Tag Archives: directors

Can’t Wait: Julia Dyer’s ‘The Playroom’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

This week’s edition is a little bit of cheating, as I saw The Playroom this weekend while I volunteered at the Citizen Jane Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri.  A period piece about a seventies family falling apart, the movie is highlighted by great, pained performances, especially from John Hawkes and his Deadwood costar Molly Parker as a feuding and drunken married couple (serves them right for going behind Seth Bullock’s back in a betrayal of epic proportions), and Olivia Harris as their eldest daughter; however, Dyer gets phenomenal work out of all the young actors.  A claustrophobic, one-house setting turns up the familial tension to uncomfortable levels.  It may not be a happy crowd pleaser, but it’s a well done film that the director, Julia Dyer, said will be available on Netflix, VOD, and other streaming services this February.  See it and help a talented independent filmmaker get the clout needed to continue her career; we need more people with a knack for working with actors in such a masterful way.


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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: A Formalist Essay on ‘Citizen Kane’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Formalist analysis is not something I have spent much time doing on this website.  I understand a large portion of it and I often care more about story, theme, and character.  I’ve often looked down on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, probably to my own detriment.  Due this past Monday in my film class was a formalist analysis of a scene of my choice from Citizen Kane.  I knew I could do it and it would not have been a taxing thing on me, but I didn’t think doing so would expand my appreciation of the film to such a degree that I would now list it among a favorite — as opposed to simply being on the “greatest films I’ve ever seen” list.  Going shot by shot through this sequence opened my eyes, and I had a blast doing it.  In the future, I want to integrate more of this style in my posts.


 This sequence, which lasts three minutes and four seconds over 19 shots, covers the time in Charles Foster Kane’s life when he runs for governor of New York.  This is a time of immense optimism, which will be shattered by Kane’s own hubris and womanizing.  It largely focuses on a rousing speech given by Kane to a crowd of supporters.  Shot durations are listed in parentheses after each shot description.

Shot 1  There is a long shot of man speaking on ramshackle podium clearly built in haste.  He is elevated above the crowd, the focus of their attention.  The crowd members, many of whom appear to be of the blue-collar variety in plain jackets and hats, all look up at him, hanging on his every word.  A street light burns bright next to the speaker, a Kane supporter, which can be an indication that Kane is the bright hope for the state.  “Kane For Governor” signs are pasted all over the walls of what appear to be an alley where this rally is taking place; this indicates the Kane campaign is willing to go anywhere and everywhere to get their message to the people.  The camera, which is on a crane, mimics the feeling of a dolly-in on the speaker as he talks about Kane being a “fighting liberal,” among other things.

(16 seconds)

Shot 2  There is a cut from the middle of the speaker’s speech to a long shot of a huge poster of Kane’s face and Kane’s voice continues the sentiments of the street speaker.  The camera does a slight pan left and tilts downward to show Kane at a podium giving a fiery speech.  Various men in nice suits sit behind him in a slight arc, staring at him; he is clearly the most important man in the room and perhaps the world.

(11 seconds)

Shot 3  Cut to an extreme long shot of a matte shot to imply Kane is speaking to a massive gathered crowd in an auditorium.  This kind of shot would become a favorite of Stanley Kubrick in later years, as it is one-point perspective.  That is, the stage is perfectly centered in the shot, and it performs as the sole vanishing point.  This further enhances the sense that Kane is the only person who matters.  The camera pushes in as we…

(4 seconds)

Shot 4  Dissolve to a long shot of Kane, again directly centered, continuing his speech.  CAM pushes in as Kane gestures grandly, his hands spread wide.  The camera continues its dolly-in and eventually approaches from a slightly left-of-center (perhaps in relation to Kane being the “fighting liberal”?) perspective; as it gets closer, it tilts up, again displaying Kane’s power and importance.

(22 seconds)

Shot 5  Cut to Kane’s son and wife, Emily, in a tight medium shot.  His son is standing, excitedly watching his father.  Emily appears both nervous and blasé about what’s happening before her eyes; she couldn’t care less about the speech, but she doesn’t want her son to be an embarrassment.  Emily tells the boy to sit, and he dutifully does, but his eyes remain wide with pride in his father.  In the background are a few visible bodies to imply Kane’s family is among a huge crowd, when in fact this is a small set.  Behind those headless bodies is emptiness, not more people; a trick of scale Welles uses multiple times through the rest of the sequence.

(6 seconds)

Shot 6  Cut to low angle of Kane, this time from the right-hand side of the stage.

(4 seconds)

Shot 7  Cut to a medium shot of Kane from the same side of the stage, but this time in a straight-on-to-slightly-high angle.  He gives a cocky but gregarious vibe, the type of politician that usually wins (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama).

(8 seconds)

Shot 8  Cut to high-angle shot of Emily and their son.  She looks on with dead eyes while he waves excitedly.

(2 seconds)

Shot 9  Cut to Kane sending a quick salute to his son (a faulty eyeline match because Kane should salute to the other side of the stage).

(4 seconds)

Shot 10  Cut to Jedediah, Kane’s business partner, lit brighter than the extras next to him (he is important and they are not) looking on at his friend quietly.

(7 seconds)

Shot 11  Cut to that same highish, to-the-right angle of Kane at the podium.  He walks to the side of the podium and the camera pans right to follow him.

(11 seconds)

Shot 12  Cut to Mr. Bernstein, another Kane friend and business partner, in the crowd (again with more light hitting him than the extras, and placed in the center to draw the viewer’s attention) clapping his appreciation and support for his boss and friend.  Again, like the shots of Kane’s wife and son and the one with Jedediah, there are actually few people in the shot, but with enough cutting and sound amplification of the audience’s applause, the speech appears to be happening in a much larger space than it really is: A Hollywood soundstage.

(3 seconds)

Shot 13  Cut to Kane’s son and Emily, again in a medium shot, and a much more straight-on angle than before, sitting and watching.  The boy asks if his “pop [is] governor yet,” and his mother reassures him, “not yet,” in a way that implies he will be.

(5 seconds)

Shot 14  Cut to Kane again at the podium.  His joke, “I would make my promises now if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them,” makes the audience burst into confident laughter.

