Thursday, August 12, 2010

"We have every right to dream heroic dreams": Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy (1980)

Released in the summer of 1980, one week after the conclusion of that year's Presidential primary season and, coincidentally, the premiere of the similarly Western-themed, John Travolta-vehicle Urban Cowboy (1980, James Bridges),* Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy (1980) provided a seismic portrait of America at its time of release, worn down by a loss of confidence following its defeat in Vietnam, a loss of trust following the revelations of criminal conduct in the White House with Watergate and a loss of material wealth after four years of "Carternomics," but resilient, nonetheless, and optimistic that a better future awaited the country. Indeed, the America presented in Bronco Billy is a nation at its latter-day nadir, with its symbols stripped of their power and popularity, and its institutions drained of their contemporary relevance, though an America nevertheless where forgotten men and women keep the faith as they cling to the archetypes of a greater past with a view to remaking the future in the same image. Eastwood's film accordingly would prove the ultimate expression of its year, mirroring the optimism (in the face of years of decline) of the GOP's landslide victor Ronald Reagan, while putting forth another story of underdog success following the previous winter's "miracle on ice."

At the same time, Bronco Billy looks backward to another moment of patriotic renewal amid widespread dissatisfaction with the nation's current course: namely to the first years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's tenure, deep within the doldrums of the Great Depression. Citing, according to film scholar Lisa K. Broad, the flag-waving denouement of Warners' Footlight Parade (1933, Lloyd Bacon) and the socio-economically mismatched pairing at the center of Frank Capra's screwball classic It Happened One Night (1934), Eastwood renews the latter genre within the context of a traveling Wild West roadshow that pays nostalgic homage to a disappearing 'Cowboys and Indians' folk history. Eastwood's Billy, a former shoe salesman from New Jersey, is himself the last of the cowboys, or more precisely, its closest contemporary equivalent, plying his horsemanship and serious firearm acumen under an initially desolate big-top. He plays as a cowboy, in other words, as Eastwood would frequently from his work with Sergio Leone on - and he does so under the tent in a self-consciously poor performance style, an ingratiating feature that would carry over into the subject matter of the director's subsequent, high-Cold War Firefox (1982). Ultimately, the initially inglorious fate of the Bronco Billy Wild West show matches that of the Western genre, and indeed the trajectory of the nation itself, inasmuch as it shares the positions of each well beyond their respective heydays. America's great mythic form, and in a sense the very idea of America, seems to have lost its power as Bronco Billy commences.

So too has its principle institution: marriage. In the same small Idaho town in which Billy and company arrive on their perpetual tour of flyover country, Sondra Locke's Antoinette Lilly (an heiress in keeping with its It Happened One Night source) and fiance John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis) appear in order to secure a quickie marriage to insure Lilly's inheritance of millions: the virginal, frigid, WASP-ish Antoinette must marry by age thirty to prevent her disinheritance. Of course that she remains unmarried at this age was by no means outside period norms, even if her absent sexuality was; nevertheless, marriage has become purely contractual in Bronco Billy, less a socially beneficial institution than a legal obligation entered into in this case solely for financial reasons. Hence, when on their wedding night Arlington seeks his wife's company, she refuses coldly and flatly, thereby calling to mind both the patrician intoning of Katharine Hepburn and also Jean Arthur's cold-cream confrontation of Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens). Locke is the latest in this icy tradition, with her stiff performance style either satisfying, particularly in contrast to Eastwood's smooth showman (as it is for this writer, certainly) or not.

In the end, Antoinette will be sexually awakened by Billy, in this regard reversing the genders of Eastwood's earlier, more extensive sexual revolution-era foray into the subject - his under-appreciated, largely atypical Breezy (1973), which itself followed on the hot-house adolescence of Don Siegel's The Beguiled (1971) - though only at her pace, and only after Eastwood saves her from would-be sexual predators. (In this latter respect, Bronco Billy joins with any number of Eastwood's works from The Outlaw Josey Wales [1976] onward, where a woman is saved from or the victim of sexual assault.) However, until this coupling occurs, which finally doubles the renaissance of the Wild West show itself - America's institutions are thusly reborn - Eastwood's narrative remains a battle-of-the-sexes, in much the same manner as his previous actioner The Gauntlet (1977), which similarly co-starred Locke, albeit as a prostitute/state's witness rather than as a sexless New York socialite.

