Thursday, June 14, 2012
Even The Intolerable
Whether we like it or not, some films exist. That’s just the way it is. I mention this simply because there are no doubt some people out there still pissed about the whole killing of Hicks and Newt thing at the start of ALIEN 3. What with them being fictional characters and all I’ve sort of gotten over it by now. And particularly in these days when it feels like every franchise is processed through a CGI filter to make it as crowd pleasing as humanly possible for all I’ve come to flat out admire the willingness of a summer tentpole to be as unrelentingly bleak as possible. You could make the argument that any film set within the ALIEN universe of Weyland-Yutani is supposed to be a horror film anyway so a certain amount of darkness should really be allowed but there is something to be said for how dangerous it can be to pretty much disregard the previous entry in a series during the opening moments of the next sequel as much as this film does. And if those who made the film didn’t know how people were going to react, if they didn’t know how strongly people really had responded to the characters in ALIENS, it’s a little surprising that no one ever bothered to speak up (an early teaser trailer that implied the film would be set on Earth probably didn’t help matters). The tortuous gestation that the film went through following the smash success of the previous film in 1986 involving multiple screenwriters and directors in different iterations has been reported elsewhere so I won’t go into all that now. The film was of course finally helmed by David Fincher making his feature directorial debut and considering how one alternative would have been to produce a more-of-the-same followup from a journey man director just following orders in a ‘Further Adventures of Ripley and her Friends’ vein at least the resulting film goes down a few paths that really no one would have expected during all those years in between but one thing I’ve long said is that it’s not enough for a film to be dark. It’s an admirable quality, yes, and when done just right the final result can be like a punch to the gut, sticking with you for a long time afterwards whether you want it to or not. But ALIEN 3, for all its sound and fury and doom and gloom and noise and clanging and death and more death, never manages to achieve such resonance maybe because through the clusterfuck of trying to simply get the film made the script was never hammered down into the right form in order to find a reason for its own existence beyond the fact that it’s a sequel. This first look at Fincher as director remains an undeniable glimpse at his potential, particularly now that he’s made a few films where the end result of all that bleakness did have its considerable rewards. And as bad as the initial response was even then there were a few dissenting voices to ponder the thematic implications that came across as Manohla Dargis did in a Village Voice article (which unfortunately can’t be found online) a few weeks after the release entitled “ALIEN 3 and its Metaphors” which delved into the connections to the AIDS crisis amid the politics of the time. But such discussions don’t automatically make something good. It just means there’s more to discuss. As some may know an extended cut (145 min. vs. 115 min.) was released on DVD a number of years ago but I’ve only ever seen pieces of it—I suppose my auteurist leanings make me less interested since Fincher who has nothing good to say about the film to this day (“No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me,” was the quote in a 2009 interview) declined involvement and has apparently never even seen that version. So in writing this I’m focusing on the theatrical cut of ALIEN 3 not only because it’s what I have close at hand but because it’s the movie I’ve known since opening night in Times Square way back on 5/22/92 (Happy 20th Anniversary!) and have seen more than a few times through the years as I’ve tried to reconcile this film with my own expectations as well as my own perceptions of what it’s trying to be. As far as I’m concerned, this is the ALIEN 3 the world has to contend with, the one with a trailer that trumpeted “The Bitch Is Back” maybe the best and worse tagline ever. I even had an ALIEN 3 t-shirt at the time which had that slogan on the back. Still can’t believe I actually wore it. If there’s a great film in there, one we’ll never see, it still feels miscalibrated—it's a film with an onscreen title which makes it look like it should really be called ALIEN CUBED but it doesn’t really mean anything, just a piece of design that has nothing to do with actual film and I suppose the entire film has the feel of an art project that doesn’t quite feel molded to completion which based on what’s been reported about the production appears to be exactly the case. As films that are hated go, at least it feels totally committed to the tone it strives for even though all these years later I still don’t think it ever becomes good enough to defend very much beyond its intentions. Soon after the events of ALIENS, an alien egg hatches on the Sulaco where Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the young girl Newt, Corporal Hicks and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) are