Thursday, May 30, 2013
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
Directed by Steve Soderbergh
Written by Richard LaGravenese
A fine, fine two-hander character piece. Douglas inhabits a figure too often reduced to camp caricature by playing two characters simultaneously: life-of-the-party entertainer Liberace and the vulnerable yet cruel human being Lee -- with both characters being equally real versions of the same man. Damon demonstrates (once again) that he's one of the best American actors of his generation, successfully portraying a character so young and stupid he makes you forget all the superspies, math geniuses, and mature fathers he's played for the past 15 years. Soderbergh peerlessly uses color in the way Orson Welles used black-and-white. Smart, sympathetic writing from LaGravenese proves that biopic screenplays don't have to be experimental to be great. Genuinely affecting, particularly in the later scenes. Special credit should be given to the makeup department, led by Kate Biscoe, who astonishingly make Michael Douglas into Liberace, Matt Damon into Michael Douglas as Liberace, Rob Lowe into the single worst person in Beverly Hills, and, in the end, one character into a dying, heartbreaking mess. One shot to single out: towards the beginning, in a moment lasting only a few seconds, one woman (an extra) joins in on the Vegas "boogie woogie" singalong, and in her face one can see all the enjoyment and escape that Liberace shows provided to generations of grateful audience members.
Incidentally, the fact that this couldn't get made by a Hollywood studio because it was "too gay" is so disappointing, and here's hoping that HBO keeps making films like this instead of their living wax museum "political" films.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzmann, & Damon Lindelof
Intermittently entertaining, but mostly dull. Iconic characters, chic settings, and some fun performances (mostly Quinto and Pegg) keep it watchable, as opposed to a slog, but lacks anything transcendent. The climax is so abrupt as to seem almost like a parody. The film literally stops in the middle to have Spock call Old Spock to ask for some advice in an utterly pointless scene that tells us literally nothing about either character, nor anything else going on the film. It boggles the mind to consider that people had to wake up, take a shower, drive to set and film that scene, time they could have spent, I don't know, playing with their kids, or reading a book. For all the mystique and hype, "John Harrison" never seemed any more motivated in the actual film than he did in the trailers, and Cumberbatch is unable to makes his character's desire for revenge feel like more than boilerplate movie villainy. Interesting ideas like the allegorical treatment of extrajudicial killings are tossed aside in favor of the "character" arc of Chris Pine's Kirk, something that was effectively taken care of in the last film and reeks of how-to-write-a-succesful-screenplay-book "advice." In a universe populated by starships full of multiracial, mixed-sex, multi-species crews, why continuously focus on the white frat boy who has a hard time growing up? What happened to the commanding, intellectual Kennedyesque man-of-action-and-hard-decisions seen in the original series?
SUGGESTED DOUBLE FEATURE: Forbidden Planet (1956). This kind of film done right, with a equal mix of gee-whiz wonder, grab-your-seat thrills, and speculative science fiction consideration (Monsters from the Id!). More amazement with Robby the Robot than in all 133 minutes of STID.
PARANOID PARK (2007)
Directed and Written by Gus Van Sant
This film is deserving of much more than a capsule review. Unfortunately, it's still a little beyond me at the moment. So instead, here's a few unorganized thoughts. Using nonprofessional actors was entirely the right idea, as they give off an ineffable quality of realness that is entirely keeping with Van Sant's desired aesthetic. Even the "realest" of professional actors are still performing heightened and modified versions of reality, providing a kind of distance that this film entirely avoids, breaking down all barriers between viewer and subject. Van Sant's camera moves with an intense empathy that most films avoid, as it can be all too uncomfortable. But Van Sant embraces the discomfort, the long pauses between actions, taking his time in showing the small tasks that make up most of a day, with a tone that's pitched perfectly between looseness and deliberateness, illustrating that there is much less distinction between the two than we think. In this film, just as in its spiritual predecessor Elephant, both the mundanity of most of the action and the sensationalistic aspects are deepened by the other -- with the little things being seen in a life-and-death context and the "bigger things" seen in relation to the life that they interrupt and destroy. The kind of film that I'm just glad exists, out there to be discovered and seen and felt.
Friday, May 24, 2013
MUD - Directed by Jeff Nichols / Written by Jeff Nichols
Mild spoilers follow
Jeff Nichols' newest film, Mud, has more than enough strong elements to recommend it, which is why its third act turn into cliche is all the more disappointing. It's not enough to wreck the film entirely, not by a long shot, but it's still quite dispiriting. A better version of this film is out there, and it could have easily been in the filmmakers' grasp, but as it stands, Mud will have to settle for being a strong effort, rather than an instant classic.
