Thursday, November 25, 2010

re-filming cowboys

I nearly had a heart attack after opening my blog this morning and thinking I hadn't written about violence for like a whole post (but of course I had: the picture of Renee Zellweger holding a gun alerted me to this.) I think it was that I hadn't written about actual full-on crime violence, cowboys or Buffy for like a whole post.

BUT thankfully over the weekend I watched Once Upon A Time in the West, a 1968 film directed by the king of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone. Like most of his films, I spent the first hour trying to work out which cowboy was which (there were three main ones, each with their lackeys, and they all look kind of the same and sound the same and shoot people, and some of them were pretending to be other ones. So it's this whole confusing thing).

But it was such a joy to watch, for three main reasons:

1. The cinematography. waahhh there just aren't words. It was beautiful: not just because of the amazing desert landscape, but also the facial-close ups (kind of making the face a landscape to written onto as well). For example:

The cowboys always fill the screen, even if, like the second screenshot above, the desert actually takes up more space. Sergio Leone is known as one of the first directors to make 'films-about-films' and Once Upon a Time in the West is a type of meta-western, simultaneously an homage to, and reworking of, the American western TV shows that were very popular in the early 60s. That every shot seems overwhelmed by men - and men who almost all die - perhaps signifies the impossibility of American TV cowboy ideology (the glorification of the frontier, expansion, violence, etc) actually surviving (or perhaps that Leone thought it should be 'killed off').

2. The story line. SO COMPLEX! I mean seriously, it was almost unnecessarily full of red herrings. But this was the great thing about it - it was not predictable at all and defied the Western fomulae that had, till this point, been assumed. For example, the three cowboys in the opening scene (shown in the bottom right screenshot above) are actually actors that have previously been cast as successfully violent cowboys in early American Westerns. They all get shot within the first five minutes and you realise: this film is about breaking down the stereotype. These men that who have committed violence in the name of America will be brought down. Ironically, it is another lone, American cowboy who shoots them. Here we see the cowboy at once vilified and exonerated (but I haven't thought about this enough to provide an interpretation yet).
          Leone provides a plethora of characters (the three cowboys - Harmonica, Frank and Cheyenne, a robber-baron, a young beautiful widow, and some other side characters) to mix and intermingle so many typical western storylines that it's hard to know what the film was actually about, or to articulate its plot. But I think this was intentional. Leone seems to have brought all these familiar storylines together in a way that is quite difficult to interpret, so that any reigning, America-focused narrative becomes not only impossible to read, but in fact absent.

Cardinale as Jill McBain
3. Claudia Cardinale (the actress who played the young gorgeous widow, Jill McBain). What a ROBOBABE! She is considered the first so-called "complex" female character in a Western: she arrives in town, a young wife, to find her husband and his children shot by Frank, who wants the McBain land. All three cowboys visit her a various times to try and find what was so valuable about the property (which, as it turns out, was the fact it had water on it and was right by the railway). She relates to these cowboys without fear, claiming to not even fear rape, because even if all the men had their way with her, she wouldn't be dead. Later, when Frank does try to rape her, she sleeps with him willingly so as not to be killed. She is then revealed to be a prostitute from New Orleans who fell in love with the land-owner McBain and decided to move to his ranch. The fact she is a prostitute explains her lack of fear about putting forth her body in order to survive, but complicates her role as lady-of-the-house. She is a whore who is respected by the cowboys simply because she is beautiful, and sexually beautiful. The fact she is prostitute means she is not the type of untouchable, Southern Belle that Nicole Kidman was in Cold Mountain, but an accessible woman whose beauty and body is available to men.
          Cheyenne, at the end of the film, says to her: "You know what? If I was you, I'd go down there and give those boys a drink. Can't imagine how happy it makes a man to see a woman like you. Just to look at her. And if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it's nothing. They earned it." I mean, excuse me? I know, I know, it was '68 and '70 feminism hadn't quite made headways but STILL! "They earned it?" Who writes that? And the thing is, Jill does walk contentedly out into the midst of the workmen, bringing them water, like some sort of eternal female figure, a whore providing life-giving nourishment. Jill's character may have been complex but her objectification is portrayed as natural, and in fact, somehow good and life-giving. Gross. But, I guess women in Westerns had to start somewhere, right?