in hypersleep traveling back to earth from the events on LV-426. As emergency procedures are activated the ship releases their pod and it crash lands on Fiorina “Fury” 161, a former prison colony populated by a group made of of double Y chromosome murderers and rapists once inmates, now custodians who have taken vows in an environment so treacherous that everyone on the planet has to shave their heads due to prevalent lice. Ripley is the only survivor of the crash but even though she insists on the bodies of her friends be cremated she still suspects that an alien has followed along with them which she conceals from all including inmate leader Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), Warden Andrews (Brian Glover) and the facility doctor Clemons (Charles Dance) which she gradually begins to form a bond with. But as they wait for the rescue team that’s been sent for her, strange happenings appear to confirm that there is in fact an alien on the planet which for Ripley leads to the most horrifying discovery of all… Exactly when the alien queen was supposed to have laid an egg on the Sulaco during the climax of ALIENS is a question that goes unanswered but, really, the best answer to be found of course is that it was decided that an egg had been laid so that this film could be made. In terms of narrative ALIEN 3 (Story by Vincent Ward, Screenplay by David Giler & Walter Hill and Larry Ferguson) is a direct continuation of the previous film even more than ALIENS was to ALIEN but it seems not only uninterested in continuing the threads that people found so satisfying in the James Cameron film the way it plays right from the Twentieth Century Fox logo is as if in making his own film David Fincher wanted to reveal that quintessential product of the eighties to be a lie, a breaking apart of the Reagan-era family unit borne out of the ashes of Vietnam that all those marines represent, to lay bare the feel good rollercoaster and essentially punish the audience for getting even a little enjoyment out of this. Looking at ALIEN 3 as the ignominious death of the eighties—as well the eighties blockbusters I grew up seeing—and blowing what came before to smithereens isn’t all that unappealing and the apocalyptic tone is both undeniable and unrelenting but regardless of what the film’s subtext is the text is never strong enough to support it. A things wind up playing out that subtext doesn’t feel fully thought out on its own either. In a way the film begins in such a place of total darkness there’s nowhere else to go in terms of drama beyond simple nihilism and even watching the film now when the bodies are dug out in the first minutes it’s hard not to wonder what’s the point of going on with the actual movie, what’s the point of Ripley going on and when she makes a few wisecracks to prove to the prisoners how tough she is it’s almost like, who cares? Why does she even care anymore? With no sign of relief the film is nihilistic to the point that it feels as if it’s being made by somebody who just discovered the word in a dictionary and wants to make it all as punk as absolutely possible. The approach is so dark it’s hard not to admire what it’s going for through all its apocalyptic imagery and it isn’t every day a summer blockbuster contains a sequence depicting the (mostly off-camera) autopsy of a little girl leading to Charles Dance as Clemons announcing the cause of Newt’s death, hammering it home with the statement, “Lungs flooded with fluid. Ergo, she drowned,” the sorrow heard in Elliot Goldenthal’s score seems intent on shattering the dreams of anyone who had spent the six long years between entries wondering what could come next. It’s not even a cool science fiction movie death, it’s just sad. For simple drama it’s almost as if the film should end right there and even the ceremonial funeral of Newt and Hicks as their bodies are dropped into Fury 161’s furnace never surpasses this moment of hopelessness, maybe because the insistence of intercutting Charles Dutton’s speech of death in the shadow of new life with the newest alien at last being born is just a heavy handedness that plays as wrong, a first year philosophy student that thinks they’re being deep in trying to provide an APOCALYPSE NOW sort of frisson. And these reaches for meaning intermingle with a narrative that always feels in search of an actual story to frame amidst the elements. Ripley takes up a sort of companionship with Clemons but as good as Weaver and Dance are in their scenes together—the way they play off each other with both of them withholding certain secrets feels refreshingly adult unlike any other relationship she has in the series—but her presumed distrust in telling anyone about what’s going on feels like too much of a contrivance, an attempt to keep some drama going where there just isn’t enough of any, one of the most crippling elements of the entire film. The story never feels solidified to the point that when several minutes are taken up by a plan to catch the alien that ultimately goes nowhere maybe it’s meant to represent the futility of it all as these characters get stripped away of any possible chance of survival but instead it feels like the movie is just treading water for several minutes, waiting