As a Firefly freak, I absolutely don’t have a problem with intelligent remixing of the western and science fiction idiom. The first thirty minutes of this one show no sighs of anything idiotic…then the aliens arrive, and the western takes a dive through the event horizon of a space-spitoon that even the deepest bench of veteran actors can’t escape.
“Fighting Terrorists Since 1492”, is a lovely throwaway bumpersticker rimshot I noticed in an early episode of Breaking Bad, a while back. It’s the property of an Indian (Navaho?) deputy sheriff, and it belongs in an honored place as the mission statement of Cowboys & Aliens, which it, of couse, isn’t.
Never mind the tactical imbecilities that dot the storyline. This movie eventually facilitates the unceremonial burial of old tomahawks as Chiricahuas, outlaws, townsfolk and the romantic leads join together into an improbable fighting force to defend Earth against an exploitative scouting party for extraterrestrial conquistadores. Jack Kirby told this story brilliantly, very long ago, without the, you know, western stereotypes. Loogey-honking. P’ding!
It’s entertaining, once, but Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell, Keith Carradine and Walton Goggins can’t stand up against the tower of pointless hooey, which is, in the final analysis, Cowboys & Aliens: A movie that needn’t have been quite this vapid, raggedly paced, pseudosuspenseful and politically insignificant as this one was. It coulda and shoulda shone a little insightful light on American history. And didn’t bother.
Any extenuating cirumstances that might mitigate the harshness of my evaluation of this attempt-at-a-film were unavailable (as were the commentary and all of the other Special Features) on the “rental disk” I got from NetFlix, because that’s how the studio executives in charge of schlock want to play. As if I’d pay-to-own a copy of a movie I didn’t particularly enjoy watching — because the commentary and behind-the-scenes content are its saving grace.
In all fairness, I was irate at the conclusion The Final Cut until I simmered down enough to catch its director’s commentary in the course of a reluctant second pass through the film, but I wouldn’t have bought the DVD based on the unexplained execution of the intent that only becomes explicit with commentary. The Final Cut has become one of my favorite films, because of the intent that drove its execution. My copy of The Final Cut DVD came very close to being destroyed. I’m saying that filmmaker intent can be the saving grace, unless the special features are made, as a matter of moronic studio policy, strictly unavailable. With regard to Cowboys & Aliens, who the fuck gives a shit?
The Caine Mutiny is a splendid film unless it’s compared to Tunes of Glory. All of the ethical and interpersonal goods are delivered in the latter without the tedious building of a case against Captain Queeg, and the spectacularly complex, subtle performances of Guinnes and Mills are complemented by the skills and grace of a subtle director whose interest in the infinite shades of character-gray between black and white is admirably adult and invisibly breathtaking. In the course of Ronald Neame’s 2003 interview, his distaste for the current fashion of frenetic manipulation in camera operation is made explict and sharply-but-gently contrasted with the frame of mind in which he arose:
- The camera should be written, managed and handled as though it didn’t exist.
- Fastidiously smooth pans that stop before the editor cuts.
- Long, unbroken takes of events that unfold in a given scene from the least-possible number of points of view.
- Dialogue delivered clearly over spare music that never intrudes upon, muddles or confuses the audience’ apprehension of every single word spoken by performers whose obligation and gift and duty is to enthrall the attention of the viewer in stories that are too deeply layered and too complex for words alone.
Neame expressed his belief that the current trends in camera operation, editing and sound mixing will eventually be reversed in the elevation of cinematic technique to create great work in a cohesive and collaborative manner that works to the perceptual and comprehensive advantage of the audience, unlike the priorities of the current fashion. He also said that the current trend toward freneticism in visual storytelling began with television’s insistence that the viewer IS the camera. With that last parallel I’m forced to disagree because the camera has always represented an epistemoligical nonentity. I think the current trend favors the absurd, confusing nonentity. I hope he’s right, that fashions change, and that the light at the end of this long tunnel isn’t a camera aimed in the wrong direction, vainly attempting to find the action behind the scense, offstage; reality tv as the ultimate blunder in the struggle between art and commerce. Ignore the skilled, professional actors — watch the producers/distributors pick the pockets of the numbskulls in the theater/studio audience. Neame also produced Lean’s Oliver Twist. A tiny joke.
In 1964, Warner Brothers released John Ford’s last epic western, which cost four million dollars to make. It was a crappy movie that didn’t break even. It ran two and a half hours in the final theatrical cut, and improved when a comedic island of nonsense was removed from the middle. ARCH is a little too understated a description of performances that drive socially-relevant points home with heavy expository hammers as ethnic caricatures trudge stoically through Ford’s emblematic mid-space of human history and his stars articulate plotpoints in the foreground, and geologic time looks on these mortal eccentricities from far beyond our focus and nearly every frame.
