Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Visual Power of "Bound For Glory"

Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) could have been alternatively titled Bound for Greatness, given the excellence of its storytelling and the power of its images in its first hour and a half. Despite losing strength in the latter stages of the film when it focuses more on standard biopic situations, the film has a raw beauty that sets it apart from most other historical biographies of that decade or since.

Clearly inspired by John Ford’s stellar adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Ashby borrows certain images (the flimsy trucks overloaded with chairs and blankets, the unsightly labor camps) to tell the story of famed folk singer Woody Guthrie as he migrates from Texas to California in Depression era 1936. Certainly the subject matter almost demands these comparisons, yet Ashby and his brilliant cinematographer Haskell Wexler combine to present a singular, powerful, stunning visual approach.

As might be expected, earth tones dominate the color pallete of this film; browns, dull yellows and muddled reds are a constant reminder of the harshness of Texas and the California landscapes. Most of the colors are desaturated and the haze of unbearably hot afternoons is highlighted. The sky in the early scenes in Texas is never blue, but rather a washed out whitish yellow. At one point, Woody makes his way home through a massive dust storm in his home town of Pampa and the screen is dominated by flashes of yellow, pale blue and grays, giving the town an eerie, desolate look (the dust storm is one of the film's most powerful images and is the work of special visual effects genius Albert Whitlock). When Woody next enters the barber shop and has to wipe dust off one of the chairs, it’s a nice touch that tells us that the barber (and many of the townspeople) have given up.

It is in the following scenes as Woody leaves his family to head to California that Ashby's and Wexler’s visuals truly take over, elevating this film to another level. Soon after he catches a ride out of town, we see him trying to hitchhike on the open highway. One beautiful image occurs after a chair falls off a passing truck. We then immediately see Woody in an extreme long shot sitting in that chair on the side of the road, playing his harmonica. There are no cars, no other humans, not even any birds in the shot. It’s a nice visual that emphasizes the loneliness of his journey.

Woody then meets up with a few vagrants who are waiting in the weeds, trying to catch a freight train. During his journey, he meets up with one particular vagrant named Slim and we follow their journey riding the rails. There is one spectacular shot in which the camera is mounted on top of the train as we see Woody and Slim sitting on top of a boxcar as the scenery passes by in the background. It’s a single shot that last for just over two and a half minutes and it’s dazzling not only for its unusual view of these two atop the train, but also for its simplicity. The shot lasts long enough for the train to pass through a tunnel, so that little by little the screen becomes black. Our eyes follows the light in the frame as it becomes smaller and smaller until it disappears and there is only black. But then immediately, the screen is light again as the train reemerges from the tunnel. I don’t know if Wexler planned for this visual trick of watching the light shape become smaller and smaller (as the train is gently rounding a curve, the light moves from the front left of the screen to the rear right), but I’m taken in by this image every time I watch this particular scene.

Bound for Glory is also the film credited with the first use of Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown. This particular shot has the cameraman tracking Woody as he walks throught the migrant camp one morning as the laborers wait to hear if they will be chosen for work that day. Lasting just over two minutes, the shot has a dreamy, mysterious quality to it and while many directors have used Stedicam in the thirty-plus years since this film, it’s difficult to imagine a more beautifully filmed scene.

Throughout the film, there are images worthy of a great landscape painter. There’s one of Woody sleeping by the side of a road as a car winds by and later there’s a shot of Woody and his musician/labor organizer friend Ozark Bule performing a song amidst fields where laborers are harvesting and their children play. We see the children in the foreground of the shot and their parents hard at work in the distant foreground, as the formal geometry of the rows of crops isolates the workers.

The last 40 minutes of the film deals with the turmoil Woody faces once he agrees to appear in various radio programs. As he is becoming more outspoken in his feelings of sympathy for the migrants and urges them to form unions, his reputation as an activist spreads, worrying the sponsors of his program. He must give the station manager a list of approved songs and this situation drives much of the last part of the film. It’s definitely an important conflict in Woody’s life, but it pales in importance to the struggles of Woody and others getting to California and then finding work once they arrive.

The scenes set at the radio station clearly do not have the visual power of the ones set on the road to California. But there is still one powerful sequence left, as Woody, fed up with his predicament in the studio, decides to get back on the rails so he can touch the people. As he boards a freight train, he stands up in an empty boxcar, silhouetted against the setting sun behind him. It’s clearly a mythic image, but one that is appropriate at this moment.

The scene that follows is quite haunting, as he sings his protest song, “Pastures of Plenty” to a group of migrants who are standing in the rain, if only to be close to this man, whom many now consider something of a savior. As Ashby pans the camera off of Woody we see the quiet, solemn faces of the workers, whose hats and bonnets are misshapen by the rain. One woman holds a washbasin upside down over her head to fend off the precipitation. It’s a brief, but memorable visual.

What we are left with then is a film that captures greatness for much of its running time. If Bound for Glory is not quite the masterpiece it might have been, it is stirring evidence of the compelling nature of the power of images. Certainly Haskell Wexler had much to do with that; he not only won an Oscar for his cinematography here, but was also given the first screen credit of the film. Ashby and he realized what the visuals could bring to this story and succeeded magnificently in making this film a remarkable experience.

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