Django Unchained

I must admit to admiring the audacity (or perversity) of opening Django Unchained on Christmas Day, as Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent blaxploitation spaghetti-western-homage is about as unlikely a holiday movie as I’ve ever seen.  True Grit, which was a Christmas Day western gift a couple of years ago,  had some imagery and themes consistent with its holiday release day (even if Rooster Cogburn was hardly a typical holiday movie character).  With excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as the film’s bounty hunter heroes, and a delightfully crazed and comic turn by Leonardo DiCaprio as villainous slaveholder Calvin Candie, and a filmmaking style that is so over the top that you can’t even see the top that the film is way over because you are up so high, Django Unchained is certainly one of the more interesting westerns to come out in a while, and one that is brave enough to cast an African American hero at its center, and brave enough as well not to gloss over the brutality of slavery in the way that so many other “southern” westerns have. And unlike other “southerns,” Hell on Wheels among them, Django Unchained is not so enamoured with the cowboy with romantic southern roots as to make him the hero (even as such westerns simultaneously play up the southern roots and downplay the connection to slaveholding). The southerners in this western are not the heroes, and that is a revision that the western has long needed to make.

There are 6 quarts of blood in the human body. Each time someone is shot in Django Unchained, it seems like the full 6 quarts comes flying out and splashing around the movie screen. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he wanted to bring an “operatic” style to the violence, and, I suppose that might be the case if Herschel Gordon Lewis were an opera director.

One of my favorite parts of the film is the wagon that bounty hunter King Schultz—disguised as a dentist—travels in, topped as it is by a large human tooth on a spring. As the tooth wobbles back and forth, the spring squeaks in a rhythmic way, and I suspect this is an homage to the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, with its squeaking windmill (and, indeed, Tarantino may even have lifted that sound from Leone’s movie as the source of his squeaking tooth noise). Another reason that I love that tooth is that it seems to comment on what I’ve started to referring to as the “dental revisionism” of the contemporary western. As we all know, the perfect teeth of contemporary actors have little in common with the teeth of the 19th century characters they play in westerns, and there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to “correct” the dentally inaccurate portrayals in earlier generations of westerns. They have been doing so by using dental prosthetics to reflect the poor quality of dental care in the Old West. And, in every film that I’ve seen, the revisionist corrections done in the name of realism have been anything but realistic. My first thought on seeing an actor smile to reveal enough moss to make an “Old Manse” feel jealous is not, “wow, what an attention to realistic detail,” but, “wow, that looks really fake.” The giant tooth bobbing up and down atop the wagon is a more realistic looking tooth than most of the prosthetics that I’ve seen. And if Tarantino didn’t then indulge in the same sort of dental revisionism via prosthetic teeth that I’ve seen in far too many movies, I might suspect a sly commentary on the practice.  To Django Unchained‘s credit, the prosthetics show more restraint than almost anything else in the film, and none of the mouths quite reach the absurdity of Walton Goggins’s ridiculously bad teeth in Cowboys and Aliens (which remains my nominee for the Prosthetic Teeth Hall of Fame). (See Cowboys, Aliens, and Prosthetic Teeth.)

Although the civilized and educated King Schultz is in many ways just the opposite of Rooster Cogburn, he fulfills somewhat of the same role as Cogburn in True Grit. As a gun for hire, or a lawman for hire, Cogburn suggests that there’s a fuzzy line between a Marshal and a bounty hunter. Schultz plays the experienced bounty hunter to Foxx’s Django, who takes on the Mattie Ross role, learning the ropes from Schultz. Among the differences, the path that Shultz and Django take moves from one frontier to another, from the story of western bounty hunting into the world of plantation slavery, one with which Django (a slave whose freedom is purchased by Schultz) is intimately familiar. As the film shifts in its second half from the bounty hunter story to the infiltration of Candie’s plantation (“Candie Land”), Foxx shifts roles in a way that Mattie does not—as he is the expert on negotiating this particular violent frontier.

