Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
It Happened That Way
The issue of commercial viability regarding the western in today’s marketplace has only gotten worse through the years. For one thing, we’re even further away from when the genre actually meant something to a large portion of the audience. For another thing, the foreign market matters more now than it did at one time and they’ve never been all that crazy about the western overseas anyway—even the few that are domestic hits these days like TRUE GRIT 2010 earn much of their money in the U.S. and, well, that’s just not how things are supposed to be done anymore. THE LONE RANGER was several years in development and budgeting and scripting and directing by Gore Verbinski and producing by Jerry Bruckheimer to fashion it into the sort of extravaganza those men know how to make and the response hasn’t been so swell. I’ve never been all that crazy about any of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films which have been embraced all through the world, not even the first one, so it’s a touch ironic that I didn’t really mind THE LONE RANGER much at all, messy as it kind of is. It’s not great but it’s not all that bad either, at least somewhat bizarre, energetic and with a climax that is as rousing as I’d want it to be. If only more of the film lived up to that but it’s still not the biggest calamity I had to deal with in Summer 2013. Although one thing I think it has in common with other would be blockbusters like WILD WILD WEST and JONAH HEX is the nagging feeling that within all the action and a certain steampunk-type approach is a film that is hesitant to be ‘just’ a western, to express love for the genre and simply enjoy that aspect of itself.
Truthfully, I don’t know if I entirely minded the bomb that was JONAH HEX all that much either but minus credits the thing only lasted about 73 minutes anyway so maybe I just felt sorry for that movie. On the opposite end of the spectrum in the past several decades is Lawrence Kasdan’s bio-pic WYATT EARP which embraces the idea of being a western full throttle, running over three hours even in its shortest cut (longer than the theatrical edit of DANCES WITH WOLVES) and didn’t do very well at all when it was released at the end of June 1994. I saw it opening day in Westwood, after what seemed like six months of the trailer playing before every single movie that came out, scored with Ennio Morricone music from A TIME OF DESTINY presented with all the pomp and circumstance to indicate that this was going to be the biggest, most important historical epic of modern times (there were actually two separate trailers but only one is on the DVD). That’s not how things worked out as everyone seemingly waited a few weeks until FORREST GUMP was released for that particular look at American history. I admit to being a little underwhelmed at the time by WYATT EARP like most everyone who actually saw it was and it sure didn’t help that TOMBSTONE, rushed into theaters six months earlier, was a good deal more fun. Looking at it now when the movie isn’t doing anyone any harm and we’re all kind of wishing that maybe we’d been a little nicer to Kevin Costner when we had the chance, WYATT EARP is still an extremely flawed film that seems to lose its own footing more than a few times but I can’t bring myself to have that much animosity towards it. Maybe because it’s a western. We need westerns. We always will.
The epic-length WYATT EARP tells the story of Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner) and his life, from growing up on a farm being watched over by his stern by loving father (Gene Hackman) to his first marriage that ends in tragedy and causing him to hit rock bottom. Almost by chance he eventually finds himself working in law enforcement leading to his eventual life as a legendary marshal in Dodge City and later on in Tombstone where his legend is solidified along with his good friend Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid). As an actress new to town named Josie Marcus (Joanna Going) enters his life to possibly give him the love he’s long been without the growing tensions between the Earp family and the lawless Clantons eventually lead to the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, an event which seals the legend of Wyatt Earp forever.
Almost twenty years after it was released the box office failure of WYATT EARP, a pretty big deal at the time, feels mostly forgotten now so all we’re left with is the film, a giant swirling ode to the western as lived through a main character who believes in the tragedy that is the world, depending on no one and perfectly content to have no one but family depend on him either. What is WYATT EARP? Is it, ultimately, an epic telling of an important life that took place during the evolution of the American West? Or is it an epic tale about epic tales about the American West as filtered down through both mythos and, ultimately, Hollywood films? Maybe it’s an epic tale of a star and director who want nothing more than to make the biggest, grandest western in the form of myth they ever imagined and had the power to attempt. That might be the answer. Whatever it is, WYATT EARP is definitely ambitious in its goals as well as earnest in its approach. It’s clear that director Lawrence Kasdan and producer/star Kevin Costner mean the passion that runs through every scene in their bones as they attempt to go beyond the simple old-fashioned thrills of their previous collaboration SILVERADO back in ’85. And I may as well be honest—for sentimental reasons and because I like westerns anyway there is something I enjoy about revisiting this one all these years later, even as I’m aware in the back of my head that it doesn’t entirely connect, that I’m not having the emotional response it’s trying to get out of me.