There are so many other great things about the film - the soundtrack, for one. Also it's clear Tarantino has watched this film about a gazillion times, the music, the cowboys, the stand-offs, the deliberate dialogue have pretty much just been inserted into the Kill Bills. But everyone should watch Once Upon a Time in the West. It will make everyone want to move to California and everyone want to marry a cowboy (even if you're a man. Trust me they're amazing).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cold Mountain: not as cold as edinburgh.

Ok so normally I can’t stand Jude Law (ESPECIALLY in The Holiday, I mean WHAT is the with the fake tan? You live in England, and it’s SNOWING. And you’re cast as Kate Winslet’s BROTHER. In what way is a tan convincing?) But I did kind of warm to him in Cold Mountain, I think it was the fact he barely spoke a word, and played very convincingly the social awkwardness that comes with professing your love to someone before you know them properly, then being re-united with them years later after a war and wondering how to act and treat them. Which, basically, is the story of Ada (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law) in Cold Mountain.

Renee as Ruby
What I liked even more than Jude Law was the relationship between Ada and the girl who comes to help her manage her farm once her father’s died and Inman has gone to war. The girl is Ruby, played by Renee Zellweger, a young girl abandoned by her father who knows everything there is to know about growing crops, building fences, baking pies, and finding her way around the nearby mountains. When Ruby first arrives, she finds Ada dying of starvation due to her inability to do anything (including grow food), inability to make money (she’s a ‘lady,’ she doesn't work!) and her pride, which means she is too ashamed to continue relying on other’s charity. As Ada cries when Ruby first arrives,

I can talk about farming in Latin. I can read French. I can lace up a corset, God knows. I can name the principal rivers in Europe, just don't ask me to name one stream in this county! I can embroider but I can't darn! I can arrange cut flowers but I can't grow them!

But within a few short months, Ruby has transformed Ada from profoundly useless Southern Belle to hardy, herb-growing, fence-building, pie-baking, not-starving lady-now-mountain-girl. Ada can repay her neighbours’ charity by cooking them food. She can protect her and Ruby’s friends, (deserters from the army) with a shotgun that she has learnt to shoot. In losing her role as lady, Ada gains the ability to survive as a woman dependent only on herself and other women.

What is most interesting about this transformation is that Ada arrives in Cold Mountain as the  traditional, beautiful Southern Belle – but one physically trapped by this position, not just by her corset, but by her lack of skills which force her into poverty once she is away from the money and society of men. It is only in shunning her role as lady that Ada is able to regain pride in herself, can participate in social transaction without shame (by baking food for her neighbours as payment) and gains a friend. This does come at some cost, though – for while her father’s death, a symbolic death of the patriarch, creates the space for Ruby to enter the father’s house and transform his daughter, Ada still experiences grief at this loss. She must also sell her beloved piano – the one thing of her old life that she loves and is good at – to have enough money to survive one particularly cold winter.

The doomed couple.
The other main cost is her loss of Inman. She does remain dependent on his memory and the possibility he will return, to get through difficult times. Initially, I felt uncomfortable about this because I felt it undermined the feminine independence she develops with Ruby. However, when Inman does finally return, years down the track, it’s actually not too clich├ęd. They don’t run to each other and make out. She nearly shoots him, then realizes who it is, and then they have an awkward conversation about how strange it is too see each other. (Then of course they get over it, hook up overnight in a mountain shack, and then he gets shot the following day protecting them from the City Guard. And of course she got pregnant from the one night they spent together and it’s the whole romantically tragic thing. But anyway).

While this ending was a bit predictable and attempted to pull every heartstring the audience had (admittedly, I cried LOTS) it does point to something quite profound: Inman’s return without death was actually an impossibility. This type of transformed, independent woman cannot exist with the providing husband on her arm. Ruby, on the other hand, who grew up with survival skills and who effectively taught herself  independence, can get married (and does). Ada’s narrative seems suggest that there is something about the act of shedding an old feminine role, or the act of removing a stereotype cast upon you, which inevitably involves loss, and probably some sort of masculine loss. It is this loss which catalyses Ada's transformation. Hence, Inman needs to die for Ada to remain who she has become, while Ruby can marry and have children because she has not has to “shed” anything: she is a type of independent woman who can choose a man without needing to revert to dependence on him.

Or something like that, anyway. Maybe I’ve been WAAAAY too sucked in by Hollywood, but as you know, I always am! Because it’s FREAKING COLD in Edinburgh right, and much nicer to stay inside watching and fantasizing about Hollywood that go outside in the rain. (But I still love Edinburgh. Don’t get me wrong).