Like Nichols' earlier works, Mud develops a great sense of working class characters and environments, something Hollywood has become increasingly alienated from. Set in rural and small-town Arkansas, Mud is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who, while exploring the local river islands with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), encounters a mysterious homeless man known only by the name of "Mud" (Matthew McConaughey). "Mud" takes a liking to the two boys, and his laid-back but dangerous charisma gives them something to look up to.
Title notwithstanding, Mud is not about Mud. That is to say, it is not about the character played by Matthew McConaughey. Instead, it is about the idea of manhood that exists in Ellis' head, an idea that comes to be represented by what Ellis thinks Mud stands for. When Ellis learns that Mud is a wanted fugitive, he decides to protect his secret, and plans on reuniting the older man with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
The cast is uniformly excellent. Sheridan, who was the least characterized brother in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life two years ago, is genuinely wonderful -- the movie rests entirely on his young shoulders, even more than that earlier movie rested on the shoulders of its unknown young actor, Hunter McCracken. Sheridan's performance as Ellis never hits a wrong note, giving off all the shadings of his character, capturing both the vulnerability of child that's not as mature as he thinks he is, the anger and impulsivity of a young man feeling real resentment and adult disappointment for the first time. Best of all, he doesn't come off for a single moment as a "Hollywood" child actor fresh out of acting lessons with his stage parents waiting just off set, something that have totally killed the film.
McConaughey, possessing all the sleazy charm that was absent for years but has made him such an exciting actor lately, is very effective in the title role, epitomizing the kind of guy two 14-year-old boys would think was the absolute coolest. He's essentially playing an overgrown kid, with all the values -- positive and negative -- that come along with that. The male supporting cast is a murderer's row of fascinating actors giving strong performances, including the Nichols regular Michael Shannon in a small role as Neckbone's guitar-strumming uncle, the underappreciated Ray McKinnon as Ellis' father, Sam Shepard as Ellis' neighbor with a past even more mysterious than Mud's, and Joe Don Baker, very welcome in a tiny role with maybe five lines total.
The female side of the cast does not fare so well. I'm not going to accuse the film of out-and-out misogyny, but it certainly presents a very, let's say limited perspective of women. Sarah Paulson does her best with an underwritten part as Ellis' mother, but becomes afterthought about two-thirds of the way through the film. Both newcomer Bonnie Sturdivant (playing a local high school girl who Ellis nurses a crush on) and the expected big-star-slumming-it-in-an-indie-movie Witherspoon are given roles that are, unlike Ellis' mother, intentionally underwritten -- ciphers that are basically there to play foil to their male counterparts. It can be frustrating at times, but still, Mud is a film about an adolescent boy and his flawed perception of the world, so this element can be justified, though not praised.
For most of its runtime, Mud is finely drawn work about a child's idea of adulthood, and about what happens when that idea is challenged and threatened by reality.
Then the last twenty minutes or so happen. The elements that derail the film had been lurking just under the surface of the first two acts, visible, but not yet a threat, like the snakes that endlessly crawl along the creek beds of Mud's home. But there is a moment towards the end of this film -- I won't spoil it -- after just about all of the threads and subplots had been tied up and resolved in a satisfying, organic way, that shifts the film, in the course of about two seconds, from a richly textured coming-of-age film to a pulpy, predictable thriller. And it is not a good shift. I was reminded of the scene in one episode of The Office when Steve Carrell's idiotic Michael Scott ruins his improv class's games by constantly bursting in, wielding an imaginary gun:
"Think about this: what is the most exciting thing that can happen on TV or in movies, or in real life? Somebody has a gun. That''s why I always start with a gun, because you can''t top it. You just can''t."
This wasn't enough to turn Mud from a good movie to a bad movie. Far from it. There are countless classic films that are constrained by weak endings or problematic elements, flaws that are nevertheless incapable of bringing down the positive aspects. Think about the patronizing, unintentionally comic "moral panic" interludes in 1930s gangster films, most notably Scarface, or the dull, mood-deflating speech by the psychiatrist near the end of Psycho. But one moment of sublimeness outweigh several audience-insulting scenes every time. And Mud is no exception. It is, for the most part, the kind of film that makes me proud and hopeful of the American independent film industry, and if it is one of Nichols' weaker outings, it is still enough to mark him as one of the most exciting directors of his generation.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Here's another essay, this time about Federico Fellini's Otto e Mezzo, or as it is known in English, 8 1/2.