The Gauntlet indeed provides an instructive point of comparison for the more optimistic Bronco Billy: while both films underline a loss of institutional confidence - in The Gauntlet, agents of the federal government open fire on Eastwood's officer and Locke's witness, thus accented the state's corrupt-ability (by those forces that would seek the latter's death) in the aftermath of Watergate, along with the state's lack of concern for its own citizen's lives (on the heels of the Vietnam War) - the 1980 picture, made again at a very different cultural moment, offers the possibility of their redemption.

In Bronco Billy, the seeds of restoration are first sown in the director's Howard Hawks and specifically Rio Bravo (1959)-inspired collective of societal cast-offs, genuinely forgotten men and women - an ex-con African American, Native American (and his "Squaw"), a Vietnam deserter, a middle-aged man with a hook and the tenement-born Billy himself - who travel the West playing not only to small and only sporadically adoring public's, but also free of charge, and annually, to an orphanage and an insane asylum. Theirs is a community-centered, Middle American model that compares decisively with the East Coast elite background from which Antoinette comes - and to which Eastwood returns in a set of cross-cut passages, one of the director's favorite, and most frequently recurring narrative strategies.

The group home ultimately comes to Billy and company's aid, sewing a replacement tent constructed entirely of American flags, after a fire destroys Billy's big-top. In the concluding passage to follow, with Locke rejoining the group at the last minute after a brief departure precipitated by the revelation of her identity at the asylum (she had been assumed not only dead but murdered by Arlington, who confessed to the crime in an attempted money-grab), the film's opening set-piece is inverted, with the former's diminutive crowd now a full and enthusiastic house, and its set of miscues, another metonymy of America's recent deficits, replaced by perfect execution.

With their show coming to an end, Billy, flanked by his compatriots, looks directly into the camera, where he pleads with all the "little partners out there" to eat their oatmeal every morning, listen to their parents because they know best, and to say their prayers every night. With this he adds an "adios amigos," at which point he leans into Locke for a kiss. In this regard, Bronco Billy closes with affirmations of those areas of American life that had experienced significant stress in the decade-plus that preceded 1980 - the family, faith and presumably even marriage - and he does so through the mode of direct address, a fitting technique for the film's campaign year. America's institutions, Bronco Billy clearly suggests, might again be renewed.

Eastwood then cuts to an exterior of the flag-constructed interior with John Phillip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" playing as the camera continues to pull backward. Accordingly, Eastwood makes clear that his subject throughout Bronco Billy has been America itself, much as it is in so many of his works, though never quite this explicitly, with the nation's fate tied to the restoration of the aforesaid institutions, and with a faith in America, patriotism in other words, once again possible. Importantly, Eastwood would reuse the Sousa piece in his consequent Heartbreak Ridge (1986), another key artistic threshold in the nation's progress out of its post-Vietnam malaise. In the latter work, powered by a charismatic lead turn by the director (much like Bronco Billy, where it remains to be said that Eastwood does really fine work in front of the camera), the warm reception of the military following a Grenada-like overseas engagement restores the last of America's most assaulted institutions. Heartbreak Ridge, much like Bronco Billy, proves highly articulate of America's sense of self in the Regan-dominated 1980s.

No less importantly, Bronco Billy also emerges nearer to the center of Eastwood's work than it may at first appear. Bronco Billy offers another self-reflexive treatment of the Western genre that Eastwood, as much as any figure, has dominated in its later stages, while presenting an early archetype of the artist-centered work, see also Honkytonk Man (1982), Bird (1988) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), which would provide the core of Eastwood's directorial work in the decade to come. Indeed, with America's symbols restored to more culturally secure positions in the dozen years to follow, Eastwood would significantly depart from representing the nation in times of crisis, moving instead toward a group of films that concerned his vocation as an artist, and at times his failures as a father. His return to America's present, post-Heartbreak Ridge, ultimately would have to wait for his Dan Quayle/"Murphy Brown"-era masterpiece A Perfect World (1993).

Note[*]: Coincidentally, as it features an excellent Merle Haggard cameo and country-style music co-written by Eastwood.

Bronco Billy screened recently as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "The Complete Clint Eastwood" and in this writer's Yale summer course, Film, Video and American History. Bronco Billy is also currently available on Netflix's instant streaming service.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New Film: Inception (Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Indisputably the movie of the present moment, though perhaps not entirely of its moment, Christopher Nolan's Inception is even more, and more importantly, the film of its writer-director's career, distilling Nolan's thematic concerns, style and signature narrative constructions within its single, "A"-picture shape. For good or ill, and it is indeed both, Inception contains all of Nolan's cinema - often not simply through allusion, but in visual citation as well - construed in a form that intermittently engages with the digital-age cinematic medium. Ultimately, it is on this last level that Inception proves of greatest interest to this piece's writers, at once extending the late 1990s, early 2000s engagement with the ontology of the analog-digital hybrid, while staking the director's place on the personal-impersonal artistic continuum.

