Thoughts on The Road

The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, opens this weekend. For anyone who has seen it, any thoughts?



McCarthy Interview on The Road

I hope we’ll be able to have some discussion on the Western Literature Blog about the movie, The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The film opens in theaters this week.

There was an interesting interview with McCarthy and John Hillcoat, director of The Road (who also directed The Proposition, a dark Australian “western” that came out a few years ago), published in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve pasted in a couple of excerpts below:

WSJ: What kind of reactions have you gotten to “The Road” from fathers?

CM: I have the same letter from about six different people. One from Australia, one from Germany, one from England, but they all said the same thing. They said, “I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them.”

JH: Cormac, do you think we caught the spirit of the book?

CM: Yeah, absolutely. I haven’t seen the final print version.

JH: Be glad you didn’t have to sit through the assembly cut, which was four hours. Look, I’ve never made a film anywhere near two hours. I admire the films, back in the day, when they were 90 minutes.

CM: One school of thought says that directors shouldn’t be allowed to edit their own films. But the truth is they should be. And they should be really brutal. Really brutal.

JH: Viewers are being hardwired differently. In film, it’s harder and harder to use wide shots now. And the bigger the budget, the more closeups there are and the faster they change. It’s a whole different approach. What’s going to happen is there will be the two extremes: the franchise films that are now getting onto brands like Barbie, and Battleship and Ronald McDonald; then there are these incredible, very low-budget digital films. But that middle area, they just can’t sustain and make it work in the current model. Maybe the model will change and hopefully readjust.

For the complete article from the Wall Street Journal, click here.

More On Frozen River

From Mary Scriver (editor’s note: this was posted as a comment, but I thought I would move it forward into its own post for easier reading):

Indie films and Native Americans — okay, “Indians” — seem like a match so natural as to be inevitable. The newest one I’ve seen is “Frozen River,” just now being mentioned on the West Lit blog. (The cowboys have discovered the Indians! And they’re female!) This film is also highly suitable for the discipline called “border studies” which might be described as something like philosophical geography.

The Mohawk Nation preserves its autonomy strongly enough that their reservation/reserve sovereignty persists on both sides of the Canadian/US border, which is a river because many of the early treaties between nations of all sorts defined territory by physical features like rivers or mountains. Through Montana the border is the edge of the drainage of the Missouri/Mississippi rivers, created by a row of small volcanic hills and then defined by surveying the 49th parallel. The Blackfeet Nation is on both sides of the line, but it is not contiguous. The US side is against the line, but the Canadian side is scattered into small areas. Nevertheless, in theory tribal members have free passage between the countries. It’s sometimes hard to convince border agents of that.

Two women, one played by Melissa Leo (my favorite “Homicide” detective) and the other by Misty Upham. Misty is Blackfeet and must be part of the family of “Doc” Upham who used to play in club bands with Bob Scriver. She grew up in Seattle, a part of the Indian community over there. Every Upham that I’ve known has been pretty remarkable for brains and enterprise. Leo, who is coming up fifty, looks her age (she’s a smoker — that’ll do it) and Misty dumped her Pocahontas image by cutting her hair and gaining 65 pounds. (I’m not sure she realized what that would do to her health, but she has taken forty pounds back off.) This is a reality story, not a reassuring little parable. The two women collide more than they meet, and bad fortune throws them together into a scheme to make money by running third-world illegal immigrants across the border from Canada to the US. They don’t need a boat because the ice on the river is multiple feet thick in winter when temps go far below zero, though sun in the daytime produces a layer of slush.