One of the most significant, as well as most memorable, figures in Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½ remains that of La Saraghina. La Saraghina, an enigmatic yet strangely compelling character, ushers the younger version of the protagonist Guido into the world of adult sexuality. This proves to have lasting consequences on Guido’s psyche, and informs much of what the man does, thinks, and feels in the rest of the film. 8 ½ ‘s “narrative”, non-linear and often allegorical, nevertheless present numerous conflicts that exist within Guido’s head; these conflicts, psychological and psychospiritual, form the spine of the film, providing the necessary dramatic thrust as Guido attempts to reconcile the apparently contradictory and warring aspects of his personality: in particular, the clash between his sexuality and his religious upbringing. The boy Guido’s encounter with Saraghina lies at the heart of this conflict.
The portion of the film dealing directly with La Saraghina begins with the adult Guido, a motion picture director, meeting with a high-ranking Catholic church official, hoping, it seems, to procure the blessing of the Vatican for his new film. During his discussion with the clergyman, which takes place outdoors, Guido spies a woman walking along with the hem of her skirt lifted up, presumably to prevent her from getting it dirty. The woman’s exposed legs – large, fleshy, unphotogenic—foreshadow the appearance of Saraghina. When seeing this, Guido slides the glasses off of his face.
Throughout the film, Guido’s wearing of eyeglasses symbolizes the layer of distance he wishes to keep from the rest of the world. Guido tries to understand the world in the same way a director acts on a movie set. He wishes to observe empirically, to watch, not acknowledging the deep effect that the elements of his life – people, memories –have on him. He attempts to remove himself from his life, to view it more like a film than reality. But when his glasses come off, it means that Guido can no longer deny, in this moment, what goes on in his life. To remove his glasses, then, equates with taking himself down to the level of real life, to embrace the memory presented before him. Suddenly, Fellini cuts to a new scene as Guido’s memories take him back to an incident from his childhood. A whistle blows as Guido looks on at the woman, and soon the viewers find themselves in a different location entirely, as a previously unseen priest blows the whistle during a child’s soccer game.
The flashback sequence contains a distinct sense of unreality, even when compared to the rest of the film, which hardly falls under the category of neorealism. “Guido! Guido! Let’s go see the Saraghina!” chirps a chorus of schoolboys to the young Guido; these mostly faceless little boys are abstracted tempters, somewhat akin to the little devil on someone’s shoulder, leading them away from “the good path,” are epitomized by the priests of the Catholic school Guido attends. An enormous white statue of some kind of saint or martyr looms over the children, a physical manifestation of the all-encompassing presence of the church in Guido’s mind, all the way up through adulthood. Even when his directing career seems critically and financially successful, he still seeks the approval of the church.
While the church might serve as the benevolent, yet domineering and sterile (stony and cold like the statue) God-like father figure, Guido finds himself shown a different way altogether: La Saraghina. Later on in the sequence, the confessor will say as much: “Saraghina is the devil!” Saraghina, indeed, in everything other than her immensity (which corresponds to the level of importance in Guido’s psyche) represents everything that opposes the traditional culture of the Catholic Church. An undeniably and entirely sexual creature, the antithesis of the harsh celibacy of the Church, Saraghina nevertheless plays an equally huge part in forming Guido’s character. Appearance-wise, she dresses all in black—the opposite of the white statue in the courtyard of the school. Her feminine features exaggerate to the point of resembling one of those old clay figures of fertility goddesses. Her breasts and hips, large and wide, go well past what society dictates beautiful woman to look like, yet she inexplicably manages to come off both rather ugly and absolutely sexy. She embodies the dual attraction/revulsion felt by Guido towards sexuality.
Saraghina lives by the sea, a detail that would do us much good to examine. In Fellini’s filmography, the beach serves as the setting for moments of great realization, or at least the opportunity for realization. Zampanó’s breakdown in La Strada, his reflection on his sins and the people he hurt in his life, occurs on a beach. Marcello’s final scene and ultimate rejection of greater transcendence in favor of material gratification occurs on a beach. The shore, where land and earth meet, symbolize the blurring of the boundaries between reality and the life of the mind. Seaside scenes in other Fellini films show the protagonist confronting their fears and desires while simultaneously seeing before them the real world; the shore asks of them, “Will you apply what you think and feel to your actions in the real world?” Some of Fellini’s protagonists seem to answer the question in the affirmative. Others do not. The heart of the ever-present conflict in Fellini’s oeuvre lies in the white sands of the shoreline. 8 ½ continues this pattern.
