Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Eastwood's Westerns: 'Wales' and 'Unforgiven'

The other night I watched The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, two of Clint Eastwood’s finest Westerns. Starring in and directing both, Eastwood made these films sixteen years apart, and while they share some similiarites, they are quite different in their tone and visual style – the former, a more classic linear story, the latter, more of a fable on the anguish of violence.

Wales (1976) has Eastwood as the title character become a guerilla fighter for the Rebels after his house is burned and his wife and son are killed in a raid by Union troops. At the conclusion of the war, most of Wales’ comrades pledge allegiance to the North, but are murdered as part of a Union trick. Wales then shoots down several of the troops and must flee from them and the bounty hunters that are soon on his trail.

At the beginning of Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood portraying William Munny, is a widower who is raising hogs with his young son and daughter on a small farm. He learns that a few cowboys cut up a woman and that there is a reward out for the capture of these men. Although he has sworn off the murderous ways of his past (“I ain’t like that no more,” he remarks more than once in this film), he sets out on this challenge, as he claims he needs the money.

Thus both films are modeled on the classic Western theme of finding evil and challenging its force. But for Eastwood, there is the equally important matter of fighting inner demons as well as encountering loneliness. “I ain’t no different than anyone else,” Munny tells his partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), trying to convince himself of this statement, yet knowing full well that he is different.

The inner demons have less to do with Wales, who along the way picks up an aging Indian (Chief Dan George in a wonderful dry comic performance), a young Indian woman (Geraldine Kearns) as well as an older white woman and her granddaughter (Paula Trueman and Sondra Locke, respectively) as his traveling companions. At once, these people represent a family that Wales now needs; later they will become invaluable in his efforts to stay alive. It’s a nice transformation of his lonely character, who if only for a brief time, understands the value of his fellow man along the way. He leaves his new family unit at the end after a rousing shootout as he continues to pursue the Union soldier who left a deep scar on his face (compare this with the prostitute who is cut in the opening scene of Unforgiven). He departs without saying a word- clearly his actions to make things right are more important than his new friends.

The final scene has Wales encountering a former associate Fletcher (John Vernon) who has been leading the effort to murder him. They come to an understanding, as Wales and Fletcher pretend that Wales is dead. The war is over and so are his reasons for murder. “I guess we all died a little in that damn war,” he remarks. He rides off into the sunset, having accomplished his goals and along the way, learning a little about humanity. But are we to believe that Wales won’t continue his killing spree if it becomes necessary? That was the world of Eastwood’s characters in these Westerns and it is a theme that will be explored in greater detail in Unforgiven.

If Wales is a classic Western of good triumphing over bad, then Unforgiven turns that concept inside out as we question the very concept of goodness and evil. Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning role) represents good in name only, as his way must be obeyed in the town of Big Whiskey. He beats and kicks those who refuse to yield their firearms and cruelly whips those who will not truthfully answer his questions.

Munny becomes evil once again as events lead him down a slippery slope. We see it in subtle ways, as he tries to kill one of the bunch that terrorized the prostitutes earlier. After Logan gets off a few shots, he suddenly stops, as he can’t finish the job. Munny seizes the rifle and does what he can with his less than accurate shooting. After hearing the man cry out for water after he is shot, Munny yells at the outlaw’s partners, “Give him a drink of water, for christ’s sake. We’re not going to shoot.” He doesn’t shoot, as promised, as he lets the outlaw bleed to death. He has killed again, but his facial expressions and body language let us know his agony.

This scene on a rocky ledge, as we cut between Munny, Logan and their new partner The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvet) and the outlaw crawling on the cliffs below is superby edited by Joel Cox. His work throughout the film is first-rate, as there is a natural flow of the major events in the story, from the encounters of Munny, Logan and the Kid to the intruiging chapter of the arrival of English Bob (wittily portrayed by Richard Harris) in Big Whiskey to the final massacre in the bar. The film has a beautiful pace, which is due in part to Cox’s work – as well as Eastwood’s direction (a trademark of the filmmaker). Cox who has been the editor on Eastwood’s films for over the past two decades won an Oscar for his work on this film.