With its two bounty hunters (as well as its revenge/rescue plot), Django Unchained reminds me a little of For a Few Dollars More, which I watched again fairly recently, and was somewhat surprised by the high body count in the film (especially when many of those body’s are loaded onto a wagon at the end to be carried in for their bounties). I don’t know of anyone has done a body count yet for Django, but it would probably take more higher math skill than I have. The question may finally be: which is higher? the body count or the number of times America’s most popular racial epithet gets used? As I said earlier, whether it’s the blood or the bad language, Django Unchained is a very unlikely holiday film. It is nonetheless a good action-packed western for those of us who prefer a showdown or two (or six) in our holiday films.

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Is “The Dark Knight Rises” a Western?

Well, of course. In fact, it’s a very specific western—a remake in a way of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist classic Unforgiven. It even has Morgan Freeman playing pretty much the same role. Even though he wears a bowtie rather than a cowboy hat, and is an inventor of weapons rather than an accomplished rifleman, he still plays the sidekick, partner, and best friend (and/or only friend left) to the film’s avenging hero.

As is the case with Clint Eastwood’s Bill Muny, Bruce Wayne has gone into early retirement. Several years removed from his killing days, Muny lives on a family farm, raises pigs and children, with the pigs giving him the most trouble. Several years removed from the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne shambles around his mansion, walking with the aid of cane. Both Muny and Wayne are the worse for the wear, age and rust taking the edge off their skills. In the earliest bit of action, Muny ends up getting kicked and beaten into unconsciousness by Little Bill. The same thing happens to Wayne, who thinks that his combat skills will enable him to take out the villainous Bane.

As Lee Clark Mitchell has pointed out, the beating scene, in which the hero is initially vanquished by his foe, is an important convention of the western, because the beating provides the prelude for the drama of the hero’s recovery. Only after he has been beaten to a pulp, suffered, and endured a slow and painful convalescence (usually with the aid of a Good Woman, although neither Unforgiven or The Dark Knight Rises follows that element of the convention to the letter) can we fully appreciate the hero’s show of will power that results in his dramatic recovery and eventual heroic return.

And my goodness does The Dark Knight Rises take this element of the western—the beating and recovery scenario—and run with it. Or, not really run with it, but slowly drag it out over the length of the middle third of the film. And I should mention two things here: 1) I didn’t love The Dark Knight Rises—it was well made, and I didn’t hate it, but I don’t think I will see it again. I found it overly long and ponderous. And parts of it annoyed me—but maybe that’s just superhero fatigue). 2) From this point on, spoilers follow. So if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now!

Beaten near to death by Bane, Wayne is secreted away in a hellish prison, where he is forced to watch telecasts of all the havoc Bane is visiting on Gotham. Ban has transformed Fox’s energy creation device into a nuclear bomb (and it’s too complicated and a bit too silly to go into how this took place, but see above about superhero fatigue—here we go again, another doomsday device). He also has to put up with whispered advice from two other prisoners (the first thing to go in prison, it seems, are the vocal cords) about how to heal himself and how to escape. Only one other prisoner has escaped—presumably Bane (but there’s a twist that I won’t go into). Part of the torture of the prison is the illusion of hope offered by an open dome, which allows the prisoners to glimpse the sunlight above. The other part of the torture is having to listen to the enigmatic wisdom of other prisoners (or maybe that was just torture to me). Anyone who climbs the inside of the dome and makes it to the opening is free. We see several scenes of failures, and, one of the disappointments of the movie is that it took me about two seconds to figure out the secret of getting out. All the prisoners have a rope tied to them, presumably to catch them when they fall (although it primarily serves to pendulum them into the side of the wall). Take off the damn rope! I kept wanting to scream at Bruce Wayne. After about an hour of film time, he finally takes off the rope, and what do you know, he makes the final leap to freedom.

And now it’s time for him to go after Little Bill. Or Bane. Or whoever it is that has the button that will trigger the nuclear device and destroy Gotham.

