Friday, October 17, 2014

Brutality and Myth in Clint Eastwood’s "Unforgiven"

Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film Unforgiven is a very unique, nontraditional western. On its very surface it purports to be an action-revenge tale, where self-aggrandizing gunfighters attempt to collect a bounty on two men who have attacked a young girl, in a small Wyoming town in the late nineteenth century.

But in the first five minutes of the film, Eastwood quickly whisks us deep beneath those conventions and gives us not an illustration of how good triumphs over evil but instead a demonstration of degrees of brutality and how they play against each other.

Throughout the film, three of its five lead characters--William Munny, Little Bill Daggett, and English Bob--are presented to us, the viewer, as practicing violence for the sake of violence, they like the thrill of killing and brutality--it seems to be in their nature.

We see the film’s main character, William Munny, ostensibly having some past experience as a very successful gunfighter, at the film’s outset, a pig farmer and single parent, in financial straights and about to embark on a bounty-hunt for the needed reward money. Munny intimates to his friend and supposed one-time crime partner, Ned Logan, that he has been cured of his “wickedness,” by his late wife Ansonia, and we see initially that Munny is making an effort to raise his two young children by himself and manage a farm--although failing at both. Munny at first seems even to have forgotten how to use his pistol or ride a horse, skills he realizes he will need if he is to go on the manhunt.

Yet Ned, who functions both as Munny’s de facto chronicler as well as the film’s only moral compass, relates how Munny was, at one time, quite a cold-blooded killer, frequently referring to him having been  “one crazy son of a bitch.”

Despite, difficulties throughout the film, Munny ultimately does exhibit a level of terror and brutality that, at the climax, is simply more than that any which his nemesis Little Bill Daggett is able to muster.

Indeed, when I attempt to contrast Munny with his opponent, Little Bill Daggett,  I am hard-pressed to do it because while Little Bill is himself, the sheriff,  a character, who, in any other western, would represent justice and righteousness in an otherwise lawless world, he is really no more than a brute, albeit one who wears a badge.

We learn of Little Bill’s coldness and lack of any humanity in the film’s opening, where he must address the mutilation of Anna, one of the young prostitutes in Strawberry Alice’s whorehouse. We, the audience, experience almost at once the disappointment in Little Bill as his powerful bearing and presence--to me reminiscent of a John Wayne or Randolph Scott-- and even his opening lines of apparent compassion--asking Strawberry Alice whether or not Anna will survive her wounds--quickly turn out to be a sham with Little Bill quickly reducing what is a crime of horrific brutality into a business transaction, imposing  a “fine” as he calls it,  in the form of six ponies, on the two perpetrators, Quick Mike and Davey.  

In return Bill will not charge or arrest the two or even punish them by whipping. Bill seems quite satisfied with his resolution to the whole affair and gives not a second thought to the plight of the injured Anna let alone getting any kind of justice for her. When Strawberry Alice challenges his response to the the situation, Bill strong-arms her into silence, making clear that he will brook no opposition.

Likewise, we see how Bill rules the town of Big Whiskey not through benevolence or strength of character but with sheer physical brutality--this exemplified in two key sequences--the first his encounter with the outlaw English Bob--a mercenary who kills Chinese railroad workers for pay.

While English Bob is portrayed as a vile albeit sophisticated outlaw, his arrival in Big Whiskey in itself poses no threat to the town or its people--he is simply a mercenary responding, like so many others mercenaries, to Strawberry Alice's offer of a bounty to whomever kills Quick Mike and Quick Mike for their assault on Anna.

Yet Bill responds with violence and humiliation, at first taunting English Bob in front of the townspeople and then beating him bloody through the streets of the town.

Much later, Bill demonstrates himself as not only a bully and a brute, but also a sadist in his interrogation of Ned Logan, using his bull whip to torture the latter into giving up Munny’s location. He even displays Ned’s flogged corpse for all the townspeople to see, in a grotesque exercise of power and intimidation.