(9 seconds)

Shot 15  Cut to Jedediah clapping and laughing at the joke.

(4 seconds)

Shot 16  Cut to high-angle shot of Kane at the podium in a long shot and oriented to the right.  The pulling away of the camera implies Kane is being watched carefully while making threats to Boss Jim Gettys, his chief political foe.  The camera zooms on Kane as he promises to convict Gettys of his political crimes.

(23 seconds)

Shot 17  Cut to a man in trench coat watching from a faraway balcony at a matte shot of the crowd cheering Kane onstage, foreshadowing that Kane’s promises will not be kept.  The man puts on his hat and walks away while Kane’s speech ends and music begins to play amid loud cheers and applause from the crowd.

(8 seconds)

Shot 18  Low angle from the left of Kane shaking hands with his supporters.  They are clearly important, upper crust men, as shown by their top hats and tails.  The camera dollies left as Kane moves across the stage, shaking more hands as he goes.  The camera dollies back slightly as he descends the stairs from the stage to meet the press, and a flashbulb goes off.

(15 seconds)

Shot 19  Dissolve to a straight shot of Kane again in the center, walking toward the camera, which does a reverse dolly track through a crowded hall of supporters and well wishers.  His son rushes toward him and Kane takes him in his arms.  Emily meets the two of them as the camera stops tracking and another flashbulb goes off.

(17 seconds)

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Can’t Wait: Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

[Oh hey, let’s make fun of the dork who forgot to schedule yesterday’s post.  Anyway, here’s the “Can’t Wait” I owe you.]

I’ve been slow to appreciate Terrence Malick’s work.  Last spring I saw the trailer for The Tree of Life and couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It looked so mysterious and abstract that I felt it necessary to study his filmography.  I watched his four previous movies — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World — and only truly enjoyed The Thin Red Line.  The voiceover use bordering on excess and the lingering shots of nature were intriguing if difficult to connect to.  Then last week I was able to see Tree of Life on a big screen — the first time I saw it was on a small TV in the afternoon, much like the rest of his movies (not exactly a prime viewing situation) — and everything clicked in that greater medium.  When immersed, the poetry of the voiceovers doesn’t feel abstract; it enhances the beautiful imagery washing over the screen.

And with Malick’s late-career surge of productivity, he has showcased To The Wonder on the film festival circuit the last couple months to gain a distributor.  It may not have received the warmest of reactions, and I have only the vaguest of understandings as to what kind of thematic or plot ground the film covers, but if I have the opportunity to see another Malick on a big screen, I’m going to do it.  Now, someone pick it up and release it.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these can be longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Pan’s Labyrinth is, in a way, a schizophrenic film.  It is a story about the power of fantasy, wonder, and mystery, and also a depiction of the harsh realities of fascism and war.  It is not entirely successful in both measures; or, perhaps, it would be more successful if they served each other in a way other than pure juxtaposition.  If Guillermo del Toro had doubled down on one or the other, the film would not feel so disjointed.  Instead, he indecisively keeps a foot firmly planted in each, and the startling violence of the “reality” is weakened.  This is because del Toro fails the “give the audience only what they need” test.  The overt precision of the violence – the Captain’s brutal and uncaring murder of a hunter and his son, Mercedes’ slashing of the Captain’s mouth, etc. – has no mystery to it; a viewer sees exactly the effects of the violence, or rather they see del Toro’s vision for what the effects should be.  This leaves them without the option of filling in the blanks with their own nightmarish imagery (see Howard Hawks’s Red River, when John Wayne’s character murders a Native American beneath dark water; an act the audience cannot explicitly see).  Now, shocking and extreme violence has its place in the proper context (Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Refn’s Drive), but in a film that also places so much emphasis on mystery, trickery, and sleight-of-hand in its fantastical moments, Pan’s Labyrinth would be better served to employ some of those slyer elements into its harsher, more “realistic” segments.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Hints of Joseph Campbell in ‘Boogie Nights’?

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: I’m finally going to see The Master this weekend, so I thought I’d dig through my old papers to find one on writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakthrough, Boogie Nights.  I wrote this a couple years ago for my Media Criticism class.  I’d like to think I’ve improved as a writer, but I still think it’s interesting to note the quasi hero’s journey in Dirk Diggler’s story, so here’s a “warts and all” version of my younger self.]


The 1970s had many iconic elements that came to define the decade.  Watergate, solo Beatles, cocaine’s rise to prominence, The Big Red Machine, and many other things are cultural touchstones from that era.  However, few things defined that time more than the pornography industry, with its outlandish acting, funk guitar solos, and blatant subversion of societal norms.  Boogie Nights, a 1997 film from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, depicts the porn industry in its only-in-theaters days and the rise of the videocassette market which would revolutionize the trade at the expense of the lofty ambitions of the film’s central characters.

The film involves an industrious adult film mogul, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), discovering the film’s protagonist, a young nightclub dishwasher named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg).  Entering Horner’s world of sex, drugs, and stardom has a profound effect on Adams, who begins to live his life as the character he creates for Jack’s films, Dirk Diggler.  He becomes one of the most widely acclaimed adult film stars in the business, helping Horner create a version of cinema unthought-of before they entered the picture, and the success goes to his head.

The film opens with Horner discussing his ambition to turn the porn industry into its own genre of film—rivaling things like science fiction—with his girlfriend, and frequent star of his films, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore).  He expresses his desire to find a crossover star for his films, one that can add a bit of acting to the films’ raunchy nature.  This is when Horner notices Eddie, then a 17-year-old dishwasher at the club, from across the room.  He sends one of his other collaborators, simply known as Rollergirl (Heather Graham) for her refusal to ever take off her roller skates, to see if Eddie has what it takes for his kind of work.

After joining Horner’s troupe, things start getting very good for everyone involved.  Dirk quickly becomes a favorite among porn viewers and critics alike, and begins winning industry awards.  His greatest success comes after creating yet another character, a private eye named Brock Landers, who not only has sex with myriad women, but also solves cases with his partner, performed by Dirk’s friend and Horner movie staple, Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly).