The scale evident in scene after scene with magnificent vistas and production value all over the place makes it look kind of sweet now as if trying to fashion itself into an automatic masterwork, not knowing that the world wouldn’t really care about this sort of thing anymore. The craftsmanship is always evident. The film is genuinely trying. More than the overriding nobility and inherent squareness to the approach which seems too much at times, one problem with WYATT EARP is that it feels so determined to craft itself into an epic come hell or high water, striving to be John Ford through a David Lean filter whether the spine of the story warrants it or not only it doesn’t contain the profundity to pull that off. There are many qualities to WYATT EARP. Is it self-important? Maybe, kinda. Is it also genuinely impressive at times? Yes, it really is. Scene after scene is exquisitely staged but whether or not any number of them really need to be there is another matter entirely and as a result the problems go beyond simple length, beyond ambition, to a point where the ultimate emotional effect feels muted or just not quite there, maybe because of choices that were made somewhere along the way in what they wanted the film to be, wanting it to span the full life of the man instead of spending more time on the really interesting stuff.
Written by Kasdan and Dan Gordon, part of the issue may simply be one of structure. With the exception of an in media res opening the approach is basically linear, beginning with a first hour that builds up Wyatt Earp’s character and the man he becomes, how his father’s outlook on things shaped him, how losing his young bride scarred him, learning the lesson that if you’re not willing to be harsh to harsh people in this harsh world that’ll catch up to you. It turns Wyatt into the cold person he is, unwilling to debate or argue, unwilling to let anyone close until his friendship with Doc Holliday and eventually his romance with Josie Marcus, the two people who will look him in the eye and he’ll look back. It all makes sense, I’m just not convinced we need everything in that first hour or at least not as much of it as we get, possibly robbing him as a character of any mystery or ambiguity from that point on. In bio-pic tradition it’s the sort of film where an early marriage goes from wedded bliss to heartbreak in a cemetery within about five minutes but that aside the first hour or so actually has the best flow of the entire film in the way it’s paced.
The conundrum is that it’s hard to avoid the feeling that almost none of it is needed and when we enter Dodge City at the 70-minute mark this is where the movie we came to see is really beginning which maybe wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it were really the case. This isn’t because I’d rather see a fun, good old-fashioned western instead of a brooding, moping character study (or is it?) but I can’t help but think that all the backstory didn’t need to be stretched out so much. Oddly, it feels like less is missing from the tapestry of the film in the early section as if when someone was making a pass through the entire picture looking for things to remove late in the game they wound up cutting more as they went along simply out of impatience. As a result it feels like chunks of the drama that we actually want to see are missing whether that’s the case or not, resulting in some occasional clumsiness like when a bartender asks Wyatt questions about why he’s left Dodge City and the scene plays out in the most Basil Exposition-way imaginable. If cuts were made maybe they were the wrong ones and as it goes on more pieces feel like they’re missing—Tom Sizemore’s Bat Masterson, a major character in the Dodge City section, is asked if he wants to go to Tombstone but doesn’t respond and then we never see him again. Isabella Rossellini gets a big introduction as Doc Holliday’s girl Big Nose Kate (I like her defensiveness when she says, “All kinds of reasons a person gets a name”), is seen once more and then that’s it. Dennis Quaid does solid work but because of his late entry doesn’t make the dramatic impact it feels like he’s designed to provide.
The Tombstone section of the film doesn’t even feel like it has a proper beginning—we’re just there at one point instead of the movie fully acknowledging the arrival and for what we would imagine is the meat of things the plot mechanics involving the buildup to the O.K. Corral sequence feel more sketched in than properly clarified so what follows never means as much as it should. The conflict between the Earps and the Clantons is merely taken as a given so it doesn’t have the necessary power, just feeling inevitable since, after all, this is what’s supposed to happen in a movie about Wyatt Earp. The problem with the entire film isn’t just the long running time but that it’s a case of a long film where the length is felt more as it goes on. Actually, while watching it this time I suddenly began to have the daydream of not cutting things down but instead making the material even more expansive to allow for two separate movies so it could all flow better, maybe called WYATT EARP: DODGE CITY and WYATT EARP: TOMBSTONE. Flashbacks could have been interspersed, details could have been dwelled on and maybe the desired effect could have been reached. For obvious commercial reasons it never would have happened, but I still think it’s a valid idea.
Comparisons to 1993’s TOMBSTONE (not to mention things like MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, which I really should have seen more times by now) are probably inevitable but still unfair—not just to the film but to people like Dennis Quaid who delivers a solid performance, one of his best, but TOMBSTONE’s Val Kilmer not only got more to work with he just seemed to become Doc Holliday. And in that film’s very title it knew where to focus on everything while ultimately WYATT EARP, even if I genuinely enjoy some of it—Kasdan does do a pretty snazzy job with the entire O.K. Corral sequence making it messier and of smaller scale than would be expected—feels like it’s so focused on the stoicism of its lead character along with making noble proclamations that the tone becomes stifling and ultimately I’m not sure what it’s really about. Family? Loss? Perseverance in the face of an uncaring world? It reaches for myth through big statements in dialogue and imagery borrowed from other places, like when Wyatt is first made Sheriff and the moment plays as an inversion of HIGH NOON’s most famous shot, as opposed to letting these themes play out naturally through the material. The score by James Newton Howard seems intent on providing the epic sweep and it’s beautiful (not Morricone but still pretty good--I’ve always liked the album) but maybe is given too much responsibility in terms of making the emotional connection.