The Dark Knight Rises is also reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, or, as DKR might be retitled, The Man Who Didn’t Kill Harvey Dent The Way Every One Thinks He Did. In the previous film The Dark Knight, Harry Dent and Bruce Wayne played out the Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne roles from the classic western. Harry Dent, the politician and lawyer figure, achieved posthumous fame for getting rid of the Joker and saving the day. Like John Wayne, the ‘Bat Man” was the actual hero of the day, but not only does he not receive credit for that heroism, he’s blamed for killing Dent. Like his partial namesake, Bruce Wayne disappears into seclusion. After the Stewart character reveals the truth about what happened, the film ends with the famous lines, “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” and the true story is left out of the newspaper (although not unrevealed, as anyone who has seen the film has just watched the facts unfold).

The Dark Knight Rises similarly wants to have it both ways, but it does so in a much clunkier fashion. The ambivalence about western (or superhero) legends, the revisionist elements of both Unforgiven and Liberty Valence, the self-conscious commentary on the genre itself that we see in those two western films, DKR seems to want to do something similar, but I didn’t think it worked very well. The Dark Knight, the second in director Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films, did a much better job of registering the cultural ambivalence of the moment, capturing the uncertainties of the war on terror. How far should we go to protect ourselves from a madman bent on destruction? Is it okay to tell a lie in service of a greater good? DKR seemed to pull away from addressing that dilemma other than to give it lip service every now and then.

The political point of view of The Dark Knight Rises has already taken up a lot of space on the internet. As Russ Douthat observes in “The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,” “after watching the final movie’s faux-revolutionary villain appropriate the themes and exploit the grievances of the Occupy Wall Street movement in order to launch a 21st century Reign of Terror, I don’t really think the saga’s rightward political tilt can be denied.” That both the western and the superhero genre in general have  traditionally suggested a “rightward political tilt” is not exactly news, either, although the western, as a genre, seems to have developed an ability for political ambivalence and ambiguity that superhero films perhaps have not. However, as Douthat also notes (and his article provides a good overview of various political interpretations of the film), both leftward and rightward leaning takes on DKR have misinterpreted and overstated the case. Nonetheless, while watching The Dark Knight Rises‘ baseball cap- and hoody-wearing “thugs” run amok over Gotham, I kept thinking of all the peaceful Occupy protestors in the real world—and of the infamous moment where a passive and peaceful seated protester was pepper-sprayed by security.  That version of the Occupy movement doesn’t make it into DKR.

As is often the case with westerns, pseudo-westerns, quasi-westerns, or whatever we want to call DKR, I found myself thinking of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and of the advice Tuco offers his would-be killer, “When you have to shoot, shoot—don’t talk.”  To put this in superhero terms, “When you have to push the button that ignites that doomsday device that will bring your villainous plans to fruition, push the button that ignites that doomsday device that will bring your villainous plans to fruition–don’t talk.”  And, yes, the Villain, with the Bat Man on the ropes, pauses for a long conversation, supplying both exposition and motive (there’s way too much explanation of both in the dialogue of this movie), and, of course, gives the good guys time enough to implant a device on the bomb that blocks its detonation. Granted, the bomb is going to blow up anyway, button or no button. “You only bought yourself ten minutes,” the Villain tells Bruce Wayne, but ten minutes is as good as ten hours in superhero time.

The best part of the film is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (the alterego of Cat Woman), who is a pleasure to watch every moment she is on screen. Unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, she isn’t burdened by the necessity to enact Heroic Masculinity, to Suffer like a Man Must Suffer in Order to Be a Hero. As a result, she brings the only note of fun and enjoyment in this otherwise ponderously serious adventure. And she doesn’t have to perspire as profusely as Wayne—the visual signifier of the Great Agony of his Manly Struggle. So, she looks fresher, and she has a twinkle in her eye, and an acerbic wit to her commentary. In Selina Kyle, the film had a potential hero for the 99%, if it had chosen to go in that direction, light on her feet, athletic, acrobatic, and daring.