The film takes many interesting turns with the supporting characters, such as the drug addictions of Amber, Buck Swope’s (Don Cheadle) aspirations to open an electronics store with the money he makes performing in Horner’s movies, and the tragicomic relationship of Horner’s assistant director, Little Bill (William H. Macy), and his constantly cheating wife.  All those subplots are intriguing and entertaining, but the action mainly rests on Dirk’s shoulders.

That degradation of Diggler’s life is altogether fascinating.  The turn his life takes as the ‘70s end, going from a life of constant success and affluence and devolving into a nightmare of cocaine, failure, and egotism works tremendously well.  He has a mansion, a 1978 Chevrolet Corvette he cherishes, and the love of a surrogate family—particularly the older, more experienced mother figure to all of Horner’s actors, Amber—but his success gets in the way of clear thinking.  His descent begins on New Year’s Eve 1979, when a business associate of Horner’s declares that the days of their movies being shown in theaters across the country would soon be coming to an end.  Horner dismisses the news for a time, but eventually evolves with the industry.  Diggler, on the other hand, does not, ending in a downward spiral that leads to prostitution, a horrible vanity musical project, and armed robbery.

Literature Review

Anderson’s slick, stylized direction, including the intricately blocked tracking shot in the nightclub that opens the film, indicates a mastery of the technical side of filmmaking.  Moments like the filming of the first Brock Landers film are interesting and extremely funny in dialogue, poor acting of the porn stars, and the aesthetic change from widescreen format to the squared look of the adult film industry.

There are plenty of entertaining winks and nods to the audience—the Raging Bull-recalling scene at the end, etc.—throughout, but like all great stories, the film centers on the characters and their relationships.  The most interesting is the Freudian nightmare of a relationship Dirk has with Amber, a lonely cocaine addict dealing with her legal inability to see her biological son due to her addiction.  Dirk has his own mother issues, as shown by the few brief fight scenes with his mom, and he forms a bond with Amber steeped in duality.

They clearly love each other very much, but at times it’s unclear what kind of love they have for each other.  The majority of the time, Amber attempts to replace her lost son with Dirk.  She buys him Christmas gifts, calls him her “baby boy,” and things like that.  However, on camera they have gratuitous, and repeated, sex.  This implies plenty of deep-down issues of Amber’s own and it greatly helps enhance the enjoyment of the movie.

The lesser characters all have their moments to shine, as well.  Reilly’s Reed is a sweet, dumb, and unattractive guy who doesn’t at all seem to be a good fit for the porn industry, but the “family” keeps him around, even if at times it’s just for his interest in performing magic tricks at parties.  Cheadle is great as the ambitious Buck, enhancing a background character with sadness and a take-what-life-gives-you attitude when a horrific accident provides him a tremendous opportunity.  Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays a young gay man named Scottie who longs to be with Dirk, and Graham’s Rollergirl is more than just a bimbo; she’s a very sweet girl who stands up for herself when she needs to.  And William H. Macy gives a great performance showing the downside of the “swinging ‘70s” culture as Little Bill.


Something that sticks out about Boogie Nights is its ability to defy expectations of what these characters should be.  After all, it is a film about a widely derided profession, but these are all sympathetic and wholly relatable characters.  A big reason for this is Anderson’s slyly methodical application of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.  Nearly every step Dirk takes throughout the film is informed by Campbell’s elements.

The best way to analyze a text like this is to first watch the film with a notebook and pen.  Each step in the hero’s journey, from the call to adventure to freedom to live (“Monomyth Summary”), should be listed in the notes and for every moment in the film that relates, specific notes should be taken.

After the first viewing is completed, a good understanding of the monomyth is reached.  At that point, the film should be watched again with the director commentary, and that informs further understanding of the text, including the intentions of the writer/director.

Monomyth: Departure in Boogie Nights

The film begins, like any mythic story, with the call to adventure.  In Boogie Nights, however, that call is prolonged for a long time.

After an aesthetically complicated—and incredibly impressive—opening tracking shot that consists of several minutes, the camera settles on a conversation between Jack and Amber at a night club.  Jack is suddenly distracted as the action goes to slow motion and the camera settles on the hero of the piece, Eddie-Dirk, who is picking up dirty dishes across the club from Jack.  Eddie is young, strong, and has a look-at-me factor that Jack can’t ignore.  This serves him well not only as an adult film star but as the star of the movie, because it provides the audience with a likable character despite the perceived immoral profession he works.

Jack confronts Eddie in the kitchen, and Eddie takes the conversation to be a solicitation of prostitution, and names a price for Jack.  Jack tells him it’s nothing like that, and instead asks him to have a drink, but Eddie refuses, saying that he has to work, promptly refusing the call.

Jack returns to his table with Amber, but enlists Rollergirl, the most bubbly of his actresses, to check out Eddie’s “credentials.”  She corners Eddie in the kitchen where she engages in sexual acts upon him.  She returns to Jack at the table and lets him know that Eddie is incredibly well endowed.  In a scene involving Eddie’s then girlfriend, his admission of, “everyone’s blessed with one thing” implies an almost godlike quality to Eddie, and Rollergirl’s entrance into his life takes the place of supernatural aid in Campbell’s list.

The night ends and Eddie leaves work.  He’s walking down the street when a car rolls by.  It is populated by Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl.  Jack invites Eddie to join them, and he gives in, as he gets in the car and they eat at a diner, where Jack outlines his ambitions for their films, which he wants to be a true cinematic genre as opposed to simply a sexual release for viewers.  This impresses Eddie, who then joins the group to Jack’s house, where Jack insists Eddie have sex with Rollergirl so he can determine whether he can use Eddie or not.  This represents Eddie’s crossing of the first threshold in a big way.  He then returns to the home he shares with his parents, only to be greeted by his seething mother, who starts a monumental fight with him and kicks him out of the house, never to be seen again in the film.  She fulfills another of Campbell’s requirements, as the hero often has issues with a father, or in this case, parent, figure.