In the film’s climax, Munny confronts Little Bill with only a very small amount of moral contrast--ostensibly Munny declares himself as avenging Ned’s death and attempting to make sure that “no more whores get cut up” in the town. Yet Munny and Bill  are for all intents and purposes brute against brute.Their final confrontation is not good against evil, but merely degrees of evil, degrees of willingness to hurt and kill and destroy and bring chaos--and since it is Munny who is the more adept at all of these qualities and can take them the furthest, he wins--a triumph of wills not morals.

Munny understands, far more than Little Bill, this reality and his place in it. When Little Bill declares Munny a murderer of women and children, the latter responds almost gleefully , acknowledging his slaughter of innocents and going on to affirm that he has  “killed pretty much anything that walks or crawls, at one time or another.”   Munny points out Little Bill’s demise as if it is already fact before he even touches his trigger--so confident is he in his powers to dispense death. We see in  the final tour de force of editing--inspired by Eastwood’s 1960s work with director Sergio Leone--that Munny makes no idle boasts, transforming into an 1880s equivalent to The Terminator.

Even before this scene, Munny has already become (or returned to) a killer persona. During the ambush of Davey in the canyon, Ned cannot bring himself to shoot the boy from the cover of the rocks--essentially what would amount to, for him, cold-blooded murder--but rather only wounds Davey’s horse, causing the boy’s leg to be crushed. It is Munny who steps in and finishes Davey off. Munny is cold and steady as he administers a “gut shot” into Davey. While Munny does show some compassion by allowing Davey’s friends to give him water and comfort him as he dies, there is no mistaking the steely nerve of a man who has an instinct for bringing death.

The American West is the closest thing that we have  in our culture, to an ancient mythology, and it is one that has been exploited in books, films, and television in countless ways--but more often than not showing the violence/action-packed aspects, along with the heroic ideals, of its inhabitants.

While Unforgiven shuns the expected black-and-white morality of many such westerns, making Munny and Little Bill both equally horrific, in their own ways, it is also offers what is for me an unparalleled insight into the nature and power of cultural myths and their fragility--how truths get distorted over time and often deliberately. In Unforgiven even the characters themselves seem unaware of these distortions of fact--either of their own pasts or others.

These distortions of truth begin almost at the film’s start with the accounts of Anna’s mutilation. While terrible, they are exaggerated wildly by first Strawberry Alice and then The Scofield Kid, in order to create sympathy and a desire for revenge. But this misrepresentation is small compared with what we are presented with in the characters themselves.

In the case of Munny, the viewer only has Ned Logan’s account for how vicious and destructive, how much of a “crazy son of a bitch,” Munny was in his past life, before marrying. All of Munny’s exploits during his supposed outlaw days are recounted solely by Ned, while Munny himself repeatedly claims not to remember any of them inasmuch as he was “drunk most of the time.” Yet Ned’s accounts of Munny’s lawless exploits are hugely at odds with the latter’s present life, in which he appears not to even be able to use his firearms effectively or ride a horse properly.

Similarly, with Little Bill Daggett, we learn that  he “came out of Texas and Kansas,” and “worked tough towns,” only from the conversation of his deputies. Ultimately, with his beating of English Bob, the viewer is given at least some evidence of truth in what the deputies related, yet his past is still left mainly a mystery inasmuch as we see only his penchant for torture and sadism rather than any actual past heroics as a virtuous lawman.

Yet, the best example of myth at odds with reality lies in the character of English Bob--all we actually see of his qualities is that he is a very capable shot--specifically, during the pheasant shooting scene on the observation deck of the train into town--and that he has apparently been engaged as a mercenary for the railroad, “killing Chinese”--this last seemingly borne out when we see him doing mock target practice on the Chinese citizens of the town, as his carriage rolls through the street.