One final note on the western elements of The Dark Knight Rises. At the end of the film, the Bat Man even rides off into the sunset—albeit, a sunset of his own creation. The soon-to-explode nuclear device is towed out to sea and away from Gotham, and the direction is east rather than west, but the explosion is as much sunset as sunrise, artificial and manmade though it might be, and it signals what the sunset often means in the western—the cowboy hero is moving on, leaving behind the town he has just protected but knows he will never really be able to fully join.

Cowboys, Aliens, and Prosthetic Teeth

The new film Cowboys and Aliens, with its mashup of western and sci-fi genres, is probably not going to win over a whole lot of fans of either genre. Certainly, it’s not going to knock The Searchers off anyone’s list of best westerns, and it’s not going to knock 2001: A Space Odyssey off anyone’s favorite science fiction movies. And it’s probably not going to knock Independence Day or War of the Worlds, or, some may find, not even Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, out of the canon of alien invasion movies.

When it comes right down to it, Cowboys and Aliens is probably just not a very good movie, but, as bad movies go, it’s still fairly entertaining. I love the idea of a western/sci-fi mashup, but neither the western nor the sci-fi parts work particularly well in Cowboys and Aliens. At its best, in the first half-hour or so, it’s a pretty good pastiche of Sergio Leone’s westerns, with Daniel Craig performing well in the role of the Man Without A Name (or at least, the man who doesn’t remember his name), and I would be first in line to see Daniel Craig in a straight-up western at some point.  The action sequences, in which Craig dispatches with relative ease small groups of armed attackers, are pretty good (and seem to be lifted pretty much straight out of A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More).

But the film falters when it stops ripping off Sergio Leone movies, and rather than a new take on western themes and conventions, we get clichéd characters and types who never really come to life. Or, given the ridiculousness of the film’s central conceit (aliens invade the old west), never go far enough over the top to match the film’s big concept. At this point, I would say, “spoilers follow,” but from the moment that Harrison Ford’s Woodrow Dollarhyde says to Adam Beach’s Nat Colorado, “Get it into your thick Indian skull that you’re not my son,” well, you know what’s going to happen—poor Adam Beach, abandoned Indian child taken in and raised (at arm’s length) by curmudgeonly white frontier hero Ford, is going to end up sacrificing his own life to save Ford’s sorry underappreciative ass, and before he dies, white father and adopted Indian son will reconcile, and Adam Beach will expire peacefully in Harrison Ford’s arms.  The only surprising thing is that when this exact scenario inevitably plays out, Ford and Beach play the scene with enough conviction that they almost rescue it from the hackneyed concept and wooden dialogue.

And speaking of hackneyed concepts and wooden dialogue, with the exception of Nat Colorado, whose character has at least some individuality to him, the American Indians in Cowboys and Aliens, when they finally appear near the end of the film, are less realistically depicted and more cartoonishly represented than the alien creatures that replace them in the film’s title. There’s a scene in Reel Injuns, a documentary that looks at Hollywood’s history of representing Native Americans on screen, which translates what the Navajo actors are actually saying on screen, and it’s not complementary to the western film they’re performing in.  I was thinking of that while watching Adam Beach gamely translating Apache leader Black Knife’s speech, and imagining that what he was really saying was something along these lines, “These stereotypes again? I thought we were beyond this. WTF?”

Still, both Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford seem to be enjoying themselves, and they make Cowboys and Aliens worth watching, especially, say, on a hot summer afternoon in a theater with good air conditioning.

And the film also has some actors that western watchers will find familiar. It’s always good to see Keith Carradine, even if he is lassoed by an alien in a spaceship and lifted up into the heavens early in the movie.  Walton Goggins (Timothy Olyphant’s other half in Justified) also makes a welcome appearance, as one of Daniel Craig’s former gang (turns out, Craig was an outlaw and train robber before alien mind wiping got the better of him).

