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach) while they pasture up on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. After that summer they do go into various cow-related professions, Ennis continuing as a ranch hand and Jack trying his luck as a rodeo rider before settling down selling farm machinery. 

Secondly, for fear of upsetting people, I must say that I’m not sure how ‘gay’ Ennis and Jack are. The story is that of their relationship and how they give in to passion sharing a tent up on Brokeback. Four years later they pick up their relationship and arrange to continue their affair in secret. But they are certainly not exclusively homosexual. Ennis produces two daughters with his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) and is seen participating eagerly in bed with her; after his divorce he has another relationship with a waitress. Jack responds to the forthright advances of rodeo rider Lurleen (Anne Hathaway) and has a son with her. He later tells Ennis that he has been seeing another woman behind her back. Yet it is implied that he is seeing that woman’s husband as well, and we see him cruising for gay sex in Mexico. Both characters engage eagerly with partners of both sexes. This, then, would make them bisexual. But in many ways it is pointless trying to label their relationship. The nuances of homosexuality or bisexuality are lost on Ennis and Jack – they just do not have the vocabulary. This is not a relationship with a background in any equality movement; it is two men answering a need within each other. 1960s Wyoming may as well be Victorian England. Men may carry on with each other is secret but the public face they must display is of a macho family man. When it all begins Ennis tells Jack “You know I ain’t queer.” “Me neither” Jack replies. Ennis has reason to fear, having seen a murdered gay man when he was a child. When Lurleen tells him of Jack’s death all he can think of is his lover being brutally assaulted by thugs. The truth of Jack’s death is never actually explained.

Thirdly, Brokeback Mountain hardly seems like your stereotypical love story. Sleepless in Seattle it is not. There are no grand romantic gestures – there is only need. There are no flowery expressions of love. Everything goes unspoken. The nearest they get is Jack’s heartfelt “I wish I knew how to quit you!” Their backgrounds condition them to know that two men could not possibly ever be in love with each other and so they don’t have that conversation. The nearest they get is the matter of their shirts. Following Jack’s death Ennis goes to see his parents. Secreted behind a wardrobe he finds the bloodstained shirts they wore up on Brokeback Mountain twenty years previously, one tucked inside the other. Ennis takes them and hangs them in his trailer, now with their positions reversed. This is the signal and sign of the depth of their attachment to each other. They can only find solace with each other.

He couldn't resist the stay-fresh
scent of new improved Lenor
I was going to write about how much of a genius Ang Lee is. For a man from Taiwan to direct a film like Brokeback Mountain full of dusty small towns, hardbitten ranchwork and gay romance is, I immediately thought, taking him way beyond his comfort zone. But why should a director have to personally know the scenarios he is bringing to the screen? Steven Spielberg never searched for sharks, Alfred Hitchcock was never pursued by spies, David Lean never rode with the Bedoiun. All a director needs is a good script which evokes the necessary atmosphere and an imagination to see the world through the eyes of his characters. But Lee has always pushed boundaries. Whil one might imagine that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was not too much of a stretch for him, he had directed Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility five years earlier. 19th century English manners must have been as alien to him as the smalltown West and yet that was a success. He has refused to be limited in what he chooses to direct, be it big budget Hollywood actioneers like Hulk or the current The Life of Pi. Kudos to him.

Brokeback Mountain is a beautifully shot and tender study of a forbidden romance. It does not provide any easy answers to the viewer. And yes, okay, the scene of Ennis and Jack’s first sexual encounter did make me feel uncomfortable in a way that I hadn’t felt since watching Priest many years ago. Really, the only negative is the scope of time the film covers. To be honest at the end of the film Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal do not look twenty years older than at the beginning. They look like kids playing dress-up (Michelle Williams' dowdy Alma is the exception to this). Sideburns get a little longer, shoulders sag a little more, but it was hard for me to understand quite how long their relationship had been going on without making reference to their children. I suppose the refusal to drown the main characters in makeup left greater scope for acting – and Ledger in particular as the closeted inarticulate Ennis is superb. Brokeback Mountain is more than the clichĂ© everyone knows it as and should be watched by people whether or not they like cowboys, gays or love stories. 

What have I learnt about Wyoming?
Well, for starters, Wyoming in the early ‘50s was pretty homophobic. Even as late as the 1970s gay individuals were scared of making their sexuality clear for fear that they would be murdered. I’m not sure how much of that came as a surprise to me. 

