Saturday, February 27, 2010

the couch potato: john ford's 'cheyenne autumn'

this is a post i started quite some time ago and then completely forgot about. i hate seeing things go to waste, so here 'tis...

john ford's 'cheyenne autumn' was a failure when it was released in 1964. though ironically, if it had been made cheaper the way ford himself had originally envisioned, it might have turned a modest profit. the studio system was essentially falling apart in the 60s and the elephantiasis that afflicted many hollywood films of the period is one of the odd, sad reminders of how desperate the moguls were to reclaim the audience they'd lost to television. during this period execs were either nickel-and-diming a movie to death, or frantically piling money into a film in hope of making it a roadshow attraction/event.

'cheyenne autumn', like much of ford's work, is problematic. i'm not among those who consider ford a genius. he was an inarguably talented man who made some great movies, but even his finest works are fraught with contradictions and flaws which, to my mind at least, defy the efforts of his staunchest defenders to contextualize and/or excuse them. i'm not talking about certain offensive aspects of ford's films like the racism or sexism that his boosters generally claim are so misunderstood. no, i'm talking about structural defects that often damage the films, like clumsily offhand plot devices or corny comedy relief. i wouldn't ever argue that 'the searchers' isn't one of the most important films ever made considering how influential it is, but even if one disregards the ugliness of its politics, the film has a number of clumsily staged sequences (the night ambush and even some of the climactic raid) and some nearly unbearable comic interludes.

so a film like 'cheyenne autumn', which even ford's most devoted acolytes admit is considerably less than great, is interesting to me. as an (i think) objective viewer, i enjoy coming to something like 'cheyenne autumn', because there's no advance chorus proclaiming the inarguable greatness of the film before i get to see for myself.

'cheyenne autumn' is based on historical events. it concerns the remaining members of the cheyenne tribe in 1878 and their troublesome decision to return to their home in wyoming from the desolate reservation in utah where they'd been remanded by the government. though ford spoke of a desire to tell this story from the perspective of the indians, most of what takes place in the film involves white characters. from the conflicted cavalry officer played by richard widmark, to carroll baker as a mormon missionary who accompanies the indians on their trek, to edward g. robinson as the sympathetic secretary of the interior, down to jimmy stewart in a rather long and unnecessary cameo as wyatt earp. yes, the indians are depicted respectfully, but they are more like dramatic props than real people. that's an understandable mistake given the terms that ford has set for the film. the indians are noble, but they're also inarguably the victims here. one gets the sense that ford may have esteemed the cheyenne so much as to not want the audience to pity them. this distancing strategy (if that's what it is) works, for the most part. depressing as the circumstances are, the indians never become laughable or pathetic figures.

unfortunately though, the dramatic personae ford chose to tell his story just aren't especially interesting. 'cheyenne autumn' mostly fails to ever fully engage. widmark and baker give good performances but both are stuck playing rather boring people. robinson's secretary of the interior isn't even vaguely interesting, as he's an inherently decent public servant without an ambiguous bone in his body. karl malden turns up as a german cavalry captain who is fully prepared to carry out inhumane orders, for the sole purpose of inviting rather obvious comparisons to the nazis. while it's pretty impressive that ford would go down this route, it's a bit heavy-handed. then there's jimmy stewart and the infamous (to ford fans) dodge city-wyatt earp sequence. this broadly unfunny 20 minute segment plops itself right down in the middle of the film and aside from stewart's likable performance, has nothing going for it. film critic and ford historian joseph mcbride explains this section of the film as being part of ford's tradition of adding comedy relief to even his most serious work. mcbride also talks about the sequence making a point about the generally unfounded hysteria regarding indians, and also being illustrative of ford's deepening pessimism regarding corruption among whites in so-called civilized society. i'm willing to acknowledge all those points and still say that the dodge city sequence stinks. it isn't funny and the 20 minutes drag by like molasses going uphill on a cold day.

oh, and three of the main indian roles are filled by hispanic actors (ricardo montalban, gilbert roland and delores del rio), with victor jory and sal mineo handling the other two. no, those last two guys aren't indians either. so much for ford telling the story from the indians' point of view. nice try, sean.

funnily enough, 'cheyenne autumn' is fairly entertaining in spite of its flaws. it's awe-inspiringly beautiful to look at. the only oscar nomination the film received was for william clothier's cinematography and it was well-deserved. the first hour is especially stunning, filled with shot after gorgeous shot. it's almost too much. ford's favorite location, monument valley in utah, has never looked better. and ford knows how to tell a story, so even though the film wasn't blessed with especially felicitous dialogue, it moves along at a good clip. real problems don't set in until the cringe-inducing dodge city segment, after which the film never quite regains its momentum.

Friday, February 26, 2010

memo to terry gilliam: STFU

here's terry gilliam being a horse's ass on the subject of james cameron's 'avatar', a film which really brings out the worst in people who should know better...

"There are so many small, beautiful film-makers and actors and directors with so much potential that just can't get a look in because the studios are just pumping all their money into these huge projects," he complained at the London Evening Standard British Film Awards.

"There are such incredible lower-budget films that are magical, but we've got our work cut out with things like Avatar coming out. How are these young talents supposed to get a look in without the budget? That's the sad thing, because they are just as good."

The director of Time Bandits and Brazil added: "Those huge blockbusters that the studios spend millions upon millions of dollars on ... I mean, Avatar, they spent like $400,000 just promoting the thing. How can anyone compete with that?"

i especially love gilliam's complaint about studios pumping so much money into pictures like 'avatar'. you know, stuff that they might actually see a return on, as opposed to gilliam's sure-fire money losers. gilliam's latest, 'the imaginarium of doctor parnassus' cost its woebegone investors 30 million and has earned about 7 million here in america. it may turn a small profit, as it hasn't done badly abroad (most likely because johnny depp puts in an appearance), but it won't be any box office bonanza, that's for sure. 'the brothers grimm' a few years ago cost 88 million and brought in domestic grosses of less than 40 million. 'tideland', a small film that gilliam made in between 'grimm' and 'parnassus', took in a whopping $66,453.00 in domestic rentals. yup, that decimal is in the right place, the movie made a little over sixty-six thousand dollars. 'avatar' isn't stopping anybody in hollywood from making the kind of movies gilliam thinks should be getting made. people who make one money-losing flop after another like terry gilliam are doing that. if terry gilliam wants hollywood to make more interesting movies, he might try making a movie that someone's actually interested in seeing. it's called "show business" for a reason, terry.

accidental poetry?

> > heard about the monk book and all the time and
> research that
> > went into it. read 'straight, no chaser' back
> when i
> > first "got into" jazz a few years ago and
> will
> > probably get this new book eventually, though it's
> not
> > like i needed convincing in regards to monk's
> talent or
> > anything. hopefully the book doesn't go too far
> in
> > trying to establish that monk wasn't somewhat
> damaged
> > mentally though. it would be silly to ignore the
> fairly
> > clear evidence that the man had some kind of serious
> problem
> > which should have been treated. normal people
> don't go
> > twirling around in circles at the drop of a hat. maybe
> there
> > has been a bit too much focus on that aspect of his
> life but
> > it's still an integral part of monk's story.
> he
> > clearly seems to have had a serious breakdown at the
> end and
> > it was probably foreshadowed by what some revisionists
> want
> > to dismiss as mere "eccentricities". or am i
> wrong
> > and does the book offer a fair consideration of all
> the
> > angles?

> > copeland
> > is an odd case. i heard him do a couple of
> interviews
> > promoting that book and i had the same split reaction
> both
> > times. he's obviously a smart, interesting and
> > well-spoken fellow but he also seems to be somewhat,
> er,
> > obnoxious. he expresses so much relentless hostility
> towards
> > sting that it gets wearying pretty quickly. and keep
> in mind
> > that i used to be a charter member of the "sting
> > sucks" crowd until i outgrew that shit, so
> copeland
> > must be laying the haterade on pretty thick if
> i'm
> > responding that way. does he elaborate in the book, or
> did i
> > just seize on the wrong thing from those interviews i
> heard?
> > i suppose if i saw his book for cheapsies i'd pick
> it up
> > anyway, whatever reservations i might have about the
> guy.

> > i'm
> > winding down on a pretty big book called
> > 'nixonland'. it's not exactly a biography
> of RN,
> > it's more about the zeitgeist of the country
> during the
> > 60s-70s and how nixon exploited it to become
> president.
> > i've also been reading some philip marlowe
> detective
> > stories by raymond chandler. 'slavery by another
> > name' by douglas blackmon has been laying around
> my
> > apartment for a while now, so i'll probably start
> on
> > that after finishing 'nixonland'.
> >
> > saw 'iron man' yesterday and
> > really enjoyed it. i was also pleasantly surprised
> by the
> > will ferrell flop 'land of the lost', which
> turned
> > out to be pretty funny. i like ferrell but don't
> make it
> > a rule to catch everything he does (i missed the
> recent
> > basketball and skating pictures he was in). when i do
> see
> > his movies, i usually enjoy them. otherwise, lots of
> > foreign/indie stuff. saw a very good german movie a
> couple
> > weeks ago called 'antares'. and this weekend
> i
> > should be getting a pair of american indie movies by
> the
> > director lodge kerrigan that i've wanted to see
> for a
> > while. 'clare dolan' and 'keane'.

