Monday, February 18, 2019

Watching Washington: Presidents’ Day movies, Part 1

The Apotheosis of Lincoln, illustration ca. 1865.
Presidents’ Day is jacked up. To begin with, it’s not on the right day. Or days.

As a celebration, it’s a conflation of the birthdays of two iconic American presidents: Abraham Lincoln (#16) and George Washington (#1). Lincoln’s birthday is on February 12, 1809; Washington’s is on February 22, 1731, except Washington’s was really on February 11, 1731 as the British Empire didn’t switch over to the Gregorian calendar until Washington was 21, in 1752. Then Congress changed it and since 1971, it’s taken place on the third Monday of each February, so now their birthdays can be commemorated anywhere between February 15 and February 22 of any given year. Got me?

And how IS it celebrated? We don’t really party; we don’t dress up like Abe or G Dubs. We go shopping, which was perhaps the whole point of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to begin with. Before then, each day was observed on its own.

Perhaps I remember this more vividly because it was a constant in school for me through age 10. The twin icons of American self-definition loomed over the second month of the year in the classroom. We were living at the pinnace of the American Century, and Washington and Lincoln, neither yet interrogated by more probing historians. They were our two secular saints, our patriarchs and role models. Colorful posters of them unfurled above us; we drew them, played them, we memorized their words. For a brief, illusory time we had one version of history, relaxed and assured, unrevised and incorrect.

As cinematic material, the two men couldn’t been more different. Lincoln is most congenial subject of biography, and fable, that American history has yet spawned. A lifetime is not enough to absorb all the material examining him. Washington lies at a further remote, before photography and other voracious technologies were there to document him as obsessively as Lincoln was.

We can’t construe versions of Washington in the public imagination very well. He is instantly recognizable — Zeus-like, imperturbable, stiff . . . stodgy. Colorful does not enter into it. He had wooden teeth and slaves (and in fact, Washington’s slaves weren’t even a part of our era’s history lessons. Mount Vernon evidently came from IKEA.) Not a lot to work with there. In numerous historical films, Washington just kind of parachutes awkwardly into the scenario to lend a sense of authenticity (“Hey, look! It’s Washington!”), usually to endorse a hero, inspire somebody, or seal the deal on a happy ending.

In keeping with Washington’s proverbial seriousness, the actor who have played him have uniformly possessed a sense of gravitas. That is, they have to play a stiff. The first guy to make a thing of playing Washington was Joseph Kilgour, who did so in four films between 1909 and 1915, the first of which was Washington Under the American Flag.

Joseph Kilgour as Washington

Arthur Dewey played Washington in D.W. Griffith’s America (1924), his Revolutionary War epic. 

Arthur Dewey as Washington in America (1924)
Prolific British character actor Alan Mowbray played him three times, most notably in Alexander Hamilton (1931), a vehicle for actor George Arliss, who made a career out of playing historical figures.

Another Englishman, Montagu Love, played him twice — most notably in the Oscar-winning 1939 short Sons of Liberty, starring Claude Rains as Haym Salomon, patriot and financier of the American Revolution.

After this, there is scant evidence of the first Chief Executive on the screen. When he did return, it was almost exclusively to television — Washington could not generate enough charisma to sustain a feature film. John Crawford makes a brief appearance as Washington in John Paul Jones (1959), the only visual evidence of which scorns the historical accuracy of the scenario. 

Long-time bad-guy Myron Healy played him in an episode of the bizarre hippie-rebels-fight-undercover-for-the-American-Revolution 1970 TV series, The Young Rebels (“Suicide Squad” 10/25/70); Will Geer played him for laughs in a two-part episode of the TV sitcom Bewitched (“George Washington Zapped Here” 2/19, 26/1972).