What was more surprising was the animals tended. Yes, Ennis later rounds up steers, but he starts out tending sheep with Jack. A Western form of transhumance was practiced, with sheep being driven up to the mountains to pasture over summer before being brought back down again for winter. But even during summer the weather is unpredictable, with cold nights, hailstones the size of marbles and sudden overnight snowfalls. Menacing wildlife includes coyotes and black bear. 

Can we go there?
Many of the locations mentioned in the film – and in the original short story by Annie Proulx – are entirely fictitious. There is no Brokeback Mountain, there is no Signal, and there is no Lightning Flats (where Jack hails from). The one town that really does exist is Riverton, in the centre of the state, where Ennis and Alma settle down.
However, like Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta, Canada, rather than Wyoming itself. Cowley was used for Signal. Fort Macleod stood in for the real Riverton – for instance during the 4th July sequence when Ennis fights two bikers and his family apartment above the laundrette. The bar in which Jack and Lurleen first hook up is actually Ranchman’s in Calgary. Brokeback Mountain itself was a composite of Mount Lougheed and Moose Mountain, both in Kananaskis Country to the west of Calgary. The campground scenes were shot at Canyon Creek (theit first campsite), Goat Creek (the second), Elbow Falls and Upper Kananaskis Lake (where Jack wished he could “quit” Ennis). 

The two intertwined shirts can be seen at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Unforgiven (1992)

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris

I don’t know about you, but just reading the cast-list for Unforgiven got my mouth-watering. Clint Eastwood (directing again, as he directed The Bridges of Madison County and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and Gene Hackman (only seen this year in Best Shot) facing off against each other? Supported by the Godlike Morgan Freeman and notorious Irish hellraiser Richard Harris? In a Western? Sign me up! 

The danger sometimes is that you can go into these things with expectations that are set too high. Some of the films I have enjoyed most this year completely blindsided me – like In Cold Blood or October Sky. Some I was looking forward to – like High Noon or The Shining – left me a little disappointed. I am happy to say that Unforgiven is a beautiful film with an intelligent script and a good meaty story. Oh yeah – and the cast ain’t too shabby either 

Like Shane, Unforgiven is a story about not being able to escape ones past. William Munny (Clint) is a widower struggling to raise two children on a farm that is failing. But once he was the most feared cold-blooded killer in the West. The love of a woman turned him away from violence and away from booze. But one day a youngster calling himself the Smithfield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) arrives on his doorstep. He knows of Munny’s reputation and wants him in on a job. In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a prostitute was attacked by a cowboy. She lived but is terribly scarred. Her fellow whores are offering $1000 for whoever kills the two cowboys involved. Munny is in, but only for the money. He recruits his old partner Ned (Morgan Freeman). He tells Ned that he has changed, that he is no longer the killer he once was – unpredictable, violent, drunken.”I ain’t like that no more.I ain’t the same Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinkin’ whiskey and all. Just ‘cause we’re goin’ on this killin’, that don’t mean I’m gonna go bck to bein’ the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for those youngsters.” As if that changes anything. 

And so the three head off across country. Munny is trying hard to cling on to the better man he became through his dead wife’s love. Ned realises that he no longer has it in him to kill a man. And the Kid is not the man he claims to be either; he is no five-time killer – and he is chronically short-sighted to boot. All of them come to appreciate that “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

But Munny and Ned are not the only relics of the Old West. Little Bill Daggett (Hackman) is now Sheriff of Big Whiskey. It’s a quiet place and that’s the way he’d like it to stay. He has an ordinance that no guns are allowed in town. He wants to spend his time building his house on the outskirts of town with a porch upon which he can sit and watch the sun go down. The reward put up by the whores complicates the matter. He preferred to deal with the attack his own way. As Delilah (Anna Levine) had a contract with Skinny (Anthony James) it is a matter of damage to property – the cowboys have to compensate Skinny, Delilah’s ‘owner’. Now he has to prevent Big Wiskey becoming one big gunfight. He hopes that when he sends the first would-be bounty-hunter, Richard Harris’s ‘English Bob’ packing that would be an end of it. The arrival of Munny and Co threatens his authority. 

The flasher was caught red-handed

The problem is that the glamour and mystique of the West remains. Just as Little Joey in Shane idolises gunslingers there is still a fascination with the law of the West. Enter writer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). He arrives towed in the wake of one glamorous legend, English Bob, the ‘Duke (or “Duck” as Little Bill calls him) of Death’. When Little Bill takes glee in rubbishing his stories Beauchamp turns his attention to the sheriff. At the end of the film we can see him, clearly petrified, but still pumping Munny for information. He gazes after him in awe. Munny dreamt of the Angel of Death. Munny is that Angel. There is no romance in farming pigs or building a house; sadly, there is romance in shooting people dead. Even if the truth is never the same as the myth. Daggett tells Beauchamp the true story behind one of English Bob’s exploits. The actual killings of the two cowboys are not glamorous – one is shot in the belly and bleeds to death in a gulch, the other is shot on the crapper.

