Tuesday, November 30, 2021


In Memory Yet Green (with Flecks of Orange)
"I'm Going Nowhere You Can't Find Me" ("All We Need to Survive is a Phone, a Pint, and the Sheet-Music to 'Danny Boy'")
Stevedores glow orange in an overcast dawn, looming over the port that shows no signs of life. They hover and oversee everything, reflected in warehouse windows and altering the horizon. They watch over the streets and houses—obvious signs of life as God never plans in straight lines. Then, we start to see walls with scrawls, graffiti decorating the barriers, making them their own or just making them a little less obtrusive, obstructive. 
Then the camera settles on a barricade with a collection of faces—dirty, bandaged, hatted—men-folk gathered, but whether they're coming home exhausted, or gathering with malice is a little hard to say. We move up the faces and over the wall, and it's like it's been protecting something. We see an alleyway filled with kids playing, kicking balls, playing knights, but they're in black-and-white. It's like the wall we flew over has scraped away the color, leaving the scene beyond in the bleached shades of a dream...or a memory.
Movies can have thesis statements embedded in them. The first image can be a summing up in some abstract way of what will come after. But, that opening sequence of Kenneth Branagh's Belfast
(and, really, that's how it should be called) is as good a thesis as any I've seen. The city may be titular, but it's just bricks and mortar, water and fire, dirt and smoke, the frame. It's the people who make the memory—the city will always appear smaller than it did. But, the people will forever loom large.
August, 1969. Man has landed on the Moon. But, Earth is "the same old place." Buddy (Jude Hill) is a happy nine year old doing battle with a stick-sword and a garbage-lid shield, fighting dragons when he's called in for tea by his mother (Caitriona Balfe). He's having a good time, the street's busy with residents with their "halloo's" and banter so it's only natural that Buddy has a longer travel-time than what a bee-line home would normally take a human being. Just enough delay to get him in a fix. A gang of Protestants enter at the end of the mixed Protestant-Catholic street and start yelling for the Catholics to get out. First, they throw threats, then rocks, then molotov cocktails, then they roll a car with a burning rag in the gas intake.
And Buddy's in the midst of it. And like any nine year old not in charge he freezes, gaping at something new. What are they yelling at HIM for? He's Protestant! But, Ma sees him and, like a banshee, she grabs him, and the garbage can lid becomes a shield for reals as the rocks come flying and she takes her burden and herself back to the door they live behind and slam it and lock it and dive for the floor to avoid any flying glass. Play-time is over. A battle has come to Belfast and it's not an easy game of heroes and bad guys. It's too complicated for a child to understand. To say nothing of the adults.
Where's Da (Jamie Dornan)? He works in England during the week and comes home most often on weekends. So, the day-to-day is left to Ma—the bill-paying, the wondering where the money comes from, the avoiding the rent-man, the raising of Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie)—and the making the peace when they've been "up to something" in the neighborhood, and when Da comes home there is the "adult talk" about things the kids don't understand or don't care about because they're so wrapped up in the "now."
Things like the newly-installed barbed wire (which becomes a foreground object through which Branagh shows life), the night patrols, the buzzing of helicopters, the increasing frailties of his parents (Ciaràn Hinds and Judi Dench, both photographed so you see ever seam earned in their faces) and that Da might have possibilities for a better paying, more steady job in England—but it would keep him away longer and he wants his family with him, if only the wife and kids didn't want to stay right where they are.
In the "now." Family is around them, there's a community—sure it's a "mixed" community, but the only ones making anything of it are the thugs and enforcers—there's school—with the cute girl in the class—and TV and movies...and home. The only home the kids have known and they're too young to know that "home" is as transmutable as the future. Or that "home" is changing right before their eyes. It's hard to see when one hasn't had much of a past.
Branagh's film is obviously made of love, living between nostalgia and fear, adult and child, and never completely resigning them into a fixed whole. One can forgive him for keening over into the precious—the "too-perfect" occasional shot, breaking the the use of color at movie images and stage productions (Branagh's dream-homes), and a confrontation scene that could have gone without its musical accompaniment (but we are talking about a child's eye view of it, so....myth?). But, forgive it, because despite its crisp photography, this is a film of filters and scrims of the mind, ultimately, not the HD precision of documentary. It's built of memory and bricks and stones and heart. And it relates to anybody oppressed, anybody in fear, and anybody who's been a child...or a parent. It's certainly the best film Branagh has made in years, and it's certainly among his personal best.
Fair play to him.


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Don't Make a Scene: No Country for Old Men

The Story: Barry Corbin gets his "Ben Johnson moment."

I was working at the recording studio and it was a remote voice-over for a commercial and the guy who was doing it was Barry Corbin. I knew of him. Urban Cowboy. War Games. "Lonesome Dove". He was in town, working on the TV series "Northern Exposure", a job he did for many years. Great actor. Versatile. Could do comedy or drama and not miss a beat. I knew he'd done Shakespeare, too, so I was on my A-game.

The man in the waiting room reading the paper had extraordinary scuffed cowboy boots and a big stetson that mostly covered his face as he was reading. "Hey, Mr. Corbin. I'm your engineer. If you wanna get settled up there..." 

"Yeeup...That's a good i-dee-a."

And I was...shocked. The Texas accent coming from the man was so pronounced, so thick, that it couldn't have been real. I'd seen him act in things when it wasn't even there. I thought for sure he was putting on airs.

