Monday, January 2, 2012

A Kind Of Simple Glory About It

Sometimes I wonder what I’m going to do if I can’t do this anymore. And by ‘this’ I’m not talking about blogging, although the concept of getting burnt out has been occurring to me lately. I’m just talking about being able to go to the movies. I suppose it’ll always be around in some form but the increasing changeover to digital projectors in theaters is kind of a bummer—the Arclight Hollywood went all-digital several months ago so while I can kind of accept that this is gradually going to be the new reality from first-run film exhibition that doesn’t mean I have to like it. That’s not even getting into what this could possibly mean for independent film operators who won’t be able to afford the changeover. And I still think some of the flesh tones in THE DESCENDANTS when I saw it screened digitally at the Arclight looked kind of iffy, by the way. But even more than that I worry about the studios completely withdrawing their 35mm prints from any kind of exhibition whatsoever. From what I’ve heard the matter is of greater concern with some studios more than others but rumors still circulate, particularly with events like a theater in Atlanta advertising their screening of THE SHINING as the last in 35mm ever because “Warner Brothers will be retiring all prints”. And before I’ve realized it the world of revivals has changed and I need to check first to see if something is actually being shown on celluloid or if it’s just some kind of digital projection, which generally means that I can just stay home. Even if the quality of digital projection is pristine—which it always isn’t, that should be remembered—I can’t help but sometimes feel like instead of seeing a film I’m watching a giant video transmission. Film projection—35mm, if you want to get specific about it—can be a beautiful thing and I truly believe that the flicker of celluloid projection has a life to it that you just don’t get in the flat, lifeless smooth quality of something projected digitally. And I wonder what this could mean for any revival houses still out there, since it feels like the end game of all this will turn out to be that it will be impossible to see many films the way they were meant to be seen. In the life of this blog I’ve written about numerous films that I’ve seen in screenings at various theaters in this town for the first time and how powerful I sometimes found them, a feeling so enriched by being able to see them projected in those theaters. Some reading this may already know that Julia Marchese of the New Beverly, a theater run by people who care about this sort of thing, has launched her own petition requesting that the studios continue to make archival 35mm prints available. Quixotic? Nostalgia? Foolhardy? I don’t know. I only know that I signed because in the end I agree with it. Because I don’t want this to go away. Does this make me an old man, hanging on to what he’s always known and doesn’t want to lose it or am I trying to defend a technology which even if it is outdated is something I know down to my bones that I prefer?

For me, 2011 was an odd rollercoaster of a year—then again, what year isn’t?—that just happened to have been sort of bookended by the one and only Edgar Wright, programming his own festivals at the New Beverly. That one in January was a blast which I wrote about several times and this recent one in December in which he specifically programmed films he had never seen before had its own high points as well, with everything shown in glorious 35mm—director Allan Arkush being the recipient of a spontaneous standing ovation at the end of his rock comedy GET CRAZY, the pairing of Joe Dante and Leonard Maltin introducing Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE to a receptive crowd but there may have been a particular electricity in the air on the night two westerns were screened. Before the screening of John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, the first of the evening, Peter Bogdanovich appeared to speak at length about his experiences knowing Ford as well as his own personal feelings on this great film, which he first saw when it was released to a ‘meh’ response from the world. Bogdanovich didn’t stick around for the screening but I can imagine he would have been gratified by the response--you could tell how well the film played for the packed house that seemed with it every step of the way, a reminder of what a devastating work it really is and how well it holds up for our world today. The week at the New Beverly was exhausting but it was exhilarating as well, a shot of cinematic adrenaline just as potent as the one injected earlier in the year and a great way to close out this year. I was able to get my friend Abby out for a few of them and she loved the experience which made me enjoy it all the more. You put together the right audience with the right film, scratches in the print and all, and the feeling in the air can be electric.

The VALANCE screening was followed by Sam Peckinpah’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, introduced with Wright by SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM director Joe Carnahan, a pairing that essentially gave us what is widely considered to be both the last and first great work of each of these directors known primarily for their westerns. Both films were released in the same year, 1962, almost as if one myth of the west was ending while another was beginning and as different as the two films may ultimately be for a variety of reasons they are still each essentially a rumination on mortality and facing what one’s life has been essentially made up of. You could say that RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY presents what are now known as Peckinpah’s thematic preoccupations still in development, emerging from his work both writing and directing television westerns but also in some ways presented here as filtered through the MGM house style during what was the dying days of the old studio system. In an early scene of the film an old cowboy played by Joel McCrea enters a town where he thinks that a crowd of people lining the streets are cheering for him when in fact they’re eagerly awaiting the end of a race involving, of all things, a camel. A cute joke, if a little broad and maybe the beginning of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY doesn’t seem as if it will be anything unusual in the story of two old gunfighters nearing the end of their days. But there’s something in the film’s very DNA that goes beyond the relative straightforward nature of its story and the overall approach is genuinely powerful in ways that go beyond what it would have been otherwise.