After getting kicked out of his house, Eddie returns to Jack’s house, as he has nowhere else to go.  Jack is having a party that day, and the members of his filmmaking troupe are all there.  This all represents a complete departure from Eddie’s known life, as cocaine, sex, and all manners of general partying are everywhere around him.  It is not at all what Eddie is used to, especially when a young girl overdoses at the party.  He is surrounded by new, strange people, all of whom share in an affluence he had only been able to dream of up to that point in his life.  This is when Eddie meets the Colonel, a producer who funds Jack’s projects.  When told Eddie is a new actor for their stock, the Colonel tells Eddie to possibly think of a stage name.  In an entertaining scene in a hot tub, Eddie tells Jack he can see his name emblazoned in neon, and the words are shown on the screen as “Dirk Diggler.”  This complete renunciation of his former life is the last part of Eddie-Dirk’s departure, known to Campbell scholars as the belly of the whale.

Monomyth: Initiation in Boogie Nights

The newly christened Dirk now has to start working for Jack.  He soon finds himself at his first film shoot.  He’s nervous about being called for his first scene, and waits in his dressing room, talking to himself in the mirror, trying to diminish his nerves.  He then walks to the set, where he is to have sex with Amber.  Sensing his nerves, she tells him that he looks great, and this calms him, setting up their odd quasi-mother-son relationship that will define much of each of their lives in the coming years.

They film the scene, but Jack is unable to get the shot he needed, so he thinks all is lost for the rest of the day.  However, as per usual in monomyth stories, Dirk says he is able to go again right away, passing the first of many trials, something Campbell says needs to happen for a story to be truly monomythic.

One of the interesting things Anderson does in his telling of this story is blending the various monomyth stages into one scene.  This is obvious as Dirk’s first trial involves having sex in his meeting with the “goddess,” Amber.  She is older than the rest of the actors and performs that aforementioned mother role because she’s dealing with the loss of her own biological son.

The next relative departure Anderson takes from Campbell’s rules is in his dealing with the “woman as temptress” stage (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 15).  As the movie takes place within the pornography industry, women aren’t so much sexual temptresses as they are necessary components in what is required of the genre.  This is why Anderson chooses to use other things to tempt Dirk along his journey.  This is when he introduces something that tends to be a common thread among newfound celebrities: success leads to many things that may not necessarily be good.  The story soon finds Dirk becoming increasingly egotistic as his success as an actor continues to grow, making him rich and providing him a steady stream of drugs.

Anderson’s dealing of the “atonement with the father” (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 16) is also a slight departure from what Campbell wrote.  After his mother kicks him out of his house, Dirk never sees his parents again.  He instead forms a lasting bond with both Jack and Amber, who perform the roles of parents as best they can.  They may not live the most upstanding lives, but they do love Dirk in their own way, and this leads to a catharsis for Dirk.  He has the love he needs, and the rest of the film involves him squandering that love and trying to regain it.

The way Boogie Nights portrays apothesis—“[dying] to the self to live in spirit (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 17)”—is by having Dirk completely do away with the Eddie Adams part of his persona.  He lives as Dirk, makes sure nobody else calls him Eddie anymore, and even creates another character to perform as in the porn films, Brock Landers.  It appears as though he just wants to forget Eddie Adams entirely as he transforms into a much more successful person.

That success is shown as Dirk throws a party at his new house to show it off to the troupe.  This is part of Campbell’s ultimate boon, as the house has a lavish bedroom, a display specifically for his “best actor” awards won at porn industry ceremonies, and a huge garage for his brand new 1978 Chevrolet Corvette.  A scene at another award show depicts Dirk as moving further from the sweet kid he used to be, as he gives a blasé “thank you” as his entire speech, and walks off the stage.

Monomyth: Return in Boogie Nights

Things start to turn sour for the film’s characters as the 1970s draw to a close.  In fact, New Year’s Eve 1979 provides the catalyst for much of the change.  This is when Dirk refuses the return to normalcy, as his egotism gets out of control with his first foray into the world of cocaine, when Amber, showing the type of behavior that got her banned from seeing her real son, goads him into snorting with her.  This starts a downward spiral for Dirk, as Jack fires him, separating him from the rest of his surrogate family.  He decides he wants to get into the music business, and he pours all his money into recording a demo—in a hilarious turn of events, it’s “The Touch,” the theme from the 1980s animated Transformers movie.

When Dirk realizes he does not have the money to pay for his demo, he hatches a plan with Reed and another friend to swindle a rich man by selling him fake cocaine.  As this deal goes bad very quickly, a shootout ensues, and Dirk and Reed barely make it out alive, highlighting the magic flight section of Campbell’s monomyth.  Dirk realizes the madness surrounding his life and he returns to Jack in tears, broken.  Jack acknowledges the insanity that’s invaded Dirk’s life, aiding in his “rescue from without,” which involves “powerful guides and rescuers to bring [the hero] back to everyday life (“Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth” p. 21).”

Dirk’s return to Jack pulls double duty, as it also counts as his crossing of the return threshold.  He goes back to the life that made him happiest, which was working with Jack, Amber, and the rest of the troupe, and although he can’t make amends with his real parents, he does his best to gain back the trust of his surrogate family.

As the film draws to a close, Dirk is still working on becoming a master of two worlds.  It’s clear, though, that he is working on getting along with everyone again, and he has learned a lot about being good to the important people in his life.  The film’s last scene—the one reminiscent to Raging Bull—in which Dirk tries to psyche himself up before his first scene back with the group, ends with him walking out the door, his freedom to live intact.


Boogie Nights.  Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Perf. Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore,
Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle. New Line Cinema, 1997.

The film follows the story of a young nightclub dishwasher who goes on to become one of the leading stars of the adult entertainment industry.  It follows him from 1977 through 1983 and depicts his rise and fall, addictions and faults.

Boogie Nights. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118749/. Retrieved October 10, 2010.

A summary of the film, its cast, awards, and distribution history.

Ebert, R. (October 17, 1997).  Boogie Nights. The Chicago Sun-Times.  Retrieved from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/articleAID=/19971017/REVIEWS/710170301/1023

This is simply a review of the film by a critic who I’ve admired for a long time.  He praises the film for its direction and stars.

Joseph Campbell’s The Seventeen Stages of the Monomyth (N/A). The Royal Society of Account Planning. Retrieved October 8, 2010.

This is an in-depth account of each stage in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey theory.  It looks at various forms of pop culture that display this storytelling technique and shows its ubiquity.


