Tag Archives: westerns

Two Grits

True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010) and

True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969)

We hear a lot of griping about Hollywood remakes, usually in the context of telling us how creatively bankrupt the industry is. Well, perhaps – perhaps – there’s some truth in that. But we can also look on remakes as a way of measuring the progress of basic storytelling craft in Hollywood, by seeing how the same material is treated differently over time. And so it is with the western True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, which had previously been filmed in 1969 by Henry Hathaway.

Such an exercise is never scientific, of course. Hathaway was an experienced old-hand, in his early seventies, towards the end of a long career that stretched back to the silent era. While a distinguished studio veteran, he wasn’t a figure of the calibre of John Ford or Howard Hawks; he was never held in the same esteem as the Coen brothers are today. In other respects, though, the talent in the films can be seen as comparable. Hathaway’s film was still a prestige production, and in John Wayne it features the kind of old-fashioned star power that the post-classical era Hollywood can’t really build any more. It is also interesting for its pairing of Wayne with a couple of notable figures from the then-emerging generation of New Hollywood actors, with Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall in small-ish but important supporting parts. Against that, the Coens have Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role, Matt Damon in the big supporting part (played by musician Glen Campbell in Hathaway’s film), and a comparable stock of interesting supporting players as villains (most notably Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper).

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Fair Dinkum

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

I’m late to the party on Australia, so this is going to be a belated defence of it. While it’s true that it has generally been positively reviewed (at least in its home country), when a film is as hyped as this one is, faint praise damns. Mix in a few very prominent or particularly negative reviews (such as Luke Buckmaster’s over at InFilm Australia, here), the less-than-expected box-office, and the complete dissipation of any Oscar buzz, and I think it’s fair to say that a sense of disappointment has built around Australia. This was part of the reason that I was so late in seeing the film. I had been pumped for it after seeing the trailers, but it had slipped down in my priorities as it became clearer that Luhrmann hadn’t pulled a rabbit out of his hat and produced a masterpiece. When I finally did see it, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Taken on its own terms, Australia is of course no classic, but it is nevertheless highly enjoyable.

What’s fun about it is how ambitious it is: Luhrmann has mixed up elements of the Australian western (The Man From Snow River), effects-laden war film (Pearl Harbour), epic love story / melodrama (Gone With the Wind), leftist social drama (Rabbit Proof Fence), and more old-fashioned attempts to negotiate Australia’s relationship with its indigenous inhabitants (Jedda), and filtered these disparate influences though the heightened style familiar from Luhrmann’s previous work. Try something like that without it being a little bit of a muddle and you’ve made a bona fide classic. As it is, you do feel the gears change, occasionally gratingly, but what’s surprising is how often it does come together. The film is involving, wonderfully shot, and always entertaining.

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Because We all Remember How the Last Movie I Posted the Trailer for Turned Out

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia hadn’t really been on my radar, despite its profile. I think it was partly the stink of self-indulgence that hung over the project, as well as my increasing reservations about Lurhmann’s style. I enjoyed Strictly Ballroom without loving it, and Romeo + Juliet really impressed me, but by the time of Moulin Rouge I thought Luhrmann’s self-conscious technique had become a liability.

However, the appearance of the first trailer on the internet has put this right at the top of my list. Luhrmann – as best as we can tell – appears to have limited his stylised approach to the framing story and gone for a more old-school epic style of shooting for the rest of the film. I realise a trailer can make anything look good, but damn: this movie looks absolutely gorgeous. We never really have had a really good Australian classical western, despite a few attempts and the fact that the genre is so suited to being transposed here (it isn’t cool to say this, but Man From Snowy River probably got closest). Luhrmann just might have cracked it.

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Location, Location, Location

I still don’t see enough discussion of the importance of location in film. It’s not that it doesn’t get discussed at all; I’ve seen a fair few academic books and articles over the years that touch on it, and the recent upsurge of interest in the depiction of cities in film (which leads to books like Celluloid Skyline and Screening the City and The Cinematic City) reflects a fairly closely related interest. But I’ve felt for a long time now that location is one of the most critical elements in a film; it often seems to me that the places and locations we see in films deserve much more primacy in discussion about movies.

When I think about my favourite movies, one thing that strikes me is how many of them create a vivid sense of place; I love films that make me feel like I’ve visited somewhere. That isn’t just for obvious epic style movies in exotic locales, like a Lawrence of Arabia; I’m thinking about movies in all sorts of genres, and all sorts of types of locations. So it might be the L.A. suburbs of E.T., or the New England town of Jaws, or Woody Allen’s idealised New York in Manhattan, or the frontier backwoods of McCabe and Mrs Miller, or even the fantasy environments of the original Star Wars. One of the key things that separates these films from their less successful imitators is the sense of immersion in those places that they offer.

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Western Art

McCabe & Mrs Miller (Robert Altman), 1971)

When Robert Altman made McCabe & Mrs Miller, he wasn’t the stereotypical New Hollywood director. In his mid forties, with many years in the industry (obscure B-pictures in the fifties, and television throughout the sixties), he was an emerging talent but still a product of the system. Yet McCabe & Mrs Miller is nevertheless classic New Hollywood: it takes an established Hollywood genre and deconstructs it; it focuses on amoral (or at least non-heroic) protagonists; it’s downbeat; and it’s photographed and constructed more like a European art film than American genre films typically had been until that point. You can see why canon-building critics like Pauline Kael, eager to welcome in a new wave of filmmakers, flipped for it. Kael wasn’t wrong – it is a great film. Yet I think it’s worth another look because the response to it is very telling about the way audiences and critics respond to the collision of art and genre.

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Hell’s Bells

Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino), 1980

This wasn’t “an unqualified disaster” or “a phenomenon.” This was just – a flop. – Steven Bach

Possibly the finest book written about the making of a film is Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, which chronicles the disastrous production of Michael Cimino’s epic western. It’s written from a rarely revealed insider perspective (Bach was a key executive at United Artist’s during the film’s preparation), but that isn’t its only appeal. It captures an important moment in film history: the last semblance of old-style moguls had been swept away (Arthur Krim departed UA in 1978 after 27 years) and the era of decentralised corporate ownership had begun.

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