Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Genuine As A Sunrise
I drove across this country when I first moved out to L.A. I guess that was a long time ago now and while I’d love the chance to do it again I know that isn’t going to happen any time soon. But I still have fond memories of that week, a brief point in time where everything seemed to be out in front of me, every possibility in the world seemed, well, possible. On one of those days I drove from Santa Fe to Vegas in the space of what must have been around twelve hours, barely stopping at all except for gas and food a few times. It felt like freedom.
Sometimes I feel regret and sadness, wondering about things that have happened in my life, wondering just what’s happened to the world. Things just feel more intense now, nastier too and there’s really nothing that can be done about it. I wish there was. Though I’d heard of Sam Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER I’d never actually seen it until the New Beverly ran it several weeks back. Unlike what would be expected from your typical Peckinpah film it’s so gentle, so human, so humane, that I find it all immensely moving. It’s about as truly earnest a film as I’ve ever seen and it makes me wonder why that’s become such a bad thing in this world.
Rodeo rider Junior “JR” Bonner (Steve McQueen) is reaching that point where he’s just about to be too old for what he’s doing, told that he’s “just not the rider he used to be a few years back.” He returns home for the town parade and rodeo only to find his father’s home bulldozed by his own brother Curly, (Joe Don Baker) an entrepreneur who is taking the property to develop it for mobile homes (“The thing of the future.”). While trying to reach a deal with rodeo owner Buck Roan (Ben Johnson) to have another try at the meanest bull in the show, JR meets up with his mother Elvira (Ida Lupino) and father Ace (Robert Preston) who are estranged yet still very much a part of each other’s lives. In spite of Curly’s overtures to get him to join up with the business so he can stick around, JR is fully determined to successfully ride this bull at this rodeo so he can make a little money and once again head out on the road.
You know how in some movies the hero drifts into town and for the first five minutes everyone is so relaxed with each other only to soon see it all ruined by the bad guys? Those bad guys never turn up in JUNIOR BONNER, a film originally released in 1972 where that easygoing feel continues all the way through with the only real conflict being what’s going on between this family and the siblings who clearly disagree with what should be done with all these “wide open spaces” out there. Curly is at least thinking somewhat about the future in a way that I suppose is responsible and he’s even making an earnest attempt to keep the family together, though I get a feeling that he also has the ulterior motive of trying to get the entire family under his thumb as well. This guy may be a success at business, but he’ll never be any sort of patriarch. It’s the soft-spoken and straight-shooting JR who knows what the freedom of those wide open spaces means and what it means to his father, who has plans to go prospecting in Australia, even if it would never be something that either of them would put into words. With a subtly engaging screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook (one of the writers on THE BLACK HOLE, of all things), there’s very obviously a lot of unspoken backstory between these people—the jealousy Curly obviously has for the bond his father and brother share, whatever’s happened between Ace and Elvira—just like there would be with any family but it’s not something we need spelled out for us and the structure of the script wisely delays the reunion of father and son so it feels all the more potent when it finally does happen. All that matters is this one day we see them, a day where JR is arriving home totally broke and busted which he doesn’t want to admit to yet he can’t stop what he is, someone who just wants to go down his own road living the life of a “motel cowboy” as someone calls him at one point, sometimes sleeping under the stars, ready to go for those eight seconds one more time.
Not much happens in JUNIOR BONNER. Or maybe everything happens. It pauses for a long stretch to just observe this rodeo, in no hurry to move on to the next plot point. The big action scenes are really just JR’s encounter with some bulldozers taking down his father’s house as well as a bar fight and not even a particularly nasty bar fight. It feels like the most optimistic portrayal of humanity Peckinpah ever allowed himself to present and maybe shows the most of the best part of him as the person he was as well. Watching the film amble along, gaining in resonance with each scene, it reminds me how movies have become much slicker in recent years but since the world has too that’s kind of unavoidable. It’s a minor point but in the recent country singer saga CRAZY HEART Jeff Bridges has a modern day cordless phone in his house, not some old rotary thing like some people used to in films. Things have changed whether we want them to or not. JUNIOR BONNER is set at the time when that change is coming but that sense of something is still there, it was still tangible. At a certain point there’s going to be no denying that but maybe they (I? We?) can put it off for a while longer. The future is coming and while what Curly is trying to do to this community is going to be pretty garish it’s obviously nothing compared to what’s out there today in the world (the setting is a small town in Arizona—I’ll refrain from commenting on that state right now). Like all the best of Peckinpah, JUNIOR BONNER is about something that is dying out to make way for the heartless onslaught of what’s coming so we need to pay attention to every small gesture and remember…just like now we need to remember the movies that Sam Peckinpah made. There’s a use of freeze frames near the end that I find quietly moving not only in the context of this story but how it makes me think of how this type of character story has become so anathema in this day and age. And I love that final line, I just love it.
I finally got the chance to see this film several weeks ago when it ran at the New Beverly on a double bill with Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (guess which one had the bigger crowd—those who came only for the second film missed out). The pairing might seem odd at first glance but Tarantino himself has spoken of his fondness for JUNIOR BONNER, screening it in Austin and relating the initial response that this gentle, elegiac piece got at the time to how his own J.B. picture was received on its release, also a gentler, more mature film from someone that audiences expected a crazier, more violent ride from and a good reminder of how much more is ever going on in some of these director’s films than is often considered on first glance. But as Peckinpah himself observed some time later about its failure, “I made a film where nobody got shot and nobody went to see it.” JUNIOR BONNER isn’t about the tragic endings that a few other Peckinpah films end in, it’s a small piece of life in progress that may show someone putting off the inevitable but fully determined to live on his own terms, out there on the open road, for as long as he can.
Steve McQueen is about as cool as it ever gets, that’s for sure, and you feel his character not from what he says but from every single steady step he takes through each scene and every slow glance he gives someone. He’s living this guy, he is this guy. Joe Don Baker underplays things beautifully never exactly getting us to like him but we can sense that bit of resentment he feels that he’s trying to keep buried. Robert Preston hits all the right notes as the big talking Red, a star among all the people who know him in this small town and Ida Lupino (making her first screen appearance in years at the time this was made) feels so genuine that it’s hard to believe she was once a movie star—it’s like they just showed up at this woman’s house one morning and rolled film. Playing Charmaigne, the girl who catches JR’s eye, Barbara Leigh doesn’t do much but it’s hard not to gaze at her and her long, straight hair. Familiar faces like Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor and Bill McKinney fit in perfectly with this world.
Thinking about Sam Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER, a film I’ve finally gotten around to seeing, makes me think about how I’m continuing to discover films like this and falling for the smaller pleasures that can be found in them. It can lead to some pretty rich rewards if I look hard enough and with the summer movie season about to start I’m fairly certain I’m not going to find any such rewards in those movies. The films that I’m looking for can be found on their own open road that I sometimes drive down, looking for what I haven’t seen yet, reminding myself how special some of them can really be. Like JR Bonner himself, it’s something that I have to do.