for new script pages to come in so they’ll know which way the plot is going. Through this muddle you can feel the roots of how strong Fincher would be in just a few years’ time once the world got a look at SEVEN—there are specific shots in almost every scene so haunting it feels like even more a shame that it all never comes together and there’s a certain energy he brings to the rhythm of dialogue scenes between characters that plays very much as how he would shoot such things even now with a casual realism to certain offhand moments that at least helps with the verisimilitude. Photographed by Alex Thomson, who replaced Jordan Cronenweth after a few weeks of shooting, the craft is certainly strong--the camerawork couldn’t be better and the desolation of this look is undeniable, stripping this future world down to as little technology as possible with the confidence of Fincher’s visual style feeling completely present even at this early stage. As director he always seems interested in both the environment and the actors in it, clearly taken with the sets he gets to shoot on but for all the atmosphere continually present in any given scene but as dark as the aesthetic is it’s never particularly scary and I never get the feeling he has much interest in science fiction as a genre or in the alien itself beyond its metaphorical implications—born of a dog it may be slightly different than the creature in Ridley Scott’s original but the same level of mystery and intrigue paid attention to it is never there. It just feels like a monster, that’s it, period, and ultimately is the least interesting incarnation of the creature during the four films in the series Weaver starred in. The AIDS metaphor feels more blatant now than ever and with so much attention paid to all the snarling bald dudes in this grunge environment (part prison movie/part convent movie, if you will) it’s a reminder of when this was made in the early nineties, almost as if the film was striving to be the first big-budget piece of queer science fiction, maybe shown on a double bill alongside Derek Jarman’s EDWARD II with a woman (one of “the intolerable” as Dutton calls her to her face early on) who has invaded this holy sanctuary eventually accepted by this tribe of men who come to realize that in the eyes of those in charge she’s no different than they are. But the details of the community never feel all that clarified and don’t really matter anyway with the film paying more attention to the attempted rape of Ripley by some of the prisoners as heavy metal riffs play on the soundtrack (this one scene aside, the score by Elliot Goldenthal remains one of the best things about the film, providing just the right fateful tone and giving the film whatever soul it manages to have). And the fact that they all seem to be a bunch of bald Brits--Pete Postlewaithe is one--who we can never keep track has long since become the most clichéd thing to say about the movie but it’s also true. And if there’s a thematic reason why we can’t tell them apart—just wondering if there is must mean I’m really trying to give this film the benefit of the doubt—that doesn’t play either any more than the protracted climax where we never know where anyone is in relation to each other, just playing as a lot of running and yelling while the rescue team takes an eternity to finally reach them. Considering how one commonality the two stylistically dissimilar films by Ridley Scott and James Cameron share are characters that remain beloved to this day makes it all the more clear how much the film fails on this point and it’s interesting to consider how in recent years few directors have provided solid roles for familiar character actors as David Fincher, so lesson learned I suppose. Forget about not being able to care about these convicts—but it could be asked that compared with the working stiffs of ALIEN and the marines of ALIENS exactly why should we give a shit about a bunch of convicts?—there’s never a good reason to maintain even a slight interest in them so with much of the focus on how hopeless things are and Ripley shouting “They don’t give a fuck about you or any of your friends that died!” to drive the thematic point home even further he doesn’t seem to be putting much thought into actually making it scary. There are small touches of offhand humor or bits of business (because, in spite of its reputation, there is some humor in the film) very much in the vein of moments in later Fincher films alongside moments where you can feel him wrenching a genuine feel of loss from it all. The film’s best moment may be its simplest with Charles Dance’s Clemons finally sharing the dark secret of his past with Ripley who offers him salvation in the form of her trust immediately before the inevitable happens. This is shortly followed by the most iconic image of the film and as the tension rapidly builds with Ripley racing to the mess hall it culminates in what feels like it’s meant to be one of the big jumps of the film but the way things are staged it feels like Fincher didn’t have the time to get things right although letting a certain squeezey ball dropping to the floor certainly helps. The controversial ending (spoiler alert? Does it matter?) involving the newborn alien growing inside