Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Front Runner

Everybody Knows
Hart the Herald Scriveners Zing

Every review of a movie is an opinion-piece, by its very nature. 

This one, however, is of, for, and by...opinion and is, as such, suffused with it. Like politicians, one shouldn't put too much trust in it. Proceed with caution. 

One wonders what would be the reason to make and release The Front Runner at this time other than as an exercise in nostalgia. Jason Reitman (second film released in a year—the first was Tully) has made a film based on the 1987 scandal that ruined the campaign of Senator Gary Hart, while he was running for president. Said scandal involved the Senator being linked with a woman not his wife, a practice that had been overlooked in the past, but, at that time, was not only not overlooked but blared in the nation's headlines. 

One could almost call the scandal quaint in this day and age, when the current President pays off porn-stars, admits it, then denies it, then probably brags about it when the microphones are off (are they?) then denies that he said it even when the tapes show up (Really, now, does this seem sane to you?). But, it isn't quaint. It's the age-old story of abuse of power and betrayal of trust. In this day and age, it has a hash-tag followed by "MeToo."
But, that year, many factors were in play. The Watergate scandal of the early 70's had put the public on alert to the duplicity of it's leaders, while the press, most of whom took no lead in the uncovering of the Watergate break-in and resulting White House cover-up were on high alert to any wrong-doing—that is, any wrong-doing that didn't hurt their access or financial stability. It had long been a standard practice among reporters to look away at the suspected infidelities of Presidents—certainly with FDR, Kennedy and Johnson. It was an "understanding" that such things were to be kept out of the press. After all, "the press" were equally capable of transgressing, such as Washington Post reporter and Watergate investigator Carl Bernstein's cheating on his wife Nora Ephron. What was good for the goose was not necessarily good for the gander who was trying to dig up dirt on the goose. 
Gary Hart was another matter. He was a senator who'd made a run for Democratic nominee for President in 1984 and lost to Walter Mondale. In 1987, after Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan, he was considered "the front-runner" for the nomination in the next year's presidential race, and it was assumed he'd get the nomination. Then, the events on board the private yacht "Monkey Business" happened. 
Now, what happened is a bit vague—and not a little, a lot. To this day, nobody can say for certain what happened. Hart was invited aboard the yacht, ostensibly to work on an economics speech, by a lobbyist loyal to the Democratic Party. Afterwards, Hart (played in the film by Hugh Jackman without an awful lot of the Kennedy-esque charisma that Hart radiated) went back to the nation's capitol. Reporters from the Miami Herald were tipped off that "a friend"* of the caller was having an affair with Hart (even the identity of "the tipper" and what that particular person knew when they knew it has some holes in the details) and was travelling from Miami to Washington for a tryst, and plans were made by reporters to follow the woman "who looks like a model" on the flight. There are rumors that Hart is a "womanizer" and the tip seems like a good bet, to the point where, when they lose track of her, they immediately go to Hart's D.C. townhouse, so they can stake the place out, take some pictures.
That is until Hart notices the car outside his house, and leads them unwittingly to a back-alley confrontation behind his town-house. To the reporters, they've got him dead to rights, despite not noticing that someone could—could—leave the place unnoticed from the street. Hart's attitude is that they have no right to cover it, or question him about it. These aren't things he has to answer. 
It is an attitude he will stay with throughout the three weeks it takes for him to decide to call off the campaign, and it is something that the reporters and his own campaign staff (including J.K. Simmons and Molly Ephraim) have a hard time grasping, as the attitude he adapts seems irrelevant to the crisis—it's happening and it needs to be addressed with something better than the candidate's standard "I don't have to answer that!"