Eastwood had been directing since the early 1970s and by now had reached a new level of technical excellence; Unforgiven remains one of his best films on several levels. For instance, the contribution of cinematographer Jack N. Green must be singled out. This is a dark Western with several scenes, such as the final sequence, taking place at night in pouring rain. Green’s photography – at times somber and at times alluring - is perfect for the tone of this film and has a subtlety and grace to it that add to the emotional mood of the story. He offers a rich pallete of colors in the outdoor scenes, but in a slightly muted way. Contrast this look (especially in the scene with Munny, Logan and the Kid riding across the open plains just before sunset) with the deeply saturated, high contrast look that cinematographer Bruce Surtees provided for Wales. That look is pretty at times and it could be argued that it is more in keeping with the tone of that film, which is much less brooding than Unforgiven, but ultimately the photography of Wales lacks the complexity of the visuals crafted by Green in Unforgiven. It would have been nice if the Academy would have awarded Green for his efforts, but as usual, they took the safe route and handed out the Oscar for Best Cinematography that year to the “prettier” visuals of A River Runs Through It. (Green incidentally was the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 2009.)

Unforgiven also has one of the finest scripts ever written for a Western. Crafted by David Webb Peoples, the screenplay is beautifully structured, offering some tender sequences you might not expect, given the raw intensity of much of the story. One of the most poignant scenes is that between the young prostitute whose face was cut (Anna Levine) and Munny during his physical recovery after a beating at the hands of Little Bill. “You ain’t ugly like me, “ Munny tells the woman. “It’s just that we both got scars. But you’re a beautiful woman.” Clearly Munny is taking about both physical and mental scars at this moment.

Then in a hearbreaking exchange, Munny tells her that he doesn’t want to hop into bed with her on account of his wife. Clearly touched by this expression of emotion, she asks him, “Is she back in Kansas?” “Yes,” Munny responds, “she’s looking over my young ones.” This is a very touching response as the woman clearly does not know that Munny’s wife passed on several years earlier.

Peoples’s script examines how ugly murder really is; though it may be necessary for some, it is never an easy choice. Look at the transformation of The Schofield Kid. During much of the film, he falsely boasts to Munny and Logan that he had killed five men; his hyped bravura a supposed mark of manhood. But after he does commit his first murder in this story, he wonders about his actions. “It don’t seem right, how he can never breathe again, ever… all on account of pulling a trigger.” Then comes the film’s most famous line. “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man,” says Munny. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” This is clearly not a message of shoot ‘em up and get rid of the bad guys; this is about the finality of death and how it changes everyone. (Today it seems incomprehensible that this screenplay did not win the Oscar; rather the Academy opted for the more sensational aspects of The Crying Game, a fine screenplay but without the richness of this script. It is a reminder of the timing and popularity of certain films as to why they win awards.)

Eastwood films the conversation between Munny and The Kid simply and effectively with the Kid slumped next to a tree taking swigs from a bottle of whiskey while Munny stands nearby in a world weary pose. As Munny utters the line about “ killing a man”, Eastwood cuts to a closeup of Munny from below, his face outlined against a dark, cloud filled sky. Clearly, Eastwood by this time had created a mythic personality on screen; this moment is one of his most clearly defined.

Eastwood’s direction was his finest to date and ranks with his efforts in Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) as his best. He had shown effective talent as a director even in his first film behind the camera (Play Misty for Me, 1971); by now he had become a fine technician with an excellent sense of pace. But in Unforgiven he displayed more assurance in his direction, as there is much more cutting within scenes, as he gives us a variety of points of view, matching the complexities of the story. His eye for striking visuals is not only reserved for outdoor scenes here; look at the beautiful composition of the Kid and Logan looking over Munny as he is recovering from his injuries midway through the film. The wide open spaces of Wales have largely been replaced with a more claustrophobic, tumultous perspective. (As everyone knows, the Academy did honor Eastwood as Best Director and the film as Best Picture.)

Wales remains a beautiful classic Western about the search for justice. Unforgiven on the other hand examines the very notion of justice and is a menacing look at the evils of violence and its effects on our souls. We may escape violence briefly, but it will return in some form at some point in our lives; this is one of the strongest messages of the film. As carried out by Eastwood, Peoples, Green, Cox and other gifted technicians who worked on this project, Unforgiven remains a stunning achievement.

-Tom Hyland

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.