Ripley finally bursting through her chest right at the moment of her dive into the prison facility’s furnace is both ridiculous and memorable at the same time, not only an appropriate punchline to it all but also containing the sort of HEAVY METAL-like imagery that hasn’t really been seen in the series since the Ridley Scott film. The assembly cut omits this key moment, simply having her fall in to her death which, like any number of conceptual elements even in the theatrical cut of the film feels somewhat lacking. Maybe there’s no way for there to be a version of the film that could somehow be right for all sorts of reasons. I admire things about ALIEN 3. I admire the sense of doom. I admire the bravery in how much of a downer it wants to be and how it carries it through to a brave conclusion. But it’s not enough. If Fincher ever had a concept that could have won over the people who were going to be pissed off—or even if there was a strong enough concept regardless—it’s like he never got to follow it through to its conclusion. Or maybe it was just a bad concept to begin with, even if his talent as shown here is already very much in evidence. As frustrating as the material often is Sigourney Weaver delivers a powerful performance, maybe even better than her Oscar nominated work in ALIENS, and she finds the right pitch of grim desperation in her plight as she continually sizes up what she’s up against. Charles Dance does strong work as well particularly during his final moments and the low key nature of how the character has resigned himself to this place is an ideal balance with the much more dynamic Charles S. Dutton (“It’s Roc!” someone called out on opening night in Times Square) whose character gradually builds in prominence and while the role may be underwritten the film’s energy shoots up each time he’s around with glasses attached to his face that seem at times like a permanent fixture. Lance Henriksen is in for just a few scenes—half his performance is as Bishop from ALIENS though done with a (very impressive pre-CGI) puppet head and the other half as a Bishop lookalike who may or may not be human feels like the actor going for a certain ambiguous menace…but it’s still kind of a gimmicky cameo. As for all those Brits the several who get to interact directly with Weaver seem to up their game whenever she’s around, particularly Brian Glover as Warden Andrews (I like his “This is Rumor Control” patter), Ralph Brown (like Paul McGann who plays Golic, also in WITHNAIL & I) as Mr. Aaron and a pre-fame Postlethwaite but most of them are, well, bald Brits who blend together. One point of the film that does deserve unreserved praise is the score by Elliott Goldenthal, which completely earns every ounce of apocalyptic flavor it’s clearly going for and giving the film whatever soul it actually manages to achieve. The way the closing moment of ALIEN 3 contains the echo of a certain past log recording indicates how much regard David Fincher had for the Ridley Scott original and maybe also how the James Cameron sequel didn’t rank quite so highly for him. I was just a few years too young for ALIEN at the time but have come to regard it as a masterwork along with everyone else. When ALIENS came out I was just the right age and absolutely loved it but the film hasn’t stuck with me in quite the same way maybe partly because it seems so much a part of that decade—really, it’s set in a future where the 80s never ended—and partly because the Syd Field perfection of James Cameron’s structure in his storytelling reveals just how schematic some of it is. With David Fincher’s ALIEN 3 I was one of those who had spent years wondering what the followup could be and was maybe a little puzzled by what I got on opening night but maybe its messiness as well as its refusal to contain even an ounce of catering to the audience has kept it stuck in my brain all this time through further sequels and spinoffs that had nowhere near as much on their mind. Even if it is fatally, irrevocably flawed from frame one. I don’t like the film but as it is sometimes I feel compelled to confront it, not dismiss it, to see it again to study it, not to let my eyes glaze over. And its horrors do feel more internal, more lasting. It’s not about marshaling your forces to kick the alien’s ass as you scream, “Get away from her, you bitch!” It’s a statement that we’re all fucked, especially when ‘the company’ is in charge, a sentiment which has more resonance now in this age of ‘Corporations are people too’ and will probably continue to be more relevant as time goes on. And it’s about the question of if you are fucked, with none of the plasma rifles of ALIENS to defend you, are you going to go out on your feet or on your knees. Maybe there was no way to make a valid continuation to the story told in ALIEN and ALIENS that would satisfy anyone so the film had to die in order for it to be anything at all, but at least it goes out fighting. I still can’t call ALIEN 3 good but maybe sometimes what really matters is that a film which exists is able to express a desire to simply be alive before the credits roll in order to get into our heads, even if it’s for only a few short moments before we go back to dreaming of those happy endings we still hope to someday find.