The aforementioned unreality of this sequence leads the viewer to wonder about what, in fact, happens in this scene. How about Saraghina’s little “performance” for the boys? Does she limit herself to just dancing the rumba for them, or is her “dancing” a visual representation of something far more scandalous, something perhaps that Guido could not deal with literally? It appears that the priests and nuns and Guido’s shamed mother view Saraghina as a “whore,” although they do not say it in so many words. By giving Saraghina their money, do these young boys pay her for a “deflowering?” The distinction ultimately matters little, but the comparison and juxtaposition of the two matter greatly. Sex equates with fun and enjoyment to the young Guido, or alternatively, fun and enjoyment equate to sexuality. Regardless of what actually happened between Guido and the Saraghina on the beach that day, the experience and the subsequent punishment he received had a large impact on his developing nature.
Guido’s walk of shame through the halls of the parochial school brings him past a series of portraits of saints, martyrs, or other impressive clergymen, all male. His “sin” contrasts with the reverence afforded to these symbols of the Church’s holiness. Femininity links to sexuality, which links to sin, which links to punishment, shame, guilt. and damnation. The bizarre, entirely androgynous and asexual nuns of the church blast Guido with cries of “It’s a mortal sin!” and “Shame on you!” Guido’s perceived options in life – either the church-approved way of life, nonerotic, devoid of vitality, but wholesome and the path to heaven; or the way of the Saraghina, carnal, sensual, exhilarating, yet scary and overwhelming, the road to hell—constrict him, and create in him an ever-present sense that his sexuality shames God, but that life without it, devoid of spark and energy, remains his only alternative.
Guido’s mother sits before him, weeping underneath a large portrait of a young boy, looking angelic and saintly: Guido’s idealized potential self; the Guido who existed before his dreaded encounter with the whore Saraghina. Guido’s mother exemplifies the “ideal” female form condoned by the Church. His mother acts as the matriarch, the homemaker, the nurturer; yet he cannot totally get away from seeing his mother as a sexual being after his encounter with La Saraghina. During the cemetery scene, Guido sees a vision of his mother. He goes to embrace her, but the embrace turns into a passionate kiss. Fellini’s camera obscures her face during the kiss. When Guido pulls away, his wife Luisa appears before him, not his mother. Luisa, to Guido, serves the role of the matriarch, the homemaker, the nurturer; just like his mother.
Another significant woman in his life, his mistress Carla, calls to mind Saraghina in her obvious sexuality and more curvaceous body. Both Carla and Luisa descend from the two important women of his burgeoning adolescence. They substitute for the always opposed symbols of womanhood that Guido found imprinted on him as a boy: the Mother and the Whore. Luisa and Carla become new archetypes, evolved versions of the earlier incarnations – the Wife and the Lover respectively. This comes to the foreground during the later “harem” fantasy scene, where Luisa pulls her hair back and wears an apron; very much the model of a traditional homemaker. Guido imagines her doting over him like a loving mother, while Carla, during the same scene, dresses far more provocatively and behaves flirtatiously. In his own fantasy world, Guido attempts to recreate the Mother and the Whore of his past using figures of his present. In the “real world,” Guido does the same; holding screen tests for characters based on Saraghina and Luisa for his next film, trying to bring to life the imagined idealized women he fails to understand in his reality. Even the rumba music that Saraghina dances to reappears in his harem fantasy, as Guido watches the nameless young black woman perform to the same song. Obviously physically attracted to the young woman, Guido still, it seems, associates Saraghina with his sexual urges.