Another border is between the Indian woman and the white woman, sociological but not economic. Thanks to racial profiling a white woman is not likely to be stopped by off-rez police, so she has a smuggling advantage. On-rez it’s the Mohawk who has the sympathy of the officials so long as she doesn’t ruffle the Tribal Council hens. (Mohawk keep the pattern of tribal matriarchy.) The ties between them are about their children: Leo’s husband was an addict and gambler who took off with the family’s hoard of money meant to buy a new trailer. Upham’s husband is dead, gone through the ice while smuggling, which is how she got into the racket, but he left her pregnant. Since she’s living in a tiny camp trailer with no water (she sleeps in her coat), she can’t keep her baby. So the strong bond is children, the most basic human motive for women. This pushes the plot and resolves it in the end.

Such a setting provides plenty of suspense and the same kind of bleak but sublime long horizons against the sky as on the prairie. The cast was mostly local with white bits most likely to be doubling crew members. There is a growing pool of experienced tribal actors, especially on the Canadian side where the government supports arts. Budget was under one million dollars. It was Courtney Hunt’s first writing and directing undertaking.

When one looks at amateur painting, the most usual deficit is in “values,” which means the dark/light dimension, white-gray-black. Colors, composition, drawing and so on may be pretty good, but the sameness or skewing of values will give away inexperience. Likewise, the element most often missing in Indie movies is what Marshall W. Mason calls “beats” in his book, “Creating Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors,” which is drawn from his career with the Circle Repertory Company in NYC. When one listens to the voice-over comments for an Indie, the chatter is most likely to be excitement over how “felt” the story is, how realistic, how from the heart, plus a lot of memories of good times and scary times. When one listens to an old pro Hollywood or London director, the talk is far more technical and analytical, much more about art-form concerns. “Beats” are a way of divvying up the timing and emphasis into a coherent and controlled whole, rather than taking a sort of general scenario approach.

On the other hand, as Hunt points out, this story has children and dogs in it, found at the last minute and barely guided in what they did. Equipment was limited so camera angles were confined, there was no studio, and even local merchants controlled what could or couldn’t be done. (The local trailer sales emporium was leery of the low-class image of trailers.) This movie was made simply with heart and faith. It was “found” as much as composed.

One of my all-time favorite movies about Indians, “Loyalties,” is a big budget version of a similar theme that would be interesting to watch alongside “Frozen River.” One of Tantoo Cardinal’s early films (I would not hesitate to suggest that Misty is the next Tantoo.), it happens much farther north in Cree country. Anne Wheeler, who started out very much like Hunt, is the director but she had professional English actors and a budget. That story is about an English doctor who mysteriously arrives with his family to work in the Boonies. His wife is confused and paralyzed by the environment so the doctor hires a local woman to help her — that’s Tantoo. When I looked at the remarks, I was gratified to see that people said that though they’d seen the film twenty years ago or more, it remained vivid in their minds. Same here. The two women become friends and then more than friends when she and the English woman must protect the children at a high cost.

Today, a time when immigrants are treated with such suspicion and when the long tradition of citizens being able to cross the border peacefully without a passport has ended, we all need reminding that it is the fate of our children that should be our ultimate loyalty.

True Blood and the West?

Speaking of the Undead in the West, the CFP below for HBO’s True Blood series reminded me that there were western elements in the most recent season of the series. Although, with its primary Louisiana setting, True Blood seems mostly to draw on southern regionalism, vampire Bill and human (or mostly human) Sookie made a side trip to Texas as part of season two’s story arc, where they had an encounter with anti-vampire religious militants, and there were quite a few vampires here and there displaying a distinct cowboy aesthetic in their dress sense.  That foray into western space might be interesting to examine in terms of western genre as well.

The Call For Papers:

True Blood ( PCA/ACA, 3/31 – 4/3, Submission Deadline: 12/15)

The Vampire in Literature, Culture and Film area of the Popular Culture Association is seeking papers for the Joint National Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference to be held Wednesday, March 31st to Saturday, April 3rd, 2010 in St. Louis.

Papers which cover any aspect of the HBO True Blood series or the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse books are sought for presentation. Papers should be limited to a reading time of 15-20 minutes (3 person panels allow for 20 minute papers while 4 person panels allow for 15 minute papers; panels will be formed no later than January 2010 in order to provide panelists ample time to adjust their presentation time).