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows
See what I did there? I merged from fact to movie plot, without skipping a beat. That's because Reitman and his team essentially tell the story as it has been laid out in the public record, without any speculation, without any editorializing—other than to put words in people's mouths in those instances when notes weren't being taken, and in scenes—especially between movie-Hart and wife Lee (played superbly by Vera Farmiga)—where issues brought up by audience questions can be handled by "writing to silence" (as nobody seems to want to protest the veracity). But, Hart's actions appeared to be those of a guilty man and that is what Reitman—and we—have to go by.
It is entirely plausible. Because the issue is about power and its abuse—just as it can happen in politics and in statecraft—so it happens when somebody entitled thinks they can take advantage and get away with it. The issue crosses all party-lines and is more evident now than it was "way back when" this story came out. It's a matter of class structure and the assuming of privilege "because they can." And it doesn't seem to matter how sanctimonious the perpetrators are, they see it as a right and an opportunity. Maybe even a divine right. That much can be known, because we see it every day. Even at the highest levels, there are low human beings.
Recently—too recently to have been made a part of this movie—there have been allegations that the circumstances were a "set-up" by a very prominent Republican operative with a history of such things. How much that can be believed can be argued about (and the reporters who covered the story have been extraordinarily quick to defend "their" records saying it wasn't possible because they weren't privy to it. What one cannot argue with is if it was a set-up, it was a good one, and worked very well to achieve the ends that were sought. You don't have to read too many spy-stories to know how effective honey-traps can be. But, it's just another aspect to a story about the inevitability of a weakness of character.
I found the whole thing a dissatisfying enterprise. The Front Runner provides facts, but no answers. It doesn't delve into all the facts, just the encapsulated time-line of what went down in those three weeks, regurgitating publicly available records supported by those with their own axes to grind and their own records to defend. One wonders, however, if it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Or merely what everybody knows.

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

* The movie ends with a line that says the Hart's are still together. Well, that's nice to know. They should have included what happened to "the other woman" Donna Rice, as well. She went back to her Christian roots, where she does advocacy work...and is an ardent Trump supporter. Donna, Donna, Donna. "Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice..."

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (And Other Tales of the Western Frontier)

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back—That's a Western Waltz
"Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are vouchsafed certainty."
"Misanthrope? I don't hate my fellow man, even when he's tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that's just a human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better."

There is a sense of nostalgia that prepares you for The Coen Brothers' new Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (which makes its premier on Netflix and is playing a very few theaters in the U.S., presumably for Oscar award consideration). It starts with a nicely-composed shot of a dog-eared book bearing the same title as the film, familiar for the plain dust-jacket (from a time before marketing became the thing to sell the book) that will be recognized to anyone who's had to clear out the bookshelf of a recently-passed relative, or from a Sunday afternoon perambulation through a used book store. You can practically smell the dust and age of the pages, as a hand crawls into frame and gingerly opens the book to the artistically rendered end-papers and then to the "meat" of the book, where the page-turning pauses on the dedication page, which has these words:
To Gaylord Gilpin
Who shared with us these stories,
And many more alike, one night
in camp above the roaring fork
'til approach of morn stained the sky
and our esteem for him stained our trousers.
This Book is Dedicated
There are six stories in the book, the titles giving no clue as to what they might be about. Turn the page and we see a list of the color illustration plates included in the volume. A tissue protects the illustration and we see the first burst of material showing us the contents, a single image and an arbitrary line of prose that only hints at what's inside, creating a mystery and a void to be filled, a goal to move on to. And we begin...with "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing cowboy riding out of Monument Valley into what passes for civilization in the day and age, his legs wrapped around his horse, his arms wrapped around his guitar and his throat wrapped around the traditional ballad "Cool Water." Buster is a white-hat cowboy, loquacious of song and speech (by which he is constantly addressing the audience as in "Don't let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool ya. I, too, have been known to violate the statutes of man... and not a few of the laws of the Almighty!"). His story demonstrates his "downright Archimedean" skills with a gun, and his reputation as the "San Saba songbird" as he creates a quick comic elegy for one of miscreants of poor nature who have the fool-hardiness to draw on him.*
One can see why the Coens were tempted to start with this one, as it is the funniest and most arch of the six stories, recalling to mind the Looney-Tunes nature of Raising Arizona, and with a lovely, goony performance by Nelson that endears you to him, even if, occasionally, it creeps one out. It sets up the tone for the entire film, where The West challenges the expert and the novice alike and Death comes in unexpected and inconvenient ways and should also prepare viewers that, as such, they can be surprising and grisly, as well. 
"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is a comic primer for the anthology, showing the film's approach to dusty death and the film's larger message of the nature of wilderness, and the efficacy of trying to rise above it.
"You seen 'em, you play 'em" sneered the hard man.

2. Near Algodones
An outlaw (James Franco) decides he's going to knock over the only game in town (except there's no town)—a bank that looks like it fell right out of the sky to land in the middle of the plains. But, it's just not his day. He has to contend with the institution's sole teller (Stephen Root), who's been through the procedure before, and who, in the opinion of the would-be robber, "doesn't fight fair." 