When aging cowboy Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) takes a job to deliver a shipment of gold from a distant mining camp he hires old friend and onetime fellow lawman Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) to come on the job with him. Westrum also brings along the younger Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) but Judd has no idea that the two men are planning on stealing the gold. On their way to the camp they take on Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley) a young woman attempting to flee her overly strict, extremely religious father (R.G. Armstrong) by marrying Billy Hammond (James Drury), a man she knows to be at the camp. Once they get there the marriage is a disaster even before the ceremony ends, with it clear that Billy is going to allow his brothers (including Warren Oates) to have their way with her. As they leave the town, the three men make sure to take Elsa with them but in addition to the Hammond brothers on their tale there’s still the matter of the plan to make off with the gold and whether Westrum will be able to convince his old friend to join in.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY runs only 94 minutes with a plot that doesn’t seem particularly complex at first glance. It’s a western with any number of the expected tropes that the genre that promises, complete with a climactic shootout between good guys and bad guys—a pretty amazing shoot out, it should be said—yet the overriding effect the film has as it proceeds forward is as if the entire world rests on its shoulders, the weight of everything that matters in the world is packed into every gesture, every glance between these men and the one woman in their world. It’s not a case of a film becoming more than its script (N.B. Stone, Jr. is credited but there were reportedly extensive dialogue rewrites by Peckinpah) but of a story becoming more than the straightforwardness of its idea, turning into something truly profound by the sheer telling of it--the feel of the land as exemplified by composer George Bassman’s noble main theme and even McCrea scolding Starr to pick something he’s just thrown down to the ground (“Pick that up! These mountains don't need your trash.”) And there’s the obvious friendship of these two guys as played by McCrea and Scott which couldn’t be more genuine with their array of in-jokes to each other and particular kind of shorthand as they talk about girls they once knew. There’s such pure economy always evident in both the way the characters are presented as well as the storytelling, like how so much is said in the sight of the fresh-faced Hartley coming out to greet the men in a dress she never gets to wear followed by the way her ultra-strict and religion-fixated father played by Armstrong instantly reacts. Later on his brutal treatment of her is followed by a shot of the man kneeling by his late wife’s grave on his farm in almost desperate prayer and he’s just one of several characters in the film who, despicable as they may be, are completely fleshed-out and the Hammonds, hateful as they are, also feel completely like a family unit that have been bound together for years.

Sam Peckinpah hadn’t quite become the Sam Peckinpah he’s famous for yet and the later pessimism that permeates much of the later work is nowhere to be found but the themes we recognize in his work now are undeniably present, from lawmen tossed aside by the world possibly moving to the other side for their own reward to ongoing family units to the eternally important matter of friendship. And loyalty. And what all that means. It plays as a film made this way because its director needed to express all this once and for all, he felt what it had to be in his bones. Though many recognized even at the time that he had delivered more than the simple programmer it was supposed to be MGM didn’t quite feel that way. Though it’s the rare Peckinpah film that was released in what was essentially his cut even that was more out of disinterest by the studio than anything and the director was even barred from the lot during the final mix. In some ways you can see RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY as a product of the MGM assembly line but almost every scene seems to have something just a little unexpected like that almost shocking close-up of Warren Oates when he’s first introduced or the extended wedding ceremony held in a brothel much of which is seen directly from Elsa's point of view and about which an entire piece could probably be written on these few minutes of screen time. The speech given by the justice of the peace who officiates the wedding as played by Edgar Buchanan initially seems like a digression, one of the few real ones in this tight narrative, but what he has to say about how true glory doesn’t come at the beginning of something but at the end feels absolutely essential for the film. The reward comes from what you actually accomplish. He’s only talking about marriages of course but every bit of it, particularly the wording of the phrase “a kind of a simple glory” sticks with me and it haunts the final half hour as we observe the turns of allegiances that the characters make in the story leading to what they ultimately have to do.

There are many films which pause to take in the glorious scenery with majestic music playing. In RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY the moments feels all the more searing almost as if the very celluloid that the film is shot on is insisting that we pay attention to every vista and take it in, because we might not always be able to pause for such a moment. It’s a thought that stands out for me when I gaze at the final image, a moment which transcends everything and says with me long after ‘The End’ has flashed on the screen. Edgar Wright called the pairing of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and CHUNGKING EXPRESS from a few nights earlier the perfect double bill and this one wasn’t too far off, even if in a different key. Both from the same year, both wishing to pause and take in what the country was and had become, undeniable for what it reveals of the two directors who were decades apart in age but strangely kindred spirits as if they both felt that if they didn’t make their movie at that point in time then they never would. LIBERTY VALANCE is thought of as a last great work by a master as well as a final statement of all he wanted to say about the west and I suppose America as well. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY doesn’t feel like it’s meant to have such high aspirations so much as serve as a first shot over a bow which seems to contain everything about the west its director wanted to express at that point but by the time Randolph Scott declares, “My sentiments exactly,” and the two men make that final walk together towards what might be their destiny it manages to become its own grand statement as well.