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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: John Sayles’ ‘Matewan’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: Last semester, I took a class about American history as seen through cinema.  Our bi-weekly essays were supposed to give a lengthy plot description and the specific film’s historical accuracy.  This is one of the pieces that made me feel pretty good.  It’s not great, but it’s nice to see one’s progression as a writer.  As for when I’ll generate new content, I’m working on it; school is difficult and I do not handle it well.  I apologize again.]

Work is hard; it always has been.  What people tend to forget is, work has grown significantly easier over the last hundred years.  After a “grueling” eight-hour day, we go home, complain about our bosses, coworkers, and any other annoyances that meet us at our places of business (when dealing with the public, some of these complaints can be warranted).  The coal miners in Matewan, West Virginia, were not so lucky.  In fact, it is due to their—and others like them—sacrifices, that people today can work reasonable jobs.

Those miners, as portrayed in director John Sayles’ Matewan, decided they had had enough of working endless hours for miniscule wages, especially when combined with the coal company’s refusal to reduce any of the dangers associated with the job.  When Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a pro-union man, arrives in town, his ideas about workers’ rights catch on with the miners.  They struggle to organize, provoking lethal action from the powerful and ruthless men atop the Baldwin-Felts coal mining company, fueling a literal rich-keeping-the-lower-classes-down powder keg.

At the film’s outset, Kenehan rides a train bound for the small West Virginian town.  Also aboard are a group of black workers from Alabama.  The train stops well before reaching the Matewan station, and the black men are ordered off the train.  A group of angry white men ambush them, brawling over their perception of the blacks as “scabs.”

Kenehan watches the fight from the train and the realization sets in he’s in for a tough go of it.  When he reaches Matewan, he moves into a boarding house run by a miner’s widow named Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) and her teenage son, Danny (Will Oldham), a child laborer at the mine and also a promising preacher.

That first night, Danny preaches at the local church about the need for a union and is shuffled off the altar by the head minister, an anti-union man played by Sayles himself.  During this, Kenehan meets with a collection of miners who had loosely been trying to organize.  While there, one of the new black men, Few Clothes (James Earl Jones), enters, wishing to be a part of the union.  Despite the vehement antipathy shown toward Few Clothes by the white miners, Kenehan convinces them they will need everyone to stand up to coal company.  Without workers, he explains, the company cannot excavate its product.

Kenehan meets with the black miners and also the recently arrived Italian immigrants to persuade them to join with the other men.  The men are unsure of what to do.  Later, when the white miners learn of the blacks and Italians working night shifts behind their backs, they confront them on the hill.  Ready for a fight, the white miners are then met with Baldwin-Felts men aiming rifles at them.  To diffuse the situation, the night shift workers throw down their shovels and join the striking white miners.

The next day, Hickey and Griggs, company men hired as muscle, arrive in town.  They take up residence at the Radnor boarding house, displacing Kenehan, who graciously vacates his room to avoid any unnecessary fighting.

Hickey and Griggs begin to break the union by evicting miners from company-owned houses.  However, Police Chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) refuses to allow such strong-armed tactics without any eviction notices, and deputizes each Matewan man to enforce his will against the company men.

The striking union men move their families to a camp in the woods outside of town.  Hickey and Griggs, along with other hired men, take shots at the camp at night, injuring some of the miners.  The next day, they further try breaking the strikers by demanding all company-owned goods and food be returned.  However, some hill people arrive in the camp.  Saying they are unhappy with the noise the company men made the night before, they draw their weapons on Hickey, Griggs, and their lackeys and force them to leave.

C.E. Lively, a company infiltrator, tries to drive a divide between Kenehan and the strikers by getting a local widow to accuse Kenehan of sexual assault.  This greatly angers the men, who decide to kill Kenehan.  After drawing the short straw, Few Clothes is elected to perform the duty.  After bonding with him over a campfire, Few Clothes is conflicted and unsure of how Kenehan could have done such a thing.  Just as Few Clothes builds the resolve to carry out his order, another miner enters the camp with the truth about Kenehan’s innocence, strengthening Joe’s message.

After the Baldwin-Felts men murder a young miner, the powder keg is ready go blow.  As company reinforcements arrive to fulfill the promise of evictions, Chief Hatfield begins shooting at the men.  Kenehan rushes to try to stop the fight, wanting to prove the union’s goals can be accomplished peacefully, but is unsuccessful.  The Baldwin-Felts men are all killed, as are several miners and townspeople.  Danny and Mrs. Radnor find Kenehan at the train tracks, dead of a gunshot wound.  In voiceover, an elderly Danny reveals the strikers never beat the company, and he worked the rest of his life in the mines.

Matewan is a powerful film, especially given its historical relevance.  In the years preceding the events of the movie, unions struggled to give workers around the nation some security and safety.

According to America: A Narrative History, “[o]n May 12 [1902], some 150,000 members of the United Mine Workers (UMW) walked off the job in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  They demanded a 20 percent wage increase, a reduction in daily working hours from ten to nine, and formal recognition of their union by management (723).”

However, the animosity between the upper and lower classes burned brightly in those times.  “The operators dug in their heels and shut down the mines in an effort to starve out the miners, many of whom were immigrants from eastern Europe,” just like many of the men depicted in Sayles’ film.  A key example of this utter disregard was one of the mine owners, who said, “The miners don’t suffer—why, they can’t even speak English (723).”

Moving beyond historical accuracy, Matewan more than holds its own as a work of art.  The acting, from the top billed Cooper on down, is phenomenal.  Cooper’s turn as Kenehan feels like a classic film hero, but filtered through a nervous dread of impending collapse.  Oldham, who in real life is a singer-songwriter who tours under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, uses his stage presence to great degree when delivering his sermons; his convictions would sway even the most pessimistic of audiences.

You feel for these people as these injustices are performed against them, but Sayles does a great job of pulling back to expose their own prejudices and infighting with the immigrants and black workers.  The fight outside the train at the film’s beginning prepares the audience to not give themselves over wholly to the strikers.  However, as the film progresses, you begin to understand their feelings toward the black men are less about racism and more about their own lack of security in their positions in their jobs and world around them.

And that understanding is the lesson that one should take from Matewan.  Everyone deserves a fair shake, and if those in power refuse to give that fair shake, there can be grave consequences.