> > still
> > snowing as i write this. usually my view is
> rooftops
> > and trees. today it's mostly whiteness with
> rooftops and
> > trees struggling to be seen. it's fucking
> > beautiful.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

are you really upset about the oscar nominations? then you're an idiot. sorry.

blah blah blah, 'citizen kane'. understand? no? (sighing). ok, when they gave out academy awards honoring the best work done by the motion picture industry in 1941, orson welles' monumental and historic masterpiece 'citizen kane' was overlooked for best picture. in 1951 marlon brando was nominated for portraying stanley kowalski in 'a streetcar named desire' but did not win for one of the greatest performances any actor has ever given. and so on and so forth.

get it? the academy awards aren't about fairness or quality or merit. they're about popularity, industry politics and the perception of quality as it applies to (primarily) mainstream films. so relax. yes, sandra bullock got nominated for best actress. it doesn't mean anything. yes, 'avatar' was nominated for best picture. stop shrieking. yes, 'blind side', the sandra bullock vehicle about a sassy white lady who adopts a black kid and teaches us all a lesson about racism while he plays football, also got nominated for best picture. wha-at? hey, waitaminnit: that's fucked up. that movie really does sound like a piece of shit. we have to do something about this. call your congressman. let's have a march on hollywood or do sit-ins at theaters or something!

nah, i'm kidding. i love movies, but find it impossible to take the oscars seriously. not long ago, nic cage won for best actor. nic cage, for fuck's sake! i'm honestly surprised that previous winners didn't just throw their oscars out after that. i'm kidding again. sure, most sane people think nic cage is awful, but some people like the guy. and there's the crux: even if hollywood obliged you serious movie lovers by making more good movies, you'd still bitch and moan the day after the nominations were announced because something you thought was worthy got overlooked by those douchebag members of the academy. maybe some of you just like bitching and moaning? visiting some comment boards and chat sites after this year's nominations were announced, i had that thought. it was especially amazing to see the same folks who've been screaming about the awfulness of 'avatar' for 2 long months get a second wind and start screaming about how awful it is that 'avatar' got nominated for best picture. aren't you guys tired yet? it's only a movie. i saw it and found it fairly entertaining. was it 400 million dollars (the reported budget of 'avatar') worth of entertaining? i don't think so, but that's just my shitty opinion. nearly 2 billion dollars worth of paying customers pretty much squash any mild criticisms i may have about 'avatar's lack of originality. kids don't even know what the hell 'dances with wolves' is anyway. and they should get the hell off my lawn, now that i think of it.

i'd like it if hollywood made better movies too. but there's no reason to believe that the large number of people who go to the movies on a regular basis are all that disappointed by what they're getting, so don't expect the producers in hollywood to go the "if we make better pictures, the audience will come" route anytime soon. commercial filmmaking produces a lot of crap, and for people who really love movies, a little bit of good stuff. that's how it's always been, really. film historians will tell you that back in the fabled old days they were making classic movies with the same dependable regularity that general motors was pumping out cars. but they really did have an assembly line for movies and a fair amount of the "product" from any of hollywood's so-called golden years has an oddly anonymous quality. the craftsmanship is exactly that: uninspired labor by people who were just doing their jobs. and there are a lot of horrible movies from "ye olden days of glory" too. they don't seem so gratingly awful to us because of the somewhat reliquary quality time has bestowed on them. i'm simply not among those who think that movies are really and truly worse now than they once were. studio moguls were selling something different once upon a time: a genteel america that was as much a product of their imagination as the films themselves. strip away the classy veneer of many old films and there's little worth half a damn left. that's my long-winded way of telling you to shut the fuck up about how great it once was and how 'avatar' would never have gotten nominated for best picture in 1939. build yourself a goddamned time machine and go marry 1939 if you like it so goddamned much.

much as i like complaining about the complaints other people make, i still have an objective interest in the academy awards. on the morning the nominations are announced i check to see who made the cut and who was excluded. and while i haven't been able to stomach the show itself in years, i always check first thing the next day to see who won. so i don't want to come off as "mister holier than thou" on the subject because the oscars do interest me. just not to the degree that i'd expend much energy debating their importance as a calculus of the real artistic merit or worth of any film. many cinephiles out there will make the point that they're only concerned about what gets nominated because they love movies and they hate to see mediocre or substandard work elevated by the academy, but i don't buy that argument, in spite of the intense sincerity with which it is often delivered. these are the same people who rant about the shitty taste and general stupidity of the lumpen masses so frequently that the obvious contempt they feel for those same lumpen masses is impossible to ignore. these people don't want "better movies for everyone", they simply want their own aesthetic preferences confirmed by the imprimaturs of the general public, the awards circuit and a consensus of the critical establishment. ie; a new status quo imposed on everyone just as arbitrarily as the old one, only this time following a set of guidelines they approve of. which is supposed to be ok, y'know?-because they have better taste than the rest of us. it doesn't make sense for them to get upset about what other people choose go to see or who and what wins at the oscars, yet they do it anyway, as it represents a real injustice in their minds when the things they love aren't embraced with the same intensity by the rest of the public. friggin' boneheads.