A movie about the 1500 mile return journey in 1878 of fewer than 300 Northern Cheyenne Indians to their ancestral homeland in Montana from their year-long internment in Oklahoma starred Sal Mineo, Dolores Del Rio, Victory Jory, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, as the primary Indian representatives. Monument Valley, on the border of Utah and Arizona, stands in for Oklahoma. Richard Widmark and Caroll Baker head a cast of compassionate, ineffectual white people whose indecisive ambivalences result in the gradual near-extermination (by cavalry, inclement weather and illness) of a whole lot of pseudoCheyenne in the forms of Navahos, Mexicans, Italians and Whatnots. No Cheyenne, and none of the Navaho extras speak. They’re scenery, but what kinds of subversive, postmodern things might Ford-subsidized Navaho have to say if they were allowed to speak?
When Dull Knife and Little Wolf speak to one another in their native tongue, Montalban’s and Roland’s words aren’t subtitled in English, because the filmmaker didn’t give a screaming shit what those characters actually thought. And sometimes the speak English to one another, for reasons that don’t make much sense unless those central characters are simply shallow plot devices that nudge the story along, kinda like scenery.
Cheyenne Autumn is a very odd kind of apology for Ford to have made approaching the end of a long career laden with extremely-familiar, creaking stereotypes forged in 4.5 dozen successful, self-serving American films about cavalry, cowboys and Indians. It’s a movie about the destruction of people beneath the wheel of an oblivious political machine controlled by people so remote that the stifled anguish in our foreground is inaudible to anyone who isn’t present, yet the pseudoCheyenne representatives remaing largely impenetrable masks of stoic resignation, even to the attentive audience that paid to see this story unfold. It might as well be a tale of Irish Nazis following crazy-lethal orders as a revisionist western set in OklaUtah.
John Ford made history. John Ford also made history stupid.
Our modern tendency to repeat mistakes previously made whenever The People square off against The Wealth would be more predictable and less disaster-prone without the screen of self-congratulating obfuscation John Ford dropped between us and the American Indian.
The inevitability of Manifest Destiny and the inevitable offshoring of American jobs are not separate processes. People unite to protect Life and Liberty, but the protection of Property requires a draft that’s organized by people with jeopardized property.
An odd little wrinkle:
In the twentieth episode of the fifth season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (May 2001), the Sunnydale crew holds hostage a general of holy knights who spills a bunch of backstory about Glory, the season’s BigBad. It seems Glory is The Beast, a powerful god who was overthrown in an unspeakable hell dimension ruled by a triumverate of jealous and capricious gods before she was imprisoned in the body of a newborn male whose identity was (and remains) unknown to the knights who mean to topple Glory once and for all.
If that wasn’t sufficiently complicated, two years later (in February, 2003), Angel faces The Beast, who covertly serves the scheming Cordelia Chase, who will bear and give birth to Jasmine, the incredibly powerful god-in-transit from at least one unspeakable hell dimension. Oz? My head’s starting to hurt. But hey! The Beast awakened from rocky inprisonment deep in the bowels of the Earth to emerge from the ground in Los Angeles in the very same alley where Darla gave birth to Connor. What?!
And let’s not forget Illyria, whose (A Hole in the World) backstory sounds remarkably similar to that of the other two gods whose ultimate objectives involved the apocalyptic dissolution of natural barriers between familiar definitions of chaos, paradise, heaven/hell and unspeakable hell dimensions in which people are no longer discrete packets of private, unique identity…kinda like The Master’s plan to be the mass-production Henry Ford of Sunnydale/BtVS in the first season, with an irresistible vision of billions of beastly HappyMeals in denim served piping-hot to all the vampire beasts and hellishly-beastly demons drawn toward the Hellmouth. Wasn’t there a Beast among the X-Men? Maybe The Beast took some kind of part in building the hole in the world: Idle speculation. Slime and antlers.
I think looking for stinking plot holes in Mutant Enemy products is an absolute waste of time. It’s far more interesting and exciting to attempt to connect deliciously-harmonious points of reference across arbitrary divisions (like those erected by competing broadcast networks; nonsequential presentation, content [standalones vs seriality] meddling, budget curtailment and eventual cancellation).
This post is only a remark, a gracenote for somebody’s preliminary investigation of probable interseries resonance between a couple of complex, compact and fascinating supernarratives and Yeats’ gyre, and realwold information/privacy controversy, and the seeming-inevitability that The Beast would eventually have made itself evident in Firefly. Reavers?
Grushow/Groosalugg? Of just how much invaluable realworld/fictional woven resonance is one small underfunded production company capable? Whither Mutant Enemy? Check that question out! They’ve infiltrated most everything interesting in recent American television. And why aren’t those amazing motherfuckers federally subsidized? That‘s a band I’d love to see reunited.
Also, whither Beauty?
This is the film that pardons real vampires. Skip it.