It took about 200 years for us to begin to grapple with the idea of Founding Fathers as non-mythical characters — pushed no doubt by both the Bicentennial and Gore Vidal’s provocative counter-story in his novel Burr (1973) and subsequent Narratives of Empire historical fiction series. Richard Basehart was craggy but troubled in the 1975 TV movie Valley Forge; Peter Graves required minimum adjustments to appear as the Father of Our Country in 1979’s The Rebels, part of an immense and awful TV miniseries that attempted to film all of John Jakes’ long Kent Family Chronicles pop-history book cycle.

Richard Basehart
Peter Graves
Finally, a healthy effort to sex up Washington took place in the 1984 TV miniseries George Washington, featuring Barry Bostwick as G.W. “No one knew of the secret desire that burned within him!” the promo exclaims, promising to tell us his “little-known, intimate story.” Evidently the writers inserted a life-long, steamy, illicit, bodice-ripping romance between Washington and childhood friend Sally Fairfax, played by Jacklyn Smith, to try to keep us awake. A soporific sequel, George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, followed. Alexander Hamilton is portrayed here as an unsympathetic, snobbish, disruptive character, a role he was routinely relegated to in films about the period until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s huge Broadway historical hip hop musical hit, Hamilton, hit the stage in 2015.

More recently, Jeff Daniels lent a doughy earnestness concealing a solid will to the character in the TV movie The Crossing (2000), concerning the famous crossing of the Delaware River to attack the Hessians on December 26, 1776. 

Kelsey Grammer plays a rather oblivious Washington in Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor (2003). David Morse put on the most convincing impersonation to date in the HBO miniseries John Adams (2008). His Washington is grumpy and taciturn, a reluctant icon. Plus, it always looks like his teeth are killing him.

Washington suddenly becomes more malleable as a concept. Voiced by Michael Santo, he is more of an action hero in Liberty’s Kids, a 40-episode animated PBS half-hour from 2002 about the American Revolution, with teenagers in the foreground, suspiciously like 1970’s live-action Young Rebels. In AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies (2014-2017), Ian Kahn plays Washington as a cunning schemer. 

The thrust of this series, the story of an American double agent who must violate the laws of heaven and earth and risk scorn in the name of a just cause, is a direct throwback to the original notable exploitation of Washington as a literary character — none other than James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel, and his first international success, 1821’s The Spy. In it, peddler Harvey Birch is a double agent for Washington, who whisks in and out of the novel in the guise of the mysterious “Mr. Harper.” The prototype of the espionage and spy genre starts with the fictional assent of the Father of Our Country.

TURN: Washington’s Spies is also a kind of Age of Enlightenment/John le Carre mélange crossbred with the Smudged-Faced School of Historical Reenactment, to which is added a soupcon of Tarentino. It is, then, the embodiment of the formula for the successful broadcast pseudo-historical saga of today. The same kind of approach is taken in the History 2015 miniseries Sons of Liberty, in which Jason O’Mara plays Washington as a kind of a badass.

Washington figures in obliquely with the other Founding Fathers in the hit pseudo-historical thriller National Treasure (2003); a key scene in the film takes place at Mount Vernon. On the Fox TV series Sleepy Hollow (2013-2017), Washington is a necromancer; in “The Washingtonians” episode of the anthology Masters of Horror (1/26/2007), he was the founder of a cannibal cult. In the “Capture of Benedict Arnold” episode (12/12/2016) of the time-travel series Timeless (2016-2018), he’s a dick.

"The Washingtonians"
In the end, it took Christopher Jackson onstage in Hamilton to make Washington a magnetic and dynamic presence. When, decades hence, the show stops running, some future stars will fight to embody Washington yet again on screen.

Christopher Jackson as Washington in Hamilton

Friday, February 8, 2019

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘The Rider’: will the Real West please stand up?

Brady Jandreau in 'The Rider.'

Tim Blake Nelson in 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.'

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen
Scr: Joel & Ethan Coen
Phot: Bruno Delbonnel
Premiere: Nov. 9, 2018
133 min.

The Rider
Dir: Chloe Zhao
Scr: Chloe Zhao
Phot: Joshua James Richards
Premiere: April 13, 2018
104 min.