Yet, it becomes clear that any other information about English Bob is highly suspect, particularly the heroic accounts of his biographer, Beauchamp, who travels with him.

In fact, English Bob’s myth is totally destroyed in the “Jailhouse” sequence, the longest and in some ways most pivotal in the movie--second only to the climactic one. Here Little Bill has confined Beauchamp and English Bob, after his beating of latter, and it is here that Little Bill proceeds to destroy English Bob in the audience’s eyes, painting him as a comical drunk and womanizer in stark contrast to the chivalrous hero of Beauchamp’s biography--The Duke of Death--even intentionally parodying the title into The Duck of Death.

At the end of the sequence, it is not enough for Little Bill to have dismantled English Bob’s myth--even to the point of winning over Beauchamp. Little Bill must play a sadistic mind game with him, as well, actually giving Bob the apparent opportunity of escape by offering him a loaded revolver--in effect giving English Bob a chance to reconstruct and re-validate his myth as a great outlaw hero--if he can simply shoot him and make a getaway.
I think the audience really wants and even expects English Bob to take the gun, kill Little Bill, and redeem his own legend--and in any other western that might be what happens--but not in this one. English Bob cannot bring himself to take up the weapon and use it. Perhaps, English Bob is afterall a coward and Bill is right in his depictions--yet we will never know the truth--it is long since distorted through time and the characters’ own biases.

In terms of distortions, we finally have the young, supposed gunfighter, The Scofield Kid. Throughout the film he paints himself as an up and coming killer, an outlaw who seeks to apprentice himself with Munny.

But  his reality is also vastly differently from the figure that he initially portrays himself to be. We learn first  that The Kid is in fact woefully nearsighted and cannot see to shoot anyone unless they, as in the case of Quick Mike--the other of the two men who mutilated Anna-- are literally right in front of him.  Also, The Kid ultimately confesses to Munny that  his earlier boasts of killings were entirely fictitious. His one and only kill, the ignominious murder of Quick Mike in the privy, acts as an epiphany for The Kid, who makes clear to Munny that he is not like him and never will be.

Munny’s actions, in the climactic scene at Greeley’s, are at the heart of this whole idea of myth against reality. Here Munny guns down Little Bill, his deputies, and the proprietor, Skinny.  Munny’s actions here make the whole question of his past meaningless--in a sense it does not matter whether the accounts of his brutal outlaw years are true or not--exaggerated or not. Whether Munny was or was not that person then, he is that person now--the myth and reality have collided. We see it, on the screen, with our own eyes--or saying it another way, as viewers, we can only be certain of what we see--anything that we are told in this film may be suspect.

By the conclusion of Unforgiven, Munny has either returned to or transformed into--depending on what we choose to believe--the murderer and outlaw that Ned so clearly depicted. Munny’s return to (or emergence as) the bringer of chaos, a kind of one-man apocalypse, is complete.

Unforgiven is without doubt, as has been pointed out on many occasions, an anti-western, with William Munny bringing chaos and death rather than order and peace with him wherever he goes.  It depicts a universe of evil winning out over more evil. 

Munny’s story is not one of redemption, then, but instead one of anti-redemption. His salvation is everyone else’s destruction or vanquishment.

But Unforgiven is equally an exercise in how a film’s audience chooses to invest credibility into its characters--and why they do it. Unforgiven, reminds us that all narratives are subjective and usually created to give us what we want to believe, with objective truth either of little importance or flat out irrelevant.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Film: The Unspoken Contract

I recently went to see a 70mm screening of Spartacus--for two reasons--I’d never seen it shown in a theater--in any film format--and since it was also photographed in 70mm, I couldn’t pass up the chance.

The version they showed was in fact a 1991 print--the Robert Harris restoration. At this point, I could tell you that seeing this movie projected filmically vs. digitally made all the difference, made it the best experience I could have had.