A viewer can watch a portent of the rest of Guido’s sexual life as the scene comes to a close. The boy, despite the way the priests dragged him away, despite the horrid shrieking of the nuns, despite his mother’s hysterical sobbing, despite the sign on his back that reads “vergogna” or “disgrace,” despite the mockery of the other boys, despite the fearful confession with the old priest, still visits Saraghina’s home on the beach. He sees her sitting in a chair by the shoreline, where she sings with a incongruously angelic voice. Perhaps Saraghina cannot merely play the Devil. Even she must possess a little angel inside. Guido waves to her, their black clothes drawing a comparison between the two and a contrast with the stark white sands of the beach. She looks at him and merely says, “Ciao.” Ciao, meaning both “hello” and “goodbye,” reflects that in this moment, on the ridge between dreams and waking life, fantasy and reality, the mind and the body, Guido enters a world of sexual confusion – of both the excitement and the terror – while leaving the world of innocence. Guido does not, until perhaps the very final scene of the film, which also, tellingly, takes place on a beach, ever truly leave that moment; the day when he found himself split between cold white stone of the church and the dark mystery of woman.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
The following post is taken almost verbatim from a term paper I wrote last year. It's very dry, and it reads like I'm following a prompt (because I was), but I think it's pretty good. If you can get over the tone, I think there's some good stuff in here.
By the time of the release of Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man in 1970, the American public, and moviegoing audiences worldwide, had been witness to nearly seven decades of Hollywood Westerns. While the Western genre could cover a range of possible stories or styles, including the bandit or outlaw film, the classic Hollywood Western narrative was concerned with the idea of the “taming” of the west; the noble imposition of civilization upon the chaotic wilds of the frontier. In the typical Western film, the hero, a representative of white Anglo-Saxon American masculinity and patriarchal authority, is involved in the process of transforming the west from a world of savagery to a world of society. This narrative could manifest itself in the form of the hero “cleaning up” the frontier town from the forces of crime and corruption as represented by evil gangs of “bad men.” Alternatively, it could manifest itself in the classic “cowboys and Indians” story: heroic white settlers, often the U.S. Cavalry, facing off the dastardly Indian tribes who threaten the promise and potential of a new, better, fully American nation. Little Big Man is an atypical film in the Western genre, coming at a time when certain Hollywood filmmakers began to question or challenge the traditional iconography of the western.
The Indians are, in the older Western films, the opposite of everything the white settlers stand for: they are dark, ethnic “others,” pagans who worship false gods, as irresponsible as children, naturally violent and belligerent (often seen on an alcoholic rampage, as in the “Indian Charlie” character of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine from 1946), senseless and chaotic savages. They are an impediment of the positive evolution of America, as promoted and progressed by the white hero. Their elimination is a step towards the perfected America. The attitude of many of the classic Westerns towards Native Americans can be neatly summarized with the ugly saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Little Big Man exists in opposition to this tradition, in many instances reversing the customary dichotomy concerning “cowboys and Indians.” Throughout the film, Penn deals with a number of time-honored Western archetypes, often subverting or parodying them, but first and foremost the film addresses the implications of the classic Western regarding Indians and contrasts Western mythmaking with what the film posits as a truer, more accurate understanding of what life and death were like for Indians in the west.
The narrative of Little Big Man is presented from the beginning as a counter-narrative to the traditional Western portrayal. In the film’s first scene, supercentenarian Jack Crabb is being interviewed by a historian, due to his status as the “sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.” The battle even lends its name to the title of the film. This famous event, dramatized – directly or obliquely – in such classic Westerns as They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and Fort Apache (1948), was one of the few Indian victories over United States forces; in this case, the Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes secured a momentary triumph over the U.S. Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, whose death in the battle was immortalized as “Custer’s Last Stand.” While nearly all prior cinematic depictions of the engagement were told from the point-of-view of the American Cavalry, who were depicted as heroes bravely meeting certain death, Little Big Man begins with the elderly Crabb declaring, “I knowed General George Armstrong Custer for what he was, and I also knowed the Indians for what they was.” Crabb, as the audience learns, is not merely the “old Indian fighter” that he appears to be. Like many Western heroes, he is a “man on the borderline” – belonging partially to two worlds but wholly to neither. Unlike most Western heroes, Crabb – or Little Big Man, as he is known by the Indians – is both “Indian” and “white.” Throughout the film, Crabb’s identity will change, as he alternatively finds himself a member of both white American civilization and Indian civilization, inhabiting different roles at different times, shifting the audience’s focus in attempt to provide a greater understanding of Western history.