You can’t keep a good genre down. Just last year, two horror films, The Shape of Water and Get Out, vied for Best Picture. (Hollywood is normally allergic to honoring horror films — call them horror-‘inflected’? Horror-‘infused’?) Two of the most striking films of 2018 are Westerns, and as far apart in approach as you are likely to find.

The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part, rambling series of shaggy-dog stories in the Style Coen, affected, winking, and baroque. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a low-key, documentary-style fiction, set here and now, using non-actors in a narrative evoked by their true experiences. One’s amusing, the other’s affecting. Both will send traditionalists screaming into the streets.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an aggregation of shorter films ranging about 20 minutes in length each — pretty close to television-episode length, although the filmmakers assert that the scripts worked out their times organically.

Now, the most important thing about discussing a Coen Brothers film is not to think about it too hard. Many critics have jiu-jitsued themselves into knots trying to analyze, interpret, and otherwise create conceptual cages for them. It is supposed to be fun, and their fancies first and foremost do transform the Western into a landscape as unfamiliar as the subject of an exotic travelogue, giving newcomers and old hands both some things to think about.

The directors bring an intimate knowledge and love of filmmaking and film history to every project, and part of the fun of watching their movies is spotting the homage, getting the inside joke. There is a rich vein of movie-Western ore to be assayed here. A love of recreating powerful film sequences in the genre that read like dreams is the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness, for the stories themselves tear apart and dissipate like clouds on a windy day. At its worst, Buster Scruggs plays Cowboys and Indians.

Most specifically, the Coens are ghosting through other styles, inhabiting some of cinema’s and fiction’s approaches to understanding the American West. (All these styles, ironically or not, are firmly from the pioneer perspective.) The first sequence crash-lands the singing-cowboy Western of the 1930s and -40s; the second has the dirty kinesis of a Leone spaghetti Western. A huge part of the next three tales is their reliance on the stiff, earnest Victorian dialogue stuffed into the mouths of the characters, in the style of American adventure writers from James Fenimore Cooper through Bret Harte, Owen Wister, Max Brand, and the like. A Poe-esque coda concludes.

The only thing all the stories have in common is the presence of death, presented as a nearly unavoidable commonplace. The dark stain of that funeral potential lurking in every frame sustains the suspense in the stories, and colors their humor. Where a well-aimed arrow or a misaimed cough could put you underground in a matter of hours, life is both more profound and more provisional.

Zoe Kazan in 'The Gal Who Got Rattled' section of 'Scruggs' -- death as punchline.
The first sequence, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is an immediate leap into lunacy, as Tim Blake Nelson appears out of nowhere, singing and talking to the camera as the cheerful and tuneful outlaw Buster Scruggs. (In his all-white outfit, he resembles both Gene Autry and the hero of Bugs Bunny Rides Again.) His nerdy sincerity and confidence makes him an object of scorn, but not for long, due to his six-gun prowess. Incidentally, he’s a preening smartass as well.

His random opponents exist merely to make him look good, and he can destroy a man and then make fun of him in an impromptu Hollywood song and dance number. It’s a fun idea, but it kind of runs out of gas quickly. This is a problem throughout the stories — great standalone ideas play out, but they fail to sustain or connect. It’s one bravura sequence after another. When he meets another musical vaquero, the inevitable duet of death acts itself out.

“Near Algodones” is an exercise in style in which yet another Coen protagonist is the plaything of fate. James Franco as Cowboy robbing Stephen Root’s Teller and the subsequent absurd permutations of the Cowboy’s fate is a demolition-derby smash of archetypes, none of them registering long enough to engage identification. Is this some kind of Brechtian alienation technique, one that forces us to disengage emotionally in order to engage intellectually, and deconstruct and analyze the genre’s assumptions? You see what I mean about overthinking all of this?