Work Cited

Tindall, George B., and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. Print.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: The Fascination of ‘Sunset Boulevard”s Norma Desmond

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

[Author’s Note: Again like last week, I have to apologize for a short post.  In what may need to be the new normal for this column (I go to a nerd school that requires perhaps too much of my time), this is another class-related essay about Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir-Hollywood takedown classic, Sunset Boulevard.  While William Holden’s Joe is an interesting guy in his own right, he is not the draw of the film.  To find that, one need not look further than his co-star.]

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) would seemingly like to believe she gave it all up for the movie business.  Whether she had other career prospects is left to our imaginations, but one might assume she had never given second thought about what she wanted in life.  She got what she wanted, then it was gone; she was shuffled to her trophy house as the talkies ushered in a new era.  While she probably realizes deep down that her career is dead, the steady stream of “fan” letters penned by her butler/former husband, Max (Erich von Stroheim) are enough to keep her delusion working.  She’s unbalanced enough — her chimpanzee pet and frequent suicide attempts enhance this notion — to believe her own lies, as it were.  Until Joe Gillis (William Holden) enters her life, she is at least content with the status quo.  His detached, sardonic wit keeps her at arm’s length, but she thinks she’s found everlasting happiness.  Joe’s editing work on her “return” (she hates the word “comeback”) script gives her inflated sense of self the extra push into insanity.  Her deluded reasoning tells her that Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) wants to make her picture, and her preparations for the role take her from dignified beauty — she’s aged quite gracefully for a 50-year-old woman — into a bug-eyed grotesquerie.  Her beauty treatments leave her with unsightly things stuck on her face at all times, and they seem to undermine their own central idea: To return her to her peak years.  Norma does not see this. In fact, she clings desperately to the idea that she has something (or rather two somethings, with Joe and her rebounding career) to lose.  She’s not about to let them go without a fight; hence the treatments, domineering neediness, and ultimately, murder weapon.

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Can’t Wait: Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

“Ben Affleck wants to direct?  How cute,” seemingly everyone scoffed in 2007.  After all, Affleck had spent the preceding decade squandering his promise as an actor in toxic works like Daredevil and The Sum of All Fears.  Then he sat behind the camera for Gone Baby Gone and made a vibrant, violent, engrossing, and downright great thriller.  “Okay, but we’ll see how he follows up on that,” came the skeptical response.  Affleck then made The Town, this time starring in addition to his directing duties, and created a crowd-pleasing heist film without sacrificing artistry.  This time, his Argo is not eliciting the same skepticism.

The “based on a true story” hook is captivating in itself, given the high concept idea of faking a Canadian science fiction film as a front for sneaking American hostages out of Iran.  But the cast of iconic character actors — John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Philip Baker Hall, Victor Garber, Titus Welliver, and Alan Arkin among them — is a cineaste dream.  How these people interact in close quarters, ready to snap at each other and the circumstances surrounding them, is potboiler gold and worth seeing even if Affleck’s direction didn’t look so slick; Argo appears to continue his “artsy popcorn entertainment” aesthetic started in The Town.  Seeing Affleck direct increasingly elaborate films is a good sign for Hollywood, and any Oscar buzz surrounding Argo gives him and other like-minded filmmakers the cache to do special, interesting work.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: On ‘Kagemusha”s Dream Sequence

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Akira Kurosawa was a filmmaker with an eye toward humanism.  It may have been on an epic scale in most films — Seven Samurai and Ran being the chief examples — but it was for the most part grounded in human interaction.  He leaned on realism not as a crutch but as an extension of a matter-of-fact worldview that included strong, dignified opinions about justice, morality, and how and to whom to assign blame for any number of indiscretions.  With few exceptions — Throne of Blood‘s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth would be difficult to do without using a form of that play’s paranormal elements — Kurosawa rarely delved into the realm of the abstract.  For most of 1980’s Kagemusha, that remains true, but for one resplendent sequence, he tosses aside the realism and embraces dream logic and imagery to masterful effect.

The character Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a “shadow warrior,” a common man who bears a twin-like resemblance to warlord Shingen Takeda (also played by Nakadai).  For that reason, Shingen’s underlings choose Kagemusha to serve as a double to the lord.  After being mortally wounded in battle, Shingen instructs his men that their enemies should not know of his demise for three years — the time it will take for his grandson to come of age and assume his designated seat on the throne — and Kagemusha must pass for Shingen in that time.  This is a role Kagemusha does not want.  A criminal sentenced to death for a petty theft, he is saved by his lookalike “talent,” but that places him under control of Lord Shingen’s men.  He has no choice in the matter; he will be the stand-in or be crucified.  It is with these stresses that Kurosawa painstakingly creates a nightmare for Kagemusha to endure.

Sleeping fitfully in his chambers, the camera inches toward Kagemusha.  While beautifully shot, the film to this point gives no indication this will be more than a moment hinting at his reservations about his role.  We expect a quick moment showing the trials Kagemusha must endure; his inability to sleep well would be something shown from an outsider’s perspective and easily glossed over in a lesser work.  But a cut to inside Kagemusha’s head brings the audience an experience vastly different from the rest of this film and most films in general.

A large painted jar sits atop what appear to be miniature mountains in an impressionist landscape.  Is this Kagemusha’s fraudulent kingdom?  Japan as a whole?  Kurosawa is not interested in the answers to these questions; rather, he concerns himself, and the scene, with guilt filtered through dream logic.  Intense lighting highlights already bright reds, blues, and yellows.  It’s a harsh beauty; fascinating but ultimately uninviting.  The jar moves.  It jostles and breaks.  From it emerges a fully-armored samurai; it is Shingen.  Kagemusha, dressed in rags, stares in terror as Shingen approaches him with menace and hatred in his eyes.  As the dead man draws closer, his replacement runs in terror.

Why does Shingen chase Kagemusha?  After all, the lord was pleased to have such a capable double.  Surely he cannot be upset, even after having his identity assumed by a less qualified man.  Logically, this makes sense.  To stressed, in-over-his-head Kagemusha, though, Shingen’s spirit must hate him.  He has spent months, years even, being told, despite their obvious similarities, how different he is from the fallen leader.  He and his keepers have had to think on their feet to explain Kagemusha’s different voice — he was “wounded in battle” — and he’s had to steer clear of Shingen’s stable of mistresses so as to not reveal his lack of distinct battle scars.  Shingen’s own young grandson can see through the ruse without being able to articulate it.  “He’s not scary anymore,” the boy says to the nervous laughter of the men in on the deception.