The outlaw will have very good luck today, but not so's you'd notice.
After waking up, he finds his neck in a noose, with a hanging party all ready to carry out its sentence. Fate steps in to get him out of the jam, but also put him deep into another one. He will ultimately learn that there's a good side to everything as long as he has the time to appreciate it.
"Pan-shot!" cried the old man.

3. Meal Ticket
A humble wagon makes its way through the scarce pockets of civilization that mark a mountain landscape. It is a traveling show, featuring a cultured orator, Harrison (Harry Melling), who has the added fascination that he is a quadriplegic. The show is fairly simple—the curtain of a small stage parts to reveal the orator, and after a dramatic pause that allows for gawking, he gives dramatic recitations of the story of Cain and Abel, and other sources as diverse as Shakespeare, Shelley, and Abraham Lincoln, to the spare audiences looking for diversion from the night and the cold. 
Harrison is under the care of his manager (Liam Neeson), who drives the wagon, posts the bills, prepares the stage, does Harrison's make-up, and provides sound effects for the parts in which God appears and needs accompaniment. He also collects the spare change that the audience provides for their night's entertainment, enough to provide a hot meal cooked over a campfire. The manager does that, too, and feeds Harrison by hand. Lodgings would be too expensive and the audiences are noticeably dwindling the farther they head through the mountains.
The two are tied together in partnership, but the days are long and the rewards are meager. 

"Meal Ticket" is a story of entrepreneurship, reduced in all its hard-scrabble desperation, and the eye toward improving business at all costs with little regard to anything but the sound of coins in pockets, and it resonates as timely as the day's financial headlines that emphasize the bottom line at the cost of human dignity...and life.
"The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven."

All Gold Canyon
Based on a Jack London story, "All Golden Canyon" tells the story of a grizzled prospector (Tom Waits), who enters a pristine valley with the intention of culling the riches hidden within it, without regard to the wonders that surround him.
He sets up an elaborate system, digging through the dirt, and noting the glittering specks of gold that he is able to pan out of it, to find the vein of gold that he knows must be there, the source of which he calls "Mr. Pocket," that will allow him to leave the valley a very rich man—if he can survive long enough to hit pay dirt.
And in all that mighty sweep of earth, he did not see a sign of man nor the handiwork of man.

The Gal Who Got Rattled
A mail-order bride, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) travels with her brother by wagon train to meet her intended husband. But the journey is long and accompanied by cholera, natives, and her brother's dog, named Benjamin Pierce, whose instinct, owing to its city nature, is to bark at anything wild, upsetting the prickly members of the wagon train, already impatient by the deprivations of the long journey.
When her brother dies, Alice is left alone, on her own, with no experience, few prospects, and a singular disposition towards fretting, which endears her to the ramrod of the train, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who takes it upon himself to solve her cares and problems, much to the mute consternation of the train boss, Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), who has other considerations than those of a worrisome girl, out of her depth, and out in the wilderness.
The longest and most intricate of the stories, "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is based on a story by Stewart Edward White, and one could comment, here, on the top-tier performances and the exquisite photography (shot digitally, a Coen first) by Bruno Delbonnel, who's been doing a lot of work with the Coens, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Tim Burton and Joe Wright, but that praise can be said for the entire anthology, no matter the conditions or weather they were recorded in. The film is beautiful to look at, frequently threatening to overwhelm the stories, but never quite doing that, becoming an intricate part of the story-telling fabric, the wide expanses of prairie and horizon looming and often overpowering the melancholy insignificances of the tiny figures making their ways through them.
Mr. Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knapp.

The Mortal Remains
Five passengers (played by Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross and Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson) on board a stage-coach as they make their way from a sunset prairie to the enfolding night on their way to Fort Morgan. 
The five could not be less compatible as they hold conversations as to the nature of man and the nature of love on the one side of the stage, while on the other the two partners, Thigpen and Clarence reveal themselves to be "reapers"—bounty hunters, who on this very ride are carrying their latest victim (on the roof of the cabin) to be dispatched at Fort Morgan...but is that the only one designated by the gentlemen who clearly revel in their work? 
Unlike the other segments, "The Mortal Remains" is shot entirely on a sound-stage, even the fronts of the fort's houses are decidedly two-dimensional, but it ends the film on a decidedly creepy, if  ambivalent note, the kind of campfire story best saved for when the last embers glow out and leave only wraiths of smoke.
Whether or not he heard, the coachman did not slow.