The most unpleasant story in the bunch, “Meal Ticket,” describes the existence of a performer with emotional accuracy — by way of Tod Browning’s Freaks. A limbless orator dubbed The Artist (Harry Melling) recites classic poetry and speech for the unwashed masses on the frontier, towed around in a ramshackle wagon by Liam Neeson, aka The Impresario. Get it? Spoiler alert: When sold on the superior profitability of owning a performing mathematical chicken, The Artist finds himself superfluous.

Who doesn’t want to see Tom Waits as Gabby Hayes? In “All Gold Canyon,” he gets to play a colorful ol’ prospector who finally strikes it rich. The real glory of this story is pristine setting of the high mountain valley it takes place in; it is not CGI’d. I’ve been there. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it is. Here the most important tension is that borne by every pioneer — between the obvious love for the glorious beauty of the unspoiled wilderness and the desire to dig treasure out of its guts, ruining it forever.

Tom Waits in the 'All Gold Canyon' section of 'Scruggs.'
In the last two stories, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains,” we are again thrown into the maw of death and uncertainty, to the point that when a sweeping, breathtaking panoramic shot of a wagon train, 15 of them hand-built for the movie by production designer Jess Gonchor and staff, all I wondered was how many smaller movies might be funded with that shot’s accrued costs.

In all these stories, death runs rampant, and the stories’ protagonists turn out to be those who are alive at the end. This is a recurrent Coen theme — short-circuiting the audience’s sympathies and pulling the rug out from under characters for any reason or no reason at all. Behind all the craftsmanship and style is the grim humor of chaos and death. It’s a nihilism that the Coens share with Tarentino, another stylist who plays with genre and makes choices for effect that don’t support the narrative. This is top-down, by-the-storyboard filmmaking, and after a while, despite the beautiful pictures, it all gets too precious and contrived, bloody but bloodless, the West as curio under glass.

The Rider is a great film, hands down, and it speaks more to the myths and tragedies of the West than any film I can remember. Its genesis was the interaction of filmmaker Zhao and Brady Jandreu, a Lakota Sioux cowboy and bronc rider she consulted during the making of her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. A head injury in the arena took Jandreu out of competition, and the challenge to his way of thinking and way of life fuel the resulting fictionalization.

The actors are non-actors, but this is not a lifeless re-creation of some documentary event. Somehow, giving imaginative wiggle room allows the story to reach a searing emotional level. In the film, Brady struggles with the injury’s assault on his abilities, learning that he has to give up riding or die. On his South Dakota reservation, there’s not much to do outside of ranching. Brady finds himself stocking shelves in a drug store. He never voices his humiliation, but it’s palpable. His loyal visits to a friend permanently disabled by just the same injury gives him a graphic picture of what his life might be like. This subtle lead performance is mirrored stylistically in Nathen Halpern’s gentle, hypnotic score.

Brady’s callous father battles him, and his autistic sister bucks him up. If there is a romantic relationship in the film, it’s Brady’s with horses. A long sequence in a corral highlights Brady’s way of gentling a wild horse; it’s a revelation about a deeply feeling, empathic, and nurturing capacity that, frankly, I’ve never seen a man demonstrate on film before. It made me cry. The camera loves the barren, tawny, rolling Dakota hills as much as Brady does, and it instills the viewer with the same unsentimental, raw love of the land for its own sake that grounds real Westerns.

Frustrated beyond belief, Brady contemplates competing in the rodeo again. As in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the protagonist has to choose between evolving and dying, and there are echoes of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men as well. Poor wombless men! We are possessed of the strange compulsion to test ourselves again and again, usually by hurting ourselves and others. What happens to a male when he can longer fight the fight he wants to fight? If he is forced to settle for less, is he less? Or he is more? Can he submit to the wayward and unknowable will of God?

These are great questions that need to be asked. The Western is a masculine genre, a lens through which we sort out our identities. The Western movie still lives, because we are still sorting it out. Scruggs runs roughshod but Rider gets farther using a steady canter.