THE CONUNDRUM OF WATCHING CLASSIC FILMS, plus the Universal-International Cowboys and a Few Kind Words In Favor of Nostalgia
In the light of the recent TCM Classic Film Festival there has been some debate about the function of a festival devoted to film history, particularly Hollywood history, and as to whether the people who prefer classic films and programmers of the breed that Turner Classic Movies traffics in are in it for the aesthetics, as a key to unlock the more esoteric mysteries of modern cinema or otherwise understand the films that have come later, or whether they’re just nostalgia hounds content to lock themselves in the corral of the glorious past without a shred of interest in anything that isn’t a product of the old studio system. In his piece “Repertory Cinema’s Self-Perpetuating Cycle,”, Vadim Rizov had very kind words to say about my own account of the TCM Classic Film Festival while perpetuating some strange presumptions of his own, including a very sweeping proclamation about the type of viewer who might revel in such a festival:
“It's pretty certain that if you're an aficionado of the most demanding contemporary formalist filmmakers out there -- the ones that attract rabid fans, festival attention and typically little financial reward -- you are almost certain to be very serious about film history as well. However, the converse isn't true: there's definitely a certain kind of rep viewer that's unapologetically nostalgic in outlook and has no interest in the present day. In fact, one of the reasons rep cinema isn't more pervasive could have to do with the musty aura and self-perpetuating air that can surround the more esoteric rep screenings, where there's always more discoveries and obscurities to sort through.”
Forget for a moment that the reason Rizov cites to explain repertory cinema’s lack of pervasiveness—“the musty aura and self-perpetuating air that can surround the more esoteric rep screenings”—is a criticism of the rep houses geared toward the esoterica Rizov seems to prefer rather than the leanings of the supposedly hermetically sealed world of the MGM worshipper. The really indefensible assertion here is that aficionados of “demanding contemporary formalist filmmakers” are “almost certain” to be serious about film history, while the converse flatly isn’t true. “There's definitely a certain kind of rep viewer that's unapologetically nostalgic in outlook and has no interest in the present day,” Rizov states with absolute assurance, and as far as it goes he’s absolutely right.
Two things seem wrong, however. First, it has been my experience with some (some) of the people most interested in those difficult modern filmmakers that they have gaps the width and depth of a small canyon when it comes to knowledge of film history. You can be serious about film history, it seems, while also paying a load of lip service as to the pursuit of it. It is still surprising to me how many film buffs and self-professed cinephiles there are out there who have no real knowledge of or much interest in movies that came before 1962, unless those movies are among the 20 or so titles that routinely show up in the usual critics polls. The second thing that bothers me about the premise flouted in this piece is the idea that those interested in film classics are necessarily uninterested in modern film. Rizov doesn’t allow for the possibility that there might be viewers for whom The Magnificent Ambersons or Sweet Smell of Success serve as proper study along the timeline of film history, and that a grounding in film history provides the necessary context and foundation for appreciating those films that make up the past 40 years or so of international cinema. To my mind, deciding all those who would flock to something like the TCM Festival are simply nostalgia hounds with their blinders on is a bit of perversity akin to saying one eats eggs as an adult not for their nutritional value or because one likes the taste, but simply because they were what one what regularly ate and enjoyed as a child. Mightn't the aesthetics of classic film, the way restrictions on the material, from within and without Hollywood, caused directors and craftsmen to learn to express themselves in more stylistically creative ways, be reason enough on which to base a love for classic movies? Or the way the cinematography shimmers in Technicolor or in bleak shades of gray in film noir? (The question then goes begging, what of those classic film fans who are clearly too young to wax nostalgic about the good old days of Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland? On what are they basing their refusal to look forward to the treasures of the future?)
Most confusing to me is Rizov’s final assertion. He seems perturbed, annoyed that “young kids are, in fact, showing up to rep cinema as long as it's attractively packaged as an ‘event,’ something to build your weekend around.” Of course it’s a good idea to “package” repertory cinema around the chance to screen the films in the presence of actors, writers, directors who were actually involved in making the films, and when these events happen the theaters are usually full. But aside from the opportunity for education, what about this strategy is surprising? The rep houses do it for the chance to let the creative artist speak about their work, of course, but they are also businesses that must think creatively in order to get the butts in seats for whatever kind of repertory cinema audiences will respond to. And it is incorrect to presume that such “events” are the only such programming to attract the young flies to revival cinema. The New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles routinely plays double features that have nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with throwing light on the darker corners of film history—even corners not necessarily favored by those fans of modern aesthetics who have bought into the notion that somehow, for example, Bergman is passé. And the auditoriums for these programs are, if not always packed, then at least far from empty.