And there you have it: the cowboy, the outlaw, the entrepreneur, the prospector, the wagon train, the stagecoach—tropes and aspects of the Olde West, but given a determined melancholy twist that has become synonymous with the works of the Coen Brothers. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is another genre-busting masterpiece that plants a flag in their careers, as they never do less than interesting work, but there are some that clearly stand out more than others.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of those. Not a "return to form," so much as one of those where everything works and their experimentation reveals the strengths of the inspiration they've decided to sardonically play around with—in this case, the Western's ability to show us that whatever we may gain, we lose something in the transition, making the genre both the perfect home of triumph entangled with tragedy, sometimes inseparably.

It is, indisputably, one of the best films of the year. Ironically, good luck finding it in a theater.


Surly Joe, the gambler, he will gamble nevermore,
his days of stud and hold'em they are done.
It was long about last April, he stepped into this saloon,
but he never really took to anyone!
Surly Joe, Surly Joe!
Oh, wherever he's gamblin' now, I don't know!
He was slick but I was slicker,
he was quick, but I was quicker,
and the table stopped his ticker, Surly Joe!
Surly Joe, Surly Joe!
Won't be missed by anyone, will Surly Joe!
Humankind he frowned upon,
but not now, his face is gone!
Guess your frowning days are done, oh Surly Joe!
Surly Joe, Surly Joe!
A cedilla on the "c" of Curly Joe!
He was mean in days of yore,
now they're moppin' up the floor
One more sight to make him sore, oh Surly Joe!
Surly Joe, Surly Joe!
Where the rest his face has got to, we don't know!
He was never any fun, now his grumpy race has run,
kisser blown to kingdom come oh Surly Joe!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Story: "Remember?"

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance resonates more and more with me these days. The ironic story that was the last Western directed by John Ford (but maintained his themes of the parallel train-tracks of the mythic hum-bug of Nation-building, that run alongside the should-be heralded real accomplishments that don't make headlines) tells the story of three men who might influence the destiny of the frontier town of Shinbone: Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), an anarchic villain without constraint or morals; Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a book-learned "pilgrim" schoolteacher, for whom word is law and principals; and the man-in-between, Tom Doniphan (John Wayne), a pioneer trying to tame the land, for whom the law might be a hindrance to his way of doing "what has to be done." The fates of these men reflect a political struggle of what "freedom" means, and the torturous course that can come with the establishing of "civilization"...and the bodies that that high-minded process can leave behind, in the interests of the many over the few.

A few key things about this scene, then a summation. Prior to this scene, it had been revealed that it wasn't Ransom Stoddard, but Tom Doniphon, in the shadows, who shot Liberty Valance in the stand-off on the street in Shinbone.  Valance lay dead, but the fortunes of the other two men rose and fell in the instant of those simultaneous shots—Stoddard was hailed as a hero, while Doniphon, the actual perpetrator, disappeared into history, a forgotten and abandoned man. With the telling of The Tale on the occasion of Doniphon's death (and revealed in a flashback-within-a-flashback), the Shinbone press is made aware of the truth. But they don't print it, with the elegant words "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"—the word "becomes" being used, not as a verb of passing transformation, but as a flattering reflection. The legend is not the truth, but it reflects well on the man who has done so much for the city and the state, and so it is consigned to the furnace, as the publishing of it would do no real good for the living.It is buried, along with the dead. May not seem fair, but neither is life and fortune.

And Pompey (the amazing and versatile Woody Strode)—Doniphon's ranch-hand and confidante is given a great deal of respect by Sen. Stoddard's wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), who reaches out and touches his arm earlier in the film when she first sees him after so many years, something that probably upset the Southern U.S. states in the early 1960's when the film was made. When the Stoddards take their leave of Doniphon's coffin, he is left with his hand outstretched, which the Senator surreptitiously fills with cash, during their parting hand-shake. I don't think it even occurs to Stoddard that the gesture may not be appropriate. He may think it magnanimous, but it is a small sacrifice...just good politics.