The famous last line of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE which gives the film its title is spoken by a minor character unaware of the irony in the statement which makes it all the more devastating. WYATT EARP feels like it’s constantly reaching for myth through its own poetry spoken much more deliberately by the characters. “Nothing counts so much as blood. The rest are just strangers” has weight to it particularly when spoken by Gene Hackman but the line doesn’t account for how the two people who Wyatt ultimately depends on the most aren’t that nor does it refute the idea in the end either. The statement doesn’t matter as much as how noble it sounds. It has the appearance of weight but not the gravity. By a certain point I’m gazing at the film, lost in the western imagery thanks to Owen Roizman’s Oscar-nominated cinematography more than the post-Corral section of the story or Wyatt focused on his own obsession. WYATT EARP has been compared to HEAVEN’S GATE at times not just because of how much of a flop the two epic westerns were but also because of a portrayal the loss of youth amidst Americana that goes bad, to a similar endings in a completely different locale that wonders what it was all for. There is that ending, mixed in with a flashback that strives to offer its own version of “When the legend becomes fact…” from LIBERTY VALANCE that doesn’t offer a twist or different perspective but simply a recapitulation of what we’ve already heard verbalized. What to make of the life of Wyatt Earp based on this film? Or maybe the question should be what to make of this film about the myth of his life. All we ultimately know is he did what he thought he needed to do and it somehow became myth, whatever the truth really was. It happened that way, the film states, which I suppose is what could be said about the film as well.
Kevin Costner in occupying the center of the screen with this role gradually strips away the SILVERADO persona that Wyatt seems to embody early on entirely taking him beyond the nobility of Eliot Ness to something else much darker. It’s a color that blends in with the western scenery but in some ways it’s not enough. Even with what we’d expect of the title there’s not enough of an ensemble, always making sure that’s it’s a star vehicle without enough shadings to go with his stoicism. The occasional group composition of the Earps and Holliday imply more of an ensemble piece than it ever actually is. Dennis Quaid, who lost 44 pounds to portray the sickly Holliday, is quite good and I particularly like one scene where he talks about death but there needs to be more--it’s a film about Wyatt, not Wyatt and Doc, which may be to its detriment. As the Earp brothers Michael Madsen, David Andrews, Linden Ashby and Jim Caviezel never get enough of a chance to make an impact--Madsen lost out on the chance to play Vincent Vega in PULP FICTION because of this and he doesn’t get much out of it beyond recognition that Michael Madsen is playing the part. Gene Hackman brings all the strength of his presence in his few scenes that you would expect and I wish there was a place for him to reappear later on. There are lots of familiar faces—when a door opens to reveal Karen Grassle at one point I feel like we’re in an old episode of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE for a second. Some in the large supporting cast do manage to make strong impressions, particularly Catherine O’Hara, Annabeth Gish, Tom Sizemore, Mare Winningham, Isabella Rossellini and Jeff Fahey as Ike Clanton who more than anyone is the sort of character actor who you’d think would have actually been in TOMBSTONE. Not appearing until past the halfway point, Joanna Going is very striking as Josie Marcus, a sort of Old West Morose Pixie Dream Girl who knows how to talk to Wyatt directly almost instantly, and she does give the movie a certain kind of soul that it doesn’t otherwise have and an emotional level that it badly needs.
Sometimes you can give into a movie in spite of its problems, sometimes things nag at you even if you’re not looking for them. Sometimes a movie just loses its way in terms of what its core should be and I wonder if that’s part of what happened here. An extended version running about twenty minutes longer was released on laserdisc but the DVD is the theatrical cut, the one I saw in Westwood way back which I suppose marked the point when Kevin Costner was no longer the golden boy of DANCES WITH WOLVES not to mention ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES one of the big hits of three summers earlier and which always was a lousy movie. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. But it was crowd pleasing on a level that was never at all on the mind of WYATT EARP, a film with nobility but it falters. There is something to be said for getting lost in the film’s grandeur for a little while—I imagine that walking around some of production designer Ida Random’s sets was pretty cool—and I feel all of Kasdan’s ambition but ultimately it never really stirs me. I don’t feel anything beyond the weight of its nobility, its desire to be an epic without achieving the label. But it is a western so I do feel admiration for what it’s attempting, for what it’s trying to say about the yearning within the lost dreams of its title character and for all the possibilities that are there just in trying to make such a film. As I was writing this piece we had hit the tenth anniversary of the Costner-directed OPEN RANGE, a film that I thought was just swell and one that even did solid business at the box office at the time but, maybe skewing older, was one of those hits that don’t really matter very much to those in charge. There hasn’t been another western starring Costner since then—to get the HATFIELDS & MCCOYS miniseries made, which like WYATT EARP he starred in and was a producer on, it had to be for the History Channel. Times change. I doubt we’ll get another three-hour western again in movie theaters anytime soon. THE LONE RANGER was two-and-a-half and, well, we all know what happened. But I still think there’s potential for another western to come out and be a hit. Maybe Kevin Costner could be the one to get it made to once again express a love for the genre and the unlimited potential of those wide open vistas. Something that would be remembered. Maybe I need to believe in that, to believe it’ll happen that way.