For Rizov, programs like the TCM Festival suggest “a potentially closed loop of cinephilia where compulsive sifting for new discoveries in back catalogs results in an ignorance towards what's going on in the here and now.” What evidence there is to suggest the truth of this notion is not made evident, and I think it can be pretty reasonably dismissed as a kind of straw man argument that may have been cast for the simple adventure of stirring the waters, for keeping both the Abbas Kiarostami and the Andre de Toth camps on their toes. At any rate, I think there’s plenty to be gained from paying attention to both the old and the new. But frankly, right now I have to say I’m pitched a little more in my interest toward what I can discover about what Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole or Elia Kazan’s Wild River have to say, in textual and aesthetic terms, and how they connect to the eyes and interests of modern filmmakers, than in trying to keep up with the latest blockbuster releases. Who wouldn’t want to retreat into the past when faced with a summer movie slate as dreary as the one we’re looking at for 2010? (Recent Cannes favorites like Mike Leigh’ Another Year or Kiarostami’s Certified Copy won’t be available for most of us to see for several months, and three months is a long way to try and spread the joys of the few summer movies, like Toy Story 3 and Splice, that do promise to add up to something.) All that said, I thank Vadim Rizov for the kind words he had for my piece as well as for the pot-stirring showcase he gave it on IFC.com.
And now, with a wink and a nod to Vadim (whom I admire a great deal, by the way), and just to be perverse, a few words in favor of nostalgia and cinematic comfort food. Some days the world just seems like it’s pressing in a little too tight. Those days used to come around a lot when I was growing up, for reasons that don’t seem so pressing or important anymore. (It’s called gaining perspective, or in some circles growing up.) And when it seemed there wasn’t much in the way of room to move, when things just seemed to get too constricted or conflicts between brothers and sisters or buddies and buddies got too inflamed, someone whose job it was to cook—my mom, my Italian grandma, my Italian great-grandma—was always at the ready with something to eat to make me feel better, at ease, less battered by the world. A big pot of spaghetti and meatballs was never far away in my grandma’s kitchen if it was needed. My mom knew that the ticket to soothe my soul was a bubbling batch of chicken and dumplings. And to this day, even just to think of pan-fried venison with a heap of mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus on the side is to keep the savage beasts at bay, the culinary equivalent of a hundred-dollar therapy session. We all have our own comfort foods, and all considerations of caloric content aside, thank God for it, because sometimes there are those days when the only thing that’ll do is to wrap up in a blanket, open up the curtains on a damp or otherwise weather-beaten day, and settle in with a bowl or a plate of [ fill in the blank ] to make the idea of keeping the flame burning just a little more bearable.
Movies can certainly function this way for us, and that comfort might very likely derived from nostalgia—for the kinds of movies we watched as kids on Sunday afternoon TV, or at Saturday afternoon matinees, or for movies that take place in environments that are explicitly or implicitly evocative of the kinds of environments we occupied as children. I used to think that the movies themselves—all movies—functioned, or could function, as comfort food for me. But as I creep closer—just three months now—to my 50th birthday, I realize that there is a certain genre, and a certain kind of movie within that genre, that most thoroughly functions this way for me. The genre is the western, and I doubt that’ll surprise too many who read this blog with any regularity. I’m probably the ideal subscriber for the Encore Westerns Channel, with its voluminous and indiscriminate slate of horse opera pulled from all the nooks and crannies of studio B and C-lists and running with abandon 24 hours a day like a runaway stagecoach. Fortunately, for the sanity of my wife and the preservation of the productivity of whatever free time I have left when all the daily duties are done, Encore Westerns is a premium channel on my satellite system, one which is inconvenient for me to try to pay for—meaning, I couldn’t afford it even if it were available as anything but part of a bundle surrounded by a bunch of channels for which I have no interest whatsoever.
But if I could watch Encore Westerns, by God I would, and I’d love it. Because it’s loaded with exactly the sort of low-budget western programmers that were cranked out like cheap pasta by the studios in the 1940s and through the 1950s, when they finally had to compete with the kinds of westerns that were keeping ‘em home on TV. These are my movie comfort food, the unpretentious oaters starring such luminaries as Jock Mahoney, Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy, Rex Allen, Rod Cameron, Chill Wills, Andy Devine, Glenn Ford, Kirby Grant, Lash Larue, Tim Holt, Joel McCrea, Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter, Dale Robertson, Bob Steele, Peggy Stewart, and, of course John Wayne, to name just a few. These movies were often low on style, especially the ones from the ‘50s, which were aesthetically separate from their small-screen cousins usually only by size and perhaps by the use of Technicolor. But that’s what made seeing them then, and especially what makes seeing them now, such a direct and vivid experience. There’s literally nothing standing in between the viewer (me) and my memories of life in the deserts of Southwestern Oregon, a landscape so keenly approximated by the Southern California locations on which most of these movies were shot, and the feeling evoked by the perfect cast of sunset or the dry, warm breeze as it wafts across the plain surveyed by the hero, who rides in upon his horse over the opening credits toward a situation that may end up (but most likely won’t) his undoing.