And Goggins gets my nomination this year for Best Acting in A Supporting Role in Spite of Being Severely Handicapped by A Truly Outlandishly Over-The-Top Set of Prosthetic Teeth.   Actually, Goggins’ performance and his teeth struck just the right note in the film, just over-the-top enough to be amusing but not enough so to detract from the action-adventure elements of the film.

As a western, part of the problem with Cowboys and Aliens is that the film just didn’t look right. The town of Absolution (I guess Redemption was already taken) looks like a movie set. For most of the film, I was expecting that the twist would be that Absolution wasn’t real, that Daniel Craig was involved in some sort of alien version of the “most dangerous game,” and that most of the characters we encountered were really just pretending to be living in a nineteenth century western town.

Still, it’s worth five bucks just to see Walton Goggins’s teeth.

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On Meek’s Cutoff

Director Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, is one of the more interesting westerns to come along in a while.  You may know Reichardt from her earlier film Wendy and Lucy (a story of a woman and her dog that gets me all misty-eyed just thinking about it). Like Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff stars Michelle Williams, and like that earlier movie, Meek’s Cutoff is set (and filmed on location) in Oregon, but it takes place in 1845 rather than the contemporary Oregon of Wendy and Lucy.

The situation in the film is that a group of settlers following a guide named Stephen Meek have departed from the main stem of the Oregon Trail, but, rather than the cutoff providing a shorter way to their destination, the group seems to be wandering aimlessly in the Oregon desert. Early in the film, one member of the group despairingly carves the word “Lost” onto a fallen tree. When we meet the settlers, they have been off the main trail for several weeks, and whatever faith they had in Meek’s guidance has also been lost. The only question in Emily Tetherow’s mind is whether Meek is “ignorant or evil,” whether he has led them astray intentionally (as part of a larger conspiracy against immigrants) or is just incompetent as guide—despite his considerable assertions of self-confidence.

Emily (played by Michelle Williams) is the central character of the film, and the movie alternates between viewing the settlers dispassionately and objectively and showing us events from Emily’s viewpoint.

One of the elements I liked about the film was its use of sound. There’s very little music, and most of the sound is diegetic. The settlers sing “Closer My Lord to Thee” (and, indeed, the only destination they seem to be approaching is death). Nondiegetic music is rare, mostly in the form of brief interludes of string music, eerie and distorted. Mostly what we hear is the sound of travel: the persistent squeak of a wagon wheel, the sounds of oxen teams and other animals, the creak of harnesses and yokes, the banging of objects in the wagons, the constant rumble of wagon wheels over the hard ground. In one scene, the camera is on Meek, who has ridden ahead in search of water. We know the settlers are catching up with him because we hear them first—the high-pitched squeak of the wagon wheel that gets louder and louder, and then the rest of the sounds that don’t carry as far as that squeak. That squeaking wheel is so persistent in the film, that I swear I heard it for the next few hours after I left the theater.

I also greatly appreciated the patient cinematography demonstrated in Meek’s Cutoff. I’ve seen too many movies recently that seem like they were filmed by having two cinematographers toss a camera back and forth to each other, and what we see of the action on-screen is a frenetically-edited jittery incomprehensible blur. And, while the camera is being tossed back and forth, add in frequent and random zooms (in and out). The overabundance of this style of filmmaking has made me all the more appreciative of two things: tripods and long takes. (As Stephen Colbert says, “We can put a man on the moon, so, surely, we can put a camera on a tripod.”)

One of the things that I liked best about Meek’s Cutoff was the use of long takes. Often, a stationary camera distantly observes the action. We see an empty landscape; we hear the noises faintly of the wagon train moving; the noises get louder; the first walker appears and moves slowly across the screen; others follow, oxen pulling wagons, humans walking along beside them or trailing behind; one of the walkers collapses; the camera remains where it is, objectively observing as the rest of the party rushes toward the fallen man.