I would be lying, though. The fact is that I would have had no problem seeing Spartacus in a digital venue--in fact, I only just missed a chance to see a Fathom Events presentation of it at a chain cinema, a month earlier. So seeing Spartacus on film as opposed to off of a hard drive and through a Sony 4K DLP system was more a matter of convenience than choice.

I have no problem with digital projection. Mainly because, as most spectators, whether they grew up with film, as I did, or not, would probably agree, digital cinema is perfect--no scratches, no splices, no image snapping up and down at the mercy of a mechanical transport, no crackle and pop on the soundtrack, no faded color dyes or hue shifts--nothing but consistently sharp, consistently vivid images--in fact, in some cases, arguably better than the original release prints fresh from the lab.

Of course I’m overlooking the reality that, like music sampling, digitizing film negative loses something in the translation, perhaps something essential.  But whether that it is true or not, I don’t care.

Any misgivings that I might have had, I shed two years ago, when I saw a 4K presentation of David Lean’s desert epic--for the record, I have seen Lawrence of Arabia in every format, over the decades, including a 16mm IB Technicolor print. So I was skeptical when I bought my ticket. But what I saw  was free from all of the familiar, age-old imperfections of a film print unspooling through a mechanized labyrinth. I could nearly count the grains of sand, at some points, as I watched. It wasn’t better than a 70mm film print, at the end of the day, but it looked and sounded clean. The whole experience, for me, exuded a sense that what I was seeing and hearing was invulnerable to chemical breakdown and relentless, mechanical wear and tear.

Purists may hate me for saying these things but I just don’t miss all the speckles and dirt and myriad of other distractions--watching that 4K LOA was pure viewing. “To Hell with film prints,” a part of me said.

But there is another part of me that feels quite differently. Every summer, here in Austin, Texas, the Paramount Theatre, screens hundreds of 35mm and 70mm prints of all manner of classic movies, across all genres. And every summer I find time to watch several of these. I do this because, yes, some of these movies you can’t find anywhere else, including Blu-Ray. 

But there is the side of me that grew up with this organic,chemically-based, mechanically read medium, that is prone to all kinds of flaws and even utilizing some of them--cigarette burns to mark reel changes, for example--flaws that early on in film became accepted almost as conventions themselves.

We let our brains filter these defects out or, in my case, even looked forward with, if not expectation, then an easygoing acceptance at seeing a battered print that had been shown over and over again, worn out. Not even just old re-released prints, but new releases I saw growing up that had been in the local mall multiplex for months on end--threaded into and run through what I’m sure was not the best maintained projector with not the most competent--and certainly not the most gentle--projectionist manhandling every frame.

I’ll point to a 35mm 4-Track print of The Empire Strikes Back I saw in 1980, when I was fourteen.

After maybe about three hundred showings, all summer long, it had become scratched, spattered with debris on almost every frame, its quadraphonic soundtrack creased and dimpled so that the theater speakers gave a deep, electrical whoop atleast once in every reel, like when someone taps their finger on a microphone hooked up to a PA system. A giant tentacle of dust reached into the “Wampa Ice Creature” sequence at one point, making its way across what would have otherwise been a great crane shot revealing how Luke was trapped upside down in the creature’s icy liar. The cherry on the cake was a patch of torn sprocket holes that made the entire image buck up and down on-screen as the rebel troops formed into battle lines to face the Imperial Walkers.

But I’ll never forget that first time I saw Empire, marred as it was. Watching it that way felt right--for me, it was right. Once I got caught up in the story and plights of those characters, the
art direction and frenetic editing, I forgot all about those many flaws--my brain just started filtering them out--I was caught up on the high of being entertained, captivated.

The same goes for so many other prints that failed me technically: the “new” Doctor Zhivago print that broke in the projector as the end credits came up alongside the hydro-electric dam shot  that symbolized the rise of a new society that Uri Zhivago could never be a part of--and the director’s cut of The Abyss that also snapped, just before the alien ship came up out of the ocean . But the audience forgave. I forgave. I only left the theater remembering the substance of those films--artistic, emotional, ideological--things that transcended chemical substrates being endlessly forced over rollers, and drums before a hot lamp, until they fatigued and gave out.