now a few words about the nominees:

best picture
avatar, blind side, district 9, an education, the hurt locker, inglourious basterds, precious, a serious man, up, up in the air

if i'm rooting for anything this year, i'd have to say it's for 'avatar' to win best picture because it'll really irritate a lot of stupid assholes. that's about what it boils down to for me. sure, i enjoyed 'up' and 'inglourious basterds' more than i enjoyed 'avatar', but there won't be a deluge of anguished posts online the day after the oscar show if those pictures win. i was underwhelmed by katherine bigelow's 'the hurt locker'. something just seemed to be missing. it strikes me as a sort of a tabula rasa of a war film, vague enough in its perspective so that the viewer can project whatever he or she wants onto it. the coen brothers' 'a serious man' was also a disappointment. have i been missing something with the coens? are they really still making movies populated with the same ugly and inhuman caricatures after so long? couldn't they have made 'a serious man' 20 years ago? lastly, 'up in the air' probably wouldn't have been great even if it had worked from start to finish, but jason reitman's film has the most egregious third-act flameout ever committed to celluloid. really, it's embarrassing to watch the wheels spin so conspicuously and fruitlessly in a movie. i have no interest in seeing 'the blind side' or 'precious' and 'district 9' and 'an education' are strictly rental items. eventually.

best actor
jeff bridges-crazy heart, george clooney-up in the air, colin firth-a single man, morgan freeman-invictus, jeremy renner-the hurt locker

i really have no horse in this race, though i'm guessing the oscar will go to jeff bridges for his performance as an aging country musician in 'crazy heart', another picture i hope not to see anytime soon. i'm pretty sure bridges has never won in the past and he seems well-liked and that's about all it really takes. however, if 'the hurt locker' turns out to be "the little war movie that could", bridges may go home empty-handed. actually, even if it loses best picture to 'avatar' academy voters may compensate 'the hurt locker' by giving its star jeremy renner the best actor award. other than those two guys, there's morgan freeman playing nelson mandela in clint eastwood's middlingly received (by both the public and critics, not a good sign) 'invictus'. oscars have gone to a few black men in the last several years and, depressing as it may be to consider, that'll likely have an adverse effect on freeman's chances, along with the fact that he already has a supporting actor oscar for eastwood's 'million dollar baby'. though it's possible academy voters won't even remember freeman's supporting actor oscar, since nobody really gives a flying damn about those anyway. none of that stuff matters as far as colin firth and george clooney are concerned. neither of them has the vaguest chance in hell of winning an oscar this go-round.

best actress
sandra bullock-blind side, helen mirren-the last station, carey mulligan-an education, gabourey sidibe-precious, meryl streep-julie and julia

it's possible that streep could win because she's been nominated without winning so many times in the last few years (her second and most recent oscar victory came for the 1983 film 'sophie's choice') that academy voters may decide she was somehow cheated and now's the time to make amends. gabourey sidibe for 'precious' is also a possibility, as not that many black women have been scooping up oscars since halle berry's freak win a few years ago. then there's the dreaded sandra bullock, known to all as a swell human being who donates loads of money to charitable causes and a total sweetheart to work with. yup, i wouldn't be at all surprised if bullock won. seriously. and nobody should be yelling or hissing as they read that! helen mirren (who just won a best actress oscar about 2 years ago) and carey mulligan (whose rather manly-sounding name will just confuse older academy voters anyway) can go play monopoly with firth and clooney on oscar night, 'cause the only thing they'd be doing at the show is clapping and smiling when other people win awards. which is ok for the most part, until that point in the evening when you find yourself clapping and smiling for some schmuck who's just won what you'd come to think of as your oscar. fuck that.

best supporting whatever
the best supporting actor oscar is a lock for christopher waltz as colonel landa in 'inglourious basterds' and i'd say there's a pretty good chance that mo'nique has BSA locked up for 'precious', but to paraphrase bill murray doing his oscar predictions on SNL's weekend update: who really gives a shit about supporting performers? after winning his oscar, chris waltz will make a couple more appearances as a villain (in movies NOT written by quentin tarantino) and suddenly everyone will notice what an irritating little kraut he is. will chubby black comedienne mo'nique get a lot of movie roles after winning her oscar? crystal ball says "not likely". a syndicated sit-com on one of those channels that cater to (or insult, depending on how you look at it) the black populace is what the future holds for mo'nique. and so it goes.