While the men are off searching for water, Emily (almost literally) runs into an Indian man while she is picking up firewood. Terrified, she rushes back to the camp, and, in one long take, we see here prepare a muzzle-loading rifle with powder and shot, shoot it, and then prepare and fire a second shot. It’s a brilliant scene, the long take effectively demonstrating  the details of how the weapon operates and giving Michelle Williams a chance to show us something significant about her character, the mixture of frantic (but not quite panicked) terror and clear-headed competence. Emily is a sensible woman, but she is a realistic character, one whose reasonable fears are part of her portrayal.

So, I loved the long takes, and I loved the film’s observational patience, but that’s clearly not the case for every audience member (as I heard the person seated behind me say at the end of the film: “It was like watching paint dry”).

I wonder if the advertising campaign establishes the wrong expectations for this film. The movie poster, which features a drawing of a determined-looking Emily with a raised rifle, makes it seems like the film is going to be another version of True Grit. Although clearly a western, the aesthetics and philosophy of Meek’s Cutoff have more in common with Samuel Beckett than Samuel Peckinpah. This is, in a sense, like Waiting for Godot, a drama in which nothing happens, and in which the characters’ situation by the end of the film has not been greatly altered from the beginning (except that our characters may be getting closer and closer to death—or, maybe there will be water over that next hill).

A key dramatic event in the film is when Meek and Solomon Tetherow capture the Indian who has been following the party. Meek wants to kill him, but Tetherow wants to use him as a guide. Surely, the Indian knows the territory better than any of them and can lead them to water (and, undoubtedly, he knows the territory better than Meek). The ambiguity of the Indian (as the character is listed in the credits, or The Cayuse as he’s called on the film’s website) is well played by actor (and stuntman) Rod Rondeaux.   Is the Indian leading them to water or to perdition? or is he just as lost as they are? should they place their trust in a captive (who has no reason, other than saving his own life, to do the bidding of his captors) or in Meek, who has proven himself unreliable?

There are moments in the film (and especially the final shot of the Indian walking away from the camera) that remind me of Dutch artist Guido van der Werve’s experimental films, especiallyNummer acht: Everything is going to be alright,” which consists of one long take of the artist walking across ice with an icebreaker ship seemingly following behind.

No single take in Meek’s Cutoff lasts 1o minutes (as does van der Werve’s film), but there’s a similar sense of endless walking through a landscape that is menacing, whether because of seen or unseen (possible) pursuers or because of moving through a natural space that is in itself threatening to human life (because of heat and lack of water, or because of cold and ice as in “Nummer acht”).

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Paul Goes West

Although at first glance a new comedy by British comedians  might not seem to provide likely subject matter for the WLA Blog, but the film Paul, starring (and written by) Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, is surprisingly a film about the American West—as it explores a vision of the American West as constructed by a combination of UFO conspiracy buffs and science fiction films. To adapt the language of Paul itself, this is the nerd’s version of the American West, and when our intrepid British explorers set off on their first trip to America to explore the West they’ve been consuming through comic books, UFO websites, television shows such as Star Trek and films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they are seeking (like many a western adventurer before them) an authentic encounter with this fictional West while traveling through a real western landscape (the film was mostly shot in New Mexico). And, of course,  this being a fantasy, they get that authentic encounter with the real West (that is, the West of their pop-culture saturated dreams) when they meet Paul, the title character, an extra-terrestrial being (voice by Seth Rogen) who just wants to go home.

And from the moment they encounter this real E. T. on a New Mexico desert highway, you just know that a trip to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming,  isn’t far away. Most of the narrative of the film consists of a mock epic journey across the American West, from Roswell, New Mexico, to Devil’s Tower, sprinkled with comic episodes along the way.

Starting with the pop culture Mecca of Comic-Con, the boys skip traditional tourist spots such as the Grand Canyon in favor of places like the site of  the black mailbox (near Area 51 in New Mexico), Area 51 itself, the Little Aleinn (where they pick up an Alien on Board bumper sticker for their RV), locations where scenes from  Star Trek were filmed, Big Chief convenient stories, and RV parks. The film is fun in part for the different angle it provides on the idea of “westernness” usually seen in film. The West of Paul is not a place of sublime landscapes but kitschy tourist traps and cheap roadside attractions.