Like Shane, the moral is that you cannot change your past. In Shane the symbolic moment when the hero accepts his role is when Shane puts his buckskins back on again. In Unforgiven that moment is when Munny takes a swig of whiskey. Automatically that improves his aim. In vino veritas. What are we to make of the Munny we see at the end? He is badass, standing up for his friend. He unleashes an Old West hell on Big Whiskey – the sort of hell that Little Bill wanted to keep the town safe from. Little Bill’s aims are laudable; unfortunately, his methods are those of the Old West. He displays Ned’s body as a warning to others – this just serves to get Munny riled. Little Bill wants a clean village free of the wrath and violence he has lived through, but his reactions breed them. Like Little Bill Munny commits an act for the right reasons - protecting his friend - but the only way he knows how to do that is all guns blazing. Who is the hero: the stone-cold killer or the gentle pig-farmer? 

The film is beautifully acted and shot. It deserves its four Oscars (Best Film, Director, Editing and Supporting Actor for Hackman). Harris and Rubinek provide comic relief, Eastwood and Freeman encapsulate the old timers back for one last job. I probably found Hackman’s Daggett the most fascinating character, a lawman prepared to act outide the law to keep the peace. All of the latter characters are struggling to correlate the two aspects of their natures – the side that wants peace and the side that is prepared to kill to get it. Altogether it is a thought-provoking companionpiece to Shane. It is the story of the men that made the West struggling to shape it in line with their own ideals. And its moral is that you cannot hide from your past no matter how hard you try. 

What have I learnt about Wyoming?
Much like Shane Unforgiven is set on the cusp of great changes in the West. The frontier was being tamed – unlike Shane Big Whiskey has a Sheriff (with many deputies) and is reachable by train. Yet elements of the Old West remain. Sheriffs can give people extra-legal beatings. Taverns are stocked with whores who are treated as property. A man can earn a living “shooting Chinese for the Railroad”; the mystery is not that Chinese labourers can be shot without repurcussions but that the Railroad would hire someone to do it for them. Trying to forge one’s own path seems fraught with troubles – Munny’s pig farm seems very marginal. Taking orders as a hired cowhand seems to be much more profitable. 

Can we go there?
Unlike Shane this film was not shot on location in Wyoming. Instead, like so may other Westerns we have seen this year it was shot up in Alberta near Calgary. The town of Big Whiskey and Little Bill’s cabin was constructed specifically for the movie around Longview; the buildings were demolished after use. Spoil sports. Likewise the Munny pigfarm around Brooks and Ned’s farm in the vicinity of Drumheller (somewhat appropriately ‘The Dinosaur Capital of the World’). The only sequence shot in the U.S. was English Bob’s train journey – this was filmed at the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Shane (1953)

Dir. George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon deWilde

A man rides out the the great expanses of the West. He wears buckskins and totes a sixshooter. He is Shane (Alan Ladd), a Man With A Past. The kindness and hospitality shown to him by the Starretts, a small-holding family he happens across, offers him a chance of redemption.

The Starretts and their fellow homesteaders are being oppressed by Ryker (Emile Mayer), the local cattle baron. He wants to graze his herds across the open range; the little farms of the “Sodbusters” prevent him from doing this. He wants the farming families out – by fair means or foul. The homesteaders are determined to resist. It is into this combustible mix that Shane rides. By signing on to work for Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) Shane makes their concerns his own. 

