Sunday, December 12, 2010
To Survive At Any Price
Memory can trap you. It leaves you stranded in your own head, wondering what you did wrong, if you really did do something wrong, what you should have done differently or if you ever had any real choice in the first place. And it just leaves me thinking about regrets, whether it has to do with what I was doing exactly one year ago tonight or something that happened decades ago. Doing nothing but reminding me of all my failures and that’s what I’m sometimes left with in the dead of night.
Everyone’s going crazy waiting to see the Coen Brothers remake of TRUE GRIT featuring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, once played by John Wayne in the role that won him his Oscar. I’m practically climbing the walls in anticipation (as for that other Jeff Bridges movie this Christmas, TRON: LEGACY is absolutely fantastic and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone). But it’s probably a combination of all these elements it --features—Bridges, Coen Brothers, Western, remake—that people are going nuts about since it’s not like there’s any history of people getting excited when Bridges has done westerns in the past. He was in HEAVEN’S GATE, of course, but that could hardly be called a Jeff Bridges movie and I really do need to get around to seeing Robert Benton's BAD COMPANY one of these days. Just fifteen years ago he actually starred in another one of the more arty examples of the form seen in the last forty years, Walter Hill’s WILD BILL, a film which was released in early December 1995 and quickly forgotten about shortly after. Coming near the end of the brief cycle of westerns that occurred in the wake of UNFORGIVEN, it’s a film whose box office failure ($2.1 million in domestic gross on a $30 million budget) may have helped insure that end but it’s also feels like a case of a director, knowing he may not get too many other chances, using this opportunity to have what he creates serve as a defiant howl in the night to mourn how Hollywood pretty much has tossed the entire genre aside. It’s interesting—when the chance to make westerns came again Lawrence Kasdan went and made an epic three-hour biopic about Wyatt Earp serving as a tribute to the genre and plays as everything he ever wanted to put in there. As for Walter Hill, while he did make the expansive (and problematic) GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND in 1993 he also made a biopic which serves almost as the total aesthetic opposite of Kasdan’s approach, playing as lean, mean and flat-out dirty with the actors hemmed in by close-ups within the crowded 1.85 frame and no time wasted on elegiac summations. Because of the setting WILD BILL could also be seen as a rough draft for the acclaimed HBO series DEADWOOD, which Hill was involved with and which I admittedly still haven’t seen enough of, but while WILD BILL isn’t the subversive masterwork I’d kind of want it to be taken on its own it’s a stripped down piece of work which has always kind of stuck in my brain through its own sheer force.
It’s not really a plot that can be summarized—after shooting through some bullet points of the life of Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) showing numerous times how he has survived any number of gun battles we settle down with his arrival in the town of Deadwood in August 1876, having recently been told that he is losing his eyesight due to glaucoma. Accompanied by friend Charley Prince (John Hurt) the two men meet up at this destination with Bill’s sometime love Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin) with Bill having the desire to do nothing except to play a few cards while letting his friends tell stories about the old days. But he doesn’t get to do it for very long because almost instantly the young, callow Jack McCall (David Arquette) makes his presence known and proclaims his desire to kill Wild Bill for the way he treated his mother many years ago. Bill remembers the woman he speaks of but he has no desire to fight this kid, only to drink whiskey and smoke some opium in the town’s Chinese district, getting lost in his own reverie of all his regrets of the past, with maybe no future to look forward to.
At once tight as a drum and yet still feeling as if we were being shown only a piece of some greater narrative (maybe that would be the DEADWOOD series, maybe it would be just more of Bill’s escapades) the film doesn’t really offer much in the way of plot once Bill arrives in Deadwood, instead focusing more on the atmosphere of the place as well as the meaty dialogue chewed up and spat out by the various actors (Hill has sole screenplay credit with the book “Deadwood” by Peter Dexter and the play “FATHERS AND SONS by Thomas Babe given as the sources) with all the vigor imaginable. Just like Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was, in many ways WILD BILL is basically a film about waiting for death. The earlier film’s plot has been described before as somebody who doesn’t want to run being chased by someone who doesn’t want to chase him. WILD BILL, to make a direct comparison, is pretty much about somebody told he’s going to be killed so he sits down to wait for it while the person who makes the threat tries to decide if he’s actually going to go through with it. Unlike Kasdan’s scenic vistas in WYATT EARP this film’s aesthetic feels more than a little like Hill & associates stormed the gates of various studios where standing western sets could still be found at the time and just started shooting scenes, eventually putting all these pieces together in kind of a brutal, yet still elliptical, collage more than anything, certainly not one with a strong narrative but packed into its compact running time is a feel of drifting, of waiting for something to come, a something that in no way is going to be any good. Even the basic ramshackle nature of the filmmaking is visceral by nature with the towns shot through long lenses towards lots of crowds as if to disguise as much as possible the nature of the standing sets. There’s also a particular emphasis on just how much mud there is in the filthy streets of Deadwood, maybe more mud than has ever been seen before in any western and, adding to the uneasy feel of the entire film, an odd shooting style for the multiple opium-enhanced flashbacks which I’m guessing is some form of video or low-res digital.
