Monday, September 17, 2007

A fog of unfunny. On the new Westerns.

by Ryland Walker Knight

a fog of unfunny

The Daily Cal published my review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford today. The skinny is I think it a waste of time. The dash-off long of it can be read here. Similar problems plague this Brad Pitt vehicle that did last week's 3:10 to Yuma but they move in opposite directions from a base misunderstanding of their genre, and its current demands. Andrew Dominik's Jesse James picture tries so hard to be special it can only fail to live up to its amplified flamboyance; James Mangold's 3:10 remake is so flat it never gets going, even with a barn-burning at the opening. Or: one tries to re-invent the wheel with borrowed gimmicks while the other tries to fasten the wheel back in place with worn (however trusty) tools at hand.

A problem I didn't really get into in my newest review was Dominik trying to make a hagiographical film while at the same time deflating the legend. I hint at it when I said it lacks irony but let me be a little more clear. The cake-and-eat-it-too problem here is related to the filmmakers' approach to the genre. Invoking Unforgiven in my review of 3:10 was probably a miscue because there's more to mine comparing it to Jesse James. That is, Clint Eastwood and David Webb Peoples get it right and Dominik fails. Eastwood doesn't need voice-over. Eastwood doesn't need flashy lens tricks. Eastwood doesn't need three hours. And, you know, Eastwood and Gene Hackman versus Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck? Talk about a mismatch. Finally, the new idea of The Western has been infected by the success of Unforgiven and David Milch's Deadwood so that nobody making one feels comfortable simply making one. Part of Eastwood's success is he quoted and commented on the genre in the flow of his storytelling; something he did equally well in Million Dollar Baby. There was nobody screaming, "Wasn't The West histrionic and hypocritical?" You just saw it as such. I think the problem 3:10 faced was it hoped to adopt this posture (scheme) but there was nothing novel in any element of its execution. And it's jokes weren't funny. (That's what Dead Man has: a ripe ironic sense of humor.)

So why spend more time talking about these failures, right? Well, because a lot of people are going to like these movies. And a lot of each movie could have been good. Now that Brad Pitt won a Silver Lion at Venice I'm sure he'll get all kinds of "award buzz" and whatnot. Even as good as Pitt is, he's been better, with better material, in other movies I don't quite enjoy for one reason or another, like his 01990s David Fincher double bill: Se7en and Fight Club. For all of the latter's problems, Tyler Durden was always exciting, and funny. Dominik's vision of Jesse James is always obnoxious, and boring: a bona fide shit heel. So what he was elevated to celebrity because of his crimes (and his theatrical death)? What else? Tyler Durden's celebrity is way more interesting because it has scary ramifications. Both films' authority annoys me (who wants a movie to scold them?) but Dominik's is so achingly serious I wanted to leave twenty minutes into the thing (and then again and again at every twenty minute interval). At least Mangold's film gets in and gets out. (This from a guy who loves INLAND EMPIRE? Well, yeah: Lynch opens new worlds every second, Dominik simply takes a featherweight facsimile of this one and slaps you around with it.)

All of which is to say, Don't waste your time with these new Westerns. If anything watch old ones. Or Deadwood. They understand America, that fictional world of promise. And they understand icons without spending three hours on it. Really, this is all to say My Darling Clementine is what Dominik wishes he could make and, more obviously, the original 3:10 is what Mangold wishes he could make. And both are far worthier of your time. (Especially Ford's film: I mean, wow.) Oh, and Clint Eastwood is pretty fucking tight. But Brad Pitt is really pretty.

pretty man

[ASIDE: Can't wait for No Country For Old Men. That will be a real Western. Won't it, all you from Toronto Film Critic Camp? (The first trailer below, the red-band at the site linked to above.)]


  1. I agree that Dominik's film is extremely self-serious, but I really liked it anyway. I'm seeing 3:10 today, but I've got an aversion to all things Mangold and don't expect much. But this post got me thinking -- what do think of Jarmusch's Dead Man? And Costner's Open Range, for that matter?

  2. I like Dead Man; haven't seen Open Range. Jarmusch is really self-serious, too, but only in spurts and levied by the otherwise hilarious dialogue. Plus, the Indian is named Nobody! And "Machine" is maybe the best town name outside of "Deadwood"...

    These two are the, uh, newest "westerns" I've seen in a while. Good luck with the Mangold. I think it's a little easier to swallow since it doesn't try to be anything but a time-killer. But not in a Panic Room kind of way. In a James Mangold almost-posing kind of way.

  3. But Brad Pitt is really pretty.

    I thought this was pretty funny. The first thing I thought was that Pitt was too pretty to be in a western. (And I more or less like him as an actor.) That's been a main problem with many westerns from the 80's on. A re-occuring joke about stuff like Young Guns and Ang Lee's over-hyped Ride With the Devil was saying that "those were some pretty girls wearing cowboy hats!" Not that Montgomery Cliff or Ricky Nelson weren't pretty boys, but they fit in with the particular westerns they were in.