Nope. I was wrong. Barry Corbin is that good that the voice will change, the drawl will turn to vapor with just a thought. The Texas is there, steeped in him. But, he's an actor. I watched him do a first read of "copy" that was "supposed" to be 30 seconds long and he did it in 45-50 seconds. Too long. And like all professionals worth their stick, he wanted to do it again...right now. Don't cut the words. Wanted to beat that clock. "Take 2" was 28 seconds. Not as nuanced, but flawless. Big smile on his face. Maybe because my jaw had dropped.
The session ended to everybody's satisfaction and he ambled out of "the booth" over to the "control room" where I was doing the routine post work. Took the chair, not the couch. And I asked him. Something that had been in my mind for awhile. As good as he was, why had he taken the role of the bumbling Deputy Roscoe Brown in "Lonesome Dove"—the comic relief, the "Andy Devine" role—in "Lonesome Dove." Seemed like a step down from what he could do, what he was capable of doing. "Oh. I'd've played anything...just to be part of 'that piece.'"

"That piece." The whole project. The story, winner of The Pulitzer. The respect that he had for it in that phrase. That left no more questions.

So, here he is, doing a scene that IS up to his talents. One that hits you, really hits you, while you're in a theater. Two men talking about Death, but not saying it. "Circling around it"—in a phrase that was edited out of the cut (The Coens have the great good sense not to spell out what they're doing). And of how dwelling on it, on something that comes to everybody, is a waste of life, a failing.

And Corbin makes it look easy, carrying the weight of that text, as the camera imperceptibly draws closer to him, giving it more heft—just as Bogdanovich's camera moved in on Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (McMurtry again)—not cutting away to the slow pull-in of Tommy Lee Jones that was (evidently) shot parallel to Corbin's shot. Stay where the magic is happening.

What's best for "the piece."
The Set-Up: A drug deal gone wrong. A lot of dead bodies. Missing money. But, the investigation by Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) isn't just some post-mortem forensics. It's still going on out there. It hasn't ended. More death is happening. And Bell has just gotten a whiff that it might intersect with him. He goes out to visit his Uncle Ellis (Barry Corbin) for a visit.
A CAT Licking itself on a plank floor, stiffened leg pointing out. It suddenly stops and looks up, ears perked. A frozen beat, and then it bolts. The camera booms up to frame the barren west Texas landscape outside the window of this isolated cabin. A pickup truck is approaching, trailing dust. The cat reenters frame outside, running across the rutted gravel in front of the house as the pickup slows. 
Ellis, an old man in a wheelchair, has one clouded eye.
Min back! 
Sheriff Bell enters.  
How'd you know I was here. 
Who else'd be in your truck. 
You heard it? 
How's that?  
You heard my --
you havin' fun with me?  
What give you that idea. 
I seen one of the cats heard it. 
But -- how'd you know it was mine?  
I deduced it. Once you walked in. 
Sheriff Bell stares at him. 
How many a those things you got now? 
ELLIS Cats? 
(I don't know) Several. 
Wal. Depends what you mean by got. Some are half-wild, and some are just outlaws. 
BELL How you been, Ellis?  
You lookin' at it. 
I got to say you look older.  
BELL I am older. 

ELLIS Got a letter from your wife. She writes pretty regular, tells me the family news.
BELL Didn't know there was any.  
She just told me you was quittin'. Sit down
Sheriff Bell lifts an electric percolator off the counter. 
BELL Want a cup?  
'Preciate it. 
BELL How fresh is this coffee? 

ELLIS I generally... 
...make a fresh pot ever week... 
...even if there's some left over. 
Sheriff Bell pours some.  
That man that shot you died in prison.  
ELLIS In Angola. Yeah.  
What would you a done if he'd been released? 
ELLIS I don't know. Nothin'. 
Wouldn't be no point to it.  
I'm kindly surprised to hear you say that. 
Well, all the time you spend tryin' to get back what's been took from you there's more goin' out the door. After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it. 
He taps a cigarette ash into a mason jar lid on the table in front
of him.  
...Your granddad never asked me to sign on as deputy.
ELLIS...I done that my own self. Loretta says you're quittin'. 
BELL Yes, you've circled round
How come're you doin that?  
I don't know. 
I feel overmatched. 
A beat.  
...I always thought when I got older God would sort of
come into my life in some way. 
He didn't. 
BELL:I don't blame him. If I was him I'd have the same opinion about me that he does.  
You don't know what he thinks. 
A beat.  
ELLIS I sent Uncle Mac's badge and his old thumbbuster to the Rangers. For their museum there. 
Your daddy ever tell you how Uncle Mac come to his reward? 
Sheriff Bell shrugs. 
ELLIS Shot down... 
...on his own porch there in Hudspeth County. 
There was seven or eight of 'em come to the house. Wantin' this and wantin' that. Mac went back in and got his shotgun but they was way ahead of him. 
ELLIS Shot him down in his own doorway. 
Aunt Ella run out and tried to stop the bleedin'. 
Him tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses... 
...watchin' him die. 
ELLIS Finally After awhile one of 'em says somethin' in Injun and they all turned and left out. 
Well Mac knew the score even if Aunt Ella didn't. 
Shot through the left lung and that was that. 
ELLIS As they say.  
BELL When did he die?  
Nineteen zero and nine. 
No, I mean was it right away or in the night or... 
BELL ...
when was it. 
Believe it was that night. She buried him the next mornin'.
Diggin' in that hard caliche. 
A beat.
ELLIS...What you got ain't nothin' new.
ELLIS...This country is hard on people.
Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it
to account
BELL Most don't.  
ELLIS You're discouraged
BELL I'm... discouraged.  
ELLIS You can't stop what's comin. 
Ain't all waitin' on you. 
The two men look at each other. Ellis shakes his head.  
...That's vanity. 
After a beat, a fast fade.
Words by Joel and Ethan Coen (and Cormac McCarthy)
No Country For Old Men is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment.