THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (June, 2017 Edition)

As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.

June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)

Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.

June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.

June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)

Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.

June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)

Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?

June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)

Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.

June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)

For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.

June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)

For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.

June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.

June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.

June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.

…Til next time!

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Fourth Maxim)

Quentin Tarantino has been using the publicity tour for Django Unchained to carry on his longstanding campaign against John Ford. This is fair enough taken on its own terms. The pursuit of eternal childhood will always lead to confusing places for the protagonist (like detesting the director whose shadow lies longest and deepest over his own favorites–in QT’s case, the semi-boyish Howard Hawks and the completely boyish Sergio Leone).

But to what degree are others expected to play along?

In a fairly lengthy published interview with Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez (which can be found here), Tarantino goes on at length (yet again) about Ford having broken into the movie business by being one of the extras hired to ride as a Klansman in The Birth of a Nation–thus proving himself to be a secret Klan sympathizer, or, as Tarantino puts it, “You can’t say [he] didn’t know what he was doing.”

Then, just a few questions later, we get this exchange:

Q (Rodriguez): Watching “Django Unchained,” it struck me that the movie has a black cowboy as the hero. I’ve seen lots of westerns with black cowboys in the cast, of course. But never as the lead protagonist.

A: (Tarantino) In the 1970s there were a few. Sidney Poitier directed one, Buck and the Preacher. He played Buck and Harry Belafonte played the preacher. It was Poitier’s first film as a director, and it dealt with slaves too. Jim Brown starred in a few westerns: “100 Rifles,” with Raquel Welch and “El Condor” with Lee Van Cleef. Max Julien, who was the star of the “The Mack,” made one called “Thomasine & Bushrod,” which was a kind of “Bonnie & Clyde.” Having said that, there haven’t been many. Outside of the 1970s, forget about it. (Italics mine)

First, let’s note that the term “cowboy” is here being used in the modern, cinematic sense, which applies it to any male, lead character in a western. (Brown, for instance, was a lawman in 100 Rifles and an escaped convict in El Condor. Poitier was a trail boss in Buck and the Preacher and thus might quality, but note that Tarantino, like most modern commenters, makes no distinction.)

Just for the record, John Ford (yes, him) made Woody Strode the title character and de facto lead in Sergeant Rutledge–which came out in 1960. Granted, Rutledge was a cavalryman, but that certainly puts him as close to being a “cowboy” as Jim Brown in 100 Rifles.

You don’t have to dig a whole lot deeper to find that Ford, that old Klansman, died with Strode–the man who (along with Kenny Washington) integrated pro football a year before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, and in any case not exactly anybody’s version of a house slave–holding his hand.

I only point this out because I’ve tracked down several QT interviews (including a very lengthy one with Charlie Rose) where his accusations against Ford repeatedly go unchallenged.

In this case, though, it’s different, because Tarantino, supposedly the consummate cinephile, conveniently leaves out Ford’s high place in the tradition he himself claims to be upholding and extending–that of the “black cowboy.”

So his own words apply: “You can’t say he didn’t know what he was doing,” when he set about to create this particular false narrative.

And that leads us to Maxim #4, applicable to Rodriguez, Rose (who allowed Tarantino to call Ford a “racist [expletive deleted on the broadcast]” with no response from Rose but an approving smirk) and all others who refuse to push back when a strong, simple-minded personality attempts to override and disperse a complicated reality:

“Don’t get played.”

(A much better, more realistic view of “black cowboys” in cinema can be found here. Please read down to the comments for a brief history of Herb Jeffries, who starred in a series of B-westerns aimed at black audiences in the 1930s and who also goes unmentioned–at least here–by the usually encyclopedic Tarantino.)