    Anyway, I largely agree with your assessment on the genre these days. There are some great ones (Dead Man & Deadwood come to mind) but I think the last great decade for westerns was the 60s.

  4. JEFFREY: Yeah, I like Brad Pitt, too. I think his being pretty works for the kind of movie Dominik wanted to make but the movie fails itself. And yeah, movie stars throughout the genre have been pretty. Even with the 'stache and the beady glare, Timothy Olyphant is the prettiest thing on Deadwood. (No, not Molly Parker, but maybe the little girl, Sofia, could beat him.) What I mean to say is, "Stars being pretty is irrelevant to the success of a Western, isn't it?" I mean, Johnny Depp has a model's bone structure, right?

    MIKE: I forgot to think about The Proposition. For now I'll say it's pretty good but after a second viewing it did less for me. And it's not about America, which seems like a requirement for anything to be considered a Western in the sense I'm using the word (as a genre). The Western is as much about the promise of America's vastness as it is about guns and horses. This Aussie movie retains some of that in Danny Huston's kicks butt character/performance but it is very much about the absence of promise, about barrenness. This is what distinguishes Unforgiven but each character operates under this ideal of America where you can make yourself into whomever you want given the right drive, and tools. That said, I need to see both again before I can offer any kind of solid criticism. What I mean to say is, "Yes, that movie is worthy, but it's got its problems, too, as does anything." Maybe I do like it more than I'm letting on... more later, I imagine.

  5. I don't think there's anything the Western says about America that it doesn't also say about Australia or anywhere else Europe colonized. Civilization/wilderness, city/country, European/Native, law/crime, these are the dichotomies the genre is built around, and none of them are particularly American.

    That said, Unforgiven, Deadwood and Dead Man is a ridiculously high standard to hold any movie to. I haven't seen either of these films yet, but telling me they aren't as good as Unforgiven isn't all that enlightening.

  6. Yeah, "the Proposition" didn't register as much the second time around. I still like it but the difference between the Varsity's screen and my little television made a drastic change.

    Danny Huston kills it though.

  7. I'd like to clarify: I haven't seen the new Jesse James movie. My impression is based on the advertising.

    If Pitt works for the movie, then that's gravy. Johnny Depp is about the prettiest boy around - and he was perfect for Dead Man. That's not to say it needs to be as good as Dead Man to be a success. Anything that keeps the genre going without having to be the end-all-be-all is good enough for me!

    Incidentally, my gut also takes issue with the long title. I prefer something shorter like I Shot Jesse James - and then mold the screenplay into something that's first person.

  8. Westerns are deaddeaddead. Hood movies and urban crime sagas are supposed to be the new westerns, but few big time filmmakers have found a way to give them that kind of mythic stature. Michael Mann goes there sometimes. No Country for Old men looks about right.

    It's about frontiers and isolation. It takes imagination to search out the new frontiers, but they're everywhere. People get hung up on genre, preserving dead ones like they're loved ones on life support. Let it go. Unforgiven tied it up in a bow.

    I don't see any reason to go back to the wild West unless the filmmakers take an interest in something other than the men with guns. Never watched Deadwood or Dead Man, but peeks at them give me the impression that they're just as concerned with blood and murderin' bandits as any other Western. Boring. The Proposition told me/showed me nothing new. And I don't care how the railroads got built or the collusion between the thugs and the land barons.

    I want to see how ordinary people lived and strove and made love between the gun ballets. In fact, I don't wanna see no more guns. Give me a Western without guns, and I'm there.

  9. thanks for your thoughts here...i especially like your imagry of "re-inventing the wheel" vs. fastening it together.

    i for one, know i will certainly be tracking the "awards buzz." It's what i do.

  10. Sorry to say, Steve, but you're wrong about Deadwood. That show is beauty. And not just about killing.

    That said, I like what you say about the genre being taken up in "other" genres. I've been thinking a lot about genre and this idea seems to work. Isolation and frontiers. And promises. I dig the idea that Michael Mann is reworking the western, especially in MIVI. That movie is all about spatial relationships. I'd love to see a Western with no guns, but Deadwood, while violent, isn't about the violence as much as it is about how humans work one another over psychologically (not physiologically). It's the most metaphysical Western I've seen, without ever saying anything metaphysical. Just check it out. This reply is kinda aimless, and I apologize. Gotta go read about another frontier fight: The Pelapanesian War.

  11. Mr. Boone, Deadwood is exactly what you want: striving to live, life besides the gun battles, and needing to make love and community. The show knows it's putting to bed the ol cliches: Hickok comes to Deadwood to die.

    Trust me, and come west.

  12. Jen and Ry,

    Will do. Deadwood is on now my library to-get list.

    Only for y'all.