I believe that this describes the cognitive process for every moviegoer in the pre-digital cinema ages. No matter the movie or the subject matter, great artistic content or simple actioners, in the end you accepted and in turn forgot about the technical problems inherent in film projection.

How could we do this? Why did we do it? Because we didn't have a choice. Film was it—and yes we got crisp, even amazingly high resolution details, facial features, landscapes, surround sound that often created a kind of immersion so that we felt like we were in that place or time—and the price we paid was putting up with all of the imperfections--in short, we had an unspoken contract with the medium of film.

This takes us back to Spartacus. That night I felt a sadness,  after experiencing so much digital cinema by then--a sadness because that print, while it wasn’t damaged anymore than any other print, from age, from wear, from improper storage or threading over nearly twenty-five years, was almost primitive to look at--an experience founded on chemical breakdown and the human inefficiency of a projectionist--this latter represented when the next to last reel change was bungled and the audience was treated to “FINISH” and the clockwipe countdown, shorthand for the technicians behind the curtain, never meant for the audience to see.

Almost everybody in that old-style movie palace, probably all cineastes and fans of epics and classics, laughed, at the barbaric, clumsy thing that film projection can be. And I laughed right along with them--I’m not proud of that.

Finally the worst happened--once we got passed the ragged end of the reel, the screen went white--no image, nothing.Then I did stop laughing. This means of presentation had failed us altogether. Nothing new for me, although I’m sure for many of the millennials in those seats quite the initiation.

But it was only two or three seconds, then the next reel came on and I did what I’ve always done in that case, I built a bridge, in  my mind, from the last shot before the blankout to where we were at now--reminding myself that nothing was lost, we the audience only had to be patient with the interruption. As the guy sitting next to me pointed out, it could have been much worse, at least we were spared the agony of the film breaking and then waiting for the projectionist to tack it back together.

At the end of Spartacus, as the Exit Music was playing, this neighbor of mine who, to my shame, hadn’t laughed at all during the reel mishap, looked over at me and I told him how, these days, I tend to treat the experience of film projection like it was more akin to live theatre--one never knows quite what is going to happen during the presentation. He agreed.  

Afterall, when we see a film print, we are by necessity having a human interaction, albeit an indirect one, with the projectionist whom we must rely on and, like the stage actor, must hit his cues or else the whole experience suffers--and like the actor, must improvise on occasion when the print breaks or gets tangled in all those gears--he, like those of us in the audience, is at the mercy of film and its flaws and he accepts and understands this unspoken contract just as we do.

Maybe that’s why I come back to film occasionally--both it and digital have their respective allures. This must be true for many other people, as well. I say this only because, thirty years ago, when The Wizard of Oz had just been been digitally remastered and put out on VHS, one of the criticisms was that the film’s soundtrack was “too clean.” There were people who had become accustomed to the dust-encrusted hiss and crackle underneath Judy Garland singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” They had the chance for a perfect presentation but they wanted it back the way it used to be--they missed some of the flaws--they wanted to keep honoring the old contract.

Maybe we were more tolerant of these flaws in the past--we had no choice--the technology of film could only give us so much and no more, and so we learned to accept and build on it and ultimately glorify it as the foundation medium for all moviemaking, the best that we had.

Now, with digital cinema, for shooting and presentation, we have the promise of perfection, a new “best”, if you will--so that we can let go of the other, the poor second. The contract with film we had for so long can be trampled underfoot.

But do we need this perfection? In time maybe I'll forget film altogether and come around the way some others of my generation have.  But I don’t think so. Besides, I have to remind myself that “best” is always a relative term, especially in technology.

I’m not ready to give up torn sprocket holes and botched reel changes yet.