In this latter respect, Inception joins David Fincher's own recent career-peak Zodiac (2007) in favoring its maker's effacement, albeit in a form subsumed by subjectivity, rather than by Fincher's comparatively fact-based approach. In Inception, Nolan introduces the question of the artist's place in the incursion of artist-surrogate Leonardo DiCaprio's memories into CillianMurphy's dream world - where the aforesaid seeks, along with his colleagues, to implant an idea at the behest of Ken Watanabe, Murphy's Far East corporate rival. (Following in the pattern of Memento [2000], Inception introduces the concept of the idea as "virus," as an all-consuming contagion that remakes the individual.) As DiCaprio's dead wife, Marion Cotillard, comes to disrupt her husband and his co-conspirator's work of inception, and with the couple's children more benignly present on repeated occasions, Nolan constructs a narrative where the personal not only challenges but in fact threatens to destroy the work of creation at hand. In order to successfully implant the idea, to create Murphy's recollection ex nihilo, DiCaprio is forced to resist his own traumatic past - his subjectivity, in other words.

In more straightforwardly psychoanalytic terms, trauma proves formative for Nolan's latest, where the director's leads mine progressively deeper into human interiorty, seeking those secrets that are quite literally, in the film's science-fiction world, locked away within vaults. In its exploration of a repressed past, Inception particularly recalls the filmmaker's retrospectively cardinal psychoanalytic prequel, Batman Begins (2005), as it does DiCaprio's previous pairing with Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island (2010); DiCaprio himself seems in the incipient stages of establishing his own authorial voice. Batman Begins also generates one of the more obvious citations in Inception, with the former's Tibet set-piece returning as a cite of Freudian extraction. On the other hand, the director's behemoth box office follow-up to said reboot, The Dark Knight (2008), proves most formative for the low-key visual design of Nolan's current feature: The Dark Knight's warm golden light once again radiates through Inception's mahogony-paneled interiors. Present likewise is the 2008 film's reliance on a Griffithian form of cross-cutting, which in Inception, as in Peter Jackson's capstone to his 'Lord of the Rings trilogy,' The Return of the King (2003), sets a new standard in its activation of multiple, simultaneous narrative stages. This trio of contemporary blockbusters accordingly signals a return of Hollywood's repressed feature-film origin, The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Inception, however, adds a new dimension to the technique, thanks to its multiple dream-within-a-dream scenarios, each of which possess their own temporal schemas. Thus, an extended battle sequence in one dream-scape occupies the same relative story duration as a van's drop from a lift bridge. In this regard, Nolan again returns to the American cinema's original master, whose cross-cutting once pitted a cross-town traversal in The Drive for Life (1909) with the time it would take to raise a single piece of poisoned candy to its heroine's lips - in both Nolan's and Griffith's work, a Hollywood ending ensues. Of course, Inception explains its adoption of proto-classicism's temporal distensions through its science-fiction conceit; Nolan naturalizes Griffith's improbable last-minute rescues. Inception's narrative structure, like The Prestige's (2006) subject matter, returns to cinema's relative nascence.

The Prestige similarly proves a precursor for Inception's fable of the ontological loss of innocence, where the original sin of the copy begins the work of robbing the individual of his or her sense of reality. In the director's current work, the infinite regress dovetailing from waking life invites a skepticism that at least in one instance proves fatal. In this sense, Inception offers an allegory for the cinema not simply within the present digital age, but also inclusive of its proto-chemical mode. Still, Inception does belong meaningfully to the digital and new media moment, presenting a world that is wholly created, however uniformly photo-real, while also adopting video gaming's logic of immersed multiple lives. Consequently, Inspection repeats the narrative pattern instantiated previously by David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and the Wachowski Bros.'s The Matrix (both 1999), albeit from within rather than on the threshold of the digital revolution.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

New Film: Alamar (Co-written by Lisa K. Broad & Michael J. Anderson)