Posted by Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino at 9:19 PM 8 comments:
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Closer To Some Greater Design
Some things in life just become more beautiful the longer you gaze at them. Recently I spent about a week in Santa Fe, getting away from it all and trying just to breathe easy for a few days. The place where I was staying has a view of the flatness out onto the horizon where you can see a few of the other properties nearby yet at the same time it feels strangely isolated, as if there isn’t anyone else around for miles. And I found myself staring repeatedly at that view, particularly as the sun would recede further into the horizon painting everything with a golden hue that made it feel like I was being washed with a purity I could only partly understand. I suppose Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has that effect on me. A movie that reaches down into my soul with this feeling of absolute beauty and determination of remaining an individual in what the world is becoming mixed with sheer hopelessness, a feeling of giving up since everything is pre-destined into a bad end anyway is something I can’t shake. It’s not my favorite western and truthfully if I made up a list I don’t even know how high it would rank. Would it even make my top five? My top ten? And yet there may not be another film in this genre that I feel so protective of, a piece of pure visual poetry that I respond to in a way that is difficult for me to fully express. As some already know, PAT GARRETT is a difficult movie to consider partly because there has never really been a definitive version of it. The 106 minute theatrical cut released in 1973 was severely damaged by MGM during struggles Peckinpah had with studio chief James Aubrey (who committed similar acts of creative atrocity on other films including Blake Edwards’ THE CAREY TREATMENT), battles that there was no way the director could win. Although the framing device was lost this version isn’t exactly a ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA-level desecration—Peckinpah’s editors were successful in making sure that at least a few grace notes were allowed to linger but no one would call it representative of what the director was trying to achieve. The 122 minute “director’s cut” screened for years has likewise been considered never completely finished and is also missing some crucial footage while a 115 minute special edition prepared by Peckinpah scholars several years ago was an attempt to rectify some of these issues (both of these last two versions were released on DVD packaged together). Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, who am I to say, but since Peckinpah left us back in 1984 at age 59 a definitive PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID will never be seen, at least not in this world. Not only because the director isn’t around to do it but also because of whatever was going on with the various figures involved during filming, editing and within the director’s head as well. So PAT GARRETT will, in a sense, always be unfinished. Considering what the movie is, maybe that makes sense. Nothing about it is supposed to be satisfying anyway. It’s about the emptiness in life that comes from that feeling. It haunts me. New Mexico, 1881: Pat Garrett (James Coburn) seeks out his friend William Bonney (Kris Kristofferson), more famously known as Billy the Kid, to tell him that he’s been made Sherriff and when he takes over the job he’s going to be forced to make Billy leave. Billy doesn’t really respond to this one way or the other leading to his capture by Pat several days later. Billy is sentenced to be hung for a past crime but circumstances allow him to escape, killing his captors in the process and soon Garrett is sent off by New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) to either capture Billy or kill him. Garrett, knowing he has to, hating that he does, sets off after Billy who doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to get away from him. Within all their thematic complexities certain Peckinpah films could almost be boiled down to one word or thought. Each of these films have probably been called the director’s most personal film at one time or another and in a sense they all are. RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is majesty. THE WILD BUNCH is triumph. JUNIOR BONNER is affection. THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is sweetness. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, as I’ve observed before, is desolation, a ferocious scream by a drunk as he gets right in your face wondering what the fuck you’re looking at. Another film where by all accounts Peckinpah was drinking heavily during its production, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is despair, that same drunk just sitting down in a chair in the corner with no hope, just giving up, no desire to ever try anything else beyond shooting at your own reflection in the mirror. It’s an ugly film in all its sorrow—there’s no glory to any of the shootouts whatsoever starting with the opening sequence of Billy and others shooting the heads off chickens that have been buried in the sand. Everyone in the movie is trapped in a similar way as if they don’t know how to get out of it—the most pathetic killings Billy carries off playing as dirty as he does are only exacerbated by how the ones who are gunned down try to cheat their way out of the inevitable. Billy himself just seems to linger around the landscape after he’s escaped, figuring he’ll go to Mexico but never seeming all that defiant about it, still looking forward to someday giving California a try. Having made the decision that he no longer wants to spend time figuring what comes next Pat Garrett knows he’s trapped in the course he’s set for himself in life but no matter what he can’t escape the self-loathing that builds within him from selling out to the Governor and the Santa Fe Ring by becoming Sheriff, instead just choosing to reach for the nearest bottle and…just…sit there. It’s a world populated by men who have settled in to their meager lives aware of what little men they are, as if content to simply blend into the land around them or just shrink down into their bottles of booze. Pat Garrett is trying to change his course, make it a life where he doesn’t need to wonder what comes next and all it ever does is eat him up from the inside. Many familiar faces turn up throughout the film from the likes of L.Q. Jones, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Elam’s unforgettable moment when he says, “At least I’ll be remembered,” Chill Wills giving the most unforgettable description of a prostitute you’ve ever heard and even Charles Martin Smith right around the time of AMERICAN GRAFFITI (plus Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor, though not in some versions) but this cavalcade of personalities never feel like it’s being done in order to tweak or subvert their screen presence, instead in all their grime to provide them with more humanity than they ever have before in the dialogue all through the screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer (the man who wrote TWO-LANE BLACKTOP which by total coincidence I also watched out there in Santa Fe. Something must have put me in the mood), carves into the very soul of these people through what they say and sometimes just in how they say nothing but a quiet acknowledgement before letting the other one pass. Peckinpah clearly loves every single one of these faces he’s putting in his movie, no matter how small the parts are. And what feels like elements of some of his earlier films are placed into this context whether the children playing on the rope set to hang Billy right out of the kids in THE WILD BUNCH (here with the addition of the American flag flapping in the breeze nearby), or R.G. Armstrong’s strict Christian father of RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY reborn here as one of Billy’s tormentors as he’s waiting for the hangman’s noose with those sixteen thin dimes in his shotgun shouting fire and brimstone long after everyone just wants him to shut up, taken to its furthest extreme. Focusing on these moments and others--the framing of Armstrong seated with his shotgun, the glances among the Santa Fe Trail as Garrett sits down with them on that rainy New Mexico night, or just Coburn sitting on that bench outside the house where this all comes to an end--are much of what the film is, providing a cumulative effect of reality into myth, myth back into what needs to have happened for the world to continue. I wouldn’t blame someone for expecting a WILD BUNCH mid-movie heist here pulled off by Billy and his pals while they’re on the run from Garrett—each time I watch it I think I’m a little surprised when it moves into the final section that there hasn’t been more in the way of ‘plot’. “Let’s go!” is the recurring order barked out by William Holden to his crew in THE WILD BUNCH but there is no “Let’s go!” in PAT GARRETT, a movie that instead gives us one lead who instead of running just kind of lingers in the wild chasing after turkeys with his gang (Billy, they don’t like you to be so free…) while the one chasing him just broods, wandering about and sitting down with a bottle trying to put off the inevitable. When Billy hears that Pat is finally coming he doesn’t do much more than say, “Yeah, I reckon.” Within its own drunken haze the film itself almost feels like it possesses as much self-hatred as Garrett does, as if brooding about all its own failures until someone dares to suggest as much. Billy wanders about, speaking of going down to Mexico but when he changes his mind it never feels like his heart was all that in it anyway, building to a climax where we know the inevitable event that is coming and the way Peckinpah stages every single moment in the final section it’s as if the entire world is about to come to an end, that after this night the calendar will reset itself to A.B. (After Bill) with nothing ever able to rectify this act as Bob Dylan’s Alias lingers on the outskirts as a spectral vision, one who a hundred years later is going to write songs about all this based on what he observed. The trims done for the