Compared to what Doniphon sacrificed, it is paltry. Whatever Stoddard has given up, he has realized large rewards. Rewards was not on Doniphon's mind, in the course of doing the right thing. In Doniphon's way, you do what has to be done and take the consequences—for the future of the country and for the benefit of the woman he loves. He takes the steps and pulls the trigger on the events that will throw Hallie into Ranse's arms. Later ("Remember?") he will say "She's your girl now. You taught her to read. Give her something to read about." He's bitter, he's suffered, but like Richard Blaine does at the end of Casablanca, he doesn't look back, accepting his fate. And that parting shot has echoes of the blunt last words of Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, where you want to grab the benefactor of your actions by the scruff of the neck and say "Earn this." It is only grace that chokes off the "you lucky bastard."

Not fair? Maybe. But History runs roughshod over all of us, folding us into itself. Whatever fates we reap, eventually, as was so scrupulously noted in Barry Lyndon, we will all be equal.

The Set-Up: It's big doin's when Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) comes back to the town of Shinbone. The former lawyer-schoolteacher who became the state's first Governor is not here on business, but for a personal matter that has the town's newspaper digging for the story of who and why.  The man Stoddard and his wife (Vera Miles) are paying their last respects to is a local nobody, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and the accomplished politician who rode into public life as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (Lee Marvin) decides to—finally—tell the story. Truth being told, we fade back to the present day.

Fade In

SEN. RANSE STODDARD: Well, you know the rest of it...
STODDARD: I went to Washington.
STODDARD: ...and we won statehood.
STODDARD: I became the first governor.
SCOTT: Three terms of governor. Two terms of the Senate. Ambassador to the Court of St. James.
SCOTT: Back again to the Senate.
SCOTT: And a man who, with the snap of his fingers, could be the next Vice-President of the United States.
(Scott rips out the notes...)
(...then tears them up)
STODDARD: You're not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
SCOTT: No, sir.
(Scott throws the notes into the furnace, slams the door shut)
SCOTT: This is the West, sir.
SCOTT: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
CHARLEY: He's right, Ranse.
(The newspapermen take their leave.)
(In the distance, the train whistle blows, and Stoddard gets up, looks at his stop-watch and slowly closes it.)
(Stoddard glances at the undertaker, who now has Doniphan's boots to put on the body in the coffin.)
STODDARD: It's getting late, Hallie--
STODDARD: We'll keep in touch with you, Pompey.
STODDARD: I promise--
(Stoddard uses the occasion of shaking Pompey's hand to place some bills in it, and he protests.)
POMPEY: But, Mr. Ranse
STODDARD: No, no...
STODDARD: Pork chop money.
STODDARD: Hallie--
STODDARD: Hallie, would you be too sorry, if once I get the new irrigation bill through...
STODDARD: ...would you be too sorry if we just up and left Washington?
STODDARD: I...I sorta have a hankerin' to...come back here to live. Maybe open up a law office.
HALLIE: Ranse! If you knew how often I'd dreamed of it.
HALLIE: My roots are here.
HALLIE: I guess my heart is here.
HALLIE: Yes, let's come back.
HALLIE: Look at it. It was once a wilderness.
HALLIE: Now it's a garden.
HALLIE: Aren't you proud?
STODDARD: Hallie...who put the cactus rose on Tom's coffin?
HALLIE: I did.
JASON: Here, got a brand new spittoon for you...uh, "cuspidor," Hallie...
JASON: And Luke the engineer's got a full head of steam in this old tar bucket.
JASON: We're gonna make 25 miles an hour or bust a boiler tryin'
JASON: And (ha, ha) we wired ahead to Junction City. They're gonna hold the Express for ya. Ranse, in two days and two nights, you're gonna be right back in Washington.
STODDARD: Thank you, Jason. Thank you.
STODDARD: And I'm gonna write a letter to the officials of this railroad and thank them for their kindness and for going to all this trouble.
JASON: You think nothing of it.
JASON: Nothing's too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Words by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck

Pictures by William H. Clothier and John Ford

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

* Ford did something similar in the cavalry film Fort Apache, where Wayne's Captain Kirby York decides to present a more heroic image of the foolish and vainglorious attack and subsequent death of the Custer-like Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), with whom he'd had strategic disagreements.  For the good of the Corps, York (whose character would appear in the third and final Cavalry picture Rio Grande.) paints a more "becoming" picture of Thursday and his intentions, for good or ill.