My thirst for these movies can almost exclusively be measured by how efficiently they can patch into the rather less discriminating, but not completely indiscriminate, tastes I had as a boy, and my ability to be caught up in the simplest of storylines by effects and techniques as simple as the sound quality of a cowboy whose prairie whistling is quite obviously overdubbed; or looking to see how well the sets that make up the small town are integrated into the surrounding landscape; or evaluating the saloon in movie “A” and how it measures up, in terms of verisimilitude, to the saloon in movie “B;” or noticing the multitude of bit players who were either familiar from other westerns or who would eventually become stars in their own right (Claude Akins and Lee Van Cleef are ones I’ve been running into lot lately.) I’m not sure I could make a case for the lasting value of any of these films as art, and if it meant that I would have to come up with some other more lofty rationale for enjoying them in order to do so, I’d probably be even less interested in doing so than I already am. But just because a western doesn’t aspire to the heights of expression evident in a movie like The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t mean that it has no value, or that what value it has should be somehow downgraded or tempered. These movies are nothing if not for pure enjoyment, for reveling in not the flexibility of the western as a vehicle for social or aesthetic commentary, but for celebration of the very conservative nature of the genre itself, even as we may still examine what it is about our national character that spawned the genre and its specific elements in the first place.
Right now I’m obsessed with the movies that came out in the mid to late ‘50s under the banner of Universal-International. Most of them, regardless of the relative quality of their screenplays, were done up in spiffy Technicolor, in order, perhaps, to make them look a little less generic than they actually were. But the ones I’ve seen and enjoyed lately have all featured excellent casts giving their all to scenarios that may have seemed unsophisticated even when they were made. Yet there’s nary a drop of condescension, or winking to the audience, or a sense of movie-star slumming to be found in them—they are delightful, tough, and funny, every one, and a couple are considerably more than that.
A frothy concoction like The Gal Who Took the West (1949) doesn’t have a lot of offer in the way of storytelling innovation. Like many of these pictures, it really is the familiarity of the whole enterprise that is the movie’s strong suit. But within that familiarity here, you’ve got Yvonne De Carlo (never more luscious or amusing, and self-amused) as a barroom singer who snookers land baron Charles Coburn into bringing her out West by billing herself as an opera star. She immediately causes a ruckus when Coburn’s feuding nephews (Scott Brady and the balsa-like John Russell) both fall for her. The movie toys with some pre-Rashomon noodling as to the true nature of De Carlo’s character—delicate flower, drunk or greedy floozy, depending on which grizzled drunk is telling the story at the time—but it’s really all about how De Carlo must negotiate her own marital status between Brady and Russell before fussin’ and fightin’ of a lead-based nature starts to bustin’ out. The picture, directed by Frederick De Cordova (the same gentleman who eventually gained fame as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show producer), is tame and doesn’t have much of a grip on what kind of tone it’s after from scene to scene, but De Carlo clearly relishes her role in the spotlight, and her dry, arched-eyebrow line deliveries and sly double takes will satisfy anyone looking for an easy, good time. A western in only the loosest terms—it takes place in the late 1880s, people wear Stetsons and ride horses-- The Gal Who Took the West is agreeable eye candy with the chewy nougat called Yvonne De Carlo at its center.
Jock Mahoney was a well-known stuntman in Hollywood during the ‘40s and starred in several of the here Stooges shorts for Columbia Pictures. Under the guidance of Gene Autry Mahoney became a TV star in the western series The Range Rider (1951-52) and again in 1958 on the popular show Yancy Derringer. From 1950-1957 Mahoney also starred in a slew of B- westerns and action pictures, and maybe the best of them (at least the best of the ones I’ve seen) is Joe Dakota (1957; Richard Bartlett). In it Mahoney is exemplifies exactly the kind of soft-spoken, slow to violent action, morally unimpeachable hero that would seem to be the cowboy ideal, as least as far as Hollywood was concerned. Mahoney, nameless until a crucial point about 2/3 of the way through, rides under the credits whistling the movie’s ubiquitous tune (which will turn up on the lips of other characters as well as woven into the film’s soundtrack score) and insinuates himself into the company of a small town whose residents have been taken in by a oil wildcatter who has laid claim, in the name of the town, to a farm on which resides a rich oil reserve just waiting to be tapped. Mahoney sets himself in stoic, polite resistance to the increasing hostility of the citizenry (Lee van Cleef and Claude Akins among them) who begin to suspect he may know more than he’s letting on about the fate of an old Indian who allegedly sold the property to the wildcatter but is nowhere to be found. Joe Dakota is a movie that is pleasurable almost entirely from a landscape point of view. It is well-photographed in Technicolor, though not ostentatiously so, and director Bartlett is enough of a journeyman to know when to stay out of the way of both his players, who are uniformly well-cast—Luana Patten, Anthony Caruso, George Dunn and Charles McGraw (as the bad influence) all make a vivid impression, and Van Cleef and Akins have a great showcase for their rawhide toughness during a barroom test to see who can better take a punch—and the lovely, desolate countryside on which they play out their drama. Bartlett’s long takes give us plenty of time to drink up the atmosphere, which is rich enough to float the movie’s main mystery—none too difficult to correctly imagine—and keep the movie’s central relationship, between Mahoney’s quiet, just-this-side-of-stiff mystery cowpoke and Patten’s sullen sexpot, compelling and emotionally believable. Joe Dakota has conviction beneath its rather square approach, one which is reflected in its hero/star Mahoney, and the joy is in discovering just how entertaining good posture, self-deprecating humor, unfailing prairie politesse and a stiff upper lip can be.