special edition seem well-considered and reasonably explained on the disc’s audio commentaries but I find myself missing some of what’s been removed anyway. Supposedly this version was seen as a way to tighten up sections that were supposedly allowed to linger too long yet while watching the director’s cut alone late at night in Santa Fe (I was sober at the time—should that be allowed with PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID?) I found myself thinking that if any film should be allowed to slowly drift through certain scenes a little longer than necessary maybe this would be the one because that feeling seems almost essential to allow the movie to seep into the viewer, absorbing the feeling of drunken emptiness in this landscape as stark and as desolate as anything. When compared with the two longer cuts the shorter theatrical version, at least for me, doesn’t seem like a desecration so much as an unfortunate abbreviation--the broad strokes are there but a certain richness to the arc is missing and it just feels incomplete. Still, I wish that it had been included on the DVD since it is, after all, the theatrical version of the film and therefore part of its history. But I’ll watch any version of this film anyway since PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is defiant, as defiant as Billy standing there arms held up in a cross-like way as the Bob Dylan score plays. With such vivid characterizations by actors who sometimes only appear briefly it feels like we’re only witnessing one part of a greater story of the old west or maybe Peckinpah has etched them so vividly even the smallest roles seem like they deserve their own film. While the episodic nature of the film doesn’t always feel ideal in terms of the pacing it still feels completely appropriate for what it needs to be. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado have barely been introduced before we see them bid farewell to each other in one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema history with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” on the soundtrack (the director’s cut omits the lyrics here, which makes it feel like a rough draft of the sequence, lacking the soul it ultimately achieves) and moments like this allow the film to achieve an undeniable power few others come anywhere near even before it reaches the climactic meeting. I’ve never seen Tarantino mention PAT GARRETT in interviews but it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t an influence—not just in its episodic fashion and brief, meaty roles for recognizable faces but also in its themes of loyalty and friendship between men. It’s hard to imagine him ever using “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” for his own purposes considering its perfection here but since LETHAL WEAPON 2 already pilfered it long ago maybe that’s never been an issue. Even the most complete cut isn’t without a certain abruptness within a few sequences particularly when Billy discovers Emilio Fernandez’s Paco and his wife being brutalized by some of John Chisum’s men, a scene which plays like the director was barely present on the day it was filmed. And the late stretch of Pat Garrett cavorting with prostitutes feels either handled incorrectly or maybe out of another film altogether, wrong for the elegiac tone where the women, notably Garrett’s own wife (itself a scene restored to the film in the most recent version) are left by the wayside, essentially ignored. And yet as the movie makes its spiral downward I feel like I almost understand the way the scene dives headfirst into its debauchery, into trying to do whatever he can to delay what he’s allowing the world to force him to do. It just feels slightly off. The way the film is flawed feels almost as much a part of its being as sorting through the different cuts (I’d go with the 1988 cut while adding the “Knockin’” lyrics, the scene with Garrett’s wife, the theatrical version of the opening credits and maybe a few other changes. But it’s not up to me). It almost seems coded to allow you to read any number of things into it in terms of how it relates to westerns, to your own life, to Sam Peckinpah’s own life, to whatever alcoholic haze he was swirling through at the time. The director himself makes an onscreen appearance as a coffin maker—building a child’s coffin, no less, imagery that also appeared in ALFREDO GARCIA—who, after turning down Garrett’s offer of his flask, seems to be totally aware of everything that’s going on. Of course he does. There are a few different endings—the theatrical lamely has a freeze frame of Pat and Billy smiling in happier times. One takes us back to the framing device in a way that as it plays out feels a little arbitrary. The final one simply has Pat ride off, a young boy throwing stones at him. Pat doesn’t do anything about it. He just moves on. He knows there’s nothing left. The young don’t want the victors to come back like Shane. They want them to go away, hating that they’ve robbed the world of innocence for their own reward. Same as it ever was, I suppose. And it is a problematic film—I know ‘flawed masterpiece’ is a term that’s been bandied about. But sometimes those flawed films are the ones that seem the most alive, the most beautiful and the more I watch a film like this the more I want to dig into what it is. PAT GARRETT almost feels like it doesn’t even have an ending. Maybe none of our lives have any sort of ending until all we have left is looking back and wondering just where we first went wrong. The friendship of Pat and Billy has to be taken as a given but it’s hard not to imagine Coburn and Kristofferson playing these parts in more of a romp during their glory days as outlaws together and it almost feels like more of the sadness that we don’t get to see that part of the story. Coburn is extraordinary, steely resolve forever there in those eyes with not a trace of the toothy Derk Flint grin Derek that I love so much, carrying all that self-loathing with him through every gesture as it weighs on him more and more. Kristofferson is a little more of a symbol as things ultimately play out but even if this has nothing at all to do with the real Billy the Kid his charisma is absolutely there. There’s never any doubt as he plays it that no one, except for Garrett of course, ever has a chance against William Bonney. Jason Robards etches out a fully-fleshed out portrayal of Governor Wallace in just one scene, a handful of lines, really, and along with the actors I’ve already mentioned are brief, vivid portrayals by Matt Clark, Richard Jaeckel, John Beck, Richard Bright, Rita Coolidge, Gene Evans of Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW and Barry Sullivan as John Chisum. As the enigmatically named Alias (“Alias anything you please,” he answers when someone asks, “Alias what?”) Bob Dylan is more of a spectre than anything and however much he’s around I never remember much that he does beyond an offhand thumbs up he gives Billy and that endless scene of reading off all those labels. Of course, he’s in almost the entire film anyway through his score which helps elevate this myth even more, along with elevating the sadness of it all. I listen to the album often and, like the film itself, it stays with me deep down into the pit of my soul. Just a few days after I returned from New Mexico I discovered that a charming little row of cabana-like apartments in my neighborhood was torn down. I actually know one of the people who lived there but the reason it’s on my mind is because the place is actually on the route of the regular walk I’ll often take several times a day—hey, it’s something to do when I’m avoiding writing. It was part of a nice little end of a quiet street. Now it’s all ripped up with bulldozers preparing to build some kind of big apartment building on the property and it’s about as ugly a sight as I can imagine. So people have been kicked out of their homes and my walk has been screwed with. But the ones in charge will do what they do. Charming buildings get torn down and replaced by something sprawling, 35mm gets tossed away for digital, good things get trashed all in the name of money and power. In its portrayal of hunting down someone free at any cost PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID as directed by Peckinpah is not so much an epitaph for the western but an epitaph for what America meant to its director at the time when the dreams of the sixties were turning to dust—Coburn’s own lead performance in THE CAREY TREATMENT, another troubled MGM production around this time, might go with this film in that sense and toss in Kris Kristofferson’s earlier lead performance in CISCO PIKE as well (it also makes me want to revisit YOUNG GUNS II, which I guess tells this story again and even features James Coburn as John Chisum). And the epitaph that is PAT GARRETT still means something even now—several days later I ran into that woman who, talking about it, speculated on how all those charming cabana-like apartments will soon be razed in favor of giant ugly apartment buildings, with those up in the hills looking down on all the people living in those crowded apartments below. I worry that she isn’t wrong. It’s just one of many things I’ll think about on those days when I feel like listening to nothing but the Bob Dylan soundtrack, particularly the fateful sorrow heard on ‘Final Theme’ as the album calls it, over and over. I know others who feel this way, others who have responded to this film’s sorrow and messiness, letting it get down into their system. In his excellent memoir “Lucking Out” James Wolcott recalls almost getting fired from his job at the Village Voice when he called in sick to see the film on opening day. It’s hard not to respect that. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID may be a howl of sorrow but within that is a true beauty of every gesture, of the fear of what’s coming next and the question of how you can live with yourself in the world when it happens, a world where when you’re trying to grab onto a winning hand what you want and what you get may always be two different things.
Posted by Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino at 9:25 PM 3 comments:
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