There are lots of nice moments in the film when the mixture of science fiction allusions and the contemporary western setting work quite well. When the boys go into a country music bar, the string band onstage is playing the same song as the band in the Cantina scene in Star Wars.  To hide Paul’s alien presence on a busy street of a small western town, they dress him up in a cowboy outfit to conceal his bulbous head (with an oversized cowboy hat) and alien features (a kerchief, pulled up outlaw-style).

The film has not received many positive reviews, and it’s certainly not a weighty film, but it makes for an entertaining hour and half, especially for those of us who, like Graeme and Clive, have seen far too many science fiction films and thus can enjoy the many allusions and references.

Let Me In (2010) on DVD

The undead seem to be everywhere these days.  In literature, film, and television, there are more vampires out there than you can shake a stake at. And multitudes of zombies are shambling along on the big screen and the small screen, not to mention across the pages of Pride and Prejudice. And while it might seem odd to use the word “overkill” when talking about the undead, I’m definitely reaching a saturation point when it comes to vampires in particular.

So I didn’t rush out to the movie theaters to see Let Me In, which is both a remake of the Swedish movie Let the Right One In and a new adaptation of the novel by John Ajvide Lingquist on which the original film was based. In all three versions, the story involves a 12 year old (although, as she says, she’s been 12 for a long time) vampire who moves into an apartment complex where a timid and bullied boy lives, and it’s the boy who is the primary character, as he gets to know the new girl (although, as she tells him, “I’m not a girl,” at least not in the human sense).

The American movie moves the setting of the film from Sweden to Los Alamos, New Mexico, while retaining the original’s snowy bleakness (with the addition of artificially enhanced snow for the New Mexico location scenes).  The opening shot of distant police cars and an ambulance traveling along an empty road through the snow with a mountain range in the background is a striking beginning, a nod to the wintry bleakness of the original as well as connecting the film to the empty and majestic desert settings of the American western. Let Me In is just as clever and disturbing in its twists on the vampire film as Let the Right One In, and the New Mexico setting provides an additional interesting element to the film.

The plot and characters in the film come directly from the Swedish original and are true to the source. The western elements occur in the use of setting and particularly in the film’s visual style, which is heavy on quotation and allusion. The director Matt Reeves has mentioned Alfred Hitchcock (specifically Dial M for Murder) as an influence, and the early scenes allude to Rear Window, with the boy Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played The Boy in The Road) in the role of Jimmy Stuart’s Jeff Jeffries.  Confined not so much by a wheelchair but by his young age and an unhappy home life (his father absent, his mother in the process of divorce), Owen spends his evenings with a telescope, spying on his neighbors in the apartment complex.

John Ford also seems to be an influence on the visual style of the film, especially Ford’s emphasis on shooting through doorways and windows (most famous example, the final shot of The Searchers), and in Ford’s use of doors and windows as visual markers for other borders and boundaries, inside and outside, civilization and savagery. In one of the final scenes of the film, we look into the interior of a train car through the doorway at one end, and that shot in particular seems a reference to The Searchers.

As an Indian hunter, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards exists on the border between civilization and savagery, employing savage violence to protect civilization from the dangers of savagery (in terms of the film’s construction of Native Americans as a threat to white civilization). He doesn’t enter the house, but stands framed in the doorway before turning and walking away. By the end of the film (and some spoilers follow here), Owen has made a similar choice, forming an alliance with the savage vampire Abby (Chloe Moretz, who starred as Hit Girl in the film Kick-Ass—and in some ways, her Abby, although prone to primal violence when feeding, is less savage, and certainly less profane, than Hit Girl).

Owen becomes a border character, becoming Abby’s go-between to the human world, the human face who will help conceal her vampiric existence. Visually, the shot through the doorway suggests that Owen has crossed that border to another way of life, one that is well outside the social roles (son, student, bullied victim) that have defined him throughout the rest of the film.