The boy’s remark indicates much of the guilt plaguing the Kagemusha of the dream.  Shingen’s belief in the small person led him to choose the boy as his successor, rather than Shingen’s own son.  With the lord now dead and Kagemusha installed as dignitary, he needs to uphold the image of his role: a wise leader and loving grandfather.  Ironically, he’s better at the latter than Shingen himself; it’s the only thing he does better than the original man.  The boy grows a genuine affection for Kagemusha, who returns it in kind.  This developing love gnaws at Kagemusha.  He’s lying to a person — an impressionable, innocent one at that — about his identity, and how can he convince himself their interactions are anything other than lies?  Furthermore, he’s living Shingen’s life; not the one he had as leader, but rather the one he appeared to cherish, that of caring for his grandson.  To Kagemusha’s mind, Shingen must be jealous of him, which leads Shingen’s furious spirit to chase him relentlessly in the dream world.

The dream convinces Kagemusha, and the audience, of the plan’s inevitable failure.  He may look like Shingen, but he cannot replace the man.  He and Shingen’s men cannot possibly think of every minute detail that shaped the former leader’s personality, his essence, his individuality.  Due to this, Kagemusha’s battle tactics consist of believing questionable parables about Shingen’s ethos; to paraphrase, he was an immovable mountain on the battlefield, willing to wait for the enemy’s mistake rather than attack.  Kagemusha may get lucky with that and other decisions, but he lacks the mind for the position; he’s bound to be exposed in time.  Uninterested in those responsibilities, he’d rather play with his “grandson.”  For all his effort, he cannot be Shingen.  He may be a kinder, more compassionate, more approachable person, but he’s not an exceptional person.  The boy may love him, but that is not enough, because it’s a misplaced love.  In that, he’s failed at his task in the most basic way.  Kagemusha is convinced Shingen’s spirit hates him for this failure.  His guilt over that inadequacy follows him in his everyday relationships.  He’s not what everyone else desperately needs him to be, and therefore not what he wants to be.  In that way, Kurosawa’s humanism shines.  In both his waking and dreaming lives, the chase doesn’t end.  Kagemusha will remain on the run from his own infallibility.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: What Makes a Good Western?

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

While its popularity has waned in recent years — replaced first by the musclebound action schlock of Stallone and Schwarzenegger and now by films based on comic book properties — the Western has long served as one of America’s great myths.  Its touchstones are attractive in that uniquely American way: loners, the open air, disregard for authority, sympathy for the underdog, opportunity for wealth redistribution, and violence’s ability to solve problems; watching a Western speaks to our visceral side rather than our need to intellectually analyze.  Its reliance on archetypes instead of well-rounded characters has given us some of our most recognizable and revered film heroes; these generalizations lead us to believe anyone can be the hero rather than shutting us out with a specific, singularly flawed protagonist.  But what elements combine to make a good Western?  What about a great one?  Is it an anti-authoritarian story paired with one of those shallow, archetypal men?  Is it something more?  It was with these questions in mind that caused me to watch three Westerns in recent days.  Two of them, The Searchers and Red River, are lauded classics.  To more fully understand and appreciate what makes those great, though, I watched a comic miscalculation of casting, story, and timing, Texas Rangers.

For the sake of my viewing chronology, I’ll start with The Searchers, John Ford’s classic end of an era film.  Ford’s most frequent protagonist, John Wayne, plays a deeper, more nuanced character than usual, but he remains an archetype: the reluctant hero.  What’s most interesting about this role, though, is Ford keeps the “hero” part in question until the very end.  Throughout the film, which spans several years, Ford leaves the audience wondering whether Wayne’s Ethan Edwards will choose the moral high ground or succumb to his demons.

While those demons — Ethan’s racist, war-scarred psyche — would normally be difficult to overlook from a modern viewpoint, his opinions are not unfounded.  These views have been shaped over years of experience.  Ethan may not appreciate the socio-political things that led to the violence, but he’s been witness to the antagonistic Comanches’ atrocities against white people, including his only family at the movie’s outset.  Wayne does his best work in this.  When he’s angry, which is a large portion of the time, you feel it; there is little of his usual hands-at-his-sides, cue-card-reading rigidity.  His moments of levity and acceptance, such as when he intends to bequeath his entire will to Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), feel natural and earned, given all the time they’ve spent searching for Ethan’s niece and Martin’s adoptive sister, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who had been kidnapped by the Comanches years earlier after they slaughtered her family.

If Ford had left the story at that, The Searchers would be a perfect film; as it stands, it’s near perfect, so the drop-off is not extremely disappointing, but it exists.  The problems lie in the subplot involving Martin’s lifelong romance with Laurie (Vera Miles) and on-again, off-again betrothal.  Their light romantic comedy throws an unwelcome wrench in the overall tone, and its attempt to add comic relief takes far too much time away from the riveting search for Debbie.  Likely the studio didn’t want such a bleak film and Ford was left with no choice but to toss less intriguing elements into the pot.

That said, The Searchers‘ problems are nothing compared to its heights.  Ford’s ability to frame a shot reaches its apex in this.  His outdoor vistas, combined with Technicolor’s heightened reality heyday, are worthy of awe.  His pacing and action scenes are impressive for any time, but especially 1956.  His ability to guide the stiff Wayne through a subtlely shifting performance is magnificent.  Its uncompromising look at brutality — Wayne shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche so he cannot reach the underworld of his faith, his planning to kill his niece for taking up with the Indians, etc. — paints a picture of social unrest far more intriguing than a Robin Hood tale of protecting the little guy.  But most of all, the film’s greatness is on display whenever Ford can capture Wayne in his element: under an open sky, single-mindedly chasing his goal.

By 2001, the greatness exhibited by Westerns like The Searchers had all but dried up.  It was no longer a popular genre, but instead a collection of half-remembered stereotypes about white and black hats and “circling the wagons.”  Steve Miner, veteran television director, took those stereotypes, tacked on some ’90s teen heartthrobs and white guilt, and made Texas Rangers, a movie memorable only for its laughable overreaching.