Born to white parents who headed out west, only to find themselves killed by Pawnee Indians, Crabb is found by and adopted into the Cheyenne Indians at the age of ten. The Cheyenne, Crabb’s narration informs us, simply refer to themselves as the “Human Beings.” As depicted in the film, Cheyenne society is a idealized community obviously meant to appeal to a Peace & Love Generation audience. They are accepting: in addition to taking in the young Jack and raising him as one of their own, the Cheyenne show no discrimination towards gay tribesman Little Horse, who, as Crabb puts “was all right with the human beings.” They live off the land and provide for one another in an almost commune-like existence. They are brave, honorable warriors when they need to be, but they do not expect every man to be a warrior, and are flabbergasted when they first encounter fist-fighting. Hardly a negative word could be thought of to describe the Cheyenne, at least as portrayed in Little Big Man. They are not barbaric or hateful or greedy or childish, but instead a wise, peace-loving people, best represented by Jack’s adopted grandfather, Chief Old Lodge Skins, who is the embodiment of Indian wisdom and grace. Penn’s Cheyenne are a far-cry from a figure like My Darling Clementine’s drunken savage, or even the more sympathetic, yet vengeance-driven characters seen in The Searchers (1956).
The white characters seen in Little Big Man range from flawed, but somewhat sympathetic – such as Mrs. Pendrake, the “good Christian” woman who ends up as a prostitute, or gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, laid low by a teenaged boy the gunfighter had orphaned – to crazed genocidal megalomaniacs. The latter distinction is reserved for General Custer, a hero in other films, who, in this film, wages a brutal war against the Indians, blind to their suffering. While most of the white characters are hypocritical, and their values are masks to hide their insecurities and flaws – for instance, Mrs. Pendrake wraps herself in the trappings of religion as a way of hiding her sexual passion – Custer himself seems to be the dark shadow of the noble wisdom of Old Lodge Skins. He seems to possess only negative attributes, and every flaw of U.S. policy towards Indians is wrapped up inside this one man. In a particularly horrific sequence, a Cheyenne reservation is raided by Custer’s Cavalry, who kill women, children, and old men with impunity. The scene, which is reminiscent of the then recent My Lai Massacre, clearly presents Crabb as the hero as he tries to avoid the rampage of the white soldiers, only to see his wife and infant child murdered before his eyes. The destruction of the Indian community seen in Little Big Man is the visceral counterpoint to thousands of scenes involving heroic white characters riding in and bloodlessly killing the evil Indians to make way for a utopian American “society.”
In addition to dealing with race relations, Little Big Man renders an image of American society that opposes the positive images of white community seen in such older Westerns as My Darling Clementine, Shane, Stagecoach, or Rio Bravo. Characterized by noble violence, virtuous women, and those twin pillars of American culture, capitalism and Christianity, the classic Western offered an idealized image of the American community contrasted with the savagery of the west. Throughout the film, Penn shows Crabb trying on a number of hats, each corresponding to a component of the white society championed by the traditional Western. Crabb briefly becomes a “respectable storekeeper,” posing for photographs wearing a fine, conservative Eastern-style suit, and marries a Nordic immigrant named Olga. Their marriage is a kind of burlesque parody of Protestant American domesticity, what with Jack having married Olga for reasons amounting to nothing more than seeking the perfect component to complete his image as a proper white man. His marriage to Olga should be looked at in comparison to his marriage to Indian woman Sunshine, a relationship characterized by tenderness and intimacy, all gentle touches and whispered words. We see Jack alone with in his tent with Sunshine, but there are no such moments with his first wife.
It address the issue of violence, and how it is treated in classic Westerns. When Hickok shoots a would-be attacker dead in a crowded saloon, the effect is demoralizing, to Crabb and the audience. The romance of two gunfighters facing off down Main Street at high noon is gone; the sequence is punctuated by a close up on Crabb’s trembling, unbelieving face – immediately followed up by Crabb announcing that he is giving away his guns, ending his career as a gunfighter. The fun and games of shoot-outs in past Westerns is linked with senseless violence, contrasted with Jack’s newfound pacifism. White society, as defined by Little Big Man is corrupt, full of sham marriages of conveniences, religious hypocrites, desensitized gunfighters, and vicious, predatory capitalists like Merriweather, the snake oil salesman who cons naïve settlers into buying harmful “miracle cures,” and Jack’s business partner, who betrays him and leaves the Crabb family penniless. The “civilization” that white America believes they are building is not only built on the blood of countless Indians, it is decadent and immoral.