If you want to form your own panel of 3 or 4 presenters unified around a particular theme or work, please send panel proposals along with brief abstracts of each paper, each paper’s title, and contact information for each presenter in addition to designating one presenter as the Panel Chair. Discussion panels of 4-6 participants each are also encouraged.

All presenters must be (or become) members of the PCA or ACA and must register for the conference. Membership and registration information will be sent upon presentation acceptance. Please note that paper acceptance obligates participants to present the paper at the conference. Additionally, as per PCA/ACA guidelines, multiple submissions to different areas are not allowed (although you can present a paper and participate as a round-table speaker), and you must be present at the conference to read your own paper.

To have your proposal considered for presentation, please send a 250-350 word abstract by December 15, 2009, complete with your name, affiliation, and contact information to either:

Mary Findley
Vermont Technical College


Patrick McAleer
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Frozen River (Interview)

This is an interesting television interview with Melissa Leo and Misty Upham, the two actresses who star in the film Frozen River.

On Frozen River

I wanted to go back to Neil Campbell’s post last month on Sin Nombre and Frozen River. I’m still working on Sin Nombre, but I finally had  a chance to see Frozen River this week. I definitely agree with Neil’s comments that the film reminds us

“that the post-Western’s chameleon shape-shifting continues deep into the twenty-first century, looking to re-energize its generic elements into new and different patterns. Frozen River’s story is of the north country of New York state, near the little city of Massena on the St. Lawrence River and the Mohawk Nation reserve at Akwesasne – “the rez” – that straddles both the mile-wide river and the US-Canadian border. Melissa Leo (its leading actress) was advised by the director Courtney Hunt to watch John Wayne’s ‘reined in’ style of acting and in many other ways both her film and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre reflect the intertextual influences of the Western on contemporary filmmaking.”

Melissa Leo, in the role of Ray Eddy, very effectively evokes Wayne at various times, not only in terms of acting style but in the delivery of some of her lines. The uneasy relationship that Ray develops with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) also echoes the long history of white/American Indian pairs in westerns, from Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook to the Lone Ranger and Tonto, although Lila is by no means anyone’s “faithful companion.” Lila emerges as a complicated character, distinctive and individualized, and, like Ray, she has her own agenda in taking part in the smuggling operation, and those agendas sometimes conflict (as do the characters) and sometimes converge.

The characters cross the border between the US and Canada over the frozen river (and, as Lila points out, a border is a matter of perspective, as Mohawk land is continuous on both sides of the national line), and the scenes of driving across the expanse of the river are evocative of the vast desert landscapes of the classic western. The scenes on the river are bleak and beautiful, and the danger posed by this harsh environment is very real (as indicated when their car breaks through the ice at one point).

One nice and playful western reference in the film is the merry-go-round / carousel that Ray’s son T. J. is working on throughout the film. The merry-go-round has the only horses in this western, and we don’t really notice that they are horses until the end of the film when T. J. finishes his work, and, for the first time, we see the horses in motion.

It’s interesting to think of the film in comparison to The Searchers (speaking of John Wayne).  Both Lila and Ray are outsiders, marginalized members of their own communities, but whereas The Searchers ends famously with Wayne framed in the doorway, outside the family and continually an outsider in the community, the movement in Frozen River is in the opposite direction—toward bringing the characters back into the family and the community.  A key moment in the film involves a character coming back inside a house, rather than continuing on, in traditional western fashion, into the landscape.

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More on the Undead in the West

Reading back through the call for papers for the Undead in the West panel (see previous post), I find that while I’m familiar with a couple of the films mentioned (Bubba Ho-Tep in particular), I don’t really know the other films all that well, nor can I think of any other Undead Westerns.  Is anyone else more familiar with the genre? What are some examples of films that combine the horror and western genres?  Does the new Woody Harrelson film Zombieland count as an Undead Western?