But perhaps my favorites of late have been unassuming cowboy tales starring Audie Murphy, one of which highlights the dark underbelly of the myth of the returning veteran that he so ably rode to movie stardom, and the other in which is he is cast against type as a mysterious avenging killer. That luxurious breed of Universal Technicolor is put to good use in both Nathan Juran’s Tumbleweed (1953) and the spectacular wide-screen vistas of Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959), movies which single-handedly justify the unlikely ascension of Audie Murphy from real-life war hero to number-one box office draw. In Tumbleweed, Murphy, as Jim Harvey, is first seen, as were so many western heroes of the time, riding alone toward the camera straight out of a mysterious past as the movie begins. Harvey is attacked by a rogue Indian, the son of a murderous chief, and ends up wounding the man. But rather than finishing him off, Harvey nurses him back to health, an act of kindness that will come back to haunt him in unexpected ways. Harvey is eventually hired to guard a small wagon train as it makes its way west. When the train is attacked by Indians Harvey hopes to persuade the chief to call off the attack—it was the chief’s son Harvey saved and he hopes this fact will carry some weight with the warrior leader-- and leaves the train to negotiate. But rather than talk, Harvey is captured and the rest of the train is wiped out except for two sisters. When he returns to the town, it is to a populace that assumes he betrayed the wagon train to their deaths, and he has to avoid the hangman’s noose long enough to prove his innocence. That he will do so is rarely in doubt, though the movie does take a turn or two darker than expected, especially in the first half. It’s through the prism of history that Tumbleweed gains in stature and makes for an interesting occasion to reflect on Murphy’s real-life hero’s welcome back from World War II in contrast to the suspicion laid on him by the townspeople in Tumbleweed (the title refers to Murphy’s trusty horse) and, of course, what we know of how veterans would be treated just 15 years after this movie’s release when they returned from Vietnam. It’s still just a really good western yarn and claims for it being much more than that would be, I think, made with 20/20 hindsight, but Tumbleweed is a good example of how pliable the western form can be even when the storyteller isn’t interested in exploding or even rigorously twisting that form.
Much better, more riveting and compelling, is Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959), in which the physically unintimidating Murphy dresses dark and commands the awe and terror of all around him, for reason that will eventually become clear but are left, in a genuinely satisfying fashion, to tantalize us for much of the movie’s short 77-minute running time. Everyone seems to know that John Gant (Murphy) is a killer. They see him ride into town and almost everyone starts getting antsy, as if the skeletons in the closet were rattling so loud so as no longer to be ignored. Everyone has their enemies, and no one knows for sure who Gant’s target is, or when he might strike. It’s interesting to see Murphy, the genial, surface-shiny good guy sidle up to such a tight-lipped baddie’s arsenal— done up in garb of a more villainous hue, he may seem like the appetizer before the onslaught of the real villainy, but by the time No Name for a Bullet has played its clever hand, Murphy seems a natural for the part (even if one could still imagine others doing it just as well, or better). The fact is, this movie, far and above the usual Universal-International western fare of the time, delivers its punches with exceptional craft and admirable delayed gratification. Arnold is an underrated craftsman, to be sure, and this may be one of his best pictures, one in which the shroud of guilt is shown to be as deadly and suffocating a weapon as any six-shooter from a dark-clad specter’s holster. No Name on the Bullet gives the B-movie western a good name beyond its simple pleasures. It’s a movie that quickly jumps the fences of nostalgia’s corral and heads out to take its place with the genuinely wild broncos of the genre’s best.
The trailer for No Name on the Bullet (1959)