If there’s anything frustrating about the film maybe it’s that I wouldn’t mind a little more story with a little more for Bridges, playing this fascinating real-life figure, to do—side characters plot what’s going to happen as Wild Bill lingers, drifting in a reverie, remembering what is long past, unable and unwilling to voice all of his many regrets to those around him and maybe the dynamic is a little too internal. Since there’s no real forward momentum there’s very little drama to WILD BILL other than to wait for the inevitable, more of an assemblage of scenes more than a fully fleshed story to give us a picture of this legend of the west along with a score by Van Dyke Parks which along with the use of some period songs (points to Hill for scoring a sex scene between Bridges and Barkin with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) is more of a soundscape than anything, not the cool grooves usually associated with what Ry Cooder has composed for this director in various films. But when it does work it achieves a certain primal power in presenting a legend who lived a life which was in no way heroic and the killings, when they happen, are just fast, mean and nasty. The movie never wants to explain or apologize for this approach, it just thrusts the viewer full bore into this world of grime, dirt and opium visions, along with forever iconic shots of its lead character, dealing with the past drifting through his head and this kid who may or may not actually be his son, hurtling towards an ending which is, after all, inevitable since by the time he arrives in this town he’s essentially spiritually dead already (The Maltin book suggests that the film could just as well have been called THE ASSASSINATION OF WILD BILL, an amusing suggestion considering the film we actually got with such a title in 1997). Instead of a potentially classical “It happened that way” or “Print the legend” summation this film’s narration concludes with just a few basic details and the ‘just the facts’ nature of what is said seems to fit the film. Few things that end in life can ever be fully complete and maybe that’s what the film is ultimately about. The frustrating degree that it occasionally lingers means that it’s not quite the Fullerian masterpiece I guess I want it to be but WILD BILL is still a film worth admiring.
Since he’s a screen figure everyone is very excited about right now, it’s great to see Bridges in this film playing such an iconic figure. He looks phenomenal in how he’s made up and plays every inch of Wild Bill’s fierce anger and arch humor (“He say what horse?”) in truly pitch-perfect style, with a sense of clarity in his steely gaze seen in some fantastic close-ups that says everything he’s not allowed to in dialogue. He also has one hell of a way of throwing cards down on a table. As Calamity Jane, Ellen Barkin (reuniting with Hill after her memorable work in JOHNNY HANDSOME) is probably better looking than the real-life version ever was but she manages to pull off something different with her naturally off-kilter sexiness here, bringing an odd vulnerability and fierceness to her performance. I like her more here each time I see the film with certain moments where she reveals how much she cares about Bill coming off as genuinely touching. John Hurt (who also narrates and always comes off to me as a gone to seed version of his HEAVEN’S GATE character) disappears for a stretch in the middle but he’s just terrific as Bill’s forever loyal friend, making every thick, rich line he has count in every way possible (“This town, I really think it’s like something out of the Bible.” “What part of the Bible?” “The part right before God gets angry.”). As Jack McCall David Arquette comes off as kind of a proto-Nicolas Cage in his wiry demeanor but even if his tics are pretty familiar by now—I actually kind of remember thinking ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ when the film came out—he still comes off as extremely effective in how willing he is to go up against all these other more experienced actors in such a way. James Gammon is old friend California Joe, the forever beautiful Diane Lane (let’s not forget, Ellen Aim in Hill’s STREETS OF FIRE) is seen in flashbacks throughout as McCall’s mother Susannah Moore, Christina Applegate is a town prostitute who helps out McCall and is fast with a pistol, the great Bruce Dern has a terrific bit as an old man in a wheelchair seeking revenge on Wild Bill and James Remar (of course, Ganz in Hill’s 48 HOURS) is very effective as the slick, well-dressed leader of a gang who gets hired by McCall. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill on DEADWOOD) appears as Buffalo Bill Cody, Marjoe Gortner turns up as a Fire-and-brimstone Preacher and Janel Moloney, later Donna Moss on THE WEST WING, plays a scene opposite Diane Lane in one of the flashbacks.
I suppose there’s a reason why part of this movie resonated so much with me at this point in time. For one thing, films like this can be all the more fascinating almost because they don’t entirely payoff or connect. But, also, in paying attention to Wild Bill Hickok’s memories of his own past brought out in him by how many opium pipes he smokes, the pain that he never wishes to speak of and ultimately doesn’t know what to do with, I’m reminded of what I’m mostly thinking about these days, of the relationships I’m losing for various reasons, the people who wind up infecting your memories until you’re not sure if you can think about anything else. Except for maybe certain films. And just like Calamity Jane wishes that Wild Bill Hickock would let her in just a little bit more (“I think it’s a very sweet and fine thought,” as she puts it, a line reading by Barkin I just love) I find myself faced once again with the reality that in this world there are certain people you’ll get to know, and probably fall for, who you’ll never have the relationship with that you may somehow wish, the sort of wish that hurts you down to your very core even while knowing that person has made you feel all the more alive. It hurts. It hurts hard. And at the same time it still makes you want to get up in the morning, so I guess it’s necessary. And when it comes to a film like WILD BILL, a western that few have ever cared about and one which probably deserves better that it’s ever gotten, that’s what I find myself thinking about.