It’s one of those interesting cases where I’m vaguely aware that the film is trading on the reputations of its two leads and yet it’s not an element I can fully appreciate—unlike Edgar Wright I had seen it before but I doubt very many at the theater that night would have had such associations either. Joel McCrea I already know from several Preston Sturges films as well as a few other things. As for Randolph Scott, much of my prior knowledge probably comes from the joke about him in BLAZING SADDLES. Both men are extremely powerful in their roles, exuding a complete confidence and a relaxed chemistry together that the path their relationship takes as the story unfolds doesn’t even seem like plot structure. It feels totally genuine. Maybe both men realized what the film was representing as they were making it; this was Scott’s last film and McCrea only made a few others several years later, all westerns and none that seem to be remembered. In her first film Mariette Hartley takes what in other hands might be a simple ingénue role and successfully balances the frustrations of her farm life and the unfortunate naiveté for the situation she jumps into without first knowing what’s going on. Percy Helton as the banker who hires McCrea is instantly recognizable from, among other credits, his role as the weasel of a morgue attendant in KISS ME DEADLY while the likes of Warren Oates, R.G. Armstrong and L.Q. Jones make their first appearances for Peckinpah, helping to make if feel like his cinematic worldview is quickly coming into sharp focus.

Continually viewing Sam Peckinpah films is for me, a constantly evolving experience and I feel like it’s only been over the past few years that I’ve even started to get a handle on what they are, what they’re expressing. It’s amazing how young he was when he made RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY because it always feel aware of the very concept of mortality, that there may be no way to keep things from changing but if you stop and stare at just the right vista sometimes the moment can become implanted on your very soul. It’s a feeling that I’ve gotten the cinematic equivalent of any number of times at a place like the New Beverly, including over the past year. This particular double bill seemed fitting because more than anything it makes me wonder just how many chances we’ll be given to see a pairing like this in a theater. It’s easy to imagine this was part of Edgar Wright’s own incentive for this particular festival because maybe it’s becoming that much more important to see a few of these films while we still can. During several of his intros he mentioned this may be the last series he programs for a while (and all the best to him on whatever projects he’ll be working on during 2012) but hopefully he’ll turn up again somewhere down the line with a few more films he still needs to see the way they should be seen.

“I’ll have to find something else to do,” says James Bond to Countess Teresa di Vicenzo in a movie I’ve been fortunate to see projected in 35mm multiple times. I’m getting older. I’m well aware that many things won’t stay the way they are. Film is film. I don’t want that to go away entirely and frankly I don’t believe that anyone knows for certain how long digital files are going to last, so not only should such films continue to be available in 35mm they should also be preserved in 35mm. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, to borrow from Larry Bishop in KILL BILL VOL. 2, digital projection at revival screenings is about as useless to me as an asshole right here (points to elbow). With film, with that texture, with that pulsating motion to the flicker, it feels alive. It has a pulse. Digital feels sterile, lifeless. Plus film just looks better and I’m sorry but you can’t convince me otherwise. There’s a purity to it, just as genuine as that land Joel McCrea doesn’t want littered with some callow young cowboy’s garbage. And it’s still beautiful. Maybe I’ll just wind up sitting in my apartment, watching nothing but TCM, dreaming of a world where movies once existed. But at the same time I think I have to believe it’s going to continue because what other choice is there? What else would I do anyway? Anyway, Happy New Year. Save 35mm. And here’s to all the simple glories yet to come.


Adam Ross said...

Great review of a movie I adore. You're right that this is kind of a gateway film for Peckinpah's career, there's several elements that are echoed in his other works, particularly the Wild Bunch. I think you can see a lot of Steve Judd and Gil Westrum in Pike Bishop and Dutch (maybe Deke Thornton too).

I like the score as well, but it's mentioned in either in the Peckinpah commentary track or Paul Seydor's excellent book that the "Mickey Mousing" elements of it were added later by the studio. The worst of these cues can be heard in most of the action scenes.

There are a lot of lines that stay with you, a couple more:

"All I want is to enter my house justified."

"My father says there's only right and wrong - good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?"
"No. It should be, but it isn't."

le0pard13 said...

Wonderful essay for both the preservation of 35mm projection and praise for one of the great westerns on celluloid, Mr. Peel. I very much support the work of Julia Marchese and the New Beverly for what they are attempting to do (I wrote it up here last year, in fact). It is a sad thing studios believe 35mm archive prints must go to make way for digital projection and the thought the format will last (the jury is still out). Thanks for this.