Writer-director Pedro González-Rubio's Alamar (To the Sea, 2009), one of the past year's unequivocal festival-circuit breakthroughs, pursues the same unmarked path between documentary and fiction as another of these writers' favorite 2010 New York premieres, Lisandro Alonso's La libertad (2001). In González-Rubio's seventy-three minute feature, as in Alonso's similarly undersized debut, the narrative focuses upon the rituals of its non-fiction leads within a rural Latin American backwater. Unlike in La libertad, however, which Alonso grounds in his protagonist's work environment, Alamar centers on Jorge Machado (as himself) as he travels on holiday with his young son Natan Machado Palombini to the Chinchorro-reef Caribbean home of his father, played by Nestór Marín. Hence, Alamar presents its human subjects, save for the grandfather, in a world that is removed from their typical daily habits, though Jorge is clearly conversant with his father's routine. Alamar thusly concerns itself within an exceptional moment in the lives of father Jorge and son Natan, as they vacation together before the latter returns to be with his mother in Rome - and even of Nestór as he receives his absent son and grandson - rather than with the everyday monotony that characterizes La libertad.

Indeed, it is Alamar's externally imposed spatio-temporal unity - its holiday, or idyll structure - that lends it a sense of fictionality. However, the events contained within these loose narrative boundaries seem to unfold with a kind of naturalistic grace that feels entirely unconstrained. While La libertad consciously privileges the messier, more elemental aspects of man's relationship with nature, positioning itself at the mythical apotheosis of neo-realism, Alamar strips away the rough edges of subsistence living, creating the kind of shimmering, romantic lyricism that Robert Flaherty sought among the natives in Nanook of the North (1922). Not coincidentally, then, La libertad, despite its eminent naturalism, somehow feels more fictional than Alamar's Edenic ethnography.

If Alamar therefore injects less ambiguity into the relation that it procures between fiction and non-fiction, it nevertheless captures its real-world spaces not in conventional 16 or 35mm, but in a DV that ratchets up the film's gorgeous sea-green waters and pink sunsets to an almost preternatural degree. González-Rubio's intense daylight features significant bleaching, thereby providing a canvas upon which the circling scavenger birds appear about as real as the namesakes of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). The director's camera work likewise follows its leads as they take their trade underwater, capturing the vibrant, undersea life of the world's second largest coral reef. As Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates (2006) have before it, Alamar's breathtaking vistas reveal the digital cinema's unique, medium-specific capacity to exquisitely render both sea and sky in a profusion of vivid color and fine-grained detail that seems almost on occasion to exceed the real.

If the film's landscapes provide a poetical excess of beauty, its representation of the process of fishing endows an often painstaking and patience-trying trade with a fantastic sense of ease and pleasure. In Alamar's magical realist universe, each cast of the fishing line almost instantly brings in a gleaming, exotic fish, just as every dive concludes with a ruddy, oversize lobster. The fruits of the catch invariably provide rustic cuisine of the highest order, which again is very different from the pot that La libertad's lead returns to daily, or to the armadillo from which he gleans a very perfunctory meal. In this respect, as in the film's varying depictions of labor - Alonso's film discloses nothing if not the banal details of its lead's very small-scale logging operation - Alamar proves to be an almost anti-La libertad, despite the two films' immediate similarities. Where the earlier work emphasizes the labor performed by its subject, thereby proving ceaselessly ordinary, however novel it may be to many viewers, the later is anything but, erasing the hardships of the work in a world that verges on becoming fantastic. In other words, while the Sisyphean labors of the La libertad's man-in-nature come to take on a mythic cast, Alamar presents a kind of ultra-masculine fairy-tale.

To this latter end, the film's trio occupies a home constructed on stilts over the turquoise water, with a crocodile circling beneath the structure in search of scraps. (In a moment reminiscent of film theorist André Bazin's description of the danger posed to a child in the 1951 British film, Where No Vultures Fly, Natan does get perilously close to a crocodile at one point, with the child's father and grandfather causally, laughingly warning the young boy as they sand their gleaming white boat at the water's edge.) An ibis that they nickname "blanquita" not only visits their home repeatedly, becoming something of an ersatz pet to the child, but is even trained by Jorge to wait patiently for a handful of food. There is something perfect about the world they construct apart for these two weeks; the film very much veils itself in their fond recollections of the vacation.

Of course, Alamar does depict a very transient moment in their lives, before they will once again separate, with the child returning to his mother in Italy. (The film opens with black-and-white footage and then voiced-off stills that detail the family's current estrangement.) Jorge has a very small amount of time with his son, which he makes the most of by tenderly holding the seasick child on his lap as they first travel to the house on the sea and when they wrestle under the hammocks that they sleep on nightly. If Alamar does offer a sort of paradise for the film's three male generations, it is a momentary one only, one that will conclude before the film's seventy-three minutes.
The writers of this piece would like to thank R. Emmet Sweeney especially for his strong and insistent recommendations of both Alamar and La libertad.