As the title suggests, the film spends a lot of time exploring different living spaces, and is particularly interested in the consequences of who you let come inside. Movements from one space to another, through windows, through doors, from inside to outside, are a central part of the film’s action. One of my favorite shots of the film is looking up at the skylight above a school’s swimming pool, where we see one broken pane of glass, and a swirl of snow coming through it—a natural force crossing that protective barrier. The vampire Abby is a similar force, and one of the interesting things about the film is her ambivalent portrayal. Is she hero or villain? Without giving away too much of the plot, the film makes it clear that the civilized world of humanity is anything but civil and has its own monsters (the bullies that terrorize Owen).

Let Me In is violent, brutal, and bloody at moments, but mostly it’s a character study that slowly and carefully shows the development of the relationship between Owen and Abby. In this regard, I actually found the Swedish Let the Right One In to be too slowly paced. Both films are almost the  same length, but I did find Let Me In to be more engaging, perhaps because I already know and like from earlier films the two young actors in the lead roles.

So even if you’d rather burst into flame every time you step into sunlight than to see yet another vampire film, Let Me In brings something different to the genre, not the least of which is its use of western settings and allusions to western films.

Reading True Grit

If the difficulty I had finding a copy of Charles Portis’ True Grit in a bookstore is any indication, I’m not the only person inspired by the Coen Brothers’s new adaptation to take a look at the source. I always find it interesting to see what strategies filmmakers used to adapt a book into a movie. First person narratives like True Grit seem particularly difficult, in part because of the difficulty of transforming literary voice into a cinematic style, and in part because written narrative seems more amenable to creating the illusion that we are truly sharing a character’s perspective. The transition from first person may have been easier with True Grit, as Maggie is a narrator who is intent on observing and describing the world around her. Rather than providing the subjective experience of Rooster Cogburn’s testimony at the Wharton trial, she provides us with a transcript, stepping completely aside from her place in the narrative to let the words of Cogburn and the lawyer Barlow carry the story. Rather astonishingly, the exchange from the novel plays out almost verbatim on screen—it’s rare when dialogue written to be read works as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

However, one of the pleasures of the book is Maggie’s narration, especially when she goes onto the kind of tangents that tend to get cut out of film—there’s more space for leisurely telling in a novel. I particularly like those moments when she speaks directly to the reader, or even to specific groups of readers:

I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “clap-trap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.

Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to the short devil a good turn. Chaney was his tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

I also like the way she puts quotation marks around words like “clap-trap,” and “stunt,” and, well, some dozens of other words that she uses.

The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit follows the novel so closely, that it makes those moments of departure all the more interesting. Although the Coens, in interviews, have said they weren’t interested in remaking the earlier film (and, if I’m recalling correctly, even stated that they didn’t re-watch it), there seems to be an homage here and there to the John Wayne film. For example, in the book, Mattie does not at any point take Cogburn’s tobacco away and roll his cigarette for him, but she does so in both film versions of True Grit.

Another significant departure from the novel is when LaBoeuf gets angry at Cogburn’s continued disparagement of the Texas Rangers and goes off on his own, leaving Mattie and Rooster to travel together without him.  In part, this seems to create an opportunity to include Mattie in more of the action (she’s the one to climb on the roof of the cabin to drape a jacket over the chimney; she’s the one that must climb a tree and cut down the body of the hanged man).

And that entire sequence of Mattie cutting down the body, not to mention the discovery of the body itself, is not part of the novel. The character listed in the credits as “Bear Man” is a new character, and his appearance wearing a bear skin (complete with head) is one of the film’s most bizarre moments—as is the revelation that he’s a kind of frontier dentist (who should, by the way, pay a visit to Lucky Ed Peppers, whose extravagantly unattractive rotting set of choppers gets my nomination for this year’s Academy Award for prosthetic teeth design).  The appearance of Bear Man was one of the more memorable moments in the film, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.