Despite many, many examples of Little Big Man deviating from or inverting Western traditions, it is nevertheless indebted to several tropes that it can’t help but falling into. The film, despite being positioned as a Native American take on the classic Western, is not wholly a Native American vision. Neither Arthur Penn, the director of the film; nor Thomas Berger, the author of the original novel; nor the screenwriter Calder Willingham were Native American, making the film a white man’s vision of a Native American’s vision of the west. Indeed, the film, despite its clear sympathy for Native Americans over white Americans, does not really offer a Native American protagonist. “Little Big Man” he may be, but Jack Crabb is still Jack Crabb, the white man raised by Indians, not an Indian himself. Thankfully, the “Tarzan” myth – the white man who is a part of the savage nonwhite community, but even better than his nonwhite inferiors– is avoided in the character of Jack Crabb, who is not a particularly good warrior or leader compared to the other Indians, and is more of a passive figure floating his way through history, unlike the later hero of Dances with Wolves, or the much earlier hero of the novel The Last of the Mohicans (a source of many of the classic Western staples, despite being set in New York some twenty years before the American Revolution.) Still, Hollywood had yet, and has yet, to create a truly Native American Western, made by Native Americans, starring Native Americans, about Native Americans.
Also, owing to the fact that Jack Crabb, as narrator of the film, may be an unreliable narrator, the film’s portrayal of the Pawnee Indians would seem to consist of several negative stereotypes of Indians, nearly identical to the ones seen in much older Westerns. The rival tribe to Little Big Man’s Cheyenne, the Pawnee are introduced from the beginning as “a band of wild Indians […] murderin’ varmints.” Later, the one Pawnee seen in person grovels to Crabb once the Indian realizes that the supposed Cheyenne brave before him is actually a white man. “Pawnees was always sucking up to whites,” Crabb’s narration explains. Weak, cowardly killers, who orphan the young Jack and his sister, the Pawnee, as seen in Little Big Man, could have stepped right out of an old B-movie western from thirty years earlier, and only seem to have been tolerated by a 1970 audience due to the fact that their portrayal was offset by the almost entirely positive portrayal of the Cheyenne “Human Beings.” It could even be argued that the film, in its own way, creates new stereotypes as a way of replacing the older ones concerning Native Americans. While the Cheyenne seen in Little Big Man are not uniform or uniformly good – Younger Bear, Crabb’s Cheyenne rival, is vindictive and possibly a little crazy – their exceedingly heroic portrayal ultimately has more to do with the attitudes of the filmmakers towards mainstream American society than does the historical realities of white-Indian relations on the 19th century frontier.
In the end, despite their victory over General Custer (who meets an appropriately karmic end) and his cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the film recognizes that while a white-centric Western can end with a totally happy victory, as the promise of white dominance has already been secured by the filmgoer’s 20th or 21st century vantage point, a Native American-focused Western can only end with ephemeral success. “There is an endless supply of white men,” Old Lodge Skins, the film’s exemplar of positive Indian behavior, opines towards the closing of the picture, “but there always has been a limited number of Human Beings. We won today. We won’t win tomorrow.” Jack cannot ride off into the sunset with his beautiful Indian bride, the way so many Western heroes could with their love interests. The remainder of Old Lodge Skins’ days, we are sure, are not to be filled with joy. Unlike the Westerns that came before, Little Big Man cannot end with the promise of a happy future, as the audience already knows there is no happy future for the Indians. While Wyatt Earp can leave Tombstone knowing it is now a better place than it was before, and will only continue to improve in the future, Jack Crabb has no such comfort. The final, striking image of the film is Jack, having kicked the condescendingly smug historian out of his room in the nursing home, sitting, alone with his thoughts, no doubt thinking of the savagery he was witness to a century earlier. While most Western heroes can look forward to the contentment of tomorrow, Crabb, and by extension all Indians, can only look towards the distant past for any happiness. The Human Beings’ way of life is gone, replaced with the violence and tyranny of the white man. In the history of America, Little Big Man posits, it was the “black hats” who won the war.
For the past few years, my comments about film and television on Facebook or just in daily interaction have prompted numerous people to tell me that I should start a blog.
Well, here it is.
My name is Michael, and I'm currently in college. I've loved movies since before I can remember and I plan on going into filmmaking. I'm going to blog as often as I can, and just talk about the things I watch, whether they be on the big screen or the small. I doubt much of it will be coherent, but little else I do is, so why start now?
Well, here it is.
My name is Michael, and I'm currently in college. I've loved movies since before I can remember and I plan on going into filmmaking. I'm going to blog as often as I can, and just talk about the things I watch, whether they be on the big screen or the small. I doubt much of it will be coherent, but little else I do is, so why start now?