The background noise has featured before in the Westerns I have watched this year – the conflict between the Old and the New West. We saw this in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The trailblazers move in, take the risks and make the West habitable. Then the new forces of order come in to set the law the way it will benefit them. In Shane we see Wyoming on the cusp of that change. Ryker complains that he took all the risks to clear the land for habitation: “We made this country. We found it and we made it, with blood and empty bellies. Cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers; they don’t bother you much any more because we handled ‘em. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died, but we made it.” He now cannot get his herds to water because of the little farms that have claimed areas of his “open range”. It is rare to hear the villain of a movie get to outline his (actually very reasonable-sounding) concerns in this way. But as Joe points out Ryker’s rights would come at the expense of theirs; and anyway, wasn’t it the Indians and the French trappers who really tamed the land before Ryker rode in? Ryker’s way is that of a bully. The homesteaders are the aspiring middle classes. They work hard to grow something – to grow a family. In town they frequent Grafton’s store to buy seed and barbed wire; Ryker’s cowboys frequent Grafton’s saloon next door. The homesteaders believe in the value of honest labour and community. They celebrate the 4th of July and – whether Yankee, Confederate or immigrant – believe in American values. Their problem is that they have outpaced the law. There are no Marshals or Sheriffs this far out west. There is only the Law of the West – if the other feller drew first you are entitled to shoot to kill. The homesteaders are not violent types. It therefore means that Ryker’s hired-in gunslinger Wilson (a grinning Jack Palance) needs to taunt the farmers into reacting. 
Chris could never get the hang of tequila shots
The threat of violence simmers beneath the surface. It is implied that this is the sort of world Shane is trying to leave behind. If he enjoys working alongside Joe, he revels in the chance to swap his buckskins for the garb of a labourer and lay his gun to one side. When he walks into Grafton’s to buy Joe’s son Little Joey (Brandon deWilde) a soda-pop he is mocked by the cowboys. Yet he doesn’t react when Charlie (Ben Johnson) throws a drink over him. It is only on a second visit when Charlie swings at him that Shane finally fights back. Joe comes to his aid against the entire band of Ryker’s rowdies. In the middle of the brawl Joe and Shane exchange a grin. They may not want violence, but they still enjoy it when their blood is up. But Shane recognises the threat Wilson represents. The loyalty he feels towards the Starretts prevents him from letting Joe walk into a trap. He has to embrace the past he tried to leave behind – represented symbolically by him changing back into his buckskins. He tells Ryker straight that “You’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.” The same goes for him – “The difference is, I know it.” They are both products of a West that no longer exists. Shane also realises that he cannot change his background. There is a fight, shots are fired, and Shane rides away into the night. 

And to my joy, Shane has an ambiguous ending. He wins his fight, but he himself is shot. We know he is bleeding when he mounts his horse. The very last shot shows horse and rider picking their way over Cemetery Hill. Shane is unmoving in the saddle, head down. The question persists: is he alive or dead? The very fact that there is ambiguity means that to me the answer is clear. Shane dies. The fact that the shot takes place in the graveyard is enough of a hint. If this was meant to be a rousing, joyous finale we would have seen Shane galloping into the sunset. Instead he is on the voyage of the dead. He has no place in the New West. All he can do is sacrifice himself to protect the Starretts and the other homesteaders. 

Shane is a classic Western that I like. Its morals may be conservative and its hero might be too good-looking for words, but it has an elegiac quality. Yes, trailblazers like Ryker did tame the West. But then they had to be tamed themselves. Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur – last seen as the sparky Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) tells Shane that she wishes there wasn’t a gun in the valley. She gets her wish. Shane is a story about not being able to escape your past. We never know what Shane’s past is. But he is jumpy and he knows how to handle himself in a fight. We gather that he finds the peace with the Starretts he is looking for. In particular he attracts the open-mouthed adulation of Little Joey. But he and Joe are able to inspire their fellows to make a stand and not run. They are responsible for the survival of America in a lawless world. 

What have I learnt about Wyoming?
Ryker gives us a potted history of Wyoming. The first settlers chased off the Cheyenne and the other natives to claim the land as their own. Yet they didn’t act too much differently to the Indians. They used the whole expanse of the plains to graze their ever-expanding cattle herds. Then families moved west in search of a plot of land they could call their own. They fenced in their own homesteads, sowing crops and raising their own cattle, chickens and pigs. They did not want all the land, just a piece of it. But it nibbled at the edges of what the cowboys felt was legitimately theirs and deprived them of some of the best grazing. So conflict grew and turned into violence (in fact Wyoming’s Jackson County War featured just such tensions). 

Despite the soil being the source of so much bloodshed, the terrain looks quite scrubby. Deer can graze there however, and farmers’ wives can always provide hot apple pie. The land wanted is the wide flat valley bottoms threaded through by the shallow streams that run down from the ice-capped mountains – it looks like a glaciated landscape. The weather can vary from tinder dry to thunderstorms which leave the roads ankle-deep in mud. And snow is present on the mountain peaks at all times of the year. 

Can we go there?
The actual location in Wyoming is never specified. It takes a ride to get to Cheyenne, where any old low-life can be hired. But the movie was filmed in the valley of Jackson Hole. While most of the sets were built specifically for the movie, the house of Ernie Wright actually was once an actual frontier homestead. Its remains can be found just past Kelly. Other period homesteads can be found scattered around the area. The soaring jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons can be seen in the background of many of the shots.  

Overall Rating: 4/5