There is nothing inherently “cinematic” about Texas Rangers beyond its aspect ratio.  Of its stars, only Rachael Leigh Cook had a reputation as a movie actress.  Everyone else was either the star of a hit teen-skewing TV show (James Van Der Beek on Dawson’s Creek and Ashton Kutcher on That ’70s Show), veteran character actors who hadn’t had much success in then-recent years (Alfred Molina and Tom Skerritt), an “elder statesman” TV star (Dylan McDermott of The Practice), or a non-actor altogether (Usher).  Everything about it reinforces the old — especially now in our post-Sopranos TV golden age — ideas about TV being inferior to film.  Everything is over obvious and overwrought.  Kutcher is Michael Kelso in a cowboy hat; yelling through a goofy grin is his entire range.  Westerns don’t require terrific acting — the best-known actors to don a hat are Wayne and Clint Eastwood, neither of whose “technique” (unrelenting stoicism) would be taught in most acting classes — but being able to hit the simplest of marks would be nice.  Kutcher doesn’t seem to understand that Texas Rangers is nominally a drama.  Van Der Beek fairs slightly better, inasmuch as he can at least look sad when his family is murdered by Molina’s mustache-twirling villain.

The quality of the filmmaking is hardly any better.  The sets and costume design don’t look dirty or lived in like the should for Western towns exposed to the elements, and the cheap lenses and film stock used make everything look an unbearably long episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.  In one hilarious chase scene, which is supposed to take place at night, what I can only assume to be a lack of funds caused Miner to shoot it on an overcast day and utilize an optical effect that looks like he clicked the spray can in Microsoft Paint to draw black around the racing wagons.

Predictably, the storytelling is equally bad.  Particularly egregious is the subplot featuring Usher trying to earn the respect of his fellow Rangers by proving that black people are humans, too.  It is so heavy-handed that the message, which is obviously a good thing, becomes worse than preachy and instead shines a spotlight on an inexperienced actor out of his element, which, when combined with the equality story line, negates the message.  It shows Usher — a career musician who should stay in that realm where he has real talent — is not up to par with even these second-rate players, which places a bad light on serious black actors and makes them look less qualified than white actors.

While categorically bad, a movie like Texas Rangers highlights what it is about its genre that resonates.  It does this by taking elements that typically work and showing what happens when not done properly.  It features familiar elements: the aging gunman on his way out; the young sidekick eager to take on a larger role; a larger-than-life, scenery chewer of a villain.  Instead of imbuing these characters with personality or twisting them in a new way, the people involved choose to give a warmed-over, “Remember when X happened in Westerns?”  Simply acknowledging that something exists is not a clever use of that thing; Texas Rangers never learns that lesson.  Everything is a twelfth generation VHS copy of things that had been done to perfection decades before by more talented people.

Texas Rangers‘s toxicity only helped emphasize the greatness of Howard Hawks’s 1948 exemplary Western, Red River, starring Wayne and Montgomery Clift in a surrogate father-son relationship.  Much like The Searchers, this opens with an act of aggression from Comanches toward one of Wayne’s loved ones, as they burn every wagon on a train Wayne had moments before left to strike out on his own as a cattle rancher in Texas.  Wayne gets cheap revenge in a wonderful sequence in a river where he stabs a Comanche beneath the water; there’s a hint of extreme violence without explicitly depicting the grisly nature of murder.  This moment sets Wayne on a dark path that turns him into a revenge-seeking monster.

Again, Wayne’s shortcomings as an actor aren’t particularly bothersome, but they do exist.  Early in the film, he can barely be bothered to recite his lines; he is listless, seemingly bored with the material.  Probably unsurprisingly, once his character grows villainous, he engages.  He cares, and the film picks up steam until its thrilling climax.  The film’s midstream change of focus from Wayne’s tenuous, violent grasp on leadership to Clift’s taking the reigns is an act of structural genius; as a commercially minded film, Red River needs the audience to relate to its protagonist, and as Wayne grows less human, Clift replaces him.  It is Clift who takes the archetypal role here: that of the aforementioned young man looking for more responsibility.  But instead of doing what Texas Rangers would do decades later, Red River provides an interesting — and, for 1948, entirely subversive — take on the character, with several scenes brimming with homosexual flirtation and phallic gunplay.  When the film introduces Joanne Dru’s Tess halfway through as a love interest for Clift, it feels tacked on, and you don’t buy the romance as fully as you do the flirtation he has with another ranch hand earlier.  Clift himself doesn’t appear desperate to have her; he abandons her first, and when she catches up to him at the end, he says he “guess[es]” he should marry her.  Not the strongest love story, but an intelligent, engrossing one that rewards close reading.

The only time the film falters is at the very end.  This is disappointing, as it is, until that point, probably in the top three of “proper” Westerns (not counting the spaghetti variety popularized by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s), behind only the first film in this column and Fred Zinnemann’s impeccable High Noon; perhaps it still is, but it’s a step or more below those two.  But after the film spends more than an hour building Wayne as a fearsome, power-mad egoist hellbent on murdering Clift for stealing his cattle, they have a standoff that results in them…  agreeing to reform their cattle raising partnership because they love each other?  The ending is too pat, too convenient, too eager to provide a happy ending that it sucks the importance out of the tension the film had built to that point.  But still, its high points bury the low much like The Searchers would the next decade.

As shown by these films, the American Western relies on archetypes to survive.  What it does with them, though, is key.  They cannot merely exist, as in Texas Rangers.  Something must be done to reshape the meaning of those archetypes.  If they don’t fit the story you want to tell, hammer at them until they are; make them malleable.  The Searchers has as its hero a murderous racist who barely chooses the right thing — family — in the end.  Clift’s homoerotic dealings with his peers in Red River indicate a deeper sense of identity than what entertainment-seeking audiences may realize.  Both these classics infuse their storytelling with dynamism, a singular personality.  Texas Rangers is an exercise in blandness and wannabe filmmaking that does not understand the importance of a leaving a creative stamp on a genre.  In that way, the Western is like any other branch of storytelling: telling a personal tale, when done with proper technique, will reach transcendence.

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